Skip to main content

Abandoned Asylums: An Unusual Destination


Guidebooks are not the only travel books—many travelers are inspired to travel by detective series, art books, history or more. Some books, such as one I recently read, combine many of those elements in an unusual way.


Abandoned Asylums is a haunting coffee table book. Talented photographer and author Matt Van der Velde, along with the foreword by Carla Yanni, paints a picture of the approach to caring for the mentally ill and “feeble minded” over the past 200 years.


Yanni explains their evolution and subsequent fall from grace while Van der Velde details each featured each asylums history offering the reader an understanding of the celebrated, and sometimes infamous, institutions that have for so long been shrouded in darkness.


The book takes readers on an unrestricted visual journey inside America's abandoned state hospitals, asylums, and psychiatric facilities, the institutions where countless stories and personal dramas played out behind locked doors and out of public sight.

In the chapter entitled ‘St Elizabeth’s and the “father of lobotomy,”’ Van der Velde paints a picture of a successful and caring facility. Originally known as Government Hospital for the Insane, it was built in 1855 for the insane of the Army, Navy and District of Columbia. With excellent directors and a caring staff, the facility was a model for other institutions.


One of the first patients was Richard Lawrence who attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson in 1835. He also believed he was the deposed English king Richard III who actually died in 1485. Diagnosed as a lunatic, he was in a Washington jail until the asylum opened 20 years later.

Then Dr. Walter Freeman II was hired. The flamboyant surgeon attempted to transform medical procedures into a performance. His surgeries were observed by large and admiring audiences. He then took the hospital in an experimental direction to the disapproval of his peers. Freeman believed mental illness was physical defects of the brain. He also believed mental illness required direct action, not sympathy. This idea was in direct conflict with St Elizabeth’s.


The chapter continues on to explain how the lobotomy was developed. The quick, cheap, easy operation was conducted some 50,000 times between the late 1940s and the 1950s.

Each chapter of the book is just as fascinating; painting a picture of past attitudes and misinformation from our current understanding of mental illness.


Van der Velde visited 18 asylums and devoted one chapter on their cemeteries. The chapter is entitled “Forgotten in Life, Forgotten in Death.”

The photography offers a powerful and emotional portrait of once celebrated institutions that sit vacant and forgotten.

Abandoned Asylums by Matt Van der Velde (2016), Jonglez Publishing


Images (6)
  • AA-2The-Autopsy-Theater-and
  • AA-Burnt-and-decaying-Doll,
  • AA-IMG_0806G
  • AA-IMG_0978
  • AA-Murals,-Devon-Hall,-Penn
  • AA-Patient-Quarters,-Vincen

Add Comment

Comments (0)

Link copied to your clipboard.