Aradale Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1867 and operated for around 130 years. Some of the world’s most controversial psychiatric procedures were conducted in an attempt to treat misunderstood mental illnesses. It consisted of around 68 buildings and had over 2000 patients and staff (there were 500 staff alone). It ran itself as a self sufficient town. A distinctive feature of the asylum is the use of a variation on Ha Ha walls which are around the courtyards. From the inside, the walls look very tall and are impossible to climb to escape. From the outside, the walls didn’t look very high so it didn’t suggest the imprisonment that the patients were subject to. It took only 2 signatures to have someone committed, and at one point in time it took up to 8 signatures to be released meaning that most people did not get to leave the asylum. It is documented that around 13000 people died at the asylum with some considering it to be one of Victoria’s most haunted locations. Aradale was closed in 1998 and in 2001 it became a campus of Melbourne Polytechnic.
The asylum in Ararat has become the major attraction to this small little town. Along with it's sister J Ward up the road, patrons have an opportunity to learn all about the controversial past of these buildings and even look for a 'ghost' or too. Dark tourism is a big things these days and it is important to understand that the focus here is on preserving the history. There is often debate in communities as to whether or not dark tourism is OK. In this particular case, there is always an intrigue and fascination with what actually happened within these walls. I know I personally am often contacted by people who had relatives in Aradale when it was a functioning asylum and they want to go and visit to learn more about it. Some have even invited me to come with them! What an honour! While it can be confrontational for some, when it is done with respect and integrity, people often find the closure they need and are thankful to be given the opportunity to see the buildings and learn about what went on. The town itself openly welcomes visitors to the asylum as the local businesses benefit significantly from people visiting. While some would rather we forget out past, it is important that we remember so that we can not only learn from our mistakes, but respect those who perhaps lost their lives in the process. Aradale was not without it's criticism. It used some of the most controversial procedures in the world to 'treat' and restrain their patients.
In the museum at Aradale, you can gain a glimpse into some of these procedures.
A lobotomy is also referred to as a leucotomy. It is a neurosurgical procedure to sever the connections to the brain's prefrontal lobe. The thought process was that if you could damage these connections to the brain, you could stop bad behaviours caused by conditions such as bi polar, schizophrenia, manic depression and other mental illnesses. In the 1880's, a Swiss physician by the name of Gottlieb Burkhardt claimed that he had removed parts of the cortex from the brains of patients who were suffering from auditory hallucinations stemming from schizophrenia. Even though a patient died from this procedure and another committed suicide after, he deemed it a success in calming patients.
In 1935, Portuguese neurologist Antionio Egas Moniz who was credited with inventing the 'lobotomy', performed what they considered to be successful trials on chimpanzees and then went on to test on human subjects. While they considered this procedure to be a success, the side effects included fever, vomiting, bladder and bowel incontinence eye problems, fatigue and apathy. Some were literally turned into vegetables. Not to mention that the procedure was often done without any anesthesia.
The initial first procedures were performed by cutting a hole in the skull and injecting ethanol into the brain in order to destroy the the fibres which were connected to the to the frontal lobe from other parts of the brain. Later Moniz invented a surgical instrument called a leucotome which had a loop of wire which when i was rotated would create a lesion on the brain.
The transorbital lobotomy is probably the most common procedure people associate with the term lobotomy. Italian physicist Amarro Fiamberti developed a procedure which accessed the frontal lobe through the eye sockets. This inspired Walter Freeman and James Watts to develop the transorbital lobotomy also known as the Freeman-Watts method. An instrument similar to an ice pick called an orbitoclast would be inserted through a patient's eye socket using a hammer. It was marketed as a fast incision free 'surgery' that didn't need to be performed by a qualified doctor. Freeman himself was considered a 'showman'. He traveled around the US performing and demonstrating lobotomies at mental institutions. He would chew gum and didn't wash his hands as he wasn't concerned with hygiene. He could perform the surgery in less than 10 minutes and sometimes would hold an ice pick in each hand and do both eyes simultaneously. He had a 14 percent fatality rate and performed close to 3500 lobotomies. It is quite literally a hit and miss procedure.
This was a procedure used all over the world and was prevalent in mental institutions and was often used as a way to control unruly patients - including Aradale. In the 1950's scientists developed antipsychotic and anti depressant medicine which were found to be much more humane and effective and lobotomies were phased out and are now illegal in several countries for obvious reasons.
It should come as no surprise that when guests enter the rooms at Aradale where this procedure was performed, many complain of a sharp headache. Often they are unaware that this is the space where this procedure was performed when highlighting their sudden headaches.
Also referred as ECT, this procedure was developed in 1938. Electrical currents are circulated through the brain with the theory that the current can effect the brain's electrical activity in a way that can lessen symptoms of a person suffering from psychotic and depressive symptoms. It is a procedure that is still used today in a hospital where today a patient is given a muscle relaxant and put under a general anesthetic. The current induces a seizure however the patient does not convulse due to the muscle relaxant. They wake up a little groggy but pain free and clear headed 30 minutes afterwards.
It is safe to say however, that in the 30's and 40's when this was unregulated, that this procedure was not performed under such controlled comfortable conditions for the patient. ECT was invented in the late 1930's in Italy. Psychiatrists ha d found that by inducing seizures, they could relieve some of the symptoms associated with mental illness. Using a chemical called Metrazol, they would induce a seizure in a patient. It caused a alot of fear for the patient and there were often reports of nurses and doctors chasing patients around a room to give them the medicine. Researchers suggested a more humane way would be to induce the seizure via an electrical current. During the time in which it was unregulated, it is suggested that a lot of mental hospitals used it as a way to control or punish a patient. A scene from the movie of 'One flew over the cuckoo's next' is ingrained in our memories as to perhaps how this procedure may have been administered. While Hollywood does have a tendency to over exaggerate things, one can only wonder how real of a depiction it really was. What we do know however is that ECT was one of the leading treatments used at Aradale and other mental institutes all over the world.
With a women's and men's hospital on site, there were more 'procedures' forced upon patients - often without anesthesia and without patient consent. While we have moved on from these mistakes to the past, it is important to recognize how far we have come in the treatment of mental illness and humans in general and offer our respect to those who were subject to some of the horrible procedures.
New stories and historical information will be posted regularly through this blog site under Tales of Aradale Lunatic Asylum. If you have had an experience at Aradale or a 'ghostly' encounter, please tell me about it in the comments below.
If you would like to visit Aradale and learn more about the historical side with a ghost tour or extended paranormal investigation, visit Eerie Tours.
You can also attend a paranormal investigation run by Australian Paranormal Society on the first Friday of each month. Visit their Facebook page for more information.
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