Dundee Lunatic Asylum

At the time of its opening on Albert Street, there were three patients admitted to the Dundee Lunatic Asylum, but as time went on, these numbers swelled to proportions that became unmanageable for the premises, resulting in the asylum’s relocation (in 1882) soon after being granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria. Having gone through many transitions and names, it was renamed Royal Dundee Liff Hospital in 1963. To begin with, the asylum relied heavily on contributions from the public and various bodies, such as the Masonic Lodges and other well-heeled organisations and individuals who were in a position to offer financial help. Life was not easy for many people in Dundee, as well as elsewhere up and down the country. People still expressed the same feelings of doubt, grief and mental anxiety that we still see today in modern society, but, unfortunately for those living at the time of the asylum’s opening, proper diagnosis and treatment can in no way be compared to the vast range of assistance offered today.

General Paresis, more often known as general paralysis of the insane or paralytic dementia, was the main cause of many deaths in the asylum, most likely brought on by the onslaught of syphilis. Late-stage syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) caused severe neurological issues, usually accompanied by psychotic symptoms whereby a patient would emote delusions of wealth/grandeur, immortality, sexual prowess, nihilism and anarchism. Unfortunately for many of them, the disease left them bedridden and, in more severe cases, straight-jacketed. Death was a slow process of muscle atrophy, mania and a complete disconnection from life around them.

People from all walks of life passed through the doors of the asylum, each with their own unique experiences leading to their admission. What we found of particular interest, were the number of cases deemed “cured” after very short periods of time (particularly in those who expressed homicidal tendencies!). A 49-year-old man was admitted in the mid-1840s, expressing what was described as “severe homicidal mania”. He expressed intense desires to cut the throats of his wife and children, with no real reason as to why. He was deemed cured and released back to his family within 3 months.

In some cases, the patient was never deemed cured and would be transferred to another institution such as the Cupar asylum or Montrose asylum to begin another round of diagnosis and treatment. There is a case of a 35-year-old male admission displaying extreme delusions coupled with intense violence. He had been in and out of prisons and asylums since the age of 27 and truly believed that “the Divine King” had commissioned him to commit acts of violence. He was noted to “besmear his face with excrement”, and also tried to have “sexual intercourse with a male nurse” he thought was a woman. Wandering about his room naked, he would complain that his clothes smelled of blood. He was transferred to Cupar asylum as uncured.

Surprisingly, even those suffering from extreme grief were admitted to the asylum for short periods, receiving care and attention until their emotional pain became more manageable. The records for 1824 show a young girl of 17 was admitted for “dementia, grief” (not dementia as we know it today). After 6 weeks at the asylum, her emotional state was deemed well enough that she could re-enter society. Unfortunately, with no family to look after her and having been dismissed from employment due to her mental state, she was transferred to the Poorhouse.

There are a few very unique records for some patients within the almost never-ending lists of records, such as the curious case of one female patient, described as having “demonomania”. She describes seeing the devil and his “imps” and talks of the “devil coming to carry her away” and of being “sold to the devil”. Interestingly, a large abscess appeared on her lips around this time. After 7 weeks, the abscess burst, and, miraculously, all her symptoms disappeared!

Some of the troubled individuals confined to the asylum warranted no more than sympathy and, for all intents and purposes, seemed quite “normal”. In the corner of one of the rooms sat a petite 37-year-old woman. Recently bereaved, she speaks of her upcoming wedding “next Monday”. She is described as a bright, happy individual, with a cheerful disposition. With no change to her mental state, the poor soul died after 2 years of “General Paresis”.

Strathmartine Hospital image copyright Scott A Murray at www.oblivionstate.com

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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