athens lunatic asylum

Athens Lunatic Asylum

The Athens Asylum for the Insane opened its doors in 1887 in Athens, Ohio to provide assistance after the Civil War in the surrounding area. Like so many others of its kind, the asylum was build based on the Kirkbride structure, and housed both male and female patients in separate wings. During its hundred year operation, the asylum treat a wide range of ‘illnesses’, from epilepsy, high libidos and anxiety, to Civil war veterans suffering post traumatic stress disorder (unnamed at that time) and violent criminals suffering from mental disabilities.


Construction of the asylum began on 5 November 1868 on a 141 acre piece of land formerly belonging to Arthur Coates and Eliakim H. Moore farms. Based around the Kirkbride Plan, the main building included an administration building, and two separate wings that each included three sections. The males were housed at the left side of the building, and the female in the right, to ensure the two could not mix. The capacity for the main building was 572 patients, despite the Kirkbride recommendations of a smaller amount. By the turn of the 1900s, farmland and orchids were situated on the grounds of the asylum, tended to by both patients and staff.

Athens Lunatic Asylum

The Athens asylum provided great support to the surrounding city, supplying many products such as milk, eggs, meat and linen. It offered the people of the city stable jobs and income, while providing the local citizens acres of pastoral land to graze and enjoy as their own.

The asylum was not completely self-sufficient, however, it did contain livestock, farm fields, an orchard, a dairy, greenhouses, a garden and a carriage shop, which provided valuable money for the facility and therapy for the patients. Athens Asylum for the Insane officially welcomed its first patient, Thomas Armstrong from Belmont County on 9 January 1874. He was quickly followed by the second patient, Daniel Fremau, who suffered from a condition which made him believe he was the Second Coming of Christ.

Male Ward at Athens Lunatic Asylum

As with many asylums at this time, ‘Moral Therapy’ was the primary source of treatment for all who suffered from conditions deemed to be mentally ill. Patients were prescribed work and rest hours, which included social interaction, hobbies, sporting activities and working on the surrounding land. As the patient population rose, a need for additional buildings to be constructed was imminent. 

Main Buildings

Farm Office Building – Year completed: 1900 600 total sq feet 1 floor 2 rooms
Amusement Hall – Year completed: 1900 7,163 total sq feet 2 floors 3 rooms
Male Wards – Year completed: 1873 76,501 total sq feet 3-4 floors Basement and attic 265 rooms
Female Wards – Year completed: 1873 96,343 total sq feet 3-4 floors Basement and attic 351 rooms
Physicians Units – Year completed: 1951 2,322 total sq feet each 2 floors Basement 12 rooms each
Farms Manager Residence – Year completed: 1885 840 total sq feet 1 floor Partial basement and attic 5 rooms
Female Dining Hall – Year completed: 1905 800 total sq feet 1 floor Basement 1 room
Male Dining Hall – Year completed: 1888 27,232 total sq feet 2 floors Basement and attic 36 rooms
Laundry Building – Year completed: 1956 17,284 total sq feet 1 floor Basement 10 rooms
Power Plant – Year completed: 1951 16,526 total sq feet 2 floors Partial basement 


Hospital records show the practice of the harmful treatments, such as the lobotomy, hydrotherapy, electroshock and psychotropic drugs. The majority of these practices have been discredited today, and are classified as inhumane treatments, but were not only accepted in the 1900s but deemed as the cures to insanity.


Employee records indicate that some staff lived on site, whilst many other lived off site. A portion of the employees at Athens Lunatic Asylum were fully trained to administer treatment and care for the mentally ill, whilst a shocking majority had no background training whatsoever.

According to the annual report of 1876, it was also found that the leading cause of insanity among adult males was masturbation, followed closely be intemperance and dissipation.

Cause of Insanity Number of Male Patients Number of Female Patients
Masturbation 81 1
Intemperance and Dissipation 56 1
Puerperal Condition  0 51
Change of Life  0 32
Menstrual Derangements  0 29
Epilepsy 31 19

Besides the above causes, common issues today, such as alcoholism and anxiety were frequent reasons for admission, alongside Tuberculosis.

As the years passed, the patient population steadily rose. It became standard practice for families who could no longer look after their loved ones, to leave them at the asylum. This happened particularly with the elderly, but was also known to happen with wayward teenagers and children. People of all ages were being admitted into the facility, and overcrowding became a dire issue. Moral treatment could be seldom upheld, as the staff were overworked and the conditioned were cramped. This led to masses of society’s rejects becoming warehoused like prisoners, receiving minimal treatment, care and supervision.

Athens LunaticAsylum

As new treatments for the insane were brought into the mainstream, the Athens Lunatic for the Insane followed suit. The lobotomy, electroshocks, hydrotherapy and insulin shock therapy were all deemed to be the latest, most effective treatments to combat mental illness. They were ideal for asylums such as Athens, as they were quick, allowing for patients to be released with minimal need for after-care or supervision. At this time, Athens failed to see the horror and brutality which embodied these treatments, despite multiple deaths and ruined lives.

The 1960s witnessed a shift in the treatments of insanity, which a higher emphasis placed on humane methods. Practices such as the lobotmoy were deemed cruel and barbaric, and a replacement drug named ‘Thorazine’ flooded the medicinal market. Community based care became a priority, and large institutions such as the Athens Lunatic Asylum were condemned for their prison-like mannerisms. Specialised hospitals were built to accommodate drug rehabilitation, the elderly, and learning disabilities, slicing the asylum’s population. By 1980, the asylum population was just under 300 patients.

Athens Lunatic Asylum transferred its last patients to a smaller hospital on the opposite side of the city in 1993. However, over the previous decade many patients had not been transferred to other facilities, but were simply cast out onto the street, increasing homelessness and inevitably crime, in Athens. 

Asylum Names

1874-1911: Athens Lunatic Asylum
1911-1944: Athens Asylum for the Insane
1944-1968: Athens State Hospital
1968-1969: Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center
1969-1975: Athens Mental Health Center
1975-1980: Southeastern Ohio Mental Health and Retardation Center
1980-1981: Athens Mental Health and Developmental Center
1981-1991: Athens Mental Health Center
1991-: The Ridges 

Present day

The site of the original main building was bought by Ohio University, who have ensured restoration of the majority of the older buildings, whilst the others have been renovated and turned into classrooms. The previously named administration building is now used as the Kennedy Art Museum. In 2013, one of the longest standing buildings which had not been renovated was demolished. It was once known as ‘Cottage B’, the Tubercular ward, and was kept isolated from the other buildings to avoid the spread of the disease.

Cottage B Athens Lunatic Asylum

It was finally pulled down after years of break-ins by college students, much to the dismay of enthusiast around the world. Cottage M, which was once the living quarters still stands in the main circle, but it cannot be renovated due to asbestos issues. The grounds were named ‘The Ridges’ to signify that it is no longer Athens Lunatic Asylum. 

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