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Beechworth Asylum’s haunting history

What was once the largest psychiatric hospital in Victoria is now one of the country’s most haunting locations.

Keeping watch over the Victorian country town of Beechworth, Mayday Hills – built in 1867 as the Beechworth ‘Lunatic’ Asylum – comprises 67 buildings that once housed more than 1200 male and female patients, and 500 staff members at its peak. Its position on a hill above the town was reportedly chosen because it was believed that altitude would ‘cleanse the patients of their illnesses’.

Like many asylums, Beechworth Asylum has a dark and sad history. Little was known about mental health in the 19th century, let alone how to treat mental health issues properly. Medication wasn’t introduced until the 1950s, meaning that some of the treatment bestowed upon patients was cruel and barbaric, and would be viewed as torture by today’s standards. Common forms of treatment included the use of restraints, such as shackles and straitjackets, as well as isolation boxes and electroconvulsive therapy, while teeth were pulled as punishment to those who self-harmed. Lobotomies were also performed, with prefrontal lobotomies popular during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As was the case with most asylums in the late 1800s, only two signatures were required to commit a patient to Beechworth Asylum. To be released, a patient needed eight. Many people with questionable reasons for admittance were forced to endure life in an asylum, including many women suffering from postnatal depression – diagnosed as ‘melancholia’. A man whose eye had wandered could quite easily do away with his wife by persuading a medical doctor to agree that she was unstable and needed to be institutionalised.

According to Nathaniel Buchanan, researcher for Aradale Ghost Tours, up to one-third of patients who entered Victoria’s asylums never made it out alive. Deceased inmates were buried in the asylum grounds, and, sadly, it was not until 1980 that inmates received their own graves and headstones.

Some asylum staff members did show kindness and care to their charges, though, including Matron Sharpe, who was said to have put her own children into care so that she could work at the asylum and afford a better life for them. Little else is recorded about Matron Sharpe, except that she was known for her kindness to patients, and for her attempts to improve their conditions. Part of this involved bringing some home comforts to the wards, including lace curtains, doilies and fresh flowers to boost morale. Matron Sharpe served at the asylum for many years during the late 1800s.

The hospital was decommissioned in 1995. It was then sold to La Trobe University in 1996 and was used as a campus. The university then sold the grounds to two Beechworth businessmen, and the former asylum has been subdivided, and either leased or sold to tourism and arts‑based businesses. Tours run regularly at night, with tour guides sharing the legends of the poor souls who found themselves patients of the asylum.

Featured image: Beechworth Lunatic Asylum, Victoria. Photograph by Algernon Hall, circa 1866. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria

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