The Human Zoos of the 19th Century

The Human Zoos of the 19th Century

By Sean Braswell

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, New York City, 1895.
SourceGeo. P. Hall/Getty


Because sometimes breaking down barriers to understanding an unfamiliar place means going inside its walls.

By Sean Braswell

They came by the thousands from all over the world to picnic in the pristine gardens and admire the architecture, to marvel at the wonders of modern science and technology and to learn about their fellow humans. But it wasn’t a world’s fair or a museum these curiosity seekers were flocking to in such large numbers for much of the 19th century. They were North American insane asylums, and they were on every serious traveler’s bucket list at the time.

The rise of asylum tourism followed on the heels of a new treatment paradigm in which insanity was increasingly viewed as a draining of one’s energies that could be cured given the right environment and the requisite amount of rest and recreation. Such a shift in perspective spawned new treatments and institutions, ones that stood in sharp contrast to the dirty, overcrowded asylums that once dominated, and were still prevalent in Europe at the time. And so, as Janet Miron, a historian at Trent University, chronicles in Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century, new asylums reflecting this philosophy started to spring up across the U.S. and Canada, actively courting tourists, who were not simply voyeurs but earnest explorers with a moral purpose to their leisure. 

Advertisements in newspapers and magazines invited visitors to experience what was viewed by many as the epitome of scientific progress.

Guidebooks like Miller’s New York included sections on asylum attractions, such as the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in Manhattan (on the grounds of what is now Columbia University). Advertisements in newspapers and magazines invited visitors to experience what was viewed by many as the epitome of scientific progress, the product of an abiding faith in modern institutions to materially improve human life. “The excitement that surrounded the establishment of prisons and asylums was contagious,” writes Miron, “spreading throughout society and inspiring fascination among people from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds.”


Inviting tourists into asylums was not uncontroversial at the time, but for asylum administrators, encouraging such visits accomplished a range of goals, from building closer ties to the community to raising supplemental funds and removing some of the stigma attached to insanity through public education. “Officials wanted the public to witness them in person,” Miron tells OZY, “and to see for themselves new and supposedly effective responses to crime and mental illness.”

Worcester state insane asylum postcard 1905

Worcester State Asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Source Public Domain

In addition to enjoying the grounds, visitors to some asylums could interact with patients and even sample the institution’s food. Any dangerous or risky patients were usually kept out of sight, and guards typically kept a close watch over the premises during the open hours. One Toronto asylum visitor reassured his readers that the patients “were under such good management … even a stranger or a child would be unmolested by the worst of them.”

Into the late 19th century, asylum tourism grew, bolstered by other developments such as the expansion of railways, roads and hotels, which made being a tourist cheaper and easier, no longer a leisure activity reserved exclusively for the upper classes. More than 10,000 tourists per year visited one popular asylum in Utica, New York.

The influx of such crowds did not please everyone, however. Despite the benevolent intentions, says Miron, “institutional tourism inevitably treated the confined as spectacles who had very little power or control and could not fundamentally challenge this practice.” Many asylum superintendents also felt the invasive tourists distracted and irritated staff and patients. On the other hand, some patients made the situation work to their advantage, pickpocketing guests or just spinning tall tales about themselves to the awestruck visitors for their own amusement.

By the end of the century, the asylum tourist trade had all but vanished. The formerly cutting-edge treatment practices at such institutions had not delivered on their promises, and many asylums were poorly run. The nature of tourism changed as well. Pleasure and relaxation, more than personal edification, became the driving forces behind the pursuit, and trips to more modern attractions like amusement parks, circuses and cinemas became the leisure activities of choice.

Could such institutional tourism work in modern times? Miron says no — the rights of the confined must be paramount. Still, one cannot help but think that something has been lost in contemporary society’s disinterest in the institutionalized and the loss of its faith in the ability of science to help them. “What strikes me as very admirable about the 19th century,” Miron observes, “was the excitement, optimism and engagement people from a variety of backgrounds demonstrated in the attempt to deal with social problems.”