The Eastern State Hospital was the first public facility in the United States that was built solely for the mentally ill. The history of the treatment of the mentally ill has fascinated and sent chills down people's spines. It took a long time to understand what the scientific issues of mental illness were and even longer to know how to treat it.

Today one can see the (rebuilt) original building from 1773 in Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg is part of the must-see Historic Triangle of Virginia that includes Jamestown and Yorktown. Its mental asylums like this which stand at once as symbols for the Enlightenment about mental illness as well as the horrors of past medical practices with the mentally ill.


Background and Founding of the Eastern State Hospital

The Eastern State Hospital was built in Williamsburg (that was the capital of Virginia) in 1773 at the time of the outbreak of the War of Independence as the Colonial Period gave way to the early United States.

  • First Built: In 1773

The Eastern State Hospital traces its origin to the famous speech to the House of Burgesses delivered by Francis Fauquier, Royal Governor of the colony of Virginia around 6 years before in 1766. He was likely influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment as intellectual people finally started throwing off the yokes of superstition and other unscientific explanations for mental illness and other things.

  • Governor Francis Fauquier: Called For a Hospital For The Mentally Ill

In place of superstition came science and logical reasoning. However, this was also a time when in some parts of the world (like London), the insane were used for comical relief and entertainment. His speech was mostly concerned with the Stamp Act and the Virginia Resolves (major issues in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence), but he unexpectedly got onto the topic of the mentally ill. He stated:

"It is expedient I should also recommend to your Consideration and Humanity a poor unhappy set of People who are deprived of their senses and wander about the Country, terrifying the Rest of their fellow creatures"Francis Fauquier

He went on to say that there should be a proper place for these helpless people like the other "civilized countries". The hospital for them should be a place where they would be maintained and attended to by able Physicians who should work to help them recover.

Related: 25 Photos of Deserted Hospitals That Make Us Hide Under the Table

Establishment and History of The Asylum

A year later he brought up the issue "of the poor lunatics" again to the House of Burgesses. Governor Fauquier's efforts eventually bore fruit and lead to the establishment of the Eastern State Hospital. Unfortunately, Governor Fauquier died on March 3, 1768, before it was built the mental hospital was built.

The practices by the asylum would be considered brutal by modern standards (even if they were done with the best of intentions). Practices included bleeding, bullying, electrocution, and more as standard "treatments" - although practices improved before the Civil War when the facility was managed by John Galt.

In 1841 the hospital had around 125 patients (who were called "inmates" at the time). The hospital was captured by the Union forces on May 6, 1862, where they found 252 patients locked in without food or supply by the fleeing southern hospital employees.

  • 1885: The Original Building Burned Down
  • 1841 Population: 125ish
  • 1937 Population: Around 2,000

In 1885 the original 1772 hospital burned down. In 1935 the Eastern State Hospital had grown to house some 2,000 patients but had run out of land to expand further. Between 1937 and 1968 the asylum's patients were moved to a new facility that continues to work today.

  • Moved: The Facility Moved To a New Location Between 1937 and 1968

Related: 25 Confronting Photos Of Deserted Mental Institutions

Visiting The Eastern State Hospital Today

100 years after it had burned down, the original hospital building was reconstructed on its excavated foundations in 1985. The reconstructed building is owned and maintained by Colonial Williamsburg. On tourist maps it is often just shown as "Public Hospital".

  • Part of: Colonial Williamsburg

Next time in Colonial Williamsburg be sure to pop over and explore the historic hospital - although check for updates, it was reported to still be closed in April 2022 due to the pandemic.

"The public hospital exhibit was informative. Each floor of the museum had relevant and historic works of art to view. Like walking through history!"Tripadvisor Reviewer