Posted on: March 10, 2016

Lunatic asylums often feature in horror films and books, tapping into some very dark fears.  I suspect for many of us we are terrified of the thought of what it must be like to be incarcerated in such a place, completely at the mercy of others, unable to ever leave.  It doesn’t help that they often tend to be large, grimly institutional buildings, saturated in the history of human despair.

Beechworth Asylum – originally called the Mayday Hills Asylum – was opened in Beechworth, Victoria, Australia in October 1867.  Being perched on a hill, overlooking the town, it was thought at the time that the high altitude would do the patients good.  It covered a large area of land, and was almost wholly self-sufficient, having it’s own piggery, orchards, kitchen gardens, fields and stables.  It also had it’s own tennis courts, a cricket pavilion, and theatre.  Peacocks were brought to roam the grounds, (it is rumoured so that their cries would drown out the screams of the patients).

For the next 128 years it consistently acted as home to 1200 patients at a time, 600 men and 600 women, and saw the deaths of over 9000 of them.  All it took to be admitted were two signatures, so you could well be at the mercy of someone who just simply wanted to be rid of you.  It was far harder to get out … 8 signatures were then required.   The inmates were often there for a whole wide variety of reasons.  Young people were incarcerated for being aggressive, and not doing as they were told.  Patients were also hospitalised for suffering from epilepsy, depression, alcoholism, dementia, post-natal depression, religious mania, opium addiction, being a prostitute, or even simply for being work-shy.  A particularly heart-rending tale is that of an 11-year-old boy, who was incarcerated for stealing a horse in Melbourne.  He remained here until he died several decades later, aged 84.

The first superintendent was a pretty eccentric cove himself.  Dr Thomas Dick believed the Moon could cause insanity, and would always take his umbrella out with him at night.  His theory seemed to be backed up by some local residents, who swore that the patients were noisier and screamed more during a Full Moon.  The whole idea of the Moon affecting human behaviour tends to be generally debunked scientifically these days, although even in recent years there have been reports in the news of police in some areas, here in Britain, putting on more officers and expecting more problems during a Full Moon phase!

It wasn’t until the 1950s that medication began to be the more accepted way of treating patients.  Up until then they were subjected to a variety of frightening and demeaning procedures.  At one time it was thought that the hospital’s entire population of inmates were subjected to electric shock treatment.   Patients were also strapped down in chairs and isolation cages.  Anyone suspected of self-harming was forced to wear leather mittens.  If they attempted to chew the mittens off, they would have a tooth forcibly removed.  If they persisted, a second tooth would be removed, until they could end up completely toothless.  A men’s ward was nicknamed the Bull Pit, because aggressive young men would be encouraged to fight each other here during the day-time.  They were also dosed with laxatives to make them easier to control at night, and that, combined with a serious lack of toilet facilities … well you can probably imagine what that was like.

In 1951 a fire broke out at the hospital, and the place had to be extensively renovated.  It is said that jars filled with human body parts stored in formaldehyde were found in the laboratory.  The jars disappeared during the renovation work, and are thought to have been put away in a sealed cavity in the cellar.

There were unexplained deaths at the hospital.  One woman drowned in a fountain near the main doors, and a young Jewish girl was thought to have been thrown from a third-floor window, after a row about some cigarettes.   It is said that her body lay on the ground for 2 days afterwards, because they had to wait for a Rabbi to come from Melbourne to attend to her, and her corpse couldn’t be touched until then.

It would probably be surprising if there weren’t any ghosts here.  One of the less unsettling phantoms must surely be Matron Sharpe.  In spite of her name, by all accounts she was a kindly soul, who worked here most of her life, and had a compassionate attitude towards her patients.  She would often bring in doilies, lace curtains and fresh flowers to try and make the place more homely.  Matron Sharpe has been seen around the place,  in her grey uniform, particularly walking down the stairs.

Another famous Beechworth ghost is that of Arthur, the groundsman, an old man in a green jacket, who has been sighted roaming the grounds at dusk.  Arthur would steadfastly wear his green jacket no matter what the weather.  It was only after his death that it was finally prised from him, and then it was found that he had £140 (the equivalent of 4 years wages) sewn into the lining.

Doors have been known to open and close by themselves here, and ghostly screams heard.  A man appears briefly near the cellar, and vanishes again almost immediately.  The ghost of the young Jewish girl has also been seen at the window where she met her untimely death.   Female patients would have quite often have had their children with them, and subsequent workmen on the site have reported hearing ghostly children.  It was said that on one ghost-tour a parent heard their little boy talking to himself.  When asked who he was talking to, he replied a little boy called James who lived here.   A grisly spectre is that of a patient who went missing.  He was only found when Max, the hospital dog, was found gnawing on a leg near the gatehouse several weeks later.  The missing patient was found propped up dead in a tree nearby.  He had become so badly decomposed that his leg had fallen off.  His ghost has been seen here, usually in the early hours of the morning.

After it’s official closure in 1995, Beechwood was taken over by La Trobe University, but reputedly hit problems when (it is alleged) students refused to stay here, reporting poltergeist activity, and batteries draining on their computers.   The university also offered nightly ghost-tours, and you can find several blog pieces about these, although I haven’t been able to find anything recently, and TripAdvisor has it that the tours stopped in 2012.   According to an article in a local newspaper, the university put the property up for sale in 2011, and it was brought by property developers in 2013.  There were rumours in 2014 that someone was going to make a film set here, but I haven’t been able to find out much about that.

In January 2015 ghost-hunters, who were touring Australian haunted sites, managed to photograph a spectral young girl kneeling on a floor.  It would seem that, whatever the building is used for in the future, the Beechworth Asylum haunting will be with us for a while to come yet.



It is sad that such a primitive facility was still operating until the mid-1990’s.

A lot of such places seemed to last until then. Horrifying too how long such things as electric shock treatment lasted. Seems barbaric now.

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