In the mid-19th century, Philadelphia physician Thomas Story Kirkbride incorporated magic lantern slides into his “moral treatment” regimen at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. While these image projections often featured enlightening entertainment like astronomy or travelogues, magic lantern therapy could get a bit strange. In Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852–2017 now on view at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, DC, an 1850s slide from Saint Elizabeths Hospital shows a man whose sleep is interrupted by a blue horse-like creature riding on a turtle, a sword in one hand and a red lobster dangling in the other.
Sarah A. Leavitt, curator at NBM, wrote about the “Nightmare Turtle” slide for the blog of the Historical Collections of the National Library of Medicine:
We do not know exactly how these were used, but NLM researchers learned that many mental health practitioners believed that these startling slides, which depict some disturbing images, were part of a therapeutic regimen. In this case, a man lies peacefully in bed until the pulled slide reveals an armadillo sitting on top of a turtle over his head, holding a lobster and a sword. Thomas Kirkbride, whose work on designing mental health hospitals influenced the design of St. Elizabeths, wrote that the slides help alleviate “delusions and morbid feelings, at least for a transitory period.”
The National Library of Medicine holds the “Nightmare Turtle” in a greater collection of Saint Elizabeths Hospital slides. Another depicts a huge flea attacking a man who defends himself with an ax and shears, and a more tame example has several snowflakes. In the 2000 article “Picture Me Sane: Photography and the Magic Lantern in a Nineteenth-Century Asylum” published in American Studies journal, Emily Godbey explains that Kirkbride was interested in how the magic lantern slides could transmit images from the eye to the brain. “In the process, these images would help rectify the brain’s malfunctioning that had caused the mental illness, an idea based on nineteenth-century physicians’ incorporation of John Locke’s ideas about the eye/mind relationship,” Godbey writes.
To put the magic lanterns in context, it’s necessary to know how radical Kirkbride’s “moral” approach to treatment, with its airy institution buildings surrounded by open and agricultural space, contrasted to the previous centuries. Rather than assume mental illness was incurable or some form of demonic possession, doctors were considering how to treat patients as individuals, and concerns about boredom and monotony arose with this shift. Magic lanterns, along with dancing, theater, and other entertainments, could offer a distraction that was also educational. According to Mary De Young’s Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750-1950s, the last slide was always humorous, “specifically chosen by Kirkbride to lift the mood of his patients, if only to convince them that insane though they may be, they were not very much different from anyone else.”
As the magic lantern therapy spread, each institution would have put their own spin on it, just as many had with the Kirkbride Plan architecture of their institutions. Whether “Nightmare Turtle” ever startled some soul at Saint Elizabeths Hospital out of depression or delusions is perhaps unlikely, but it’s one of the more colorful artifacts in the progression of mental health treatment.
Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths, 1852-2017 continues at the National Building Museum (401 F Street NW, Washington, DC) through January 15, 2018.