Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum: The Origins of Columbia’s Land

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Columbia Barnard chapter.

If you visited Broadway between 116th and 120th streets during the 1800s, you would have been in awe of its beauty. The place you were visiting was called the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. It was covered in gardens, orchards, a farm, and a pasture. It was a therapeutic and calming place, the first of its kind in New York. The asylum represented how, for the first time, mental health was considered a “moral enterprise” rather than a medical problem. This was forward thinking, even revolutionary, for the 1800s. The founders of the asylum –– Thomas Eddy, John R. Murray, John Aspinall, Thomas Buckley, Cadwallader Colden, and Peter A. Jay –– believed this new form of moral enterprise required visitation hours and physical activities. They also invested a lot of effort into making the building and surrounding area pleasing to look at. The founders wanted to make a difference in mental health treatment. 

However, landowners in the surrounding area were starting to get angry about the asylum’s location. Real estate prices in New York City were increasing, but smack dab in the middle of the profitable Upper West Side land was an asylum that housed what many considered “insane” people, driving down the prices of the area.  Eventually, the asylum also required more funding, so the system began over-charging and over-admitting patients, resulting in wrongful institutionalizations. Caroline Underhill was “forcibly incarcerated” by her sister and nephew after her father passed away to prevent her from inheriting his estate in lieu of her envious relatives. Commodore Richard W. Meade was also wrongly institutionalized because he declined his daughter’s suitor’s marriage proposal. Lawyer John Townsend spoke to the New York Tribune in an attempt to spread awareness regarding Bloomingdale’s wrongful treatment of inmates. He accused the asylum of abusing a patient and letting him die. In response, The Tribune sent an undercover reporter named Julius Chambers into the asylum, who wrote that at night he was plagued by the unanswered cries of inmates and witnessed attendants abusing patients. While the straightjacket method had been prohibited by that point, a camisole with long sleeves was used to restrain patients, and tranquilizing chairs were used to calm them down. In the end, the asylum shut down, not because of the mistreatment of its patients, but due to lack of funding and the rising prices in the neighborhood. 

After Columbia University bought the land a few years later, a building where patients were previously tortured by attendants was used as a dorm for the Teacher’s College. Nowadays, little remains of the asylum on Columbia’s beautiful campus, except the underground tunnels and Bluell Hall

Olivia Wang

Columbia Barnard '24

Olivia is a Junior at Barnard College studying Psychology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors and learning new languages.