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Brass observation hole from St. Audry's Hospital, Suffolk, England, 1851-1900

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Is somebody watching you? Mounted on a door at the Suffolk County Asylum a century ago, this brass peephole allowed doctors and warders to check on a patient locked in solitary confinement. Perhaps few objects communicate the stigma and the loneliness of living with mental illness as well as this one. An eye peering occasionally through the peephole may have been the only human contact the inmate received for days. It was carefully engineered to protect both patients and staff. It had no window glass, since broken glass could become a weapon for those intent on committing suicide or wounding their keepers. For the same reason, the room itself would probably have had no windows, or at least no glazed ones. Welded pegs also prevented the peephole’s cover from being broken off or twisted open from inside the cell. The Suffolk County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics (later renamed St. Audry's Hospital) was founded in 1829. Around the same time, a small number of English asylums for mentally ill patients, inspired by the ideals of moral therapy, were renouncing the use of physical restraint. However, large government-funded institutions like Suffolk, with patients whose families could not afford to pay for exceptional care, continued to rely on straitjackets and solitary confinement to subdue patients whom doctors judged likely to harm themselves or others. Frequently, suicidal patients would be put in the cell naked, to prevent them from tying clothing around their necks or swallowing strips of fabric. While potentially life-saving, it stripped patients of their dignity. New laws in the 1800s required asylums to carefully record every time they confined or secluded a patient, and to state why. This curbed some of the abuses associated with earlier asylums such as Bedlam, where some patients could be kept in chains or solitary confinement for years. To a scared, unclothed, suicidal patient behind this peephole, however, such slow legislative changes must have felt worlds away.

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Glossary: psychiatric hospital

Psychiatric hospital specialising in the treatment of serious mental illness, usually for relatively long-term patients.

Glossary: asylum

A historic term for a psychiatric hospital. The term in this context was common in the 1700s and 1800s, but is no longer in use.

Glossary: observation hole

No description.