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The Southeast Ohio History Center displays artifacts for the 150th anniversary of the Athens Asylum on March 28.

Shedding light on dark rumors of the Athens Asylum

Correction appended.

The Southeast Ohio History Center hopes to reduce stigmas of mental health while showing off items from the Athens Asylum.

The center is showcasing unknown stories of the Athens Asylum’s past through its exhibit The Athens Asylum: 150 Years of a Healing Landscape.

The exhibit features photographs and objects from the asylum when it was still open, including when it admitted its first patient in 1874 to its closing in 1993. Among the objects are nurses’ uniforms and a orbitoclast, which was used to perform transorbital lobotomies. A lobotomy is a surgical severance of nerve fibers connecting the frontal lobes to the thalamus, which was said to treat mental illness.

“There is challenging history with it, and we didn’t want to shy away from that,” Jessica Cyders, a curator of the Southeast Ohio History Center, said. 

The overall goal of the exhibit is to shed light on the history of the asylum as well as have people recognize the stigma in mental illness. 

The curators wanted people to feel empathy toward people and families struggling with mental illness, Cyders said. They also want people to be inspired by the personal stories told at the exhibit.

“There is a lot of good insights into the history that people don’t know,” Cyders said.

One fact about the Athens Asylum many people do not know is that at one point in the 1940s, two alligators lived in the fountain at the front of the main building. One of the animals died, and the other was donated to the Columbus Zoo when it became too large to keep.

The asylum also never technically shut down, Cyders said. It just moved across the river and is now called the Appalachian Behavioral Hospital. 

A painting by Billy Milligan is also featured in the exhibit. Milligan was a patient at the Athens Asylum and was the first person to use multiple personality disorder in an insanity defense.

“I’ve seen a lot of his paintings so it was cool to see an original Milligan piece,” Eli Jablonski, the administrative assistant at the Southeast Ohio History Center, said. 

With every new exhibit, Jablonski has a new favorite, but the Athens Asylum exhibit is by far his overall favorite.

“They did a really good job of getting photographs as well as objects to tell the story,” Jablonski said.

The exhibit is to showcase the 150 years since the cornerstone of the main building was laid.

“The community really celebrated the asylum coming here because Ohio University was tiny, and (the asylum) was seen as a huge economic driver,” Cyders said. 

Athens residents fought to have the asylum built within their territory because of the potential job opportunities and increase of local business support, Cyders said. Local farmers and business owners sold their products to the asylum. 

“As a community, we need to start to heal around the idea that yes this place had a challenging history, but it is an asset to our community and we want to see it preserved,” Cyders said. 

The history of the patient treatments was not all bad, despite rumors to the contrary. The entire layout of the grounds was designed for patient’s welfare and healing in mind. Even the architecture of the building has healing aspects to it. 

“If you surrounded the patients with a calming atmosphere with light, art and individual rooms that could provide a level of healing,” Cyders said. 

Cyders hopes that the exhibit will help reduce the stigma around mental illness and have visitors see the asylum as a vital part of Athens’ community. 

“A lot of unfortunate things happened there, but a lot of good things happened there, too,” Jablonski said. 


Correction: A previous version of this report misquoted Jessica Cyders. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.

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