Tens of Thousands of Brazilians, including Black people, were abandoned in a mental institution, Colônia de Barbacena many years ago. Barbacena, in the state of Minas Gerais, was being referred to as “the city of madmen.” The bulk of those who were admitted to the institution, however, were not mentally sick.
According to a report by El Pais, “They were considered social outcasts by their families or the police and sent by train to Barbacena, in the state of Minas Gerais. They were alcoholics, syphilitics, prostitutes, homosexuals, epileptics, single mothers, wives who were abandoned for mistresses, non-conformists… There, “overwhelmingly Black” people (about 60,000) died of cold, dysentery, and starvation.
After being established in 1903, the hospital was shut down in 1980. A few years ago, the Museu da Loucura, or Museum of Madness, was established in one of the hospital wards to highlight a dread that very few Brazilians at the time were aware of.
According to the museum’s director, Lucimar Pereira, “It was decided to name it the Museum of Madness to raise public interest and since it is not only dealing with a local issue but one that is a reference point to evaluate the history, to preserve it, and to ensure it is never repeated.”
Prior to becoming the first mental asylum in Minas Gerais in 1903, the Barbacena hospital first served as a clinic for the affluent. There was a cemetery there, but for many years there were simply guards and no doctors or nurses. Blue or pink pills were used as a form of treatment. There was no sedative or anaesthetic used when giving electric shocks. Some patients underwent lobotomies, a form of psychosurgery designed to address mental health issues like schizophrenia and mood problems.
When they become ill, some patients were just left to pass away. Many people died from famine or hypothermia because the hospital did not have enough beds, water, food, or clothing to accommodate the growing number of patients.
Because cutlery was forbidden in the name of security, they were served fetid soups. Many people lost their teeth after years of not chewing, according to El Pais. Additionally, due to a lack of beds, patients were forced to sleep close together on the floors to stay warm throughout the winter. As some women became pregnant at the hospital and others who attended the facility were already pregnant, there were also reports of sexual assault. Their newborns were taken away from them as soon as they gave birth so that they might be adopted by families.
In fact, a large number of patients who were admitted to the hospital ended up becoming insane or dying. Even though some of them were interred in mass graves in the cemetery, when they passed away, their bodies were sold to universities.
Before local media began reporting on the events at the hospital in the late 1970s, these crimes persisted. The institution was compared to a Nazi concentration camp by Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, who visited it in 1979. Not long after, the hospital was shut down. The Brazilian Holocaust author Daniela Arbex also contributed to raising awareness of the atrocity that occurred there.
“I went looking for survivors. And thanks to them I was able to rescue what had happened behind the walls,” she said.
According to this story, those who made it out of the Barbacena institution were moved to residential buildings and awarded an indemnification by the government.