Friday 1 August 2008

Beechworth Ghost Tours

A 19th century asylum might initially seem an unlikely place to take tourists, however, the popularity of attractions such as the Old Melbourne Gaol and Shipwrecked! sound and laser show at Warrnambool’s Flagstaff Maritime Village demonstrate, places with a history of scandal, hardship, tragedy and conflict are eternally fascinating for travellers.

The appeal is even greater if there’s a possibility of a supernatural sighting thrown in.

The new Beechworth Ghost Tours gives visitors a tantalising glimpse of a contentious, rarely discussed part of Australia's social history: how past generations perceived and treated mental illness.

Commencing every night at dusk, the tour shows guests what life was really like at the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Mayday Hospital and now located on the Latrobe University campus) which was one of three major mental health institutions to open in Victoria in 1867.

Guided by a ‘ghostly host’, visitors are taken deep into the former hospital to hear about the living conditions and treatment of patients who were committed there during the 1800s and early 1900s, a time when mental illness carried huge social stigma.

The asylum’s patients, who could be committed to the institution on the strength of just two signatures (compared to eight signatures required for release), included those suffering from schizophrenia, epileptic fits and post-natal depression as well as soldiers returning from world wars, orphans and women considered ‘too seductive’.

With no medication available, patient ‘treatments’ included shackles, handcuffs and dark isolation rooms (where they could be put for up to a month) as well as inhumane shock therapy.

According to many visitors, it’s not just physical remnants of the asylum’s history that linger. Unusual events are a frequent part of the experience, as evidenced by numerous internet postings by those who have taken the tour who describe supernatural objects appearing in photos, unexplained happenings or strange visual phenomena.

The Beechworth Ghost Tours were launched in Easter 2008 by local history buff Adam Wynne Jenkins (whose parents worked as psychiatric nurses at the asylum) and his wife Sharon who wanted to give visitors a chance to understand a major - but largely unpublicised - part of Beechworth’s history.

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