Bild C. Guise 1849/Wiki
Bild C. Guise 1849/Wiki
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Local News Summary of October, 7th

  • Grand Casino Basel has new millionaire
  • Basel’s first “madhouse” was behind the Barfüsser church

Grand Casino Basel has new millionaire

A lucky person won the Swiss Jackpot of more than a million francs at the Grand Casino Basel on Thursday night. A spokesperson from the Grand Casino Basel told that the lucky man, from Solothurn, had a knack for playing the slot machines. He achieved the right combinations at the right moment and as a result, won the Swiss Jackpot of 1,101,887 Swiss francs. The slot machine is connected to the Swiss Jackpot, which is linked up to seven casinos in Switzerland. This is the 20th Swiss Jackpot win since the opening of the Grand Casino Basel in 2003. The prize money was checked and counted before being handed over to the winner the following day.


Basel’s first “madhouse” was behind the Barfüsser church

During the late European Middle Ages, mental illnesses and psychological problems were interpreted as a sign of demonic possession. From the end of the 14th century onwards, thousands of mentally ill people were tortured and even burned at the stake. In the 17th century, institutions far worse than prisons were created for the mentally ill. Basel’s first “madhouse” was located behind the Barfüsser church.

The history of psychiatry begins in ancient times. The disciples of Asclepius (the old Greek god of healing) dealt with madness from a medical perspective. In the Orient – for example in Cairo or Damascus – people who suffered from mental illnesses were treated in a rather more humane way by the 11th century, when they were taken care of. Their symptoms were outlined and doctors searched for possible remedies, even though they often did not work. Yet the attitude towards these patients was humane and more benevolent.

Chains and coffin-like wooden chests

This stands in sharp contrast to Rome, where, soon after the Christianisation, chains and coffin-like wooden chests were used to discipline those with psychological conditions. The theology of the early Catholic Church blamed the causes of mental illness on the influence of the devil. Priests diagnosed affected people with self-inflicted demonic possession, which had to be punished.

The Church’s attitude radicalised itself in the Late Middle Ages, exemplified in the European witch-hunts. This in turn was accompanied by torture and death sentences as the preferred methods to deal with the problem of mental illness. Basel was no exception from these hunts. The “religion of compassion” had no mercy.

In the 17th century, doctors including George Cheyne, from Scotland, began to note down and catalogue mental illness symptoms. In doing so, they sought to challenge the belief in demonic possession. Their inspiration naturally came from pre-Christian, ancient sources.

“Madhouses” and “Bedlams”

Soon, the first hospitals for people with mental illnesses were constructed. They were called “madhouses” and “bedlams”. In Basel, the first house for “the insane and the raving mad”, as they were called back then, was created behind the Barfüsser monastery.

Patients had permission to go out for a walk in the cloister. Only a very few gravestones and memorials still mark the spot where the cloister once stood. In another building, patients were locked up and withered away. This part was called “das hintere Almosen” (the rear charity house).

The leading idea behind this institution was quite progressive in terms of late medieval standards. But the everyday life of people with mental illnesses, who were housed behind walls and locked doors from the 18th century onwards, was horrible.

Rods, whips, and torture

People with depression, psychotic fits or birth defects, along with those suffering from compulsive behaviour and panic attacks, were locked up behind the Barfüsser monastery together with prostitutes and violent criminals. The latter were also regarded as “mad”. The methods to deal with patients were brutal. They were also exposed to abuse and violence by fellow inmates.

Mentally ill people were tormented with rods and ox whips; and they had to carry out compulsory labour for the profit of their caregivers. Hunger therapies, ice-cold baths, and turning machines – a type of torture carousel that would rotate patients until they vomited – were the treatment methods of choice. Patients with less severe symptoms could at least go out into the courtyard and the cloister. Non-complient inmates however were locked up behind bars – in dark, small chambers with iron doors between them and the world outside.

Doctor Brenner closed the “madhouse”

The Basel physician Johannes Friedrich Brenner (1809-1874) was a pioneer of psychiatry and became the first professor for this medical branch at the University of Basel. He talked with contempt about the “madhouse of the rear alms”, describing it as “a house of the dead for the living.” It was him who put an end to the dreadful conditions behind the Barfüsser church.

In 1842, Professor Brenner ensured that mental patients received a comparatively humane place to stay in the new hospital behind Markgräflerhof – the first baroque palace of Switzerland at Hebelstrasse. And fourteen years later, the man who would later revolutionise and change psychiatry forever was born in Moravian Freiburg: Sigmund Freud.