At the time Canton Asylum opened, insanity was still rather fluid in both its diagnosis and treatment. Alienists (the early term for mental health professionals) didn’t really know what caused insanity or how to cure it, and the U.S. was by no means on the cutting edge of research. Alienists thought that anything from sudden shocks, masturbation, epilepsy, female troubles, overwork or too much study, and a myriad of other factors could bring on mental troubles.
Treatment could be pretty much anything doctors wanted to try, and there were few protections for patients. Doctors routinely gave patients compounds of arsenic and mercury, and just as routinely shocked, shackled, and force-fed them. Outside the asylums, citizens self-medicating for “nervous” problems could imbibe various cocaine, opium, or cyanide-laced tonics, sip on Hostetter’s Bitters (32% alcohol), or down Sensapersa tablets (containing cannabis).
Americans were anxious to relieve mental suffering, but didn’t know enough to do it effectively and safely. Even with the best of intentions, medical men could wreak great harm on their patients.
Read this interesting article from 1902, which gives advice on how to advertise patent medicine.