Many years ago, tens of thousands of Brazilians, including Blacks, were abandoned at a mental institution — Hospital Colônia de Barbacena. “The city of madmen” was what Barbacena, in the state of Minas Gerais, was being called. Meanwhile, the majority of people admitted to the institution had no mental illness.
“They were alcoholics, syphilitics, prostitutes, homosexuals, epileptics, single mothers, wives who were discarded for mistresses, non-conformists… people considered social outcasts whose families or the police sent by train to Barbacena, in the state of Minas Gerais,” a report by El Pais says. About 60,000 people died there of hunger, diarrhea and cold, with the color of the victims being “overwhelmingly Black”.
The hospital was closed in 1980 after its founding in 1903. Some years ago, one of the wards of the hospital was turned into the Museu da Loucura, or Museum of Madness, highlighting a terror only a few Brazilians knew about at the time.
“It was decided to call it the Museum of Madness to awaken public interest and because it is not only dealing with a local issue but one that is a reference point to analyze the past, to preserve it and to ensure it is never repeated,” the director of the museum, Lucimar Pereira, was quoted by El Pais.
The Barbacena hospital first operated as a clinic for the rich before it became the first sanitarium in Minas Gerais in 1903. It had a cemetery and for many years, it had no doctors or nurses, only guards. Treatment consisted of blue pills or pink pills. Electric shocks were administered with no anesthesia or sedative. Some patients underwent lobotomies, a type of psychosurgery that was used to treat mental health conditions such as mood disorders and schizophrenia.
Other patients were left to die when they got sick. The hospital did not have enough beds, water, food or clothes for the increasing number of patients, thus, many died due to starvation or hypothermia.
“They were fed fetid soups because in the name of security cutlery was prohibited. After decades without chewing, many lost their teeth,” according to El Pais. And without enough beds, patients slept crowded on the floors to keep each other warm when it was cold. There were also reports of sexual abuse as some women got pregnant at the hospital while others who entered the institution were already pregnant. As soon as they gave birth, their babies were taken away from them to be adopted by families.
As a matter of fact, many people who entered the hospital ended up going mad if not perishing. And when they died, their bodies were sold to universities even though some were buried in mass graves in the cemetery.
These atrocities went on until the late 1970s when local journalists started writing articles about the happenings at the hospital. Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia visited the hospital in 1979 and called it a Nazi concentration camp. The hospital was closed not too long after. Daniela Arbex, the author of O Holocausto Brasileiro (The Brazilian Holocaust), also helped create awareness of the horror at the hospital.
“I went looking for survivors. And thanks to them I was able to rescue what had happened behind the walls,” she said.
Those who survived the Barbacena institution were transferred to residential buildings and given an indemnity by the government, as stated by this report.