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    Auction Finds

    What torturous chair is this?

    The metal chair with the white seat looked like some kind of torture equipment – used either by the prison system to end a mind or some sadistic hospital to control it. I stumbled onto it while looking for nothing in particular recently at an auction house.

    It was sitting innocently among other modern chairs, lamps and tables that I actually recognized. This chair, however, stumped me.

    insane asylum chair

    The headrest balls on the metal chair at auction. The chair may have been used in an insane asylum for treatments.

    What the heck was it? And how was it used?

    It was all metal, with two round balls erected on the back like a headrest. The neck holding the balls was adjustable. The chair had obviously been used, because pink and yellow paint had succumbed to rust on the balls, and the arms and legs had traces of paint loss. The seat was uncolored metal and seemed not to have sagged under much too much body weight.

    The chair was a little frightening in its appearance, partly because I wasn’t sure what it was used for, so my mind came up with the worst use of it. It reminded me of an electric chair – even though it didn’t exactly resemble the ones I’d seen on TV and in books.

    insane asylum chair

    A fuller view of the metal chair at auction.

    It also reminded me of electric-shock equipment that could’ve been used to settle down the Jack Nicholson character in the 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or in more recent scary movies involving shuttered mental hospitals and haunted houses.

    What is this chair?

    As I stood with a puzzled look on my face, none of the other auction-goers came up – which was unusual because normally someone approached when I had that befuddled look on my face. This was preview day at the auction house, so only a handful of people were around, and no one was nearby.

    insane asylum chair

    A side view of the torture chair for sale at auction.

    Later, I Googled to see if I could find another chair like it, and indeed I did. It was described as a circa 1930s asylum chair, with a black leather cushioned headrest that was tattered from use. The chair was metal with an enamel surface, but it had no arms.

    I also found several photos of the interior of old asylums, with fallen plaster on the floors, scuffed walls, plain metal chairs rusty and dusty, and cushioned chairs that looked more like barber chairs. One site even had a photo of a prop asylum chair that, as the site said, could be used in a scary or horror movie.

    insane asylum chair

    The "tranqulizing chair" designed by Dr. Benjamin Rush to treat insanity by controlling the flow of blood to the head. Photo from historiccamdencounty.com

    One of the most unusual chairs was not designed for shock therapy but was one of the many remedies aimed at helping to solve illnesses of the mind. In the late 18th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia – considered the father of American psychiatry – designed a chair that looked eerily like an electric chair, but it was not. It was considered a more humane alternative to the strait jacket.

    Rush called it the “tranquilizing chair,” which would “keep maniacs in the inflammatory stage of their disease perpendicular … so as to save the head from the impetus of the blood as much as possible,” he said. It was based on the belief at the time that insanity was an inflammation of the brain.

    The chair was designed to “reduce stimulating blood flow to the brain by binding the patient’s head and limbs,” according to a history of Pennsylvania Hospital.

    I wasn’t around when the metal chair at auction was sold. The similar one I found on the web had already been sold. Now my question is: How would you use it in your home?

    insane asylum chair

    Jack Nicholson gets electric shock treatment in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Photo from avforums.com.



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