Visit to the World’s First Purpose-Built Insane Asylum in Vienna


I’m in Vienna’s extremely lovely airport plugged into  one of the smartest desk arrangements I’ve ever seen. My flight for London leaves shortly so I might just have time to upload the second installment of my Vienna journey. Most of the rest of the installments are written but no time to upload!

So, next up is a description of my visit to the world’s first purpose-built insane asylum in Vienna and the location of some scenes in “A Woman of Note.” It is called the Narrenturm and the less politically sensitive “Fool’s Tower.” The Emperor Josef II had the Narrenturm built in 1784 to house and treat the insane. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon a picture of the Narrenturm and read that it has hardly changed since it stopped being an insane asylum in the 1850’s.

Emperor Josef II was quite the reformer for his time. He believed in enlightened absolutism, which meant that he wanted his people to be happy so long as they were happy strictly in accordance with his criteria. Josef did some good things such as abolishing torture and even the death penalty (for awhile), instituting primary education for boys and girls, and limiting the powers of the Church. He was also very interested in medical reforms and believed that the insane should be treated instead of just locked up and left to rot. Patients housed in the Narrenturm were actually treated quite humanely (in relative terms). In fact, for the first few decades of its existence, the Narrenturm was state-of-the-art for lunatic asylums which just means it was marginally lest horrific than the norm. Patients were fed a nutritious menu that included meat and wine and were allowed out into a garden for daily exercise. Their medical treatment related to the balancing of the four humors and therefore involved activities like blood-letting, purging, etc. (I’d rather not go into detail here!).

I hope to soon have more information about the treatments and the living conditions of the inmates. During my visit to the Narrentum at the start of my second day in Vienna, I was given a reference to a work in German that includes valuable primary sources such as the handbook for wardens and eyewitness accounts from various medical people of the time. The work is in the public domain and in German so I will be able to download it and get some of the more promising bits translated.

My character, Frederick Gruber, is the brother of Isabette, the heroine of “A Woman of Note” and is incarcerated in the Narrenturm. His condition plays a significant role in Isabette’s mental and emotional state during the novel so I needed to find what she would have seen when she went to visit Frederick. I wanted to know how Frederick would have been treated, what his cell looked like, and whether Isabette could in fact go to visit him. I found the answers to all these questions and more during one of the coolest hours I’ve ever spent since embarking on this historical fiction author thing.

The Narrenturm is now an anatomical and physiological museum—one of the many museums run under the banner of the Wien Museum. On the web site was a description in German of the Narrenturm that was far too general for what I needed. I emailed the museum and was given the name of the director who I then emailed with a list of questions. He emailed back a very kind invitation to meet with him at 9 am on Friday, August 29.

The walk from my apartment to the Narrenturm, which is on the campus of Vienna University, takes about twenty minutes along a pleasant side street that feels miles away from the touristy bustle of the old city. The university itself is a lovely series of courtyards surrounded by low buildings, many of them built back in the 18th Century. The round tower of the Narrenturm hoves into view and I have to laugh. It looks exactly like it does in the pictures which of course isn’t surprising but what the pictures don’t capture is the air of neglect surrounding it. I have no difficulty imagining my Isabette standing exactly where I am looking up at it and wondering which window belongs to Frederick.

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The Narrenturm in Vienna – the world’s first purpose-built insane asylum from 1784.

I show up a little early to find a large metal door set into the original archway. The sign lists the hours of the museum which I already know isn’t open at 9 am on a Friday morning. In fact, the museum is only open two mornings a week. I guess it’s not that popular. I phone the director (Eduard) and am told to ring the bell and then to come up to the top floor. The metal door swings open and I go inside. At first, I can’t see any stairs—just a turnstile beyond which is a curved hallway leading into darkness. I start a little way along the hallway. The walls are hung with skeletons and tiny rooms (later I am to learn they are the cells) are full of mysterious jars containing miscellaneous body parts, strange tumors and other odd formations that I do not stop to investigate.

After wandering restlessly for a short time, I hear someone on the stairs. This is a relief. Another few minutes alone on that bottom floor and I am in danger of losing my nerve.

I climb up the five flights of stairs to the top floor and am introduced to Eduard. He is so incredibly helpful and enthusiastic. I ask lots of questions and we have a free-flowing discussion about how people lived in the Narrenturm, a bit about how I might use the Narrenturm in the novel, etc. His office was one of the cells so as I sit chatting with him I can imagine my Frederick locked away in his cell with only white plaster walls and one high window to look out.

After our chat, Eduard takes me around the tower and answers more questions. I see the only remaining original wooden door to a cell. The door is inset with a small grated window. The warden could open the small door and peer through the grate to check on the inmate, then swing back the grate to provide enough room to pass in food. I can’t imagine living in one of the cells was at all pleasant but it perhaps beats the images we have of bedlam-like rooms full of closely packed misery.

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Curved outside corridor in the Narrenturm. This floor is now offices. Former cells are to the right.

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The only surviving original door and Eduard the Director in the shadows.

I learn about the numerology that was used to design the tower. Old Josef II was into alternative belief systems and not, apparently, all that big on the powerful Catholic Church of his day. He got rid of a fair number of monasteries during his reign. The Narrenturm consists of five floors with 28 cells on each floor—which had up to a number that is apparently significant.

I also learn that the melancholic cases lived on the ground floor (where the museum is today), the military cases on the second floor, and then progressively more violent cases on the remaining three floors with the top floor being reserved for people who were extremely violent and basically incurable. I now have to decide if my Frederick is on the top floor or the bottom. For his sake, I’d rather it is the bottom floor but drama is better served if he’s on the top floor. Poor Frederick.

I can hardly wait now to revisit the scenes I’ve located in the Narrenturm and tweak them in light of what I ‘ve learned. I was hoping to find some “atmosphere” in Vienna that would help me with the book. Although the city itself has not yielded that much “scope for the imagination”, the Narrenturm certainly has and was well worth the trip.

Next Up – Musical Vienna



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