The St. Elizabeths “Magic Lantern” Slides: “Guilt/Guilt/Guilt”

The glass slides were so heavy, each nearly 4” square, designed for projection in an old “magic lantern” device at the nation’s first federal mental institution St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane. They are identified as teaching slides to instruct the nurses, medical students and psychiatrists about psychopathic, criminal homosexuals and gender non-conforming patients, queer performers and “acts.”  A number of the magic lantern slides are of 19th century patients; others appear to come from the early 20th Century when the magic lantern projectors were still in use.  Some of the teaching slides are simply haunting.  They portray human specimens in a queer gallery of crime and mental illness…or “oddities.”   A transgender old lady smoking a pipe! A photograph of a handsome gay man, eyes redacted, captioned “Homosexuality, many crimes of sexual motivation.” There is a psychosexual graphic that attempts to provide a unified theory of it all: “Homosexuality/Masturbation/Incest.”

A selection of these slides is featured in a chapter on our work in “The Case for Gay Reparations” (Oxford University Press, 2021) by Omar Encarnacion.

The magic lantern slides were kept in the St. Elizabeths lobby museum until it closed in the 1980s and were subsequently transferred to an archival vault at the National Museum of Science and Health on the base of the U.S. Army’s Forest Glen facility in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This is an emotionally rough museum to experience.  Here a visitor can see the bullet “dislodged” from Abraham Lincoln’s brain during autopsy.  According to the museum’s finding aid, most of the slides were produced internally at St. Elizabeths, and although many of the slides are patients, it is “unclear” which of the queer committed may have come from elsewhere. 

We have shared the slides and diagrams with historians familiar with the bad science and psychosexual theories of the time.  They point to the disturbing interweaving of homosexuality and criminal or pathological behavior. Of course, by definition, homosexuality in the day was a criminal condition – and you were deemed insane.  Indeed, if one were indicted and institutionalized under the D.C. Sexual Psychopath Act of 1948, you could not leave St. Elizabeths until certified by the Hospital Superintendent as “cured.”  The consensus view of the slides and diagrams is they portray a mish-mash of “Americanized Freud” with the ideas of the German sexual psychologist and theorist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of the influential Psychopathia Sexualis (12th edition in 1903), and the so-called Moral Treatment movement that held mental illness was due to “moral failings” and could be treated with kind treatment, fresh air, manual labor and religious worship.  It is all there and more, especially in the diagrams of patient etiology, the historical causes for a patient’s condition. For instance, “Guilt/Guilt/Guilt” and “Homosexual Trends” lie at the very bullseye of an etiological diagram for a patient suffering from something called “Mixed Hysterical Psychoneurosis”—relieving stress through screaming.  The psycho-diagrams we discovered in this vault on the Army base well represent the state-funded and supported psychosexual theories about “mental disease” at St. Elizabeths. Many of the same concepts in these etiological diagrams run throughout today’s religious-based conversion therapy programs.

On the way home we did feel like screaming.

 The Magic Lantern Slides of St. Elizabeth’s. Photo credit: Charles Francis

Here is a sampling of the magic lantern teaching slides from a total of 700, from Boxes 5, 6 and 8 of the St. Elizabeths Hospital Collections, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

To view more slides in greater detail please visit our public dropbox here.