Arkham Asylum is the home for the criminally insane denizens of Gotham City. But, as Director Jeremiah Arkham will tell you, it’s much more than that: “Arkham Asylum is not just any institution for the criminally insane. It’s the Ivy League of insanity.”
Arkham Asylum was founded by Amadeus Arkham after his mother, having suffered from mental illness most of her life, committed suicide. As the sole heir to the family estate, Amadeus Arkham decided to transform his family home (known as Mercey Mansion) into a treatment facility for the mentally ill, so that others might not go untreated and suffer as his mother had.
Upon telling his family of his plans, they moved back to his family home to oversee the remodeling. While there, Arkham received a call from the police notifying him Martin “Mad Dog” Hawkins — a serial killer referred to Arkham by Metropolis Penitentiary while at State Psychiatric Hospital — had escaped from prison, and sought his considered opinion on his state of mind. Hawkins later broke into the Arkham family home and brutally murdered Arkham’s wife and daughter.
Despite this tragedy, the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane officially opened that November. One of its first patients was Martin Hawkins, whom Arkham insisted on personally treating. Arkham got his revenge on Hawkins when he strapped him to the electroshock couch and purposely electrocuted him. The deaths of his family and his murder of Hawkins were the first steps on Arkham’s path to madness. Eventually, he was institutionalized in his own hospital, and would remain there until his death. Custodianship of Arkham Asylum passed down to his nephew Jeremiah.
Jermiah Arkham took a hardline approach towards the care of his patients. He completely renovated the interior of the hospital, tearing away the old Victorian-style architecture, replacing it with labyrinthian corridors designed to confuse the inmates so that even if they got loose within the asylum, they would find it difficult to escape. Arkham installed the most state-of-the-art security measures when he took control of the asylum. CCTV cameras were installed in every room and corridor with guards stationed on every level twenty-four hours a day to discourage bribery. Even the director himself was required to present identification to access various levels of the hospital. All exterior windows at Arkham were installed with heat detectors and microwave motion detectors. Magnetic foils in the walls were used to block radio waves from penetrating locked cells. Even with these new security protocols, the most devious inmates found ways to escape the asylum. Because what Arkham did not know, was that the contractors he hired to build his new labyrinth had been blackmailed by an asylum inmate into building a secret corridor that connected to several padded rooms, including his own. This would essentially enable several inmates to escape at their leisure.
Indeed, even without this secret passage system, the most vicious inmates of Arkham frequently find devious (and not so devious: on at least one occasion, a convicted murderer was signed out of Arkham into the care of an incontinent, alcoholic vagrant, on the grounds that he “looked like a responsible citizen”) ways to escape incarceration.
Arkham asylum is often damaged by escape attempts. At one point, the original Arkham Asylum suffered massive structural damage when the criminal Bane orchestrated a large-scale break-out, setting dozens of patients free.
Arkham may truly be a case of “inmates running the asylum,” as some believe that Arkham itself drives people insane. This is evidenced by the fact that several staff members, including at least one director, have becomes inmates – most notably Dr. Harleen Quinzel (aka Harley Quinn), Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow), and even asylum director Dr. Jeremiah Arkham.
Arkham asylum was first created by Dennis O’Neil in 1974. He named the asylum after a town in the stories of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecrafted originally created Arkham as an apocryphal analogue of Salem, Mass. The Lovecraft story, “The Thing on the Doorstep” features the Arkham Sanitarium. Though today Arkham is portrayed as a psychotic madhouse and/or high security prison, in the early days of Arkham Asylum in comics, it had a slightly more whimsical vibe. For example, the Joker kept a full functional lair beneath the asylum – his own skewed version of a batcave.