Authors: Sarah Wise
Gaslight tales of rooftop escapes, men and women snatched in broad daylight, patients shut in coffins, a fanatical cult known as the Abode of Love . . .
The nineteenth century saw repeated panics about sane individuals being locked away in lunatic asylums. With the rise of the ‘mad-doctor’ profession, English liberty seemed to be threatened by a new generation of medical men willing to incarcerate difficult family members in return for the high fees paid by an unscrupulous spouse or friend. And contrary to popular modern belief, the madwoman in the attic was at least as likely to have been a madman.
Among the victims were the beautiful and charismatic Rosina, wife of the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton; Edward Davies, victim of a mother’s greed; Louisa Lowe, who paid for her religious fervour; and John Perceval, who, despite the best efforts of the abusive asylum attendants, cured himself.
Sarah Wise uncovers twelve shocking stories, untold for over a century, which reveal the darker side of the Victorian upper and middle classes – their sexuality, fears of inherited madness, financial greed and fraudulence – and chillingly evoke the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the ‘inconvenient person’.
Sarah took an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her most recent book,
The Blackest Streets
, was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize (2009). Her debut,
The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London
, was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. Sarah was a major contributor to Iain Sinclair’s compendium
London, City of Disappearances
. She has spoken on Radio 4’s
Thinking Allowed, Woman’s Hour
programme, and she regularly lectures to societies and at history events. She lives in central London.
The Italian Boy
The Blackest Streets
This one is for Dad,
Stanley James Wise
(July 1925–June 2004)
A Note on Terminology
I use the term ‘alienist’ throughout, since ‘psychiatrist’ came into common use only in the final twenty years of the century. ‘Mad-doctor’ is also used, irreverently – it remained a common insult well into the twentieth century.
: unable to pay fees for care, so confined in a lunatic ward of the local workhouse, or in a county asylum, or in a private asylum with fees paid by the parish, out of the ‘poor rates’. This was by far the most numerous category of lunatic throughout the century.
: able to pay fees, or to have fees paid by family, and usually ranging in social class from regularly employed artisan/tradesman to aristocrat.
: a sub-category of ‘private patient’ – a wealthy private patient who had been found insane by ‘inquisition’ and whose large estate/income was deemed to be at risk as a result of the patient’s incapacity to manage his/her affairs, thereby requiring the protection of the Lord Chancellor. Such cases were dealt with by the Masters in Lunacy and their conditions were inspected by the Lord Chancellor’s Visitors.
: found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity and confined in Royal Bethlehem Hospital, or, later, Broadmoor or Rampton hospitals.
: the term ‘single patient’ usually implied a wealthy lunatic in non-asylum care, as the ‘single house’ was the most expensive form of custody. However, poorer communities also boarded their lunatics in private domiciles, and in the following pages, ‘single patient’ is used regardless of social class.
Provided there was not more than one lunatic boarded, the ‘single house’, or ‘single lodgings’, did not need to be licensed by the
Commissioners in Lunacy (when two patients were lodged, this was deemed to be a private asylum, and required licensing and inspection). But all single patients kept for profit were required to have been certified insane by two physicians and their presence notified to the Commissioners in Lunacy.
The exception to this was the insane family member confined at home – kept not for profit but by ‘natural obligation’ of blood, or marriage, tie. Mrs Rochester in the attic at Thornfield Hall was this type of patient.
Few weeks pass that the papers do not record one or more ‘mysterious disappearances’. Who shall say how many of these are simply engulphments in the madhouse oubliette?
The Bastilles of England
The sane people confined in lunatic asylums under the easy facilities of the Lunacy Act are ghosts of newspaper raising. They cannot be brought to the bar as tangible realities.
Dr John Charles Bucknill,
Journal of Mental Science
, October 1858
She has certain impressions with regard to certain persons which are not accurate or true.
Physician’s statement on a mid-nineteenth-century certificate of lunacy
It is so easy to prove that an obnoxious relative is insane; it is easier still to aggravate trivial symptoms by persistent bad treatment.
newspaper editorial, 1 August 1858
The first political lesson instilled into the tender mind of Anglo-Saxon childhood is the doctrine of freedom; and the earliest lispings of infancy are modulated to repeat that our forefathers left us the Habeas Corpus Act as our ample and enduring guarantee against false or arbitrary imprisonment. The young heart has been taught to exult in this legacy as the proudest monument of the inflexible independence of the British race, and as an incontestable mark of our superiority over the abject slaves of foreign despotism. It is a nursery tale which has long gratified our national vanity. It is now our unwelcome task to dissipate a venerable delusion . . . Does this law give adequate protection against illegal restraint inflicted through the agency of the Lunacy Acts?
, 24 April 1852
‘Oh yes, all those Victorian husbands getting their wives put away,’ said a good friend, when I told her my plans for a book about sane people being declared mad in the nineteenth century. Many others subsequently came out with something similar. But I hadn’t got very far into my initial archival dig when the variety of victims of malicious asylum incarceration became apparent; and it appeared that, anecdotally at least, this was slightly more likely to have been a problem for men than for women, certainly in the first sixty years of the century. As for those people who were indisputably mentally disordered, the mysterious lunatic in the attic was as likely to have been Bert as Bertha; the disturbed person in white in the moonlight on the Finchley Road would just as plausibly have been Andrew Catherick as Anne.
The following stories have been selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against the imputation of insanity. Presented roughly chronologically, the tales reveal the various definitions of madness put forward by the physicians, and the suggestions made by campaigners seeking reform of the asylum committal procedure. The stories bring to light, too, the protests that flared up periodically against the mad-doctors and the huge support shown for alleged victims of incarceration conspiracy. What also emerges is a portrait of a bureaucracy – the Commissioners in Lunacy – that was failing to keep pace with both popular feeling and the views of the newspaper opinion-mongers.
Above all, the ‘lunacy panics’ of the nineteenth century highlighted the fear that the English were sleepwalking into allowing the medical profession to curb individual freedom by labelling unconventional behaviour as a pathological condition, in need of cure or containment. ‘No rank in society is now exempt from the fear of being peculiar,
the unwillingness to be, or to be thought, in any respect original,’ wrote John Stuart Mill, in
, published in 1859 – the year in which a series of notorious cases forced the government to appoint a Select Committee to probe the English lunacy laws.
These disputed insanity cases offer us a way of taking the temperature of the times. Lunacy ‘inquisitions’ – as with criminal trials and divorce case hearings – brought to the surface the fiercely guarded secrets of the middle and upper classes. Sex and money were thrust to the fore; but we also get a prolonged look at their spiritual lives – at the restlessness of those to whom the traditional forms of worship felt inadequate, and the dangers that could be faced in the search for a more meaningful religious experience.
Although distrust of the mad-doctors was an oddly classless issue, anxiety about being sent to the ‘living tomb’ (a commonly used metaphor for the asylum) was perhaps felt most intensely by those who had something more than their liberty to lose. Malicious lunacy certification was overwhelmingly a problem for those who had money or property (even if it was just a small estate or income) and for people whose behaviour was deemed to embarrass or to threaten the social standing of another, or others. While individuals from all levels of society feared an accusation of insanity, the poor had better safeguards against this particular social menace. Campaigners did find instances where heavy drinking or the misdiagnosis of a febrile disease had caused a pauper to end up in the lunacy system. And as the huge building programme of public asylums began in the mid-1840s, a corresponding rise was seen in the certification and institutionalisation of ‘incurably mentally decayed’ elderly people (predominantly women) and of ‘naturals’ (people with what we today call ‘learning difficulties’) who had previously lived outside the walls of an asylum. However, no one had much to gain from deliberately mis-certifying the poor, and indeed, many parish Poor Law officials tended not to welcome the expense of institutionalising a pauper. ‘For the poor, all are interested in the recovery. For the rich, all may be interested in their retention,’ a Gloucestershire magistrate wrote in the 1840s, after a campaign in which he liberated many wrongly certificated private patients.
Perhaps surprisingly, gender was not – to the Victorians – an obvious factor to be borne in mind when pondering the alleged rise in lunacy in England. Most statisticians who undertook detailed work
substantiated the belief of the Ancients: lunacy was more likely to strike males than females. For every mad-doctor who cited the female reproductive system and weakly constituted intellect as the cause of female insanity, there was a physician to point out that the far more sophisticated masculine mind was under threat from overwork, business ambition, heavy drinking, the solitary vice, debt, gambling, celibacy or debauchery. High levels of self-control and conformity were demanded of ‘respectable’ males. There was nothing in law to prevent a wife putting away her husband, or a mother having her son confined, and plenty of women disposed of their menfolk in this way. In a patriarchal society, the biter is often bit.