Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England
The 19th century saw repeated panics about sane individuals being locked away in lunatic asylums. Sarah Wise uncovers twelve shocking stories that highlight the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the inconvenient person.
Why did you write this book?
I was at the Old Vic theatre watching the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight - in which a wicked Victorian husband attempts to make his highly-strung wife go mad - when I suddenly wondered did many husbands and fathers attempt this sort of thing? If so, how was it achieved? (Putting a basically sane person into an asylum must involve collusion with others) And did it happen to men? Just a few days in the archives brought it home to me that the 'malicious incarceration' phenomenon affected males as much as it affected females.
Why was the public captivated by lunacy cases?
On the one hand, it is a universal terror that you might find yourself in an insane asylum if somebody wants to allege that your eccentricities are evidence of lunacy. Secondly, in the 19th century, lunacy cases, which were heard in public, were an unparalleled way of getting access to the sexual, behavioural and financial secrets of your fellow Briton.
Was Mrs Cumming speaking for many of those classed as insane by saying: “If I had been poor, they would have left alone.”
Although all sectors of society feared wrongful certification, the wealthy were more of a target. When a wealthy person was declared a lunatic, their cash and their estate had to be administered by a committee, and many family members, spouses or business associates grabbed control of the alleged lunatic's money in this way.
Additionally, the rich were placed in private asylums, and the proprietors were often reluctant to admit that such incarceration was unnecessary for fear of losing the fees.
Until the late 1860s (when central government began paying more towards the costs of running local parish pauper asylums), there was little incentive to keep a poor person of questionable sanity in expensive, publicly funded county asylum care.
Did women suffer higher levels of dubious certification?
No. Admissions data for lunatic asylums show a remarkable parity between the genders. The reason there were more women than men in lunatic asylums as the century progressed was down to female longevity and a higher death rate among males.
Were asylums places of care and recuperation?
The best of them were -- it all depended on the superintendent in charge and the quality of the staff. The public (county) system set out optimistically in the 1840s, expecting
that cures for mental health problems would be possible in most cases.
However, as the years went by that there was a huge 'chronic' population building up in the system, such as increasing numbers of dementia sufferers, and the best that could be achieved was to make them as comfortable as possible.
Did campaigners achieve improvements in the asylum system?
Very generally, yes: the Commissioners in Lunacy (the equivalent of the Care Quality Commission today) worked hard to investigate and enforce good physical conditions within the new county asylum buildings. While it is crucial not to gloss over incidents of cruelty and neglect, it is likely that a significant proportion of pauper patients were better fed and healthier than if they had remained at home.
Why title the epilogue The Savage New Century?
After the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, any youth deemed to be 'morally imbecile' or 'morally defective' could be sent to a detention colony without a time limit. So petty thieves, pregnant teenage girls, and all sorts of 'delinquents' were assessed as having incurable mental 'deficiency', when in fact they had nothing of the sort. The twentieth century saw the mass incarceration of the non-insane – all sanctioned by parliament.