Historical mental health records online

Further to my previous post about James Doran, who died in Prestwich County asylum in 1870, I realised that a list of admissions to Prestwich Asylum 1851-1901 are available on findmypast.co.uk (free to search but you need to pay to see the result). Sure enough, James Doran is there (Archive reference: QAM6/6/8; Patient number: 2588), aged 52, a married solicitor’s clerk, admitted to the asylum on 7th June 1870 and died on 8th June 1870. His religion is Church of England. Unfortunately, these are transcripts rather than original records, but armed with the reference number and patient number, the original records can be pursued at either the Greater Manchester County Record Office or Lancashire Record Office in Preston.

This prompted me to do a quick review of what other records are now available online:

Findmypast.co.uk (£):

  • Prestwich Asylum Admissions 1851-1901
  • Kent, Bexley Asylum Minute Books, 1901-1939
  • South Yorkshire Asylum, Admission Records (1872-1910)

Ancestry.co.uk (£):

  • UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 (registers of public and private asylums)
  • Criminal Lunacy Warrant and Entry Books, 1882-1898 (entries of warrants for removal from prison to asylums)
  • Criminal Lunatic Asylum Registers, 1820-1843
    • Bethlem Hospital, Criminal Lunatics (1823 – 1843)
    • Criminal Lunatics, Confined in County and Licenced Lunatic Asylums (1800 – 1839)

History of Medicine at the University of East Anglia

It turned out that James Doran was also in the Ancestry.co.uk lunacy patient admission registers. Whilst an impressive resource, it doesn’t give any other extra information, just his date of admission to Prestwich Asylum, and the fact that he died there, but it does confirm that he was a “pauper” admission.

Workhouse, poor law and prison records may also be relevant and worth exploring. The National Archives has a helpful guide to searching for asylum inmates, but does not seem to have digitised these records yet (apart from those available via Ancestry.co.uk). Of course, if you happen to live near Kew, you could go and examine them in person. There is another helpful guide about mental health records more generally.

A quick google search found a list of sites related to hospitals, including mental health asylums on Cyndi’s List, but many of these are in the USA. There are also some mental health records for Victoria, Australia freely available online.

I’m sure there are plenty of other hidden gems out there, I would love to hear if anybody knows of any.


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“The work of crushing ribs goes on gaily…”

I have been absent from this blog for some time, but was reminded of it when I came across the following historical newspaper article in the Pall Mall Gazette (14 June 1870):

Only last week we called attention to Dr. Dickson’s solution of the problem of death by crushed ribs among lunatics in our asylums. The bones of paralytic patients are, he thinks, so soft that they must be broken occasionally during the endeavour made to quiet these patients. Another case of the kind has just occurred. A man named James Doran, formerly a solicitor’s clerk, had become insane, and was transferred from the Rochdale workhouse to Prestwich Asylum. He died the same day. The post-mortem examination revealed the fact that seven of his ribs were broken, but – and this is most significant – there was no corresponding exterior mark of violence. These fractures, therefore, were not caused by a fall, or by blows. We should be glad if any one could tell us how they could have been produced except by heavy quiet pressure, such, for instance, as a heavy man kneeling on the chest. The jury, of course, found that the poor man had died from natural causes, death being accelerated by injuries, but that there was no evidence to show how the last were inflicted. No one will be punished, and so another wretched lunatic is consigned to his grave, and the work of crushing ribs goes on gaily, and with amazing impunity.

It was such a sad story, hinting quite strongly that unnecessary force may have been used during restraint procedures, that I wanted to find out more about what happened.

So who was James Doran?

In 1861, James Doran is living at 12 Hopwood Place, Wardleworth, Rochdale aged 41 with his wife Mary (aged 21, from Weaverhouse, Cheshire) and sons Edward A (aged 3) and William P (aged 1/2 year or 6 months) [Census reference: Class: RG 9; Piece: 3043; Folio: 32; Page: 13; GSU roll: 543069]. His death was registered in Manchester registration district (of which Prestwich is part), and he is reported to be 52 years old. His young wife would have been around 31 years old.

James, a widower, married 17-year-old Mary Richardson on 12th Feb 1851 at St Chad’s, Rochdale. His father is listed as John Doran, currier (Full marriage records available at Ancestry.com as part of Manchester, England, Marriages and Banns collection).

James married his first wife Anne Waine on 26th November 1846, also at St Chad’s, Rochdale. She may be the Annie Doran who died in Rochdale in 1849.

James’s mother and siblings are also living in Wardleworth in 1851 (Address: 2 Hope Street). All were born in Rochdale. His family at the time consists of mother Jane (aged 58), brothers Edward (aged 28, hair dresser) and John (aged 11), and sisters Jane (aged 34; reeler of cotton) Catharine (aged 24, carder of cotton), Sarah Ann (aged 21, carder of cotton). Two of Jane’s grandchildren, William (aged 8 and Eliza aged 11 months) are also living with them [Census reference: Class: HO107; Piece: 2246; Folio: 174; Page: 7; GSU roll: 87266-87267]. John Doran (James’s father, aged 60, born in Ireland) is lodging separately at 2 Procter Court in 1851, possibly at his place of work? [Class: HO107; Piece: 2246; Folio: 193; Page: 47; GSU roll: 87266-87267]. The family are at 4 Portland Street in 1861 [Class: RG 9; Piece: 3043; Folio: 30; Page: 10; GSU roll: 543069]. Edward Doran is interviewed at the inquiry into James’s death (see newspaper article below).

James’s two sons: Edward Arthur and William Peel were both christened at St Chad’s, Rochdale, Lancashire on 3 Dec 1860 (Full baptism records available in Ancestry.com Manchester, England, Births and Baptisms collection). Sadly William Peel Doran seems to have died shortly after the 1861 census took place, towards the end of 1861. Edward Arthur appears to be living with his aunts Sarah Ann (and family) and Jane in 1871 (it is not clear where his mother Mary is). He later became a mechanic, married Mary Alice Howarth on 30th June 1877 at St Chad’s Rochdale, and had a number of children (see 1881 census). He died in 1893 aged just 38 years old.

A previous report of the inquest into James’s death ran in the Liverpool Daily Post on 13th June 1870. It gives some more details of James’s “lunatic” behaviour, as well as his medical treatment at Prestwich Lunatic Asylum.


An inquest was held at the Prestwich Lunatic Asylum on Friday, before Mr. Price, coroner, on the body of James Doran, a lunatic, whose death took place in the asylum on Tuesday.

Mr Watson, assistant medical officer at the asylum, stated that the deceased was admitted an inmate, under an order of the county magistrates, about half-past six o’clock on Tuesday. Witness saw him immediately after his arrival, and found him in an extremely prostate bodily condition. Upon making an examination he found several bruises on the body of the deceased, and some of his ribs were broken. There was also a recent bruise on the left temple. Witness ordered him to be put to bed, and to have stimulants administered to him. He was rambling and talking in an excited manner, and moving his arms to and fro. He was given in charge of an attendant, and about half-past eight o’clock the same evening it was reported that the man had died. Witness made a post-mortem examination of the body on the following evening, and found, on the left side, that the third, eighth and ninth ribs were broken; and on the right side, the fourth, fifths, eleventh and twelfth ribs were broken. There was no pleurisy or effusion in the chest, but the lungs were in the first stage of congestive pneumonis. There was also a disease of the heart and of the brain, the latter being in a generally softened state. Corresponding with the bruise on the left temple, witness found some blood effused over and amongst the fibres of the temporal muscle. The membrane covering the ribs was not ruptured in any instance, and there was no injury to the pleura, which accounted for the absence of inflammation. Witness attributed death to disease of the heart, lungs, and brain, accelerated by the fractures of the ribs. The removal of the deceased from Rochdale, and the motion of the cab in which he was brought to the asylum, would contribute to the causes producing death. The outward bruises on the body, with the exception of the one on the temple, were not of recent date, but it was difficult to fix a probable time when they, or the fractures of the ribs, were caused. The fractures did not correspond with the bruises in any one instance.

Edward Doran said he was a barber, residing in Rochdale. The deceased was his brother, and was an attorney’s clerk. He was 52 years of age, and had always been a temperate man. About two months ago he appeared to be weak in his mind, and a fortnight since he began to exhibit signs of insanity. On the Monday following he began to be violent in his conduct. Witness had never heard of any violence having been used towards him by others in consequence of his conduct. He continued in a violent state up to the 2nd instant, when he was removed to the Marland Workhouse at Rochdale. Witness never heard him complain of having been injured, nor did he see any marks upon him. He remained there from Thursday to Tuesday, when the relieving officer sent to ask witness to accompany the deceased from the workhouse to the Prestwich Asylum. Witness went to the workhouse, and observed several black marks upon his brother’s face, and upon asking the attendant how the marks came there, he replied that he did not know, but that sometimes the deceased beat his face with his hands. The governor said the same thing. On the way to the asylum the deceased had a paroxysm of insanity, and struck witness in the face. He also made several ineffectual attempts to strike witness, and shook his fist at him, but appeared too weak to carry out his intention.

William Whitworth said he was one of the relieving officers of the Rochdale union, and assisted to removed the deceased to the workhouse, and subsequently to the asylum. He corroborated the previous witness’s statement as to the deceased not meeting with any accident while on his way to to the asylum.

James Lawton said he was a surgeon, practising at Rochdale, and was medical-officer of the Marland Union Workhouse. The case of the deceased was first brought under his notice on Friday morning, the 3rd instant, when he saw him at the workhouse. He was in a very nervous and excited state. He again saw the deceased on Saturday, and found him in the same excited state as on the previous day. There were slight bruises on his temple, but nothing of any moment. He thought they were such as the deceased might have inflicted upon himself, but he noticed very little of his external appearance beyond seeing that the muscles of his face were distorted with shouting. On Monday witness again saw him, but found no change for the better had taken place. He was under partial restraint, sufficient to prevent him striking himself. Witness had no suspicion that the deceased was suffering from fractured ribs; he was so violent that it did not occur to him (witness) to examine him physically. His opinion, derived from the post-mortem appearances, was that the deceased had been suffering from fractured ribs several days before his death.

The Coroner.-Do you think it possible he might have received those injuries through the inexperience of the workhouse attendants? Might they not have been inflicted upon him inadvertently?

Witness.- I was not present when deceased was brought to the workhouse, but the master assures me that every care was taken in putting on the strait waistcoat.

By a Juror. – It is usual to examine a person who is brought to the workhouse, but I did not strip the deceased and subject him to a physical examination, because I thought it would have been injurious to him.

In answer to further questions, the witness said the ribs could not have been broken all at once, and that it was possible the injuries to two of the ribs were occasioned by a fall.

James Gent, master of the Rochdale workhouse at Marland, said that when the deceased was brought to the workhouse he was given into the charge of an inmate named Pilkington, who was assisted by another inmate. He was put into a bath by Pilkington, and afterwards placed in the epileptic ward, where there were several patients sleeping, and also a male pauper nurse. He was pretty quiet on Thursday night, but on Friday morning Pilkington reported that he was striking himself with his fist in his chest, and witness went and ascertained that this was the fact; ordered a strait waistcoat to be placed upon him, to prevent him injuring himself. The deceased was quiet, and there was no violence used in putting the strait waistcoat upon him.

The Coroner. – Can you suggest how he came to have his ribs broken, or to have the bruises on his face?

Witness. – I cannot. I spoke to the men who had charge of him to treat him kindly, and to use no unnecessary force. – In reply to further questions, the witness said it was usual to strip a patient coming into the workhouse and examine him before being put into the  bath. In the present case they were short of a regular nurse; one had been appointed, but had not commenced his duties. That was the reason it was left to Pilkington and another inmate to look after the deceased.

William Pilkington said there were no bruises about deceased’s body when he was put into the bath, and he never complained of injury. He kept striking himself on the breast and side. He did not, however, get his ribs broken at the workhouse.

Edward Dunn, another inmate, who assisted the last witness gave evidence to the same effect and said every kindness was shown to the deceased while in the workhouse.

The Coroner, addressing the jury, said he would adjourn the inquiry if they thought proper, or there was any likelihood of getting additional evidence.

A Juror said it was his opinion that the deceased got injured at the workhouse, and he thought the authorities were very much to blame in not having examined the deceased both when he was brought in and when he was taken away, instead of leaving those duties to paupers. The medical man and the governor were paid servants, and yet they left their work to be done by the paupers. He remembered a similar case at Withington, but it was shuffled backward and forward, and nothing came of it.

The Coroner said he should be very glad to assist the jury in getting to the bottom of it, but the evidence was of a very contradictory kind. He had a case only ten days before, where a man died of fractured ribs of longer standing than in this case; but it was proved that he was of intemperate habits, and frequently got into rows. In fact he admitted that he had fallen down some steps when drunk,

At the request of a juryman, Mr. Watson was recalled, and asked whether he thought it possible that the deceased received the injuries without having been subjected to foul play.

Mr. Watson said he believed that the majority of injuries of this kind were inflicted without any intention of breaking a man’s ribs or killing him, and were simply the result of ignorance. The ribs could not all have been fractured at the same time.

The Coroner. – It only show the necessity of having experienced persons in cases of this kind, who will use all possible forbearance.

Mr. Doran was also recalled, and in reply to the coroner said he did not think he should be in a position to get any additional evidence.

The Coroner said unless the jury strongly suspected that the injuries to the deceased were caused by gross negligence, or such negligence as would amount to a criminal charge, against any person, they might be satisfied with returning an open verdict. If they thought the injuries had been caused in the workhouse, the matter ought not to be allowed to remain there, because another person might be subjected to the same treatment.

The jury returned a verdict to the effect that deceased’s death was the result of natural causes, accelerated by injuries, but how caused there was no evidence to show.

This  is an intriguing and detailed report of what happened to James Doran. However, the question that leaped out at me is: where is James Doran’s voice in all of this? He is clearly an educated man, albeit poor, and able to read and write as he has been working as a solicitor’s clerk. His brother is a barber, another respectable trade. Was James physically unable to speak? Or was he unintelligible? There is no report of any conversation that he had with anybody over a series of days, although there is a reference to him “shouting”. I wonder whether beating his chest and side could have been an attempt to communicate that something was wrong internally? (pure speculation of course). I am also intrigued by the “softening” of the brain that is reported in the post-mortem: is this a result of neurological disease or injury? Could this have had an impact upon his behaviour? The other question that occurs to me is related to the use of the “strait waistcoat”, and whether improper use of a straitjacket can cause fractured ribs?  This is alluded to in the original Pall Mall article (a theory about “soft” bones), but doesn’t seem to have been explored by the coroner in this case. I am also struck by the similarities of the circumstances of the case of Ah Ching, a Chinese gardener who died in Wellington Asylum, New Zealand in 1892.

The negative coverage in the media led to a governmental inquiry, as outlined in the following article from the Liverpool Courier and Commercial Advertiser (6th August 1870):


Yesterday, Mr. A. Cain, Government inspector, held an inquiry at the Marland Workhouse, Rochdale, respecting the death of James Doran, a lawyer’s clerk. In June last Doran was taken to the workhouse as a lunatic, and on the following Tuesday he was removed to Prestwich Asylum, when it was discovered that seven of his ribs were broken, and he died a few hours after his arrival. An inquest was held, and the verdict returned was to the effect that death resulted from disease of the heart, accelerated by fractured ribs. An impression prevailed that Doran’s ribs had been broken in Marland Workhouse, and the official inquiry was looked forward to with interest. Mr. Jas. Gent, the master of Marland Workhouse, stated that he ordered Wm. Pilkington and Robert Putterworth to put the strait waistcoat upon deceased, as he was striking his chest, and it was done in his presence without any resistance. Dr. Lawton visited the deceased daily. Witness’s impression was that the deceased’s ribs were broken before he entered Marland Workhouse. Mr James Lawton and other witnesses were examined, after which Mr. Cain remarked that the whole of the evidence went to show that no violence had been used towards the deceased in the workhouse. However, he would lay the evidence before the Poor-law Board.

(Note: Cain’s name is given as R.B. Cane, Government Inspector in a similar article by the Leeds Mercury).

Ultimately, in this case there appears to have been no resolution, as no violence was found to have been used against James Doran. This conclusion is somewhat unsatisfactory, as there are still many unanswered questions, but I am ultimately heartened that people were asking questions about the treatment of “pauper lunatics”, and investigating reports of possible mistreatment and demonstrates the power of the media to bring attention to such cases.

Update: Apparently all was not well at Marland Workhouse, and the Master of the Workhouse had been previously fined for assaulting a pauper. An unfavourable report had been completed by the Lancet and published on 23rd April 1870, shortly before the death of James Doran in June that year. The Lancet followed the inquiry into his death and published an article in August calling the inquiry”curious and extremely unsatisfactory”.



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Insanity produced by defective menstruation?

I wanted to use this post to bring attention to the excellent website for the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (London’s Central Criminal Court) which is online here. For those interested in the history of mental illness, it is easy to find cases that are related to mental illness or “lunacy”. The case that caught my eye today was that of Mary Ann Hunt, indicted for the murder of Mary Ann Stowell in 1847 see here.

Mary Ann (aged 30) was found guilty of the murder, and the Jury strongly recommended mercy “in consequence of the humane character that she sustained for so many years”. However, Mary Ann was sentenced to death. There is a commentary about Mary Ann’s trial in this book by Joel Peter Eigen “Unconscious crime: mental absence and criminal responsibility in Victorian London”.

There seems little doubt that Mary Ann committed the crime, but she had a history of “fits” that threw some doubt onto the state of her mind. By today’s standards, the evidence of the medical experts is bizarre, to say the least.  I’ve reproduced some extracts below (emphasis is mine).

Cross-examined by MR. CLARKSON. Q. You have no doubt had considerable experience with reference to the diseases of women? A. I have had some—I am aware of disorders, more or less mischievous, arising out of irregularity of the menstrual discharges—the interruption or temporary stoppage of those discharges sometimes affects the brain—I have not known of women becoming permanently mad from that state of disorder—I have known of their being so for a considerable time—I have read of permanent derangement of intellect arising from that cause in combination with others—the instances of temporary derangement arising from that are frequent.

WILLIAM VERRALL …I am a general practitioner—I have attended many cases of suppressed menstruation—I am senior surgeon at the Lying-in-Institution, that is an infirmary in which all the diseases of women are likewise treated—fits of different character are occasionally the consequence of suppression of the menses—I believe that a continuation of those fits for a number of years might contribute to a permanent injury to the brain—I have heard the whole of the evidence in this case—I should describe the fits, from which the prisoner is said to have suffered, as hysterical fits—a person would not have a fit without the brain being affected—the proximate cause of the fit would be some operation on the brain—if these fits were repeated over and over again, it might superinduce disease of the brain….

ALEXANDER JOHN SUTHERLAND, M.D. I received diretions from the Government at ten o’clock this morning to attend here—I am the son of the gentleman who has the management of a large lunatic asylum—I have known insanity produced by defective menstruation, and by hysteria consequent upon it—in all cases of insanity, when we can find out the cause, we can generally apply a cure—those patients whose insanity is superinduced by hysteria, are as easily, or probably more easily cured than any other insane patients—the attacks are sometimes very sudden—I have known persons whose disposition has been naturally very mild and humane, to become almost ferocious when under those attacks—they are sometimes incapable of judging between right and wrong; but those sort of case are usually accompanied with delusion—perhaps the delusion may be imagining a person who is really a friend to be the bitterest enemy, but that is not the common delusion that accompanies that species of the disease; it is a delusion that occasionally accompanies it—they sometimes require restraint—the continuation of hysterical fits arising from imperfect menstruation for fourteen or fifteen years is not calculated to affect the brain—epileptic fits are—in epilepsy the patient bites the tongue, foams at he mouth, and goes to sleep immediately after the fit—they do not both arise from pressure on the brain—in hysteria the brain is secondarily affected from the uterus—the brain is not primarily affected in epilepsy either.

[Dr Alexander John Sutherland was the son of Dr Alexander Robert Sutherland. Both gentlemen held the post of chief Physician at St Luke’s hospital for lunatics in London. There is an obituary for Alexander jr. published in the BMJ in 1867 here.]

In the opinion of the medical experts, Mary Ann Hunt’s “fits” were “hysterical”, and a result of “imperfect” or “defective” menstruation. Although I had heard that hysteria was thought to originate in the womb, I had not heard that delayed or stopped menstruation had been directly linked to insanity in quite this way. This seems to have been held as a medical truth of the time, and I intend to investigate further for a future post.

In this particular case there is an interesting postscript, as Mary Ann Hunt later turned out to be pregnant (her pregnancy would, of course, have stopped her from menstruating).

After being told she was to be sentenced to death Mary Ann Hunt admitted the pregnancy. However, the “jury of matrons” who first examined her decided that there was no evidence that this was true, which would have meant that the original death penalty would be carried out (see here). She was only saved by the intervention of th Secretary of State who ordered a second examination by experienced medical men. The doctors agreed that she was pregnant, and sure enough, she later gave birth to a baby boy.

The medical and feminist establishment appear to have been outraged by the error of the “jury of matrons” and campaigned for Mary’s sentence to be commuted. See for example, this petition by Mary Botham Howitt, the English poet, to Queen Victoria:

Mary’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

This newspaper article in 1848 reveals that Mary Ann stayed at Tothill-fields Prison for two years “for the purpose of attending to, and bringing up, her child”, after which both she and her child would be transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania).

I found out that they followed through with the commuted sentence. The Archives Office of Tasmania are doing a brilliant job of putting convict records online.

Mary is here on pg 191 of CON19-1-8, the description lists of female convicts on the Barretto Junior which departed from Downs 13 Apr 1850 and arrived in Hobart on 25 Jul 1850. Four of the female convicts died on the journey (convict ships).

I’ve found Mary Ann here on pg 190 (and 191) in the indents of female convicts (CON15-1-6). She is from Hampshire and working as a “plain cook”. Her son, George, is 2 years old, and she names the father as “Andrew Wyness” who is mentioned in her trial as “one of the detective force of Marlborough-street” who “used to come after” her and another lady called Elizabeth Andrews. It is also mentioned in the trial that she was expecting to receive money from him. Andrew Wyness is mentioned a few times in the Old Bailey Proceedings in his role as a police constable.

Mary is also here on pg 71 of CON41-1-27 on the conduct register of female convicts. This document reveals that in 1853 she married John Hutchinson, and was granted a conditional pardon on 3rd Dec 1872. I don’t know what became of Mary and John, but I’m choosing to take this as an indication that she managed to move on with her life.

Useful websites for convict research:

For more information on convict research see http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/info/fh/con1

Female Convicts Research Group (Tasmania): http://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/

Guide to researching convicts in Tasmania: http://www.archives.tas.gov.au/guides/Con_guide.pdf

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Nellie Bly: My New Hero

Until yesterday I had never heard of Nellie Bly. She is now my latest hero.

Nellie, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (1864-1922) was an American female journalist, at a time when this was extremely unusual. She was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer (you know, as in the Pulitzer Prizes), and wrote for a number of high-profile newspapers. In 1888, as an investigative piece of journalism, she deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York City. She stayed there for 10 days, gathering information on the treatment of the patients there. A story she wrote about the mistreatment of the patients there was shown on the front page of the New York World, and the asylum was eventually closed.

She wrote a book about her time in the asylum. It’s an amazing account, and I stumbled across it quite by accident on the internet. Here’s a couple of selections:

“I believe she has been using belladonna,” said the doctor, and for the first time I was thankful that I was a little near-sighted, which of course answers for the enlargement of the pupils. I thought I might as well be truthful when I could without injuring my case, so I told him I was near-sighted, that I was not in the least ill, had never been sick, and that no one had a right to detain me when I wanted to find my trunks. I wanted to go home. He wrote a lot of things in a long, slender book, and then said he was going to take me home. The judge told him to take me and to be kind to me, and to tell the people at the hospital to be kind to me, and to do all they could for me. If we only had more such men as Judge Duffy, the poor unfortunates would not find life all darkness.

Thus was Mrs. Louise Schanz consigned to the asylum without a chance of making herself understood. Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter? If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity. But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape? Mrs. Schanz begged in German to know where she was, and pleaded for liberty. Her voice broken by sobs, she was led unheard out to us.

I always made a point of telling the doctors I was sane and asking to be released, but the more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it.

“What are you doctors here for?” I asked one, whose name I cannot recall.

“To take care of the patients and test their sanity,” he replied.

“Very well,” I said. “There are sixteen doctors on this island, and excepting two, I have never seen them pay any attention to the patients. How can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything, for the answer will be that it is their imagination.” “Try every test on me,” I have urged others, “and tell me am I sane or insane? Try my pulse, my heart, my eyes; ask me to stretch out my arm, to work my fingers, as Dr. Field did at Bellevue, and then tell me if I am sane.” They would not heed me, for they thought I raved.

Again I said to one, “You have no right to keep sane people here. I am sane, have always been so and I must insist on a thorough examination or be released. Several of the women here are also sane. Why can’t they be free?”

“They are insane,” was the reply, “and suffering from delusions.”

* Read the whole of “10 Days in a Mad House” by Nellie Bly here, courtesy of the “A Celebration of Women Writers” site (here – well worth exploring).*

On an unrelated note (but equally impressive), Nellie Bly is also famous for travelling around the world in 72 days in 1889, in order to beat the time of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s character who famously did the trip in 80. She completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes, a world record at the time.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on the internet about Nellie, but the best website I found was http://www.nellieblyonline.com/ which features many of her newspaper articles.

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Stanley Royd, Former Pauper Lunatic Asylum Wakefield

OK, so a shorter post after that mammoth one yesterday. Take a look at this 1960s video footage of Stanley Royd, Former Pauper Lunatic Asylum Wakefield. I was starting to be disturbed by the lack of patients in the video – where were they? But right at the end, it shows some of the people there. I guess maybe they were trying to protect their privacy?

It’s a forbidding place from the outside, interesting to get a look inside.

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Select Committee report into the state of madhouses: 1815/1816

I have spent some time today looking at some of the fantastic documents freely available over at Google Books. Although many caught my eye, one to recommend is:

House of Commons papers, Volume 6, 1816 (HMSO)

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee appointed to consider of provisions being made for the better Regulation of Madhouses, in England.

To put it into its historical context: Parliament first tried to regulate care for the mentally ill with the Act for Regulating Private Madhouses, 1774. At this time mentally ill people were variously housed in prisons, workhouses, public hospitals (e.g. Bethlem) or private madhouses. This Act set out regulations for the private institutions, which were to be inspected and licensed by Commissioners in the London area, and Justices of the Peace in the provinces. See here for more on the 1774 Act.

Despite the legislation, standards of care continued to be poor in many areas. The reform movement led by individuals such as Samuel Tuke brought the public’s attention to the inhumane conditions often suffered by sufferers of mental illness. Following some high-profile cases including William Vickers, at York Asylum in 1813, and James Norris, at Bedlam in 1814, the Select Committee was set up in 1815 to examine the matter, and re-appointed in 1816. See here for more information about Bedlam and the Doctors in charge at the time.

The findings of the Committee were published in three reports, all of which are available as part of the above linked volume. Here is an advertisement for the publication of the report, also found through Google Books.

So who sits on a select committee?  An article in The Morning Post on May 30th 1816 (Issue 14153, pg. 1) announces the publication of the first report, and the members of the Committee as:

Rt. Hon. Lord Baring, Rt. Hon. Lord Lascelles, Rt. Hon. Lord Compton, Rt. Hon. George Rose, Rt. Hon. Charles Williams-Wynn, Rt. Hon William Sturges Bourne, Hon. Henry Grey Bennet, Charles C Western, Esq., J.A. Stewart Wortley, Esq., Thomas Thompson, Esq., William Smith, Esq.

Andrew Robert’s fantastic website (here) identifies a number of other committee members. See here for more information on select committees from the Government’s website.

I’ve selected some of the passages from the Select Committee Report that caught my eye, for their depiction of the prevalence of cruelty within madhouses. There were many parts of the accounts that I could have highlighted, and if you are interested I strongly encourage you to have a look at the whole report.

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow

More on forcing patients to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Typhus fever (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Ill-treatment of patient Mrs Elliott (evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Chains for patient James Norris (evidence of Mr John Woodall, smith):

And look at the contrast in the treatment of patients with money (Evidence of Edward Wakefield, land surveyor):

For those of you who like figures, the number of registered lunatics:

I am also fascinated by the classification of patients in the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum into “frantic”, “incurable”, “convalescent” and “ordinary”. Of course, these are  the days before standardised classifications such as DSM/ICD.

The Appendix of the Third Report, which is a summary of an inspection of the state of public and private madhouses in Scotland also makes interesting reading.

Update: Have just found the following document which has a handy index of the 1815/1816 reports and summaries of contents of witness statements.

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Filed under Cruelty and neglect, Individual cases, Mental health institutions, Mental health law, Reform

Hello, pleased to meet you!

Hello and welcome to my new blog!

I aim to use my knowledge of both psychology and family and local history to explore the history of mental health in the UK, and in particular some of the human stories behind the asylum system. It is my belief that mental health problems should not  be a shameful family secret and that under the right circumstances anybody could become mentally ill.

Although attitudes towards mental health are generally becoming more enlightened, in the recent and more distant past this has not always been the case. Many of you will recognise the allusion to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She is the archetypal “madwoman in the attic“, and encapsulates for me the fear, secrecy, and stigma that can surround mental illness. I hope you’ll join me in remembering and trying to understand the fictional Mrs Rochester and her real-life counterparts.

I would like to say from the outset that I am hoping to draw on real-life stories to illustrate mental health difficulties, and the systems that are put in place to deal with these problems. However, it is not my intention to invade anybody’s privacy and I apologise in advance if I inadvertently cause distress or offence.

I hope to be hearing from you,


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