Monthly Archives: May 2011

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

Female Convicts Research Group (Tasmania):

Guide to researching convicts in Tasmania:


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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 which features many of her newspaper articles.

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Filed under Cruelty and neglect, Mental health institutions, Reform

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