Category Archives: Hysteria

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:

Leave a comment

Filed under Hysteria, Individual cases, Medical Knowledge