Things That Could Get You Locked Up In A Nineteenth-Century Insane Asylum

What makes someone a menace to the world? The Knitting Genealogist on reasons given for why people were committed to the Retreat, a progressive asylum two hundred years ago:

Whilst researching, I was fascinated by the reasons people were certified and admitted to the asylum. On admission, patients had already been ‘certified’ and these certificates were placed in the Admission records. A common reason for admission was “Religious melancholy” or simply “Religion”. Here are just a handful of the most interesting answers, from the 1820s:

“A violent attachment to a female not approved by his friends.”

“Perhaps attending overmuch to business.”

“By fright, caused by a man (unknown) getting into his Lodging room, secreting himself under some Linen in a corner of the room, and after about five weeks after this he was attacked with the first fit…”

“A tedious confinement with an affected family”.

“Suppose a fear of not being able to pay his just debts owing to the depression of the times”. (1826)

“Disappointments from a long attachment to a man” . (28 yr old woman)

“Intemperate use of Opium”.

“Suppressed or irregular menstruation”. (A 33 year old woman).

“Primarily drinking British Gin”.

24 Comments on "Things That Could Get You Locked Up In A Nineteenth-Century Insane Asylum"

  1. VaudeVillain | Mar 29, 2013 at 5:40 pm |

    I’d be interested to hear more about the “Religion” certifications. As it is, the listed reasons sound very much like people trying to be discrete regarding what may be pretty good reasons to fear for their safety.

    Most of those sound like people who have recently experienced some sort of trauma or stress, and have, presumably, dealt with it poorly. I’ve heard enough people describe what (they believe) made their loved one “go off the deep end” as it were to realize that a lot of times people are simply uncomfortable with saying that they don’t understand what is happening and they are afraid of what is happening, even when being afraid is perfectly reasonable. Not everyone can handle it when somebody close to them attempts to self-harm or commit suicide or has violent outbursts or experiences psychotic episodes or simply crawls inside their own depression and refuses to snap out of it; in my experience only a very few actually can.

    Obviously, I can’t say that all the listed admissions were legitimate and reasonable, nor can I vouch for the quality or compassion of care the patients received, but they all sound plausible, at least to me.

  2. Daniel Gill | Mar 29, 2013 at 6:17 pm |

    Make of this what you will,

    from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s History Of Spiritualism,

    “It is interesting to note that he considered his powers to be intimately connected with a system of respiration. Air and ether being all around us, it is as if some men could breathe more ether and less air and so attain a more etheric state. This, no doubt, is a crude and clumsy way of putting it, but some such idea runs through the work of many schools of psychic thought. Laurence Oliphant, who had no obvious connexion with Swedenborg, wrote his book “Sympneumata” in order to explain it. The Indian system of Yoga depends upon the same idea. But anyone who has seen an ordinary medium go into trance is aware of the peculiar hissing intakes with which the process begins and the deep expirations with which it ends. A fruitful field of study lies there for the Science of the future. Here, as in other psychic matters, caution is needed. The author has known several cases where tragic results have followed upon an ignorant use of deep-breathing psychic exercises. Spiritual, like electrical power, has its allotted use, but needs some knowledge and caution in handling.”

    from The Darkened Room: Women, Power, And Spiritualism In Late Victorian England by Alex Owen

    “Mediumship spoke in different ways to each of the most important constituent elements in the social construction of nineteenth-century femininity. As we know, illness had a unique meaning for spiritualists. It was an important aspect of the mythology of mediumship and an almost obligatory rite de passage. Believers did not make a cult of sickness -indeed, they felt a particular duty to maintain bodily health – but they privileged illness by interpreting it as a cleansing of the temple in preparation for higher gifts. Illness was valued as a route to powerful mediumship, and women, who were represented as more fragile and delicate than men, were thought to make the best mediums. The concept of illness as a female prerogative therefor went unchallenged within spiritualist culture, but it signified power and facility rather than feminine inferiority and weakness. The spiritualist notion of illness both contested and conserved contemporary definitions of femininity. Women mediums, in laying stress on the role of sickness in their early lives, at once appealed to the definition of woman as invalid and laid the groundwork for a strong spiritual pedigree. The motif of youthful illness was woven into a scenario of lonely, unhappy, or difficult childhoods, a not uncommon theme in Victorian autobiographical writing and one which can be interpreted as a symbolic account of the painful recognition of sexual difference and all it involved. Here, however, a sense of early deprivation was accompanied by an ethos of morbid sensibility and intimations of a spiritual calling. Florence Cook cited childhood visions and exposure to a grandmother who fell into trance. Florence herself first experienced trance states in early adolescence. Annie Fairlamb had her first ‘strange’ experience at the age of nine when she ‘saw’ her brother at sea and in danger of drowning. As a little girl the materialization medium Elizabeth d’Esperance saw ‘shadow people’ and adopted them as her friends and playmates. Emma Hardinge Britten, a highly gifted child with a fine voice and love of music, had childhood clairaudient (she could ‘hear’) as well as clairvoyant experiences. She remembered that she was never ‘young, joyous or happy like other children’. Her main delight had been to steal away on her own, welcoming the visions, ‘exquisite music’, and ‘dim prophesies’ which followed her in her lonely wanderings. It seems, even allowing for conventional picturesque contrivance, that these were young girls who inhabited rich worlds of their own creation. What is more, their fantasies often represented a flight from an unpalatable present into the comfort of daydreams and imaginings: ‘Muffled throughout history, they have lived in dreams…” “– Alex Owen


    Introduction : The book, the spirits, and the historian

    1 Power and Gender : The Spiritualist Context

    2 Victorian Spiritualism and the Spiritualist Woman

    3 Star Mediumship : Light and Shadows

    4 At Home With The Theobald Family

    5 Women Healers in the Spiritualist World

    6 Medicine, Mediumship, and Mania

    7 Louisa Lowe’s Story

    8 Spiritualism and the Subversion of Femininity


    • Perhaps menstruation, which lowers immune system(physicality) and invites spirits attracted to blood, is another reason women are the majority of mediums

      • Daniel Gill | Mar 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm |

        in Yoga, menstrual blood is considered to be one of the alchemical reagents. The idea is interesting I guess. the best books I have read on mediumship however are written by men and not women. Motohisa Yamakage’s Essence Of Shinto and Vampire Bible series by TOV publishing are the two best I have read. They’re good to read back to back. the TOV stuff is actually sourced from some classic texts like Autobiography Of A Yogi, its ‘ok’ scholarship masquerading as grimoire

  3. Daniel Gill | Mar 29, 2013 at 6:23 pm |

    “Spiritualism is darkening, by its superstition the human mind, which, under its influence, falls into an abyss of mysticism of an unnaturally unfathomable depth. It is the curse of our age, and one of the principle causes of insanity in England, and especially of that desponding and melancholic type known as ‘religious insanity’, so prevalent in the present century.” — Dr. Forbes Winslow

    Look up on youtube,
    Am I Bipolar or Waking Up? My story of healing 1of 5 (Spirituality)

    ^ Manic psychosis and kundalini awakening from a meditation retreat.

    Many of the people insitutionalized in the Victorian era were suffering manic psychotic states from spiritualism. Which in its day was in a lot of popularity. I believe that Dr. Forbes Winslow is sincere. I believe his hospital saw many cases of spiritual emergence psychosis.

    Its a forgotten part of history, that bears importance in present day.

    It deserves a lot more research

  4. Hadrian999 | Mar 29, 2013 at 6:47 pm |

    I agree with the Gin one, that shit is horrible

    • emperorreagan | Mar 29, 2013 at 8:32 pm |

      I developed a taste for gin in college, because no one else would drink it. Meant my liquor stash was always safe.

      • gin n tonic with a splash of lime….mmmmmm.

        • Ever try a gin gimlet? Beefeaters & Roses Lime Juice shaken with ice then strained into chilled glass?

        • Hadrian999 | Mar 30, 2013 at 1:14 pm |

          if you have to add things to it to make it good, it is not good

          • So no ketchup on fries? No dip with chips? No salsa on tacos? No crackers in soup? No cannabis in butter? That’s quite a stoic principle to eat/drink by.

          • Hadrian999 | Mar 31, 2013 at 12:44 am |

            a lot of those i actually do but mostly i apply it to drink.I drink whiskey and I drink whiskey i don’t have to hide in other drinks to be able to stomach. why drink a drink you have to hide the flavor of?

  5. I already knew I was crazy, thanks. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here at disinfo.

  6. Asylums in the 19th century were frequently abused as a way to get rid of ex-wives, rival heirs, and other socially-inconvenient people. In the UK (not sure about the US) all you needed to get someone sectioned was to find any two doctors willing to sign off on it. Once committed, the appeals process was practically hopeless.

    There are some really colorful books written by 19th century women who managed to escape institutionalization by the ex-husbands, calling for reform. Georgina Weldon’s pamphlet “How I Escaped the Mad Doctors” is here:

    “The Bastilles of England” is a more detailed account by the spiritualist Louisa Lowe:

  7. A violent attachment to a female not approved by his friends

    Is that the polite way of saying he was in love with a prostitute?

  8. bobbiethejean | Mar 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm |

    I was going to add “being an atheist” but I rather think that would have gotten you jailed or hung.

    • Maybe! They likely would be most at risk if they were vehemently outspoken about it. Maybe if they played the victim after being rude as well. One never knows though.

    • Uhh, this was the 1820’s. People weren’t being arrested or hanged for being atheists.

      • bobbiethejean | Mar 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm |

        Would you like me to prepare the list of atheists who were arrested in the 19th century specifically for being atheists or would you like me to just throw a bunch of links at you? And also, would you like to me restrict that to the 19th century or can I count modern day arrests because yeah, it is actually still happening in places around the world.

        • First of all, let’s please restrict the conversation to the specific place and time we’re talking about (England in the 1820’s).Nothing that happened in another place or time has anything to do with this specific discussion. If you show me someone in another country or another century who was arrested or killed for being an atheist, it doesn’t exactly explain why an atheist candidate for The Retreat might have expected to be arrested or killed instead.

          Second, although I’m well aware that, in England in the 19th century, “blasphemy” and “blasphemous libel” were common law offenses, people were generally not arrested by the score just for being atheists and they generally didn’t have any reason to fear for their lives. We could discuss the blasphemy laws all night and what exactly they were and how that was different from being arrested just for being an atheist all night long, but I’d rather not…but basically people who were punished were generally doing something specific to get on the nerves of certain busybody Christian authorities, people like G.W. Foote who spent a year in prison for stuff he put in The Freethinker. Now, do I think that or any other punishment for “blasphemy” is fair or good or sensible in any way? No, I don’t. But that doesn’t equal the wholesale imprisonment of England’s atheists and saying that it does is a tad hysterical. It paints a really weird portrait of 19th century England, a time and place that, in reality, was home to plenty of post-Enlightenment freethinking and religious skepticism and, blasphemy laws or no blasphemy laws, had come a long, long way since the Roundheads (and The Freethinker, by the way, is still published to this day as far as I know). This very asylum we’re talking about, The Retreat, was opened by Quakers (who have classically been crusaders for religious freedom and tolerance), and it was, as a matter of fact, an attempt at building a progressive type of institution.

          Third, I would be much, much more interested in seeing your list of people in 1820’s England who were hanged for being atheists, because as far as I knew, the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in England was hanged in the 1600’s, and the 1600’s is practically a world away from the 1820’s, especially in England.

          • bobbiethejean | Mar 31, 2013 at 9:44 am |

            My goodness. Look at all them caveats! O__O Alright, alright. You’ve made your point. I’m sure I could narrow down my list of arrested atheists but unfortunately, it seems most of them ended up in prison for blasphemy (one of your caveats). So I don’t see the point in further discussion.

  9. mannyfurious | Mar 30, 2013 at 3:50 pm |

    Not much has changed, really. Certain behaviors are accepted by a given society. Some aren’t. Those that aren’t are labeled “diseases” and are treated as such…..

  10. Just saying, the US had to approve atheism in the DOJ. Proof that our country still lives in a barbaric, Nazi like living-time.

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