Victorian Asylum Inmates – Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know…

Have we all gone mad? Well, it’s a question asked from time to time these days and one that makes you wonder at the tenuous divide between sanity and being a few slices short of the full loaf.

Many of our greatest artists and inventors could be described as mad at some point in their lives. For some, it’s a permanent malady while for others just a passing phase. But it’s certainly not a modern concern.

The study of mental illness is a field replete with crackpot notions, promulgated by the men in white coats, which were often as weird as the subjects they were striving to study. Looking back on some early endeavours in the study of psychiatry throws up some interesting anecdotes.

For instance, it may come as no surprise to some of you to learn that one in every 154 people in Ireland was described as a ‘lunatic and idiot’ in the 1911 Census, according to the annual report of the 1913 Inspectors of Lunacy in Ireland.

The report can be viewed on the fascinating site www.rte.ie/centuryireland. As a proud Dubliner I am happy to report that the highest ratio of ‘lunatics and idiots’ per head of population was to be found in Waterford with a ratio of 1 in 104. However, looking about the capital’s streets these days, I suspect that were such a survey to be undertaken now the ‘honour’ would probably fall to my own home town.

By January 1, 1913 there were 12,868 men and 11,787 women confined in asylums throughout Ireland. Included in this number were the residents of the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Dundrum, Co. Dublin, where a total of 141 men and 21 women, were incarcerated.

However for a more intimate insight into the life of the lunatic fringe, author Mark Stevens’ study of England’s Victorian asylum, Broadmoor Revealed – Victorian Crime and The Lunatic Asylum, is a must read.

Broadmoor was unique in that it was built to rehabilitate its patients, not merely to house them.  Prior to its foundation, the treatment for lunatics was to either hang them or release them back to society.

Stevens illustrates his book with pioneering photographs taken by Henry Hering, who catalogued some of Victorian England’s most notorious lunatic cases. Behind every lurid tale was a person with a caring family. As often as not, though, there were victims with equally despairing families of their own. These are just a flavour of Broadmoor’s cases studies over which to marvel…

Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd

The Artist And His Brush With Murder

Richard Dadd, was a respected artist, from Chatham, Kent. His work is still hightly sought after to this day. He was especially known for his depictions of fairies. However, his preference for the dainty world of winged figures took a dramatic turn following a trip to Egypt in 1842.

While there, Dadd became violent and convinced he was somehow under the power of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

The artist’s behaviour took on a tragic twist when upon his return to England he became convinced his father was the Devil and stabbed him to death.

While making his way to France Dadd attacked a man with a razor, but was caught and sent to Bethlem (or ‘Bedlam’ as it was known) and then on to Broadmoor.

Dadd’s art didn’t seem to suffer from his confinement. He continued to paint scenes of fairies and the supernatural, as well as sailing scenes. His work is noted for its intense detail and his on exhibit in the British Museum.

He died in 1868 from lung disease.

The drunken, pregnant mother-of-four

Mary Meller

Mary Meller

Crimes of drunk and disorderly are ten-a-penny in most jurisdictions but what makes Mary Ann Meller’s case that little bit different is that she was a mother to four children at the time, with another on the way, when she attacked her own housekeeper and tried to cut her throat.

Meller (27) had been a heavy drinker and her alcohol binges had fuelled violent rages, which led to the attack. She was committed to Broadmoor, where she gave birth to a boy who went to join his father and siblings in South London.

She sobered up and after three years’ incarceration, Meller was allowed to return to return to the family home.

William Chester Minor

William Chester Minor

The Minor talent with major issues…

Whether we realise it or not, we all owe William Chester Minor our thanks for his patience and perseverance in helping to compile what eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary.

Minor, an American doctor, from a well-to-do family, had sailed to London in 1871. Prior to that, he had witnessed the carnage of the American Civil War. It was an event which clearly had repercussions on his mental health.

Minor was a frequenter of prostitutes. Whether that had any bearing on what happened to him is hard to say. The fact was that the good doctor became convinced that he was being sexually abused in his sleep. So real were his fears that he chased his imaginary ‘abuser’ out into the street one night and shot a real man instead.

It was while incarcerated in Broadmoor that Minor volunteered to help with the compilation of the dictionary.

The research did not help his mental well being, however, and in 1902 Minor cut off his own penis in an another moment of madness. He was eventually allowed to return to the U.S. where he died in 1920.

It’s so easy to label people with a mental illness. Thanks to Mark Stevens and some fascinating portraits, the ogres of ‘Bedlam’ and Broadmoor have been given a human face… all the better for us to understand their times and their ailments.

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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2 Responses to Victorian Asylum Inmates – Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know…

  1. David – You’ve detailed the stories of people who were actually mentally unstable. It wasn’t always so. One of my favorite novels is “A Thousand White Women,” by Jim Fergus. The premise of the novel (based on an historical fact) is the idea that the Native Americans would be assimilated into the developing American European-based culture if the men of the tribes married white women. Many of the white women were taken out of insane asylums where they’d been housed, not necessarily because they were mentally deranged but often because they were rebellious (read: didn’t want to have sex with their husbands or didn’t want to act the way their parents wanted them to). Women were often committed for those reasons. As you say, “It’s so easy to label people with a mental illness.”

    • Yes, I agree. The whole notion of what constituted insanity was fluid to say the least and was often used as a weapon to oppress those who didn’t wish to conform to certain societal strictures. I’ve heard of Jim Fergus’s book. I’m really interested in the history of Native Americans, and that sounds like a fascinating read

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