Lost in Laconia

In 1903, 58 children living in almshouses throughout New Hampshire were admitted to an asylum. They were considered a danger to society and sentenced to a life of isolation and total segregation. This was during a time when certain individuals and entire families were stigmatised as “feebleminded”. Over the course of the next ninety years, this institution served to segregate the children and adults who were rejected by family, friends and the community.  (Intro to the documentary)

Trigger warning for a photograph I included, of ‘patients’ in execrable conditions. I haven’t written much about the horrors endured at the school, but there is a link to further history and info right at the bottom. Actually, if you’re not in good shape today, please don’t read this.


It started out as the New Hampshire School for the Feebleminded, and was later renamed the Laconia State School. This 2009 documentary shocked me rigid and perhaps callously, not primarily because of the appalling abuses, but for the 88 year timeline. It’s a complex and detailed analysis, unlike many other such documentaries, which tend to simply recount the horrors, then imply a sort of Renaissance of healthcare and thought, followed by the closure of the institution, causing patients to find themselves, shocked and bewildered and back in what is always termed ‘the real world’, when it could be far more accurately defined as freedom.

Continue reading Lost in Laconia

two years & four months in a lunatic asylum – rev. h. chase

We (society) trivialise and disrespect the history of asylums and their patients horribly, by turning them into a freak show for cheap thrills. Happily there are organisations like Asylum Projects that so stuff that do stuff that is both cool and compassionate.

The Reverend Hiram Chase did not enjoy his time at the New York State Asylum in Utica.

Continue reading two years & four months in a lunatic asylum – rev. h. chase

my experiences in a lunatic asylum, by a sane patient

A man gets put into a private lunatic asylum, he publishes a book about it in 1879 …

The especial experience which I have to tell has nothing especially painful, and is, perhaps, none the worse for that. I have nothing to write of dark rooms or strait-waistcoats or whippings, or to reveal such secrets of the prison-house as will make each particular hair to stand on end by the telling. My lines were cast in pleasant places.

The man was Herman Charles Merivale and fair enough though, he really didn’t want to be there. A gander at his wiki tells us that his doctor sent him to Australia to be treated for depression and that by the time he got back, his lawyer had nicked all his money. That can’t have helped his level of peevishness much. But I digress.

Continue reading my experiences in a lunatic asylum, by a sane patient

Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles

By Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., F.R.C.P. (President of the Medico-Psychological Association, Joint Editor of “The Journal of Mental Science,” and Formerly Visiting Physician to the York Retreat.)

Alrighty, get your geek on.

The book was published in 1882 and it’s fascinating from the prologue onwards. First we get an introduction to insanity from Saxon times onwards through witch burning, licenced beating of lunatics etc.

Leaving now the insane who were punished as witches, I pass on to remark that in Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” it is stated that the English have more songs and ballads on the subject of madness than any of their neighbours. “Whether,” the writer proceeds, “there be any truth in the insinuation that we are more liable to this calamity than other nations, or that our native gloominess hath peculiarly recommended subjects of this class to our writers, we certainly do not find the same in the printed collections of French and Italian songs.”

Native gloominess!

I was delighted by how readable it is, I struggle to focus on books earlier than the 20th century. Here’s a quote to give you an idea of attitudes towards mental illness in the late 19th century.

In the first place, we see that the nature of the malady under which the insane laboured was completely misunderstood; that they often passed as witches and possessed by demons, and were tortured as such and burnt at the stake, when their distempered minds ought to have been gently and skilfully treated. Some, however, were recognized by the monks as simply lunatic, and were treated by the administration of herbs, along with, in many instances, some superstitious accompaniment, illustrating, when successful, the influence of the imagination.

The accounts of beatings, torture and deaths of lunatics are sad as fuck. Makes you think, makes you wonder. Of course, the maltreatment wasn’t even confined to the mentally ill. People got locked away in asylums for the most trivial reasons. And yet … look at treatment of the mentally ill in the first half of the 20th century … and of course, though we sit feeling all first world superior, there are still places where it’s happening now.

But I digress!


To anticipate what belongs to subsequent chapters, we may say here that when the insane were no longer treated in monasteries, or brought to sacred wells, or flogged at “trees of truth,” they fared no better—nay, I think, often worse—when they were shut up in mad-houses and crowded into workhouses. They were too often under the charge of brutal keepers, were chained to the wall or in their beds, where they lay in dirty straw, and frequently, in the depth of winter, without a rag to cover them. It is difficult to understand why and how they continued to live; why their caretakers did not, except in the case of profitable patients, kill them outright; and why, failing this—which would have been a kindness compared with the prolonged tortures to which they were subjected—death did not come sooner to their relief

Sigh. Survival of the fittest?


He talks about asylums, including Bethlem Hospital (originally St Mary’s of Bethlehem) gave the English language the word bedlam and it’s probably one of the world’s best known lunatic asylums. And it’s still operating, as the Bethlem Royal Hospital.


Ole Daniel goes into a looooot of historical detail and I found out that Bethlem is responsible for the word jackanapes too.

He grinnes and he gapes,
As it were Jacke Napes,
Such a mad Bedlam

It’s tempting to try to diagnose everybody I meet in this darkly fascinating book:

I stepped into Bedlam, where I saw several poor miserable creatures in chains; one of them was mad with making verses.”

(Rhyming is a possible feature of hypo/mania.)

It’s not all about Bedlam, of course. The author wrote about other asylums and his sources were broad enough to include the literary as well as historical and political. Everything he tells us includes its context. There are also chapters dealing with Scotland and Ireland. Obviously there’s no point in applying political correctness to a book written so long ago – brace yourself for much talk of lunatics, idiots and imbeciles.

Übercool stuffs:
Free book download @ Gutenberg
Reviews & ratings of contemporary Bethlem.
Steeleye Span – Boys of Bedlam: YouTube
The ‘mad song’ Tom o’ Bedlam/Bedlam Boys

Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum – Mark Stevens

This book’s purpose is to publicise the archives of Broadmoor (England’s first criminal insane asylum) and since statutes of limitations exist, the public stories come from Victorian times. It was initially released as a free download, made great inroads into various charts and was tweaked and rereleased (and price added) in 2013. I read the freebie, I only found all that out afterwards. No doubt it got a ton of rubbernecker readers, but it’s a steady and sensible read. We get a good look at perceptions and treatment of mental illness in the 19th century and some carefully chosen case studies.

{Broadmoor public archives}

These diseases are still recognisable today: mania, melancholia, dementia. Monomania was an obsession with a single subject; amentia, absence of mind, would be described as learning disabilities, now recognised as something completely separate from mental illness. To these cognitive deficiencies, the Victorians added the concept of moral insanity. This was a disease free of delusions, but where the mind was unable to think and behave properly as it should. Although it did not fit the modern term of psychopath, itself a rather overworked word, it is perhaps the nearest to it that the Victorians acknowledged.

You’ll meet:
Edward Oxford – conspiracy theorist and failed assassin – ‘lesion of the will/hysterical imbecile’.
Richard Dadd – father murderer, painter of fairies – delusions. Have a look at The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.
William Chester Minor –  medic, murderer – ptsd, paranoia, delusions.  (That’s him in the photo below.)


Christiana Edmunds – poisoner, murderer – ‘morally defective’.

Stevens also devotes chapters to babies born in Broadmoor and patients’ attempts to escape from it. Perhaps the saddest tales for me were those of people imprisoned for petty crimes, who then lost their sanity in prison. Depending on your historical knowledge though, you may be surprised by some of the attempts at caring for patients. It is not a gothic horror story, though there are certainly enough salacious details to keep the ghoulish rubberneckers happy. For anyone with a more compassionate interest in mental illness, there are fascinating insights into the Victorian era in amongst the tragedies.


Related: A Boy’s Own Broadmoor – written by the son of the last medical superintendent of ‘Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum’, Patrick McGrath. It’s a very interesting #longread, I encourage you to click that link. McGrath’s father, Pat, had some interesting views of the distinction between madness and evil.

On the in-house dramatic society:

The best jokes were always of the in-house variety, for example, the appearance of a huge cardboard carving knife, or a giant dummy revolver being carried out onto the stage. It was a form of humour best appreciated by Broadmoor folk, who found the jokes irresistible, while the visitors were apparently left aghast. Ralph Partridge, husband of the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, was also a historian of Broadmoor, and wrote this about the Broadhumoorists: “The funny spectacle of a homicidal maniac impersonating a homicidal maniac can probably only be appreciated to the full by other homicidal maniacs.”

Watch Inside Broadmoor Documentary 2002
Broadmoor Hospital today.