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Insanity and Mental Illness

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  • Thomas Scrope, MP and Lunatic (1723 - 1792)
    Family and Education b. 17 Apr. 1723, 5th s. of Gervase Scrope of Cockerington, Lincs. by Frances, da. and coh. of Thomas Lister, M.P., of Coleby. educ. at sch. in Lincoln; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1740; travelled...
  • William Fitch Cheney (1831 - 1879)
    The Weekly Butte Record, Saturday, October 11, 1879, pg 1 col 8: Death of Dr. Cheney. A dispatch from Dr. Shurtliff, Resident Physician of the Insane Asylum at Stockton, this morning, announces the d...
  • Emma Beebe (Hunsucker) (1870 - 1911)
    Ohio Births and ChristeningsEmma Hunsucker born 5 Nov 1870 Green, Scioto, OHThe daughter of Nathan Hunsucker and Mary Ann Brown, they married 1 Jan 1851 in Scioto, OH.1900 Georgetown, El Dorado, CANath...
  • Mary Lowder (1723 - 1792)
    From family genealogy; written as recorded: MARY CHANDLER( Zachariah, William 3, William, William1) and John Lowder, Roxbury, Mass. He d. 8 April, 1799, in his 78th year in Roxbury. The name is der...
  • Joseph Chandler (1738 - 1816)
    JOSEPH CHANDLER( Daniel, Henry, Thomas, William1) and Mary Chapin, Enfield, She was b. 24 Feb., 1744; d 1 Jan., 1828, in her 84th year; dau. of David Chapin of Enfield by his wife Thankful. Joseph ...

Insanity and Mental Illness

This project will cover all those poor people recorded on censuses as Insane or those who we know suffered some mental illness which historically was sadly less well understood than now.

Many were institutionalized for convenience, others for what we would now call a "nervous breakdown" but the institutions practices, and being locked away often caused the person never to recover. The gentle soul, the vulnerable, the powerless, the victim and the witness were often driven to a state of disturbance that was labelled as "insane".

Even now, grief in Australia is given 3 months to overcome, after which time, if the senses are not gained, power of attorney is given to next of kin. Grief and depression can cause character and mood changes, loss of memory and symptoms a kin to dementia.

Still now, we are not fully understanding the interconnections between emotion and mental state.

In modern culture, as maybe in times past, substance abuse has also played its part. Often the Laudanum was prescribed by doctors.

Some terms you'll find and their historical definitions:

idiots were people "so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers"

Imbecile was a medical category of people with moderate to severe intellectual disability, as well as a type of criminal.The term arises from the Latin word imbecillus, meaning weak, or weak-minded. It included people with an IQ of 26–50, between "moron" (IQ of 51–70) and "idiot" (IQ of 0–25).

Lunatic The term lunatic derives from the Latin lunaticus which originally referred mainly to epilepsy and "madness" as diseases caused by the Moon.[3] By the fourth and fifth centuries astrologers began to commonly use the term to refer to neurological and psychiatric diseases.[3] Philosophers such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder argued that the full Moon induced insane individuals with bipolar disorder by providing light during nights which would otherwise have been dark, and affecting susceptible individuals through the well-known route of sleep deprivation.[4] Through at least 1700 it was also a common belief that the Moon influenced fevers, rheumatism, episodes of epilepsy and other diseases

Feeble-minded people were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but If adults, their condition was "so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others" If children of school age, their condition was "so pronounced that they by reason of such defectiveness appear to be personally incapable of receiving proper benefit from instruction in ordinary schools"

Moral defectives were people who, from an early age, displayed "some permanent mental defect coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities on which punishment had little or no effect"

Madness is late middle English, when mad could also mean uncontrolled by reason or (wildly) irrational in demeanour or conduct.

Mania (late Latin from Greek) mad. The word is made by adding "ia" (disorder) to the Indo-European root for mind. The word maniac developed from mania. Mania or raving madness and melancholy were the two statues outside the Moorfield's Bedlam. The 1844 Report says mania is the term "used to designate... madness... affecting all the operations of the mind. Hence the term total or general insanity is used as synonymous with mania.".

dumb: with dual meaning of stupid and mute in many Germanic languages.


In order to accommodate the burgeoning amount of mentally ill individuals, asylums were established around the world starting, most notably, from the sixteenth century onward. The first institution to open its doors in Europe is thought to be the Valencia mental hospital in Spain, 1406 CE (Butcher 36). Although not much is known about the treatment patients received at this particular site, asylums were notorious for the deplorable living conditions and cruel abuse endured by those admitted.

For many years, asylums were not facilities aimed at helping the mentally ill achieve any sense of normalcy or otherwise overcome their illnesses. Instead, asylums were merely reformed penal institutions where the mentally ill were abandoned by relatives or sentenced by the law and faced a life of inhumane treatment, all for the sake of lifting the burden off of ashamed families and preventing any possible disturbance in the community.

The majority of asylums were staffed by gravely untrained, unqualified individuals who treated mentally ill patients like animals. A case study describes a typical scene at La Bicetre, a hospital in Paris, starting with patients shackled to the wall in dark, cramped cells. Iron cuffs and collars permitted just enough movement to allow patients to feed themselves but not enough to lie down at night, so they were forced to sleep upright. Little attention was paid to the quality of the food or whether patients were adequately fed.

There were no visitors to the cell except to deliver food, and the rooms were never cleaned. Patients had to make do with a little amount of straw to cover the cold floor and were forced to sit amongst their own waste that was also never cleaned up (Butcher 37). These conditions were not all unique to La Bicetre, and this case study paints a fairly accurate picture of a typical scene in asylums around the world from approximately the 1500s to the mid-1800s, and in some places, the early 1900s.

The most infamous asylum was located in London, England—Saint Mary of Bethlehem. This monastery-turned-asylum began admitting the mentally ill in 1547 after Henry VIII announced its transformation. The institution soon earned the nickname “Bedlam” as its horrific conditions and practices were revealed. Violent patients were put on display like sideshow freaks for the public to peek at for the price of one penny; gentler patients were put out on the streets to beg for charity (Butcher 36).

Soon after the establishment of “Bedlam,” other countries began to follow suit and founded their own mental health facilities. San Hipolito was built in Mexico 1566 and claims the title of the first asylum in the Americas. La Maison de Chareton was the first mental facility in France, founded in 1641 in a suburb of Paris. Constructed in 1784, the Lunatics’ Tower in Vienna became a showplace. The elaborately decorated round tower contained square rooms in which the staff lived. The patients were housed in the spaces between the walls of the rooms and the wall of the tower and, like at Bedlam, were put on display for public amusement (Butcher 37).

Although cruel treatment in asylums surely felt to the patients as if it had been going on for ages, conditions began to improve in the mid-to- late 1800s as reforms were called for, and this shameful and unenlightened period was somewhat brief in relation to the span of world history. One of the earliest reforms occurred at an asylum in Devon, England. This facility had employed opium, leeches, and purges as cures for mental illness, but in the mid-1800s emphasized non-restraint methods to affect patients’ health (Stigma 64).

One of the most significant asylum reforms was introduced by Philippe Pinel in Paris. During the year of 1792, Pinel took charge of La Bicetre to test his hypothesis that mentally ill patients would improve if they were treated with kindness and consideration. Filth, noise, and abuse were eliminated quickly after patients were unchained, provided with sunny rooms, allowed to exercise freely on the asylum grounds, and were no longer treated like animals (Butcher 38).

The same reforms were undertaken around this time by an English Quaker, William Tuke. Founded in 1796, the York Retreat in York, England was run by Tuke and other Quakers who stressed the importance of treating all people with respect and compassion, even the mentally ill. In keeping faithful to this ideal, the York Retreat was a pleasant country house, modeled on a domestic lifestyle, that allowed patients to live, work, and rest in a warm and religious environment that emphasized mildness, reason, and humanity (Butcher 38, Porter 103-104).

Significant advances in psychological concepts after the mass establishment of asylums did not arise until the development of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

The introduction of psychopharmacology is arguably one of the most significant and successful contributions to mental illness treatment, although it did lead to a movement that has been devastating to mental health care systems around the world, especially in the United States. The advent of psychoactive drugs convinced many that all illnesses would soon be effectively managed with medication, leading to the deinstitutionalization movement that rapidly occurred starting in the 1960s.

It was believed that numerous community-based facilities would be conveniently available to the mentally ill should they choose to seek it out, although this plan was never sufficiently realized. Instead, thousands of the mentally ill discharged from institutions were incapable of living independently, medicated or not, and became homeless as a result of inadequate housing and follow-up care. In the 1980s,it was estimated that one-third of all homeless individuals in America were considered severely mentally ill.


Search London Bethlem Hospital Patient Admission Registers and Casebooks

This project is on History Link