Insidious Sanctuary for the Misfits
Stories from the Forgotten Victorian Mental Asylums
Welcome to Berkana’s Macabre Museum - a place to achieve stories of deliberate pain that humans inflict on each other. This is not a bright place I admit, but it harbors truth with as much ease as these grim stories allow. These stories can be told because of their redeemable quality, a flicker of human courage and resilience shining through the darkest of circumstances that one could fathom. For those of you who joined me recently on this journey, this section used to be the primary section of Berkana. I tell these stories as much to myself as I do to you, to be able to comprehend the bizarre and dark truth about the world around us, the truth that is often lost through cultural appropriation and retellings by the people whose prime motive was to push the truth as far away into the shadows as possible. However, truth is a powerful force of nature, I say so because time and again it has stood relentless to confront people on their wicked deeds. Truth is my only ally on this long and tiring journey through the dark side of humanity. I long for light, for the hope of goodness to emerge, and it always does arrive, dissipating all doubts and fear. And when it does, the toil of digging dark stuff up seems worth it, and then we shall do it all over again.
We are momentarily here on this planet, forever lost within the confines of our own unique experience and defined by everything that brushes past our consciousness while we silently pass through eternity. Some stories are told to very few, some stories are told to large masses, many stories are untold and lost and erased by the swift movement of time, and others remain forever suspended in limbo - told but not quite remembered, exists but not quite acknowledged, lost but never completely obliterated. This is a story of one such human institution which stood as a symbol of foreboding dread, an insidious sanctuary to many whose fate oscillates between insanity and abandonment.
Psychiatry is an institution deeply and problematically rooted in misogyny and whose cartwheels were drawn by chauvinism. It is not very hard to imagine a world where women are punished for subversion. But one might find it hard to digest the fact that in the early 19th century women were also thought more susceptible to madness, guess why? Because they have ovaries, a uterus, clit, and a vagina. Yes, you read it right. It might sound all out of place but bear with me, and I shall reveal every bit of anecdotal truth as we walk through this disturbing yet important alley of history.
Inconvenient Victorian Women
In the Summer of 2014, I discovered a riveting book written by a young writer and artist, Emilie Autumn, titled ‘The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls’. Emilie’s seminal work was established on nauseating details of the life and conditions of women incarcerated in mental asylums for being problematic. Although Emilie dwelled in a fictional dreamland where two women who lived a century apart communicate in order to survive the trials of forced institutionalization, her premise was rather autobiographical. If you ask my honest opinion, after all these years I would say it was an immature piece of work, lacking the depth and sympathy required to understand the imminent dangers of mental asylums. But with its atmospheric dread and bouts of insanity experienced by perfectly sane women inside a tyrannical institution, the book was a sincere introduction to the misogyny that plagued the mental wards of women during the Victorian era. Blurring the line between harsh realities and historical fantasy, Emilie’s book is a shocking reminder of how women’s right to their own bodily autonomy used to be violated, and not much has changed ever since.
There is sufficient documentation in the psych ward of the western world to validate Emilie’s premise and prevent it from being declared fictional and thus irrelevant. Some cases were so popular that all the major newspapers covered the stories when the courtroom drama ensued. Take the case of 17-year-old American teenager Alice Christina Abbot who was arrested and brought to court for poisoning her stepfather’s afternoon cup of tea. What turned her into a murderer though was a more gruesome truth than the fact that she murdered. She claimed that her stepfather has carried on an “improper connection” with her since she was 13 - which in modern legal language will translate into sexual abuse and rape of a minor. During the trial for murder in August 1867, Abbott was declared insane and committed to Taunton State Hospital, a lunatic hospital in Massachusetts. Her claims about the sexual misbehavior of her father were dismissed as ‘singular’ by the judge. What happened to Abbott after that remains mysteriously in the dark. The most baffling aspect of the case is that Abbott was neither treated as a victim of sexual abuse nor did she was considered a sane girl who committed a cold-blooded murder. The only acceptable explanation for her deviation from the social norms of the time was that she must be insane.
Riled up and arrested in their perpetual state of imposed insanity, the inconvenient Victorian women had no escape from the severe brutality of institutionalization. Abbott’s case raises plenty of questions on the plastic ideas of how a victorian woman is supposed to behave. Something as simple as religious differences with their husbands and fathers or defiance to play the constricting gender roles was enough to land them in psych wards. The unscientific approach to women’s mental health is a clear statement of the patriarchal tyranny insinuated by every public institution of the 19th-century world, including psychiatry. In the name of social service, the backward progression of psychiatry promised nothing but another form of shackles to decorate the already oppressed inner lives of women.
A walking nightmare for those whose sanity was still twirling inside their sufficiently aware soul, life inside a psych ward between 1850-1900, was an appropriate place to conjure a gothic horror story. Women had very few rights in matters of income through employment or inheritance and could have revived any worth in society only as supporting and second-class citizens who solely exist to raise, support, and satisfy the needs of men and their progeny. A woman’s importance and acceptance within society deeply relied on the ‘male gaze’, which refers to the way men perceived her. A woman’s existence was thus limited to impressing and getting validation through either virtues or vanity, depending upon the kind of influence she fancied to exert. But the bottom line is, she cannot be trusted without a word of affirmation from a man - husband, father, son, or friend. Hence she was either an object of fascination, admiration, and envy or was merely a sponge to absorb the disharmony and violence inflicted by a man in response to his failures or fetishes. With certain realities that I was confronted with in the past, I wonder how far have we come from there. Winged with all the progress that we have made in the department of women's rights, aren’t we still sponges to second-hand violence and have been victims at least once in our lives, feeling threatened and insecure in presence of a man emotionally incapable of responding without violence to a woman who defies him?
The Bizarre Diagnosis
Observing from the rational perspective of the 21st century, we can contest many symptoms that were associated with insanity as oppressive, unscientific, chauvinistic, and deeply sinister. Psychiatrists were often hired by fathers and husbands to study and diagnose the ‘abnormal’ behaviors of their daughters and wives. The abnormality symptoms might vary, including but not limited to exhaustion, lethargy, depression, anxiety, emotional outbursts, absurd emphasis on over-education, premenstrual syndrome, irregular periods, immodest sexual indulgences such as masturbation, or deviance from any other societal norm.
The physiological bias against feminine sexuality often influenced both scientific and religious views of woman’s mental health. If we dig deeper into the historical sources of the origin of the disease ‘hysteria’, we will find that the roots are inevitably buried in sheer misunderstandings of female sexual health. Hysteria was first mentioned in a Kahun Papyrus which dates back to 1900 BC Egypt. It identifies the cause of hysterical disorders in spontaneous uterus movement within the female body. It has also defined the symptoms and medication for the same, which I choose to skip due to its infuriating ignorance. The origin in the western world of this ‘exclusive female disorder’, was nothing less than fantastical. In Greek mythology, Argonaut Melampus was a physician who condemned virgins as mad and unholy when they refused to honor the phallus and fled to the mountains. He then suggested curing them using hellebore as an anecdote while they were urged to be carnally involved with young and strong men. In Melampus’s absurd opinion, women’s madness was due to their lack of orgasms and “uterine melancholy”. Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates later joined in consensus about such lack of purpose and fulfillment of the feminine sexual needs causing instability of mind. In fact, Hippocrates was the first to use the word hysteria. Like ancient Egyptians, he believed that the major cause of disease lies in the movement of the uterus (“hysteron”). He goes into vivid detail as to why the female body is more prone to sickness in deprivation of sex. To whose remedy, he suggests that all women should adhere to marriage and an active role as mothers and wives in their domestic life. As ridiculous as it all sound, this is the origin story of the Victorian mental disease known as hysteria sometimes used interchangeably with melancholia.
While the origin is rooted in its foundational lack of scientific proof, the victorian physicians took it to another level and used it as a device to control the women of their society. The symptoms of hysteria were characterized by extreme emotional distress or mood swings, which can be medically explained as hormonal changes during the monthly cycles, or cases of epilepsy, tremors, and in extreme cases convulsions and paralysis, which could be explained through genetics and neurology. Victorians derived the fundamental idea from the Greek myth that the female reproductive system poses vulnerability to madness and twisted it to fit their bill. The Victorians, like the Greeks, also believed that females were more prone to diseases and illness. However, they associated the madness with deviance from societal norms assigned to their sex. A woman’s purity was empathized as the prime pillar and safe sanctuary of domestic life, away from the corruptions of the outside world. A ‘true woman’ is supposed to inherently possess the qualities of servitude, self-sacrifice, and obedience to their husband or father. Women were thus expected to be dependable, sensitive, and gentle by nature, any deviation from this was considered a typical symptom of female madness, all labeled under textbook diagnosis of hysteria.
So a bunch of typical patients of hysteria could be women with alternative lifestyles defying and thus threatening the patriarchal victorian principles of domesticity. Women from a lower social economic background, who lived or worked in prostitution, contracted or in risk of contracting venereal diseases, indulged in masturbation, were nymphomaniacs, and even lesbians were considered unnatural and thus a lost cause to the perfect image of victorian feminine. These women were forced into cramped spaces, like the Magdalene asylums established by catholic churches for penance and redemption of ‘fallen’ women. Architected to be a haven for women who were outcasted or rejected by society, these wards were anything but safe. Deriving from Hippocrates's work, some treatment methodologies involved repeated and forceful sexual activity that was believed to cure an unnatural woman. All these happened under the supervision and with the involvement of the trained doctors who were supposed to be gatekeepers of these facilities established to cure vulnerable women. After all these years, very little can be proved, but one thing is certain, hiding behind the guise of healthcare, these institutions were built to exploit the already vulnerable sect of society. These stories are only stark reminders of unchecked power abuse. Here is a list of a few more absurd reasons cited for committing the inmates.
With my critical analysis of Victorian woman’s mental health correction methodologies and institutions, I do not want to imply that the totality of the psychiatric field was evil, and neither do I intend to generalize that all husbands or fathers were tight-ass misogynists. My analysis is only reflective of the trend in the mental health system of the times and based on speculation of what actually might have happened in cases that lacked empirical truth. Although I would like to believe that there were selfless individuals who worked in psych wards to genuinely help troubled people, there is enough proof that most were molded by the widespread insensitivity towards the mad folk who were considered subhuman due to the lack of their mental acuity. And hence under circumstances that were dire and in lack of active criticism by social workers or human rights activists, I do not see why retorting to brutality would be considered risky by the hospital staff.
On another grim note, a sincere Canadian psychiatrist Dr. R. Maurice Bucke to fuel his ambition and establish himself as a renowned master in his field brought about more radicle treatment for hysteria. Bucke was not an ordinary man, he was the Medical Superintendent at the London Asylum for the Insane. His tenure started in 1877 and ended in 1902 marked by his death. He succeeded the infamous Dr. Henry Landor whose backward philosophies to treat lunatics were widely criticized. Establishing upon the legacy of Landor at London Asylum, Buke was a strong believer in the Victorian myth that women’s reproductive organs are connected to their emotional and psychological health. Buke recommended that to cure the afflicted from all her bouts of insanity, her reproductive organs have to be corrected or removed. He carried out innumerable hysterectomies during his tenure and even presented his study and findings in his speech at the fifty-fourth Annual Meeting of the American Medico-Psychological Association, held in St. Louis, 10-13 May 1898. There is nothing more I could tell you to show how messed up and ridiculously hypocritical the system was. No wait, there is more!
If you don’t believe me yet, here is another list with the cited reason for admission
Derangement or Disobedience?
Elizabeth Packard was a capable teacher living in Jacksonville, Illinois. She was a mother of six children and was thorough in her Victorian manners. Elizabeth was ideal in every way, a kind, sensitive, and dutiful wife and mother. However, at a certain point in her marriage, she started to disagree with the religious beliefs of her husband Theophilus Packard, a strict Calvinist pastor. Apparently, she committed an act of insanity when she rejected her husband’s religious beliefs and adherence to his faith and declared mid-sermon that she is going to the Methodist church across the church. Mr. Packard hired a psychiatrist under the disguise of a salesman who scrutinized Mrs. Packard and declared her insane. The official record in the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville stated the reason for lunacy as “refused to shake hand and above the age of 40”. It would suffice to say that the men of Illinois had quite backward ways of dealing with wives who go wary of their extreme religious ideologies and show signs of disobedience. The problem of Elizabeth was not her defiance but her lack of repentance for her outrageous act of differing from her husband publicly, thus ridiculing the Victorian gender frameworks. She was mad because she was an assertive woman who had a mind of her own and was not afraid to display it. In her confinement within the walls of the lunatic asylum Packard wrote, “I, though a woman, have just as good a right to my opinion as my husband has to his”. With a statement like that, Packard during her years of struggle might have been on the wrong side of the Illinois asylum doors, but she stood without contest on the right side of history. She was eventually secured by her 21-year-old son after being incarcerated for 4 years. But as soon as she returned home, her husband again placed her under house arrest.
In 1964 she stood a trial against her husband and won the case which secured her the right to leave her home again. Elizabeth was not only a victim of the woman-breaking machinery that psychiatry had become for the Victorians, but she was also a very important witness. To give voice to all those who were lost and forgotten within the tyranny of mental asylums, Packard founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society. She went on to become a prominent social activist and author of several books which unveiled the ugly truth of these supposed sanctuaries for the mentally ill. Elizabeth was not singular in her experiences. She witness hundreds of women committed to the asylum for reasons as ridiculous as “extreme jealousy”, “hard study”, “uterine derangement”, or “boisterous”. To restrain more defiant women, chloroform and straight jackets were used. And if neither were effective, the modern cure of clitoridectomy would do it. The case of Elizabeth Packard is important because she was one ray of hope that emerged and found a voice in the endless lost sea of completely sane women who differed from the societal norms of the time, even by the slightest.
Women, to date, have the reputation for being ’crazy’ or ‘damaged’ when they challenge the status quo. Think of Donald Trump spewing hate against Nancy Pelosi on being called out on his bullshit. His series of Twitter threads read,
“There is…something wrong with her ‘upstairs,’”
“She is a very sick person!”
He later attacked her using these captions.
It all turned hilarious when she turned this into her Twitter cover photo - a perfect response to hate.
So, if you are a woman and you haven’t been called ‘crazy’ or ‘selfish’ at least once by your spiteful ex, angry boss, clueless school teacher, or any other man who failed to dominate you, then I am pretty sure you must be doing the ‘perfect womanhood’ all wrong. For a woman, there is no safe place in this world when we ‘play by the rules’ and ‘be a good girl’ - some fancy phrases for submission and whip-lashed obedience. The only safe place is the one we make for ourselves by setting our fears on fire and letting the abusers quiver at the spectacle.
To find out more read the first-hand experience of the famous investigative journalist Nellie Bly who purposely got herself incarcerated to collect stories from the belly of the patriarchal beast - the Victorian mental asylums. Her work later complied into a six-part book Ten Days in a Mad-House