Women and Insanity
Image is of a woman receiving hypnotism as treatment for her mental illness. (I had used this image in a post two years ago, but the link to it is no longer operational.)
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the notion of separate “spheres” for men and women was alive and well in the nineteenth century. In addition, women had to contend with the cult of the True Woman, which is not to be confused with the New Woman, who evolved later at the end of the century.
Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris, in their book Women of the Asylum, describe the model women were supposed to embrace.
The True Woman was delicate, timid, and in need of protection. Her dependence upon her husband went beyond economic support and included guidance and leadership as well. The True Woman was modest, sweet, and charming; a child/woman who maintained that persona despite assuming great responsibility within her home. When she acted to fulfill the domestic agenda of running a good home and caring for her children, she was motivated by purity and piety. (13)
Geller and Harris note that if a woman stayed within the boundaries described above she would “be adored and loved.” However, should she wander beyond the set perimeters, she would be “despised” (13-14). In other words, she would be beyond society’s pale and, one might surmise, qualified to enter a hospital for the insane.
The story line of innocent women sent against their will to asylums was a theme found in the popular literature at the time. However, if we only encounter those stories and novels, we may receive the impression that many more women were committed than men.
The ratio of people institutionalized was about the same for women as for men, even though the reasons for their institutionalization differed, and some women did find themselves declared “insane” because they had violated the social code of the True Woman.
Despite this, some women fought against a process they believed was unjust. Geller and Harris’ book contains the writings of women who had been admitted to hospitals for the insane. One of them, Elizabeth Packard, had been kidnapped by her brothers and forcibly taken to an asylum. Packard’s indignation is clear ins this excerpt:
Every law of the United States was violated, in secretly depriving me of my liberty, on the 25th day of November, 1840, in the Charlestown McLean Asylum, at Somerville [MA], by Stephen S. Stone and Eben W. Stone. My brother Stephen hired Dr. Wheelock Graves, of Lowell, a perfect stranger, to give a line about me; for I was not sick, nor I never was. Neither does he dare to say there was any disease, only my religion was different from my family, and for that he was hired to give a lone to deprive me of my liberty, and to be experimented upon in a prison. By this power every free-born citizen of the United States can be deprived for their liberty and happiness. (Geller & Harris, 35-36)
Obviously, Packard had good reason to be outraged at her treatment and refused to stay silent. This is fortunate, because she left us a record of her reality. She was a woman who went against the family’s “party line,” by embracing a different religion or set of religious beliefs. Packard is proof that not all women bought into the True Woman ideal. However, when they did stand against it, they could pay dearly.
What precisely were such women admitted for? How was their “illness” described? As it turns out, there were numerous reasons anyone could be admitted to a hospital for the insane.
If you’re a big fan of the paranormal, you probably know all about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later known as Weston Hospital (see photo). It is reputedly haunted as all get-out. But here is also a photo of the hospital’s list of diagnoses that would get a person admitted. Quite a few of the reasons might have been used against a woman who was resisting the cult of True Woman. Some of the “reasons” listed seem to be things that go against social convention as it applied to both males and females (masturbation, for example).
Compare the list above to the one at Appalachian History.net that had been printed in a pamphlet created by Marjorie E. Carr in 1993. Carr’s contains list has 125 reasons for admission to Trans-Allegheny.
I don’t know about you, but I think I could be admitted for a few reasons: Indigestion, Asthma, and Novel Reading to name a few. Somehow, I think most of us would qualify for admission.
Tomorrow’s post will look at some of the patients and other people at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane in my novel, SEEING THE ELEPHANT.
Geller, Jeffrey L, and Maxiine Harris. Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls 1840-1945. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Tabler, Dave. 125 reasons you’ll get sent to the lunatic asylum. December 04, 2008. http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2008/12/125-reasons-youll-get-sent-to-lunatic.html (accessed 09 11, 2015).
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder