Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, May 22, 2009

Guest Blogger - Delle Jacobs on Lunacy Laws

Today on History Undressed we have guest blogger, Delle Jacobs talking to us about lunacy laws! Enjoy!


I was just a little girl when I became aware that there was something secretive and shameful about the house next door, with its bare siding weathered gray and cracking. When we climbed the cherry tree, we could see in the windows through old lace curtains to unfashionable Victorian furniture, but there was never a light inside, for no one was ever there. Our parents didn't know we heard their whispers of an old woman who was in an asylum after a "breakdown" when her husband died.

When I began writing SINS OF THE HEART, I knew I had a heroine who was in hiding from her evil brother, and I knew she was terrified of him, but finding out why was a difficult task. Then I realized one of my own greatest fears traced back to the spooky old house next door and the mysterious old woman who was locked up and could never go home. I had learned a lot about mental illness in my many years in social work with mentally troubled families, and the more I learned, the more I understood how very abusive to patients the system can be. In England in the early Nineteenth Century, it might be hard to have a man locked away, but the same didn't apply to women. All that was needed was the consent of her husband or guardian. I began to see why Juliette was on the run. She refused to bow to her brother's will and marry a man who had harmed her. And worse, she had an unknown inheritance and her brother wanted it.

In England in the post-Elizabethan Era, attitudes toward mental illness had begun a shift. Unlike on the Continent, the change to Protestantism meant mental illness was less and less seen as caused by demonic possession, but treatment didn't improve otherwise, being pretty much the same as for other illnesses- bleeding, cupping, burning, ineffective or dangerous tonics.

Only one hospital existed, Bethlem in London, which had begun taking some mentally ill patient in 1357. By the early Sixteenth Century, 31 patients were housed in dreadful conditions, and by the Seventeenth Century the place was infamous for its ill-treatment of patients. Violent or dangerous patients were manacled or chained but others were allowed to leave and some were licensed to beg. The wealthy often paid a few coins to come and stare at the patients- nearly 100,000 visited in 1814.

Most lunatics had always been kept in their own communities, some cared for by people who specialized in managing "madmen, idiots, and the infirm". But the idea of madhouses was catching on. Private asylums sprang up, aiming for the wealthier patient who could pay for his own care, a situation that was ripe for abuse. The 1774 Act For Regulating Private Madhouses sought to alleviate this problem, but it did not apply to public hospitals like Bethlem.

There were safeguards, some of which were specifically aimed at preventing the sane from being detained against their will. According to Nancy Mayer, a student of Regency Law, it was not easy to have a person declared incompetent, and often took years to get through the Chancery Court, especially in the case of a person with wealth and title.

But married women and minors were at the mercy of the very people who were supposed to protect them. It was assumed that any reasonable person would be concerned with the welfare of his charges, but not all men are reasonable. A young girl could be locked in her room, or beaten or half-starved into compliance with her guardian's wishes. Hysteria, considered a female disease which was caused by a "traveling uterus" that could harm other organs, could easily be the grounds for keeping a girl in a cell in an asylum. True, when she came of age, she could no longer be kept. But we all know how any teenage girl would view an incarceration of several years, even in gentle circumstances. And as a child, Juliette had been one of those visitors to Bedlam. She had seen what it had done to the patients. She had been told if she didn't learn better behavior that cold be her fate. She knew she had to run or die.

What do you think you would have done if you had lived then and faced being locked up, yet knew you were completely sane? How do you think you wold have handled it?

Delle Jacobs lives in a fantasy world of endless green forests, silvery rivers that cascade between shining, snow-capped mountains, not far from both a high desert scabland and a sandy-beached, marine blue ocean. It’s called Washington State. She shares it with three generations of adult males, the requisite two black writer’s cats, and all sorts of mossy-backed folk who don’t mind the rain that makes their land so magical.

A three time winner of the Golden Heart as well as many other awards for her books, Delle fills her historical and fantasy romance with that same sort of magic. Besides writing, her other favorite addiction is Photoshopping covers for ebooks. Visit Delle at www.dellejacobs.com


Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Way to go, Delle. It's hard to believe the "civilized" people of the world could be so unfeeling, but it's a sad truth.

The unscrupulous, as always, found ways to exploit it to their benefit while the rest looked the other way, some from ignorance, some from helplessness, and some just because it didn't effect them directly. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

Can't wait to read your book. I hope it's the first of many.

Delle Jacobs said...

Thanks, Gwynlyn! I agree- when we look at the way people viewed their world and other people in the past, it's hard to comprehend. It's really hard to get into the historical mindset. But here's a mitigating factor for you:

Remember the state of medicine in general then. It was still more medieval- that is, based on beliefs, than it was scientific.

Anesthesia, germs, x-rays, even a good knowledge of the body's workings, were all still unknown. So when you were sick or injured, you expected any medical intervention to be painful at best.

Everybody believed that bleeding was good for you. The belief of the day was in the four humors that regulated the body and they had to be brought back into balance to restore health.

Some doctors who treated the mentally ill acknowledged their treatments were ineffective, but they had nothing else so they just kept on using them, rather than to do nothing.

In 1815, things began to change, with the hospital moved to a more remote location. It was understood by most that since society was believed to be the trigger for mental illness, it was important to remove the patients from society.

The real difficulty is, and always has been, power over the vulnerable. We can see enormous cruelty over the helpless and vulnerable today. As it was then, we need to recognize that power does corrupt those who can be corrupted. And vigilance is and will always be necessary.

My story takes place in 1813, and although I mention nothing about it, I like to think my hero and heroine became involved in the changes that were to come, because they were people who cared.

Nancy M said...

It might be just me, but I think stories of women being incarcerated in a mad house are among the scariest things in the world. I know a woman who was suffering from post partum depression and from the real infidelity of the husband who was sent to an insane asylum and given electro shocks and had a frontal lobotomy in mid 20th century.
They didn't have the electric shocks or the lobotomy in the early 19th century, but the woman could be kept a prisoner there .
I am trying to rewrite a story I have about a woman who was incarcerated in a private asylum. The people who have looked at the WIP have all wondered if the husband was a villain or hero . Have to find a way to change it so he is more heroic, or finally make her a widow with another love interest.
Delle always writes interesting stories. Nothing of a formula about them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this. In the mid70's the psychologist at my elementary school recommended institutionalization for me because she'd decided that my idiopathic epilepsy was actually mental deficiency. It was only because of my outraged family and the efforts of my dedicated pediatrician that she withdrew her recommendation. How many other children, without the outrage and dedication, did she diagnose in this manner? How many are diagnosed this way still?

Delle Jacobs said...

Thank you, Nancy! Such a compliment from you means a great deal to me!

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu made a chilling statement that probably echoes the beliefs of many: "Any girl that runs away with a young fellow, without intending to marry him, should be carried to Bridewell, or to Bedlam the next day."

The "wandering, or traveling, womb", thought to be the cause of Hysteria, was thought of as "an animal within an animal", a sinister and mostly unknown organ with powers of its own that had the ability to work its way up to other organs and choke them-- even up to the throat.

So it appears women had a mental illness that originated in an entirely different location than men. But perhaps that isn't really so difficult to comprehend since women's brains were considered so useless. to be away for a few hours, including about three hours of driving time, but I'll be back by mid-afternoon, my time and will check in with your then.

Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Delle!! I'm with your character. If I was in danger of being locked up, I would've run off too and kept on going.

The push for women's rights did us all a big favor.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you so much for being here Delle! Fascinating article! Congrats on your release :)

Vonnie Alto said...


I absolutely love the line, "she knew she had to run or die." Such suspense and mystery. This one line sums up your heroine's action in a nutshell. It's also makes for great advertising for your novel.

Knowing that your book involves a mental hospital makes it even more interesting. As always, you know how to hook the reader with a gripping plot. Now more than ever, I'm looking forward to reading your latest release. I just need to find the time.....

Delle Jacobs said...

Anonymous, I'm very sympathetic with that terrible situation you faced. My very brilliant younger brother was prevented from taking any math courses but Basic Math in high school. I went to see the guidance counselor (who happened to be the same one who laughed in my face when I said I wanted to be a medical doctor- I was a straight A student). She laughed again and said, "You're going to have to face the fact that your brother is retarded."

Well, the Navy gave him a great education, and he worked on the design team of some of the early nuclear submarines. And he has a number of computer-related inventions to hs credit.

Delle Jacobs said...

I agree, Susan. One reason I want to write historical novels is that I don't want women to become complacent about their status in the world. It was a hard fight to get where we are today.

Vonnie, it's not about mental institutions- it's about staying out of them. And that's a pretty hairy fight.

fionavance said...

Wonderful post... I'm doing an urban fantasy with a teenaged heroine who had been wrongfully hospitalized, and my research has shown some similar issues still going on today. At any rate, my character's need to "run or die" is precisely the same. Looking forward to reading your take on our common theme!

Fiona Vance

Joanna Waugh said...

Great article, Delle. I too am moved by the powerlessness of 19th century women. In my book, BLIND FORTUNE, Lady Fortuna Morley is convinced no decent man will have her because she's blind. Her greatest fear is that, once a husband gets his hands on her money, he'll lock her away in an asylum.
I look forward to reading SINS OF THE HEART!

Gerri Bowen said...

A very interesting piece, Delle. And sad. Placed in that situation,I would make my plans, and run away.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, and wonderful comments. The wrongful diagnosis of mental illness, especially when it comes to vulnerable women is still around. All it takes is a bully, and people who are willing to ignore his actions.