Wrongful confinement


'Rosina, Lady Lytton', in A Blighted LifeTo Victorian physicians and reformers, the eighteenth century lunatic asylum was a fearful place. In What Asylums Were, Are, and Ought To Be (1837), the psychological physician W.A.F. Browne indicted the condition of those ‘left to linger out a lifetime of misery, without any rational attempt at treatment, without employment, without a glimpse of happiness, or a hope of liberation’. The lunatic, he continued, was ‘terrified or starved into submission, lashed, laughed at, despised, forgotten.’ The great objects of such ‘wretched and comfortless prison-house[s]’, Browne concluded, were to confine and conceal the insane rather than to treat and cure them. (101). This was especially the case in private, often unregulated institutions. Under the guidance of canny physicians and entrepreneurs who recognised the potentially lucrative rewards to be had by a properly-managed private asylum industry, the private madhouse business - the ‘trade in lunacy’ - flourished. The most attractive of these enterprises, the ones that were designed to reassure and to appeal to the fee-paying middle and upper classes, were given comfortable names such as the ‘Retreat,’ the ‘Home,’ or the ‘Lodge.’

The relatives and guardians of private asylum patients believed that these institutions offered a far better, more personalized environment in which to treat their lunatic relatives. Discretion was paramount. Private asylum proprietors did not publicize their case books, print details of cures or release the names and details of patients to prying inquisitors. While the apparent ‘privacy’ of private licensed establishments reassured some, the private nature of these sites of care led in time to accusations of financial corruption, administrative irregularities, and illegal, abusive treatment practices. As stories of the abusive treatment of patients reached the public, and when interested observers and reformers began to question the entire system of private care, it was not only the profit behind the private asylum which was heavily criticized, but also the perceived threat to the civil liberties of patients that such institutions embodied.

In this climate of mistrust, the belief gained ground that the sane were being sequestered in private asylums as though they were mad. In the eyes of many people in Victorian England, this was a horrifying scenario in which the asylum proprietor and the patient’s family and friends colluded wrongfully to confine an individual. It was not long before the idea of wrongful confinement became linked, in the popular imagination, with the whole private madhouse business. Claims of wrongful confinement as early as 1763 led to the first public investigations into mad-houses and the emerging trade in lunacy. Despite the public’s concern, it took over a decade for the Parliamentary Select Committee’s investigation to turned into the 1774 Act for Regulating Madhouses. Limited in its outlook, and only covering madhouses within a seven-mile radius from the capital, this act gave the state no power to revoke licenses, and made no provision for pauper lunatics. Its only significance, which was of no benefit to the insane themselves, lay in alerting the public to the existence of illegal detention of sane persons in madhouses.

Perhaps one of the most powerful claims that W.A.F Browne made in his exposé of the eighteenth century confinement of lunatics was the wrongful incarceration of the sane, ‘entrapped, imprisoned, and confined, in defiance of the most active interference made in their favour’ (113). It was the ‘bigoted perseverance’ of an abuse which was utterly ‘at variance with common sense and justice’ (131), which Browne hoped to overcome. The ‘impulse of reform’ and the ‘reign of humanity’ initiated by Pinel and other reformers of the preceding generation, marked not only the abolition of fetters, but also a metaphorical shift from darkness to light, from an ignorant and ‘savage ferocity’ to ‘Christian benevolence’ (139).

Many Victorian physicians saw Pinel’s act of emancipating the insane from their fetters as a benchmark in the history of the lunatic asylum. To the American physician Isaac Ray, the humane work of Pinel and others represented ‘the best fruits of that noble philanthropy, of that peculiarly Christian spirit and principle, which distinguish the social condition of our times.’ To these men, the wrongful confinement of the sane in lunatic asylums was a thing of the past. As Ray put it,  ‘Of all the bugbears conjured up in these latter times to frighten grown people from the course pointed out by true science and true humanity, it would be hard to find one more destitute of real substance than the alleged practice of confining sane persons in hospitals for the insane.’

In 1857, Andrew Wynter summed up in the Quarterly Review the degree and nature of the vast lunacy law reformation undertaken since the late eighteenth century:

When we contrast the condition of Bethlehem of fifty years ago with the Bethlehem of to-day, we see at a glance what a gulf has been leaped in half a century - a gulf on the one side of which we see a man like a demon torturing his unfortunate fellows, on the other like a ministering angel carrying out the all powerful law of love.

Among the most important signs of the enlightened modern thinking about the proper treatment of the insane were the newly-constructed county and public asylums, warmly praised as places where ‘brutality and violence are unknown’ and where ‘everything is done to cheer and comfort the unfortunate inmates. [...] there are long airy galleries in which they associate, gardens in which they may take their exercise; they are encouraged to be cheerful by every stratagem which the most thoughtful humanity can devise’ (The Times, July 1858).

Though many in the psychiatric profession wrote proudly and profusely about the beneficial accomplishments of the reformed asylum and about the successes of moral therapy, popular anxieties regarding madness and asylums were slow to change. Debates over specific cases of wrongful confinement in lunatic asylums intensified public disquiet throughout the nineteenth century. Yet concerns about wrongful confinement during this period did not centre solely on specific motivations of profit as it often had in the eighteenth century. Rather, the debates and discussions which took place both in medical and legal circles, as well as in newspapers and popular literary journals novels, indicate a greater concern with the consequences of conflicting medical, social and legal accountability and ‘civil responsibility.’ A second issue which preoccupied those concerned with wrongful confinement in the second half of the nineteenth century was the emergence of new kinds of insanity.

Throughout the nineteenth century, psychiatric classifications and categories expanded to include partial forms of insanity such as monomania and moral insanity, both forms of lunacy in which the intellect remained unimpaired. While the expansion of classifications seemed to reinforce the claims physicians made that they possessed the expertise demanded for successful medical intervention, such nosological or classificatory advancements in fact undercut physicians’ authority to diagnose, treat, and cure lunacy. As their medical authority began to be questioned, their social stature diminished and physicians became objects of derision and satire. The debates generated by cases of wrongful confinement (both real and fictional) tell us much about the problems encountered by psychological physicians in their attempt to construct and then retain jurisdiction over the insane.

At times the gap between eccentricity and moral insanity led to confusion over what behaviors and actions determined the existence of insanity. To the lay-public, the proliferation of new more types of insanity led to an increased potential for wrongful confinement. This fear was particularly acute in the realm of the private asylum. Even within the profession itself, wrongful confinement generated impassioned discussion over the relationship between authority, individuality and civil liberties. In 1852 Henry Monro, proprietor of the private Brooke House Asylum, published a series entitled Articles on Reform in Private Asylums. He argued that for proper care to be administered in private asylums the ‘civil responsibility’ incurred by detaining a patient should be transferred from the proprietor to the Commissioners in Lunacy. In this way, the ‘disagreeable responsibility’ of determining one’s mental state would fall to a body far more impartial, in the public eye, than that of proprietors of private establishments. Except in the most obvious cases of lunacy, Monro understood that insanity was next to impossible to define with any degree of precision. Subtle manifestations of madness, like moral insanity, were ‘sufficiently numerous to render the life of a medical proprietor most anxious, and his responsibilities intolerable.’ (65) He ‘may thoroughly believe a person to be insane, and keep him in confinement in consequence, but he cannot prove it, and is immediately exposed to slander.’ (67)

While the merits of private asylums had long been debated among medical professionals like Monro, it was not until the late 1850s that the spectre of wrongful confinement entered the very public arena of the Times. In August 1858 the paper’s editorial board launched a scathing attack on private asylums, focusing on four sensational accounts of illegal detention. One of these wrongfully incarcerated individuals was Rosina Bulwer Lytton, the wife of the novelist and colonial statesman Edward Bulwer Lytton. Though they had been separated since 1836, several incidents had aroused Rosina’s suspicions of her husband. She believed that she was being watched by his agents, that her private papers were being stolen, and generally that he was trying to acquire evidence that would enable him to cut the payment of a very substantial monthly allowance of £400. In retaliation, both privately and publicly Rosina took all opportunities to embarrass her husband, sending him letters adorned with obscenities (sometimes as many as twenty a day), and verbally berating him when in the company of his friends.

Bulwer Lytton saw in her threats the signs of mental disorder and called in six renowned physicians to examine her. Upon their diagnosis of insanity, in July 1858 she was removed against her will to Inverness Lodge, a private asylum. She was released on the grounds of ill-health only three weeks later, affirming her sanity and the doctors’ blunders. Her desire for revenge ensured that the case made headlines in the regional and national press. The support she garnered, her husband believed, was grounded in the machinations of his political enemies and he used all his connections in Parliament to keep the case out of the courts. Though he was probably relieved that he had prevented an even bigger publicity disaster, Rosina continued to draw attention to her husband and the doctor’s unparalleled vindictiveness in her novels and her autobiography, A Blighted Life (1880). If the wife of a statesman could be wrongfully confined, it could seemingly happen to anyone. Yet few, if any, had the resources to combat such a damaging accusation as insanity, even if they could escape from the asylum.

As one journalist commented after the case, ‘[u]nder the present system any English man or woman may be locked up in a Private Lunatic Asylum with very little chance or remedy or redress [...] there is a laxity of practise throughout, although the precautions, even if stringently carried out, would be insufficient to guard against abuse [...] It is only to a madhouse, not a prison, that an Englishman can be sent and no-one be the wiser.’ Passions were clearly aroused. One falsely incarcerated ‘victim’ wrote to the press and described ‘scenes of almost incredible outrage’ and noted that ‘if the avowed object had been to deprive me of reason at the risk of life it could not have been more systematically prosecuted’ (Times, 24th August, 1858, 12). Though wrongful confinement had since 1774 been at the heart of asylum reform, the private asylum had once again come under attack in both fact and fiction. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and Charles Reade's Hard Cash (1863) drew together real as well as unfounded fears and apprehensions generated by the possibility of false confinement.

Criticism of wrongful confinement drew upon a broadly recognisable cultural and historical analogy, the Bastille.  As an enduring symbol of despotism, the Bastille figured in many attacks on the asylum and on the trade in lunacy. One of the most powerful accounts of wrongful confinement was Louisa Lowe’s tract The Bastilles of England, or, The Lunacy Laws at Work (1883). The infamous Lettre de Cachet, the royal detention order, featured widely in the Bastille – asylum analogies. Prior to the Revolution in 1789, royal detention orderswere ‘the object of a profitable traffic; they were sold to fathers who wanted to get rid of their sons, and given to pretty women, who were inconvenienced by their husbands.’ With relish, the novelist Henry Cockton in Valentine Vox (1840) transformed the lettre de cachet into ‘jolly mad-doctors, the majority of whom are to be bought for half a sovereign.’

The Bastille was a place where enemies of the crown, and the politically inconvenient, could be detained out of sight—where they could be buried alive. Critics of private asylums turned also to the metaphor of being ‘buried alive.’ Popularised by Simon Nicholas Henri Linguet in his moving and influential eighteenth century prison narrative, Mémoires sur la Bastille (1783), it suggested the particular horror of wrongful confinement. The Daily Telegraph concluded one article on the case of Rosina Bulwer Lytton with the suggestion that not only had she been excommunicated from her home and cut off from her family, but that she had been ‘buried in a social tomb.’ This idea was also used by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in her sensation novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). When Lady Audley is finally taken to a Belgian lunatic asylum, she conceived of it as a ‘living grave.’ These are just a few of many examples of way in which the secret world of the Bastille was symbolically and metaphorically appropriated by writers of fact and fiction to make sense of wrongful confinement and its home within the private asylum.

In the face of an almost overwhelming attack both from the editorial board of the press and from the general public, proprietors of private asylums staunchly defended their institutions. Like Dr Monro in 1852, they were forced to admit that the profession was founded on a speculative commercial principal, and that there always existed the possibility of wrongful detention—based not on their desire for profit, but on the sheer difficulty of diagnosis. Letters supporting the system of private asylums were equally full of indignation for what their authors perceived to be unfair criticism:

It seems to be forgotten that all the eminent physicians who have especially devoted themselves to the study and treatment of mental disease - surely no ignoble department of a noble art - the very men to whom we owe that system of mercy whose good effects have taught us to abhor the every day cruelties of a time not long past, have been and are, with scarcely one exception, the proprietors of private asylums. (Times, 23rd August, 1858, 9)

Though the problems in private asylums had been discussed by Monro in the early 1850s, by the end of the decade their validity as caring (if expensive) institutions had reached a critical point. Scandals, abuses, and revelations of wrongful confinement appeared in the press on an almost daily basis. The more adverse the publicity, the further entrenched became the public’s morbid fascination with insanity and its home within the asylum. There was something of a ready-made audience for issues raised by the private asylum, and novelists in particular were quick to exploit its possibilities. Wrongful confinement, the use of coercive physical restraint, over-reliance on sedatives, abuses committed by ill-qualified attendants, ineffectual lunacy laws, and the pitiful intervention of Commissioners became conventions of fictional representation of the private asylum. While insanity, like bigamy, murder, arson, and corruption, became a popular narratological device, the lunatic asylum functioned in a rather different way. Though Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu employed the asylum in much the same way that writers of gothic fiction employed castles or convents - as terrifying sites of incarceration, writers of a more reforming temperament like Charles Reade and Henry Cockton saw it as their duty to expose the ills of the asylum, as well as the double standards which they believed (and offered to prove) were rife in the iniquitous lunacy laws.

‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ wrote Louisa Lowe in The Bastilles of England. ‘The victims to the lunacy system silently sink below the surface of society; they disappear one by one, and are forgotten.’ The insane are overlooked today, ‘forgotten’ to literary historians and cultural theorists alike. Yet the wealth of memoirs detailing the experience of wrongful incarceration in lunatic asylums attests to their urgent demand for vindication and visibility. While convicted ‘professional’ or ‘hardened’ criminals wrote variously for financial gain, to warn would-be criminals of the potential outcome of their crimes, or to demonstrate the power of Christian redemption with confessional narratives, those who managed to escape from the confines of the asylum wrote as political prisoners, seeking to draw attention to the arbitrary and despotic nature of their unjust incarceration. Their tracts are marked by a peculiar absence of sentimentality yet remain passionate and indignant in their attack both on the system and individuals which had led to their incarceration. In a pamphlet entitled My Experiences in a Lunatic Asylum published in 1879, the anonymous author, a ‘sane patient,’ stated that ‘these chapters are not intended to be read [...] as an onslaught of the medical men engaged in lunacy practice. They are an onslaught on a crying national sin, and all who favour it’(113). Unlike Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop, the author of A Secret Institution (1890), the ‘sane patient’ believed that despite his ‘righteous wrath,’ it was not his responsibility to demand reform. Itself a replacement for legal redress, he penned his account after reflecting that ‘the justice which got me into this mess was not likely to set me right afterwards.’ It was simply a ‘calm’ narration of his ‘travels in dark lands.’

Lathrop, on the other hand, concluded her impassioned account of the history of her life and wrongful incarceration in the Utica Asylum in the state of New York with a more personal entreaty and with a more personal denunciation: ‘I reveal my heart and my history, as I send forth this book as a plea for your sympathy and interest in the welfare of the insane, and as a means to this end, for ordinary hospital rules and treatment in the place of existing One Man power over Secret Institutions’ (338). The One Man power she believed endangered the successful and humane treatment of lunacy through protecting asylum abuse was that of John Gray, the asylum’s superintendent, known if at all today for testifying at the sensational trial of Charles Guiteau in 1882 after his assassination of President James A. Garfield in July 1881. (Guiteau was found guilty of murder and hanged in June 1882). Utica Asylum, defined by her as a secret institution ‘where all the crimes and abuses which we imagine existed only in the dark ages can be repeated without fear of detection,’ was no more than a ‘den of horrors,’ a ‘living tomb’ and where ‘sane people can be deprived ruthlessly of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”’ 

Charles George Ethelston’s A Private Lunatic Asylum Exposed (privately published 1885) conveyed the author’s incredulity that in the present day, when the treatment of insanity was popularly characterized by ‘humanity,’ that the ‘most severe tortures may be inflicted, with the probable result of as much suffering as was endured in former times when patients were chained to the ground and flogged.’ Despite such ‘agony’, Etchell recounted her experiences to effect reform by drawing attention to the ‘defective’ machinery of the lunacy laws. Etchell believed that reform must start with the asylum superintendent. Lathrop, too, desired the replacement of ‘venal’ superintendents with ‘capable and conscientious’ physicians. Without such reforms, the spectre of lunatic asylums as ‘vast prisons and dens of iniquity’ would become a reality.

Louisa Lowe, Mabel Etchell, Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop, the ‘Sane Patient’ and George Ethelston all make reference to the striking contradiction between the enlightened humanity and kindness espoused by psychological physicians and the brutal, unjust and illegal detention that they themselves experienced. To the ‘sane patient’, the so-called humanity that was a ideal of the present-day treatment of the insane was in reality marked not by kindness but by mercenary motives and complacent selfishness. He described himself as ‘being drugged by authority’ (67). Escape from the ‘prison house’ that was the lunatic asylum was next to impossible:

Knowing myself in keep and hold, and not knowing why, it was natural that I should invest the asylum with the attributes of a gaol [...] The Bastille itself could scarcely hold its prisoners more closely than the ‘establishment’ wherein I lived; and scarcely harder could it have been for any echo of complaint or suffering to reach the outer world. Buried and forgotten we lay there, like dead men out of mind. (66-67)

Private asylums were defended, and with some persistence. In a response to an 1868 Atlantic Monthly article entitled ‘A Modern Lettre de Cachet Reviewed,’ Isaac Ray skeptically referred to the ‘vocabulary of oppression and tyranny’ in accounts of false incarceration: the authors wrote of ‘prisons,’ ‘Bastiles,’ ‘torture houses,’ ‘breeders of insanity,’ and of ‘being buried alive.’ While Ray accepted that such a ‘vocabulary’ rendered lunatic asylums ‘odious and unworthy of confidence’, he doubted whether such “spiteful effusions” did much harm to those institutions or to persons connected with them beyond exciting a ‘temporary sensation in the minds of over-credulous people, and of all those who are ever ready to believe that the fairest outside is only a cloak for concealing some hideous evil beneath it.’

The psychological physician John Charles Bucknill argued that ‘the sane people confined in lunatic asylums under the easy facilities of the act are ghosts of newspaper writing.’ The very fact that well-regarded physicians like Ray, Bucknill and others responded so directly to the language, metaphors, images, and associations in such memoirs indicates that the claims of wrongful detention were damaging the stature of physicians specializing in the field of psychological medicine, but were undermining the social and medical authority of the profession of mental science itself. By reasserting the relationship between the prison and the asylum they threatened the enlightened principles of the ‘reign of humanity’ and ‘reign of mercy’ in the treatment of the insane.

Despite many official declarations of progress, reform, kindness and humanity, Victorians were left in no doubt that despite the best efforts of lunacy reformers, one of the ‘great objects’ of lunatic asylums remained to ‘confine and conceal.’ The system of confinement remained both in reality and in the popular imagination both ‘bigoted’ and ‘at variance with common sense and justice.’

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