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Gaslight Stories: Putting Papa Away

Why false accusations of insanity weren’t solely a feminist issue

Now, we all know how easy it was for Victorian men to dispose of unwanted or troublesome women into lunatic asylums; it was simple to make a case that a woman was mad, and plenty of doctors would help out a paterfamilias by signing certificates of lunacy, guaranteeing a lifetime of asylum incarceration. That’s what you did with your unloved wife or difficult daughter. 

How do we know all this? Well, there’s Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White of 1860 — a bestseller from the day it was published. There’s Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre of 1847, in which Mrs Rochester – though genuinely ill – is shut away from the world in total secrecy; and then we get confirmation from the mid-20th-century play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light, set in 1870, in which a highly-strung wife is to be driven to the brink of certifiability.

But in fact, the issue of malicious asylum incarceration was far more nuanced than our favorite novels, plays and films suggest. If anything, males were, on balance, probably more likely to be victims of a trumped-up charge of insanity than females. By investigating a number of disputed lunacy cases from the late 1820s to the 1890s, I identified many of the true-life victims of wrongful certification, and the mechanisms by which eccentricity could be built up into a case of "unsoundness of mind" by greedy or envious family members, spouses and business associates. But I also found out why malicious incarceration did indeed become a feminist issue: it is the women’s stories that have endured best and give us today a skewed view of the subject. Three of the most powerful and lengthy wrongful incarceration real-life accounts come from women: Georgina Weldon, Rosina Bulwer Lytton and Louisa Lowe. 

So why were men, particularly in the first 60 years of the 19th century, so vulnerable to a lunacy conspiracy? The simple reason is that men were more likely to have money. The majority of malicious incarceration cases were a grab for cash and control of an estate. Males inherited more often and greater sums, and when a woman married, her husband gained control of all her money, until the passing of a series of Married Women’s Property Acts, from the 1870s onwards.  

If a husband had had enough of his wife, he could simply live apart from her, with or without a mistress; or — without even leaving the marital home — he could set up a separate second household and have a second family if he was so minded, and was not too bothered about his reputation in Society. Plenty of middle- and upper-class men behaved in this way in the 19th century, risking being seen as oversexed and duplicitous, though in a thoroughly wouldn’t-we-all-do-that-given-a-chance way. However, to place a wife in an asylum was not just expensive, it ran the greater risk of serious reputational damage if she should be discovered to be sane and the victim of a malicious plot. Liking the ladies a little too much was one thing; robbing someone of their liberty was quite another. 

In the archives, I found a number of case histories in which women had made use of the loophole-filled English lunacy laws to dispose of an unwanted husband. They did this in preference to the far more public and embarrassing trip to the local magistrate for a judicial separation; or, after 1857, a trip to the Divorce Court. At both types of court, not only was there a public gallery, there were also battalions of reporters from the newspapers. The journalists were ready to transcribe the details of your dirty linen into reports for the nation to savor the next morning. Far more discreet was a quiet word with two doctors with a view to having a lunacy certificate issued.  

A man’s inability to fill his domestic role as a loving husband and respect-inspiring father could, and did, contribute heavily to an accusation of unsoundness of mind. The new (from the mid-1830s) diagnostic category of "moral insanity" also assisted with the notion that bad did equal mad if violence in the home could be demonstrated. A number of 19th-century cases appear to have had this subtext, with sympathetic doctors helping a wife to make the family home safe from a husband who was either violent, or highly uncongenial through drink, or who was ruining the family financially with wild spending sprees. Because even though this was unquestionably a male-dominated and male-centric society, there were nevertheless plenty of professional men (particularly those with an Evangelical anti-drink agenda) who deplored male violence and wished to ensure that the English home was a safe and happy place for wives and children. (The role of Evangelicalism and of the temperance movement in public and professional life is too often overlooked when we look back at the 19th century, in my view.) 

Among the confined men who seem to fall into the category of sane-but-certified was Arthur Legent Pearce. He was discovered in foul conditions in London’s notorious Bethlehem Hospital by asylums campaigner John Perceval, in 1850. Pearce, a former doctor, had been confined 10 years earlier following a violent assault upon his wife – the assault was real and almost deadly, but Mr. Perceval believed that Pearce was sane. To help him earn some money, Mr. Perceval published a volume of Pearce’s poetry, Poems by A Prisoner in Bethlehem.

More fortunate was Samuel Hall, confined in 1862 on the say-so of Mrs. Hall on the grounds of repeated violence in the home. Two local physicians had wanted to help Mrs. Hall to rid herself of such a foul-tempered, vicious (and sword-carrying) husband; one of them had even treated her for injuries Hall had inflicted on her. The doctors duly signed him into Munster House private asylum in west London. Two days later, the governmental inspectorate the Commissioners in Lunacy happened by chance to be at Munster House doing an inspection. They interviewed Hall, found two technical errors in the certificates that rendered them illegal, and ordered his release. He then set about suing the certifying doctors in a case that became infamous. The jury found that he had been certified "in error," rather than with malicious intent, and awarded him a fairly low sum in damages.  

The medical publication The Journal of Mental Science declared of the Hall case: "The public, through the press, loudly proclaims its fear that under the present law, termagant wives or unscrupulous relatives, aided by inconsiderate medical practitioners, may legally incarcerate sane men in lunatic asylums."  Note that it is a wife – not a husband – that is being pointed out as a potential threat to individual liberty. The Journal was not alone in expressing this concern about the power of women to make use of the lunacy laws in this way; yet this is very much not what we have been brought up to believe about the Victorians. 

Meanwhile, in the West of England, perfectly sane John Gould spent 13 years in a private asylum when his wife and son were able to have him certified insane through drink – dipsomania. They assumed control of all his property during his incarceration, and when he finally won his release, he intended to mount a legal case to regain his business and property. However, like many victims of lunacy conspiracy (both male and female), Gould decided not to proceed when he found out the enormous likely cost of the case; there was never any guarantee that the courts would agree that you were in fact sane.  

Alcohol played a major role in many of these cases. Illustrious physician Dr. Harrington Tuke told a court in 1858 that in his opinion, one-fifth of male lunatics in England had had their mental ill-health brought on by alcohol abuse. Many other doctors would express similar opinions. And indeed some men would spend their lives in a revolving-door of going into an asylum to "dry out" and regain their rationality, only to return to heavy drinking and bizarre behavior upon their release. That’s why it could be comparatively easy to say that a family man had allowed his drinking to get out of control and tipped him into insanity.



Richard Paternoster, The Madhouse System, 1841; this pioneering survey of men committed to Kensington House Asylum revealed the plights of many men put away by their families in highly questionable circumstances.

Rosina Bulwer Lytton, A Blighted Life: A True Story, 1880, reprinted 1994, edited and with an introduction by Marie Mulvey-Roberts

Georgina Weldon, The Ghastly Consequences of Living in Charles Dickens' House, 1880; and How I Escaped The Mad Doctors, 1879, both reprinted in 2003 in Women, Madness and Spiritualism, edited by Roy Porter, Helen Nicholson and Bridget Bennett.

Louisa Lowe, The Bastilles of England; or, the Lunacy Laws at Work, 1883 

The Journal of Mental Science, January 1863

Joan Busfield, 'The Female Malady?': Men, Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century Britain, in Sociology, February 1994; pioneering statistical study that blew apart the notion that women were more likely to be certified insane than men.

I gave this talk about Victorian lunacy in London this summer:


Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

by Sarah Wise

Counterpoint. Published this month in paperback, $16.95

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