An Eventful Jaunt to the Lunatic Asylum: 1855

lunatic asylum


A very laughable incident occurred at a lunatic asylum at Lancaster about ten days ago. A parish officer from the neighborhood of Middletown took a lunatic to the asylum, pursuant to an order signed by two magistrates. As the man was respectably connected, a gig was hired for the purpose, and he was persuaded that it was merely an excursion of pleasure on which he was going. In the course of the journey, however, something occurred to arouse the suspicions of the lunatic with respect to his real destination; but he said nothing on the subject, made no resistance, and seemed to enjoy his jaunt. When they arrived at Lancaster it was too late in the evening to proceed to the asylum, and they took up their quarters for the night at an inn. Very early in the morning the lunatic got up and searched the pocket of the officer, where he found the magistrate’s order for his own detention, which, of course, let him completely into the secret. With that cunning which mad men not infrequently display, he made the best of his way to the asylum, saw one of the keepers and told him that he had got a sad mad fellow down at Lancaster, whom he should bring up in the course of the day, adding: “He’s a very queer fellow, and he has got very odd ways. For instance, I should not wonder if he was to say I was the madman, and that he was bringing me; but you must take good care of him, and not believe a word he says.”

The keeper, of course promised compliance, and the lunatic walked back to the inn, where he found the officer fast asleep. He awoke him, and they sat down to breakfast together.

“You’re a lazy fellow to be sleeping all day; I have had a long walk this morning,” said the lunatic . “Indeed,” said the officer, “I should like to have a walk myself after breakfast; perhaps you will go with me?” The lunatic assented, and after breakfast they set out, the officer leading the way towards the asylum, intending to deliver his charge; but it never occurred to him to examine whether his order was safe.

When they got within sight of the asylum, the lunatic exclaimed: “What a fine house that is!” “Yes,” said the officer, “I should like to see the inside of it.” “So should I.” observed the lunatic . They went to the door; the officer rang the bell, and the keeper, whom the lunatic had previously seen made his appearance with two or three assistants.

The officer then began to fumble in his pockets for the order, when the lunatic produced it, and gave it to the keeper, saying: “This is the man I spoke to you about. You will take care of him; shave his head, and put a straight waistcoat on him.”

The men immediately laid hands of the poor officer, who vociferated loudly that he other was the madman, and he the officer, but, as this only confirmed the story previously told by the lunatic , it did not at all tend to procure his liberation. He was taken away, and became so indignantly furious that the strait waistcoat was speedily put on him, and his head was shaved secundum artem.

Meanwhile, the lunatic walked deliberately back to the inn, paid the reckoning, and set out on his journey homeward. The good people in the country were, of course, surprised, on seeing the wrong man return; they were afraid that the lunatic in a fit of frenzy had murdered the officer, what he had done with Mr. Stevenson. “Done with him?” said the madman, “why, I left him at the Lancaster Asylum as mad as hell!” which indeed was not far from the truth; for the wits of the officer were well night upset by his unexpected detention and subsequent treatment. Further inquiry was forthwith made by his neighbors, and it was ascertained that the man was actually in the asylum.

A magistrate’s order was produced for his liberation and he returned home with the handkerchief tied around his head in lieu of the covering which nature had bestowed upon it. Manchester (England) Guardian.

Frederick Douglass’ Paper [Rochester, NY] 24 August 1855

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil strongly doubts that parish officer Mr Stevenson found the incident laughable. It is never too late in the evening to proceed to the asylum, should be engraved upon the heart of every person in charge of transporting lunatics, respectable or not; in gig or landau.

The gig as a symbol of bourgeois respectability was mocked by (among others) Mr Thomas Carlyle. He uses the phrase “Gigmanity” in “The Diamond Necklace” [1837] to refer to a character clinging to a lost social position, who made it a priority to always keep a gig. Carlyle claimed to have gotten the idea from a witness’s testimony at the sensational murder trial of John Thurtell who cut the throat of solicitor William Weare:

Q. What sort of person was Mr. Weare? A. Mr. Weare was respectable. Q. What do you mean by respectability? A. He kept a gig.” [Some sources say the witness was speaking of Thurtell, but that is incorrect.]

The shaving of the “lunatic’s” head was not just for hygienic reasons, but was considered to be a remedy for mania. As the Further Report of the Commissions in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor [1847] says:

Mr. Metcalfe, with the concurrence of Dr. Simpson, the Visiting Physician of the York Lunatic Hospital, recommends in the acute form of Mania, shaving the head, leeches to the temples, cold water or evaporating lotions to the scalp, active purgation, full doses of tartarized antimony, strict antiphlogistic diet, and seclusion in a dark room. ” When the active excitement is subdued, or when these means have been employed during several days, opiates in full doses have often a good effect: if not speedily advantageous, they are discontinued. Exercise in the open air is enjoined, when the Patient is in a proper condition.”

Mr Stevenson was probably grateful to be  released before the leeches were applied to his temples.

Here is a link on the asylum’s history (with some dire details) and some photos of the stately building that was the Lancaster Lunatic Asylum.


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