Kirkbride Buildings Blog

April 22nd, 2008

Causes of Insanity

Those familiar with 19th century asylums know all about the sometimes trivial or bizarre reasons people were “adjudged insane”. If you do any kind of research into asylums or the history of psychology, you invariably come across lists of weird explanations for why certain people were committed to asylums.

But I was surprised by a list on Roots Web I came across recently. The list was compiled from late 19th and early 20th century newspaper items describing people committed to the Mount Pleasant asylum in Iowa.

You can read the complete list if you like, but I wanted to single out two specific pieces:

1) Burlington Hawkeye, 9/10/1874 — Mrs. Amelia Wright, of Muscatine, has been taken to the asylum for the insane at Mount Pleasant, her insanity being caused by the free use of patent “hair restoratives.” We always knew something would hairpin to the women from the way they mess with their hair.

2) Burlington Hawkeye, 10/21/1875 — An insane man, name unknown, was found wandering about the country and was taken to the Mt. Pleasant asylum yesterday. On examining his clothing for papers he was found to have a complete collection of all the phonograph jokes that have been published. He was immediately pronounced incurable and locked up in the dangerous ward.

I feel bad, but both made me laugh. I’m pretty sure that was the writer’s intention too. I guess insensitivity to people with psychological disorders was well established enough to crop up even in newspaper reporting. And there was obviously no inclination to allow these people dignity through anonymity. The only reason the second item doesn’t name the man is because nobody knew who he was. Most of the other items from this list mention the subjects’ names freely.

At first it seemed odd to me that such cases of mental illness were announced in papers like that, especially considering the embarrassment families must have felt when their relations were committed. The lists of reasons I’ve seen before were either very anonymous statistical collections, or a bunch of random anecdotal stories. I was surprised to see newspapers reported on committals rather frequently and with such obvious morbid fascination, sometimes even glee. But I’m sure many of their readers must have enjoyed these stories too. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar news items from that time period. They might be the makings of an interesting book.

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Discussion

  1. Dave D August 9, 2008, 1:49 am

    The biennial report books often have statistics on the prior occupations of those commited… I was a bit surprised to see this entry in such a list in one book: Benedictine Sister. Makes me wonder what happened in her case to send her over the edge…

  2. Jim March 23, 2009, 1:51 pm

    Amelia Wright of Muscatine, Iowa, was my ancestor. She had been a widow for over twenty years and had little family. I don’t suppose there any records left from the Mt. Pleasant asylum. That would be interesting reading.

  3. Minkykat November 2, 2009, 2:37 am

    My great,great Aunt was locked up in Mt. Pleasant against her will back in the 1890’s at the behest of her Father who didn’t like the boy she was seeing. He told her over his dead body would she see him and she had replied,
    “So be it!”
    The next day, he took her into town and had her locked up for over a year.
    Very sad story.

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