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Statistics of Insanity

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 8 months ago

The Times of London, November 13, 1841.







               Notes on the Text




Society of Friends: Quakers


Moral insanity: Definition of "moral insanity" by James Coweles Prichard (1786-1848), author of "Treatise of Insanity" which turned it into a standard psychiatric term:


"a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties appear to have sustained little or no injury, while the disorder is manifested principally or alone, in the state of the feelings, temper, or habits. In some cases of this description the moral and active principles of the mind are strangely perverted and depraved; the power of self-government is lost or greatly impaired, and the individual is found to be incapable, not of talking or reasoning upon any subject proposed to him, for this he will often do with great shrewdness and volubility, but of conducting himself with decency and propriety in the business of life."


In other words, to be morally insane means being able to think logically to justify their mad behavior, often manifesting in the form of paranoia, larceny, or sexual obsession.




                Commentary on the Text




         Published in The London Times on November 13, 1841, this is an article that in many ways shows the culmination of the advances in the schools of thought surrounding the concept of madness that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. The article seeks to accomplish several things at once: it begins with a sharp criticism of the misguided, outdated public view of insanity (that has only recently begun to be redefined in professional circles as “mental illness”) that leads to insufficient treatment, overhasty commitment to asylums, and a sense of shame from the surrounding family of the afflicted person. It paints asylums and those who own them as indifferent and greedy, seeking to fill their rooms with inmates and keep them there, and that it is “folly” to suggest that a person cannot recover from insanity outside of an asylum, showing empathy for the lunatic in question.

Afterwards, it goes on to list statistics and data collected from the Retreat of York, a mental institution founded by William Tuke in 1792 for the treatment of lunatics in the “Society of Friends,” otherwise known as the Quakers. Created as a response to the death of a Quaker woman within the York County Asylum, his institution emphasized the moral treatment of its patients, guided principally by pacific Quaker concerns and restricted  the use of chains or flogging. In 1813 Tuke’s grandson Samuel published the Description of the Retreat, which led to the redefinition of “insanity” to “mental illness,” which in turn led to the upcoming policy of treatments appealing to the mind. It also painted a sharp contrast to the environment of the Asylum, which underwent a committee of inquiry and a wholesale dismissal of staff as a result.

In the Victorian period there was also a romantic concept of madness developing. The idea that madness was stemmed from emotional causes rather than intellectual ones is apparent in the art and literature of the time. This also ties in to the idea developing around this time that women were more prone to lunancy due to their “weak nerves;” in 1845 there were roughly ten thousand women confined in asylums and in twenty years this number had nearly doubled. This idea had a profound effect on the literature and art of this time, much of it revolving around portrayals of women being driven mad. Though doubtlessly exaggerated in what was the popular media of the time, the statistics listed in the article do seem to at least partially reflect this, with more gentlewomen being committed than gentlemen at an over three to one ratio.

The final section of the article praises the advances made in terms of the ethical treatment of patients, specifically the lack of physical restraints, one of whose main proponents was Dr. James Connolly, the physician  at the Pauper Lunatic Museum in Hanwell, who is praised as “completing the work” of Tuke and Pinel, another sharp critic of the current treatment for the mentally ill. It puts forth the argument that those mentally unsound are in fact more sensitive to both physical and mental stimuli provided by the outside world, so humane treatment is actually of paramount importance. The Retreat of York, the article puts forth, has procured the “happiest results” with this method of care.




                Works Cited/For Additional Reading 




Clark, Robert A. Mental Illness in Perspective. Pacific Grove: Boxwood P, 1973. 

Rafter, Nicole. "The Unrepentant Horse-Slasher: Moral Insanity." Criminology 42 (2004):  979-1009. ProQuest. 13 Feb. 2008. 

Ripa, Yannick. Women and Madness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1990. 

Scull, Andrew, Charlotte Mackenzie,  and Nicholas Hervey. Masters of Bedlam. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. 

Thompson, C., ed. The Origins of Modern Psychology. London: John Wiley and Sons, 1987. 

Torrey, E. Fuller, and Judy Miller. The Invisible Plague. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001.  




                Project Group Members


Member Name



 Kristin Burkepile  Western Washington University  Love and Money in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
 Adam Brickett  Western Washington University  Love and Money in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
 Megan Berquist  Western Washington University  Love and Money in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel






     Project Completed: Winter 2008


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Comments (1)

Lauren Obermark said

at 11:56 pm on Apr 28, 2008

Wow! It seems to me that this must have been a really forward-thinking text for the time it was published. To challenge the asylum system in such an overt way could have undoubtedly ruffled some feathers. But, as the statistics indicate, such a piece was important; asylums needed to be challenged and reconsidered.

I am especially interested in your connection to how madness and asylum served as a topic for art of the time period. In our class, we read _Ruth Hall_, and this is one of the many societal ills that Fanny Fern points out. Her close friend, who shows no real signs of "madness," ends up dying in a presumably miserable asylum, and her husband doesn't even claim her body! I would love to know more about what role men/husbands played in the institutionalization of these "mad women" of the Victorian Era.

Excellent work here! Thanks for sharing such a fascinating and seemingly progressive text.

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