Escaping the Asylum.
How to get out when you’re in…..
Entering the asylum as a patient for the first time was, without doubt, a frightening experience for most of those who were detained. Already suffering mentally and quite probably physically, perhaps already having been in the workhouse, shunned by friends and relatives alike. The whole idea of asylum as a place of rest and shelter was doubtless a profound irony. A sufficient reason to wish for release or to consider running away. The thought was surely in the minds of many detained lunatics at some point.
The Reverend Henry Justinian Newcome became minister to the parish of Shenley in Hertfordshire sometime in the 1850’s. As well as his clerical duties he had an active mind and fancied himself something of an inventor. The chapel where he preached could be very cold in the winter and so, typically for such buildings, was warmed by a small coal stove with a bricked flue pipe going through the roof. It occurred to Newcome that by redesigning the heater and with the simple expedient of removing the bricking and exposing the metal flue it would be possible to radiate more heat for the building at a lower cost because less coal would be needed. So effective was it, he claimed, that when tried on a frosty day members of the congregation complained of the heat even with the windows open! The new tubular air warmer, Newcome vigorously pointed out, if used widely across the country, could effectively save millions of pounds. An exciting possibility, which Newcome announced to the world via an advertisement in The Times.
Whether others were fully convinced of the utility of the invention is not clear. But those who knew him were evidently concerned about his excitability. Sometimes, it lapsed into irascibility: Newcome was convinced that a new horse he purchased was not being fed its proper diet and, after careful examination of the horse droppings, accused in turn two stablehands criticising their denials of responsibility for stealing his corn.
Concerns about Reverend Newcome’s mental condition amplified among his family and parishioners to the point where, contrary to his own inclinations, he agreed to see a doctor. A diagnosis was not made clear, but the proposed remedy was to take a long holiday with his wife in Scotland. A ministers house near Inverness was vacant, and Newcome agreed that whilst staying he would act as a stand-in minister at Church services if needed. In June 1859 Newcome travelled north. It seems, however, that his mental state did not settle. After further medical consultations at the behest of his anxious wife, Newcome was detained in an asylum and later moved back to Hanwell, a large asylum near to his home. This was clearly a source of considerable discomfort to him. He repeatedly defended his actions and his sanity. When he challenged his brother, during one of his asylum visits, to say what it was that was so wrong with him that he was detained in the asylum, the best reply he could get was that “one string was a little out of tune”.
Newcome was not regarded as a significant risk by the medical superintendent, and so was permitted to take walks beyond the asylum walls. He did this one day, discussing his predicament with his sister. The conversation, in Newcome’s hurried mode, may have gone something like this:
“I’ve been closed up in this asylum for months now and I can’t see the reason why. Do you know the reason why? I keep asking people and writing letters but I don’t get any proper information. I’m not mad. You know I just spend my days reading the bible, thinking about what I could be doing. I just have brilliant ideas which people could use to make things so much better if they actually considered them. You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is. What is supposed to be wrong with me? Nobody tells me anything and…”
“Henry, please stop. I don’t really know why you’re here. According to your brother…”
“Yes, I know what he says — something about one string being out of tune — but what does that mean? I’m telling you I really should not be here, there’s no good reason. I don’t feel ill. None of the doctors I saw said there was anything wrong with me. I do not see why I should have to stay here, I keep thinking that if I could speak to those doctors again they would be able to confirm that they made a mistake, that I shouldn’t be here..”
“Well, Henry, you..”
“I really want to see those doctors again. So I see no reason why I should not do so. I can contact them and ask them to see me…”
“No Henry, they do not come to the asylum…”
“No, but…, I have had an idea that I could go and see them…”
“Well, thats hardly possible is it, you know you have to get back to the asylum soon…”
“Do I? Do I really? Even if I’m not insane? I keep telling you that a terrible mistake has been made. What if we write to them and get them to see me at a hotel? There would be nothing wrong with that and….”
“But Henry, you have to be in the asylum…”
“I can get the train into London and we shall write to them….”
“Henry, please, no…”
And on Henry no doubt continued, without pause, expressing his resentment at his detention, protesting his sanity, suddenly conceiving the idea that rather than walk back to the asylum he would go and stay in a London hotel and consult again with doctors he had previously seen, avowing his mental wellbeing, and seeking vindication from them. So this he did.
One of the doctors spoke sympathetically with him, listening, understanding his plight, expressing his concern. He suggested that the most prudent and healthful option Newcome could take would be to head to lodgings, recommended personally by the doctor, on the South Coast. There he could breathe some sea air and rest from his ordeal. The doctor would call to see him and could thoroughly assess his mental constitution. Newcome regarded this as an excellent suggestion.
On the following morning Newcome got into the coach which, as he had promised, the doctor had arranged. Two other passengers were already inside. They, it turned out, were asylum attendants. The coach driver was an asylum attendant. The coach turned around and took Newcome back to the asylum.
Newcome’s attempt to escape from the asylum was perhaps unusual, if honourable, in approach. His method of return, by force and trickery, was not unusual.
Considering the many thousands incarcerated in Victorian asylums for the insane, and the uncomfortable and overcrowded conditions endured by so many, it seems that there were relatively few attempts at escape — perhaps a handful each year. These varied from the cunning — patients who secreted carpentry tools and unscrewed window catches at night in order to make good their escape, to the more obvious — those working on the asylum farms who made away, or those permitted to be outside the asylum who decided they had had enough and would head back to their homes. Another opportunity for escape might be the regular cricket match; apparently considered as an engaging opportunity for patients, there were also matches against local teams from time to time. Edwin Brand (who styled himself “Daft Dan” when writing about his own experiences), wryly suggested that such matches were a reflection of the institution itself. The key batsmen were the medical staff, bowlers were the attendants, and patients might be asked to undertake the fielding. The temptation to wander must have been considerable.
Under legal provisions in place for detention it was laid down that should a patient remain at large for at least fourteen days they would not be required to return to the asylum unless they were again certified insane by the medical authorities (a provision that remains in place today). This, of course, placed a significant onus on the asylum staff to ensure that patients were under careful surveillance and apprehended quickly should they abscond. To reinforce the importance of the duty to monitor their charges attendants were liable to be fined or even dismissed if they were found to be careless in their responsibility to undertake regular checks on their charges. At the asylum in Wiltshire the problem of absconcion was dealt with by having a loud bell rung whenever anyone was missing. This alerted the local community and a number of those who absented themselves were quickly returned through the efforts of anxious citizens. It seems that another insurance policy against escapes was to require someone who had previously made off to then wear brightly coloured trousers, or even trousers with stitching labelling the wearer as a runaway from the asylum.
It was, nevertheless, possible to escape the confines of the asylum through this direct approach. A number of those listed as having absconded were, it turned out, people who were being prepared for discharge but frustrated at the slow and cautious deliberations of their medical masters. So they took matters into their own hands and left. They would of course be pursued, often back to their homes. In spite if this if, on closer examination, it became clear to the superintendent that the individual did not present any further difficulties at home, then full discharge from the asylum would be confirmed. Taking matters into one’s own hands was not necessarily a bad move. In fact, even if concerns remained at a significant level, the individual might be discharged if relatives affirmed their readiness to accept the patient back home. Inevitably some of those who did remain at home were subsequently readmitted and over-optimistic relatives wiser for the experience.
Such escapes from the asylum were beyond prevailing legal provisions — technically illegal. Escapes achieved within the provisions of the law were more complicated. As with Henry Newcome there were numbers of people admitted to care who protested that they were sane and wrongly incarcerated. Indeed, Newcome, in his pamphlets twenty five years after his two year confinement, was still pushing his claim that the actions of the doctors in pronouncing him insane was actually evidence of their own failures — “I was warned never to laugh at the Doctors, for that at once would be a proof of a weakened intellect”.
So, what might the detained sane person do to secure his release from the asylum? The options, in fact, were somewhat limited.
The ancient, legal response for anyone believing themselves wrongly held in any form of custody was (and still is) to issue a writ of Habeas Corpus. When granted by the court, the writ requires that the body (i.e. the person) be produced to the court together with the legal justification for the restriction. During his time in detention Reverend Newcome raised his own case with the highest authorities — the Lunacy Commissioners and the Home Secretary — and included his request for the writ. However, each of his respondents passed the matter back to the other. He did not, it seems, engage directly with a lawyer to approach the court. Even if Newcome had been successful in bringing the matter to court he may not have secured his release if doctors assigned by the court continued to assert his mental derangement.
Another option — at least in theory — would have been to challenge the veracity or the completeness of the legal documentation. It is something of a surprise that more individuals were not released as a consequence of improperly completed documentation. The reception orders that were required to be completed were the source of frequent complaints by medical superintendents at County Asylums. Elevating medical responsibilities above legal niceties they returned paperwork for correction but, meanwhile, ensured that the patient was accepted into the asylum. Poorly or incompletely compiled documentation was highlighted in reports of the Devon County Asylum where, the superintendent complained, evidence of insanity — one of the key elements to be completed, included bizarrely vague statements such as “Great prominence of the eyeball”; “Great rigidity of arms and legs” and “From his general conformation, manner and behaviour”.
A third possibility — favoured by some — was to use Scottish law to prove that detention was not required. This relied on differences between the law in England and Scotland. One Thomas Harrison, in 1852, made his way from the Manchester asylum to Glasgow, determined to prove himself sane. That he failed to do so was only because his return to the asylum was effected by trickery and force.
Possibly the most effective option apart from absconding was the use of publicity. Victorian media was alert to scandalous misdemeanours on the part of public authorities, particularly if the detained individual had some degree of celebrity or difference. Edith Lanchester’s detention in 1895 was an example of someone admitted to a lunatic asylum who was discharged after a week due to the outrageous nature of her detention and the publicity that followed it. Her insanity was evidenced, according the doctors, by her decision to live with a man who was far below her social status, as well as choosing not to marry. This, Dr Blandford asserted, was “social suicide” and she was diagnosed as “over-educated”. Edith was released from detention after a few days of public outcry. She returned, incidentally, to her life of sin with her working class partner, had 3 children and apparently a long and settled family life.
The problem of absconding also exercised the minds of the medical superintendents. Given a degree of competition between the various asylum leads, the annual reports may have under-represented the actual numbers of escapees. But the question became more important as the century progressed and public concerns about incarceration grew. For the medical superintendent of the Westmorland and Cumberland Asylum the whole issue needed to be considered in relation to the responsibility he had for patient safety and a debate about whether a reduction in asylum restrictions would be beneficial to recovery. He compared his own establishment with some of those in Scotland which had gained a reputation for openness and practices of facilitating the boarding out of patients who were regarded as progressing well.
The data that Campbell, the superintendent quoted, showed a higher rate of recovery over 5 years than any of the Scottish institutions. He believed that this was evidence of the superiority of his more highly controlled regime; though of course the fact that it was the superintendent of each facility who defined recovery should probably be borne in mind. Campbell argued that the moral medical responsibility to preserve life justified a dynamic approach to retaking those who escaped and were putting themselves and others at risk. There can be little doubt that the conservative approach to risk management of the English asylums added to the growth in asylum numbers and the need for regular expansion that was such a marked feature of the Victorian asylum movement.