Wednesday, October 8, 2014

English Horror Story: Asylum

Patients in a Victorian Asylum (from the BBC).
Part of Dracula is set in an insane asylum because they were definitely scary! Bram Stoker used to visit them with the actress, Ellen Terry. She was studying for roles, or something, but visiting the asylum to look at the lunatics once a week was a disturbingly popular Victorian pastime, as evidenced by the portraits Henry Hering took of patients in the late 1850s.

Eliza Camplin
Eliza Camplin's portrait is decidedly posed. She didn't like the dress she was wearing, and insisted on sitting with a book (which she is holding upside-down).

The photos of Harriet Jordan are also interesting.

Harriet Jordan, diagnosed with mania.
Harriet Jordan, a few months later.
I wonder if Jordan was pulling herself together because she wanted to get out of there.

Hering took his photos at Bethlem Hospital, and Stoker gives us the impression of a great big asylum, but most people 'diagnosed' with Victorian mental conditions were simply locked away in the private homes of non-medical men, who set up to profit from these arrangements. Families paid for secrecy and discretion.

Hospitals used padded rooms to keep patients from injuring themselves.

Photo by Henry Hering.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the Victorian mental asylum was how easily women could end up there. London's most successful female journalist and newspaper editor wound up in one after her husband died because her family didn't like her and wanted her money.
Women were thought to be at particular risk of mental illness caused by supposed disorders of the reproductive system. Cases of melancholia associated with the menopause were treated with leeches to the pubis. The male doctors of the day saw ‘hysteria’ – from the Latin for womb – everywhere; almost any form of behaviour, such as excited chattering with other women, could be diagnosed as hysteria. - Wendy Wallace
Photo by Henry Hering.
I must admit that I felt a bit hypocritical selecting these photos to share, after mocking Stoker for his asylum tourism. In a way, we are all becoming asylum tourists by scrolling through this blog, but the images haunt me because of the deep sense of empathy and sadness I feel for each of the patients portrayed.

I'd venture to say that these people were lucky to end up in Bethlem - not in some fake doctor's private home.

More photos by Henry Hering
Though not all of Hering's photos are women, women were the primary subjects of psychiatric care that focused on sexual disorders.

Treatments included: calomel (which was really just mercury); antimony (a chemical we now use in fire retardants) to keep patients in a constant state of nausea (if they were nauseous, they were less likely to be violent); cold baths; cold showers; cold applications to the uterus (I don't even want to think how that was arranged); I personally prefer cycling for the insane. Electric shock therapy, and the lobotomy were both also invented during this time as a form of treatment for mental patients.

Cycling for the Insane' was an article published in a late-Victorian medical journal about the benefits of cycling for mental health patients. It reflects a movement to treat medical problems with moral solutions, a trend also reflected in the number of institutions established and constructed during the nineteenth century.

Doctors working in these mental institutions exaggerated the success of their methods. More patients poured in. By the 1890s, most died there.
Many mental hospitals closed in the 1970s and 1980s. This was due to pressure from the antipsychiatry movement, feminist criticism, ex-patient activism and political suspicion of large, unaccountable institutions. - The Science Museum
Throughout October 2014, I will be sharing the horror stories of 1890s London. Check back often!

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