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Highgate Cemetery home to Victorian-era mentalists

A cartoon from Phiz Magazine entitled: That is the Lunatic A cartoon from Phiz Magazine entitled: That is the Lunatic

Rhiannon Edwards
Thursday, November 8, 2012
2:51 PM

Dr Sarah Wise has uncovered a lunacy trade in the Victorian era in her new book. Two of the doctors involved are buried in Highgate

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It is widely held (and propagated, in part, by historic fiction) that inconvenient women could be put away by their husbands during the Victorian era – with the use of skewed mental health assessments.

Dr Sarah Wise decided to put this accepted truth under the microscope in her third book. Her investigation showed something quite different to the popular wisdom that hysterical women were the main victims of this practice. “I quickly established that the majority of the people who were put away in this way were actually men,” says Wise.

Wise established that, predictably, malicious incarceration happened in the main to men with money. “You didn’t have to have a lot of money – it was a grab for any cash you might have. In most cases, it happened when a chap came home and said he was planning to get married or came home and said he was planning to make or make amendments to a will.

“If you were incarcerated, you lost all your civil rights. A committee was set up to deal with your affairs and, more often than not, they were caught with their hands in the till.”

Wise describes this phenomenon as “a low-level horror that ran through the century”. It was fuelled, in part, by an emerging culture of ‘mad doctors’ or ‘alienists’. Partially comparable to psychiatrists today, these professionals quite often over-diagnosed patients – sometimes mistakenly, sometimes with intent.

“They started the century in the same ranks as teeth-pullers – at the unrespectable end of the medical profession. A lot of them were very concerned with curing madness and helping to take the stigma away, much like modern-day psychiatrists. Only some of them were crooks,” says Wise. Two of the doctors, George Man Burrows and Robert Gardiner Hill, are buried in Highgate Cemetery.

The pair were “swept away in the culture of the time and got a bit greedy but essentially were not dishonest in their intentions and were good doctors”, says Wise. Gardiner Hill is credited with developing a form of treatment for the mentally ill that avoided the cruel restraint techniques used in early practice. Others, unfortunately, were much more cunning. Dr John Conolly, a psychiatrist whom Charles Dickens actively advocated, was charged in 1858 for taking a cut of the profit made from the asylum fees of patients he had committed to a friend’s asylum in Middlesex.

Wise’s book, Inconvenient People, tells the success stories of those who appealed their incarceration, determined to escape the clutches of the mental health industry – to return to what little they had left in the outside world. These people were helped by patient advocacy groups, miles ahead of their time, like the Alleged Lunatics Friend Society, formed by a group of persecuted men in 1838, and the incredibly successful Lunacy Law Reform Association, set up by a woman named Louisa Lowe, who herself had been committed in 1870 when she tried to leave her husband. “The things they were asking for were in tune with the 1960s anti-psychiatry movements,” says Wise. “They were greatly concerned about having a jury of everyday people hear the trial, rather than just medical professionals. The Victorians in this case had so much more faith in what they called the ‘general wisdom of the common man’ – more so than we do today.”

Dr Sarah Wise will give a talk at Highgate Cemetery entitled Gaslight Stories and the Victorian Lunacy Panics: Women in White, Eccentric Heirs, Inconvenient People on November 14 at 7.30pm. Tickets should be booked in advance. Inconvenient People is published by Bodley Head priced £20.

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