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Eighteenth-century Asylums Foundation Of The York Retreat





There were in England, at the beginning of the eighteenth century,
private asylums for the insane, the beneficial treatment pursued in
which was loudly vaunted in the public ear; but I am afraid the success
was not equal to the promise or the boast. Thus, there was in London an
old manor house in Clerkenwell, previously the residence of the
Northampton family, which was converted into a private asylum by Dr.
Newton the herbalist. His work, "The Herbal," was published by his son
some years afterwards. There appeared in the Post Boy (No. 741) in the
year 1700 an advertisement from Dr. Newton, which runs as follows:--"In
Clerkenwell Close, where the figures of Mad People are over the Gate,
liveth one who by the blessing of God cures all Lunatick, distracted, or
mad people; he seldom exceeds three months in the cure of the Maddest
person that comes in his house; several have been cured in a fortnight
and some in less time; he has cured several from Bedlam, and other
mad-houses in and about the city, and has conveniency for people of
what quality soever. No cure--No money."

A certain Dr. Fallowes published a work on insanity which attracted some
attention at this period, having for its title, "The Best Method for the
Cure of Lunatics, with some Accounts of the Incomparable Oleum
Cephalicum used in the same, prepared and administered."[100] The author
observes in his preface that "as this Kingdom perhaps most abounds with
lunaticks, so the greatest variety of distractions are to be seen among
us; for the spleen to which it has been observed this nation is
extremely subject, often rises up to very enormous degrees, and what we
call Hypo often issues in Melancholy, and sometimes in Raving
Madness." The proper seat of madness, he adds, appears to be the brain,
"which is disturbed by black vapours which clog the finer vessels thro'
which the animal spirits ought freely to pass, and the whole mass of
blood, being disordered, either overloads the small veins of the brain,
or by too quick a motion, causes a hurry and confusion of the mind, from
which ensues a giddiness and at length a fury. The abundance of bile,
which is rarely found to have any tolerable secretion in such patients,
both begets and carries on the disorder." Again, it will be seen that
there is nothing more than the fashionable classic humoral pathology,
without any original observations, and, in fact, the book is little more
than a puff of his incomparable oleum cephalicum, "a noble medicine,"
which he professes to have discovered; "a composition so very curious,
which I have known the use and benefit of in so many instances, that I
can venture to assure it to be the best medicine in the world in all the
kinds of lunacy I have met with. It is of an excellent and most pleasant
smell, and by raising small pustules upon the head, which I always
anoint with it, opens the parts which are condensed and made almost
insensible by the black vapours fixed upon the brain; it confirms its
texture, strengthens the vessels, and gives a freedom to the blood and
spirit enclosing them.... When applied after the greatest fury and
passion, it never fails to allay the orgasm of the animal spirits, and
sweetly compose 'em.... The distemper will be soon discharged, and I
have known it frequently to produce a cure in the space of one month."
He tells the reader he has had L10 a quart for it, but in compassion for
the poor he has prepared a quantity to be sold at L4 a quart at his
house. He also boasts of his kind treatment, and says, "The rough and
cruel treatment which is said to be the method of most of the pretenders
to this cure, is not only to be abhorred, but, on the contrary, all the
gentleness and kindness in the world is absolutely necessary, even in
all the cases I have seen." He says that not only has he never used
violence, but that his patients have good and wholesome food in every
variety, and maintains that such entertainments as are fit for persons
of any degree or quality will be found in his house in Lambeth Marsh,
"where the air is neither too settled and thin, nor too gross." As
chalybeate waters and cold bathing are useful, they can be had near, at
the Lambeth waters and in the Southwark Park; and he closes his book by
declaring that he is "always ready to serve mankind upon such terms as
shall be acknowledged reasonable and proportioned to the character and
condition of every patient."

Whether the patients placed under his care were treated as
scientifically and kindly as at the well-known asylum now in Lambeth
Road does not admit of question, although the latter has not much to say
of the "black vapours fixed upon the brain," nor can it, I am afraid,
boast of such a panacea as the oleum cephalicum!

I may add that, contemporary with Dr. Fallowes, an anonymous physician
in London published "A Discourse of the Nature, Cause, and Cure of
Melancholy and Vapours," in which he prescribes for the former, among
other remedies, not only "salt armoniac" (sic), steel filings, red
coral, zedoary, xyloalics, but, strangest of all, toasted silk!

Had we no other means of knowing the treatment to which some at least of
the insane were subjected in the early part of the eighteenth century,
we might infer it from a single passage in Swift's "Tale of a Tub," in
which the author says, in a "Digression concerning Madness," that
original people, like Diogenes, would, had they lived in his day, be
treated like madmen, that is, would incur the danger of "phlebotomy, and
whips, and chains, and dark chambers, and straw."

This was written in 1704.

Another well-known writer of that period, Smollett, did not distinguish
himself for generous views in regard to the insane, and forms a complete
contrast to his contemporary, Defoe, in his ideas of what the
legislature ought to do for the insane--a contrast greatly to the credit
of the latter. Smollett thought it would be neither absurd nor
unreasonable for the legislature to divest all lunatics of the privilege
of insanity in cases of enormity--by which he evidently means violent or
homicidal acts--to subject them "to the common penalties of the law." He
maintains that the consequences of murder by a maniac may be as
pernicious to society as those of the most criminal and deliberate
assassination. The entire inability indicated by this sentiment to
distinguish between voluntary and involuntary acts, the result of
disease--between motives and consequences--is singularly well shown.
Unfortunately it was not peculiar to Smollett.

Eloquently did Daniel Defoe protest against the abuses of asylums in his
day.[101] The "True-Born Englishman" reprobates the practice of men
sending their wives to mad-houses at every whim or dislike, in order
that they might be undisturbed in their evil ways. He asserts that this
custom had got to such a head that the private mad-houses were greatly
on the increase in and near London. He might well characterize this
system as "the height of barbarity and injustice," and worse than "a
clandestine inquisition," and say that these houses, if not suppressed,
should at least be subjected to examination. "Is it not enough," he
asks, "to make any one mad to be suddenly clapped up, stripped, whipped,
ill fed, and worse used?" He says, "If this tyrannical inquisition,
joined with the reasonable reflections a woman of any common
understanding must necessarily make, be not sufficient to drive any soul
stark-staring mad, though before they were never so much in their right
senses, I have no more to say." He asks the reader to indulge for once
the doting of an old man while he lays down his remedy, and not to
charge him with the ambition to be a lawgiver. Defoe goes at once to the
point, and says that it should be no less than felony to confine any
person, under pretence of madness, without due authority. He calls upon
Queen Caroline to begin her auspicious reign with an action worthy of
herself. Addressing the ladies, he says, "Who can deny when you become
suitors? and who knows but at your request a Bill may be brought into
the House to regulate these abuses?" Defoe little knew the prejudice any
reasonable measure would arouse when he added, "I am sure no honest
member in either honourable House will be against so reasonable a Bill;
the business is for some public-spirited patriot to break the ice by
bringing it into the House, and I dare lay my life it passes." He would
have infallibly lost it.

This naturally brings us to the question of what has been done by
legislation, both for protecting the subject from being unjustly
incarcerated on the plea of insanity, and for the protection of lunatics
when confined in asylums. The only Act of Parliament, up to the year
1808, which bore upon the care and protection of the lunatic poor was
that passed in the year 1744, in the seventeenth year of George II. (17
Geo. II., c. 5). This authorizes any two justices to apprehend them, and
have them securely locked up and, as might be expected, chained. The
contrast between the spirit and the provisions of such an Act, and that
passed a century later, under the auspices of Lord Shaftesbury, brings
into strong relief the solid advance which has been made in a century,
in the face of constant opposition from interested persons, as well as
that which arises out of the mere apathy and lethargy of a large class
of the community.

It should be added, in justice to the framers of the Act of 1744, that
it refers to those who "are so far disordered in their senses that they
may be too dangerous to be permitted to go abroad." It is rather for the
protection of society than the care of the lunatic.

A Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1763, to inquire
into the state of the private mad-houses of the kingdom. On this
Committee sat Pitt and Fox,[102] Wilkes, Lord North, Mr. Grenville, and
Mr. T. Townshend--names which alone serve to secure one's interest, and
also to raise the expectation that something would be done. Their
Report, while evidently drawn up in a cautious manner, shows, as had
been insisted upon by Daniel Defoe, with what alarming facility the
liberty of the subject could be taken away on the plea of