Cornhill Magazine,  10 (1864), 448–60.

A Visit to a Convict Lunatic Asylum

[William Gilbert]




Mental Illness, Medical Practitioners, Crime, Hospitals, Architecture, Gender, Temperance

    Acknowledges that the 'question, What constitutes insanity, is one of the most troublesome in the whole scope of jurisprudence, civil and criminal', and also notes that 'whether rightfully or wrongfully [...] there does seem to be a great deal of prejudice against the doctors whenever they appear in lunacy cases'. Medical men are accused of either being 'bent on placing under restraint every individual on whose sanity they are called to decide', or of wanting to 'obtain the acquittal of every murderer, garotter, or miscreant of any kind on the plea of insanity'. (448) Describes a visit to Fisherton House Asylum near Salisbury, which is 'like a village' and 'comprises many houses [...] separated by high walls, so that the patients may be divided according to their cases' (449). The place has 'more the appearance of a well-regulated hospital than that of either a prison or a lunatic asylum' (453), and, as the principal, John A Lush, announces proudly, there is 'not a pair of handcuffs, or a lock-up cell, or any instrument of punishment whatever, in the whole establishment' (451). Rather, order is maintained 'Principally by kindness, and a very powerful staff of warders', and if a 'man misconducts himself' the warders 'do not allow him to attend the balls' that are held every week (451–52). Recounts conversations with several inmates, many of whom appear initially quite sane but then betray their insanity through their failure to feel contrition for their crimes. Lush then draws attention to the peculiar fact that while there are many 'flowers and shrubs in the airing-ground of the dangerous male convicts', the 'women destroy every one the moment it shows its head above the ground', and he attributes it 'possibly to that reversion of feeling and natural tastes that insanity so frequently causes' (457). Another doctor, identified only as 'X', contends that 'frequently there is a great affinity between bad temper and insanity', and, when asked whether he can 'maintain such a theory seriously', he produces a female patient to prove his point (457–58). The doctor also recounts the case of a patient who 'suffers from dipsomania, or thirst madness, and when he feels the fit coming on he requests permission to reside here till it is over' so as to 'keep him from obtaining spirits'. Concludes that although the visit has afforded 'but little scientific information', it has at least shown clearly that 'every male prisoner' held in the asylum is 'properly deprived of his liberty'. (460)

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