Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Madmen

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A visit to a County Asylum - The new Bedlam and the old - 'Far from the madding crowd'  - The advantages of insanity - Queer delusions of patients - The man who was troubled with beetles on the brain - How he proposed to "settle the varmint" - The old original meteorologist - He reveals to me the secret of his life - A mystery of Downing Street -  "If I revealed all I could, Europe would be in a blaze in six hours" - Sham madmen: how one was cured.

IT seems like the perfection of paradox to say that an excellent way of escaping for a spell of rest from the turmoil and the hurly-burly of the "madding crowd" is to seek the tranquil companionship of the inmates of some great lunatic asylum; but, having tried it, I can safely say that there is much more practical sense in the proposition than an inexperienced person would suppose.
    I have thought so many times since, and it certainly was my impression when, sometimes accompanied by the doctor, but more often alone, I sauntered about in the midst of that happy family of madmen - numbering a couple of hundred or more - who were enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, and the various healthful amusements provided for them in the extensive pleasure grounds attached to one of our national asylums for the insane. It is a vast establishment, and its boundary walls shut in from the outer world more than two thousand men and women; every one of whom, were he or she to commit the gravest crime, would be held irresponsible for it. The male inmates were not all of them disporting in the garden: some were at work there and in the vegetable-growing department, digging, weeding, planting, manfully hard at it in their shirtsleeves; some lightening their labour with a pipe of tobacco, some whistling as they worked or humming the tune of a popular ditty, and one and all seemingly as free from care as though in the ordinary pursuits of life they had amassed something of a competency and had retired hither, their present employment being their pleasurable pastime.
    It was the same to a certain extent in the workshops attached to the establishments - the tailor's shop, the shoemaker's, and the carpenter's. Except as regards scrupulous cleanliness and [-21-] tidiness and the best of sanitary arrangements possible, the spectacle of the men, busy at the board and bench, was exactly similar to any other workshop of the sort - with this difference, that the elements of driving and drudgery were altogether excluded. Take the tailors. I have seen in a Whitechapel garret a dozen poor sweaters squatted on the floor, and with scarce elbow room to do justice to a stitch with a still-threaded needle; and to watch how the honest poor fellows bent over their work, it almost seemed from their anxious and haggard faces that their very lives depended on their completing the job in hand at a certain tick of the clock, and that if there remained but an inch of seaming undone come the stipulated time, some terrible punishment awaited them. But the tailors of the asylum took matters more easily. Exempt from care and worry, not driven by hard necessity, they stitched away in placid content, cheerfully busy, and fully satisfied with themselves and the work they were engaged on.
    Madmen every one of them, however, and had they lived in the days when old "Bedlam" was a national institution, every man would have been liable to be caged pretty much as the hyena is caged at the Zoological Gardens, with a shaven head, and naked except for an old pair of canvas pantaloons and a blanket to cover his shoulders; and with a chain for his waist if he showed himself restless under such treatment, and a dash of cold water and a whipping as a sedative should he display any extraordinary excitement. If any humanitarian of the period had proposed that, by way of experiment, half a dozen madmen who knew something of tailoring should be placed in a room together, and freely supplied with appliances for their craft - including a pair of shears, and needles, and bodkins, and with a goose for ironing of ten pounds weight or so for the general use - the probabilities are that the individual who seriously made the suggestion would have been regarded by all who knew him as being himself a fit subject for a strait waistcoat. It would have been regarded as next to certain, had such a preposterous idea been entertained, that, arming himself with the goose, one tailor would straightway set about braining the others, who, made furious by the assault, would attack each other indiscriminately with their shears and bodkins until all were slain, or at least so horribly mutilated as to be past hope of cure. I inquired of [-22-] the asylum foreman tailor - who, as need not be stated, was a person in possession of his senses - whether at any time he had much trouble with the patients entrusted to his care, and he replied that, as a rule, they were a harmless and peaceable lot of fellows enough; and that, though many of them had "bad spells," when they could not be trusted, these were nearly always preceded by premonitory symptoms easily distinguishable, so that precautions could be taken. It will not unfrequently happen, I was informed, that a man will himself make known that he feels his fit coming on, and ask to be withdrawn from the workshop for a few days.
    But what perplexed me more than anything else, in the workshops as well as in the vegetable garden and recreation ground, was, generally speaking, the absence of anything in the demeanour or movements of the inmates to denote that they were insane. There certainly was one peculiarity in their conduct, but I did not notice it until it was pointed out to me. The men did not converse so freely together as under the circumstances might have been expected. Those who are but temporarily deranged and are progressing towards recovery, will associate together, but, as I was informed, confirmed lunatics seldom do. They are, as a rule, suspicious of each other, and of being inveigled into doing something that may get them into trouble with the authorities; and should one madman have confided to him anything in the nature of a plot or conspiracy to do a mischief to an attendant, or to escape, for instance, he is pretty sure, at the earliest opportunity, to betray his friend's confidence to the doctor or some other official he has a liking for - a providential peculiarity, and one that, no doubt, tends considerably to the general security.
    But as far as appearances went, there was not one in a half-dozen of all the patients brought under my observation who did not appear as sane as most persons one meets with in ordinary society, and as capable of discussing commonplace topics with a show of rationality. I had been informed, and my limited opportunity of testing it convinced me of the truth of the statement, that in by far the greater number of cases it is only on one particular subject that a patient betrays mental derangement, though in some instances the character of the delusion is so extraordinary that its retention seems utterly incompatible with ability to talk and argue sanely on other matters. As, for [-23-] instance, there was one elderly gentleman, of mild and benevolent aspect, who engaged me in conversation on political affairs, and impressed me favourably with his sound and sensible views on the Bradlaugh question. He likewise spoke concerning the attempted assassination of the Queen, and pooh-poohed the possibility of any one lending himself to a crime so diabolical unless he was a lunatic. I had already settled in my mind that this was a patient who was nearly or quite cured, and entitled to his discharge, when he suddenly broke off talking about McLean, and, in a confidential whisper, asked me if I happened to have such a thing as a packet of beetle wafer about me. I replied that I was sorry to say I had not.
    "I am sorry too," he said, with a doleful sigh. "It is the only thing that will cure me, and yet the doctors here are so obstinate that they won't let me have it. I am troubled, you must know, sir, with beetles on the brain. They are harmless insects, and I've no great disliking for them on a kitchen floor, or in a coal cupboard, but when they do their running about inside my skull they disturb me dreadfully. If they would let me have just one packet of beetle wafer to poison em, I should be well in a couple of hours; I am sure I should."
    "But how would you apply it?" I asked him.
    He had his answer ready, and took me by a buttonhole of my coat as he replied in a low whisper, as though he was afraid the beetles might hear him, "I should swallow it in warm water, and then stand on my head and let it settle on 'em."
    Another patient, a genial bald-headed old gentleman, who introduced himself to me by courteously offering me a pinch of snuff, commenced a conversation by asking me what I thought of the weather, and on my replying that it was all that one could desire, he warmly shook hands with me, remarking he was exceedingly glad that I liked it, as it was his own manufacture, and that he was happy to say he had a great quantity of material for making fine weather on hand, and he intended to give the public the benefit of it.
    "When I say that I make it, you, of course, will not take it in a literal sense," said he, seriously. "I am chief forecaster, that is all, and the chief of the meteorological department. And now I've told you that," he continued, his serene brow becoming suddenly clouded, "I am sure you will agree with me that it is [-24-] an infernal shame that I should be detained here. Do you know why, sir? I'll tell you, and then I shall feel exceedingly obliged to you if you will call a great public meeting in Trafalgar Square, and inform the British nation how shamefully they are being swindled. There is no reason, sir, why they shouldn't have fine weather every day throughout the year, and I would freely let them have it if I were at liberty to conduct meteorological affairs as they should be conducted. But the scoundrels at the head of affairs dread my power. They are afraid if the people have nothing but fine weather they will always he going to Rosherville Gardens and neglect their work, and that, consequently, the revenue will suffer. So they've shut me up in this place. But they can't muzzle me altogether, sir. No, no; they're afraid to come it quite so strong as that. They give me my way sometimes. At eight p.m. every evening I send out my forecast, and it is always bright sunshine and a blue sky. And between you and me," said he, with a subdued laugh, "I believe they are coming to their senses, and wish to conciliate me. They've allowed the people to have what I forecast for them more than a dozen times during the past month."
    I think that he was about to enlighten me as to the secret of his weather wisdom, but another pleasant-looking old gentleman at that moment came up and jovially asked the injured meteorologist if he was of a mind to make one of four at trap- and-ball, when bidding me a hasty good morning, and whispering me to be sure and call that meeting in Trafalgar Square, he ran off with his friend.
    Scarcely had be left me when a gentlemanly young fellow of six or seven and twenty accosted me laughingly, remarking, as he pointed in the direction of the retreating meteorologist, "I suppose he has been boring you about his weather prophecies, hasn't he? I thought so. He is an amusing old chap, but of course you are aware that he is cracked? I thought I would take the liberty of mentioning it, because, like many other of the poor fellows here, his manner is so plausible that any one from the outside might be easily taken in by him. And then quitting that subject, he began chatting in such an easy and sensible way about the asylum and the grounds that I began to think that he was some official (he was very well dressed) connected with the place. Presently, however, he abruptly remarked, 
    [-25-] "By-the-bye, have I not met you in Downing Street?"
    I had no recollection of it, I replied.
    "Well, I thought so," he continued, "because I saw you looking so hard at me that I thought you recognized me. You know who I am, I suppose?"
    I had not that pleasure, I told him.
    "Well, look here," said he in a confidential whisper, "don't let it go any further or it might lead to mischief; but the fact is, I am a distinguished official. The Ministry know all about it, but they keep it dark. Yes; the fact is, I began to find the overwhelming pressure of business too much for me. And yes, sir, I should have gone irretrievably wrong here" (and he touched his forehead) "if I hadn't pulled up in time. I am only here temporarily - just for a rest, you know, and then I, of course, go to work again."
    "May I ask who is the gentleman who is at present so ably officiating for you?" I inquired of him. 
    "Nay," he replied, with knowing shake of his head, "now you are asking too much. If I revealed what you request me to, Europe would be in a blaze in six hours," and with a finger on his lips as a caution to me not to abuse his confidence, he went off.
    It is said that to be constantly in the society of madmen, even in an official capacity, is found to have an injurious effect on those of whose perfect sanity there was previously no question, and that it is deemed necessary on that account to allow warders and asylum attendants frequent holidays. I cannot say how this may be, or whether the few hours I passed in lunatic companionship to some small extent disturbed my mental capacity; but I must confess that on quitting the asylum my foremost impression was that there are many imaginable conditions of ordinary life in which a man would find himself more miserable than in a modern madhouse. In "Little Dorrit" one of the characters is a medical gentleman who has passed several years in the Marshalsea, and who holds forth on the advantage of a debtors prison compared with impecunious liberty. "We are quiet here," says the insolvent M.D. "We don't get badgered here. There is no knocker here to be hammered at by creditors, and bring a man's heart in his mouth. We know the worst of it. We have got to the bottom, and can't fall any lower, and what have we found? Peace."
    [-26-] Here, at the asylum, existence must be far more endurable than in a debtors' prison. A few words written by a magistrate, justified by a certificate signed by two doctors, and in an instant the crushing weight of responsibility is lifted from the shoulders of the long afflicted, and he is granted a new lease of life, and that with liability so limited that it is mere feather-weight as compared with the substantial advantages guaranteed and received. The terms of those whose guest he is are as follow: They undertake to board him liberally, to lodge him comfortably, to provide him with an extensive and well-arranged garden, where in fine weather he may saunter or sit in a shady arbour, and read the newspaper or smoke a quiet pipe, or chat with a friend. Or he may join in any one of a half-dozen outdoor sports, including cricket and racquets and bat-and-ball. Should the weather be unsuitable he may amuse himself at various indoor games-chess, draughts, or what not. He may work or be idle pretty much as best suits his humour. He has at his command an attendant, whose duty it is to see that he wants for nothing consistent with the rules of the establishment, and there is a skilled doctor in constant readiness to attend to his slightest ailment. And all that is stipulated for in return for all these good things is that the patient shall place himself passively in the hands of his guardians, and endeavour to take as kindly as possible to their treatment of him. We are all more or less mad, somebody says; but it is not every one who is able to make such an easy bargain for his lodgment and maintenance.
    Is it difficult to sham madness, I wonder, and in the several great county asylums are there many impostors who have successfully imposed on the doctor, and are living a lazy and luxurious life of ease and plenty at the expense of the unfortunate taxpayers? I asked one of the medical gentlemen of the establishment I visited what were his ideas as regards this, and he seemed to think that, though it might be possible for a shrewd rogue to simulate insanity to an extent that would enable him to gain admission to an asylum, he would be able to sustain the imposture but for a very short time under the experienced eyes of the medical staff.
    "It is frequently attempted, no doubt," he added. "Indeed, we have had several such cases here, but they have been chiefly from the workhouses and from the army. It is an easy way out [-27-] of distasteful regimental service, if a man is cunning enough to play his part; and I have little doubt that there are hundreds of able-bodied paupers in our workhouses who, if they knew of the advantages to be obtained, would willingly declare themselves mad as March hares, if by doing so they could ensure coming here."
    He related to me an instance of shamming mad that had recently come under his notice. The patient was the brother of a man who had been twice an inmate, on the first occasion for six months, and the last only two, and of whose actual insanity considerable doubt was entertained. On this account, when the brother made his appearance he was regarded with some suspicion, which close watching confirmed. After a fortnight he was taken into the doctors' room, and, after some questioning, to which he returned the maddest possible answers, he was placed in an anteroom, where he could easily overhear a pretended consultation between the two medical gentlemen as to the method of treatment that should be adopted. It was agreed between them that he should at once be put on low diet, that his head should be shaved to admit of a powerful blister being effectually applied over the whole of his cranium, and that if this failed to have the desired effect, he was to be subjected to a course of galvanic shocks of as great force as it was possible for him to bear. A short time after he was removed he sent for the doctor, to inform him in a perfectly calm and sane manner that he was glad to say he need not put him to any further trouble; that "all of a sudden something had busted in his head, and that from the very moment he felt as well - indeed, better - than he ever remembered."
    But the doctor, keeping his countenance, soothingly informed the patient that this bursting of something in his head was a mere fancy, and that if he kept himself as calm and quiet as he could, he hoped by the method of treatment to be employed in his case to cure him in a few months of this and all other such delusions, and restore him to health. Desperate with terror, the fellow then fell on his knees and confessed there was nothing at all the matter with him, and it was for the sake of enjoying the good things he was given to understand were to be had at the asylum that he had shammed mad. But this also the medical gentleman affected to treat as an hallucination, [-28-] and left him saying he would send him a composing draught. And during the several days it was necessary to detain him before he could be discharged, his constant terror on account of the blister and the galvanic shocks was such that it is the doctor's opinion that he will never "try it on" at that or any ether asylum again.