During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, attitudes toward the mentally ill and their treatment varied throughout England. Almost all private and public asylums at this time upheld a policy of inhumane behavior towards patients, and questionable medical practices. The general public, for the most part, tolerated these methods, and even engaged in humiliating the mentally ill for entertainment. New techniques for treatment of the mentally ill emerged during this time in English history, which created differing views of healing methods. These mixed views on the appropriate way to address the population of insane people in England would affect the treatment of them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The mentally ill were often times regarded as less than human, and because of that, they would be treated as if their life did not matter and live in the most appalling conditions. The shocking actions of private asylums were touched upon by an article written in Gentlemen’s Magazine explaining how a person could be taken into a madhouse, to be stripped of their humanity and even clothes.
“A person is forcibly taken, stripped naked and ties him down to a bed from which he is not released until he submits to their pleasure” (Doc 2). No one, no matter how powerful or respected would be spared from the incredible insensitivity directed toward the mentally ill. As shown by Countess Hartcourt, even King George III would be subjugated to the horrors of late 18th century abuse of the insane. “The patient was no longer treated as a human being. He was sometimes chained to a staple, and frequently beaten and starved” (Doc 6). the living conditions of a patient’s cell in a madhouse were atrocious and completely disgusting. This is evidence that during this time, the lives of the mentally ill were not valued as much as the healthy. One example of just how filthy an asylum could be, comes from an investigation of the York Asylum by County Magistrate, Godfrey Higgins in 1813. In the report Higgins recounts a point during the investigation where he became so disgusted with the living conditions of the patients he vomited (Doc 2).
Two years later Henry Alexander, who had visited fourty-seven workhouses in West Country, made a testimony before a select committee of parliament, inquiring into the treatment of the insane. “At Taristock the stench was so great that I felt almost suffocated. It should be remembered that these cells were washed out that morning” (Doc 13). It would seem that the popular view of the mentally ill in England during this time was one of resentment and hate. The dreadful treatment of the mentally ill was popuuar throughout England. People would deliberately taunt the insane for their own entertainment, and teach this to morally wrong behavior to children, who would come to do the same as they grow up because it was sociably acceptable. In his diary entry, Jonathan Swift describes his trip with some nursed and children to see the sights of London in 1760. “Set out to the tower, saw the lions. Then to Bedlam.
Then dined at the Chop-House, and concluded with a puppet show” (Doc 3). The nonchalant manner that Swift writes about the visit to Bethlehem hospital suggests that it was common for people to abuse the insane for entertainment. One of the first public mental asylums in England was Bethlehem hospital. The engraving titled The Rake’s Progress, by William Hogarth in 1735, is a scene from Bethlehem in which the abuse of the patients is made apparent. People would play music while others, taunted, laughed at, and tied down patients, and some just sat and watched the wrongdoings (Doc1). These actions of the people in the engraving show the awful attitude people held against the mentally ill. One other account of how people taunted the insane for fun was recorded by William Perfect in 1787, about a man who was strapped to the floor of a workhouse. “Continuous visitors were pointing at, ridiculing, and irritating the patient who was thus made a spectacle of public sport”(Doc 5).
The social acceptance of taunting the mentally ill for fun is shown here, with a large number of people participating in humiliating this unfortunate individual. The mistreatment of the mentally ill was not appealing to all. In 1806 George Paul, the High Sheriff of Gloucstershire writes to the secretary of state about his feelings toward the treatment of the insane. “There is hardly a parish in which there may not be found some unfortunate human creature left to ramble through the streets, teased bu all that is ignorant, vulgar and unfeeling” (Doc 8). Paul’s letter expresses his sympathies toward the defenseless insane, which shows that even though some people enjoyed abusing them, people like George Paul, would try to improve life for people who could not do so themselves. Though studies were conducted at the time, little was known about mental illnesses and their causes during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1809 an administrator at Bethlehem hospital John Haslan studied the connections between insanity and heredity of on patient R.G. Haslan came to the conclusion that “Where one of the parents have been insane it is more than probable the offspring will be similarly affected” (Doc 9). Medical practices for the patients of mental hospitals were largely ineffective and harmful during the early 19th century. Dr.Bryan Crowther, a surgen at Bethlehem, writes about the procedure of bleeding patients regularly without covering the cut. Crowther didn’t find it necessary to “Adopt any other security against haemorrhage” (Doc 10), instead the patients would just be sent back to their cells. The traditional English medical professionals viewed their way of treatment the best, and with little knowledge of the causes of mental illness, these practices would continue. In 1792 an English Quaker named William Tuke founded a new asylum called the York Retreat. This asylum would implement a method of mental treatment later called moral treatment by William’s grandson Samuel Tuke.
The Frenchman Charles-Gaspard de la Rive describes the fundamental ideas of moral treatment in 1798 when he writes a description of his visit to the Retreat. “They must be given immediate punishment and rewards. They must first be subjugated, then encouraged, then applied to work made agreeable by attractive means” (Doc 7). Advocates of moral treatment rejected medical practices and instead promoted limited use of constraints, work, and cultivating rationality and moral strength. In 1813 Samuel Tuke writes, in a book about the Retreat, about one particularly large man who was brought to the Retreat, and was so responsive to his treatment there, that he was discharged in about four months “completely recovered” (Doc 11).
The York Retreat was a place where the people believe that the mentally ill were not evil, and that they could learn to live in society. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the people who suffered from mental illnesses also had to suffer the cruel and inhumane treatment of them by the rest of society. The hospitals were more lik prisons, and workhouses condoned the humiliation of the insane. People thought of the mentally ill as less than human, and they lived in conditions far worse than farm animals. Some institutions like the York Retreat were mere sympathetic to the mentally ill, but no asylum at that time could fully heal them. Ultimately, there was no way for a person living with a mental illness to get the help they needed and deserved in order to live a life that was part of society.