Welcome To The Asylum


This is an excerpt of an upcoming article that takes a look at insanity within American culture in the colonial era.

In 17th century America, insanity within the prison system was not discussed, it was completely and totally ignored as a matter of fact. The prison was for criminals, for the wrongdoers, even as there may have been realizations that some inmates just weren’t right. While there were changes and reforms from people such as Dorothea Dix, the plight of insane and mentally ill people within the early American prison system starts much before and after either people like her came onto the scene.

Rather than jump right into insane/mentally ill individuals in the US prison system, it must first be known the terminology by which insanity was defined overall and viewed amongst the different cultures of early America.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the term “distraction” was used to describe a person who was just short of being fully mentally ill while later in the 18th and into the 19th centuries, terms such as “demonic possession,” “madness,” and “lunacy”[1] came into the mainstream to define what today we acknowledge as mental illness. The exact definition of insanity can be found in an 1851 edition of Webster’s Dictionary which defined the term as a “state of being unsound in mind” and “applicable to any degree of mental derangement from slight delirium or wandering, to distraction.”[2] While these terms may seem to be quite scientific, in some cases they were more a dig at those who were mentally ill, one example being the term “madness” which “was an emotionally charged term tinged with contempt” as it suggested “wilderness” and a “lack of restraint by reason.”[3] In this manner, uses of certain terms to describe the mentally ill resulted in their being dehumanized and look at as more animalistic rather than human beings in need of medical treatment. This line of thought persisted in the 18th and 19th centuries as a loss of reason was equated with a loss of humanity and “madmen were seen as little better than animals.” In fact, “the first hospitals were established to protect citizens from the threat to social order posed by violent lunatics,”[4] rather than trying to rehabilitate them and such hospitals were viewed as a tool of social control.

Yet, the treatment of the mentally ill varied among different cultures, which had different views on insanity. Native Americans described mental illness as “soul loss” or “being lost to oneself,”[5] something which occurred due to violating a taboo such as incest or being attacked by a spirit. In other cultures, mental illness was viewed as being out of touch, out of balance with the physical and spiritual universes. Yet no matter the definition, there were healing rituals such as the week-long “night chant” of the Navajo in which a shaman would paint an image on the ground, with the patient sitting on a different part of the image each night as the treatment progressed. During this time, the shaman would ask the patient numerous questions and would press them to admit their wrongdoings.

African-American views of insanity and mental illness were similar to those of Native Americans as they overlapped the mental and spiritual in discerning the problem as well as in healing. There was a general belief that illness, but especially mental illness, was bought on by a curse but the afflicted was always seen as being somewhat responsible for bringing the curse onto themselves. African-Americans that believed themselves to be under a curse would “often exhibited symptoms of mental illness”[6] and in many cases would starve themselves or stop drinking and die of dehydration. The reason for this was that witchcraft was (and still is in some cases) quite prevalent in African societies and thus the psychological effects of believing that one was cursed could end up manifesting itself physically in acts such as the ones mentioned.

However, this view of insanity being caused by curses also served as an outlet for slaves to express their anger against their masters. Slaves would have curses put on masters for committing such acts as punishing them unjustly or selling a family member. In this context, witchcraft and insanity can be viewed as a “mental resistance to slavery.”

Unlike Native Americans or African-Americans, Europeans examined insanity and mental illness through the lens of religion, with insanity being caused by demonic possession. Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan minister who played a major role in the Salem Witch Trials, supported this position, writing that some people’s bodies had a “mass of blood” in them which was “disordered with some fiery acid” and that Satan possesses such people and waits until he has an “opportunity to shoot into the mind as many fiery darts as may cause a sad life unto them.”[7]

According to Mather, while demonic possession was linked to the ‘evils’ of ‘Satan,’ it was also believed that God himself could inflict madness on a person. He could do this for a number of reasons such as “punishment for a grievous sin,” “a way of demonstrating his divine power, a test of faith for the afflicted, or for mysterious reasons of his own.”[8]

Mental illness was dealt in two main ways, which can be separated into the public and private spheres. There was a general class divide as privately, those mentally ill in upper class families were cared for in their homes whereas the poor were subject to public treatment in which there was either indifference in regards to harmless individuals or mental illness was recognized “for the purpose of punishing or repressing the individual.”[9] The violent mentally ill were dealt with in a much different manner, using ‘remedies’ that are quite barbaric for today’s standards, where the sick were “locked up and chained by their families in strong-rooms, cellars, and even in flimsy out-houses,” yet, “where the illness manifested itself in a mild and harmless manner, the individual was permitted a degree of freedom of movement.”[10] The main goal of the public was to rid themselves of any and all violent cases, which usually consisted of locking them away in prisons.

As time progressed, the Anglo-American establishment began to change slightly in regards to treatment of the mentally ill. Instead of having the disturbed be subject to torturous acts based upon religion, they were subject to tortuous acts based upon ‘rational’ and ‘science,’ by the likes of such people as one Benjamin Rush.

Rush had quite the resume, graduating from Princeton before the age of fifteen and quickly rising to prominence over the years. At the age of 23, he was elected to be a professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. Yet, for all of this, he lacked greatly in regards to find ways to treat the insane. He “divided mental diseases into two principal groups: general intellectual derangement, and partial intellectual derangement. His remedies for insanity were likewise placed in two general categories: remedies applied to the mind through the medium of the body, and remedies applied to the body through the medium of the mind.”[11] The application of bloodletting was most horrendous as there were three main methods, all of which were appalling.

The first was the continued use of leeches as a bloodletting source. The second was called arteriotomy, a process in which the arteries in the temples would be punctured and bled. The third was phlebotomy (also known as “breathing a vein”) where a large external vein would be cut in order to draw blood. The last was scarification – a particularly stomach-turning method which involved one of a varied set of tools made for the purpose of attacking “superficial” blood vessels. Such devices included spring-loaded lancets and a circular, mutli-bladed, spring-loaded device known as a scarificator.[12]

Rush used bloodletting in the extreme. He even admitted that “he once extracted two hundred ounces of blood from one patient within a few months, and from another 470 ounces in forty-seven bleedings.”[13] Such barbarous activity only harmed the mentally ill and this type of harmful activity would occur for quite some time. Yet, there was hope, namely due to one woman by the name of Dorothea Dix.



[1] Lynn Gomwell and Nancy Tomes, Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pg 9

[2] Janet A. Tighe, “What’s in a Name: A Brief Foray into the History of Insanity in England and the United States,” Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33:2 (June 2005), pg 253

[3] Gomwell and Tomes, pg 9

[4] Gomwell and Tomes, pg 19

[5] Rebecca Tannenbaum, Health and Wellness In Colonial America: Health and Wellness In Daily Life (Santa Barbra, California: Greenwood, 2012), pg 142

[6] Tannenbaum, pg 144

[7] Cotton Mather, Thomas Robbins, Samuel Gardner Drake, Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England, vol. 1 (Hartford, Connecticu: Silus Andrus & Son, 1855), pg 438

[8] Tannenbaum, pg 145

[9] Albert Deutsch, “Public Provision for the Mentally Ill in Colonial America,” Social Service Review 10:4 (1936), pg 608

[10] Deutsch, pg 607

[11] Albert Deutsch, The Mentally Ill in America: A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times, (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), pg 77

[12] Medtech, Bloodletting is back! Here’s Everything You Need to Know About This Ancient Practice, http://www.medtech.edu/blog/the-history-progression-and-modern-stance-on-bloodletting

[13] Deutsch, pg 77