The 19th Century Nervous Breakdown



Photo from Google Image


News items From the Perth Courier from Archives Lanark 1897

John McQuarrie of Lanark was confined in the Perth jail a year or two ago for insanity  and taken from there to the asylum at Kingston died in that institution and was buried in Lanark last week.

Emeline Ferguson, insane, sent to jail.

Innisville Inklings:  Miss Maggie Steen, a young lady of Innisville, lost her reason last week and was taken to the Perth jail to be cared for.

These days, work stress, postnatal depression and anxiety are addressed hopefully with great understanding. But years ago, the women who suffered from these conditions, were confined to an asylum as they had no other place to put them.

But who decided if a person was mad or not? And just how did you end up in a Victorian asylum? In those days women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).
Nineteenth century doctors knew next to nothing about the mind. They tried to discover what had triggered a mental breakdown, and list that incident as the ’cause’ of the illness. Dr Hugh Diamond, believed that the then new science of photography could help to diagnose mental illness by capturing what he called the ‘exact point that had been reached in the scale of unhappiness’.


Photo from Google Image


Thousands of people passed through the county asylums. But some of the mental health provision  was still in private houses, often run by nonmedical men who did little more than keep patients locked away. With their living coming from the profit, there was little incentive to discharge patients who could be detained.

Anyone who could persuade two doctors to sign certificates of insanity could put away inconvenient or embarrassing relatives in a madhouse. Women – with lower social status, and usually less power and money – were more vulnerable. Some were sent away just because they suffered from severe epileptic fits

One woman had been the only servant in a 20-room house and was unable to keep up with the work over the hard winter months when every room would have required a fire burning in its grate and lamps to be lit early. Doctors  then would diagnose burnout and acute stress as a form of insanity.


Photo from Google Image


Mercury, known as calomel, was considered an effective treatment for hysteria but, like most of the medicines prescribed for mental illness, was highly toxic. Antimony, a toxic chemical now used in fire retardants, was employed to keep patients in a state of nausea, making acts of violence less likely. It was an early example of the ‘chemical cosh’.

Women’s sexuality was a prime focus of male Victorian physicians. Erotomania (hypersexuality) was considered a constant danger in female patients and could accompany hysteria. Most times a  cold bath, a douche and cold applications to the regions of the uterus were all employed as a cure.

Was insanity just a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world? Maybe the same could be said now?





To Be Manic Depressive in a Rural Town — Kingston Insane Asylum

Women in Peril 1868 — Mathilda Routh

The Very Sad Tale of Hessie Churchill

The Criminals of Carleton Place


About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s