Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Asylum for Filthy Victorians

Greetings my fellow Filthy Victorians and welcome to The Asylum.  My name is Elizabeth and I am here on behalf of my fellow inmates to educate you in the ways of the insane. Well, not really, but I am here to fill your mind with the history/herstory of Victorian psychiatry.  
Take a walk down the halls with me and see just what it was like for us, girls mainly, back in the day. 
You can thank the truly wonderful and talented Emilie Autumn for the contents of this site, for it is she who has inspired me to tell you all there is to know.  And I'm sure, most of you that come to this site are "muffins" and have the plague by now.  So, let's spread the plague some more, shall we?
Gentlemen, come one, come all! 

See the lovely mad girls locked up for your protection. 

Gaze into their mad eyes and see their lost souls. 
Come see the "Ophelias"!

            Mental Illness During the Victorian Era

             Mental Asylums Pre 1850  

Before the mid-eighteen hundreds, common belief was that those who suffered from mental illness suffered because they had a "disease of the soul". Their madness supposedly stemmed from an evil within, and they thus were treated as animals. Patients in these early asylums were kept in cages, given small amounts of often unclean food, had little or no clothing, wore no shoes, and slept in dirt or hay. Because the patients could often live many years in such conditions, the caretakers became more confident that these human beings were in actuality closer to animals and thus deserving of such abuse.

During the mid-eighteen hundreds, a movement to reform the mental asylums began to permeate throughout society as popular belief began to change about the mentally ill. Those who suffered from madness were no longer suffering because God deemed them ill, but because of a disease of the brain, one that could be studied and eventually cured. Thus, reform began. Patients started being fed well, were given clothing and shoes, and were removed from their chains. Thus, this humanitarian treatment and change in the very perception of mental illness fueled scientific development.

Women during this time were deemed to be highly susceptible to becoming mentally ill as they did not have the mental capacity of men, and this risk grew greatly if the woman attempted to better herself through education or too many activities. In fact, women were seen as most likely having a mental breakdown sometime during their life as "the maintenance of [female] sanity was seen as the preservation of brain stability in the face of overwhelming physical odds". Thus, women often suppressed their feelings, as to not appear mad and resumed the passive, housewife role.  But there were always exceptions to the rule.  You could be a wife who was having symptoms of PMS and be considered "mad" and be sent away to an asylum for mood swings.  You could be sent away for not listening to your husband.  Or a neighbor could accuse you of free thinking and off you go.  Women were prey to the world of madness during this era.

Hysteria and the Wondering Womb

The idea of the Wondering Womb developed during this time, as madness was associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and the menopause. The womb itself was deemed to wander throughout the body, acting as an enormous sponge which sucked the life-energy or intellect from vulnerable women. Thus, women became synonymous with madness, as they were deemed to be emotional and unstable. If a woman of the Victorian era were subject to an outburst (due to discontentment or repression), she would be deemed mad. The word Hysteria became the general term for women with mental illness and cures included bed rest, seclusion, bland food, refrain from mental activities (such as reading), daily massage, and sensory deprivation. Though these treatments do not seem too appalling, they were comparable to solitary confinement and would often drive a woman to further insanity.

Anorexia- The Fasting Girls

Anorexia, though prominent for many years prior, was officially recognized as a disease in 1873.  It flourished during the nineteenth century as women wished to exemplify their femininity. In denying food, a woman could truly be passive and become a weightless accessory for her husband. The physical and spiritual ideal of anorexia also became a status symbol for many women. Working class women had to eat in order to have energy to work. Thus, only middle to upper class women could afford to be anorexic. Cures included being admitted to an asylum where women rested and were excessively fed.


The idea of nymphomania developed during the Victorian era. One-third of all patients in Victorian asylums suffered from this mental illness. It was described as an irresistible desire for sexual intercourse and a "female pathology of over-stimulated genitals". Nymphomania included much more than a simple sexual drive, however, as it was also associated with a loss of sanity. It was described as an "illness of sexual energy levels gone awry, as well as the loss of control of the mind over the body" and included women who allowed their bodies to become subject to uncontrollable movement as nymphomaniacs "threw themselves to the floor, laughed, danced, jumped, lashed out, smashed objects, tore their clothes, grabbed at any man who came before her". It was also believed that those who suffered from this madness would, without treatment, eventually become a raving maniac, robbed over her mind. A woman could be placed in an asylum for nymphomania if she was promiscuous, bore illegitimate children, was a victim of an assault or rape, was caught masturbating, or suffered from man-craziness, a term used during this time period to describe flirtatiousness. When a woman was brought to the asylum, she was subject to a pelvic exam where the doctor claimed she had an enlarged clitoris the size of a penis. Upon later inspection if the clitoris had returned to its normal size, she would be released and deemed cured. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, bloodletting, induced vomiting, cold douches over the head, warm douches over the breasts, leeches, solitary confinement, strait-jackets, bland diet, and occasional clitoridectomies.

Spinsters and Lesbians

Spinsters and lesbians were considered a threat to society during the nineteenth century as these women chose an alternative lifestyle. They went outside the social norms of women as passive housewives, and instead made their own decisions. They were thought to be mentally ill, as doctors claimed being without continued male interaction would cause irritability, anemia, tiredness, and fussing. These women were also controlled by the term "frigid" which was used to describe them. Women did not want to be "frigid" and thus married to avoid becoming labeled this manner. Those who were admitted to the asylum for being a spinster or a lesbian were submitted to forced marriages by family members or even encouraged sexual encounters where patients were sexually abused or raped under the care of their doctors. It was assumed these women could be cured by repeated sexual interaction with men.


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