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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Health and Education

Fanny Fern visits an American Lunatic Asylum

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -
Victorian Lunatic AsylumMy verdict after visiting a Lunatic Asylum is, that there are quite as many people outside, who should be in, as those already there. In other words, that almost every body has some crazy streak that should serve as a passport quite as well as any doctor’s affidavit. But, waiving this point, which, of course, the craziest head at large will be the first to deny, what an immense improvement has modern humanity effected in the treatment of these unfortunates! What an advance upon the diabolical cruelty of blows, and stripes, and iron cages, and nothing to do, and no room to do it in! Now, we have the elegant, spacious, well-ventilated and attractive building, surrounded with scenes of natural grandeur and beauty, and furnished with the most ample amusements and occupations for the diversion of these poor victims of one goading, haunting idea. One draws a long breath of relief to see them, under the eye of a watchful superintendent, raking hay in the sweet, fresh meadows, or walking about in a beautiful garden, or sitting by a pleasant window, through which comes the scent of flowers and the song of birds. One cannot but believe in tranquillising effects of these pleasant sights and sounds.

How affecting, too, is the child-like confidence with which they approach a perfect stranger, to tell the sorrow that is eating their lives away! “Poor Laura’s dead!” said one of them to me, in mournful tones. “Poor Laura’s dead!” she repeated, without awaiting an answer, looking sorrowfully in my face. Another sat at the window of a handsome room, watching with a smiling countenance the gravel-walk that led to the building. As I entered, she said, “I don’t know when he will come; if it is not this winter, it will be next summer; he said he would come and take me away, and I am going to sit here and wait for him;” and she turned again to the window and looked far off into the bright sunshine, and folded her hands in her lap in cheerful expectancy.

As the key was turned in one of the wards a woman rushed to the door, and said fiercely to the doctor, “Let me out, I say!” He calmly barred the entrance with his arm, and laying one hand soothingly on her shoulder, replied, “By and by-wait a little-won’t you?” Her countenance grew placid; and she replied, coaxingly, “Well, let me have one little peep out there then.” – “Yes,” said he, “you may go so far,” pointing to a designated limit, but not accompanying her. She walked out delightedly, took a survey of the hall, and promptly returning, said, “I wanted my father, but I see he is not there.” It seemed so humane to satisfy the poor creature, even though one know she might be a prey so some other fantasy the next minute.

It is a very curious sight, these lunatics – men and women, preparing food in the perfectly-arranged kitchen. One’s first thought, to be sure, is some possibly noxious ingredient that might be cunningly mixed in the viands; but further observation showed the impossibility of this under the rigid surveillance exercised. As to the pies, and meats, and vegetables, in process of preparation, they looked sufficiently tempting to those who had earned a good appetite like ourselves, by a walk across the fields. The poor French man was sane as a cook; his monomania was far out of his profession; it was poetry, and his epic had turned his brain. Some lunatic-women who were employed in the laundry, eyed me as I stood watching them, and, glancing at the embroidery on the hem of my skirt, a little the worse for the wet and dust of the road, exclaimed, “Oh, fie! A soiled skirt!” In fact, I almost began to doubt whether our guide was not humbugging us as to the real state of these people’s intellects; particularly as some of them employed in the grounds, as we went out, took off their hats, and smiled and bowed to us in the most approved manner.

“More women than men, in the Institution;” so I was told in answer to my query, on this point. I didn’t wonder at it. I know that in proportion as physical education becomes a religion with mothers, this will not be so. I know it will not be so, when growing girls are not confined in school for hours, and then debarred from exercise by a pile of school books to pore over every available minute, at home, until they go to school again the next morning. I know it will not be so, when that millennium comes fro women, which is not going to come like a letter through the post, but through mental enlightenment of the masses, and consequently exertion of their own; when woman freely owns to her true position; she the pound of silver, man the pound of gold. Then, the number of female patients in these institutions will bear some proportion to those whose active masculine employments help them to bear the daily frets and vexations, under which the delicate female organisation sinks utterly. I might add, that the millennium of which I speak will be wonderfully hastened when the general man is awake to the fact, that some women, at least, may be soul-hungry, though provided with the recognised feminine bill of fare – a huge broach, and something to eat.

FANNY FERN