In the 1800s an insane asylum was not a place any woman wanted to find oneself. Once committed, patients were often committed for life. There was little chance of rehabilitation because the status quo was incarceration (think: one-way ticket).
Women were admitted to mental institutions for reasons that would never fly today. Says Wendy Wallace, author of A Painted Bridge, a tale of a Victorian woman wrongly committed to an asylum by her husband, “women could find themselves labeled 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’).”
In the 19th century, expressing bold opinions and ideas that differed from those of her husband or father were grounds for admission alone.
Some cases stand out as particularly bizarre in an era when bizarre was already the mainstay when it came to asylums.
Harriet Mordaunt (1848 -1906):
A tale of adultery, divorce, and scandal that reached all the way to the royal family
One of the most sensational cases in England in the 1870’s was that of Harriet Mordaunt. Born to a wealthy Scottish family, she married at 18 to wealthy baronet and member of Parliament, Sir Charles Mordaunt. Soon, however, it became clear the couple was very different. Charles enjoyed solitary pursuits of fishing and hunting, which bored the flirtatious and vivacious Harriet. While Charles went about his pursuits away from home, Harriet would often entertain at their lavish Walton Hall estate in Warwickshire and saw no reason she could not have relations with other men.
When Harriet’s first child was born in 1870, a daughter named Violet, Harriet panicked. Violet had vision issues and Harriet, believing the cause was venereal disease, confessed her adultery to her husband. She even went so far as to name her lovers—among them, Viscount Cole, Sir Frederick Johnstone, and the Prince of Wales.
Charles filed for divorce. Much to the outrage of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales was forced to testify. He denied any adulterous liaisons; even after letters between the two were found by Charles at Walton Hall and made public.
After a seven-day trial, Harriet was found to be suffering from puerperal mania (postpartum depression) and declared insane which meant Charles had no grounds for divorce. The adulteress’s own father would attest to her insanity—it behooved his family for the Mordaunt’s to remain married because they received £2000 annually (about $150,000 in today’s money) from Charles.
Harriet, just 28, was shipped off to the Manor House Asylum in Chiswick and later Hayes Park Private Asylum in Hillingdon. Five years later, Viscount Cole took the fall when he did not contest Charles’ petition for a divorce based on Cole’s affair with Harriet (though many believe he was bribed by the royal family).
Charles remarried three years later. Harriet would live out the rest of her days—35 years—in an asylum. She died in 1906.
Elizabeth Ware Packard (1816-1897):
Institutionalized because she disagreed with her husband on religion and child rearing
In 1839, Elizabeth Ware married Theophilus Packard, a Calvinist minister with strict religious beliefs. They raised six children together. Trouble began when Elizabeth joined a Bible class and professed religious beliefs different from her husband’s.
“I teach Christianity, my husband teaches Calvinism,” she once said. “They are antagonistic systems…Christianity upholds God’s authority; Calvinism upholds the Devil’s authority.” For this, she would be hauled away without trial by her husband and spend three years in a mental institution. After 21 years of marriage, it appears Theophilus could not longer tolerate not only his wife’s views on religion, but also on financial matters and the raising of their children.
At the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in Illinois doctors questioned her about her beliefs but she refused to reverse her opinions. After public pressure however, a jury trial found her “wrongly imprisoned” and she was able to return home.
Elizabeth’s story didn’t end there. When she arrived in Manteno, Illinois she found her home empty. Her husband had rented the house, emptied it of her possessions and moved him and their children away.
Elizabeth would not play the victim. She sought the Supreme Court’s help. A trail ensued. Both sides vigorously testified to Elizabeth’s mental state. After less than ten minutes of deliberation, she was found sane. Her husband no longer had the power to lock her away. Still, nothing had changed; the law of coverture (those specifying a married woman was under the authority of her husband) still applied.
Elizabeth Ware would spend the rest of her life defending women’s rights against what she called “legal kidnapping.” She founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and authored numerous books on the atrocities of mental institutions and women’s lack of freedom. Seven years after her asylum stint, Illinois passed the Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty which guaranteed women the right to a hearing before their admission to an asylum.
The Packards never divorced though Elizabeth would stay close to her children. She died in 1897 at the age of 81.
Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882):
Lavish over-spending, irrational fear of poverty, and fear for her own safety provoked her son Robert to have her committed to an asylum
The beloved wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was an unpopular First Lady. Her wealthy family of Lexington, Kentucky were Confederates though Mary, like her husband, was a staunch supporter of the Union. Though she was known to be “vivacious and impulsive with an interesting personality” the loss of her son Edward in 1850 and William in 1862, catapulted her into a deep depression. This depression deepened after the assassination of her husband in 1865 and the death of her son Tad in 1871.
Her only surviving child, Robert, brought her to court in 1875 claiming her over-spending, fear of poverty and unfounded fear for her personal safety signaled insanity. She was pronounced insane and sent to the Bellevue Insane Asylum in Batavia, Illinois.
According to Firstladies.org, “Later in the day after the verdict was made she twice attempted suicide by taking what she believed to be the drugs laudanum and camphor - which the suspicious druggist had replaced with a sugar substance.” Mary was released after four months with the help of lawyer Myra Bradwell who appealed for her release.
Fearing Robert might try again to have her committed, she fled to France and lived there many years. She died in 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield, Illinois at 63.
Elizabeth Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly (1864-1822):
By faking memory loss, she tricked doctors and a judge into pronouncing her insane so she could write of asylum abuses
Image the courage of a 23-year-old woman who deliberately feigned insanity so she could be committed to an asylum. The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) was purportedly mistreating inmates but Elizabeth, who wrote of her story under the pseudonym Nellie Bly, was up to the task.
She persuaded the managing editor at The New York World to let her take on the story in hopes that he would hire her. In those days, the fastest way to get committed was to be arrested. She checked into a women’s boarding house, faked memory loss and was soon escorted by policemen to court. There a doctor for the court pronounced her “positively demented.”
For ten days Elizabeth endured the atrocities of the asylum, writing of ice cold public baths, harassment by the staff, disgusting food and even torture. When her story appeared after her release, she became famous and would soon circle the world in just 72 days, the stunt for which she is perhaps best known.
After a successful journalism career, she married millionaire Robert Seaman, a man 40 years her senior who owned the American Steel Barrel Company and the Ironclad Manufacturing Company. Upon his death, she took over the company until labor disputes and forgeries forced her into bankruptcy.
She returned to journalism, her true love, and died of pneumonia in 1922. She was just 57 years old.