Monday, October 11, 2021

Alleged Lunatics' Friends Society

Annamaria on Monday



I learned about this organization from my beloved departed friend, Dr. Barbara Fass Leavy, champion of the literary merits of crime fiction.  (Snobs might have thought her a lunatic for her scholarly appreciation of mystery writers, but we don't have to go there!)

Barbara was a professor in the Literature Department of Queens University, but she was also the only ever non-MD  faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry of New York Hospital.  Having studied the history of mental health treatment, Barbara understood exactly how criminal lunatic asylums used to be.


The name of the 19th Century sounds kind of silly to our 21st Century ears.  But in the Great Britain of our fore-father Arthur Conan Doyle, being designated a lunatic frequently meant being condemned to various forms of torture, forced incarceration, being robbed of one's position in society and often of one's inheritance.

Beginning in 1774 with the Mad House, it became legal in Britain for private asylums to operate for profit.  They performed a service in taking over the care of mad relatives. Sometimes, no doubt, they solved real problems for families.  Trouble was nobody knew very much at all about how to care for such poor, benighted souls. Even at its most benign, the treatment given was pretty much useless.  Often it was beyond harsh, sometimes downright sadistic.


Besides which, much of time the people who were so confined were not mad at all. They were often only inconvenient for their families. An older brother who might have total control of the family fortune could be, with the help of a cooperative physician, put away.  Poof, with big brother out of the picture, the family fortune belonged to whoever paid off the doc.

This was the fate of some important people. For instance, Richard Paternoster was a civil servant who had a disagreement with his father over money. He wound up spending 41 days in Kensington House, a privately run asylum in London.  John Percival the son of a British Prime Minister was relegated to some of the most expensive private asylums in England, where his treatment was brutal. People who fell victim to this system were philanthropists, surgeons, manufacturers, members of the military.  Some were men. Some were women. Some might actually have been mentally ill. The treatment they got most likely made them worse.  Even if they were not tortured, they were effectively jailed without a trial.  A group of them banded together to try to change the law.


The Alleged Lunatics’ Friends  Society was founded by ex-victims of such miseries and their friends. Historians describe the organization as visionary, mostly because it was composed of private citizens who were appealing to Parliament to change the law. The group worked toward greater public awareness of the problem. As such, it might be considered a proto-NGO. The members held meetings and lectures.  They appealed to the politically powerful.  And tried to get the law changed.  But without political clout, they were not able to accomplish their goal. They used their own money until it ran out. Unfortunately, it was not until after most of the founding members died that their country decided to pay attention to the rights of people deemed lunatics. Those who were mentally ill.  And those whose families decided to declare them such and get them out of the way.



The “lunatics” plea for a sane approach to dealing with this societal problem still echoes down the centuries.

11 comments:

  1. While we all knew about these horrendous institutions, I for one didn't know about the ALFS. Sad that they didn't make much progress at the time; some issues just seem to need a change of Zeitgeist.
    Great premise for a mystery though...

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    1. I agree, Michael! I think people wrongly incarcerated in lunatic asylum‘s has been part of literature. The Brontë sisters, I can’t remember which one, had such a hideous event, as I recall. I don’t know about any crime stories. Perhaps someone more familiar with the Sherlock Holmes cannon may remember such a story by Conan Doyle. I don’t think I have the capacity to do that kind of research and stay sane, or I might try a historical novel with such a theme.

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  2. They may not have seen much change in their lifetimes, but no doubt their work was instrumental in building the initial momentum, the first steps toward "critical mass", to MAKE the changes. Some times the road is long and those who first set foot on it will never reach the end, but those they carry will continue the journey, so long as the desire is passed on.

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    1. Yes, EvKa, progress has been made. But I still think that future generations will look back on what’s happening now and wonder at the brutality of our times. Stan just said exactly what I had in mind and his comment below!

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  3. Asylums for profit? Prisons for profit?

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    1. Thank you Stan! You said in six words the thing we in the United States should be very very ashamed of.

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  4. And often families put unmarried women in those houses of horror. Or women who were eccentric or didn't conform to society's norms.

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    1. That they did, Kathy. One of the pictures above shows such a place where all the inmates are women, dressed very nicely and doing the things upper class women did in those days. It seem to me that they were unmarriageable or refused to accept the husband their fathers had chosen for them. Earlier in history, in Catholic countries, they sent them to the convent for similar reasons. Incarcerating the uncooperative, I fear, is still practiced in some places. Then there is what Stan said: “for profit prisons?”

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  5. Well, there were the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, where thousands of women were held for years inside convent walls. They worked every day. And their children were often adopted without them knowing where they went. The movie "Philomena," with Judy Dench and Steve Coogan shows this very well. I saw a news video in the Irish Times a few years ago where the country's leader was apologizing to the women. One woman told the reporter that she had been in one for 14 years and her friend for 52 years! And their families were split up, of course. There are some other stories about women sealed up in convent cells and only allowed to take donations through a window. I can't stand to think about this.

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    1. There was a movie about the Magdalene laundries, called “The Magdalene Sisters“ in 2004. I saw and was moved by the Judi Dench movie too, but the one about the laundries showed the lives of the girls while they were going through the imprisonment. So I found that extremely compelling. Horrifying. All of it!

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  6. As long as there are humans willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, tragedies of this sort shall continue. It is up to civilized societies to do what they can to keep such behavior from becoming the norm by punishing, civilly and criminally, those still willing to take the risk.

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