Dangerous Women and the Nineteenth Century Lunatic Asylum

Cara DobbingCara Dobbing is a second year PhD student, based at the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester. Her research examines the patients who were circulated in and out of the Cumberland and Westmorland Lunatic Asylum from its inception in 1862 until the outbreak of war in 1914. Cara’s work focuses on redressing the imbalance of institutional asylum histories which neglect the experiences of pauper patients. She regularly posts to her blog detailing her research, and tweets at @caradobbing.

Throughout my PhD research of the nineteenth century Cumbrian county lunatic asylum[1], I have encountered many women who today we would consider dangerous, but in this period were labelled mentally unwell, or to use the contemporary term, ‘insane’. One example which demonstrates this is that of Ruth Alexander, admitted to the Cumberland and Westmorland Joint Lunatic Asylum, Carlisle – known as Garlands Asylum[2] – on 18 November 1891. She was described as suffering from insanity caused by the birth of her child nine months ago; one week previous to her admission the child had passed away. The cause of death of her infant was a lethal dose of laudanum, administered by Ruth herself. It seems strange that the cause of Ruth’s illness was not given as the un-wilful murder of her baby, as on closer inspection of her patient records it seems clear that Ruth felt incredible guilt at causing the death of her child. She was stated on her admission record as not remembering how much laudanum she gave the baby, and that the death was punishment for her not attending Chapel.

Ruth was not the subject of a police inquiry, and was not sent to prison for causing the death of her child, which seems very strange to us in the twenty-first century, when child protection is an important issue constantly referred to in the media. Therefore, by Victorian standards Ruth was not deemed a dangerous woman. Laudanum in this period was legal, and was sold freely in pharmacies and dispensaries for soothing children and adults who were ill. Ruth herself was also stated to have taken laudanum, which would not have been out of the ordinary in the later Victorian era. However, Ruth saw herself as dangerous, and in the asylum admission books was stated as saying that she felt safer in the asylum, as she was a danger to her children, and that ‘she was afraid of herself’.[3]

After three months treatment in the Garlands Asylum, Ruth was discharged as recovered back to her husband, Robert, and her children, in February 1892. However, on 8 April 1892, Ruth was readmitted, and was stated as being driven insane by the ‘worry of the poisoning of her child’. This time Ruth was stated as being addicted to opium, a much stronger derivative of laudanum, whereas before she was stated as taking laudanum only occasionally. Thus, in the period between her discharge and her re-admission, Ruth clearly turned to drug taking to cope with her guilt. The asylum authorities noted on Ruth’s re-admission document that her relatives could do nothing to keep her at home, and that she willingly came to the asylum for the second time ‘as a protection against herself’, and that she would never be forgiven for the cruel and careless conduct she displayed towards her children. Her admission record described Ruth as ‘very pale and depressed’, and that she expressed the delusion ‘that she will never be forgiven for the death of her child’. It is interesting that the asylum doctors noted this feeling of guilt as a delusion, suggesting that she should have come to terms with inadvertently causing the death of her child. It is worth noting that on asylum admission documents, doctors had to state whether they considered the patient dangerous to others, and on both occasions, the Garlands doctors had recorded Ruth as not being dangerous.[4]

It seems that on close inspection of Ruth’s case, she considered herself a ‘dangerous woman’, but contemporary society, and the asylum authorities did not, rather, they considered her mentally ill due to the birth of her baby and the subsequent grief brought on by its death. This opens up a fascinating topic for discussion surrounding what it was to be a dangerous woman in a nineteenth century lunatic asylum. The displays of violence to others or to personal property, and the threat or attempt at suicide, were acts which constituted a dangerous woman. But, the ability to dispense an accidental overdose of a lethal drug, causing the death of your own child, it seems was not behaviour considered to be dangerous. If this case was repeated in 2016, it goes without saying that Ruth would be deemed dangerous, and would have been imprisoned for a relatively long time. Thus, what it means to be a dangerous woman depends entirely on the circumstances, and in this case, Ruth’s ‘dangerousness’ as we would consider it, was treated as a mental illness in the late nineteenth century, further questioning what constitutes a dangerous woman.



[1] The term ‘lunatic’ was widely used in this period to refer to those with mental illness, and the lunatic asylums were the receptacles for their care.

[2] The name ‘Garlands’ comes from the estate upon which the asylum was constructed. G. R. Wyld, A History of the Garlands Estate and Garlands Hospital, Carlisle, Cumberland, 1757-1914 [typescript], p. 2, (Kept in local history section of Carlisle Library), quoted in C. Dobbing, ‘An Undiscovered Victorian Institution of Care: A Short Introduction to the Cumberland and Westmorland Joint Lunatic Asylum’, Family and Community History, Vol. 19, No. 1, (2016), p. 3.

[3] CACC, Female Casebook 1888-1892, THOS 8/4/40/2, admission no. 3550.

[4] CACC, Female Casebook 1888-1892, THOS 8/4/40/2, admission no. 3608.