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In researching reasons someone might be admitted to an insane asylum in 1900, I came across lists in various superintendent log books and yearly reports that left me either laughing or shaking my head. Clearly, doctors in the late 19th century did not view mental illness the way we do today.

In our post-Freudian culture of psychoanalysis and scientific enlightenment, a list that includes epileptics, alcoholics and the mentally handicapped among the insane seems somehow wrong. Even more troubling are causes like menopause, overwork, religion, and cigarettes. What helped me make some sense of it all was the understanding that most 19th-century doctors believed insanity could be caused by moral factors as well as physical ones. Also, as with many diseases of the day, they believed heredity played a large part in whether a person was more susceptible to going insane. Thus, statements like “doubt about mother’s ancestors” became a little more clear to me. (I’ve had a few doubts about my own ancestors, but hopefully that won’t lead to my eventual insanity.)

It also helped to read the case histories in addition to the cause listed for a patient’s admittance. For the most part, people were committed to insane asylums because they acted, well, insane. Though these lists can cause my novel-writing mind to kick into overdrive with all sorts of sinister scenarios, the woman who was committed for “religious enthusiasm” was most likely there because she believed herself to be the Mother of Jesus or an avenging angel of some kind.

Still, there was the case of Elizabeth Packard who spent three years in an insane asylum because she disagreed with her husband’s religious beliefs. And if it could happen to her, who’s to say it couldn’t have happened to someone else given the right circumstances, a believable motive and a few dastardly antagonists? . . . and a novel is born.

In case you are interested in getting your own creative juices flowing, check out this list from the late 1800s and this one from the turn of the century. Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of a few causes I’ve been puzzling over:

  • Asthma
  • Superstition
  • Gathering in the head (who or what is doing this gathering?)
  • Remorse
  • Politics
  • Pecuniary losses: worms (really not seeing a connection here)
  • Laziness
  • Novel reading

Wait just a minute. Novel reading? That’s just crazy talk. Everyone knows novel reading doesn’t cause insanity. Novel writing on the other hand . . .

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