Insanity was a cruel condition, and its victims suffered doubly: their minds caused them unease or suffering, and then caretakers typically punished their bodies. Though physicians eventually discerned that mental illness was not an incurable disease, the treatments for it were sometimes stunning in their callousness.
In 1824, a young woman named Mary Sewall caused her father concern because she had wandered into the countryside with a confused intent to attend a religious meeting. He ordered a bunk “with a lid to shut down” to keep her confined, and kept her in it at night for over two months. He additionally kept his daughter sitting all day in a “confining chair” which prevented any physical movement. Her arms and legs were strapped down, and she was forced to remain all day on a seat with a hole in it and a bucket underneath to catch her bodily wastes. The misery she must have endured is hard to contemplate.
Modern readers might wonder how Mr. Sewall could possibly treat his own daughter this way. Part of the reason might be that he could think of little else to do to keep her safe. And, doctors and other specialists often believed that people who had “lost their minds” had reverted to an animal state. Many people assumed that the mentally ill didn’t need the comforts that a human with an intact mind needed or wanted. Thus, it didn’t seem particularly cruel to keep a lunatic chained in a barn or outbuilding–just like one of a farm’s other animals. Unfortunately, it seemed that people often treated lunatics much worse than they would have treated any animal.