Madness in a Modern World

Edison and Light Bulb

Edison and Light Bulb

Politicians who supported an asylum exclusively for Indians often justified the need by parroting the claims of alienists. These specialists in mental illness maintained that the pressures of the modern world led to an increase in insanity. The fact that reservation agents couldn’t even find a hundred “insane Indians” at the end of the nineteenth century did little to support that notion. However, the rate of insanity was increasing among the rest of the population. And, alienists may not have been completely off-track in their thinking.

From the earliest times, people had lived in much the same way: they walked or used animals and boats for transportation, wrote messages to one another by hand, and planned their daily activities by the rising and setting of the sun. Suddenly, around 1830, tremendous changes occurred.

The Tom Thumb, courtesy Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce

The Tom Thumb, courtesy Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce

In 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began transporting people and goods mechanically with a little steam engine called the Tom Thumb. In 1869, workers completed the first transcontinental railroad, which reduced a difficult wagon or stagecoach ride of several weeks or months to one week. Samuel Morse patented the telegraph in 1840, Bell patented the telephone in 1876, and Edison introduced the light bulb in 1879. These changes absolutely revolutionized daily living, especially in cities.

Horse-drawn Ambulance in Front of Fire Station on Race Street in Philadelphia, 1865

Horse-drawn Ambulance in Front of Fire Station on Race Street in Philadelphia, 1865

Even though these new inventions were embraced by the public, they also created distrust, stress, and fear as people began to accommodate and use them. An “Age of Anxiety” began in which there were new dangers everywhere–and the stress did indeed lead to mental breakdowns. (The prevalence of these inventions in cities is probably why alienists considered rural areas better for asylums.) My next post will examine this modern phenomenon further.

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