Tag Archives: Nellie Bly

Model Law for Commitment of the Insane

Mrs. Packard Was a Well-Known Victim of Coerced Commitment

Mrs. Packard Was a Well-Known Victim of Coerced Commitment

One of the great tragedies for people judged insane was the ease with which they could be committed to institutions. During certain periods in some states, all it took was the word of family members or “respectable citizens” to commit people to asylums–a practice certain to be abused for personal gain, spite, or control. In 1876, Dr. Alexander E. MacDonald, superintendent of the New York City Asylum for the Insane, explained the way that the state of New York had improved its commitment laws.

Referencing other states that didn’t require physicians to examine the person in question, or only required one doctor to determine insanity, MacDonald cited New York’s requirement that two reputable physicians had to testify that the person was insane and “unfit to be at large.” The latter provision was to protect “harmless” lunatics and chronic cases who weren’t endangering themselves and others. Additionally, the doctors called in to make the examination had to have been in practice at least three years. Though neither of these requirements could curtail all unjust commitments, they seemed to be a step in the right direction.

Illustration from Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House

Illustration from Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House

Furthermore, the form physicians completed required them to state their reasons for determining that the person in question was insane. Theoretically, this forced doctors to give a somewhat in-depth examination to back up their opinions, and additionally, their remarks would help the doctor at the asylum decide what initial course of treatment to begin.

Hammond May Have Been an Alcoholic or Heavily Medicated

Hammond May Have Been an Alcoholic or Heavily Medicated

Though any of these requirements seem both obvious and fundamental, they came at a time when many doctors simply rubber-stamped family decisions for commitment. Any obstacles to easy, painless commitments had to be a good thing for the helpless people who were often shipped off to asylums for convenience.

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Alienists’ Diagnoses Were Never Foolproof

Nellie Bly, circa 1890

Nellie Bly, circa 1890

Alienists’ assessments of their patients’ mental conditions could be suspect at the best of times. They were particularly suspect when alienists dealt with people who did not fit the norms of an Anglo-centric society. Newly arrived immigrants were vulnerable to a misinterpretation of their mental status, and of course, non-English speaking Native Americans could easily be misunderstood or be so frustrated and frightened that they couldn’t communicate effectively. Continue reading

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Undercover Visitors

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

Though Lunacy Commissions and other visitors who provided oversight to asylums could be misled (see last post), word of actual conditions in an asylum nonetheless leaked out. Sometimes attendants talked, but more often, former patients spoke out against any abusive or inhumane conditions they had endured during their stays. Though these accounts were often dismissed, the public did become curious about conditions in insane asylums and at times speculated wildly about what might actually be happening to patients. At times, newspapers provided on-the-spot reporting by sending someone into an asylum undercover. Continue reading

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Alarming Testimony

Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Packard

Several people who were committed to insane asylums wrote about their experiences. Nellie Bly’s expose as a reporter was shocking, but her stay was temporary and her release secure. Real patients who survived commitments also offered shocking testimony, which made a great impact on the public.

Elizabeth Packard, married to Reverend Theophilus Packard, did not always fall in with her husband’s way of thinking on theology. He decided to have her committed to an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois. After three years he allowed her release, but then decided to confine her to their home. He locked her in a room and nailed the windows shut. Elizabeth managed to drop a letter out the window to a friend, who alerted a judge.

The Packards' Home

The Packards' Home

Judge Charles R. Starr issued a writ of habeas corpus and then interviewed Elizabeth in his chambers. He allowed her a jury trial to determine her sanity. The prosecution’s testimony centered on Elizabeth’s rebellion against her husband and his doctrine, while her defense showed that she was, nevertheless, a devout Christian. Doctors testified both for and against her, pronouncing her both insane and perfectly rational.

The jury took seven minutes to reach a verdict that Elizabeth Packard was sane.

Insane Asylum, Jacksonville, Illinois

Insane Asylum, Jacksonville, Illinois

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