The Criminal Lunatic Asylum: An Introduction

The Criminal Lunatics Act (1800) gave the Sovereign powers to order the safe custody of criminal lunatics but continued ‘no provision for defraying the expenses of their care and maintenance where they had not sufficient property of their own.’[i] As a result, criminal lunatics were detained in prisons and asylums.[ii] In 1806 a Select Committee inquired into the state of criminal and pauper lunatics and the following year recommended the construction of a building for the confinement of individuals detained under the Act of 1800.[iii] Nothing was done until 1816 when two new criminal wards, one male and one female, opened at Bethlem.[iv] Patient numbers quickly increased, however, resulting in mounting pressure for a separate institution.[v]

Numbers of criminal lunatics were not the only concern. In 1852, the Earl of Shaftesbury presented in the House of Lords a petition from the Chairman of the Visiting Magistrates of the Lunatic Asylum of Leicester, lobbying for a change in criminal lunacy law. He listed the reasons given by asylum Superintendents why ordinary and criminal lunatics should not be associated:

It is unjust to ordinary patients to associate them with persons branded with crime. The lunatic is generally very sensitive, and both he and his friends feel aggrieved and degraded by the association. The moral effect is bad. The conduct of criminal patients is frequently very violent; their habits and language, the result of previous habits, are frequently offensive, and their influence on other patients injurious and pernicious.[vi]

Criminal lunatics were also perceived to be adversely affected by the association: ‘It exposes them to taunts from the other patients, and the stricter confinement imposed on themselves irritates them. They are irritated also when other patients are liberated, and they left in confinement.’[vii] Reactions to Shaftesbury’s proposal for a criminal asylum were negative, primarily because of the perceived cost of the building. Shaftesbury withdrew his motion.[viii]

Some psychiatrists (alienists) believed the lack of distinction between the criminal and the ordinary lunatic was harmful. Bethlem’s Superintendent, W. D. Hood, believed the association of the two classes resulted in the association of the ‘the most cruel murderer with the most harmless person’, which disturbed the discipline and treatment of ordinary lunatics.[ix] At Bethlem, all criminal lunatics were confined together regardless of their offence or mental condition. This led some journalists and physicians to express concern. The Lady’s Newspaper depicted the male criminal wards at Bethlem as zoo-like: ‘Here fifty male lunatics are herded together, without regard to their previous social or moral condition.’ The wards were ‘divided in the middle by gratings more like those which enclose the fiercer carnivora at the Zoological Gardens.’[x] Even Hood viewed the lack of classification at Bethlem with disdain:  

We have in Bethlem […] persons of good family, officers in the army and navy, literary men and artists, members of the learned professions; and many of these educated persons feel it an extreme hardship to be obliged to associate with convicted felons, whose insanity has only darkened and exaggerated the more revolting features of their character.[xi]

But he rejected calls for a state criminal lunatic asylum.[xii]

John Charles Bucknill, the first president of the Medico-Psychological Association (1860-61), editor of the Asylum Journal of Mental Science (later the Journal of Mental Science), and co-author of the first comprehensive textbook on insanity, expressed his concern that the cheerless and wretched condition of Bethlem’s galleries and yards meant there could be no attempt at treatment:[xiii]

It is not a modern prison, for there is no corrective discipline; it is not a hospital, for suitable treatment is impossible; it is not an asylum for the relief and protection of the unfortunate, for it is one of the most gloomy abodes to be found in the metropolis. It is simply a receptacle; into which the waifs of the criminal law are swept, out of sight and out of mind.[xiv]

The Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane, of which Bucknill was a member, called for the removal of criminal lunatics from Bethlem, a place they referred to ‘as a prison and a grave’; a place reportedly so tedious that it inspired them to quote the line of the Italian poet, Dante: ‘Who enters here must leave all hope behind.’[xv] They wished to see in England the construction of a criminal lunatic asylum similar to that in Dundrum, Ireland.

Influenced by the 1800 Criminal Lunatics Act in Britain, the Lunacy Ireland Act (1821) provided the basis for an acquittal on the grounds of insanity and the confinement of criminal lunatics in prisons or asylums. In early nineteenth-century Ireland, much like in Britain, debates occurred regarding the seemingly unsatisfactory confinement of criminal lunatics alongside sane prisoners and ordinary lunatics. In 1843, the same year the trial of Daniel McNaughton took place in London, the decision was made to build Dundrum; it opened in 1850. The treatment of patients was of the moral kind: they were surrounded by acres of land, worked at their trade, read books and provided with various amusements. The use of restraint and seclusion was restricted to the most violent patients.[xvi] Bucknill and his colleagues viewed Dundrum as a place ‘where […] a “happy valley” is formed to make loss of liberty not irksome but delightful.’[xvii] Lord Shaftesbury also perceived the asylum positively, believing that it proved the disassociation of criminal and ordinary lunatics was beneficial.[xviii]

Throughout the early to mid 1850s, Lords and MPs stood in Parliament to ask whether the government had any intention of building a criminal lunatic asylum. The general consensus appeared to be for such a venture, based primarily on the fears regarding the association of criminals and lunatics and the contention that ‘it was improper to convert a prison into an asylum, so it was improper to make an asylum a prison, for the rules and regulations of the one and the other were altogether different.’[xix]  In 1856, both the Bethlem and Fisherton House criminal wards were declared full, and the following year the government announced its plans to build a criminal lunatic asylum.[xx] The Criminal Lunatics Bill (the ‘Broadmoor Act’) was passed in 1860 to make ‘better provision for the custody and care of criminal lunatics.’[xxi] Following a transfer from Britain’s asylums and prisons, the female patients arrived in 1863, the male patients in February 1864.[xxii]

There were two classes of patient in the asylum. First, men and women who had been found insane before or during their trials who were known as Queen’s pleasure patients. Second, there were insane convicts; men and women who had become insane whilst undergoing a term of penal servitude and were transferred to Broadmoor from prison until their sentences expired and they were discharged to another asylum or released, or they were declared sane and sent back to prison until their sentences expired. But who were these patients, why were they in Broadmoor, how were they treated and how did they experience life in the asylum? These are some of the questions I’ll be addressing in future posts.

[i] Richard Brayn, ‘A Brief Outline of the Arrangements for the Care and Supervision of the Criminal Insane in England during the Present Century’, Journal of Mental Science, 47 (April 1901), 250-260 (p. 252).
[ii] W. C. Hood, Suggestions for the Future Provision of Criminal Lunatics (London: John Churchill, 1854), p.10. 
[iii] Ralph Partridge, Broadmoor: A History of Criminal Lunacy and its Problems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953), p. 2.
[iv] Brayn, ‘Brief Outline’, p. 252.
[v] Roger Smith, Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 22.
[vi]HL Deb 18 March 1852, vol. 119, col 1234.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii]HL Deb 18 March 1852, vol. 119, col 1244.
[ix] Hood, Suggestions, pp 10. 27. Also, John Charles Bucknill, An Inquiry into the Proper Classification and Treatment of Criminal Lunatics: A Letter Addressed to Samuel Trehawke Kekewich (London: John Churchill, 1851), p. 10. Physician C. M. Burnett rejected claims that there were differences between the two classes of lunatic.He proposed that a change in legislation, not a criminal lunatic asylum, was the answer to the defectiveness of the law. What Shall We Do With the Criminal Lunatics? A Letter Addressed to the Right Honourable Lord St. Leonards, on the Introduction of His New Lunacy Bills (London: Highly and Son, 1853), p. 24.
[x] ‘Criminal Lunatics at Bethlem’, Lady’s Newspaper, 9 May 1857, p. 293.
[xi] Hood, Suggestions, p.13.
[xii] David Nicolson, ‘A Chapter in the History of Criminal Lunacy in England’, Journal of Mental Science, 23 (July 1877), 165-185 (p. 176).
[xiii] Andrew Scull, ‘Bucknill, Sir John Charles (1817-1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, may 2006 [, accessed 29 July 2010].
[xiv] John Charles Bucknill, Unsoundness of the Mind in Relation to Criminal Acts, 2nd edn (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1857), p. 119.
[xv] Bucknill, Classification, p. 10.
[xvi] For Dundrum, Pauline Prior, Madness and Murder: Gender, Crime and Mental Disorder in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin & Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2008).
[xvii] Bucknill, Classification, p. 10.
[xviii]HL Deb 18 March 1852, vol. 119, col 1235.
[xix]HL Deb 9 March 1855, vol. 137, col 335. Similar arguments were raised in the House of Commons, HC Deb 7 May 1855, vol. 138, col 198 and HC Deb 7 April 1856, vol. 141, col 622. Some MPs, journalists and physicians disagreed with calls for a criminal asylum. They feared it would lead to a ‘shamming of madness’. ‘Insanity and Crime’, John Bull, 17 April 1852, p. 249; ‘Murder and Insanity’, John Bull, 11 February 1856, p. 89;Bucknill, Classification, p. 19. 
[xx] ‘Medio-Paliamentary’, Lancet, 25 July 1857, p. 96. For the treatment of criminal lunatics in the early-mid nineteenth century, Smith, Trial, pp. 20-33.
[xxi] Criminal Lunatic Asylum. A Bill to Make Better Provision for the Custody and Care of Criminal Lunatics, 1860 (175) 11.811.
[xxii] ‘Supervision of the Criminal Insane in the Past Century’, Lancet, 11 May 1901, p. 1354.

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