The sad death of ‘lunatic’ Deborah Grisdale

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Family History
Tags: , , , , ,

‘A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.’ Proverbs 26:3

In the spring of 1838 a twenty-eight year old girl called Deborah Grisdale died in the Lancaster Lunatic Asylum. Without consulting the asylum’s records I can’t say why she was there or how she died, but I can say something about such asylums and, at the end, I’ll tell where she came from.

Inside Bedlam

Inside Bedlam

‘For as long as the Church controlled the insane, they endured dreadful torments. They were imprisoned, chained to a wall (or if they were lucky to a bed), flogged, starved, insulted, tortured, immersed in iced water and otherwise brutalised. It also seems safe to assume that sexual abuse would have been commonplace in view of twentieth century disclosures about monasteries, seminaries, church schools, orphanages and state mental asylums. Throughout Christendom the insane were kept in insanitary conditions in mad-houses and exposed to public ridicule. The most famous place in England for such people was the hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (“Bedlam”), where visitors were charged a fee to see the inmates, and were allowed to provoke them and laugh at them. A few inmates came to their senses, some died of old age, some died of neglect, starvation, exposure or torture, and many died of “putrid fever” or other infectious diseases that flourished in such conditions.’

Bedlam

Bedlam

The state of these asylums was memorably described by local magistrate Godfrey Higgins, who investigated York asylum in 1814. He found ‘evidence of wrongdoing on a massive scale: maltreatment of the patients extending to rape and murder; forging of records to hide deaths among the inmates; an extraordinarily widespread use of chains and other forms of mechanical restraint; massive embezzlement of funds; and conditions of utter filth and neglect.’ On one visit he forced his way through a hidden door to expose a tiny room crammed with thirteen elderly ladies, practically naked and covered in their own excrement. Higgins ‘became very sick and could no longer remain in the room.  I vomited.’

 

In a Victorian lunatic asylum

In a Victorian lunatic asylum

In Lancashire prior to the 1800s the ‘mentally ill’ were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. In the early 19th Century, pressure from various quarters (particularly from the Quakers) was growing to build county asylums that would provide suitable accommodation and more humane treatment for those suffering from mental disorder. In 1809, one year after the County Asylums Act of 1808, a decision was made to build a new asylum in Lancaster. Designed by architect Thomas Standen, it opened in 1816 as the ‘County Lunatic Asylum for the County Palatine of Lancaster’ – it was here that Deborah Grisdale was sent.

‘The mentally ill inmates, who were classed as ‘lunatics’, were transferred from Lancaster Castle to the Asylum in the outskirts of Lancaster. Despite an attempt to move away from previous mistreatment, inadequate treatment still occurred in the first few years of the Asylum’s existence… During the renovation of the original section of the asylums into housing in the early twenty-first century, there were reports of shackles and padded rooms being found in the cellars of the remains. It is clear that chaining was still seen as a form of treatment of the mentally ill for years after the creation of Asylums.’

Lancaster Moor Asylum

The 1816 Lancaster Asylum

The important thing to keep in mind is that both in the old ‘madhouses’ and the later ‘asylums’, such as in Lancaster, one didn’t have to be mad to be sent there. They were long used as dumping grounds for any people who magistrates found in any way problematic. The list below from a later nineteenth-century asylum shows the lunacy of many of the reasons for which people were sent to a lunatic asylum. It will make you laugh and weep.

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Women in particular could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).

Emma Riches

Emma Riches

In the 1850s, Emma Riches, a 27-year-old mother of four, was admitted to the Bethlem asylum (the original Bedlam). ‘Her newest baby was four weeks old when Emma was admitted… with ‘puerperal insanity’, or what we would now call postnatal depression… She had suffered from the illness after the births of each of the children, and been admitted to the same hospital before.’

Emma’s notes record: ‘She never speaks nor appears to notice anything… She cares for nothing, will not eat unless she is forced to do so, nor dress nor undress herself.’

‘There is no clear indication of how Emma was treated by doctors, beyond a remark that the drugs they tried were ineffectual. Nurses are likely to have attempted to persuade her to sew or help out in the kitchens. Uneducated, Emma could not have read books to pass the time or provide an escape from the tedium of her asylum – where she would have been without all of her four children. A second photograph shows her restored to health, wearing her own smart clothes again and about to be discharged back to her family. After almost a year in hospital, her postnatal depression had passed.’

Without going to Preston to look at the asylum’s records, I don’t know why Deborah Grisdale was sent there. In 1835, when she was twenty-four, she had given birth to an illegitimate baby boy in her home village of Allithwaite on the Cartmel peninsula, she called him Jehoshaphat after the fourth king of Judah.

Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen, and gather yourselves together round about: thither cause thy mighty ones to come down, O LORD. Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about.

Should we read anything into this choice of name?

Was Deborah committed for postnatal depression of even ‘moral insanity’? Or was she truly mad? As I said I don’t yet know. All I know is she died in the asylum aged ’28’ in 1838.

Deborah Grisdale was born in 1811 in Allithwaite on the Cartmel peninsula in Lancashire (now in Cumbria). She was the second child and only daughter of cockle fishernan Thomas Grisdale and his wife Mary Armistead, She was named after Thomas’s own mother Deborah Grisdale (nee Grisdale). I wrote about the family in a story called ‘Grisdale Cockle Fishermen of the Cartmel Peninsula’. Of Deborah’s three siblings only one lived long enough to have a family and leave descendants: the first Isaac Armistead Grisdale.

Morecambe Bay Cocklers

Morecambe Bay Cocklers

And what of Deborah’s illegitimate son Jehoshaphat? After his birth in 1835 we next find him in 1841 living with his grandparennts in Allithwaite and then in 1851 working as a farm servant in nearby Seathwaite in Egton cum Newland.. Then he seems to disappear. Did he change his name? Did he join the army? Who knows.

The extended Asylum

The extended Asylum

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