Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

The man who killed John Wilkes Booth was as mad as a hatter. His name was Boston Corbett. Actually, his name was not originally Boston Corbett, but Thomas T. Corbett. He became a reborn evangelical Christian while in Boston which he took as his new name. He began to wear his hair long like Jesus. He became a religious fanatic.  Those who knew him said he was “different.”  Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter.

Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter because he was a hatter – at a time when mercury was used in the felt hatmaking process. Hatmakers breathed the mercury vapors which caused mercury poisoning. Mercury damages the nervous system, producing symptoms such as drooling, twitching, paranoia, hallucinations, and agitation. It was probably mercury poisoning that caused the mental problems that dogged Corbett all his days.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." ="Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassination. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, attributes attributed to hatters of the day. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused neurological damage on the hatters.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character of the hatter in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassinated. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, characteristics attributed to many hatters of the day, suffering from mercury poisoning. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused debilitating neurological damage to the hatters, resulting in a complete mental breakdown.

As I was saying, Corbett’s job – daily breathing in the noxious mercury fumes while he made felt hats – was making him go insane. By July 16, 1858, Corbett had become so insane that he picked up a pair of scissors, took off his pants, and castrated himself. After doing the strange deed, he nonchalantly dressed again and went out to a prayer meeting, where he ate heartily and then took a walk. Corbett did, however, end up seeing a doctor to receive treatment for his self-mutilation. (1)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Corbett enlisted in the Union army. He reenlisted three times and was made sergeant. In the days following President Lincoln’s assassination, he was selected as one of the 26 soldiers in the 16th New York Cavalry commissioned to pursue and capture the fugitive assassin John Wilkes Booth. On April 26, 1865, Corbett and the others cornered Booth and his coconspirator David Herold in a tobacco barn on Richard Garrett’s Virginia farm. Herold  gave himself up.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Booth refused to surrender, so the soldiers set the barn on fire, hoping to smoke him out. Corbett watched Booth through a large crack in the barn wall. As Booth moved about inside the burning barn, Corbett stuck his Colt revolver through the crack and aimed at the unsuspecting Booth, a full 12 feet away. Corbett’s bullet struck Lincoln’s killer in the neck, puncturing his spinal cord. Booth did not die at once.

When Corbett was questioned about his unilateral decision to kill rather than to capture Booth alive, he replied:

“God Almighty directed me.”

Back in Washington, Corbett was placed under technical arrest, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton refused to prosecute the man many considered a hero. Stanton said, “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.” Corbett collected $1653.85 in reward money.

Famous now, Corbett returned to the hat trade, first in Boston then in Connecticut and New Jersey. Further exposure to mercury caused his already volatile and erratic behavior to escalate. He got into frequent arguments which involved flashing his revolver in men’s faces.

He grew paranoid.

Then, in 1878, he made a radical life change. He moved to Kansas to live in a dugout; his home was nothing more than a hole in a hill with a stone front and a patchwork roof. He lived simply, sleeping on a homemade bed. He bought a flock of sheep. He began to give religious lectures that invariably turned into incoherent rants. He kept a number of firearms.

Improbably, in 1887, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper to the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. Shortly after his appointment, he got crosswise with some men, pulled out a gun, threatened them, and got arrested. He was declared insane and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

But he didn’t stay there. A little over a year later, he stole a horse that had been left at the asylum entrance and escaped. Little is known about where he went after that. Some say Mexico. He may have become a traveling salesman for a medicine company in Oklahoma Territory and Texas. No one knows what became of the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. That may forever remain a mystery.

(1) The actual hospital record can be read on page 59 of Lincoln and Kennedy: Medical & Ballistic Comparisons of their Assassinations by Dr. John K. Lattimer.

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Regarding some of my recent posts on insane asylums (see sidebar, “Categories: The Insane Asylum”), my neighbor and friend, Karen O’Quin, wrote:

I really liked your blog – thanks for sending!!  I see a theme there.  My experience with Austin State Hospital is that when I first started working at Travis State School in 1967, they only had men there – they called them “boys”.  Some had been there for years as they had been admitted to ASH long before because they were a little “weird” and then became too institutionalized to be let out.  They did not have IQs consistent with mental retardation.  Some were later placed in group homes.  I don’t know if you’ve read Mary, Mrs. A Lincoln, but it is her account of being committed to a lunatic asylum by her son, Robert.  Someone very recently found letters she had written to her attorneys from the asylum.  I think they were going to be a book, too. 

Mary Lincoln (1818-1882)

Mary Lincoln (1818-1882)

When I was young, I remember my mother talking about Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, and her inappropriate and extravagant spending sprees during the depth of the Civil War. Above all I remember Mom mentioning that Mary had a collection of about 300 pairs of gloves. Thinking about it now, it reminds me of Imelda Marcos, wife of the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, and her closet rack of 2700 pairs of shoes.

Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln came together as husband and wife from two very different worlds. Mary was pampered and rich; Abraham was tested and wise. Both were prone to depression but it was Mary, with her fragile mind, perhaps schizophrenic or bipolar, who finally cratered under the constant barrage of grief and loss that became her sad lot in life.  Three of her sons died while her husband was president during a bloody and acrimonious civil war. The hate mail sent to her husband was unbelievable. Then her beloved Abraham, her anchor, was assassinated. It was more than Mary could bear. She descended into madness.

She began to wander hotel corridors in her nightgown, was certain someone was trying to poison her, complained that an Indian spirit was removing wires from her eyes, and continued her frantic spending, purchasing yard after yard of elegant drapery when she had no windows in which to hang it. (PBS American Experience: “The Time of the Lincolns”)

The doctors treated her with laudanum which gave her hallucinations, eye spasms, and headaches. She began to behave bizarrely, creating a public scandal. Her only surviving son Robert, a practicing attorney, arranged an insanity trial and had her committed to the asylum Bellevue Place just outside Chicago. Although Mary was only hospitalized for three months, she never forgave Robert for the humiliation and deprivation.

A recently published book, The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson, awarded “Book of the Year” by the Illinois State Historical Society in 2007, examines Mary’s mental illness. The book is based on a rare find – a trunk of letters found in the attic of Robert Lincoln’s lawyer. They contain the lost letters written by Mary during her stay in the asylum. The book sheds light on the ongoing mystery of Mary’s mental illness, its nature, roots, and progression, and suggests that Abraham Lincoln had some understanding of it and provided stability.

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victorian-silhouetteIn Nellie Bly’s book, Ten Days in a Mad-House (see category, “Nellie Bly,” for related posts), Nellie Bly described various women she met in the Blackwell Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum. She was confined to Hall 6 with 45 of the least dangerous women in the institution. While some of them were certifiably “crazy,” (her words), many, she felt, had been wrongly locked up. A Frenchwoman, for example, named Josephine Despreau, fell sick in a boarding house and the woman of the house called in the police. They arrested her and took her to the station-house. She didn’t understand the proceedings because of the language barrier and the judge paid no attention to her protests. She was locked up in the insane asylum in no time.

Well into the twentieth century, it was easy to get a woman locked up in a mental institution. It was not unheard of for a man to tire of his wife in favor of another woman and get his wife declared insane and committed to an insane asylum. I was remarking upon this horror the other day and my mother told me that my great uncle Sam P did this very thing to his wife Helen. He had her committed to an asylum in San Antonio. Helen found a way out, though, and slipped away to Corpus Christi to live with her sister.

Do any of you have any asylum stories to share?

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Dr. Walter Freeman, the ice pick lobotomist

Dr. Walter Freeman, the ice pick lobotomist

I’d fully intended to move away from the subject of insane asylums and talk about a cowgirl from Oklahoma by the name of Lucille Mulhall. But I cannot in good conscience leave the subject without telling what I’ve learned about the barbaric brain surgeon responsible for Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, the operation that permanently incapacitated her at the young age of 23. Rosemary had been acting in an agitated behavior, according to her father, Joseph P. Kennedy, throwing fits and showing interest in boys, and he sought an operation to settle her down. Two doctors were in the operating room that day in 1941: Dr. Walter Freeman, the director of the laboratories at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., together with his partner, James W. Watts, MD, from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Freeman was obsessed with finding a cure for mental illness. In the day before psychiatric drugs, mentally ill patients were shuttered away in institutions like St. Elizabeth’s. Shock therapy, pioneered in the thirties, though not completely successful, had effectively reduced some psychiatric symptoms in agitated patients, rendering them calmer for a time following treatment. Psychiatrists like Dr. Freeman wanted to find the locus of mental illness of the brain. They understood that there were regions of the brain and were looking for surgical answers instead of just locking people up for life. Freeman, however, was not a surgeon but a neurologist. He was wildly ambitious and longed to achieve the lasting fame of his grandfather, a pioneer brain surgeon, once the president of the American Medical Association. Freeman was determined to find a procedure that would root out the defect in the brain that he believed responsible for mental illness.

Freeman discovered the work of a Portuguese neurologist named Egas Moniz who had performed a radical new operation on a group of 20 mental patients. By taking small corings of their brains, Moniz asserted, it had been possible to rid a third of these patients of their symptoms. Moniz didn’t explain why this worked. He had a crude notion that people “who are mentally ill are sort of obsessed, he called them fixed ideas. And that these fixed ideas probably resided in some way in the frontal lobes.”

Along with Dr. Watts, Freeman began to perform lobotomies, or surgeries on the frontal lobes. After several operations, Dr. Freeman called his operation a success. According to Edward Shorter, Medical Historian, “Freeman’s definition of success is that the patients are no longer agitated. That doesn’t mean that you’re cured, that means they could be discharged from the asylum, but they were incapable of carrying on normal social life. They were usually demobilized and lacking in energy. And they were that on a permanent basis.” Many had to be retaught how to use the toilet. They were definitely not the same persons they were before the operation.

Why didn’t the medical establishment stop Drs. Freeman and Watts from performing this radical and untested procedure? This was back in the day when it was considered unethical for doctors to criticize their peers – plus, Dr. Freeman manipulated the press in his favor. He proclaimed he’d found a cure for mental illness. Soon he was receiving glowing reviews. The Washington Star called prefrontal lobotomy “One of the greatest surgical innovations of this generation.” The New York Times called it “surgery of the soul,” and declared it “history making.”

It gets worse. Freeman decided that there was a simpler way to get into the brain than through the top of the skull, as he had done with Rosemary Kennedy. He decided that the skull was thinner behind the eye and that he could make an incision there with an ice pick. Freeman “would hammer the ice pick into the skull just above the tear duct and wiggle it around.”

transorbital lobotomy

transorbital lobotomy

He began to travel around the nation in his own personal van, which he called his “lobotomobile”, hawking this new procedure which he performed with a gold ice pick, and training other doctors in his methods. He even performed a few lobotomies in hotel rooms. Before he was stopped and the lobotomy discredited, Walter Freeman had performed over 3,500 lobotomies. His medical license was revoked when one of his patients died during a lobotomy. Nevertheless, he continued to tour the country in his lobotomobile, visiting his former patients, until his death from cancer in 1972.

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Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

I’ve been thinking about the very different lives of reporter Nellie Bly and Rosemary Kennedy. Although over fifty years separated these women, both found themselves at the age of 23 at the mercy of mental health “professionals.” Nellie Bly placed herself in a dangerous lunatic asylum as an investigative journalist because she was desperate to land a job in a world that didn’t welcome female professionals. How else was an uneducated woman to earn a living in 1887?

Bly was the thirteenth of her wealthy father’s fifteen children, her mother being her father’s second wife. When Bly was six, her father died, failing to make specific provisions for Nellie, her mother, and her two brothers. Like many other great women, Nellie Bly (like Annie Oakley) took it upon herself to find a way to take care of her family. She ran a boarding house with her mother and marveled that her uneducated brothers were able to find jobs as clerks and drummers yet, because she was an uneducated woman, she could only aspire to be a chambermaid or washer-woman. Thus it was Nellie’s poverty and the absence of a father that lead her to have herself committed, at the age of 23, to an insane asylum.

But the converse was true of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary landed in a mental institution because she was rich and had a father. She had the misfortune to be born “mildly mentally retarded, into a family dominated by her driven and ruthlessly ambitious father,” Joseph P. Kennedy. Rosemary had been living in a convent to keep her out of the public eye, but, as she developed as a young woman, she had begun sneaking out to see boys, and Kennedy was worried that she might damage his famous family’s reputation.

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

In an attempt to settle her down, her father, without telling his wife, used his money and powerful connections to arrange for his 23-year-old learning-disabled daughter Rosemary to undergo experimental brain surgery, one of the first prefrontal lobotomies ever performed. The operation took place in 1941, but, according to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “something went terribly wrong.” Rosemary emerged from surgery not better, but far worse. She regressed to a state of helpless infancy and was confined to a mental asylum for the rest of her life until her death in 2005. Nellie Bly’s story, though, has a happy ending. She walked out of the asylum a free woman and an international celebrity.

To read more on the Kennedys on this site, scroll down the right sidebar to “Categories – People – Kennedys.”

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victorian-letters-dover-clip-art-freeellie Bly was put on the island boat and sent to Blackwell’s Island. For ten days, she experienced firsthand the horrors of being locked up in cruel and inhumane conditions.  Upon her arrival, she was fed a disgusting meal of pink watery tea, prunes, and bread that was dirty and black and mostly dried dough. She found a spider in the slice given her. She didn’t eat it. Later she learned that the nurses didn’t like it when you didn’t eat your food. They might beat you for that.

After sitting in that long, freezing dining hall on bare yellow benches for what seemed an eternity, Bly and the other women in her ward were marched in two lines into a freezing cold, wet bathroom. As everyone looked on, the nurses stripped Bly of every bit of her clothing. They took away her dress, her skirts, her shoes, her stockings, and her hat. She then was forced to bathe in an ice-cold tub and be scrubbed by one of the craziest women in the ward.

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold,” Nellie wrote later of the experience. “Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head –  ice-cold water, too, into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth.”

The nurses then put her, dripping wet, into a short flannel slip and locked her in an individual cell for the night. She couldn’t sleep. She kept picturing what would happen should a fire break out in the asylum. Every door was locked individually and bars covered the high windows. Should the building burn, there was no way the nurses or doctors could possibly unlock each door before the flames would engulf the building. She and the others would roast to death.

The asylum was spotlessly clean but it wasn’t the nurses who kept it so. The patients did all the work. There was little to distract the patients’ mind from the terrible cold and gnawing hunger. There were no books. The inmates did enjoy their short walks around the beautiful grounds. It was on one of those walks that Nellie Bly passed the kitchen and got a glimpse at the sort of food being prepared for the nurses and doctors: melons and grapes and all sorts of fruits, beautiful white bread and nice meats.

Bly complained to the doctors about the thin clothing issued to the patients, the intolerable cold, and the inedible food, but nothing came of it. It was only after her release ten days later that Nellie Bly would be able to draw attention to the neglect and abuse of people with mental disorders and others unfortunate enough to be sentenced to the asylum. Her expose of the conditions within the Lunatic Asylum, published in the World and later in book form,  Ten Days in a Mad-House , caused a sensation. Nellie Bly became an instant celebrity. madhouse-cvr 

The public demanded to know how Nellie Bly had managed to hoodwink four physicians into believing she was insane. A grand jury launched an investigation into the claims made in Bly’s report and recommended the changes she had proposed, prompting an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections for the treatment of the insane.


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charles-dickens2One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.

I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence. The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint.

 I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will lit be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.


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nellie-blyIt had been four months since she’d left Pittsburgh for New York yet Elizabeth Jane Cochran, or “Nellie Bly,” as her byline read, still hadn’t landed a job as a newspaper reporter. She had left the Pittsburgh Dispatch because she was tired of being assigned to the ladies’ pages – writing the society column, reviewing operas, and reporting on the latest women’s fashions.

It was now September of 1887. Bly was running out of money – and then she lost her purse, losing the little bit of money she had left. “I was penniless,” she wrote later, yet she still was not willing to return her former position in Pittsburgh, an industrial city so ugly, said a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, that it was “like looking into hell with the lid off.” New York was the center of the publishing world, a world dominated by men, a fact not lost on Bly. She had to be clever, very clever, to convince a newspaper why they should hire her, a woman, and not a man.

So Bly made up a list of clever story ideas, sure to boost any newspaper’s circulation. Then she borrowed cabfare from her landlady and headed to Park Row, home to the city’s newspaper offices. She managed to talk her way into the office of the managing editor of the New York World Colonel John Cockerill. She took out her list of ideas. She offered to sail steerage class from Europe to America so she could report firsthand the experiences of an immigrant.

Cockerill didn’t like her idea, but he must have recognized Bly’s potential, because he proposed an even wilder assignment. Why didn’t Bly fake insanity, he asked, and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum? As an undercover agent, Bly could witness for herself and later report on the rumored abuses suffered by the inmates at the hands of a sadistic staff.

The notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum was set on the 120-acre sliver of land called Blackwell’s Island in the East River. It was surrounded by prisons and charity institutions. If Bly accepted the assignment, she would be asking for trouble. It could be dangerous. Bly had never been around crazy people before. Could she pull it off? What if she got sent to Blackwell’s Island, got locked up in the asylum with a bunch of lunatics and couldn’t get out?


Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly. (New York: Random House, 1994)


Next: Nellie decides.

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