A Modern Lettre De Cachet

ONE of our earliest recollections connected with the City of Brotherly Love is that of a visit made in school-days to Penn’s famous Treaty Elm, in the old ship-building district of Shakamaxon. History had excited our youthful enthusiasm and curiosity sufficiently to induce us to walk from one end of the city to the other to view with our mortal eyes the ground whereon the old English Quaker had consummated that rather sharp financial operation with the Indians, by virtue of which there was ceded to him the territory now known as Pennsylvania and Delaware, in return for glass beads of many colors, cloths of dazzling dyes, hatchets, rings, and blankets. Arriving at the spot, we found the elm gone; and in its place stood a four-sided, tapering shaft of stone, duly recording, in not choice orthography, the legend of the Treaty; but as it looked much like many another stone that we had seen in churchyard rambles, our curiosity sought other objects for its gratification, and the first that presented itself was something directly opposite to the site of the old tree, and quite within its shadow, if that terrible 3d of March wind, Anno Domini, 1810, had not blown it down, so that the friendly shadow had ceased to fall for many a year. There, in the fierce glare and heat of the noonday sun, we saw the figure of a young man chained to a stake, in the yard of a not altogether unpretentious mansion. A picket fence, three or four feet high, enclosed the grounds in which this strangely clad and moaning figure walked to and fro to the extent that his chain would permit.

We were then scarcely higher than the fence, and, going close up to it, we looked through the palings at the uneasy figure of the prisoner. Seeing his face plainly, we knew, young as we were, that the object of our curiosity was an imbecile. Inquiry elicited that he was not violent or vicious, but simply insane. Further inquiry assured us that it was not considered a cruel thing to chain the lunatic to a post, to expose him to the jeers and jibes and curious stare of the thousands who daily thronged that particular street, to expose him to the burning rays of the sun, to compel him to bear the burden of a stake and chain, — not cruel or inhuman, although his family were, if not wealthy, citizens of good estate.

What intelligent progress has been made in the treatment of the insane since that day, when such an exhibition of shameless wrong was not only tolerated, but uncensured, in the great city of Penn! Humanity and a nobler civilization have erected many and generously appointed asylums for them, wherein, if they cannot be restored to reason, these poor unfortunates can find a shelter from the noonday sun and the unpitying stare of the multitude.

Science and humanity have gone hand in hand, taking gigantic strides in this direction; but while they have advanced upon their certain way to the rescue of those who have “ first died atop,” rearing homes, asylums, and hospitals for their use in every State and in almost every county of the Union, which have been endowed by commonwealths, communities, and individuals, our statutory laws regulating these institutions, and the forms of consignment to them, have remained precisely as they were fifty years ago.

It is the pride, the loud and oftenrepeated boast, of our people, that the vilest vagabond who walks our streets, that the shameless woman whose trade poisons the city’s life, that the thief who courts the darkness and shuns the public way, — that the foulest wretch of them all, upon whose soul rests the guilt of murder done, cannot be committed to prison without a sufficient warrant, issued in due form of law by a properly authorized magistrate, — without a subsequent hearing, whereat he may publicly maintain his own defence, and where his innocence is presupposed, and his guilt must be fully established in the opinion of the magistrate. Yet there is not a man among us, however pure, wise, or influential, who may not be, upon the certificate of a single physician, committed to the cell of a lunatic asylum, the walls of which are as high and strong, the keepers as vigilant and morose, the code of laws as absolute, the windows and doors as difficult to escape from, as those of any prison in the land.

Of all our sacred rights and privileges, that of personal liberty is the dearest, the most sacred. But the liberty of any man in the Commonwealth is at the mercy of an enemy, the cupidity of relatives, the treachery or ignorance of a physician. No matter how unknown, how criminal, how ignorant or besotted, how old or how young, the physician may be, if he is armed with that mighty weapon, the diploma of a medical school, he holds us at his mercy. Conspirators against our estate or our happiness need only by specious lies, perverted facts, or bribes induce him to sign the fatal certificate, and an instrument potential as a Lettre de Cachet removes us from the wholesome air of the outer world, from the refined intercourse of society, from our dreams of art, from our scheme of benevolence, or from our professional pursuits, to the lonely cell, or the ward of an asylum densely peopled with the insane.

The strongest jail doors are not sufficiently strong to hold a prisoner against the assaults of that sturdy giant, the writ of habeas corpus, for they cannot shut him in silently, by stealth, or by night. They must close upon him in the broad light of day, with such clamor and éclat as a public hearing gives ; and, as they are swung to upon their victim, the fact is caught up and echoed from every daily journal, and long before it has reached so far it has been thundered into the ear of the prisoner’s counsel, who, actuated by love of justice or by love of fee, as you may please to think, summons to his aid the mighty writ, to set his client free. But let your enemies, or your heirs, and their physician go quietly about their work; let them arrest you in the night, carry you to the asylum, and suggest to the governor of the institution that only they are to communicate with you in person or by letter, and no writ of habeas corpus can draw you from your living grave into the freedom of a citizen, for none knows where they have hidden you. Thenceforth you are dead to the world until your estate is put beyond your control or divided, or an accident discovers your retreat, or an earthquake topples down your prison walls, — dead, astute law - makers ; dead, honorable judges of the Common Pleas ; dead, vain boasters of a freedom which is a lie while the liberty of our best and wisest citizen depends upon a thing like this! Read it,—and how many will read it for the first time!—and learn by how slight a tenure you hold your boasted freedom : —


“ HAVING on the day of

, 18—, examined of

aged years, I

hereby certify, from my own knowledge, that is in a state of insanity, and proper to be received into a house provided for the relief of persons of that description. I further certify, that the answers annexed to the following questions are correct, as far as I can judge.1

“—, Physician.”

There it stands in all its monstrous proportions, the foulest blot upon a nation’s statute-books. Add to it a physician’s signature, and the thing springs into vitality with all the strength of that old lettre of France which, with like silence and secrecy, consigned its victim to the Bastile. This is all that is necessary to insure your incarceration in almost any public or private mad-house in the States. No, we mistake. Sometimes more is required of your enemies, your heirs ; they must execute a bond binding themselves to pay to the asylum, in consideration of your restraint, “ from nine to thirty dollars per week, for not less than thirteen weeks,” The bond is a short one ; read it, and learn that even these charitable asylums may have an interest in your living death.


“ APPLICATION is hereby made for the admission of as a patient into the asylum for the relief of persons deprived of the use of their reason ; upon whose admission, we jointly and severally engage to provide a sufficiency of suitable clothing for use whilst there ; to pay quarterly in advance to , superintendent of said institution, or to his assign or successor in office, dollars per week for board ; not less than four weeks’ board to be paid under any circumstances ; the said charge for board to be continued until shall be regularly discharged; (and to make compensation for all damages done by to the glass, bedding, or furniture ;) but if taken away uncured, against the advice and consent of the superintendent before the expiration of three calendar months, to pay board for thirteen weeks.


“I HAVE seen and examined John Doe, of California, and believe him to be insane.

“—, M. D.“

“ Witness our hands and seals this day of A. D. 186

“[L. S.]

[L. S.]”

Thus is written the law upon this matter, borrowed scores and scores of years ago from England, but written there to-day in a more enlightened spirit, altered to suit the world’s advance, and containing fuller assurances for the freedom of her Majesty’s subjects. Yet here upon our statute-books it stands as it was recorded on the day of its adoption, yielding in its monstrous wrong not a jot to the nobler, wiser civilization of this better time, in which the advancing nation, through its Congress, solemnly declares that there shall be no more involuntary servitude within its limits, except upon a due conviction of crime. Writing as we do in Pennsylvania, we do not write for this old Commonwealth alone; for that which prevails as good law here in this respect is equally good law in nearly every State of the Union.

While it must be admitted that physicians are clothed with these extraordinary privileges affecting our personal liberty, it may be questioned if they would ever use them improperly. It is asked, Is there any danger that a perfectly sane man may be consigned to a mad-house ? Why, the natural consequences of granting physicians such immense powers are flung into the faces of our legislators, judges, and jurors with “damnable iteration”; the lawbooks are full of such cases, and so well known have they become, that writers of fiction have found in them material for their work, such as their wildest imaginations would fail to suggest. So notorious were abuses in England, where the certificate must be signed by two physicians, and sworn to before a magistrate, that it was recently found necessary to direct, under the authority of Parliament, an investigation into the character and treatment of the patients confined in the mad-houses of the United Kingdom. The official reports of these investigations are tales of wrong, cruelty, and oppression, at which the heart sickens ; in some instances showing mothers and fathers incarcerating their children to be rid of their care, showing sons incarcerating their fathers that their estates might come down to them unimpaired. Who would care to face the horrors that such an inquisition, if ordered here, would produce ? Sometimes an accident drags individual cases into public view, exciting a three-days’ wonder and criticism; but legislators, judges, and jurors listen serenely to the recital of such wrongs committed upon isolated individuals,— wrongs which, if perpetrated by one nation upon the humblest citizen of another, would be, if not fully and promptly redressed, found ample provocation for a war ; —or, if a case more flagrant in its hardship than another cause them for a moment to wince at the existence of a law which permits such oppression, they do no more than regret, with becoming judicial mildness, that it is not expunged from cur statutebooks, and go comfortably home to dine, not disturbed by the thought that an enemy or their heir lieth in wait for them, armed with a physician’s certificate. Yet so it may be, for no man among us all can say when it will not be his turn.

It is not our intention to undervalue the usefulness of the many admirably conducted public institutions for the treatment of the insane which are so numerous in the country, which are doing noble service in the cause of humanity, and many of which, we know, were conceived in, and are governed by, the sincerest and most elevated spirit of charity and good-will to men; still less do we propose to impugn the characters of their benevolent founders, or the skilful physicians who control them, though we cannot doubt that it is the well-founded conviction of every intelligent inquirer into the subject, that those directing this matter have made the idea of an insane asylum too much that of a prison, not only as to outward appearances, but in much of its internal management. And when Dr. Kirkbride says, in writing of the government of “ The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane,” the oldest, if not the ablest and most useful of its class, that to him alone “ is confided the general superintendence of the establishment, — the sole direction of the medical, moral, and dietic treatment of the patients, and the selection of all persons employed in their care,” — we cannot fail to see the capacity for evil with which he is clothed, since every officer of the institution, from the physician to the scullery-maid, depends upon his favor to maintain position under him. While objections such as these will properly lie against even so well conducted an asylum as Dr. Kirkbride’s, how much more strongly will they bear against those private mad-houses whose name is legion, and whose doors are forever closed against the general public ? In proposing to place a patient under the charge of the asylum at Frankford, we suggested that it would not be agreeable to have the patient seen by visitors to the institution ; whereon the manager assured us that, “ if it was the desire of his friends, and they were willing to pay for a private room, he need never be seen by any one but the physician and his private attendants.” This estimable gentleman did not mean that the institution would hide the patient from anything more than the stares of the curious or impertinent. He only meant that the institution would protect him that far. But his answer showed how easily malice or greed could bury a man in that asylum until accident or death came to his rescue. The rules of all these institutions, whether public or private, are mostly excellent in their design and in theory ; but if they should depend for their execution upon either a wicked, weak, or indolent superintendent, they would, instead of being a safeguard, become a pregnant means of wrong, for their existence only being known, would simply serve to allay suspicion of mismanagement and cruelty, and give more certain opportunity to oppression and evil practices. Rules, however well considered, cannot execute themselves. There must be excellence as much in execution as in conception.

When there is a clearly defined case of insanity, when demoniacal fury has secured its victim, then the insane asylum becomes a “ strong refuge,” where, removed from the exciting causes of mental malady, and watched over with eminent skill and thoughtful care, such as long experience teaches is wise and good, the mind may be gradually brought into its normal condition, and the patient restored to life and friends. But while these institutions are asylums, in the highest sense, for the truly insane, they become torture-houses, breeders of insanity, for those who may, by cruel chance, be brought improperly under their peculiar influences.

A distinguished member of the Philadelphia bar lately referred to six cases in which he had been engaged during the last year, where there had been imprisonment for alleged insanity, and release effected only after long confinement and tedious efforts ; and if we could but examine the dockets of every practising lawyer in the United States, we should find multitudes of entries telling the same story.

A few years ago the community of Philadelphia were excited to an unwonted degree by the case of Morgan Hinchman, a member of the Society of Friends. It is a case that has become famous in the annals of the jurisprudence of Pennsylvania. Mr. Hinchman was a young farmer, living in one of the eastern counties of the State; he had some years before married a lady whose fortune of ten or twelve thousand dollars, about equal to his own, he caused to be settled upon herself; the deed of settlement, however, contained a power of revocation. Subsequently, on finding what he conceived to be an opportunity for a judicious use of his wife’s estate, he obtained from her an annulment of the settlement by which she transferred her property, consisting principally of State stocks, to her husband. Shortly alter this assignment had taken place, and when its existence had become known to some relatives, an estrangement arising out of it grew up between him and his wife, instigated, it was alleged, by her family. While on his way to the city of Philadelphia to attend to some business he was, at the instance of his connections, forcibly arrested, thrust into a close carriage and taken to the Frankford Lunatic Asylum, to one of the managers of which institution we desire to express our indebtedness for the certificate heretofore given, as well as for some valuable information contained in this paper.

For six long and dreadful months was this gentleman kept a close prisoner, denied the usual privileges of the establishment, encompassed by gibbering idiots and raving maniacs, surrounded by the wrecks of immortal minds, deprived of all intercourse with the outer world save those of his enemies who had placed him there. He was denied the privilege of seeing even an old servant, who, being a necessary instrument to his enemies, and under a pledge of secrecy was made acquainted with his master’s prison, went thither and begged to see him. But let us hear this honest old fellow tell his own story as he once told it under his solemn affirmation, “I asked one of the keepers to get in. He said I could not get in. I said I would like to see Morgan. He said I could not, because he would have his head shaved. I was looking at the house, and I saw Morgan at an upper window. There were iron sashes at the windows. The tears came to my eyes. I said I would give ten dollars, poor as I am, to see Morgan for one instant.” The keeper was faithful, and the old servant’s bribe did not affect him ; he was not permitted “ to see Morgan for one instant.” The prisoner was not allowed to write a letter to his friends, — no, we are wrong, he did write to them, and his letter was put into his keeper’s pocket, or the fire. But to one of those who had been active in his incarceration he wrote, and his letter was sent. It was in these words the young Quaker wrote to his brother of the Meeting :

“ BROTHER EDWARD RICHIE : — I am very desirous of having an interview with thee ; and think (after what has occurred), if thou wouldst but endeavor to put thy soul in my soul’s place, thou wouldst not refuse this request ; whatsoever views may be taken of the past, or whatsoever the future may bring forth, which no human being can foresee, I think, upon dispassionate reflection, thou canst hardly deny me this ; but thy granting the interview may hereafter be a satisfaction to thee, as it is the very earnest request of


“ Recollect, I am a close prisoner, and cannot come to thee, and that time to us all is uncertain.”

Put your soul into the place of this man’s soul, could you have written such a letter ? Why, its very tenderness of fear lest his enemy may not do some little act of reparation before it is too late, lest one or the other may die before the wrong is repented of, has for us an awful pathos, — a sublimer charity than the world has often seen.

But that letter was written in vain ; and there, within the strong walls of a mad-house, forbidden to communicate with those who would have rescued him, was kept Morgan Hinchman, “because,” testified the superintendent,— “because such were the or-ders of his friends.” Kept there a close prisoner, though in his far-away home, and unknown to him, his eldest child lay dying, — a day later lay dead !

“ I remember when he went away,” gravely affirmed the old servant. “ I was the last man he talked to there. He said, ' Take care of the creatures, and I will be back as soon as I can. Farewell.’ He left his wife and children there.”

He was kept a close prisoner while the spring grasses grew rank above the grave of his dead child, kept prisoner while his property was sold away from him under the auctioneer’s hammer, his books, his furniture, his very garments, divided among “ his friends,” who had given the orders by which he was buried alive !

All this upon a physician’s certificate ? Yes, we know how like a romance it all reads, but we are telling you the history of a living man, taken from the records of the trial.

When the chief of the conspirators was asked by the old servant, “ Where is Morgan ? ” he received for answer, “ Down below.” If he meant by that to express, in hell, he was not far wrong; but he added, “ that he was to be considered as though his horses had run away with him and killed him.”

They had consigned him to a living death ; nobody came to his rescue, nobody knew of the place of his incarceration, — nobody, relative or true friend, alien or neighbor. No human being was called, or allowed to interpose for his liberation. So he remained there, and after this manner the conspirators spoke together concerning him. One asked, “Suppose he gets out and sues us ? ” And the answer was, “ When the poor wretch comes out of the asylum, he will not find anything in his pockets by which he will be able to sue.”

And when, after lingering months had passed, and he was still a prisoner, his uncle learned of Morgan’s incarceration, and went in his wrath to those who had placed him there, who had sold his property and divided his raiment among them, he was told “that he had better not attempt reclaiming his nephew’s property, but leave it with them, because they would either prove him insane or so blacken his character that he could not walk the streets.” Or again, said the chief conspirator to his victim, “ Make a deed of trust. If you do that, you may come out a sane man.” Another witness testified that the superintendent of the asylum said : “ It is a mere family quarrel ; if he would arrange his property, there would be an end of it.”

At the expiration of that half-year of association with the wrecks of mind that surrounded him he escaped from the asylum through his uncle’s aid, and then began on his part a suit for damages against his enemies ; but even then they held on to their plunder, taking his money to pay counsel fees to keep him out of his property. The conspirators had paid all their victim’s expenses in the asylum out of the same fund, and from the same free source flowed the generous fees of lawyers retained to keep him there.

One of the curious features of this case, when it came to trial, was the evasive character of the whole defence, and in this wrong some of the officers and managers of the asylum shared; “signatures were denied, orders repudiated, minutes kept back, records vitiated and altered,” letters were burned which would have proved the plaintiff’s sanity and the entire scheme of the conspiracy, — burned during the very progress of the trial, by the conspirators, lest they should be brought up in evidence against them.

A manager of the asylum testified “ that the superintendent could not look beyond the papers of admission supplied by the patient’s friends ; that the superintendent had no power to discharge an inmate, no matter how long his cure had been established, without the consent of the friends who had placed him there.”

Another manager said, on his affirmation, in answer to a direct question from Mr. Justice Burnside, “ that on the mere certificate of any doctor whatever, no matter how obtained, he would consign any one of the hundreds then in that court-room to incarceration in the Frankford Asylum.” When we recollect that there were then present at least one judge of the Supreme Court and many of the most distinguished lawyers and citizens of Philadelphia, it must be acknowledged that the witness flung fairly into their faces the operations of a law which their acquiescence had helped to maintain and make absolute.

The physician who signed the certificate, and who was made a defendant in the above suit, had never been Morgan Hinchman’s physician, had not seen him for a single moment for four months previous to issuing it. But he was held to be outside of the reach of the law, and acquitted. Judge Burnside, in his wise and temperate charge to the jury, said : “When a physician gives a certificate honestly, he ought not to be subject to damages.”

In conclusion, the learned judge said : “If the man was a sane man, and you so find, and they knew he was sane, and concocted this scheme for the purpose of obtaining his property, it is an aggravating case.”

The jury so found, as to certain of the defendants, and assessed the damages against them at ten thousand dollars.

The victim of this oppression, by which he suffered in body, reputation, and estate, has, since the time of that trial, been actively engaged in business in Philadelphia as a conveyancer, — a profession requiring not only sound, unclouded intellect, but especial talents of a high order. In and out of his vocation, he is justly esteemed as well for his culture and refined intelligence as his moral worth.

Another case which occurred but a few months ago before the Court of Common Pleas for the city and county of Philadelphia will also serve to illustrate the fruitful wrongs of the present practice of imprisonment on the mere certificate of a physician. A gentleman of advanced age, whose gray hairs alone should have saved him from the indignities to which he was subject, on leaving his home one evening was seized in the street by an officer of the police, taken forcibly to the Spring Garden Station-House, and thrust into a cell such as is daily and nightly occupied by the lowest class of criminals. There, with the drunken vagabonds, thieves, and prostitutes gathered in by the police during the night, he was kept until morning, then placed in a closed carriage, and driven rapidly to the outskirts of the city. In reply to his repeated inquiries as to his destination, and wherefore he had been arrested, the only information he could obtain was that he was going before a magistrate to answer to a criminal charge. The carriage was driven into handsome grounds, surrounded by high granite walls, not to be scaled or assailed, and stopped before a frowning stone edifice, having cast-iron sashes to its windows, and “ ornamental cast-iron screens ” on the outside of them. The officer and his prisoner entered “The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.” The old man was a bachelor; his relatives had placed him there,— or rather their, not his, physician had supplied them with the fatal certificate which transformed this wealthy and respectable citizen into a something which, if not upon a level with the commonest felon, was yet regarded by the law, and treated by its duly empowered officer in precisely the same manner as any criminal coming under its notice would have been. It only required that certificate to reduce an honest gentleman to a level with night-prowling thieves and vagrants.

His relatives had placed him in the asylum, they afterwards testified, because he was dissipating his fortune, spending it for furniture, books, and pictures, filling his house with them. They were uneducated, simple people, who had grown rich in trade, not suddenly, but slowly, laboriously; yet their wealth suggested to none of them but this victim of their oppression any more gracious or bountiful life than they had known in their earlier days of abject poverty of body and mind ; and that one of their own dull, lethargic German blood could spend his money in pictures and the like could only be explained on the ground of insanity, and only prevented by the aid of the physician’s certificate.

A lady visiting the institution, and, having a casual acquaintance with him, saw him there, and was requested to send a lawyer to his aid. She did so, and the legality of his imprisonment was tested by a writ of habeas corpus. In this case the gentleman who issued the certificate swore positively to his belief in the prisoner’s insanity, although he had not seen him for seven weeks before he signed the certificate, and then had only seen him on the street. One of the physicians of the hospital — not Dr. Kirkbride — also swore that he believed the prisoner to be insane, yet every fact upon which these witnesses based their opinions was entirely consistent with the theory of sanity. It is worth while to consider the hospital physician’s reasons for declaring his prisoner of unsound mind“From the moment he was brought there,” testified this gentleman, “ his conduct betokened insanity. He was violent to the officers, talked loudly, and protested wildly against being deprived of his liberty, at first; then he became moody and silent, watched the door, or went off by himself to distant parts of the building. And (which was to me conclusive evidence of his aberration of mind) he did not sleep, and paced his room at night.”

A learned judge gravely sat and listened to this evidence, and indeed looked as if he drank in wisdom from it, — learning, as it were, how next to know a madman when he met one.

Consider this evidence, you who are to-day enjoying the freedom of your sanity, — consider it well, and then pause before you order home new furniture, or an Arctic dream of Church’s, or a painted poem by Hamilton, or fill your library shelves with old and rare editions; for you know not what tomorrow may bring forth : your heir may fancy that you are squandering your fair estate, that he sees in your extravagance the wreck and crash of that Pleasure House which he was rearing in Xanadu, and that his soul will never take its ease there if your waste is longer permitted. Should tomorrow find you an inmate of a madhouse, and you vainly beat against the iron bars of your cage, that will be seized upon as evidence of your insanity, though the instincts of freedom which animate the bird and man are identical. If, finding escape cut off, you abandon the company of your morose keepers and retire to a corner, out of hearing of the giggle of the idiot or the howls of the maniac, to brood over your wrongs, that is another proof against you. Be loud of voice or silent, laugh or weep, it is the same, — all insanity. Nay, more; if, in the night, thoughts of your old free life come back to plague you out of sleep, or the demoniac wailings reach you from the cells below, rousing you from your slumbers, and you rise and pace uneasily your barred room, that is certain indication of insanity, — madmen are often sleepless. If you upbraid your sullen keepers with your detention, it is said you talk wildly about your liberty; or if you watch the door to find at last a face you know, — the face of some one who will carry tidings to your counsel, — that is sworn against you as another evidence of your insanity.

Such was the proof relied upon by the prisoner’s relatives to prevent his release. On the other hand, a dozen of this man’s friends and neighbors, all of whom were unprejudiced witnesses, and many of whom had known him for many years, meeting him constantly on business, on the street, in their houses, testified that they had never entertained the slightest suspicion against his absolute soundness of mind. For his continued incarceration there was not a single unprejudiced witness, not one who was not liable to be a defendant in an action for damages, not one who had not an especial interest in his prolonged imprisonment; and yet, curious as it may seem, monstrous as it appeared to us in its wrong, — showing how much imprisonment for ever so short a time in an insane asylum taints a man’s life, rendering him an object of fear and suspicion, — revealing, too, the immense influence wielded by the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, which, lifting up its heavy granite front to intimidate legislator, judge, and citizen alike, sternly questions if anything so solid, so eminently respectable as it is, can be suspected of wrong, ignorance, or lack of care,—yes, monstrous as it seemed, the learned judge remanded the prisoner to the custody of his keeper for two weeks, to enable his relatives to take out an Inquisition of Lunacy against him. But they, knowing they had no case from the beginning, did not further attempt to make one ; and at the expiration of the two weeks he was again brought before the court, and discharged.

During his incarceration his relatives had sold his property at auction, and deposited the proceeds of tire sale in bank, credited to their own personal accounts.

And now comes the remarkable feature of this case. A few weeks later this same gentleman was chosen and acted as a juror in that very court; and, as the learned judge did not object to having him act in that capacity, we are bound to believe that during the several weeks he served as a juror he performed his responsible duties to the entire satisfaction of the presiding justice, although he had furnished his Honor with no additional proofs of his sanity than were already in the possession of the court when he was remanded to the custody of the keepers of a mad-house. In that very court in which he had stood up awhile before, a suppliant for his liberty, and fighting against great odds to secure his release from his jailers, he was commanded by the law to become its executive, and to decide upon cases involving some of the most important questions of life, and, among them, that of alleged insanity !

And still another instance, occurring within the last few months, and showing the fatal facility with which the liberty of an individual may be signed away by a mere stroke of the pen, attracted the attention of the same tribunal. An affectionate husband, holding an enviable position in the social and mercantile world, resorted to the all-powerful certificate of a physician to dispose of a wife for whose company he no longer had any desire. It was not that he loved his neighbor’s wife better than his own, but because he did not love his own at all; a divorce would be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain without some tangible reason, —and that he had not,— and would involve a public trial and an uncoveted notoriety. Incarceration in a mad-house for a certain period would give him grounds for a libel of divorce, if it must come to that to get rid of her, and in the mean time it was so easy a matter, involving no public criticism or scandal. So a physician’s certificate was obtained, and presto! from her own luxurious home to an insane asylum was the affair of an hour. There she might have remained still, if the superintendent, Dr. Kirkbride, a gentleman noble and good as he is wise, had not become especially interested in her. He watched her assiduously, examined into the facts of her case, taking a great deal of trouble in the matter, satisfied himself of her sanity, brought the attention of the court to the subject, and procured her discharge.

We have not cited these cases at such length because they are rare ones, but because, more than any others, each in itself especially discloses the peculiar operation of the present law, which makes the occurrence of such wrongs possible and frequent. We have used them, too, because they emanated from two of the most respectable and most admirably governed asylums in the country, whose administration is as perfect, apparently, as human wisdom could make it.

But against our argument it will be urged that legal redress is always at hand ; that in the just mind of the law there is no wrong without its remedy; that Justice is vigilant, her doors are always open to those who seek her protection. This is only partially true, and the difficulties of obtaining a release from medical custody are very great. Justice has her courts, and no longer, as in the days of the good Haroun Alraschid, goes she out into the highways and by-ways seeking her votaries, listening to their complaints ; if they need her aid, they must seek her where she has builded her a temple, and even there they may find her eyes too closely veiled to note their wrongs. Prisoners in these palace-like Bastiles are not permitted to send a written line without their walls until it has had the supervision of the superintendent, and not then if those who placed them there object to their communicating with the outer world. By the same orders they may be entirely excluded from the too curious eyes of visitors.

David Paul Brown, one of the ablest and most distinguished of American lawyers, relates that he was waited upon by a gentleman recently released from an insane asylum, who requested that suit might be brought against his relatives for false imprisonment. Mr. Brown declined to commence proceedings, giving, as a reason for doing so, a certain letter which the gentleman had written to him during his incarceration in the asylum. Said Mr. Brown, “ No sane man would have written such a letter.” “True,” replied the would-be client; “but do you not know, that, if I had written you a sane letter, it could not have passed the walls ? ” He who had spent months there knew of the tender mercies of the institution, and of its stricter than prison rules, better than the wise lawyer.

But admitting that at last the writ of habeas corpus finds the alleged lunatic and brings him before the court, unless his friends are powerful and zealous he can have but little chance of release. Upon a hearing on a habeas corpus everything is against him. Even the law recognizes this; for whilst in general the presumption is in favor of sanity, if a person has ever been in confinement on a charge of lunacy the burden of proof of soundness of mind rests upon the prisoner, the fact of his incarceration in an asylum being regarded as almost prima facie against him. He comes into court feverish and excited. His wrongs, his sufferings, his associations in the asylum, have wrought their worst upon him. Many of those upon whom he relies to testify in his behalf have failed to appear ; for his star is in the descendent, and the taint of the prison is on him. On the other side are arrayed the counsel whom his persecutors and the institution have been able to fee. There, too, is the great weight of the institution itself, with its Board of Directors composed of influential citizens, eager to resent any imputation upon its character that would indirectly affect their own ; and there, too, is its medical staff of eminent men, already biased against any one who has come under their care through the certificate of a professional brother ; they are there not only to maintain the dignity of the profession to its remotest collateral representative, they are there to protect it from reproach, whether aimed against its honesty or its wisdom ; there is the crowd of spectators, who glare at the prisoner as if he were a wild beast ; there is his keeper, ever by his side, to remind him of his ignominious captivity ; and there is the judge, whose face betokens no interest in him, but is lighted up with cordial recognition of each of the eminent medical jailers as they enter. They have sworn away so many men’s liberties — properly often enough, and honestly, as they believed, always — before his Honor, that they and the court are quite old friends. The prisoner sees this, and, feeling the immense pressure thus brought to bear against him, he knows that he is facing a forlorn hope ; and if, with such odds bearing down upon him, he can undergo an examination with perfect calmness ; if, forgetting his cruel wrongs, he rises superior to the depressing influences which have surrounded him by day in the vagaries of confirmed madmen, and their howls by night; if he can so put the past away from him, with all its attendant horrors, if he can steady his brain and nerve to the perfect equilibrium of sanity,—he may have some chance, yet even then it is a desperate one.

These difficulties, which are formidable in the case of a man under such constraint, become almost insurmountable when a woman is brought into court to confront them. Imagine the effect likely to be produced upon a delicate, nervous woman, ignorant of the world and of all manner of business, thrust suddenly and without warning into an insaneward of a hospital. If she looks from her cell, it is through iron bars ; and through them she sees, not the beautitul world her life has known, but stern high walls, beyond which she may never go. She, a sane woman, is forced to contemplate, each moment of her existence, every gradation of reason’s eclipse in those who are about her ; she is not permitted to stir beyond the sight of her keeper ; she is shut off from human affections, from human hopes, feeling daily that the potent contagion of insanity is stealing over her own mind, feeling erelong that she is fast becoming fit companion for those about her, — fit for her prison by being kept a prisoner. Let the tardy law discover her at last, command her body to be brought before the veiled goddess, and let it work its utmost in her behalf. What hope is there for her in that rapidly whirling court-room ? what chance for succor or redress ? “ Many of the depots for the captivity of intellectual invalids,” says Mr. Sheldford, the leading English writer on the jurisprudence of insanity, “ may be regarded only as nurseries for and manufactories of madness, — magazines or reservoirs of lunacy, from which is issued, from time to time, a sufficient supply for perpetuating and extending this formidable disease,”

We have thus far considered only imprisonment in those institutions where the expenses for restraint must be borne by the alleged lunatic’s friends ; and these expenses are never so low as not to return a large income to the asylum, which goes to pay the officers’ large salaries, so that they become not impartial witnesses in a case of alleged lunacy. In Pennsylvania, and in nearly all the States, a party in interest may not testify in his own behalf; nay, any person interested in the pecuniary results of a suit at law, even though his interest be not more than one penny, is an incompetent witness, whose evidence will not be received. Yet the evidence upon which the alleged lunatic’s persecutors principally depend to sustain their charge against him is that of these pecuniarily interested witnesses, — the officers of the institution, whose salary his restraint assists in paying, and to whose patronage they are partly indebted for their positions.

Now let us turn to those asylums where nothing is required by their officers but the simple certificate, who make no loud pretence to a noble charity, and demand no bond of your enemy or heir. This is all they ask.: —



“ I have seen and examined residing at No. Street, and believe to be insane, and a proper subject for the Insane Department of the Almshouse.

“—, M.D.

“ No. Street.”

Strike from it the word “ Philadelphia,” and it will do service in nine out of every ten States of the Union. If the patient is a squanderer of fair fortunes, his heirs will probably choose the one with the bond ; but if he has no fortune to spend, if he is only a tippling brother, lazy and shiftless, or if it is the old man lingering too long by the hearth, grown rheumatic and fretful, absorbing too much of the heat from the scanty fire, eating too heartily of the frugal, hard-earned meal, — if it is this old man whose years of toil and exposure for his children have led him to think their home should be his home, they can disappoint him in it, rid themselves of his expense, his growls and presence, and bury him out of sight and hearing, until the real and kindlier death sets him free, merely by filling with his name the second blank there, and obtaining a physician’s signature at the end.

We have purposely said nothing of the alleged abuses existing in these asylums, though they are flagrant enough, if the veracity of those who have escaped from them can be relied upon. But we are willing to admit that their laws are perfection, and their treatment of patients tender and thoughtful as it should be, that their principles are the highest results of refined and cultured minds, and generous, sympathetic hearts. Yet even while we write there come to us from the State Asylum of Illinois tales of such malign cruelty and wrong, of such ghastly deeds done to the insane,—done, too, in the name of Christ’s love and charity, — that our hearts sicken as we read. But not alone from Illinois comes up the harrowing cry of the lunatic: Pennsylvania, through her State Medical Association and through a Special Commission appointed by her Governor, reveals to the public scrutiny pictures of most wanton neglect and infamous treatment of the insane on the part of their keepers.

The “ Pennsylvania Medical Association Report” says the insane are in some instances confined “ in rooms small and close, with no means of admitting a proper supply of fresh air, either summer or winter, and, being in ike basement, are often extremely cold in winter ; others in small rooms, built especially for them, where they remain constantly, — their food being passed in to them through a small opening left for the purpose.” Some are kept “with a chain on the ankle, and fastened to a staple in the floor, allowing only a few feet of motion around a fixed point” ; “ males and females are found in adjoining, and often in opposite rooms, even in that state of excitement when they will wear no clothing,”

The Report of the Special Commissioner says : “ I conversed with a patient who was said to be deranged; he was chained to a sixty-five pound weight, which he was obliged to carry about with him wherever he moved.”

“ In a building known as the Insane Hospital, in a row of badly constructed and worse ventilated cells, divided by thin board partitions, I found insane men and women, some of them confined to the floor by chains worn bright by constant use through many long years of confinement in this dreary abode,— treatment that would drive a sane man mad. Some of these poor wretches had been confined in this place for more than twenty years. There was no record of them, their history seems to be traditional only. No one knew or cared for them. One patient, over eighty years of age, had been chained for twenty years.” “ I am compelled to believe,” says the Commissioner, now speaking of another institution, “that the patients confined in the wards appropriated to the imbecile and insane are most shamefully neglected, especially female patients, who, from the carelessness of those having charge of them, have had improper intercourse with men.”

Not alone in England, then, are lunatic asylums “breeders of insanity”; not there even was it alleged that they were breeding - houses of insane offspring. Let us hope that to none but the State of the old Quaker Penn is due this infamy.

Pennsylvania and Illinois have not alone uttered their bitter cries for reform ; Massachusetts joins them in it by her record of the recent death, in one of her almshouses, of an insane pauper, the son of an eminent clergyman, himself educated for the ministry, who had been manacled with heavy chains for sixty years, and who had lived, during that period, in squalid filth, and for a portion of that time was confined in a cage not high enough to permit him to stand erect.

Is the land all fair between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, or between Pennsylvania and Illinois ?

But it is often the very excellence of these institutions that makes them so dangerous for evil, when the alleged lunatic is not of unsound mind, and therefore improperly subject to their restraint, and—in his case—unwholesome influence. The mere ipse dixit of their officers is considered an irrefragable proof of mental disease, and this is rendered more powerful by their undoubted sincerity. Our profound respect for the medical profession as a body precludes the idea that many of them would be guilty of signing a certificate falsely, and it is not easy to believe that the officers of our best regulated houses for the treatment of the insane would for an instant restrain the liberty of an inmate after they had satisfied themselves of his sanity. But those who have witnessed the pertinacity with which they contest every suit at law brought to recover the liberty of one of their prisoners cannot fail to be impressed with the idea that these officers grow insensibly to believe in the insanity of every one brought under their care. A very curious case, strikingly illustrative of this, is given at great length in “ Wharton and Stille’s Medical Jurisprudence.” Briefly, it was the old story of an officer carrying his prisoner to the insane asylum. They arrived too late in the night to obtain admittance, and were obliged to go to an inn. In the morning the insane man got up quietly, searched the officer’s pockets, and found a certificate authorizing his own incarceration. Armed with that he paid an early visit to the asylum, saw the superintendent, and told him he would presently bring him a patient who was a queer fellow, and would probably try to make the superintendent believe that he, the speaker, was the crazy one. When he got back to the inn the officer proposed a walk, the prisoner acquiesced, and as soon as they reached the asylum the insane man handed over the officer to the keeper, giving him the certificate. Having accomplished this feat, he took the return train home, and when questioned as to the whereabouts of the officer, replied that he was in the insane asylum, and was no doubt in a strait - waistcoat, and had his head shaved. His friends went at once to the poor fellow’s rescue, but too late to prevent either the strait-jacket or the loss of his hair. They found him in a close cell, strongly guarded, with his head shaved clean. The whole medical staff of the institution thought the poor victim of this trick not only insane, but looked upon him as one of their most dangerous patients.

In that case, as in almost every other, the physicians of the asylum relied entirely upon the certificate of the examining doctor. In Hinchman v. Richie it will be remembered that the manager, on his affirmation, said that “the superintendent could not go outside of the certificate.” The person who signs it is supposed to have an accurate knowledge of the patient’s history, and the peculiar form of his malady, and to have fully understood and weighed the responsibility of the step he has taken, and therefore, with very apparent reason, great weight is attached to the certificate. But a case referred to by Dr. Bucknill, and cited in Millar’s “Hints on Insanity,” shows exactly how little a physician may appreciate the responsibility of depriving a human being of his liberty. In that instance, one of the medical men certifying to the insanity of the prisoner stated as facts, observed by himself that the patient’s habits were intemperate, and that he had squandered his property in mining speculations. But on his cross-examination in the Queen’s Bench he was obliged to confess, though he had sworn to the certificate. that the only act of intemperance he had really seen was the patient’s drinking one glass of beer ; and that the squandering of property was the loss of what was a mere trifle to him in a mining speculation, which eventually turned out to be a very good one.

Doubtless, in many cases, the certificate is a lie, — a bought and paid-for lie, or, not unfrequently, a forgery altogether. It must be borne in mind, that the private institutions of each particular State throw open their doors to the admission of citizens of any and every other State in the Union. Should the certificate that accompanies and consigns the patient from Oregon to a Pennsylvania asylum be a forgery, how is the fact to be established ? No proof of the genuineness of the signature is demanded ; the superintendent cannot go outside of the certificate supplied by the patient’s friends! What hope, then, for the citizen of Oregon, buried in the underground vaults of a Pennsylvania madhouse ? But while the country abounds with quacks of every sort and degree, who for a filthy bribe would be only too ready to render the service, a forged certificate seems almost unnecessary, the genuine one can be had so easily.

Even where the signer of the certificate is entirely honest and honorable, as we would like to believe every member of the noble art of healing, how are his opinions to be relied upon in cases of alleged insanity ? how often do any two physicians agree as to the particular character or treatment of that or of any other malady ? The difficulty of deciding in this matter is expressed in a leader in the “ London Times,” and cited in Dr. Bucknill’s “Prize Essay on Criminal Lunacy”: “ Nothing can be more slightly defined than the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity. Physicians and lawyers have vexed themselves with attempts at definition in a case where definition is impossible. Make it too narrow, it becomes meaningless ; make it too wide, the whole human race are involved in the drag-net. In strictness, we are all mad when we give way to passion, to prejudice, to vice, to vanity; but if all the passionate, prejudiced, vicious, and vain people in the world are to be locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key of the asylum ? ”

In a case which occurred in Scotland, counsel for the asylum asked the alleged lunatic, who said he had £ 1,200 in bank, and received £ 20 for interest, How much was that per cent ? He said he could not tell, he was no good hand at arithmetic. The counsel for the prisoner afterwards put the same question to one of the medical witnesses who had signed the certificate ; and this witness, an educated man, confessed himself quite unable to answer it, though he had signed the certificate on the strength of the other’s ignorance.

In the case of Mrs. Cumming (“Journal of Psychological Medicine ”) the conflict of medical testimony was even greater than is usual in such cases, — a cloud of medical experts swearing to their opinions in the most positive terms, one half for her sanity and the other moiety against it.

Among cases well calculated to show the conflict of medical evidence is that of the late Mr. W. F. Windham, cited in “Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence.” The trial lasted thirty-three days, during which time one hundred and forty physicians were examined, — ninety in favor of the gentleman’s sanity, and fifty against it. At the conclusion of this case, it was gravely proposed to exclude medical testimony altogether in cases of alleged insanity, except in so far as it was based on facts within the personal knowledge of the witnesses.

And it should be remembered, — though physicians seldom or never do remember it, or else they are altogether ignorant of the fact, in signing these certificates, which consign their victims to charnel-houses of the mind, — that any degree of vice or folly is perfectly consistent with sanity, in the legal sense. A man may, through ignorance or viciousness, do many grossly foolish things ; but he is permitted a liberty of choice and freedom of action in them, until his folly leads him to infringe the law, in which case he may not plead insanity, but is held sternly responsible for his actions.

In conversation with medical men on the subject of insanity, they will often admit, as to a particular case coming under their observation, that there are no illusions in the patient’s mind, that his memory is unimpaired, that he talks clearly and sensibly on ordinary topics, that there are no indications of violence, that his general health is excellent ; but when it is indignantly demanded, What is the type of his insanity? the reply is likely to be, that “it would be difficult to give an exact definition, but it may be termed emotional insanity.” By such subtleties as these the liberty of any citizen may be frittered away.

That the wise, honorable, and virtuous physician will not abuse the power this monstrous law gives him is no reason why he should ever have it; nor is it any reason why the ignorant, dishonest, and wicked quack, endowed by the same college with the same diploma as his more honest brother, should be clothed with such power.

The whole subject is worthy of official notice and reform ; for, while the law remains unchanged, every man should “ take a bond of fate ” against his physician, not knowing but that to-morrow some enemy or some heir, covetous of his generous estate, may summon the doctor to consign him to a madhouse. There should be some statutory regulation as to the degree of aberration of mind justifying detention, and provision made for a hearing before a board of magistrates, and a sworn jury of twelve, composed of men of strong and sterling sense ; for, as it is, the liberties of the sons of a Mexican Republic stand upon an immortal foundation compared with the vaunted freedom of our most eminent citizen. It is time that our legislators threw around him this additional security, and not until it is done shall we have reached that point of personal safety demanded by the spirit and enlightenment of the age.

  1. The questions indicated merely refer to the patient’s age, health, and probable cause of his derangement of mind, “ whick,” said the late superintendent of the asylum from which this certificate was obtained, in the case of Hinchman v. Richie, “ need not be answered.”The simplicity of the following certificate, clipped from Dr. Kirkbride’s Report, must at once strike the reader, who will see that it is not hampered by any impertinent inquiries : —