In the mid- to late 1800s, insane asylums served as catch-all facilities for violent and difficult women. But were they really criminals? Or even crazy? Or just rebelling against the social constraints of their time?
Victorian Lettering: Jenna Blazevich
They say Alice Christina Abbott’s weapon of choice was a cup of tea.
In 1867, the 17-year-old allegedly poisoned her stepfather’s afternoon cup, killing him. Why would she do such a thing? According to Abbott, the old man had carried on an “improper connection” with her—i.e. an unwanted sexual relationship—since she was 13. When she decided to speak out about the abuse, he threatened to put her in reform school. Then came the tea.
Despite Abbott’s allegations, most people at the time thought that “something was the matter with her head,” in the words of The New York Times.
Meanwhile, the Daily Alta California newspaper reported that she “had threatened to kill her stepfather, and had made no secret of her satisfaction at his death,” though neither of those sentiments necessarily made her insane (or guilty of murder). Abbott’s accusations against her stepfather of sexual misconduct were called “singular” by the courts and essentially dismissed.
Abbott stood trial in August 1867 and was committed to Taunton State Hospital, a lunatic asylum in Massachusetts. After that, little is known, and details surrounding the case remain mysterious. That Abbott was treated neither as a victim of sex crimes nor as a sane woman who knowingly committed murder was typical of a time in which women suspected of pushing back against their social situations were all-too-often given the diagnosis of “insanity” and institutionalized.
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According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, an author and expert in women’s history in the United States, psychiatrists during the Victorian era—or "alienists" as they were often called in the 19th century—specifically used medicine to police women’s behavior. “They all had very definite ideas about how women ought to behave,” she says. “There were general feelings of what caused abnormal behavior, and usually this was a refusal of traditional gender roles.”
Abbott’s case and many others are compelling for their intrigue—but they also point to a time period that leaned on the emerging field of psychiatry to maintain the male-dominated status quo. Did Abbott actually do it? Was she mad? Did she believe violence was her only recourse, with no other legitimate way to change her situation? Did she deserve to be locked up? We may never know.
Like Abbott, Grace Marks, the real-life woman who inspired Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, may or may not have been a deranged killer. Marks worked for Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer, as a teenager. In 1843, when she was 16, Marks was tried for the murder of not only Kinnear, but also Nancy Montgomery, Kinnear’s housekeeper and mistress. Marks stood trial alongside James McDermott, Kinnear’s stablehand with whom she was purportedly involved romantically. To this day, however, it remains unclear if she committed the act or was just an accessory.
While McDermott was hanged—despite his consistent assertions that Marks was the true guilty party—Marks was spared the death penalty due to her age and sex. At first, she was imprisoned at the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada, where she began to “exhibit signs of insanity,” according to the penitentiary’s medical register, claiming to see spectral visions and displaying extreme mood swings.
From Kingston, she was sent to the Toronto Lunatic Asylum as one of its earliest patients. There, she was declared criminally insane.
Few records were kept of Marks’ 30 years in prison and at the asylum. The little we know about the real Grace Marks comes from Life in the Clearing Versus the Bush, a book by Susanna Moodie, an immigrant to Canada who wrote about her experience in the country. On a visit to the Kingston Penitentiary, Moodie recognized Marks’ face among a group of women dancing in the ward. She described Marks as “lighted up with the fire of insanity, and glowing with a hideous and fiend-like merriment.” But Moodie also suggests that Marks was very much in her right mind and simply knew the system well enough to make it work in her favor.
At the time, after all, psychiatrists were often hired by husbands and fathers to probe their wives’ and daughters’ “abnormal” behaviors. The reasons men cited for such inquisitions were manifold. It could have been anything from exhaustion, overeducation, or premenstrual syndrome to being unmarried or indulging unconventional sexual impulses (such as masturbation). On the most basic level, it was never about mental acuity or medical treatment; it was about exerting control over women’s lives and bodies—all under the guise of medicine. As a result, uncertainty and confusion continues to cloud criminal cases such as Marks’, in which a woman was charged with murder.
But what about the thousands of Victorian-era women who were never accused of violence or specific crimes yet were nonetheless sentenced to languish in asylums? Their stories also serve to highlight the chauvinism of early psychiatry, which often punished women for breaking social norms.
Elizabeth Packard, for example, was a teacher living in Jacksonville, Illinois. She was the mother of six children and was expected to be gentle, caring, and obedient, the ideal Victorian woman. At some point in her marriage, however, she started disagreeing with the radical religious beliefs of her husband, Theophilus Packard, a strict Calvinist pastor.
One morning at church, Packard reached her breaking point. She stood up in the middle of her husband’s sermon and announced she was going to the Methodist church across the street. “To the more conservative members of Reverend Packard's church, who held firm to the Calvinist bedrock of human depravity and ignorance, her beliefs were literal evidence of insanity,” Hendrik Hartog wrote in his 1989 article in the Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, “Mrs. Packard on Dependency.”
For Theophilus, the solution was clear: Packard had to be institutionalized.
He arranged for a doctor to visit his wife, while pretending to be a sewing machine salesman. Packard confided in the doctor-salesman. She told him about her husband’s extreme religious ideas and his belief that she was a lunatic. But the doctor sided with her husband, diagnosing her as insane and sending her to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville. His reasons included her refusal to shake his hand and the fact that she was above the age of 40. (At the time, Illinois law did not require proof of mental illness for a husband to put his wife away.)
Packard was locked up for three years. When her son turned 21, he was able to secure her release. But her confinement didn’t end right away: Once Packard returned home, Theophilus locked her in the house and nailed the windows shut. In 1864, she stood trial in Packard v. Packard to prove her sanity, and regain the right to leave her home. She won the case. (In fact, it took just seven minutes for a jury to see that Packard was sane.)
After separating from her husband, Packard founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and campaigned for divorced women to retain custody of their children. She also went on to author a number of books, including The Prisoners' Hidden Life, or, Insane Asylums Unveiled.
Not every story ended as happily as Packard’s. (Happily being a relative term.) Some women remained locked up for decades, while others were never heard from again. For the vast majority of Victorian women who found themselves institutionalized and labeled as lunatics, mystery continues to surround their circumstances, as well as the crimes they may or may not have committed. Because of the lack of historical records, their stories are largely lost to history. But the stories we do have are worth remembering—and retelling—as best we can. They continue to echo from the notes of the doctors and citizens who knew these women, and from the gated asylums in which they were held.