Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why Sane Women were Declared Insane

Because divorce was a rarity during the pioneer/frontier days, men devised other ways to get rid of unwanted wives and children, and that was by declaring them insane and placing this unwanted loved one in an insane asylum.

Actually these early asylums were in reality prisons and not medical centers. These institutions were filthy, dark places where people were treated more like animals than human beings. The asylums usually provided only the basic necessities of life. Food was poor, cleanliness was not stressed and the rooms were often very cold. Diseases were quick to spread throughout the asylum.

Some of the reasons women were institutionalized are unbelievable. In the early 1800’s wives and daughters were often committed for not being obedient enough to their husbands or fathers. You’ve heard the term, “children are to be seen and not heard.” This applied to wives as well. If a woman spoke out and went against the “norm” she could be committed.

With no birth control, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to give birth to another baby while still nursing her last child. And a brood of six to twelve children wasn’t unusual either. With her body no longer firm and supple, her energy level somewhere between zero and double zero, and with the daily routine of cooking, cleaning, plowing, and all the other demands, a woman was run ragged. It’s no wonder she grew old long before her time.

All the husband and/or father had to do was simply write the word “lunacy” on the admission form. Lunacy was an acceptable reason for divorce. The woman’s husband would declare her insane, put her in the asylum and then file for the divorce. A few months later, his marriage records to a younger bride usually showed up.

Other reasons to be “put away”, were depression, alcoholism, just being a little different from the norm, and even going through menopause. Doctors just didn’t know how to deal with mental issues and the result was to put their patients in the asylum. These women were locked up and forgotten by their loved ones. The fathers/husbands often forbid the family members to visit. It was as if the wife or daughter had simply died. Most of these women did stay at the insane asylum until their death.

If a father had no sons, but didn’t want his daughter to inherit his fortune or worldly goods, he could have her declared insane, institutionalized, and leave his money to a favorite nephew or his ranch to a ranch hand he considered as a son.

If a man’s wife had died in child birth and he couldn’t find a woman to wed who was willing to become a stepmother to his large brood, or if he couldn’t marry off any of his eligible daughters, he simply declared them as lunatics and placed them in an asylum.

Sometimes daughters were committed for unwanted pregnancies. Other children were committed for being disobedient or for illnesses such as Down’s Syndrome or Autism. Being born deaf or mute, retarded or physically disfigured was another reason a child might be committed.

Oftentimes, the husband might tell others that his wife or child had died. If a newspaper office was available, he might even have an obituary printed. Yet the person was very much alive at the asylum. While it was rare for a sane person to be released from an asylum, it did happen. Imagine what it was like for this woman. Having been declared dead, she had no identity.

Some of these asylums were built next to, or part of, the prison system. This was to help cut back costs of care, food and facilities. Rape was prevalent in asylums. Because women had been declared insane, it was deemed they had no powers of reasoning, no feelings or emotions. In other words, they were considered walking zombies. Because of this deranged thinking, (no pun intended) prisoners and even asylum employees used the women for their own pleasures.

If you are into genealogy and have run into a brick wall trying to locate a female relative, the US census has a place on some of their census, example 1850, that had a place to mark if deaf, dumb or insane. The probate section may carry Lunacy Record Books at the county courthouses. Some Wills will declare if someone is insane or having lunacy. If someone seems to have disappeared, they may have been “sent away.”

This concludes my series of articles about the hardships of pioneer and frontier women. When we refer to the ‘good old’ days, we might remember these women and their lives, and be thankful that they paved the way for us.

Loretta C. Rogers. http://www.lorettacrogersbooks.com/
Isabelle and the Outlaw; http://www.thewildrosepress.com/


C.L. Wilson said...

Well, that's really creepy, Loretta. and I imagine most of these men considered themselves upstanding citizens (and possibly even godly men) too. Ick ick ick.

Of course, even today, in certain places in the world, men still marry young girls for their dowry, murder them, keep the money and go find another brides.

Scary stuff

Paty Jager said...

Oh, what good makings for a book! Or have you already done that? Hence the wonderful research.

I agree, back then it wasn't fun being a woman. You had less rights than a man but worked twice as hard and were treated like brood mares. But then that's why I write romance about the era- I can make the women in my stories have a happy ending!

Not fun information but definitely something to ponder.

Great stuff as always, Loretta!

Linda LaRoque said...

Great post, Loretta. It's horrible to think the mothers and fathers of these women didn't step in. Of course, they might have been so far away they didn't know what was going on.

Yep, I think it'd be nice to visit the old West, but about the time I got a bad headache and needed a pain killer, I'd be heading back to the future.


Tanya Hanson said...

Wow, Loretta, this is amazing information. And I agree with Linda...I'd probably last one day in the Old West. I feel like a spoiled lazy baby when I read about all the strong pioneer women who went before us.


Thanks for a great post.

Houston A.W. Knight said...

Awesome blog, Loretta.

I'm so grateful to the women who walked before us for women's rights.

Being an Irish girl - with a big mouth and lots of opinions, I'm glad my family line didn't come to America until after all that.

And I'm thankful the men in Ireland had better sense than to try something like that with their women - first, it could never be done - we Irish girls are way too strong to have any man put a thumb on us.

And second, we've always been equal with our men. We fought side by side with them in battle, and lived our lives as equal mates.


Shelley Mosley said...

Women could also be declared lunatics for expecting the right to vote.

Excellent blog!

Lauri said...

Interesting post, Loretta! It gives us one more reason to admire those woman who did succeed back then, doesn't it! Such obsticals. These 'insane' asylums were also one of the first 'businesses' the govenment chose to completely fund.

Cheryl said...

Hi Loretta,
I had no idea they could put women away for all these reasons. That is unbelievable. GREAT POST!

Gwyn Ramsey said...

In working genealogy these many years, I have found women who were placed in these horrible asylums and they were nasty. Many children placed their mothers away after their fathers died in order to inherit the family fortune earlier than expected. Also women had to beware of two many fingers pointing in their direction. To be afraid of your neighbors, your friends or your family is not a lovely thought. Thank goodness for the twenty first century.

Loretta said...

Thanks to everyone who dropped by and read about the deplorable way women were treated. Your comments and support is greatly appreciated.

Anna Small said...

What a sad chapter in our history! I recently read about the Chinese sex slaves brought in to San Francisco in the 1800s. Their average life expectancy was 6 years,and they were as young as 11. The government turned a blind eye. We've come a long way, baby!

Loretta said...

Thanks to all of you who dropped by. I appreciate your comments and insightes. Today's world has its share of problems for women and children, but like you, I'm glad I don't live back in the day.

JB said...

Yesterday I received my great great grandmother's obituary in the mail. It revealed that she was an inmate in the Toledo (Ohio) State Hospital for 45 years until her death in 1919! I always wondered why my gg grandfather divorced her for being "absent" and why she just seemed to disappear from geneology records.
She was 39 when she was committed. He did remarry several years later. I wish I knew the whole story. I can't help, but wonder what happened and why. Thanks for giving me a possible answer. Any way I look at it makes me sad. I can only hope she was well cared for and comfortable.