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Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865. He would live less than 3 more months.

Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865. He would live less than 3 more months.

It was the morning of Friday, April 14, 1865, the last full day of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was a beautiful spring day. The president was looking forward to an evening at the theater. Plays relaxed him, expecially comedy. There were some who looked down on him for being a theater-goer. They considered it lowbrow entertainment, especially for the commander-in-chief. Who were they to deny Lincoln a few minutes away from his troubling thoughts?

But that was all behind him now. The War Between the States was over. The terrible suffering had come to an end. Abe and his wife, Mary, had lost two sons to illness. That afternoon, he and Mary took a leisurely carriage ride. They spoke of the future together. Abraham was very happy. He said to Mary:

“We must both be more cheerful in the future.”

Abraham Lincoln's carriage that took him, Mary, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris to Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination. The carriage is a 4-passenger barouche. When the doors are opened, steps unfold.

Abraham Lincoln's favorite carriage. It was the carriage that took him, Mary, Major Henry Rathbone, and Clara Harris to Ford's Theatre on the night of Lincoln's assassination. The carriage is a 4-passenger barouche. When the doors are opened, steps unfold.

Major Henry Rathbone

Major Henry Rathbone

Shortly after their return to the White House, they dressed for the theater – Ford’s Theater – to see “Our American Cousin” starring Laura Keene. Mary and Abe had had a dickens of a time finding someone to attend the performance with them. They had invited 12 people and all had declined. It was Good Friday, the most solemn day on the Christian calendar, and not a day many folks sought entertainment. Most were busy, some disapproved of theater in general. The Grants – especially Julia, the General’s wife – could not stand the idea of being confined in a theater box with Mary and her explosive temper.

Clara Harris

Clara Harris

Finally, a young couple the Lincolns were fond of – Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris – accepted their invitation. Henry and Clara had just become engaged. Oddly enough, Clara was Henry’s stepsister. When Henry’s father died, his mother married Ira Harris, Clara’s father.

The two couples arrived at Ford’s Theater in the president’s carriage after the performance had already begun. As the four entered the presidential box, decorated with American flags and a painting of George Washington, the actors froze on stage. The orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The audience clapped, cheered, and waved.

“The president,” remembered one theater-goer, “stepped to the box-rail and acknowledged the applause with dignified bows and never-to-be-forgotten smiles.” (1)

The applause died down as the Lincolns, Clara and Henry took their seats. Abraham settled into a rocking chair Ford had brought up from his office especially for him. He sat on the far right of the box. To the left, Mary pulled her chair close to her husband’s, nestling up to him at one point, and slipping her arm through his. On the left side of the box, Clara sat in a stuffed chair. Henry sat on a small sofa behind her and in the back of the box. Mary fretted that Henry couldn’t see the stage well from the sofa and said so.

One of the biggest laughs in the play came in the third act when the male lead delivered this line:

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?” he paused. “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old mantrap.”

This line always got a big laugh. Tonight was no exception. The audience – including the president – laughed and clapped. They made so much noise that only the people in the box heard the crack of a gunshot, as actor John Wilkes Booth had planned. Booth had crept into the presidential box and, with a derringer, shot the president in the back of the head.

an image of the Lincoln assassination showing, from left to right, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, President Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

The "Assassination of President A Lincoln" showing, from left to right, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, President Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

The rest was blue gunsmoke and confusion. The president was slumped forward in his chair with no visible wound. He looked as if he was sleeping. Henry grabbed the gunman who held his gun in one hand and a dagger in the other. Booth dropped the gun and slashed Henry in the arm and the head. Because of Henry’s interference, Booth was unable to make a clean jump out of the presidential box onto the stage below.  Booth caught his foot as he jumped, landing on the stage at a weird angle, and breaking his leg. Henry shouted into the audience, “Stop that man!” Clara yelled, “The president has been shot!”

John Wilkes Booth flees across the stage of Ford's Theater after having assassinated President Lincoln. He shouts "sic semper tyrannis!" (thus always to tyrants" and, perhaps, "The South is avenged."

John Wilkes Booth flees across the stage of Ford's Theater after having assassinated President Lincoln. He shouts, "Sic semper tyrannis!" (Latin for "Thus it shall ever be for tyrants," the Virginia state motto) and, perhaps also, "The South is avenged."

Though Henry was weak from loss of blood and his wounds were serious, the president’s wound was mortal. By the next morning, the president was dead.

Henry survived the attack and, in 1867, he and Clara were married. They had three children. But all was not well with Henry. Perhaps because of his head wound, his mental health rapidly deteriorated. He heard voices and believed he was being persecuted and tortured. He became jealous of his wife’s attention to their children. Clara lived in utter terror of what Henry might do.

Eighteen years after Lincoln’s assassination, Henry Rathbone reenacted Booth’s brutal attack on President Lincoln – within his own home. Armed with knife and pistol, Henry attacked his family, murdering Clara with a pistol, trying to kill his children, then stabbing himself.  He lived and was declared insane. He was institutionalized in Germany for the rest of his life.

(1) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. New York: Random House, Inc., 2008.

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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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Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

He wasn’t the first person to scale the garden wall of Buckingham Palace. The year before, three German tourists had done it. While there had been others who’d breached Palace security, Michael Fagan was to become one of the most infamous.

1982 Buckingham Palace Intruder Michael Fagan

1982 Buckingham Palace Intruder Michael Fagan

It was 7:15 a.m. on July 9, 1982. Michael Fagan, 31, had been up all night, drinking whisky, and wandering London’s dark streets, brooding. He had just been released from the psychiatric ward at Brixton Prison. The judge had sent him there after he slashed his wrists with a broken bottle during his court hearing on charges that he stabbed his teenage stepson in the neck with a screwdriver. (1)

Fagan was discouraged. He was broke and faced a mountain of debt. His wife was unfaithful. There were problems with his kids and even his mum. The voices in his head told him to go and tell the Queen how unhappy he was and she would help. The voices told him he could do it. These were the same voices that before had talked him into climbing the towers of the bridges across the Thames River and to strip off his clothes and dive into the Grand Union Canal.

A guard at Buckingham Palace

A guard at Buckingham Palace

It was 7:15 on the morning of July 9, 1982 when Fagan, unshaven and dressed in jeans and a dirty t-shirt, gathered up his courage, climbed over the black iron fence of Buckingham Palace, and dropped down on the grounds of the royal residence. No guards noticed. He found an open window and crawled in. But the Queen wasn’t in that room, it held only an old stamp collection (King George V’s $20 million stamp collection). Fagan was not a thief. He wanted only to find the Queen. An alarm was tripped twice, but the policeman at the palace sub-station thought it was malfunctioning and turned it off both times.

Fagan then went back out into the courtyard and spied a 55 foot drainpipe that lead to the second floor. “I climbed it in seconds,” he proudly told interviewers later. “I was a Prince of the Earth.” He pulled back some wire meant to keep pigeons away and crawled in a window. He found himself in the office of Vice Admiral Sir Peter Ashmore, the man responsible for the Queen’s security. He took off his sandals and socks and proceeded to explore the Palace barefoot with dirty hands.

Princess Elizabeth, age 9 or 10, comforts her corgi Dookie, 1936

Princess Elizabeth, age 9 or 10, comforts her corgi Dookie, 1936

This wasn’t the first time Fagan had broken into the Palace. Only the month before, he’d had a practice run. He’d entered through an unlocked window on the roof and wandered about for a half hour. He viewed the royal portraits and rested on the thrones before entering the Postroom, where he drank half a bottle of California white wine before leaving.

On this, his second, visit to the Palace, Fagan was on a mission. He had to find the Queen. He wandered the corridors in search of her, and, on the way, cutting his hand on a glass ashtray. When he spied some dog dishes on the floor, he knew the Queen was near. She was never far from her precious dogs (See previous post, “Queen Elizabeth’s Corgis and Dorgis.”) He passed a housemaid who said, “Good morning,” then entered the Queen’s bedroom.

The Queen awoke to find a strange man sitting on the edge of her bed, cradling a broken ashtray and dripping blood on her bed linens. She kept calm and picked up the phone, asking the operator to summon the police. The operator did call the police but they didn’t come. She pushed the button for a chambermaid yet no one appeared. The armed guard regularly stationed at the Queen’s bedroom door was not at his post; he had taken her dogs out for a walk. Meanwhile, Fagan talked away, still sitting on her bed. He wanted to talk about love but the Queen didn’t. He thought it a coincidence that both he and the Queen had four children. Fagan wanted a cigarette. Again, the Queen called the palace switchboard yet no one responded.

After the Queen had spent ten minutes with the mentally disturbed, bleeding intruder, a chambermaid entered the Queen’s quarters and exclaimed, “Bloody hell, ma’am! What’s he doing in there?” The chambermaid then ran out and woke up a footman who then seized the intruder. The police arrived twelve minutes after the Queen’s first call.

When the public learned of this incident, they were outraged at the lapse of security around their Queen. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher personally apologized to the Queen and measures were immediately taken to strengthen palace security.

Nevertheless, a 1999 report by the Royal Protection Squad stated that, in the six years previous, at least 6,000 mentally-ill persons had visited British royal residences or written to the royal family. Most of the mentally-disturbed people are harmless, the report stated, but the police guarding royalty are still trained to handle the few intruders who do indeed pose a danger. 

A man protests at Buckingham Palace, insisting upon his right to appear in public naked

A man protests at Buckingham Palace, insisting upon his right to appear in public naked

Over the years, the Royals have attracted unwanted attention from, among others, a group of lesbian anti-nuclear demonstrators who scaled the walls with ladders, and an American paraglider who landed on the roof as a stunt.

 

(1) Erickson, Carolly. Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II. (New York: St. Martin’s, 2004)

 

For more on Queen Elizabeth II, look in the left column under “Categories – People – Queen Elizabeth II.” I’ve written many posts on the Queen; I hope you enjoy them!

For more on Insane Asylums, scroll to the very bottom of “Categories – The Insane Asylum.”

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Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent."3 Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent." Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

After her son Willie’s death at age eleven on February 20, 1862,  Mary Todd Lincoln went into deep mourning. She traded in her sparkling jewels, frilly white and colorful gowns, and flowered bonnets made fashionable by her icon the French Empress Eugénie (click to read earlier post) for widow’s weeds of dull black crepe. Her stylish White House parties were put to the side. Gaiety gave way to sadness. Mary had lost her favorite son, the perfect one, the one she considered most like her husband.

After Willie died, Mary’s youngest son, eight-year-old Tad, still tossed with the same typhoid fever that killed his brother. He lay critically ill nearby, but Mary, incapacitated by grief, would not and did not rush to his side to nurse him. Meanwhile, Willie’s embalmed body was laid out in the Green Room of the White House and his coffin was open. Mary mustered enough energy to place a sprig of laurel on Willie’s chest before retreating to her bedroom and shutting the door. She took to her bed, weeping and sobbing  in such uncontrolled spasms that she became quite ill.

She did not come out of her bedroom to attend Willie’s funeral and never again entered the Green Room or the second floor guest room where Willie died. She rid the house of all of Willie’s toys and clothes and forbade his and Tad’s best friends, the Taft boys, from ever returning to the White House to play.

During Mary’s tormented period, Abraham, also heartbroken at his son’s death, sent for help. Two of Mary’s  friends, a nurse, and Mary’s sister Elizabeth heeded the calling. One of the friends was the esteemed Washington seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. In memoirs she wrote with a ghostwriter six years later, she recalled a day when President Lincoln led his distraught wife (whom he called “Mother”) to the window, pointed to the lunatic asylum at a distance from the White House, and said,

 “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her a "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about the possible love affair.

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert, died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her as "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about their rumored love affair.

It was three weeks before Mary could even be persuaded to get up out of  bed and put on her mourning clothes. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) now became the First Lady’s fashion model. Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had died unexpectedly just three months earlier and Victoria had plunged herself and her entire staff into the deep black dress of mourning. Following Victoria’s lead and further compounding her debt to clothing merchants (click to read an earlier post), Mary Lincoln ordered an entire new wardrobe of dull black crepe dresses, bonnets, and weeping veils.

For more than a year, six months longer than was called for in the mourning manuals of the day, Mary wore first-degree mourning. Her black crepe straw bonnet was so heavily veiled that she could not turn her head, which gave her an odd appearance as she was always facing forward. She became a very public mourner. She wanted to draw attention to her grief as if she was the only one who had lost a child at a time when Civil War soldiers were dying in record numbers from Mississippi to Maryland on the nation’s bloody battlefields.  During her mourning, she cancelled the Saturday afternoon Marine Band Concerts held on the White House lawn, explaining that, “When we are in sorrow, quiet is necessary.”  She bought black jet jewelry to accent her sooty “widow’s weeds” and used writing paper with the thickest margins of black.

Finally, in 1863, Mary ordered another new wardrobe, running up yet more bills, and moved into the stage known as half-mourning, exchanging her lusterless black for fabric in lavender, gray, and somber purples with a little touch of white at the wrist. (1)

 

Click here to access my related post, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” Also, for more posts on the Lincolns, view the drop down menu, “Categories,” in the left column, find at the top, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and click.

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)

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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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