Episode 4: Locking Up Women for ‘The Good of This City’

“We cannot build a railway without demolishing a slum or two.”

The industrialist ‘progress’ of technology left behind many confused and displaced individuals at its expense.

In Episode 4 of ‘Ripper Street,’ we see first-hand how the building of a new railway caused a large slum of people to roam the streets, including the strikingly beautiful Lucy Eames, who is later sent ‘back’ to the mental institution once she resurfaces.

Lucy’s run-in with a murder leaves her nearly speechless, causing her to go into several epileptic fits. But should she actually have been in an asylum? That, to put it plainly, is questionable, even for the Victorian time period.

Miss Eames’ perilous situation, however, was not unique.

Eliza Josolyne. Diagnosis: Insanity caused by overwork

Eliza Josolyne. Diagnosis: Insanity caused by overwork

If you were a woman back in Victorian England, you might have been locked up in the looney bin for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few:

  • alcoholism
  • postpartum depression or ‘childbirth’
  • stress
  • epilepsy
  • infidelity or nymphomania (often thought to be related at this time)

Women not only experienced unjust institutionalism during this time, but abuse was also common, as many of these women had no family to speak for them. These facilities became testing grounds for controversial procedures such as lobotomies and ECT (electroconvulsive) therapy. Some patients were helped and others were harmed by these practices. Those who remained were often left brain damaged, and forever unable to leave these institutions.

Immersion (Cryotherapy), and Hydrotherapy were also common, where patients would be placed in either scalding hot or ice-cold baths, as this was thought to heal. Cold water, in particular, was thought to improve and awaken blood flow.

The thinning or ‘cooling’ of a patient’s blood was also a common form of treatment. This practice was treated with leeches to the temples, and sometimes followed by a shaven scalp, which is why in ‘Ripper Street,’ for example, there are many women with shaven scalps within the mental hospital.

In a Daily Mail article on the subject, Wendy Wallace writes that, “Mercury, known as calomel, was considered an effective treatment for hysteria, but, like most of the medicines prescribed for  mental illness, was highly toxic.”

(Victorian Asylum)

The abundance of women within mental institutions at this time was believed to be connected to disorders of the reproductive system. Some cases of ‘melancholia’ associated with menopause, for example, were treated with leeches near the pubis. Almost anything could been diagnosed as ‘hysteria’ back then, a word that comes from the Latin word for ‘womb.’

Women’s sexuality, and especially ‘hypersexuality’ as hinted in the list of reasons for institutionalization above suggests, was a prime fixation for male Victorian physicians, and cryotherapy was often used to treat this form of ‘hysteria.’ It was not until the early 20th century that the diagnosis of ‘female hysteria’ dramatically declined.

Caricature of electrotherapy from 1818.

(Sciencemuseum.org.uk)

From 1800-1900 public funding for ‘asylums’ escalated, as citizens began to place more faith in ‘bricks-and-mortar solutions to social problems associated with the accelerating pace of modern life.’ (sciencemuseum.org.uk) The general patient population skyrocketed ten-fold during the decade, and more attention was paid to ventilation and safety.