American Gothic: The Woman Who Escaped the Asylum

On the 19th-Century Invention of the Madwoman

America loves a story about capture and escape, especially, but not always, when it involves white women. Beginning with Mary Rowlandson’s bestselling tale of suffering and release from the Wampanoag Indians in the late 1600s, the captivity narrative has held our attention. Asylums provided a tantalizing setting. They were isolated, enclosed, and ruled by tyrants. From Elizabeth Stone’s 1841 tale of persecution at the McLean Asylum through Clarissa Lathrop’s account of the “secret institution” in 1890, asylums proved enduring locales for confinement and arenas for moral redemption. The most influential of these narratives, Elizabeth Packard’s chronicle of her stay at the Jacksonville State Hospital for the Insane, inspired changes in state laws in favor of women’s rights.

As capitalist relations allocated the middle-class man into the “sphere” of work, homes became centers of consumption, schools of virtue, and “havens” from the bustle of salaried life. Yet they also could be stifling prisons ruled by cruel patriarchs. As superintendents pushed the idea that asylums mimicked the home, the links between the two grew insidious. Americans well knew that looks could be deceiving.

The cult of true womanhood kept women, according to Barbara Welter, “hostage” to the home.

Two images guide this chapter. The first is the Woman in White, captured strikingly in Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel of the same name. This ghostly figure is a solitary waif who is lured into an asylum for nefarious reasons and serves to relate dark messages of domestic peril. Her garments summon both the grave and the virginal marriage bed, drawing upon conflicted cultural ideals of “the angel in the house.” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote, “It is surely significant that doomed, magical, half-mad, or despairing women ranging from Hawthorne’s snow-image to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, and Collins’s Anne Catherick all wear white.” The second image is the Angel in Black. She is the crusader for Christ, the religiously inspired reformer who understands America’s millennial mission. Dressed in serious black and personified by reformer Dorothea Dix, the Angel in Black manifests the woman’s role as caretaker and moral guardian. Both images are archetypes, two sides of a rubric of femininity that simultaneously empowered and smothered the 19th-century female.

To contextualize these images, it is necessary to briefly summarize what historians call the “cult of true womanhood.” This ideological vision exalted the home and praised feminine submissiveness and piety. Women were to be lovely and pure, covered in layers of clothes that shielded them from sex while simultaneously exaggerated their womanly curves. They were instructed to purchase the right goods and to raise their children to value hard work. The cult of true womanhood instilled women with moral power, emphasizing their role as nurturers and builders of democracy-loving, future citizens. Yet  it also kept them, according to Barbara Welter, “hostage” to the home. This is important. To escape from the asylum was, in a sense, to attempt an exit from a woman’s place.

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It is night on a country road. The moon is full, illuminating a “dark blue starless sky.” A man makes his way, walking stick in hand, blissfully imagining his new job as a tutor for a wealthy family. He is alone. Suddenly, a hand touches his shoulder. He grips his stick and whirls about. Before him stands “the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to toe in white garments.” Yet this “extraordinary apparition” is corporeal. She explains that she has been in an accident and needs to get to London. The man construes that she has been mistreated, and she concedes that she’s been “cruelly used and cruelly wronged.” After a short walk, the man puts the woman into a carriage and sends her off. Ten minutes later, two men in a carriage fly along the road, stopping in front of a police officer nearby. The man overhears them asking the officer if he has seen a woman dressed in white. The policeman says no, asking if there was something she has done. “Done!” replies one, “She has escaped from my Asylum. Don’t forget; a woman in white. Drive on.”

What stays with the reader is the haunting image of a solitary waif escaped from an asylum, here to let dangerous truths out.

This scene is from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Though composed by an Englishman, the novel was a huge hit in the States, selling some 126,000 copies following its serialization in Harper’s Weekly. Briefly told, the novel is about an art teacher named Walter Hartright who falls in love with his student, Laura Farlie, but is forced away because she is betrothed to another. Her fiancé, Sir Percival Glyde, is a greedy, dissolute aristocrat who aims for Laura’s money with the aid of the mysterious Count Fosco. The woman dressed in white is Anne Catherick. She is Laura’s illegitimate half-sister, sent off to an asylum to keep her silent about a “secret” she knows in regards to Glyde. She will later serve as a corpse body-double (when she dies of heart failure, Percival and Fosco switch her identity with Laura, placing the false “Anne Catherick” in an asylum and the real one in the grave). After all secrets are revealed, Walter is able to set things right. Percival is exposed as false gentry and dies horribly by fire; Fosco meets an untimely demise; and Walter and Laura live happily ever after.

What stays with the reader is the haunting image of a solitary waif escaped from an asylum, here to let dangerous truths out. This imagery had good company. In Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), Lucy Ashton is prevented from marrying her true love and goes insane, stabbing her imposed groom on her wedding night. She is found raving in her “night-clothes.” In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Madeline Usher, who suffers from a “partially cataleptical” ailment, emerges from her premature burial “lofty and enshrouded” in bloodstained “white robes.” The reality of her horror literally brings down the house. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes an escape scene of two female slaves from an attic hiding place via a white sheet and a believable ghost story. Miss Havisham (from Dickens’s Great Expectations, published in Harper’s Weekly starting in November 1860) dons a decomposing, white wedding dress daily. Then there was the ever-popular Ophelia, who graced countless 19th-century productions of Hamlet. She is quite mad, typically dressed in white, with her hair down and mussed. Some stagings included putting straw in her hair, evoking popular imagery of lunatics sleeping on dungeon floors. In The Woman in White, Anne Catherick wears a white frock that, while not an undergarment, is outlandish in its way—it is akin to a child’s dress.

Anne Catherick’s torment involved what was commonly known as railroading, a process by which a person is tricked or unjustly forced into the asylum. While in reality, 19th-century asylums were mainly filled with people committed by their families or by themselves voluntarily, popular narratives typically featured duplicity and malignant motives. In Ruth Hall (1854), for instance, the protagonist’s friend Mary Leon is sent off to an asylum “for her health” by a wealthy, uncaring husband who has no further need of her. She deteriorates and dies under the watch of a cruel matron. In  the  British  novel Hard Cash, which found a wide American audience, young Alfred Hardie is committed by his father for fear of his son making public his embezzlements (the “hard cash” of the title).

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Louisa May Alcott offers a classic railroading event in “A Whisper in the Dark,” a short story published pseudonymously in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1863. It concerns an orphan named Sybil who learns that her uncle intends to marry her off to her cousin in an effort to inherit her fortune. After she discovers that her father’s will allows her the right of refusal, she tries to turn the tables by playing the two men off each other. Her scheme fails, and her unscrupulous uncle, with the help of evil Dr. Karnac, commits her to a private madhouse. She is drugged and awakens in a strange, sparse room with grated windows. The doctor gets to work undermining her sanity via more drugs and solitary confinement. In her room, Sybil finds a hidden message warning her, “If you are not already mad, you will be, I suspect you were sent here to be made so; for the air is poison, the solitude fatal, and Karnac remorseless in his mania for prying into the mysteries of the human mind.” Upstairs, she hears a person constantly pacing. The pacing, the drugs, and the loss of liberty soon reduce her to “a melancholy wreck of my former self.”

Women’s “purity” was portrayed as a fragile bulwark against a dangerous, sexual interior.

Alcott’s story plays many of the notes of asylum horror: a person enters the asylum without even knowing it; the asylum makes one deranged; it is run by a powerful foreign genius (in this case, “a stealthy, sallow-faced Spaniard” who possesses “a magnetic power”); and the treatments are suspect. But the true horror of Alcott’s story rests in the derangement of a home. The protagonist begins the tale in control of a large inheritance and much property. Then, thanks to an unscrupulous, male relative and an evil mind doctor (and, though only implied, the law as well), she loses everything and lands in a new “home.” This home is a fortress of tyranny ruled by a gothic villain. Early on, Alcott emphasizes Sybil’s headstrong independence, an independence that gets thoroughly punished. Although Alcott delivers  a happy ending, an undeniable indictment of a social system that indoctrinates female dependency lurks beneath the surface.

Both Alcott and Fern were influenced by British author Charlotte Brontë, whose popular book, Jane Eyre, provided a horrifying Woman in White archetype. In Brontë’s novel, the titular character’s romance with the brooding Mr. Rochester is upended by the revelation that he is still married. His wife, Bertha, is a “lunatic” whom he keeps locked away in the uppermost floor of his mansion. Bertha keeps trying to burn down the house, and she eventually succeeds, after which she hurls herself to her doom.

Bertha has been much examined by scholars. Some see her as the embodiment of female rebellion, perhaps Brontë’s defiant “double.” It is important to note that she was conceived and represented as a direful example, in Brontë’s words, of “moral madness, in which all that is good or even human seems to disappear from the mind and a fiend-nature replaces it.” Indeed, Brontë worried that instead of fostering “profound pity” for her creation, she had “erred in making horror too prominent.” Considering that the novel’s power resides in the gothic world of buried secrets, this “error” comes across less as a misstep than a motor.

Bertha is a fearsome creation indeed. She enters the story as a disembodied laugh, “distinct, formal, mirthless.” Later, the laugh takes on darker properties, “a demoniac laugh—low, suppressed, and deep . . .” When Bertha emerges from the attic, she is monstrous, rending a visitor (whom we later learn is her brother) with a knife—and her teeth. Recalls the victim, “She sucked my blood: she said she’d drain my heart.” Later, Jane describes “it” to Mr. Rochester as “a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell.” When Mr. Rochester tries to convince Jane that she merely saw an apparition, she retorts that it more resembled “the foul German spectre—the Vampyre.”

The asylum became a tool of discipline in the gothic world of sentimental fiction.

Brontë’s madwoman provides a literary template for the escaped, female lunatic. She is ghostlike yet ghoulishly corporeal. Her hair is wild and her manner carnally suggestive; her dress is a “white gown.” She is incarcerated in a mansion that evokes the creepiest asylum. Thornfield Hall is “this accursed place,” a “vault, offering the ghastliness of living death to the light of the open sky—this narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we may imagine.” She is maintained in her “cell” by Grace Poole who, like the brutal female attendants and nurses to come, is unwomanly, boorish, and prone to drink.

Bertha’s madness speaks to a culture brimming with warnings about diabolical femininity. Women’s “purity” was portrayed as a fragile bulwark against a dangerous, sexual interior. Popular author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called a hysterical woman “a vampire who sucks the blood out of the healthy people about her.” Karen Halttunen observes, “The new medical field of obstetrics and gynecology thus generated its own Gothic language of female sexuality. Female sexuality, the new specialists affirmed, was a matter of mystery, with its ‘strange and secret influences,’ its dark interiority focused on its central organ, the womb (which Gardner associated with those quintessentially Gothic institutions, the prison and the mental asylum).”

Reinforcing this criminal-medico discourse was the oppressive weight of a culture that demanded that women know and accept their place. Indeed, 19th-century physicians seemed bent on medicalizing women’s bodies. Specialists rooted any number of psychological ailments in the reproductive organs. One gynecologist specialized in treating madness by removing healthy ovaries. It almost didn’t matter if the patient died. As he explained, “An insane woman is no more a member of the body politic than a criminal . . . her death is always a relief to her dearest friends.” Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a famous neurologist, made his fortune by treating what he called “the large and troublesome class of thin-blooded emotional women.” Mitchell treated such influential persons as Jane Addams and Edith Wharton. He recognized that middle-class women seemed stifled; his answer was confinement and immobility.

No wonder the asylum became a tool of discipline in the gothic world of sentimental fiction. The first instance of this seems to be Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, the Wrongs of Woman (published posthumously in 1798). A sequel of sorts to her earth-shaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Maria provides a lesson in society’s mistreatment of women. Significantly, Wollstonecraft chose the asylum as the ultimate metaphor for the sequestration and degradation of females. The tale begins with a spectacularly dismal description of a woman entombed in a madhouse. “Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavoring to recall her scattered thoughts!” The horror of this story is that dungeon asylums are real places, and that the reduction of women to childlike-slavery within their own homes is just as real.

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Nightmare Factories

An excerpt from Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination by Troy Rondinone, published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

Troy Rondinone
Troy Rondinone
Troy Rondinone is a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University. He is the author of The Great Industrial War: Framing Class Conflict in the Media, 1865-1950 and Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar "Indio" Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing.





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