The Devil’s Imps: A Mother’s Madness and a Vile Cure


This is a grim one. At first glance this appears to be a lurid report of a family tragedy such as we can find in the newspapers even today.  Three sets of twins in four years–the poor woman must have been psychotic with exhaustion even if she had escaped post-partum depression. What interests me as a heartless Fortean is the introduction, with its earnest explanation of insanity and delusions–and the casually horrifying experiment the doctors tried to “cure” the unfortunate woman.


A Woman’s Strange Delusion

Believed Satan To Be the Father of Her Children

And in Her Mind They Each Had Horns a Foot Long.

In a Frenzy She Smothers the Two Youngest to Death,

And Then Turns In and Attempts to Slaughter the Whole Household

The Doctors Take Her in Hand, and By a New Treatment They Break the Delusion and Restore the Patient to Her Right Mind Once More.

Scientists have been knocking at the door of intellect for ages trying to gain an entrance into the inner chamber where reason holds throne. What an intricate piece of machinery the mind is! There is evidence in the workings of the mind to show that in its creation there was a design to have a perfect balance between all the mental powers. The mind is built on the same general plan in every body, but there is an excess of some power, or a lack of it, that makes the individuality of a human being. The theoretical operation of the mind places reason at the head and front of all things to guide and direct and keep within the proper limits the action of every other faculty. The perceptive faculties, memory, reasoning faculties, sentiments relating to human nature and divine things, the various appetites and passions are all thrown together indiscriminately into human beings, and if every one were restricted to its own legitimate field there would be no clash. Under these conditions there would be a perfect human being and this is not possible with a defective physical organization.

The old saying that every one is insane upon some subject is true so far as it relates to persons having eccentric ideas upon  different things, but this insanity will never develop into any form that will give its possessor or any one else trouble. A mere difference of opinion, though it is not in accordance with the accepted ideas of people in general, does not fill the measure of insanity unless there is an attempt to put these ideas into practice. This is where reason steps in and assumes control and keeps the individual within the limit of regular conduct.


Of the metaphysician, the physiologist and the pathologist. They see them, but do not know from whence they come A delusion is simply proper ideas improperly put together, and experts are gradually getting around to the belief that they are to a very large extent the result of cultivation. It has been shown by actual experiment that the human mind can be trained to form imperfect associations of ideas just as well as the right one, and the belief in them will be just as strong. Delusions formed in this way, however, can never be made to bring the mind into that condition where there is an inclination to be foolish or violent.

This is the difference between artificial and natural insanity. In two generations, beginning with the instruction given in childhood, the entire world could be made a race of harmless lunatics, with nothing but the rankest of intellectual delusions as a regular mental diet. It does not take much to disturb the harmony of the mind. A single grief or joy can make a change that will last a life-time, and there is no one can explain it. Delusions do not often come in this way, fortunately for the human family, as then the grand charity of the world would be the building and filling of lunatic asylums.

The development of delusions is slow, although the manifestation may be apparently very sudden. Long before a person is aware of it he or she may be going through the initial mental changes that will ultimately blossom forth into full-fled delusions, and make the possessor unfit to carry on the ordinary affairs of life. There never was a lunatic yet, except where the insanity was the result of physical disorder in which the disease might not have been checked and prevented from further development. The great difficulty is that the disease is never known until the dividing line between sanity and insanity has been reached, and then it is too late to try the cure, usually by a system of mental training.

Experts in lunacy say that there never was a lunatic who had been sane at any time, that ever became so thoroughly under the influence of delusions as not to have


Lunatics know who they are and what they are doing oftener than they will admit. They are cunning creatures and take delight in fooling people. They know that they have delusions, and only about half believe in them, but they have a peculiar mental condition which makes them prefer to be thought insane. Drugs are of little use in treating the insane. They are only of use in controlling violent spasms.

The new treatment is purely mental and some wonderful results have been obtained in the cure of the insane. It operation is shown in the case of Mrs. Eliza Winans, a patient at the Insane Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. She has been at the hospital for over a year, and came from a private hospital, where her case had been given up as hopeless. Mrs. Winans is a young woman and during the four years of her married life she gave birth to three pairs of twins. She was never well after her last twins were born, though it was not thought that there was anything the matter with her mind for two years.

During this period there had been an evolution doing on in her mind, and it was shown by a sudden hatred of her children, particularly the youngest pair of twins. The aversion was so strong that she would not have them near her. She would not give any reason for it for a long time, and then she let out that the children, two beautiful boys, were the sons of the devil. It must be so because the devil came to her every night at midnight, and told her all about it. To her mind the children had horns about a foot long with fiery red balls on the end of them. Her husband and others tried to convince her otherwise, but could not. The delusion was fixed, and would not go away.

The lunacy remained in a perfectly harmless form for several months, and then she had an idea that some one was trying to poison her and she refused to take food. She fought like a tigress when an attempt was made to force her to take food and she had to be sent to an asylum. Then she was fed through a rubber tube, which was passed through her nose into the stomach. She would bite the tube off if put into her mouth. She improved in the asylum and brought herself under


She had a motive of some kind for doing this, but it could not be divined from talking with her. It was the cunning scheme of the lunatic that is so often seen and it fooled the doctors, who sent her home cured.

This was what she wanted. She seemed to be as rational as she had ever been and spoke with prefect freedom and without reference to any delusion. But the motive came out at last. What she had fooled all the doctors for became plain. It was a deep-laid and horrible plot. She got up in the night and killed both the children. She smothered the little ones that had the growing horns, because they were the sons of the devil. She tried to kills the others, but was caught before she could carry out her design.

After that every body belonged to the devil and had horns, and she wanted to kill everybody who came near her. The woman was taken to Blackwell’s Island, where Dr. Robespierre took charge of her. She was very violent and had to be kept in a padded cell to keep from knocking out her brains. Another lunatic was put into the same cell with her who had the homicidal delusion and each was set to watch the other upon the supposition that one was sane and the other insane. They watched each other like cats for about two months until their minds had got used to acting in a distinct channel from the delusions.

Then they were separated. Live animals, partially stupefied by a narcotic, were dressed in baby clothes and put in Mrs. Winan’s room. She was told that they were children and had horns. When no one was watching her she would choke them to death. Small dogs were used at first. She killed them easily and seemed to be proud of it, though she would not talk about the killing. When she had killed about seventy-five dogs, cats were substituted. They were given a narcotic at first, and afterward no drugs were used. Then, when she would go to kill the cat, the supple animal would twist and squirm and scratch and bite. She would fight until she killed the cats, no matter how much she got injured.

Then the effect of the treatment began to be shown. The mind was being trained all the time by object lessons that made a deep impression. The bites and the scratches got in  their work in splendid shape. The first glimmer of reason came, and then she did not go for the cats so viciously. She waited for a while before trying to kill them, an hour at first, then a day, then a week, and finally she did not touch them. Babies were substituted for the cats and Mrs. Winans was closely watched. She was told they had horns and she ought to kill them. She eyed them suspiciously but did not touch them for two weeks.

Then it came to her that they were real children, and she fondled and caressed them. It was genuine love. She found out where she was and wanted to go home. Her husband took her away last week, and the cure is a perfect one. The time that she was insane is a perfect blank to her and the delusions are gone.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1891: p. 9

I’ve seen far too many historic stories of murderous parents to completely discount this bizarre story. If we need a rationale for Mrs Winans’ delusions, the date is right for the “Devil Kid” motif, which was a widely-circulated legend of the Devil’s spawn, born with horns and claws. I’ve also located an Eliza Winans of the appropriate age and location in the census records if the name of the twins’ mother has not been changed. I have not found a “Dr Robespierre” at Blackwell’s Island and I don’t find him in the directories of New York state doctors at hand. If he existed, I suspect that staff quickly rotated in and out of the notorious Blackwell’s Island and it is possible he went to practice in another state. (After one tour at Blackwell, I would have given up the profession.)

What about the heartless “cure?” It is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Cats and dogs bred freely, making them a nuisance in street and stable rather than the cherished creatures of today. Vivisection of laboratory animals was commonplace. That, coupled with the brutality of mental health care in general and the dire reputation of Blackwell’s Island’s Lunatic Asylum in particular, makes it impossible to rule out a doctor experimenting with such methods. I wish I could confidently say there was a happy ending to this story.  I fear not.

Any last word on the Winan family? Chriswoodyard8 AT


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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