The Voluntary Lunatic

The Voluntary Lunatic Holloway Sanatorium, 1885, Wellcome Images

The Voluntary Lunatic Holloway Sanatorium, 1885, Wellcome Images

It was not uncommon for Spiritualists of the past to be committed to the Asylum simply on the basis of their religious beliefs. Impressive statistics were quoted by eminent medical authorities about the numbers of patients made insane by Spiritualism (while the Spiritualists used the same facts to suggest that orthodoxy caused many more cases of mental illness.)  Dr. Thomas De Witt Talmage, one of the most influential preachers in America, gave full vent to his anti-Spiritualist spleen in his sermon titled “Modern Spiritualism.” Here is a sample:

If Spiritualism had full swing it would turn this world into a pandemonium of carnality. It is an unclean and an adulterous religion, and the sooner it goes down to the pit from which it came up, the better for earth and heaven. For the sake of man’s honor and woman’s purity, let it perish. I wish I could gather up all the raps it has ever heard from spirits blest or damned on its own head in one thundering rap of annihilation.

This belief in Spiritualism produces insanity. There is not an asylum from Bangor to San Francisco where there are not the torn and bleeding victims of Spiritualism. You go into an asylum and say: “What is the matter with this man?” The doctors will tell you again and again, “Spiritualism demented him.” “What is the matter with this woman?” “Spiritualism demented her.” They have been carried off into mental midnight—senators, judges of courts— and at one time they came near capturing a President of the United States. At Flushing, Long Island, there was a happy home. The father became infatuated with Spiritualism, forsook his home, took the fifteen thousand dollars, the only fifteen thousand dollars he had, surrendered them to a New York medium, three times attempted to take his own life, and then was sent to the State lunatic asylum. You put your hand in the hand of this influence and it will lead you down to darkness, eternal darkness, where Spiritualism holds an everlasting séance.

Dire warning, indeed! Women Spiritualists were, of course, even more vulnerable than the men. They were more likely to be diagnosed as “hysterical” and there were often strong economic or amatory reasons husbands or guardians wanted them committed. If a wife heard voices or believed that she could talk to the dead, it was simplicity itself to have the inconvenient spouse removed to the madhouse.

Today we hear from a Spiritualist who shares helpful tips on how mediumistic ladies can avoid being involuntarily committed.


By Mrs. [Mary Everest] Boole.

No one who has given a moment’s attention to the subject can doubt that ladies in whom mediumship develops spontaneously are, especially in country places, in danger of becoming incarcerated as lunatics; because ignorant medical practitioners can always be found who will pander to the prejudices of relatives or landladies. I have often been asked to assist in attempts to improve the lunacy laws; and have been engaged for some years past on a series of experiments, calculated to bring to an issue some questions relative to the status of spontaneous mediums before the English law. I have at different times succeeded in getting myself suspected by a good number of medical men eager to entrap mediums. I have always slipped through their fingers at the last minute, with perfect ease, owing to my knowledge of certain legal technicalities. I have thus convinced myself that the danger is due, not to the state of the law, but to ignorance as to what the law is. I propose, therefore, to offer here a few simple precautions, by the observance of which any medium may defy medical prejudice to do her any harm; and may, at the same time, help to spread a sound knowledge of Spiritualistic science.

Remember always that a certificate may be signed by any two doctors. Therefore if your medical man suggests “a second opinion,” or “a consultation,” take care that the second is one of your own choosing.

Never speak unguardedly, never drift into what may be called the “short-hand,” or “cant,” or “slang” of Spiritualism, in the presence of any person holding a medical diploma, or indeed of any person whatever, as to whom you are not sure that he or she does not hold a diploma. It is perfectly safe to express any sort of Spiritualistic belief in the presence of any medical person, provided that you do so in correct and logical language.

I will now give a few examples of the stock questions asked by ill-educated doctors when they suspect lunacy ; with answers which are safe, and at the same time honest:—

“Do you hear voices?”

“Yes, when people speak within my hearing.”

“Do you hear any voices besides those of the persons bodily present?”

“I do not understand the question. My auditory nerves are more perfectly sensitive than some people’s. Besides conveying to the brain vibrations made by the air on the tympanum, they also convey to the tympanum vibrations made by spiritual force in the brain. This creates a sensation as of sound; but I know the two orders of sounds apart.” (A similar answer as to the optic nerve is safe in case of being asked about visions, &c.)

“Have you a special commission from Heaven to reform society or preach a new religion?”

“The special commission which every pious person has, to do good and explode humbug.”

“Do the dead talk to you?”

“I believe, as a matter of religious faith, that it is the function of the blessed dead to guide the destinies of those on earth. Everyone, in this country, has a right to his own religion; and that is mine.”

“Do the dead speak specially to you?”

“Not more specially than to every spiritual person. Not more specially to me because my auditory nerves happen to be in more perfect working order than some people’s.”

And so on. If you are asked your opinion on the subject of demoniacal possession, you may reply:—“ I am not learned in devilry. I have heard it said that irreverent men who try, in their earth-life, to put down Spiritualism, are punished, after death, with a mania for wandering about the world trying to stir up people to believe in it without knowing anything really about it; and that such maniacal ghosts are called, by the ignorant, ‘devils’; but all I know, of my own knowledge, is that, because I have a firm spiritual faith, no such unholy creatures ever get possession of me, whether in the flesh or the spirit.”

If you are asked whether you have enemies, whether you quarrel with your relatives, whether you often change your abode, &c., reply:—“Excuse me; you are not my lawyer; and I do not answer impertinent questions about my private affairs.”

Remember that, as long as you are not actually certificated, no one has a right to detain you in any strange house for one moment after you have expressed a wish to leave it; nor has any person, except your own doctor and nurse, the right to remain in your room after being requested to leave. Therefore, if you are really unwell, and not sure of yourself, answer no questions, but keep intrusive strangers away by warning them not to thrust their society on you at all.

But the best precaution of all consists in applying to be admitted for (say) a month or two into a lunatic asylum, as a voluntary patient. You may do this whenever you are tired, or suffering from neuralgia, or when you only need change of air. No position is so safe from the possibility of a certificate as that of a woman who has voluntarily placed herself under the inspection of the staff of an asylum, and proved herself able to understand their advice, and willing to carry it out without compulsion. Moreover, after such residence in an asylum, you will always be able to say, in case of need, that the doctor of it is your medical adviser, and that you refuse to see any other. You may thus spare yourself much worry and excitement. Voluntary boarders are taken at the Holloway Sanitorium, Virginia Water (and I suppose at others also).

The voluntary boarder at an asylum is, of course, expected to set an example of unquestioning and cheerful obedience to the whole staff. If she ventures to expostulate with anyone, it should be with the doctor; never by any chance until an attendant or servant. Resistance to an attendant is considered, in such places, as proof of lunacy; and rightly so; for sane common-sense would suggest that, amid surroundings so unfamiliar, the new-comer cannot possibly know what ought to be done. And as the commands of attendants always relate to external matters, there is nothing slavish or degrading in absolute and instant obedience; it is a very different thing from the discipline of a convent which aims to subdue the soul and weaken the will. The visitor may feel it strange at first to be always, as it were, under suspicion. But as soon as the staff have assured themselves that she has no tendency to kleptomania, violence, or breach of rules, she is treated with an indulgence which is practically limitless, and a courtesy which is unfailing. I am not going, here, to write a panegyric on the Holloway staff; but my impression is that they are, one and all, weary of unreasonable requests which they are not allowed to gratify; and that it is a relief to their own nerves to be able occasionally to reply, “Oh, certainly, with the greatest pleasure.” The voluntary patient can, therefore, enjoy a season of luxurious freedom from worry, amid lovely scenery. She will have the advantage of being able to observe what mental habits are bad to indulge in, as tending to induce real insanity. She will also have such opportunities as cannot be found outside of asylums for observing exceptional forms of spontaneous mediumship:—such as chronic dream, picture-vision, polar (or inverted) thought-transference; and that other still more interesting form of thought-transference, wherein a thought which is abstract in one mind projects itself on to another in a concrete form; the main source, of course, of prophetic imagery. The free patient will of course not bring the subject of Spiritualism prominently before the regular inmates; she should listen quietly to their spontaneous utterances; and, when occasion serves, try to interest them in rational and unexciting pursuits. As long as she creates no unhealthy excitement, she will be allowed to study freely the phenomena of spontaneous mediumship. The medical officers are too experienced, and the whole staff too busy, to have any desire to interfere with what lies outside the sphere of their duties.

That our lunacy laws need amending, there can, I think, be no doubt; but I submit that mediumistic ladies had better not plunge into all the agitations of party wrangling, until they have made more use than has as yet been done of the perfectly safe opportunities afforded by existing arrangements, for the study of the higher Spiritualism.

Light 14 January 1888: p. 17

Frankly, I thought Mrs Boole offered some sensible, if disingenuous answers to those pesky committing physicians, but she lost me at her breathtaking suggestion that a Spiritualist medium forestall commitment by becoming a “voluntary boarder.”

Her essay inspired a number of responses from the readers of Light. This correspondent raised a point about the dangers of such a self-committal:

Mediumship and the Law of Lunacy.

To the Editor of “Light.”

Sir,— Perhaps I may be pardoned for making a few remarks upon the above article, which appeared in your issue of January 14th?…

But the ingenious—to say the least of it—way in which Mrs. Boole proposes to baffle the medical fraternity, calls, I think, for a remark upon the subject further. Surely there cannot be two opinions as to the unwisdom of any sensitive in placing him or herself within such conditions as those usually to be met with in an asylum. The psychological effects which the constant contemplation of insanity produces, even upon the attendants themselves, is no longer a matter of question, leaving alone the not remote possibility of an obsession taking place. —Your’s, &c., 64, Emmott-street, Mile End, E. Charles H. Dennis.

Light 21 January 1888: p. 34-5

This correspondent thought that Spiritualists might do some good in the asylum, but felt that gaining entrance would be difficult:

To the Editor of “Light.”

Sir,—The article on “Mediumship and the Law of Lunacy,” in No. 367 of “Light,” calls attention to a field for charitable work much neglected hitherto. Some of your readers will doubtless think twice before adopting Mrs. Boole’s suggestion that mediumistic ladies should become voluntary inmates in a lunatic asylum as a precaution against becoming involuntary inmates.

Nor is the description of the risk of incarceration run by mediums exactly calculated pour encourager les autres. Still, this interesting article reminds us that much may be done to alleviate the lot of the insane. Many persons are willing to act, sing, or recite at the entertainments given for the benefit of the patients at some asylums. Few are inclined to visit them regularly and become intimate with them. There is great difficulty in gaining access to the patients, unless under the aegis of a religious sect, and probably a lady announcing herself as a Spiritualist would be politely bowed out by the authorities. This also applies to prisons, where many of the convicts are on the borderland of insanity, and some are watched in order to ascertain if they are mad or not. The popular notion that lunatics are perpetually raving in a strait-waistcoat is, I need hardly say, a mistaken one. There are generally lucid intervals, during which the patient is very amenable to sympathy. Possessors of the psychic temperament can hardly fail to exercise a soothing influence over the insane by reason of their abnormally quick perception and their power of entering into the thoughts and feelings of others by intuition. There is, however, considerable danger to sensitives in entering into the magnetic circle of evil power. Any practical advice on this subject would be useful.—

Yours truly, M. D.

Light 21 January 1888: p. 34-5

Then we have this helpful writer, who offers an even more audacious plan to gain access to the asylum inmates, going to great and exploitive lengths to place an “insider” at the Asylum so that she could spread the Good News of Spiritualism.

Lunatic Asylums.

To the Editor of “Light.”

Sir ,—If anyone is really willing to take a little trouble about visiting asylums, will you allow me to state that it is not so difficult to gain access as “ M.D.’s ” letter in your issue of the 21st inst. would lead one to suppose?

Both from a humanitarian and from a psychological point of view, more frequent visiting in asylums would be extremely beneficial and advantageous.

My experience may be useful as to the way in which an entrance into a large county asylum was obtained, without being “under the aegis of a religious sect,” and without announcing myself as a Spiritualist.

Many people may not be aware how easy it is to be appointed an attendant in an asylum. It is such arduous work few can stand it long, and vacancies are frequent. My first step was to go to the Union Workhouse, where I found a healthy strong young widow, driven temporarily to that shelter by debt, entailed through the husband’s last illness. Having ascertained that she was respectable, I next wrote to the County Asylum for a form of application, to be filled in by applicants for the post of attendant; the young woman in question being only too glad to have any chance offered to get out of the workhouse. She was at once engaged, simply on my vouching for her good health and respectability. The authorities not only do not require any special training in the applicant, but will not take a person if known to have been in a similar situation. This is significant.

After she had been installed a few weeks I went and called, being put down in the porter’s book as a visitor for Nurse N—– . As the visits were not repeated too often, no questions whatever were asked. I used to go into all the female wards without exception, and talked with many of the inmates. Of course they one and all begged me to help “to get them out of that place,” but even in the “dangerous ward” it was quite possible, with two attendants at my side, to talk a good deal with the people.

A great deal that is valuable may be learnt in this way. I also used to stay to tea, sitting down amongst the insane with four attendants, who gave me much valuable information, making me very welcome. As a great refreshment to themselves in the midst of the insane, I lent them some old numbers of “Light.”

The head of the “dangerous department,” a large, broad-built, good-natured Irishwoman, who had stood the work for a number of years, wrote to me, after perusing an article in “Light” of the year 1886, mentioning work done by Mrs. Duncan and the Dowager Lady Sandhurst. I give an extract from her letter:—

I return the paper you so kindly lent me. I have read it over several times. I quite believe in faith-healing. Faith is the one thing necessary—if we wish to succeed. I have spoken to the nurses on the subject, and I am sure much good will accrue from it. Many miracles are worked here, I firmly believe. Almost daily, some poor creature becomes quite well who for months was quite bereft of reason. I have great faith in prayer myself. I often ask the poor demented creatures to say a little prayer to the Almighty to make them well, and I often see them trying to say some little prayer. But, dear lady, I do not know who requires more spiritual aid and strength from the Lord than our nurses do ; the duties are so trying, it requires such an amount of Christian patience and gentleness, as they often receive such rough treatment from the poor demented creatures. As a rule, I am happy to say, the nurses are very good and kind. You will know how much depends on the nurse; doctors may prescribe, but the recovery of the patient depends in a great measure on the manner in which she carries out the doctor’s instructions.

“I often beg the nurses under me to pray constantly for Divine strength to enable them to perform their duties. I seldom have to reprove them. You will excuse the many defects in my letter? It is heartfelt and that is all I can say.—I am, dear lady, yours very respectfully, “__ __,”

For obvious reasons, the name of the large asylum from which the above letter is dated cannot be given, but I enclose my card. There would be no object in basing any move in the matter on the experiences of a private individual in one asylum, but we do require more thought and more action. The possibilities for Spiritualists are great, and I have tried to show that the obstacles in reaching those who are constantly with insane patients are not insurmountable. However, there is a larger issue at stake than a mere amelioration of present conditions; this every thoughtful mind will at once see.—Yours truly,


Light 28 January 1888: p. 46-47

I thought the name Boole sounded familiar: she was Mrs George Boole, writer, mathematician, educator, and homeopathic practitioner. It is said that George Boole got caught in a downpour, but not wishing to be late for his lecture, walked three miles in bad weather and delivered his lecture soaking wet. Mrs Boole’s enthusiasm for homeopathy led her to treat his fever with “like cures like.” She put him to bed in cold, wet sheets—some say she actually dowsed him with buckets of cold water. He died of pneumonia in 1864, leaving Mrs Boole with five daughters, one only six months old.  To support herself, she took a job as a librarian, which she lost when there were questions about her beliefs in her book The Message of Psychic Science for Mothers and Nurses. In addition to mathematical works, some of her other titles were Logic Taught by Love, Mistletoe and Olive: an introduction for children to the life of revelation, Miss Education and her Garden, and Holiday talks with schoolgirls about the sources of knowledge. Looking at random selections of her writings, they seem to have been a strange mix of common-sense and complete twaddle, which we have already observed in the sample above…

I am still reeling from the idea of asylums taking in voluntary boarders and of such a stay being “a season of luxurious freedom from worry, amid lovely scenery.”


Did Mrs Boole really douse her husband with buckets of cold water? Do we have any accounts from persons who actually checked themselves into a sanatorium in this manner?

Replies to chriswoodyard8 AT who is making delicate inquiries about spending a holiday at an asylum in some beauty spot.

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 new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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