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Monday, March 26, 2012

Pencillings by the Way

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Another travel book by those Britons who had the time and money to do so. There are no illustrations (which disappointed me, with a title like "Pencillings", but most of the journey has its charm.)

One unpleasant description (amongst several) but a revealing reminder about the seamier side of life and gender iniquities was the one I included below. I hesitate to dwell on what else women in lunatic asylums had to face beside this horror.... 

"Disturbing' may be clichéd, but it's all to accurate.

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Pencillings by the Way
by N. Parker Willis (1860)

The first ten (of 75) chapters of letters. Very readable. But please take a moment to read the snippet below that.

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On our return we passed near an island, upon which stands a single building--an insane hospital. I was not very curious to enter it, but the gondolier assured us that it was a common visit for strangers, and we consented to go in.
We were received by the keeper, who went through the horrid scene like a regular cicerone, giving us a cold and rapid history of every patient that arrested our attention.

The men's apartment was the first, and I should never have supposed them insane. They were all silent, and either read or slept like the inmates of common hospitals.
We came to a side door, and as it opened, the confusion of a hundred tongues burst through, and we were introduced into the apartment for women.

The noise was deafening. After traversing a short gallery, we entered a large hall, containing perhaps fifty females. There was a simultaneous smoothing back of the hair and prinking of the dress through the room. These the keeper said, were the well-behaved patients, and more innocent and happy-looking people I never saw. If to be happy is to be wise, I should believe with the mad philosopher, that the world and the lunatic should change names. One large, fine-looking woman took upon herself to do the honors of the place, and came forward with a graceful curtesy and a smile of condescension and begged the ladies to take off their bonnets, and offered me a chair.

Even with her closely-shaven head and coarse flannel dress, she seemed a lady. The keeper did not know her history. Her attentions were occasionally interrupted by a stolen glance at the keeper, and a shrinking in of the shoulders, like a child that had been whipped. One handsome and perfectly healthy-looking girl of eighteen, walked up and down the hall, with her arms folded, and a sweet smile on her face, apparently lost in pleasing thought, and taking no notice of us.

Only one was in bed, and her face might have been a conception of Michael Angelo for horror. Her hair was uncut, and fell over her eyes, her tongue hung from her mouth, her eyes were sunken and restless, and the deadly pallor over features drawn into the intensest look of mental agony, completing a picture that made my heart sick. Her bed was clean, and she was as well cared for as she could be, apparently.

We mounted a flight of stairs to the cells. Here were confined those who were violent and ungovernable. The mingled sounds that came through the gratings as we passed were terrific. Laughter of a demoniac wildness, moans, complaints in every language, screams--every sound that could express impatience and fear and suffering saluted our ears.

The keeper opened most of the cells and went in, rousing occasionally one that was asleep, and insisting that all should appear at the grate. I remonstrated of course, against such a piece of barbarity, but he said he did it for all strangers, and took no notice of our pity. The cells were small, just large enough for a bed, upon the post of which hung a small coarse cloth bag, containing two or three loaves of the coarsest bread. There was no other furniture. The beds were bags of straw, without sheets or pillows, and each had a coarse piece of matting for a covering.

I expressed some horror at the miserable provision made for their comfort, but was told that they broke and injured themselves with any loose furniture, and were so reckless in their habits, that it was impossible to give them any other bedding than straw, which was changed every day. I observed that each patient had a wisp of long straw tied up in a bundle, given them, as the keeper said, to employ their hands and amuse them.

The wooden blind before one of the gratings was removed, and a girl flew to it with the ferocity of a tiger, thrust her hands at us through the bars, and threw her bread out into the passage, with a look of violent and uncontrolled anger such as I never saw. She was tall and very fine-looking. In another cell lay a poor creature, with her face dreadfully torn, and her hands tied strongly behind her. She was tossing about restlessly upon her straw, and muttering to herself indistinctly.

The man said she tore her face and bosom whenever she could get her hands free, and was his worst patient. In the last cell was a girl of eleven or twelve years, who began to cry piteously the moment the bolt was drawn. She was in bed, and uncovered her head very unwillingly, and evidently expected to be whipped.

There was another range of cells above, but we had seen enough, and were glad to get out upon the calm Lagune. There could scarcely be a stronger contrast than between those two islands lying side by side--the first the very picture of regularity and happiness, and the last a refuge for distraction and misery. The feeling of gratitude to God for reason after such a scene is irresistible.

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