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A danger to the public: Incarcerating witch believers

As the psychiatric profession developed, so the asylum population increased. In 1840 some 2,500 people diagnosed as insane were living in asylums, prisons, or almshouses. This figure rose to over 40,000 in 1880, and by 1923 there were more than 263,000 asylum inmates. This increase far outstripped the population increase in America, which had risen from 17 million in 1840 to over 106 million in 1920.39 One of the consequences of the pressure this placed on asylums was an increasing shift from the curative role of the asylum to one of containment.

While the increasing number of insanity pleas in the criminal courts fed this expansion, there was also considerable growth in the resort to civil law to have mentally ill people placed in the custody of asylums and hospitals for the insane, either because they were considered a danger to society or property, or because it was deemed they were unable to manage their own affairs. While in general it was only relatives, guardians, or public officials who could request that someone be certified, in practice the law varied from state to state. In Florida, for example, five reputable citizens could request another to be taken into care. Applications for individuals to be certified were heard by the probate courts in many states, which, following British common law, were decided by a jury after hearing expert medical opinion. But arrangements differed elsewhere. In some states, such as Iowa and North Dakota, County Boards of Commissioners on Insanity assessed requests.40 In 1878, for instance, an Iowa County Board of Commissioners on Insanity heard the case of Max Frahm after it was petitioned that his family lived in constant fear and that their lives had become unendurable. He was sent to Mount Pleasant Hospital, the state’s first public asylum completed in 1861.

It was standard practice for the individual concerned to attend the hearing if their presence was not likely to be deleterious to themselves or those present.41 In 1903 a twenty-seven-year-old Kentuckian, Ward Boyd, made quite an impression when he spoke before Los Angeles Judge Curtis D. Wilbur. In California, superior court judges presided over examinations before an insanity commission, and as stated in the statutes, the judge ‘must inform him [the alleged insane] that he is charged with being insane and of his rights to make a defence’. Standing before the judge and the statutory two physicians, Boyd made full use of his rights, telling his story ‘in a cool rational way, using the most excellent language and bringing in the points with the skill of a trained storyteller’. He related how, when as a boy, his family lived in National City, near San Diego, a female boarder, a schoolteacher, had made a disturbing impression on him. ‘I have seen her eyes glitter at us like a coyote’s’, he said. That said, he had no thoughts of her having cast a spell on him until only the previous year when he was working a mining claim in the desert. Alone for long periods he began to see disembodied visions of the woman at night, her face expressing hatred and triumph. In what sounds like a possible case of sleep paralysis, he ‘had smothered and oppressed feelings about the head and heart’. As a newspaper reported, ‘Although Boyd talked so well and seemed so rational, it seemed best to send him to the asylum as he is so completely upset by his awful experience as to be unable to take care of himself’.42

But over the decades some states tinkered with the law respecting such insanity inquests, mainly with regard to the right to a jury and the right of the suspected insane to attend their hearing. In 1903 one Wisconsin probate judge protested that while huge care, attention, and cost was given to assessing the mental state of those tried for brutal murders, legal safeguards were being removed for those affected in civil cases. ‘To-day a man be adjudged insane, haled from his home, committed to an insane asylum and placed under guardianship without notice to himself, without notice to his next of kin, without his day in court’, he complained.43 It is not surprising then that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we find numerous cases of people being sent to the asylum on the basis that their witch beliefs were supposedly a danger to themselves and others if left unregulated. Dr Oscar Altland, head of the York County Almshouse, Pennsylvania, was of the opinion that witchcraft believers were prone to violence, and as a consequence, ‘they should be placed in institutions and kept there for life for the safety of society’. Hex-slayer John Blymyer had a spell in the almshouse in 1924 and Altland had treated him again in 1927 when Blymyer told him he was being chased by witches. When he asked Blymyer what treatment he was taking for the delusion, he was told ‘Lydia Pinkham’, the famous cure-all quack tonic.44 Here again racist attitudes played a part. The psychiatrist James Kieman observed, for instance, that ‘the fact that Chicago is a commercial city, permitting comparative equality on the part of the negro, leads to the quick incarceration of such persons [displaying paranoia], when brought in contact with Aryans and Shemites [Jews], for the mental phenomena displayed would be such as to lead to a rapid suspicion of insanity by a sceptical, practical Aryan or Shemitic business man’.45

So in the early twentieth century we see a number of people carted off to the asylum as a means of dealing with witchcraft disputes. In most such cases there is little evidence in the reports of obvious mental illness that can be retrospectively diagnosed. There is no bias toward the incarceration of aged witch accusers who might have suffered from dementia for instance. What to make of the treatment of a twenty-nine-year-old German woman named Freda Jabens, of Spencer, Nebraska? Described as ‘a pretty blonde’, in 1907 she and her brother, Peter, aged twenty, were sent to the state insane hospital after they and their family had made repeated accusations of witchcraft against a youthful neighbour named Jennie Swartz, who they believed had put a spell on their brother. They had pestered the local district court to arrest Swartz on suspicion of being a witch.46 In the same year a young woman named Ellen Peterson, daughter of Swedes Katrina and Lars Peterson of Little Prairie, Nicollet County, Minnesota, was prosecuted for assaulting Martha Norlin having accused her of bewitching the family farm. The Petersons’ cows had dried up, their chickens had died, and they experienced various other misfortunes. As Norlin drove past their farm one day, Ellen, with the assistance of her sister, dragged her off and beat her. Ellen was sentenced to a spell in prison, as was her brother Christian who, on hearing the sentence in court, threatened to kill Norlin. Unable to pay bond for keeping the peace he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. At the time of these events Lars Peterson was into his fourth decade as a patient at the state asylum. One of his son-in-laws had joined him there in 1902. Then in the winter of 1909 Ellen, Christian, and their mother were also committed. All had been quiet between the Petersons and Norlin until November 1909 when Ellen and Katrina gave her another beating for being a witch. Mother, daughter, and son put up resistance when they were subsequently arrested. This time they found themselves not before a criminal court but before the probate court. They refused to answer questions and sat silently as they were committed to the state asylum for treatment.47

Mrs Peterson could not read, write, or speak English, and the experience of being judged on their sanity must have been all the more disorientating for people in her situation. We get a sense of this from another contemporary probate court examination from Minnesota. In April 1907 Lena Tomow, of Norton, Minnesota, was taken to Rochester State Hospital for the insane for treatment. Lena and her brother Carl had come to America from Germany in 1867. They owned a small farm but had experienced problems. For years they had believed themselves and their animals bewitched by neighbours—ever since a strange dog with long silky hair had passed by the farm. In March 1907 Carl had been bitten by a suspected rabid dog and had gone to the Pasteur Institute in Chicago for treatment. Lena, who spoke little English, and was in her early fifties, was left to run the farm. She and Carl had assaulted several neighbours for being witches and were considered a nuisance. Now she was alone, some of her neighbours successfully requested she be taken to an asylum. She told the court via a translator about her troubles with witchcraft, while her neighbours testified that she looked after the farm well and was perfectly sane except on the matter of witchcraft. It would seem that she and her brother ‘recovered’ from their respective illnesses and we find them back on their farm in Norton by 1910. But to what did they return?48

A superintendent of the Pennsylvania Society to Protect Children from Cruelty, Margaret Hay, explained the harm that such incarcerations could wreak. In an article on the challenges of social work in Schuylkill County she related how a man came into the office of the Society to complain about a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer whose children were begging. The farmer was able-bodied and his neighbours were sick and tired of supporting his family when he was in possession of fifty acres of prime farmland. A social worker paid a visit and found the farm buildings in disrepair and no stock on the land. Yet the farmer’s wife was neatly dressed and kept the house clean and tidy. How had things come to this? It transpired that the farmer had continual arguments with a neighbour who was jealous of his fifty acres. The neighbour hatched a plan to petition for the farmer’s commitment for insanity on the basis of his belief in witchcraft. It worked, and the farmer was carted off for a spell in the County Insane Hospital. Meanwhile, without his consent, his stock and implements were sold off to pay some outstanding debts. When he was released he returned to his farm and family to find that he no longer had the wherewithal to farm his fifty acres. Neither would his neighbours’ give him work, wary of his alleged insanity. As Hay concluded, ‘this man and his family presented a most distressing problem from both a social and a legal viewpoint. There was no legal aid to help him, and the social consciousness of his immediate neighbourhood simply took the form of looking upon him as a nuisance to be removed from their midst, rather than as someone to be helped’.49

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