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Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots (Hardback)

A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland

P&S History > Social History

By Dr John Burt, Kathryn Burtinshaw
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 248
Illustrations: 32
ISBN: 9781473879034
Published: 3rd April 2017



National Publicity!

As featured by Mail Online - Chained to their beds with no heat or water, and left to lie in their own excrement: How the 19th century mentally ill were sent to hide away in grisly insane asylums and categorized as 'idiots', 'imbeciles' or 'lunatics'

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In the first half of the nineteenth-century treatment of the mentally ill in Britain and Ireland underwent radical change. No longer manacled, chained and treated like wild animals, patient care was defined in law and medical understanding, and treatment of insanity developed.

Focussing on selected cases, this new study enables the reader to understand how progressively advancing attitudes and expectations affected decisions, leading to better legislation and medical practice throughout the century. Specific mental health conditions are discussed in detail and the treatments patients received are analysed in an expert way. A clear view of why institutional asylums were established, their ethos for the treatment of patients, and how they were run as palaces rather than prisons giving moral therapy to those affected becomes apparent. The changing ways in which patients were treated, and altered societal views to the incarceration of the mentally ill, are explored. The book is thoroughly illustrated and contains images of patients and asylum staff never previously published, as well as first-hand accounts of life in a nineteenth-century asylum from a patients perspective.

Written for genealogists as well as historians, this book contains clear information concerning access to asylum records and other relevant primary sources and how to interpret their contents in a meaningful way.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

FASCINATING READ, excellent pictures.

Pen and Sword does such an excellent job with these historical subjects.

NetGalley, reviewed by CAROLINE HOWE

Through the use of case studies, this book adds a personal note to the historiography in a way that is often missing from scholarly works.
For genealogists and family historians who are unfamiliar with this type of source this volume, however, will be an invaluable starting point, containing clear information on how to access asylum records.

Federation of Family History Societies

There is much detail in the book of all aspects of asylum life compared to private facility care, the difficulties of each. Conditions were usually harsh despite regulations to protect this vulnerable population. It was interesting how these gothic structures were constructed regarding fire and other safety measures. Treatments and care were explained with staffing requirements, concerns and expectations. Criminal insanity, along with Epilepsy, Suicide, and Puerperal Insanity were discussed in detail. The conclusion regarding the failure of moral care was very troubling, yet substantiates public policy regarding two types of care required for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill in modern society. Many photos and case studies were included; the cover of the book is exceptionally good!

Read the complete review here.

Amazon Reviewer

The in-depth history, legalities, descriptions of day to day life, and everything else they poured into this one book provides an extremely detailed analysis of an often ignored subject of the human population. The authors treated this weighty subject with a caring tenacity that showed they truly believed in showcasing the truth on a dark period in human history with the compassion it deserved.

Read the complete review here.

Amazon Reviewer

This book is for anyone interested in social history. The authors take the reader through the history of the treatment of those with mental illness during the Nineteenth century. The book opens with information about how to trace ancestors who may have been in an asylum. Chapters 2 – 9 talk about the development of asylums and the legal treatment of patients. Each chapter focuses on a different region of Britain and Ireland. Chapters 10 – 20 go on to give information about staff and how they were chosen, the different legal classifications of patients, different types of mental illness, and closes with a rundown of diagnoses and treatments. Throughout the book are scattered case histories of actual patients which illustrate the conditions at the time.

I found this book really interesting. Mental health is something I’ve always had an interest in and it amazes me at times to see how far we have come in western civilisation in handling the mentally ill. The book is written in a format that is easy to read and follow. I found a lot of great information and history in this book and would recommend it for anyone interested in history or mental illness.

A Line From A Book, Jennifer Sahmoun

As featured on.

Mail Online 18/7/17

As reviewed in

Essence Magazine

As featured in

Antiques Diary, July-August 2017

As featured in the books 'In brief' section

Family Tree, June 2017

Read it for: a fascinating history of asylum life in the 19th century

Your Family History, June 2017

John and Kathryn's book provides a fascinating look at the first half of the 19th century and the way such people existed and were treated by the state.

Books Monthly, May 2017 - reviewed by Paul Norman

This is a good compendium of the care of people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities and epilepsy in the XIX century, and it encompasses laws, reformers, workers, buildings, and more importantly, patients. It is a great resource for researchers looking to gain a general view of the subject and offers biographies of the main players, a glossary and bibliography. The paperback copy also has great drawings and also pictures of ledgers, buildings, patients. I recommend it to anybody looking for information on the subject, to genealogists interested in researching in depth some of the lesser known records and to anybody interested in the history of psychiatry and psychiatric care, in particular in the UK.

Read the complete review here.

Olga Nunez Miret

The book is written very factual, it reads like one of my college Psychology text books. The case studies of actual patients brought home the reality that these WERE real people, not just a story in a book. I enjoyed this book, but it did take me over a week to complete.

I would recommend the book to those interested in Psychology and or Genealogy.

NetGalley, reviewed by Terri George

The book is very detailed and is best read in chunks. It's not the sort of book that you'd sit and read from cover to cover. There are lots and lots of facts and figures, along with case studies and explanations of mental health legislation.

For me, the most interesting chapters are those that cover the diagnoses and causes of mental illness, and this is both fascinating and horrifying in equal measures. The reader is then told about the various treatments that patients underwent, and it is this chapter that really shows us just how far we have come over the past one hundred years.

Read the full review here.

Random Things Through My Letterbox Blog

A truly enlightening account of the development of mental health care in the UK in the nineteenth century. Through actual accounts of treatment methods and also focusing on those who sought to improve the conditions the reader is able to get a sense of what asylums' were like. One of the most interesting aspects I felt was the disparity in conditions between those who could afford care and those who could not. This lack of quality mental health care for some while providing a nurturing environment for those that can afford it has parallels in the healthcare systems of today and the continual need for improvement of mental health care.

NetGalley, reviewed by Dale Dewitt

A very dry but extensively detailed resource for anyone interested in the development of treatment for the mentally disabled during the Nineteenth Century in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

NetGalley, reviewed by Rose Beauvais

An incredibly interesting read

NetGalley, reviewed by Lauren Walsburg

A comprehensive and fascinating account of historic asylum health care originating in the U.K. that includes England and the British Isles, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales authored by award winning historians and registered professional genealogists

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

NetGalley, reviewed by Michelle Short

A challenging read but a very fascinating one

NetGalley, reviewed by Nannette Halliwell

As featured in

Grove Gazette

I got a better understanding of what life was like for the people living in asylums. It is hard to believe how little doctors knew about their patients. I really liked how the authors gave summaries of how the laws worked in different parts of the country.

NetGalley, reviewed by Jennifer Coleman

I have worked in the mental health sector in the UK and have always been incredibly interested in the history and progression of the system. This definitely satisfied my curiosity. It was well written and researched. I found the accounts fascinating and while there is always room for improvement in healthcare, it is great to see that the UK has come forward so far since the asylums.

A very important read, people shouldn't be afraid of mental health and these kinds of books are pivotal in helping people to be able to learn from the past and ensure that we never return to those ways.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

NetGalley, reviewed by Sara Marsden

This book was so full of information. I couldn't imagine how life would be back then. This us a really good book. Well worth your time to read it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

NetGalley, reviewed by Lisabeth Racine

The authors can be congratulated on producing an informative and useful volume.

NetGalley, reviewed by Gill B

Reading about the ‘treatments’, and I use that word lightly, used on people is enough to make you believe in evil and not question the veracity of horror movies ever again. The authors regularly broke up how mental health was handled by areas since even though Ireland, Scotland, Wales & England are close each culture is unique to the area so how their people approach the subject would be unique. Even with England’s domination over the area, Ireland included for a long period of time, the people still held onto their own unique cultures, languages, ideas, beliefs and so forth so what constitutes mental illness in one area may not in another; the authors did a remarkable job of pulling these apart to exhibit those specifications.

The in-depth history, legalities, descriptions of day to day life, and everything else they poured into this one book provides an extremely detailed analysis of an oft ignored subsect of the human population. The authors treated this weighty subject with a caring tenacity that showed they truly believed in showcasing the truth on a dark period in human history with the compassion it deserved.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

NetGalley, reviewed by Tara Sheehan

If you are simply fascinated by the history and legislation you will love this.

NetGalley, reviewed by Louise Corrigan

About Dr John Burt

Dr John Burt is a professional genealogist and family historian based in Edinburgh. A retired general medical practitioner, he has held a lifelong fascination in Scottish social history. He graduated in Medicine in 1983 and holds a M.Sc. in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies from the University of Strathclyde. John was an honorary clinical tutor to the School of Medicine, University of St Andrews, 2010-2013. John specialises in medieval, military and medical records.

About Kathryn Burtinshaw

Kathryn Burtinshaw is an experienced researcher who holds an Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University and a M.Sc. in Genealogy, Palaeography and Heraldry from the University of Strathclyde. Kathryn runs her own genealogy company, Pinpoint Ancestry, and lives in North Wales.

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