On December 8 1841, Arthur Edmunds, the brother of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer, was baptised in Margate. Arthur was the baby of the Edmunds family; the seventh and last child who, like so many of his siblings, has a sad tale of his own.
Like his sister, Christiana, Arthur was born into considerable wealth and luxury: he lived in one of the finest houses in Victorian Margate, had an army of servants to tend to his needs and his father was one of the most successful architects in the South East.
But when Arthur was 9 or 10 years old, everything changed. He received a blow to the head and started to have seizures and violent mood swings. After a consultation with the family doctor, Arthur was diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition which was considerably misunderstood in the nineteenth century.
For the Victorians, epilepsy was a form of madness, chiefly associated with ‘degenerates’ and ‘idiots’, and primarily caused by excessive masturbation. Treatment for epilepsy usually took place in purpose-built asylums and that’s exactly where Arthur found himself in February 1860, when he was just 19.
Arthur was admitted as a private patient (meaning that he was financially able to pay for his care) at the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots near Reigate in Surrey. By 1860, Reigate was still in its infancy as an institution, having only been built six years earlier, but it had a great reputation as a caring and supportive hospital which provided opportunities for people with epilepsy. Most patients were admitted for a period of five years, though more serious cases might remain indefinitely, during which time staff at the Earlswood taught them basic living skills and apprenticed them in a trade.
We don’t know exactly how Arthur fared in his time at Earlswood but he died shortly after his 25th birthday. According to his death certificate, Arthur was killed after a 3 month bout of marasmus, a Victorian term for emaciation, which prompts a lot of questions about the quality of his care and treatment by staff at the asylum. Did they withhold food from him or did he deliberately starve himself, perhaps as a form of protest? Both of these scenarios seem unlikely, given Earlswood’s fantastic reputation. Marasmus does have a number of other causes too, including bacterial and viral infections, food intolerances and Crohn’s Disease. Arthur may also have experienced a high number of seizures which prevented him from eating adequate food at the asylum’s set meal times – so it was, perhaps, accidental. Rather frustratingly, we just don’t know for sure.
Whatever the case, his death was just one of a number of tragedies which befell the Edmunds family in the 1860s.
These cases are taken from the admission registers of the Middlewood Hospital (pictured above), known as the South Yorkshire Asylum, in Sheffield. It was built as a response to the terrible overcrowding of the nearby West Riding Asylum, at Wakefield, and opened its doors in 1872. The admission registers don’t give a complete picture of the patients at Middlewood but they do show the reason for admittance and the outcome of treatment. Some of the reasons listed are completely baffling to modern readers:
Agar Ablett, a 66 year old housewife from Leeds admitted on 8 July 1881 after going insane as a result of a “pain in the head.” Agar did not improve after treatment but was discharged on 19 Aug.
Another housewife, Harriet Acaster, aged 34 was admitted on 2 October 1886. The cause of her madness was “religion.” She was cured and sent home to Garforth on 2 April 1887.
One of the most common reasons for housewives to be admitted to Middlewood was “confinement” – what we might term postnatal depression. One such case is Martha Braime, a 26 year old housewife from Wakefield. She was admitted on 14 Aug 1876 and was declared “recovered” 20 October. Hers is one of 137 cases of insanity by childbirth – what the Victorians called puerperal madness – and I’m starting to wonder if I should list housewife as a dangerous job in my new book!
One occupation that you will find in my new book is hatter – the poor men who were driven ‘mad’ by mercury poisoning. So it’s not surprising to find quite a few on the Middlewood registers. As you would expect, the cause of madness is not listed as poisoning because the dangers of mercury were still not understood: Jonathan Hey, a hatter from Huddersfield, for example, was admitted on 16 June 1881. The physicians claimed he had gone mad after convincing himself that he had been “deprived of a great fortune.” Luckily, Jonathan was ‘cured’ and sent home on 20 August.
File cutters are another occupational group were routinely poisoned as part of their job. These men and women cut the grooves onto the surface of a file and were daily exposed to lead in the workplace. Thomas Aizlewood, for example, a file cutter from Sheffield, was admitted to the asylum with "lead colic" on three occasions: first, on 28 September 1885, again on 7 August 1886, and then on 3 March 1886. Each visit was caused by lead colic and his third would be his last: he died in Middlewood on 19 July 1890. I’ll be sharing some more details about Thomas in another post as I’ve traced his family (all of whom were file cutters in Sheffield) and who all suffered considerably as a result of this job.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:
Hannah Ellen Wilson, a 28 year old housewife from Halifax, driven mad by a “fright from thunder” and admitted on 10 August 1881. She was one of 11 women driven mad by the weather….