Disability History Month Poster 4: ‘Prisoner-patients’: criminalising intellectual disorders in Victorian Scotland

Prisons have a much higher proportion of men and women with mental disorders than the general population. This was also true in Victorian times, when ‘the liability of the criminal classes to an excess of insanity is very great, and much beyond that of the free population of the country’. The Prisons (Scotland) Act (1844) defined ‘criminal lunatics’ as ‘insane persons charged with serious offences’. From 1846 Perth Prison provided specialist housing for those deemed not responsible on account of their insanity and in 1865 established a separate Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). The then resident surgeon J. Bruce Thomson called inmates ‘prisoner-patients’ or ‘state lunatics’. The Perth CLD predated both Broadmoor in England (1863) and Dundrum in Ireland (1850) and remained the only such facility in Scotland until 1948.

Offenders were admitted to the CLD not for the crime committed, but for the threat presented by their insanity. One such ‘prisoner-patient’ was John McFadyen. McFadyen was convicted of the murder of a two-year-old boy named Alexander Shields in Glasgow in 1861, whom he had killed in order to steal his clothes, and was transferred to Perth from Broadmoor in 1872.  Aged 20 at the time he committed the murder, doctors judged John to have a mental age of six.  At the reformatory institution where he spent the years prior to the murder, the chaplain-superintendent described McFadyen as “mentally, morally and physically stunted or underdeveloped”: he could not write and could scarcely read and do arithmetic. He was barely 4 feet 9 inches (1.5m) tall and weighed seven stone (45kg). A cell mate described him as “a very childish companion. Very mischievious, taking away anything that was left, singing all day, constant talking, jumping on the bed occasionally, singing snatches of songs. […] I do not think he understood his position.”

Victorians classed intellectual disabilities such as that exhibited by McFadyen as either ‘imbecility’ or ‘idiocy’. These terms had both legal and medical meanings: ‘imbecility’, the diagnosis given to John McFadyen, was used to indicate less extensive incapacity than ‘idiocy’. John McFadyen was unconditionally discharged from Perth in 1891, aged 50.

The case of John McFadyen, and other ‘prisoner-patients’, demonstrate how societal understandings of intellectual disorders, and mental health more broadly, have been – and continue to be – conditioned and shaped by contemporary medical science, laws and the penal system, welfare structures and ideals, and philosophical and political conceptions of individual rights.

This poster is based on the research of Professor Rab Houston in the School of History.  For more information, including podcasts on mental health in historical perspective, please visit: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/psychhist/

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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