Prisoners or Patients?: Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland

Jane Forrest

Image courtesy of National Records of Scotland, Crown Copyright NRS HH/21/48/2/44

I was interested to attend this year’s special exhibition at the National Records of Scotland set to coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival entitled ‘Prisoners or Patients?: Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ as it is a topic we at Pinpoint Ancestry have published two books about: Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots (2017) and Madness, Murder and Mayhem (2018).

Running from 1 to 31 August 2019 in the Matheson Dome of General Register House at the east end of Princes Street, it is a small but fascinating exhibition and very much reveals how archival records can be used to illuminate the stories of a select number of prisoner-patients who were admitted to the Criminal Lunatic Department of Perth Prison (equivalent to England’s Broadmoor Hospital).

The discipline of psychiatry was in its infancy at this time.  Mental health was poorly understood.  There is debate as to whether the inmates were treated as prisoners rather than patients.  Through the case histories of eight patients, the exhibition examines each individual story, and evaluates how their mental illness touched their own lives and the lives of their families.  In each case there are archival documents including legal documents (precognitions and court records), medical records, and prison records which help illustrate their stories.

At Pinpoint Ancestry we have been particularly interested in this aspect of the history of mental health.  We have looked at the development of asylums in nineteenth century Britain and the greater understanding of the treatment of mental health disorders.  Originally called ‘mad doctors’, they were renamed ‘alienists’ before finally the modern term ‘psychiatrist’ became used.

As part of the special exhibition, on 30 August 2019 we are privileged to be giving a talk at New Register House in Edinburgh entitled ‘Researching Criminal Lunatics: exploring archives’.  Admission is free but attendees should book prior to the event on eventbrite.

Dr John Burt




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