Blogging A-Z H Is For Hysterical Humours

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She inclined her head. “You’ll notice Abalone is gone. She was looking after me when I got back from that place just like she had since I was a baby. Daddy decided she was getting too old and sold her. Truth be known, she was giving the nurse fits about drugging me all the time and keeping my babies from me.”

“Sold her?”

She nodded, her eyes swimming in unshed tears. “Oh dear. I musn’t cry.”

“Oh, honey. Sometimes it’s all right to cry.”

She shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no. If I start crying again, they’ll send me back to that place. I can’t go back, Lorena. I’d die first.”

I patted her hand. “I’m sure they won’t. You were so brave when little Thomas died, but people know it’s human to grieve.”

“Brave nothing! I was terrified. I knew if I let down and mourned for my poor darling boy Daddy would send me back to that place and that horrible doctor.”

“Well, we shall pray for you to find another loving husband and have many more children. Not that they can replace Thomas, but it would help cheer your heart.”

She nibbled some tea bread and looked over the pond. “In a session with Dr. Whittey. What an appropriate name. I used to call him Whitless, but he is actually very clever. He gives not a whit about his patients, aside from the money their families send each month, though. One day he leaned back in his great leather chair and said, ‘Mrs. Chesswood, in my opinion as a professional, the chief cause of hysteria in women is them being over stimulated with female humours. When we take those things away that cause excitement the hysterical woman becomes calm and docile as she was meant to be. Remove these agitations and restore the woman. That is my theory, and it has been proven successful time and again.’ This was his excuse for putting patients in solitary confinement where they often went completely insane if they weren’t before. I had been placed there upon arrival to cure me of grieving for my husband, taken out only for my sessions with him or to bathe once a week.

“I responded, to him, ‘I tend to agree with you, Doctor. I think if men were removed from women’s lives they would be much saner.’

“He cut our session short and the next day I was given a hysterectomy to remove the ‘excitable organs’.” She sighed. “There will be no more children for me, but look! I am sane once more.”

I recoiled in horror. Peters’ threats became even more frightening. God help me if something happened to Esquire Lewis. “Emily, I don’t know what to say.  I had heard rumors of terrible things, but could not believe they were true.”

She smiled wanly. “Oh, Lorena, you have no idea. God pray you never will.”

“How did you escape that place?”

“I learned not to cry. No matter what they did, I wouldn’t cry. I agreed with the doctor on all matters. I became as docile as a lamb. I played the part laid out for women so well he could not deny I was cured.”

This is a bit longer than I intended and I apologize. Lorena has gone to check on a friend of hers who has returned from an insane asylum, having been sent there after grieving too much for her dead husband. Humours are bodily fluids such as blood.

Victorian doctors felt that non-docile women could be returned to their proper mental state by performing various treatments, including hysterectomies, solitary confinement, shock therapy, being pelted with ice, or ice baths, or opiates, etc.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Colin

    A hysterectomy seems a bit extreme even for Victorian times. Especially given the value placed on a woman’s ability to bear children. Wow. Vivid storytelling, Julie.

  2. Julie Weathers

    Colin, thank you. Well, docility was even more important than children.

  3. Ceridwyn

    WOW! That is *so* not true – is it???!!! I’m in shock; my mind is reeling. I am SO glad to be a woman in 2016!!!
    Incredible writing, as always…
    🙂
    (that was just a wan smile because I’m still shaking my head with the horror of it all)

  4. Julie Weathers

    Yep, unfortunately, it very much was true. Women really did have very few rights and it was quite easy to have a woman declared insane.

  5. E.M. Goldsmith

    Julie, this is brilliant and I am glad you incorporated it into your story. My great grandmother on my mother’s side died in an insane asylum which she was committed to when she was barely thirty years old. The first time I even knew about this women was when she died. I was about twenty years old. My mother did not want to talk about it. She simply said she had to go to Texas to take care of her grandmother’s affairs. To this day, my mother refuses to speak of it.

    My daughter and I have been trying to discover what caused her to end up there. My daughter who is in her last semester of college, in one of her American lit classes, doing some research for a paper discovered that even into the 1950s (and maybe later than that), women were often put away for “hysterics” that could be related to PMS or post-partum depression or for simply being over-emotional. It is frightening and I am certain prevented lots of women from getting the real help they may have needed from time to time for fear of being committed.

  6. John Davis Frain

    Julie, you put your reader right into the piece so deftly. I have to go back and figure out if it’s the dialog or the setting or where it happens. As I’m reading, I’m transported.

    I’m glad I’m not literally transported, because even though I’m male, I would not want to be living under such conditions.

    Great storytelling, as usual. I didn’t even notice it going on long which is a sign you want in a reader.

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