Setting the record straight: maniac or sick man?

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By | The Researcher’s View

Researcher Jon Mitchell searched the Retreat archives in pursuit of John Summerland, an asylum patient whose story figures in histories of madness and mental health. What he found was a lost reputation.

Like so many undergraduates, the first time I came across the Retreat was in Michel Foucault’s book ‘Madness and Civilisation’. He writes:

“Samuel Tuke tells how he received at the Retreat a maniac, young and prodigiously strong, whose paroxysms caused panic in those around him and even among his guards. When he entered the Retreat he was loaded with chains; he wore handcuffs; his clothes were attached by ropes. He had no sooner arrived than all his shackles were removed, and he was permitted to dine with the keepers; his agitation immediately ceased; ‘his attention appeared to be arrested by his new situation’. He was taken to his room; the keeper explained that the entire house was organized in terms of the greatest liberty and the greatest comfort for all, and that he would not be subject to any constraint so long as he did nothing against the rules of the house or the general principles of human morality”.

This moment in the Retreat’s early history particularly resonated with me, and has stuck in my mind ever since. Naturally, having been let loose myself as it were in the Retreat archives, I wanted to know more about this incredibly powerful and important moment.

William Tuke

William Tuke. Etching by C. Callet. Wellcome Images reference: V0005922.

Whilst we may question Foucault’s analysis and style, he cannot be accused of hyperbole in this instance; the passage paraphrases Samuel Tuke’s account of the incident in ‘Description of the Retreat’ (1813), save for the fact that Tuke probably didn’t witness the incident himself and made no claim to have done so:

“Some years ago, a man, about thirty-four years of age, of almost Herculean size and figure, was brought to the house. He had been afflicted several times before; and so constantly, during the present attack, had he been kept chained, that his clothes were contrived to be taken off and put on by means of strings, without removing his manacles….”

L0011301 Insane patient in a strait-waistcoat. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Insane patient in a strait-waistcoat. Engraving By: Ambroise TardieuLes Maladies Mentales Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol Published: 1838. Wellcome Images reference: L0011301.

Insane patient in a strait-jacket. Engraving by Ambroise Tardieu in Les Maladies Mentales, 1838. Wellcome Images reference: L0011301.

Tuke added that “the patient was frequently very vociferous, and threatened his attendants, who in their defence were very desirous of restraining him by the (straight) jacket.” (‘Description of the Retreat’ pp.93-94)

However, the patient’s case notes (Borthwick archive reference RET/6/5/1A p.77) and correspondence from the family (Borthwick archive reference RET/1/5/1/7) give a different angle to these events. We assume from how Tuke describes this incident that the ‘maniac’ – whose name was John Summerland – had been under restraint in other institutions for some time before admission to the Retreat. The moment of Summerland’s release is often used to illustrate a liberating shift in psychiatric methods as patients were brought out of the darkness of Bedlam dungeons and into the light of ‘moral treatment’. Yet the reality is less straightforward.

Summerland’s case notes reveal he had indeed been restrained, “fastened with chains” and “repeatedly bled with cathartic medicines” whilst under confinement in Philadelphia. But he then returned to England on a voyage that would have taken weeks, and would not have been possible under restraint. Upon his return to England he lived with his parents in Staffordshire for over two months and again there is no mention of him being under restraint here or on his journey to the Retreat. Summerland’s case notes add further information which seems to contradict Tuke’s version: “he frequently converses rationally, tho in a high strain… It does not appear that he has ever attempted to injure himself or others”. And whilst Summerland was indeed “a large man of great muscular strength and power” he was “much reduced in flesh on his admission”.

Letters from his family to the Retreat show that Summerland, despite his vague diagnosis of ‘derangement’ managed to attend Quaker Meetings for Worship before his admission. This involved sitting in silence for a considerable amount of time. Again, hardly the place for a raving maniac. And as he was sent on his way to the Retreat, John Summerland’s brother William wrote to William Tuke that John “seems much better and I make no doubt with your regular treatment and attention he will soon be well”.


Samuel Tuke’s well-intentioned exaggerations have gone largely unquestioned by history, leaving poor John Summerland with a bad reputation. Happily he was discharged after only four months, and suffered no relapse. Yet it was hardly the miracle cure that Samuel Tuke claimed, ten years later in ‘Description of the Retreat’.

Author: Jon Mitchell is a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds.

A version of this blog first appeared on the Borthwick Institute Blog.

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