Friday 27 March 2015

Rehabilitating John Summerland

It really is a privilege to start blogging for the York Retreat Archive digitisation project. The Retreat captured my imagination as a History undergraduate but I never had the opportunity for in-depth research, for want of an original hypothesis. It seemed like it had all been done before. But somehow an idea came to me, I followed it up and here I am writing a PhD on the Retreat nearly a decade later. The more time I spend with this material, the more I realise there is still a great deal to say about the Retreat. Making these archives available online will enable a new generation of research. So I had better get writing quickly lest someone steals my thunder!

Like so many undergraduates, the first time I came across the Retreat was in Michael Foucault’s Madnessand Civilisation. One moment of the Retreat’s early history particularly resonated with me, and has stuck in my mind ever since;

Samuel Tuke
Samuel Tuke
‘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. For his part, the keeper declared he had no desire to use the means of coercion at his disposal. The maniac was sensible of the kindness of his treatment. He promised to restrain himself.’ (pp233-234, Routledge Classics, 2001)

Naturally, having been let loose myself as it were in the asylum archives, I wanted to know more about this incredibly powerful and important moment.

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 his 1813 Descriptionof the Retreat, 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….’

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 pp.93-94)

Examples of early nineteenth-century restraints from the Retreat Archives
However, the patient’s case notes (RET 6/5/1A p.77) and correspondence from the family (RET 1/5/1/7) give a different angle to these events. We assume from how Foucault and Tuke use this incident that the ‘maniac’ (whose name was John Summerland) had been under restraint in another 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 which 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.

Samuel Tuke had access to all the Retreat case notes and used them to statistically demonstrate the Retreat’s success in Description of the Retreat. It seems that Tuke exaggerated Summerland’s symptoms to promote the Retreat’s therapeutic methods. This well-intentioned exaggeration has 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; 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.’ 

This is one of a series of blog posts published as material from the Retreat archive is digitised and made available online. More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project so far are available via the Wellcome Library

This blog post was written by Jon Mitchell who is a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. His thesis relates to eighteenth century Quaker attitudes to mental illness, and is funded by The White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. He can be contacted at  

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