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’. At this time, The Prisons (Scotland) Act (1844) defined ‘criminal lunatics’ as ‘insane persons charged with serious offences’. From 1846 Perth Prison provided specialist housing for those 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’ – people, that having committed heinous crimes and who were a danger to the public, were placed at ‘Her Majesty’s disposal, under the care of the State’.

National Records of Scotland’s 2019 exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’, explored the lives of some of these ‘prisoner-patients’, examining the records amassed in their prosecution and treatment, the details of their crimes, and the notes of the prison officials and doctors who attempted to help these vulnerable men and women. This exhibition is now available online where you can explore: the profiles of a selection of prisoner-patients; view records relating to their prosecution and treatment; listen to audio excerpts of prison officials’ notes, doctors’ examinations and criminal declarations; as well as download a portable version of the exhibition for educational purposes.

The portable version of this exhibition consists of ten display panels designed to be printed on A2 paper or card, but can also be printed at A3 or A4 size. These consist of an ‘Introduction and Conclusion’ panel and nine different prisoner-patient profiles that are represented in NRS archives.

Introduction and Conclusion Panel from 'Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland' exhibition
Introduction and Conclusion Panel from ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ travelling exhibition

Margaret Hunter or Beaton
Admitted 1867, charged with murder 

One of the prisoner-patients featured is Margaret Hunter or Beaton. From a family of poor Paisley handloom weavers, Margaret married James Beaton, labourer, when she was aged just 17 years old in 1860. With a history of mental disorder, she murdered her fifth child, two month old Alexander in April 1867. The first doctor to examine her after the murder was a local man, who ‘found her to have a dull melancholy despairing look … of a person labouring under disease of the brain’.

Margaret was unable to plead in court due to insanity, and was not tried until October that year when she was found guilty and immediately admitted to Perth CLD. Margaret told her sister Catherine: ‘I have killed my wean.’ Catherine and several other witnesses said that the death of their mother nine days before the murder had affected Margaret badly. Emotional causes of mental problems, such as bereavement, were usually reserved for females. The after-effect of childbirth was also a factor.

Photograph of Margaret Hunter taken from the Criminal Lunatic Department Case Book (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/48/1 page 281)
Photograph of Margaret Hunter taken from the Criminal Lunatic Department Case Book (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/48/1 page 281)

Over a period of years, Margaret’s Perth case notes ranged from ‘outrageous, incoherent, delusional’ at worst, to ‘an unstable temper’ at best. In spring 1877 she was ‘very excited, filthy and obscene in her talk. To be locked in padded room and have strong purgative.’ With few staff, physical restraint was occasionally used on dangerous patients. Medical treatments for mental disorders were largely limited, until the 20th century, to traditional palliatives and evacuants.

Conditional Liberation

Clinicians assessed prisoner-patients regularly to see if they could be released, conditionally or unconditionally, carefully monitoring their steps towards freedom. Conditional release was the liberation of the prisoner-patient to a nominated guardian with whom the prisoner-patient had to live, to prevent any danger to self or public. The Scottish Office paid guardians, but the task was onerous.

What had excited Margaret’s outburst in 1877? ‘She recently got a letter from her friends [relations] telling her they had no means of accommodating her, even though she was conditionally liberated.’ This may have been wise. During one of her later conditional discharges in 1889, Margaret assaulted her brother George’s wife and burned her own clothes, causing him to renounce his guardianship. The medical superintendent and two prison officers who went to collect Margaret found her ‘noisy and incoherent, with occasional furious bursts of maniacal excitement…her mind has completely broken down’. She kept petitioning unsuccessfully for release, one letter of January 1895 annotated simply: ‘A lunatic full of delusions’.

With feeling, the medical superintendent concluded: ‘This poor woman seems only to be sane in confinement.’

After 31 years in Perth, she was eventually discharged, in February 1898, to Glasgow District Asylum at Gartloch, a general asylum. Transferred from there to Govan District Asylum, Paisley, in October 1898, she was released, aged 60, in October 1903, but had to be brought back a few days later and ‘is likely to remain to the end’.

Take a look at the treatment of other Prisoner-patients in our exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’, now online!

Jocelyn Grant


National Records of Scotland

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