Walter Freelove Brown was admitted to The Retreat on 7 March 1874. Although hailing from Kingston upon Thames, his membership of the Society of Friends allowed him to be admitted to the Quaker Asylum in York. The Retreat had been established 100 years previously in response to accusations of abuse and ill treatment experienced in other asylums.
Walter was just 15 years old when he entered the Retreat. His admission papers state that he had his first convulsive fit at 6 months. These fits had continued with occasional intervals of 12 months but latterly they had been more frequent.
Walter was suffering from epilepsy which, in 1874, was grounds enough to have him put into an asylum. Indeed, when asked to state the 'causes of mental disorder' the surgeon has written 'No cause can be assigned but the recurrence of epileptic disease.'
Epilepsy was a source of much misunderstanding and confusion in the nineteenth century. As late as 1892, epilepsy was unequivocally linked with insanity due to the supposed state of the brain after suffering a seizure. 'The mental condition of an epileptic is not thoroughly sound' states one text whilst another declares 'this insanity varies immensely, from merely odd or eccentric actions... to homicidal mania of the most violent type.' A year later a respected text on lunacy remarks 'The days when epilepsy was considered to be a disease apart from insanity have passed away. Epilepsy is only to be considered as a symptom which may arise from an almost endless variety of changes in the brain.'
The surgeon admitting a patient was obliged to fill out a section entitled 'Fact indicating insanity observed by myself'.
On the other hand, one might say that this was the normal behaviour of a teenager…
Walter's Case Notes describe his illness as 'Epileptic Mania' which was regarded as a highly unstable condition. In 1845, a text regarding ‘An Act for the regulation of the care and treatment of Lunatics’ describes those suffering from epileptic mania:
"Some persons subject to severe paroxysm of epilepsy, without suffering obliteration of their mental faculties, and even without obvious disorder of the mind during the interval of these paroxyms, are nevertheless subject to fits of a maniacal character.
Epileptics are sometimes irritable, morose, and dangerous. The species of madness which is complicated with epilepsy is frequently of a most dangerous description."
Not much had changed between then and when Walter was hospitalised…
In the Case Notes, the misunderstanding of Walter's condition is obvious. They begin by describing his appearance – even referring to his pubescence – referring, interestingly to his 'epileptic expression of countenance'.
Walter remained in the Retreat until his death in February 1888. The surgeon wrote 'Today I was called to Walter Brown and found him dead he had several rather severe fits lately and his death was due to cardiac failure whilst in a fit. Post Mortem revealed Heart Disease.' It is apparent that Walter was interred in the Retreat for care, not cure. The pressure on his family would have been enormous whilst he was at home so housing him in the Retreat looked after their interests as well.