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Hallucinations and electricity in the nineteenth century

Many delusions can be regarded as an attempt by patients to explain the odd sensations and hallucinations caused by their illness. From the industrial revolution on, rapid technological change seemed to many to account for the symptoms of their illness.

Modern psychiatrists might be very familiar with the idea of the control of the body by a machine, but Mike Jay has suggested this was unusual prior to the "Air Loom" of James Tilly Matthews, admitted to Bethlem in 1797. In late nineteenth century Bethlem, the most common apparatuses of control suggested were wires and telephones.

The rise of electricity in the nineteenth century

While electrical wires had been used for experimental purposes by eighteenth century scientists, it was only in the late nineteenth century that they came into more common use, as indicated by the introduction of regulations for the installation of electrical wiring in England and Wales in 1881.

Widespread use of the electric telegraph for the transmission of messages meant that the presence of wires might seem a likely explanation for hallucinations of hearing. Wiring in institutions might serve a practical purpose - in 1884, George Savage reported the trial of electric lighting to the Medico-Psychological Association.

It might also be therapeutic: Galvanism, the application of electrical currents, was still in common use as one treatment for a variety of illnesses, including insanity and "nervous" illnesses, such as neuralgia. When John Jacoby declared in 1886 that the Doctor had put telephones and telegraphs on his bed, his delusions may in fact have had born reference to previous treatments he had undergone.

Telephones and hallucinations

Following its invention in 1876, many patients connected the disembodied voices of the telephone with both their hallucinations, and the electrical control of the telegraph. Joseph Haskill was "annoyed at night by telephones and electronic arrangements," while Annie Payne thought that her doctor "attendend her professionally through the telephone."

Moreover, the adoption of such explanations by patients indicates the intense interest provoked by such progressive seeming inventions; many patients, like Annie, adopted their ideas despite the fact that "there is no telephone in the house."

If you're interested in finding out more about electricity and nineteenth-century mental illness, take a look at Mike Jay's The Air Loom Gang.