Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How a sleep walker stumbled into an asylum nightmare

Detail from the 1871 painting "The Somnambulist" by John Everett Millais.

In the 1830s, a 16-year-old girl became famous as a sleepwalker and an experimental patient of the early asylum movement. The curious case is one of many unearthed by Emory English professor Benjamin Reiss, the author of “Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture.”

Reiss was recently interviewed about the case on the public radio show “BackStory with the American History Guys.”

Jane C. Rider, from Brattleboro, Vermont, was a servant to a wealthy family who became a medical curiosity when she started to do her chores while sleep walking. “Some of the things that she would do included setting the table, perfectly, during the middle of the night,” Reis told “BackStory.” She’d wake up in the morning and wonder why someone else had done her job for her while she was sleeping.

A doctor seeking to cure Rider of her condition coaxed her into entering one of the newly opened lunatic asylums, which was mainly populated by the criminally insane.

“She was given everything from opium to ether to medications that would make her vomit,” Reiss said. “Leeches were applied, she was bled profusely. She was blistered, also. Puss would ooze out of her. Some thought it would draw out whatever fluids that would not harmonize with her body and were causing her to behave this way.”

Click here to listen to the “BackStory” podcast. 

Reiss’ current research focuses on a cultural history of sleep, from the industrial revolution in the 19th century to the present. “I’m interested in how sleep has become such a ‘problem’ in contemporary culture,” he says, “something in need of micro-management, medical advice and pervasive worry.”

Shedding light on a pre-electric sleep culture
Some eye-opening thoughts on sleep

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