Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Sane or Insane? The Case of Rose Lynam

Mar 15, 2014

This article appeared in The Beaver (now Canada's History) under the title "A Victorian Scandal" in 1989. I've since updated some of the information.


When Rose Kirk arrived in Montreal from Ireland as a young girl in the early 1850s, she was one drop in the vast river of penniless migrants that for two decades had been flowing to North America in search of a better life. More fortunate than many, she found employment right off the boat as a housekeeper in the home of Alfred Perry, a leading member of the Anglo-Protestant community in the city, and his wife Rachel. For twenty years she remained in the Perrys’ employ, tending to household duties and becoming indispensable to Alfred during the illness and, in 1878, the death of his wife. At the same time Rose had a domestic life of her own. Following the deaths of two previous husbands, she married a labourer named Peter Lynam in 1868. Rose and Peter had two daughters, Nelly and Mary Ann, but by all accounts it was a tempestuous union. “She used to come to me when in trouble,” Alfred Perry said, “and often brought me stories of her family troubles.” Lynam was a jealous husband who sometimes beat his wife during the fourteen years they lived together. For her part, Rose may have given as good as she got. “I knew her to be a violent woman,” observed Perry. “If any one came into my garden to steal she would beat them. She was as good as two men about the place.” On one occasion Lynam received a two month jail sentence for assaulting his wife, though he claimed that Rose had lied about the attack and that it was he who was defending himself against her assault. Whatever the truth of these charges and counter-charges, it was clearly a troubled marriage.

In April 1882 matters came to a head when Peter claimed that Rose had attacked him with an axe. He went to see a lawyer, who consulted a doctor, and Rose was taken into custody and held overnight in the Montreal gaol. The next day she was transferred to the Asile St-Jean-de-Dieu, located on the banks of the St Lawrence River east of the city in Longue Pointe, where she was committed as an “erratic maniac.” The Sisters of Charity of Providence who owned and operated the asylum had no patience with Rose’s obstinate refusal to accept her incarceration. They stripped her of her clothing, dressed her in a rough smock and confined her in the upper story of the building with about forty other “furious lunatics.” There Rose remained for the next twenty-eight months.

The origin of the asylum at Longue Pointe dates back to 1827 and the death of a wealthy Montreal merchant named Jean Baptiste Gamelin. Gamelin left a sizeable fortune to his twenty-seven-year-old widow, Emilie, who used it to embark on a career of philanthropy. Madame Gamelin established a shelter in the city for elderly, indigent women, nursed cholera patients and worked among the poor. In 1843 she became superior of a new religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Providence. Under her direction the new order launched several other charitable projects, including a rural mission, St-Isidore, at Longue-Pointe. Following Mother Gamelin’s death from cholera in 1851, the Sisters of Providence began to care for a handful of mentally ill residents at the St-Isidore farm. Eventually, in 1875, the nuns opened a new, purpose-built asylum on a large piece of property they had purchased nearby. Hôpital Saint-Jean-de-Dieu (the name refers to John of God, a Portuguese saint who suffered what may have been a nervous breakdown and after release from incarceration in a Spanish asylum devoted his life to the care of the sick and needy) was a massive, three-sided, five-storey brick structure fronting the St. Lawrence River, built in the shape of a flat-bottomed U. The director of the asylum was the energetic leader of the Sisters of Providence, Cléophée Têtu, Sister Thérèse de Jésus, and aside from a single resident doctor care was provided by a staff of unpaid nuns. This allowed the facility to sign a contract with the provincial government to offer care at a much lower cost than the other Quebec asylum at Beauport. During its first year of operation Saint-Jean-de-Dieu provided care for 408 patients, a number that grew steadily until by the mid-1880s, when Rose Lynam was in residence, there were more than nine hundred.

Rose was not the first “celebrity” patient tucked away at St-Jean-de-Dieu by worried relatives. On March 6, 1876, just seven months after the institution opened, a carriage arrived from Montreal with a mysterious passenger who was bundled hastily through the front door. The resident physician, Dr. Henry Howard (who would play a pivotal role in the Lynam case), was invited to meet and assess the newcomer. “There was, at first, some hesitation with reference to the identity of the person in question,” Dr. Howard later recalled. “Finally it was admitted that the individual was Louis Riel…” With Howard’s approval, the Metis leader was admitted to the asylum under a false name.

            Given Riel’s ambiguous legal status, the need for subterfuge was understandable. Since fleeing Manitoba in 1870 one step ahead of the Ontario militiamen who, he feared, were out for his blood, Riel had been living off and on in the United States. The events which led to his departure, including the death by firing squad of the hotheaded Thomas Scott, had become a bone of contention in Ontario where anti-French zealots called for Riel’s head. In an effort to defuse the situation, Prime Minister Macdonald made money available to support Riel and his family if he would stay out of Canada. Meanwhile the prime minister, not wanting to alienate his Ontario supporters, stalled efforts to win amnesty for the fugitive. In 1873 Riel won election to represent a Manitoba constituency in the House of Commons but he did not dare take his seat in Ottawa for fear that he would be arrested or worse, assassinated. Subsequently he won two more elections and was expelled from the Commons twice while never actually attending a session. Meanwhile he had moved to Keeseville, New York, just south of Montreal, a convenient base for slipping across the border into Canada.

            Riel was more or less destitute and reliant on friends and relations, both in the US and Montreal. As he brooded on his situation his mental condition deteriorated. He came to believe that he was a prophet whose mission was inspired by God. His mood swings were dramatic; in the grip of religious visions he was prone to fits of crying and shouting, terrifying the people around him. Finally his uncle John Lee came down from Montreal and took Riel back to the city to live, but his extreme behaviour continued. He insisted that he was a prophet; he tore his clothes; he roared and howled. In the end, the Lees felt they had no option but to have him committed to St-Jean-de-Dieu under the name Louis R. David.

            During his two-month stay at the asylum “M. David” received treatment much like Rose Lynam would several years later. He was routinely trussed up in a straitjacket because of his violent behaviour. He was allowed to exercise only under guard in the yard behind the main building and, he complained in a letter, “I spend the night with chains around my feet and hands.” On one occasion Dr. Howard found him “stark naked, standing up against the wall with his arms extended as if crucified. He told me he wanted the nuns to see him.” Howard could not always tell whether Riel was “acting a part or hallucinating.” He alternated between periods of rationality and periods of violent mania. According to Howard, “poor Riel” lived in fear of assassination. The nuns also believed that their mysterious patient was at risk and wanted him gone from the asylum. On May 19 he was taken down to the waterfront and put on a steamboat which carried him downriver to Quebec City where he was admitted to the asylum at Beauport under the name Louis Larochelle. While conditions at Beauport were not much better, over the next twenty months Riel slowly recovered his mental health and by the end of January 1878 his doctors considered him well enough to be discharged.

Unlike Rose Lynam, Louis Riel recognized, at least in retrospect, that he had needed help and he was grateful to the doctors who had cared for him. “It was in the latter asylum [Beauport] that I had the good fortune to recover my senses,” he wrote to one of them. “I was treated there as charitably as any lunatic could be." Lynam, on the other hand, never admitted that she needed to be at St-Jean- de-Dieu and characterized her incarceration as a form of torture. If Riel’s stay there was a secret, there was no secret about Rose Lynam’s.

As chance would have it, while she was at Longue Pointe an eyewitness account of conditions inside the asylum appeared in the Montreal press, allowing us a view of what life must have been like for her during the two years of her confinement. Daniel Hack Tuke was a fifty-seven-year-old British reformer who came to North America to tour its asylums, including institutions in Ontario and Quebec. He published his findings in the Canada Medical and Surgical Journal in October 1884 and in its October 15 edition the Montreal Gazette gave its readers a preview. (The following year this report was published in expanded form as a book, The Insane in the United States and Canada.) Tuke had impeccable credentials for his work. His great-grandfather was William Tuke, the Quaker tea and coffee merchant who had co-founded the York Retreat for the Insane, the pioneer of humane treatment methods. Four generations of Tuke males were involved in the operation of the Retreat and Daniel Hack himself was a noted physician.  Among other accomplishments, he was the co-author of the Manual of Psychological Medicine (1878), which was considered to be the authoritative book on the subject in the English-speaking world. In other words, he was a reliable witness with long experience in the field of asylum management. And what he found horrified him.

            Tuke began his visit to Quebec at the Beauport Asylum. Being an advocate of non-restraint, he was disappointed to find the use of mechanical restraints so much in evidence. In the gloomy, stifling upper floors of the building, where the most intractable patients stayed, he found thirty male inmates. “Some had leather muffs, others the belt and poignet [leather wristband] [...] One had his legs fettered at the ankles. There were also several men in restraint-chairs, to which they were fastened, and not only so, but they wore muffs. They were in their shirts, and over their exposed persons flies were crawling in abundance.” One man who constantly scratched his own face was confined in a crib bed, a device resembling a small cage.

            Moving on to St-Jean-de-Dieu, Tuke was impressed at first by the asylum’s setting and appearance. The building was situated on a 600-acre estate surrounded by fields and farms where many of the patients worked during the day. The lower wards were bright and airy with large exercise yards. However, as Sister Thérèse led her visitor to the upper reaches of the building, Tuke’s approval turned to dismay. In a gallery next to the roof above the fourth floor he discovered eighty male and female inmates, the so-called “refractory patients,” segregated by sex, living in conditions he had never seen before, either in Europe or North America. These unfortunate residents passed their time pacing a narrow, airless corridor, sitting on wooden benches or reclining in their tiny cells. Many were shackled in handcuffs fastened to a belt; others were strapped onto the benches or into their beds. Heavy bolts and a padlock secured the door of each cell. “When the bolts of the first cell which I saw opened were drawn back and the padlock removed,” Tuke reported, “a man was seen crouching on a straw mattress rolled up in the corner of the room, a loose cloth at his feet, and he stark naked, rigorously restrained by handcuffs and belt. On being spoken to, he rose up, dazzled with the light; he looked pale and thin. The reason assigned for his seclusion and his manacles was the usual one, namely ‘he would tear his clothes if free’.”

Next door Tuke found another inmate similarly shackled. He was a deaf mute whom the attendants called “l’homme inconnu” because no one knew who he was. His cell was completely empty: no chair, no bed, no pile of straw. He slept on the bare floor. There were no windows in the cell. The only light came in from the corridor through a small wicket in the door just large enough for a head to protrude. A wooden tub in the corner was the night toilet; attendants emptied it each morning. “What the condition of these cells must be in hot weather and after being occupied all night, and, in some instances, day and night, may be easily conceived,” wrote Tuke. The noise, the stench, the sight of so many suffering souls left him stunned.

As he passed into the female side of the gallery, the place where Rose Lynam spent many months of her confinement, a frightful din assailed him. “The frantic yells of the patients and the banging against the doors constituted a veritable pandemonium,” he wrote. “The effect was heightened when the guichets in the doors were unbuttoned and the heads of the inmates were protruded in a row, like so many beasts, as far as they could reach. Into this human menagerie, what ray of hope can ever enter?” Like the men, a variety of chains and straps restrained the women, who passed much of their time alone. And to make matters worse, Tuke discovered another 140 patients similarly confined in the basement of the asylum. “It is amazing to reflect,” he concluded, “that although the superiority of the humane mode of treating the insane, inaugurated nearly a century ago, has been again and again demonstrated, and has been widely adopted throughout the civilized world, a colony of England, so remarkable for its progress and intelligence as Canada, can present such a spectacle as that I have so inadequately described as existing, in the year of grace 1884, in the Montreal Asylum.”


When Alfred Perry came to visit Rose not long after her committal, he found his former housekeeper calm and lucid, though naturally angry at her husband and the doctor, Henry Howard, who had agreed to her incarceration. On repeated visits Perry complained to the doctors and the Sisters that Rose did not belong in Longue Pointe. But they had decided she did and, exasperated, they finally banned him from the premises. Having exhausted his other options, Perry decided to take the matter to court.

Alfred Perry’s name would have been well known to anyone interested in the case of Rose Lynam (and so notorious did that case become that there could hardly have been a newspaper reader in Montreal who was not interested). His lifetime involvement in the political life of his adopted city (he had arrived from England as a twelve year old with his parents in 1832) began with the insurrections of 1837 when he joined the local militia to fight the rebels. Afterwards, he apprenticed as a joiner and belonged to one of Montreal’s volunteer fire companies, which at the time provided cover for young men who liked to rabble rouse in support of their favourite political candidates. He also belonged to the Orange Order, the Protestant fraternal society active in anti-Catholic street protests. In other words, as a young man Perry was an enthusiastic participant in the turbulent politics of the day. When Anglo-Protestants rallied on the Champ-de-Mars in Montreal on the evening of April 25, 1849 to oppose the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill, a law compensating people whose property had been damaged during the rebellions, Perry was front and centre. According to an eyewitness, he incited the crowd to march several blocks to the Parliament Building, then located in Sainte-Anne’s Market in Place d’Youville. When they arrived the Assembly was still in session. Perry joined a group of young men who forced their way into the meeting and began smashing up furniture, shattering windows and tearing down wall hangings. Perry himself was seen attacking a portrait of Queen Victoria. Ultimately a fire broke out and the building was gutted. Perry’s role in the violence was no secret. He was jailed briefly, but received a hero’s welcome from his supporters when he was released and he was never convicted. A few years later Perry was in London, England, and met the former governor, Lord Elgin, whose determination to sign the Rebellion Losses Bill and accept the will of the Assembly had sparked the crisis. Introducing him to a colleague, Elgin said, “This is Fred Perry, the man who burned the Parliament Buildings in Montreal.”

Perry’s reputation as “the man who burned Parliament” did him no harm. As the years passed, he steadily climbed the ladder of social respectability, leaving his working-class roots behind him to become first a skilled craftsman and then an insurance company executive. (Ironically, he became known in the community as an expert on fighting fires.) At the time of the Lynam affair he was one of the founders of the Protestant Hospital for the Insane, an asylum being established in Verdun to provide alternative care to the Catholic-run institutions at Beauport and Longue Pointe. It is hard to know how much his support for a rival asylum – the Verdun facility opened its doors in 1890 – was behind his criticisms of the care offered by the nuns at St-Jean-de-Dieu. His concern for Rose Lynam was doubtless genuine, but as a leading advocate for the Protestant Hospital it may also have suited his purposes to discredit the care given by the nuns.



On September 12, 1884, the Honourable Mr. Justice Jetté of the Montreal Superior Court began hearing the petition for the release of Rose Lynam. At the outset it seemed simple enough. Perry contended that Rose had been held for the past two years at Longue Pointe against her will and for no good reason. Peter Lynam, Doctor Howard and the nuns from the asylum responded that she was a dangerous maniac. Was she “Sane or Insane?” as the title of a pamphlet containing the proceedings of the hearing put it? It was up to Judge Jetté to decide. Yet before the case was over it would blacken the reputation of one of the province’s leading mental hospitals, precipitate a royal commission into the state of provincial asylums and rock the foundations of Quebec’s religio-political establishment.

The significance of the case can be illustrated by the stature of the legal and medical personalities involved. Alfred Perry’s lawyer was Robert McGibbon, at twenty-seven years of age a relatively young advocate but one marked for prominence in the profession. Dr. Howard was represented by C.J. Doherty, already a leading city lawyer who went on to become a judge in the Quebec Superior Court and a federal justice minister in Robert Borden’s government. The interests of the Sisters of Providence were represented by F.-X.-A. Trudel, who, aside from his accomplishments at the bar, served in both the provincial legislature and the Canadian Senate and was a leading conservative Catholic provocateur, writer and thinker.

Even though the court heard some alarming descriptions of abuse at the asylum, the institution itself was not on trial. Rather it was the conduct of Dr. Howard, its visiting physician, that became the focal point of the case. At times it seemed as if it was his ability as a doctor, not Rose’s sanity, that was at issue. “This has been Dr. Howard’s fight,” claimed the lawyer Robert McGibbon, “his reputation has been at stake – the cause has been espoused by him – and he has failed.” Like his adversary Alfred Perry, Henry Howard was a pillar of the city’s English-speaking establishment. Born in Dublin in 1815, he had studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in London before emigrating to Canada in 1842. Long before he developed an interest in mental illness, Howard was a recognized eye specialist, even writing a standard textbook on the subject. He began his involvement with asylums in 1861 when the government appointed him medical superintendent of a new mental hospital at Saint-Jean, a position he held until the patients there were transferred to Longue Pointe when it opened in 1875. Following the transfer, Howard maintained a connection with the new St-Jean-de-Dieu as first its medical superintendent and then as a visiting physician. His role at the asylum involved assessing the health of new admissions (as he had done with Louis Riel) and recommending the discharge of patients whom he decided were cured, or at least well enough to re-enter the community. By the time Rose Lynam and Alfred Perry dragged him into court, he was, in the estimation of historian Peter Keating, “l’expert montréalais en aliénation mentale”.

The court hearing featured a titillating series of horror stories and conspiracy theories. Two versions of Rose Lynam emerged from the testimony. The first was presented by Perry and his lawyer. According to this version, Rose was the innocent victim of a brutal husband in cahoots with a doctor who, if not corrupt, was at least over-zealous about incarcerating people who were not insane. The second version presented an entirely different picture of Rose. In this scenario, presented by her husband, Doctor Howard and the nuns of St-Jean-de-Dieu, Rose was, literally, a maniac, someone suffering from violent attacks of unreasonable behaviour, a danger to her children, pathologically jealous of her husband; if she seemed at times to be lucid and well behaved, as she did in court, she was only exhibiting the cunning so common to the mentally deranged.

During three days of testimony, Judge Jetté heard from all the main protagonists in the case, along with medical experts produced by both sides. Doctor F.X. Perrault, the resident physician at Longue Pointe who had initially committed Rose to the asylum, explained that in the course of his duties he visited her two or three times a week. About a month after her admittance he began to doubt his initial diagnosis of acute mania and came to believe that she was perfectly sane. Perrault testified that he shared his opinion with Henry Howard more than once and that he recommended Rose be released, but Howard disagreed. It was at Howard’s insistence, Perrault testified, that she had been kept at the asylum for more than two years. When it was his turn in the witness box, Alfred Perry contended that his former housekeeper was perfectly sane but that she was held at the asylum at the insistence of her husband who had paid Dr. Howard to certify her and continued to pay him to keep her locked up. Further evidence of this alleged plot was the fact that she had been admitted to Longue Pointe under a false name, “Rose Church”, an alias to which she objected but was never changed in the registry. It was a blatant attempt, said Perry, to conceal her whereabouts. Though never proven, Perry’s claim seems to have been shared by the English-language press. “The fact is,” editorialized the Montreal Star, “there is not a person in this city, high or low, rich or poor, that could not by shrewd management and the liberal use of money be sent to Longue Pointe.” An editorial in the Montreal Herald mocked Henry Howard’s reluctance to release his patient. “He seems inclined to say that all the world’s a madhouse, and all the men and women lunatics. The difficulty with him seems to be not to decide who are insane in the community, but to discover who are really sane enough to be allowed to go at large.”

In answer to these charges, Peter Lynam described how his wife neglected their children. “She used to frighten the children when at home, with threats to drown them,” he told the judge, “and would never take any care of them and showed great dislike of them.” He denied paying anyone to have her incarcerated and generally presented himself as the innocent victim of a deranged woman. Henry Howard concurred. “I have been represented as a monster in the papers,” he complained to Judge Jetté. “If I have been guilty of keeping that woman 2½ years in the asylum while she was sane, I would be worse than a murderer.” But this was not the case. The first time he visited the Lynam home, he said, he found Rose in “a maniacal state.” “I saw the children there cowering in fear of the mother; they would not go near her. The room was in a filthy condition, food was scattered over the bed, the woman herself had a most dishevelled appearance and everything indicated that she was insane.” Having examined her at Longue Pointe many times since, Howard insisted that he had found no reason to change his diagnosis.

            Finally, on the third day of the hearing, Rose herself took the stand. One reporter described her as “a woman of about forty-five years of age, large and stout. The expression of her countenance is mild and good-natured. Her manner is quiet [...] There was, in fact, nothing whatever in her appearance to indicate insanity.” Rose denied assaulting her husband with an axe or doing anything that might be construed as “insane.” Once she was at the asylum, she said, the nuns hit her, pulled her hair and left her handcuffed and alone to sleep on the floor. She spent most of her time in the ward with “furious” patients. On one occasion she had been left all night strapped to a chair. None of these charges of brutality were refuted during the trial; instead the nuns testified that occasional rough treatment was required to deal with Rose’s bad behaviour. Rose was a very difficult patient, they said; she was violent, ill-tempered and uncooperative, especially when her husband or Dr. Howard was present (though as Alfred Perry pointed out, who would not be if they were called crazy and locked up against their will).

In summation, Robert McGibbon, Perry’s lawyer, argued that there was not a shred of evidence to prove that Rose was mentally ill. He repeated the argument that her incarceration was orchestrated by a devious husband in league with a compliant doctor. In his final remarks Charles Doherty argued on behalf of Peter Lynam that Rose’s actions were those of a frenzied lunatic and claimed that her quiet demeanor in court was evidence of the sly cunning so typical of the insane. Unable to make up his mind between these two opinions, and the opinions of several other medical “experts” who had testified for one side or the other, Judge Jetté asked for yet another. He asked Dr. Arthur Vallée, visiting physician at the Beauport Asylum, to examine the patient. Dr. Vallée concluded that while Rose was not as extravagantly deranged as her husband contended, neither was she wholly sane. He recommended that she be allowed to leave Longue Pointe so long as someone volunteered to be responsible for her. Judge Jetté agreed and on December 9 he ruled that Rose should be released from the asylum into the custody of Alfred Perry, her own family having refused to take her back.

Not long after her release, Rose left the supervision of Alfred Perry and “committed acts of excentricity,” according to one source, that again entangled her in the legal system. One of these occurred in November 1885 when newspapers reported that she was in court facing charges of “screaming” in the street and assaulting one of her daughters with an umbrella. Her husband Peter served notice that he would be asking to have Rose re-incarcerated in an asylum but the court ruled that the matter was more of a family argument than an assault and suspended sentence. Census records indicate that as of 1891 Rose was living alone in Montreal with no profession mentioned. She died during the summer of 1896, age 57, and was buried in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery.


L’Affaire Lynam might have ended with Rose’s release except that during the hearing the public came to suspect that her case was not an isolated one. Other stories surfaced in the press. The Toronto Globe, for example, reported that another inmate at Longue Pointe had been declared sane and was awaiting release, while at Beauport, the paper said, a patient was being held against his will “though perfectly sane.” That autumn the provincial government dispatched two commissioners to investigate the concerns about Longue Pointe. And the issue was not confined to Quebec. In the summer of 1885 a patient recently released from the Saint John Asylum in New Brunswick, Mary Pengilly, published an exposé of her stay the previous winter at the provincial institution. Pengilly admitted that she entered the asylum suffering from a variety of religious delusions, but she claimed that for many months after her recovery she was held against her will on the instructions of her sons, one of whom was a Saint John alderman. She presented a long list of complaints about her treatment: food was so awful that patients often refused to eat; rooms were poorly heated and ventilated; the atmosphere was somber and depressing; attendants were rough with the patients. Pengilly charged that many inmates who were not mentally deranged were fast being made so by conditions at the asylum. Unlike Rose Lynam, however, she was unable to attract much attention to her complaints. The legislature did not take up the matter and there was no public outcry against illegal detention or conditions at the asylum. Pengilly’s book fell on deaf ears and she moved away from the province to live in the United States.

It is probable that Pengilly, and Alfred Perry for that matter, were inspired by similar incidents of wrongful incarceration in Great Britain where so-called “lunacy panics” had recurred since at least the middle of the century. The most notorious case, which reached its peak at the same time as the Lynam and Pengilly affairs, involved Georgina Weldon, an eccentric, wealthy society woman whose estranged husband had tried to have her forcibly committed to a private asylum in London. When the attempt failed, Mrs. Weldon launched a prolonged campaign against her husband and his allies. She gave lectures, distributed leaflets, petitioned the government, published her own newspaper and mounted a series of lawsuits against those she thought had wronged her. In 1884, the same year as the Lynam case, she triumphed when a court awarded her substantial damages. In Britain, as in Canada, the suspicion was widespread that the “madhouse” had become a repository for the inconvenient as well as the insane. Family members were engineering the wrongful incarceration of relatives in order to lay hands on their money. or institutionalizing them because their behaviour was embarrassing or nonconformist. Asylum operators were more than happy to incarcerate healthy inmates and accept the substantial fees that were paid to keep them locked up. Or so it was said. In Quebec, at least, the government took such fears seriously. In 1880 and again in 1885 the legislature enacted laws to tighten public control over the processes by which individuals were incarcerated in, and released from, the province’s asylums.

On top of the issue of false confinement was Daniel Hack Tuke’s devastating attack on the Quebec asylums which burst into print a few weeks after the Rose Lynam hearing. After touring the institutions, Tuke accused them of being “relics of barbarism,” “chambers of horrors,” the most inhumane treatment centres in North America. The issue was obviously far more than the question of whether one woman was “sane or insane.” Tuke’s charges brought the entire mental health system into question. What made his report especially galling to Quebeckers was that he had earlier visited several Ontario asylums which he found to be far superior, observing that the use of physical restraints and solitary confinement were rare, that the food was good and the patients active. “The astonishment which I experienced in witnessing this relic of barbarism in the Province of Quebec is greatly increased,” he wrote, “when I see such excellent institutions as the lunatic asylums in the adjoining Province of Ontario.” The explanation, he argued, lay with the unique arrangement known as the “farming out” system. Whereas in the rest of Canada, mental hospitals were public institutions, operated by the government, in Quebec they were privately-run businesses which relied on fees paid by the patients. The provincial government “farmed out” those who could not afford to pay by giving the proprietors an annual per capita grant. In Tuke’s opinion this system was an abdication of public responsibility because inevitably the proprietors would attempt to save money by compromising patient care.

            Tuke’s criticism of the farming out strategy was not new. Twenty years earlier the Board of Inspectors of Asylums and Prisons had pointed out that “it is plainly the interest of the proprietors or contractors [of privately-owned mental institutions] to spend as little as possible on the food and maintenance of the patients, and to get as large a return as possible from them in the shape of labour...” At that time (1866) the board warned: “A system can hardly be expected to work satisfactorily where the interests of the parties concerned are so essentially at variance.” In 1875 Tuke’s colleague and friend, John C. Bucknill, another respected British asylum specialist, had paid a visit to Quebec as part of his tour of North American mental institutions. “Surely it is the duty of the Government of Lower Canada,” he wrote in his account of the tour, “to provide public asylums for public lunatics and not to farm them out either to nuns or physicians.”

For many years this argument had fallen on deaf ears and the proprietors -- including the Sisters of Providence at Longue Pointe -- were able to carry on their business more or less independent of public control. In the 1880s, however, Tuke’s exposé, combined with the Rose Lynam case, prompted a widespread public debate about the farming out system. Tuke’s indictment was picked up and reprinted by the Quebec press. Newspapers urged the abolition of farming out. Doctors demanded greater medical control over the institutions. And in the provincial legislature, the opposition Liberals, under their leader Honoré Mercier, sniped away at the contract system and the cost of supporting public patients in the asylums.

            The Conservative government of Premier J.J. Ross responded to this chorus of complaint in the spring of 1885 by introducing a new law to bring the operation of the asylums under stricter supervision, both government and medical. The law had several provisions but the one which especially infuriated asylum proprietors created medical boards of three doctors at each asylum with authority over admissions, discharges and medical treatment. Provincial Secretary Jean Blanchet told the legislature that the government wanted to relieve the owners of all responsibility for treatment and to place it in the hands of the medical profession. He acknowledged the criticisms of the farming out system, but argued that it was too expensive for the government to contemplate purchasing the asylums. Medical control was the next best thing.

            After passing through the legislature in May 1885 the new statute turned out to be both unpopular and unenforceable. Proprietors interpreted the law as an attack on their authority, which it was. The new medical boards would usurp control of the asylums, they argued. Moral treatment involved the meticulous creation of a total environment. It was impossible, the proprietors claimed, to distinguish treatment from administration. As well they feared that the boards, with their control of admissions, might exclude senile and mentally handicapped inmates. These patients were less expensive to care for than the acutely disturbed and the proprietors foresaw a steep decline in their revenues if the institutions became acute care facilities only. As a result the owners simply refused to cooperate with the new law, claiming it was in violation of the contracts they had with the government. The medical boards were blocked and frustrated at every opportunity.

            The proprietors had allies in their campaign against the 1885 law. At this time in Quebec, ultramontanism was a powerful force, not just in the Catholic Church but in politics as well. A conservative, nationalist ideology, ultramontanism championed the power of the church over the state. For ultramontanists, the asylum law was an attack on the rights of private property and, in the case of Longue Pointe where religious sisters ran the asylum, a barefaced attempt to exert state control over a religious institution. Louis-François Laflèche, the ultramontane bishop of Trois-Rivières, warned that once the asylums became government-run it was only a matter of time before the state seized control of the seminaries, the convents and the schools. “It is with this false principle of the all-powerful state,” the Bishop thundered, “that the French Revolution overthrew every religious institution in our Mother Country, France!” According to the ultramontane weekly paper La Verité [Truth], edited by the nationalist journalist Jules-Paul Tardivel, the government was attempting to make the proprietors servants of the state and to hand complete control of the asylums to the medical boards, members of which in years to come might be atheists, Jews, freemasons or Protestants. “Never,” proclaimed La Verité, “has our legislature proclaimed a principle as hateful, as subversive, as anti-social, as contrary to the rights of private ownership, to individual rights, to the rights of religious institutions.”

            Conservative Catholics such as Tardivel and Laflèche believed that much of the criticism of the asylums was based on the muckraking of Daniel Hack Tuke and they attacked him bitterly. Tuke was a liar and a fanatic, said L’Etendard, another ultramontane journal. He had invented absurd stories about conditions in the Quebec asylums to pander to the prejudices of the ignorant. His report was “an insult hurled in the face of the Canadian people.” Joseph-Charles Taché, brother of the Archbishop of Saint-Boniface, a doctor and a former inspector of the asylums, launched the most thorough refutation of Tuke. In a book-length attack, Taché accused Tuke of exaggeration and flights of fancy. He stated categorically, based on his many years of experience as an inspector, that Quebec asylums were second to none, in Canada or elsewhere. Taché concluded that Tuke’s assessment was “a diatribe and an absurd wickedness.” Obviously Tuke was anti-Catholic, and Taché suspected he was anti-French as well. These charges were echoed in some sections of the French-language press where Tuke, and the 1885 law, were pilloried as part of a conspiracy of freemasons and socialists to make over Quebec society. The issue of the asylums had become much more than a question of medical administration. They were now a battleground in the politico-religious war for the soul of the province.

            The asylum debate in Quebec took place in a wider context of political upheaval. In 1885 the trial and subsequent execution of Louis Riel tested traditional party affiliations in the province. Riel had been tried for treason in Regina following that spring’s uprising against Canadian rule in the Northwest. An all-Protestant, English-speaking jury found the Métis leader guilty and sentenced him to hang. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald faced a dilemma. He had the power to commute the death sentence, but if he did so he would face the wrath of a vengeful Ontario public who thought Riel was a traitor and a murderer who deserved his fate. In Quebec, on the other hand, Riel was seen more often as a defender of French-Catholic culture in western Canada and a victim of Anglo intolerance. Many Quebeçois believed the Métis had been provoked by unjust government policies. Others thought Riel was a religious madman carried away by his own delusions. Either way, he should not die and if Macdonald allowed it his political fortunes in Quebec would plummet. Honoré Mercier, the forty-five-year-old leader of the opposition in the provincial legislature, saw a way to take advantage of this volatile situation. Mercier, who had already staked out his position as a strong advocate of provincial autonomy, forged a new alliance between his Liberal Party and a faction of disaffected ultramontane Conservatives known as the “Castors”. Meanwhile, Macdonald had made his decision. On November 16 Riel hanged. Mercier spoke out against the execution of “our brother Riel” and against the arbitrary power of the federal government in general. After a year spent campaigning for a stronger Quebec within Confederation, he led his Liberals into a provincial election. The result was a dead heat, but when Mercier showed he had the support of the Castors he was sworn in as premier early in 1887.

As leader of the opposition, Mercier had raised Daniel Hack Tuke’s accusations in the legislature and condemned the farming out system. Now that he was premier, he could not afford to take such a dogmatic position. The 1885 law was not working, that much was clear. Quite possibly it violated contracts the government had previously signed with the proprietors. Premier Mercier had to satisfy elements in his own government who favoured, as he once had, outright public ownership of the asylums. At the same time, he had to mollify the Castors, who defended the proprietors against any attempt to usurp their control. Shortly after gaining office Mercier did what Canadian politicians invariably do in such a circumstance; he put off the decision by appointing a royal commission.

            The five-member Royal Commission on Lunatic Asylums of the Province of Quebec, chaired by Dr. J.A. Duchesneau, a leading Liberal and former prefect at Saint-Vincent de Paul Penitentiary, began its work in the fall of 1887. Visiting the Beauport and Longue Pointe asylums, the commissioners more or less confirmed what Daniel Hack Tuke had seen three years earlier. The wards were gloomy and overcrowded, they reported. Keepers were ill-trained and so slovenly in appearance that at times it was impossible to tell them from the inmates. There was as an “excessive use” of restraint devices -- “mittens, muffs, wristlets, jackets, waist belts, straight jackets in leather and cotton and crib beds” – and even worse, their use was left to the discretion of the warders. Some patients showed signs of having been beaten. Commissioners could find no treatment regime in use in the asylums. Exercise was neglected, as was productive work. The visiting physicians appointed by the government had no authority. In their report the commissioners recommended that the asylums should be subject to greater public scrutiny. At the same time they concluded that the 1885 law did violate prior contracts between the government and the proprietors. In the case of St-Jean-de-Dieu the government should renegotiate the contract to require more medical control over the nursing sisters and a larger staff. In the case of Beauport the commission suggested that the government buy it and allow a religious community to operate it “under the absolute control of a medical board.”  While condemning the farming out system in principle, therefore, the commission did not call for its eradication in practice. Public ownership was unnecessary, it argued, so long as medical control was enforced.

            The report of the royal commission failed to solve Premier Mercier’s political problem. He himself was on record as an opponent of farming out and a supporter of medical control. But his ultramontane allies opposed change. Their position was typified by one member of the legislature, Louis-Philippe Pelletier. Pelletier defended the asylums against their critics, claiming that so-called reformers were in reality just Protestant fanatics. Religious philanthropy was a Quebec tradition, he argued, and anyone who questioned the dedication and ability of the nursing sisters was an atheist and a materialist.


In the middle of these administrative changes, Longue Pointe, the asylum at the centre of the controversy, suffered a devastating fire. Just before noon on May 6, 1890, one of the lay sisters, Laura Larouche, noticed smoke leaking from beneath a door of a cupboard in one of the women’s wards on the third floor. She raised the alarm and John O’Rourke, an engineer at the asylum who had been attending to a piece of equipment on a lower floor, rushed upstairs and began to pour water on the flames, using one of the hoses that were installed throughout the building and fed from water tanks on the roof. But the fire was too entrenched. O’Rourke shouted to the nuns to telephone the city for help. At this point Dr. Edmond-Joseph Bourque, head of the medical staff, appeared and ordered O’Rourke to help evacuate women from the frantic ward in the upper storey. Flames were licking up the walls and spreading from room to room and thick smoke was billowing through the corridors. As the flames ate away at the structure, inner walls began to collapse in thundering clouds of cinder and ash.

            Unable to open the door to the upper ward, where an unknown number of women were trapped, O’Rourke decided to try climbing up the outside of the building. Hurrying down to the back yard, he met his brother James, who also worked at the asylum, and William Higgins, another member of the staff. Together the three men, equipped with an axe and rope, scaled the exterior wall, pulling themselves up the outside of the enclosed verandahs that led into each ward. When he reached the top floor, John O’Rourke smashed his way into the verandah and through a window into the building itself. Inside, many of the women were terrified and disoriented. “The patients absolutely refused to move,” O’Rourke told a newspaper reporter, “and fought us like wildcats. We, of course, devoted our attention to the more tractable ones and after great struggling got a woman to the verandah, tied a rope around her waist and lowered her to the ground.” But this method was going to take too much time. Instead the three men smashed holes in the floors of the verandahs at each level and began passing patients down in a human chain through the openings. “We had perhaps got ten or a dozen through when we saw we had about done all we could,” O’Rourke recalled, “for the heat was almost unbearable and the flames were scorching us.” As he turned to escape he looked back at one of the windows and saw the faces of several of the women pressed against the bars crying out for rescue. At this point O’Rourke himself was overcome by smoke and had to be pulled from the verandah. The women he saw did not get out.

            Meanwhile attempted rescues were going on in other parts of the burning asylum. The fire brigade had arrived from Montreal and its chief, Zéphirin Benoit, spotted a number of women clinging to the bars at a window on the fourth floor. Accompanied by the building’s boiler inspector, E.O. Champagne, Benoit hurried through the front entrance and climbed the main stairs, smashing through the locked doors at each floor until they reached the upper storey. Here they discovered a scene from hell. Forcing their way into one of the wards the two men came upon a crowd of women in straitjackets cowering back from the flames. By now the dense smoke made it almost impossible to breath and the flames were crackling up the walls and eating along the floorboards. Benoit and Champagne struggled to get to the women and managed to rescue six or seven before they had to retreat. Afterwards Benoit told a reporter what he had seen as he left. “He saw a ward with twenty or more women huddled in it up in a corner. The flames were between him and them. He tried to get in but could not. The flames rushed up to the women and caught their dresses. They put up their hands to their faces and cowered down. They must all have perished.”

A reporter for the Toronto Globe arrived outside the asylum and described what he saw. “The grounds before the house, on either side of the avenue, presented a piteous sight. Numbers of the unfortunate patients were wandering about the wet, sloppy grass and mud, amid piles of bedding, clothing and furniture that had been thrown out. Some were singing, some laughing and others wringing their hands, as if all that was dear to them in life was gone.” By four o’clock that afternoon nothing remained of the building but charred ruins.

Some of the survivors took shelter in the convent next door to the asylum where another reporter found them lying on muddy mattresses covered with half-burned blankets. “One old woman, seated on the floor, with her gray hair streaming over her wrinkled face, was moaning piteously and repeating between her sobs, ‘All is lost, all is lost’.” A steady stream of carriages arrived, bringing relatives from the city in search of survivors. The reporter watched as a brother and sister went from room to room in search of their lost sister, calling out her name as they scanned the blackened faces. In this instance, success. They found her in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, “and in an instant the two sisters, the sane and the insane, were clasped in each other’s arms, the tears streaming down their cheeks.”

            At the time of the fire Longue Pointe housed about 1,300 patients. It was later determined that eighty people died in the fire, almost all of them women, seventy-five patients and five nuns. Though many of them had been lost to the world for years, each was someone’s wife, mother, sister or daughter. Amid the chaos, the Daily Star reporter did what he could to identify the fatalities. The day after the fire he wrote: “The following inmates of the woman’s furious ward were seen at the barred windows, with flames around them, and are known to have perished: Mrs. Kelly, of Montreal, wife of a carter; Mrs. Williams, of Halifax; a Montreal woman known to the attendants as Bridget, whose surname is either Malone or Maloney, and a Miss Letourney, of Maisonneuve or Hochelaga. Mrs. Conroy, who was supposed to have perished, has turned up. Enquiries have been made as to the whereabouts of two inmates of the boys’ ward, one an epileptic, the other an idiot. Neither can be found. [They may have run away; several patients fled into the woods during the fire and were not found for several months.] The disaster has thrown several patients into a very critical condition. One named Quinn died yesterday, while the fire was raging. Another, Duquette, died in the evening. The last rites of the church were today administered to a man named Labreque and another…. Miss Theriault, sister of Mr. Tessier, of Notre Dame Street West, and Mrs. Scullen, wife of a Griffintown grocer, are now conceded to be dead. The nuns notified the friends of these two women to this effect this afternoon. Among other inmates of the furious and infirm wards missing are: Victoria Beaudry, Augustine Lacrois, Camille Lachance, Euselse Marchmont, Delphine Archambault, Marie St. Denis, Elle St. Louis, Christine Demers.”

            At an inquest held into the fire the asylum’s director, Sister Thérèse de Jésus, testified that as far as anyone could determine the fire was started by one of the female patients who several times previously had tried to kill herself by lighting her bed on fire and throwing herself on top of it. No one could explain, given this history, how she obtained matches or why she was left unattended. In the official history of the institution, written by A.[Antoine] Bellay and published two years after the fire, blame for the loss of life is placed squarely on the victims themselves. They behaved irrationally, wrote Bellay, and resisted the efforts to rescue them. He said nothing of the locked doors and patients in straitjackets unable to escape. The coroner’s inquest concluded that the fire was “probably” set by a patient and made a series of recommendations intended to improve the safety of asylum inmates.

            For people critical of the farming out system the fire at Longue Pointe simply confirmed their opposition. Three weeks after the fire the Montreal Herald editorialized: “By that improper mode of caring, or rather not caring, for the afflicted, it is made the interest of contractors to keep patients as long as possible, to discourage curative efforts, and to be blind to the recovery of an insane person. It places the contractors in the position of being losers by the discharge of a patient, and therefore gainers by retaining all once confided to them whether sane or insane. It makes it to be the interest of the contractors to provide only the absolute necessaries of life to the unfortunate people, and to do this in the cheapest possible way.”

But despite its critics, and its drawbacks, the government retained the farming out system. Premier Mercier had to compromise with his hard line ultramontanist supporters. In effect, he shelved the report of the royal commission. He took no steps to bring the institutions under greater public control. The Herald had been correct; the alternative to private ownership was simply too expensive. Still, Mercier remained committed to medical control and he announced that when the current contracts with the proprietors expired new contracts would make sure that the government had full medical authority over the asylums. If the current proprietors did not accept this condition then the government would find new ones who did. And this is in fact what happened, though Mercier did not survive in power to see it. (A scandal over railway financing brought down his government in 1891.) In 1893 the Sisters of Charity at Quebec purchased the Beauport institution for $425,000 and signed a contract with the government agreeing to care for public patients in return for a per capita subsidy of $100. At Longue Pointe the nuns also signed a new contract.

The controversy surrounding the administration of Quebec mental hospitals ended with a compromise. Ownership remained in private hands and the farming out system continued, principally because the government was unwilling to spend the money necessary to purchase the facilities. At the same time, medical authority over the care and treatment of hospital inmates by doctors responsible to the government was secured. Whether or not this would result in an improvement to the horrific conditions described by Daniel Hack Tuke and others, time would tell.