Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Home is the Sailor - The end of Laurence O'Toole's life

I will get to writing about John O'Toole soon, but in the meantime there's this.

When you set sail for adventure, you have to be prepared for anything. You have to be prepared to discover the unexpected (sort of the point, really). And you have to be prepared to discover unpleasant or sad things, along with the exciting and thrilling. I must admit, when I went to NSW State Archives to look at William O'Toole's Mental Hospital records I was prepared for sad, I was prepared for unpleasant. I wasn't prepared for something of a surprise. Well, I was, but not for the one I got. On the Schedule to have William declared insane was a questionnaire about his mental health history, including a query regarding other members of the family with a mental illness. Or more precisely, “Has he any insane relative?”

Yes, his father died in an asylum.”

This was something I felt compelled to pursue. There was just time after I had gone through ALL of William's records for a request for Laurence's records. The staff at State Records are brilliant. The woman who was taking care of me was assistance personified and had acquainted herself well with the records. So, when Laurence's file proved hard to find she was able to make some educated guesses of where it should be and where it may be (not the same thing as it turned out). If you are considering a visit to NSW State Archives and haven't taken the plunge, don't be daunted. You will not regret the experience.

As I wrote previously about Laurence, he died in Callan Park. There was nothing on the death certificate to indicate he had died in the asylum section. In 1882 Callan Park was in a transition phase. It had been an asylum with a hospital wing which also took in medical patients from Balmain, Lilyfield and surrounds. Major building works had begun a couple of years earlier to make Callan Park a dedicated asylum, to alleviate pressure on Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum (Gladesville Hospital), where, incidentally, Laurence's brother-in-law, George Puzey, had died in 18631. Building was completed between late 1882 and early 1883 (for the fate of hospital patients in the area, you'll have to wait until I write up John O'Toole).

There was not much to Laurence's file - the admission papers and a few entries in the case book. It was his wife who had him committed. Interestingly, she referred to herself as “Annie”. I have seen this before on some of the birth and death certificates for her children. So from now on I think I will refer to her as Annie. If nothing else it will help me distinguish between herself and her mother, Ann ni Allen.

Callan Park. Image from State Archives of NSW.
Laurence was admitted on 4 September, 1882, suffering from senile dementia. He was married and had seven children, the youngest of whom was six. His place of origin was yet again frustratingly listed only as “Ireland” and his religious persuasion was “Protestant (Christadelphian)”. He had been suffering his current condition for six months, and presented as a danger. The admission file gave a few details about this – he had been wandering about the house most nights and had threatened to kill his wife. Laurence frequently sobbed and cried and complained of “great weakness”. He was certified insane under the Lunacy Act of 1878.

I'll quote from the case book for those who are interested.

1882 September 6th - On Admission. Patient is a tall, old-looking man of fair complexion and few teeth. His arteries are torturous and somewhat cordy but heart sounds are normal. His mental condition is one of Dementia Senile, with many delusions, e.g., he says he owns a ship and was captain of her till lately where he resigned in favour of his father whose age he gives as about 50 years2. He does not know where he is, how long he has been here and has no idea of the month or day. His legs are Ĺ“dematous and he is thin, not in strong bodily health but takes food well, lies quietly in bed and sleeps a good deal both day and night.
Patient's attack is said to have lasted six months. The medical certificates state that he suffered from strange delusions and was unable to converse rationally. He wandered about the house most of the night, attempted to set fire to the house and threatened to kill his wife... His wife states that he has been fairly hard drinker when at sea and has led a pretty hard life.3
I asked a member of the family with a medical background (he even worked in Callan Park for a number of years) about Laurence, and he offered the following facts and observations. "Ĺ’dematous means swollen and puffy with fluid. It is a symptom of a number of disorders. While the alcohol abuse in Laurence's past may have contributed to his condition, it is more likely that this was “just” serious but early senile dementia"4.

On 13 September, the note in the case book said Laurence was “looking somewhat better”. On 20 September “He is picking up”. But then on the 21st he got the first attack of diarrhoea. Despite “active treatment” it continued and Laurence weakened. He succumbed at 3pm on 27 September 1882.

There was a practice at Callan Park and other institutions for the patients to work in the kitchen and diaorrhea was a not uncommon result5. It is somewhat bitterly ironic that Laurence's improvement may have been what killed him. Having said this, it is worth mentioning that Callan Park was, in its early days, a very progressive place. The insane were to be pitied and the emphasis was on healing where possible. If patients were deemed capable they were given jobs to do, to keep them occupied and give them a sense of purpose (hence the patients in the kitchen). If we were to look at the full range of treatments, we may now consider some to be harsh, but they were humane by Victorian standards. It is no coincidence that the Hospital included airy verandahs with seats, the buildings surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens (all within a high stone wall), with adjoining rolling parklands.

"The New Hospital for the Insane" by Arthur de Collingridge for Sydney Illustrated News, 1882. Image from The Antique Print Room

However, by 1900 the emphasis had shifted and Callan Park had become little better than a prison, with a very punitive regime. This occurred due to a shift in public and political opinion (the two often go hand-in-hand) that the insane were somehow to blame for their condition, that they were "bad" and must be punished. But when Laurence was there it was still in its early phase, so I am sure he got the best care the hospital could manage. Unfortunately it was not enough, and Laurence, like George Puzey, left an asylum in a box. 

Annie was yet again on her own, this time with eight children (Joseph was Matthew Anthony's child, not Laurence's, hence the discrepency on the admission form), four of them under 15. Laurence's “pretty hard life” had ended. Annie's had just got tougher.

ADDENDUM - I was talking to a friend about Laurence and she made the observation of how differently we treat senile dementia now. These days Laurence would have been treated in a hospital and when he recovered sufficiently he would be sent to a nursing home. Hygiene standards in hospitals and homes are much higher, so I like to think he'd have a much better chance of surviving. 

1  Lawrence Susan, Davies Peter, “An Archaeology of Australia since 1788” , Springer, 2010, p. 317
2  My personal opinion is that this may not be as crazy as it sounds. It could be a garbled memory rather than an outright delusion. It requires looking into. I also wonder if the non-existent businesses were also garbled memories of places he worked when in England, but there is no way to check this as the businesses are not recorded in the file.
3 State Archives of NSW, Callan Park Mental Asylum Case papers, 3/4652A, f.235
4  Email from James McCallum to Megan Hitchens, 4 March 2014
5  Ibid.

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