Sunday, 23 March 2014

William O'Toole - His Antic Disposition

William O'Toole and asylums, the reason for my trek into the wilds of Kingswood. And by the way, don't rely on for directions to NSW State Records Office. It hasn't a clue. Just go down the Great Western Highway until you get to the intersection with O'Connell St, turn left and follow the road around. There. Is that so difficult? Next time I need to go somewhere new I shall revert to my usual practice and use a map.

There is also the matter of closed and open files. Mental Health files in NSW are closed for 110 years. So I could publish the entirety of William's file prior to 1904 if I so desired, but anything after that is another matter. I may not mention the names of doctors or staff, I may not mention the names of other patients. I may not publish documents on a public space. I have to be circumspect in what I mention, reveal or discuss. Hopefully the last part of this post will not be too disjointed.
Mental Health is never straight forward, and the picture from William's files is incomplete, but there is enough to work out what was going on. William had been suffering from epilepsy from the age of 21. Initially it was just fits, but somewhere between 1879 (when they started) and 1891 that changed. He was fine when he wasn't fitting, but after each seizure he was violent, aggressive and manic. William also became very restless, roaming the streets and pacing wildly, often with Bible in hand. I don't know if the change was gradual or sudden. What I do know is that he was admitted to Callan Park Asylum on 2 Aug 1894 for "Epileptic Insanity". On admission he was violent and threatening, shouting, and claiming that he was speaking with the voice of God. Archer went with William and Emily to Callan Park and helped with the admission process and said that William had “been this way for hours”. William assaulted one of the doctors, pinching and kicking him and ejecting him from the room. He claimed he was subject to a miracle, his epilepsy was cured. This was not a desperate bid to be freed. He really did believe this.

Over the next few weeks he showed improvement and despite still fitting from time to time was not violent or threatening after seizures. The fitting effected his memory and made him "dull and stupid". At the "request of friends" he was discharged on 18 September 1894, against the better judgement of the doctors and, it later turned out, Emily's wishes. He was readmitted for assessment on 6 March 1896.

When I found the newspaper advertisement seeking a hairdresser for O'Toole Bros., dated 6 Oct 1894, I had initially thought it was just to replace Benjamin (whose story I WILL get to). Now I wonder if it was for another purpose as well. The ad is not for an assistant, but for a hairdresser. Had it been deemed wise for someone else to take over the whole scissors and cut-throat division of the business?

Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1894, p.16. From Trove

The files for what was to be William's lasting institutionalisation make up the vast bulk of his records. Basically, despite showing improvement in hospital, once out William deteriorated. He became more deranged and aggressive after fits and more easily agitated between them. Noise and movement were big triggers for him. Elsie was three when William was admitted this time. I cannot imagine how awful life must have been for Emily. She was living with a time bomb that could be triggered by their infant child merely behaving as children will.

I now have a better idea of the timetable for William's mental illness. There are police reports contained therein stating that William had been known to them in direct relation to his mental health for the five years previous to his 1896 admission. I quote directly:

"Wm Sinclair, Senior Constable NSW Police Force states: He has known patient for the last five years to be the subject of severe epileptic fits. He becomes abusive and quarrelsome without cause and on one occasion two policemen had to be left with him all night to prevent him from injuring his wife and child. After a fit he wanders from home and becomes violent"1.

The doctors at Callan Park listed William as being a danger to himself and others and likely to commit a criminal act. He was rambling and incoherent and again claiming to be the voice of God. His tongue and body were covered in scars caused by injury during seizures.

Anyone who has had to deal with mental illness, either directly or because of family members, will tell you that by the time police are involved there is a lot that has gone on at home, contained behind closed doors, often for years. Mental illness had an even bigger stigma attached to it back then than it does now, so everyone would have worked to keep things quiet, all the while with William's best interests at heart, including Emily. It would have been a heartbreaking decline and in the end it would have been a living hell for everyone, but especially for Emily and for William when he was lucid, and, my god, for Elsie. She was only a small child. It must have been terrifying for her.

So there was William in Callan Park. He was a danger, he did need containment. But he also needed treatment, which is where it got complicated. Believing himself to be cured, he saw no need for treatment. He often ignored doctors, and refused all medication. William firmly believed that he “is put away so that his wife may spend his money” and he was very suspicious of “everyone about him”. Prior to his certification on 20 March, 1896 he was having three to four seizures a day, some listed as severe2. He wrote long, rambling letters full of “incoherent statements and exclamations”. On 24 March 1896 William O'Toole was formally admitted as a patient at Callan Park and placed in Ward 4.

The family was split over what to do. Emily, understandably, wanted William kept where he was. She was the one on the front line, she had a child to think of, and I absolutely back her to the hilt. Annie, on the other hand, wanted her boy released. I think she was wrong, and so did the doctors, thank goodness. However, I can see it from her point of view. She had already lost two infant children, she had only recently nursed an adult son as he died a slow and hideous death, her first husband had died of disease in a far off place, and her second husband had gone into Callan Park, where William now was, and had come out, three weeks later, in a box. She must have been terrified for William. There is a letter in the file from Annie, requesting interviews with William's doctors, and notes between doctors discussing her interviews with them. On the reverse of Annie's letter is scribbled (as only doctors can) “I have seen Mrs Leake & explained to her that Mr O'Toole is not safe to be at large”. There is also a file note:

"On the first occasion, pressure was brought to bear on wife by his relations to induce her to take him out, which she did with much misgiving, after two months residence here.

His wife and mother appear not to agree very well and the old trouble is brewing again. They meet here occasionally and squabble over him in his presence.

Dr. Manning"3

As far as I can glean, Archer thought William was where he should be, but some others in the family were siding with Annie (I don't know whom). James wrote years later saying that there was still disagreement in the family over William's situation. Smart man, he requested, in writing, a final ruling so as to settle the matter for everyone concerned. The doctor patiently explained that William's release was highly unlikely and there was no more correspondence on the matter. I doubt that did really settle things, but it would have made further family discussion pointless, which is a resolution in its own way.

William struck a fellow patient on 31 March, but then settled down. The number of seizures went up and down. Sometimes he was agitated, sometimes quiet. But as the year wore on his condition worsened. On 26 November, 1896, William was sitting on a verandah at Callan Park. William was by this stage in a very bad way. He couldn't tolerate any noise, he was frequently violent to the other inmates and to the staff. He was suspicious of everyone and especially of Emily. There were other patients on the verandah that day, some sitting quietly, one sweeping, and amongst them Bartolomeo Vuskovitch.

The Kirkbride Complex at Callan Park, with verandah around. The smoke stack is for the laundry. Photo from Our Excursions blog by Kevin (
Vuskovitch was another manic and was pacing the verandah and muttering. William sat for a while and then suddenly jumped up, accusing the man of insulting him and grabbing the broom from the inmate who was sweeping. He hit Vuskovitch repeatedly with the broom and then tried to hit the staff member who had rushed over. William was subdued and placed in "seclusion" (I assume that means solitary confinement)4. Vuskovitch died as a result of his injuries on 4 December, 1896. An inquest deemed William guilty of wilful murder and on 8 December he was transferred to the Criminal Mental Hospital in Parramatta.

For the fortnight following the attack William was very agitated and “full of religious delusions”. He showed no remorse for his actions, stating that Vuskovitch was no longer dead as he (William) had seen and heard him, and anyway, William himself had been dead and was raised again by the Lord. He was also annoyed that he was not being taken to the gallows as it would have been a perfect opportunity to deliver a sermon on truth. He also believed it was “God's wish for him to put Vuskovitch out of his trouble”, and claimed he saw visions, including one on the parable of the fig tree5. He frequently smiled while discussing his attack on Vuskovitch6

By January 1897 William had settled down. He was very quiet. Emily visited regularly and William "anticipates her visits with pleasure". The seizures had for the time being lessened, but by October of that year they were increasing in frequency and William was again being described as abusive and dangerous.

Over the years Emily ceased to visit, as did many others in the family. Eventually his youngest brother, James, was the only regular visitor, and William wrote a directive in 1911 asking that his title deeds and his Bible be given to James. He didn't have control over any deeds but his letters in the files are often filled with delusions. Some are very hard to follow. In 1917 William was transferred to the free part of Parramatta, as it was recognised that he would never be fit to stand trial. Some of the entries after this state that he was single. The hospital records show him to be married, so I am guessing that these errors were made by staff who thought he must be thus because of Emily's absence. I in no way blame her or any of the O'Toole boys for this. William was frequently aggressive, threatening, violent, suspicious. He is described more than once as "untrustworthy", although without explanation of how or why (I don't doubt it, I am just curious). If you go to visit someone in this situation, you are subjected to rants, accusations, shouting, threats, and demands and/or begging to be released. I admire James for his ability to keep visiting. William was 37 when he went in the final time and 61 when he died. No wonder Emily stopped going. It would have been absolutely heartbreaking.

William went up and down. There were times when he was quiet, times when he was violent. He always refused to do any work and was very easily upset. At one point his tibea was fractured in a scuffle caused by another inmate offering him some bread (William threw a basin at him in response and then it was on for young and old). There are mad letters, difficult to follow, some short, some going on for pages. The sentences are often incomplete and William jumps from one subject to another, but the ghist is always the same – he is cured of his epilepsy, he needs to be released. In one letter, William offered the superintendant £5 along with an assurance to forgive and forget all he had visited on William.

In 1917 there was another assessment made of William's state and on 26 March it was decided that there would be no further proceedings against him. He had been in the hospital for 20 years and was still insane, so the prosecution for Vuskovitch's death was dropped. This must have caused anguish for Vuskovitch's family, but William was never going to be fit to stand trial. William was transferred to the free part of the Parramatta Hospital.

Parramatta Hospital for the Insane, c 1900 NRS 5598. NSW State Records

Over the next two years William's fits grew increasingly severe and his ability to recover from them grew less and less. He was clearly going downhill.

1919 was not a good year in New South Wales. The Great War had ended and soldiers were coming home to their families, but they brought with them the Spanish flu. The resulting epidemic killed about 6000 people in this state alone. In some areas the flu accounted for half of all deaths7. Parramatta Hospital was not immune. The flu raged through the wards, keeping doctors working around the clock. In the midst of all this, on the night of 26 June, 1919, William had yet another seizure. He was found dead about 8pm, his body on his bed, his head resting on his left elbow on the floor. His bed did not have a bedstead “for purpose of security”. There were no signs of foul play, no marks, no obstruction to his airways. The doctor who was called to William's room (from the influenza ward) suspected heart failure “at the beginning of an epileptic seizure”. He referred the matter to the Coroner. There was no post mortem and the Coroner decided against an inquest.

John O'Toole signed for the body of his brother, directing it to be given to Francis Morris and Company, Parramatta, for burial in Rookwood Necropolis, while James wrote to the Hospital asking for full details of William's death. William was buried next to his mother. There is no headstone on William's grave, although there is a lot of space on Annie's, so I wonder if the plan was to eventually put William's details there.

After William died, it took nine months for the Asylum to confirm his death in writing to Emily. She was by this time in the Church of England Home in Glebe Point (on Forsyth street. It is now a block of flats). There is a note on file, dated 9 September, 1913, listing the addresses of Emily and Elsie. Emily was at that time "C/- Mrs Grainger, Parramatta Road, Ryde" and Elsie was "C/- Mrs. James Killian, Manly" (ie, Fanny ni Butler, Emily's sister). The asylum sent a telegram to Emily care of Mrs Grainger and then left the matter. The doctor when he wrote to Emily explained about the flu epidemic and said that that was probably why he hadn't thought to chase the matter up. The poor woman found out because the Matron of the hospital rang the Asylum at Emily's request in March 1920 to find out how William was.

There are so many questions raised by this. I cannot work out why none of the O'Tooles had told her. Had they lost touch? Had they lost track? Was it deliberate? Was it accidental? Why was Emily in a Home with a Matron? Why had she not enquired after William for nine months? Why had Elsie and Fanny not told her? Had they been informed? Why was Elsie living with Fanny in 1913, rather than with Emily? Had the O'Tooles “given up” on her because she had “given up” on William? More questions than answers, and I doubt now that I will ever get to the bottom of this.

And it gets worse. While writing this last part I have realised that Emily died in Newington State Hospital, described in State Records as an “Asylum for the Destitute and Infirm”. So I shall be requesting permission to look at her files. At least I have proven my relationship to her, so it shouldn't take long. Why did everyone abandon Emily?

Elsie married Clifford Atkinson in Marrickville on 12 February, 1916. They had one child that I so far know of – William James Atkinson, born on 14 August, 1922 and named for Elsie's father and for the uncle who never gave up on him.

1  3/3339 no.3590 – 62 William O'Toole medical file. NSW State Records, accessed 1 March 2014

2 11/2160 Darlinghurst Medical Case Book no. 88, William O'Toole, 6 March 1896. NSW State Records, accessed 1 March 2014

3  3/3339 no.3590 – 62 William O'Toole medical file. NSW State Records, accessed 1 March 2014

4  3/7047 Medical Journal – confinement register. 26 November 1896 – 4 December 1896. NSW State Records, accessed 1 March 2014

5  Whether this is the parable of the budding fig tree (Luke 21:29-33, amongst others) or the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) is not stated.

6  Medical Certificate to accompany Order or Request for Reception into an Hospital for the Insane or Licensed House, William O'Toole, 8 December 1896, conatined in 12/825 no.6643, Case Papers, Parramatta Hospital, from December 1896, NSW State Records, accessed 1 March, 2014

7  “Influenza Epidemic of 1919”, Online Museum and Archive, Sydney Medical School, the University of Sydney, 2014 ( accessed 23 March 2014

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