There ain’t no sanity clause

It was Chico Marx who came out with this memorable play on words, way back in 1935 in the Marx Brothers film “A Night At The Opera.” Chico was playing his usual street-wise Italian-American immigrant character when conniving Groucho asked him to sign a contract containing a “Sanity Clause.” In Chico-speak, the full reply was:

“You can’t a fool a me; there ain’t no Sanity Clause”

Decades ago, mental illness was not understood, and thus assessed and treated in bizarre ways. There is still lots to learn about brain diseases and their triggers, but thankfully the general condition is now accepted as biological fact and not some sign of weakness of character. Without wishing to belittle the sufferers of modern-day mental illness (or their admirable carers), I found the detailed analysis of the inmates of a Lunatic Asylum in 1882 [shown below] to be both amusing and illuminating.

1882 Insanity ReportMy observations are:

  • The death of a wife does not make men mad.
  • Domestic trouble can sometimes lead to a sex-change.
  • Prison life can be exciting for some men.
  • Too much study is bad for boys, and over-taxing the brain can lead to death.
  • You can recover from working too hard – or die.
  • Women can be excited by the Religious Orders, but men can get over this.
  • Do not worry about being diagnosed as insane or you will stop worrying forever.
  • Men cannot suffer from amennorhea – period.
  • In 1882, brain disease only affected 1 in 228 Lunatic Asylum inmates.
  • The “Change of Life” is as bad as amennorhea – period.
  • The “Change of Life” is as bad as the climate in India.
  • Congenital brain diseases have nothing to do with genitalia – fact.
  • Male heirs are only half as mad as female heirs.
  • Don’t let hyperlactation get on your tits – both made a recovery.
  • Don’t get mad drunk too often; you could end up in the Salvation Army hostel.
  • I think it says that you can recover from masturbation. My eyesight is bad.
  • Some old women are plain daft … well, one was.
  • If you are predisposed to thinking you are insane, you probably are.
  • Premature Conservatives are infantile, and harmless.
  • The Puerperal State is full of crazy women.
  • Sun-beds are safe for females.
  • After all of this analysis, we are clueless about 40% of the asylum’s inmates.

In 1882, only a quarter of this selection of institutionalized mental patients died in their sanatorium; a better survival rate than hospitals of the day dealing with chronic diseases. And this study group stood a better chance of recovery than their peers diagnosed with purely physical symptoms in the Workhouses. Madness? Even the Victorians knew that mental ailments were not contagious. Perhaps it was wiser to feign insanity than to be incarcerated alongside really sick people … a bit like the Public Health Service today.


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