Mrs Catherine Cumming was a wealthy woman and well-known in Victorian society. However, her popularity fell when her personal life became the topic of gossip and rumour.
Her daughter, Thomasine, was engaged to a man of whom Catherine disapproved. She forbade Thomasine to marry him but, with her sister’s help, Thomasine went ahead with the marriage.
Catherine’s relationships with her daughters never recovered from this, and the forbidden marriage was to be the catalyst for many of the problems that followed.
On May 12, 1846, two women and two policemen forced their way into Catherine’s home. They hauled 66-year-old Catherine out of the house and into a carriage which took her to York House Asylum, near Battersea.
Catherine firmly believed that her daughters and their husbands were to blame for her current circumstances. It was not uncommon for relatives to find themselves locked away by members of their own families, particularly if they stood to gain a large inheritance from it, and Catherine was estimated to be worth £30,000.
In the hopes of proving that she was sane, Catherine had to endure an inquisition, which took place at the Horns Tavern near Kennington Common.
Catherine was accused of having ‘unnatural’ hatred for her children and grandchildren. At the time, many believed that any flaw in a mother's affection for her children was an indicator of moral insanity.
When questioned, Catherine was lucid and composed.
Eventually the inquisition was abandoned as the interested parties had supposedly reached an arrangement.
Catherine was released from York House Asylum. The inquisition had cost her over £5,000.
Her family, however, were not prepared to give up. They approached the Lord Chancellor and the Commissioners in Lunacy with another request that Catherine be sent to an asylum.
Three days after an examination into the state of Catherine’s mind, she was once again bundled from her home and taken to an asylum, this time to Effra Hall in Brixton.
Shortly after, Catherine’s second lunacy inquisition began, at the Eyre Arms pub in St John’s Wood. Of the 19 doctors who attended, 10 claimed that Catherine was of unsound mind, while the remaining nine declared that she was able to take care of herself and her affairs.
One of the doctors asked to give evidence was Dr Edward Thomas Monro, who lived in Bushey for much of his life. Monro was a veteran of 400 such hearings, and in only two cases had the jury ever returned a verdict that was at odds with his evidence.
More than two weeks later the jury finally delivered their verdict: Catherine was of unsound mind, and had been for some time.
Catherine was spared the indignity of incarceration in an asylum as she was considered too old and unwell. She was allowed to return home instead.
However, she was not going to take the verdict lying down.
Within a week Catherine had petitioned the Lord Chancellor for a denial of the findings of the inquisition, which would allow her to manage her own affairs pending a third inquisition.
The Lord Chancellor himself visited her home to establish her state of mind and found her entirely rational and composed.
Catherine’s last year of life was punctuated by visits from doctors, lawyers and commissioners.
She died on Midsummer's Day, 1853, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Her daughters inherited her estate, but Catherine had rigged the inheritance, leaving the two women to deal with the attention of several creditors.
Catherine’s case caused a debate as there was no single definition of insanity. If 19 doctors could not agree on whether a woman was insane or not, what was to keep them from mistaking a sane individual for an insane one, or vice versa?
The concerns raised by Catherine’s case – and several similar ones that followed – led to the lunacy panic of 1858. The newspapers of that year were full of frightening stories of sane Englishmen and –women being locked up in lunatic asylums.