Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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‘Tales of Wonder and Horror’: Coverage of insanity in the Leeds press, 1808-1840

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posted on 2021-11-22, 01:03 authored by Kryssova, Evgeniya

The press was at the centre of the reform of the meaning of insanity, during its evolution from an equivocal eighteenth-century concept of melancholia to a medicalised Victorian notion of ‘lunacy’. During the late Georgian era newspapers provided a public forum for the opinion of newly emerging psychiatric practitioners and fostered the fears and concerns about mental illness and its supposed increase. The press was also the main source of news on crime, providing readers with reports on criminal insanity and suicide. In the first half of the nineteenth century, newspaper contents included official legal reports, as well as editorial commentary and excerpts from other publications, and newspaper articles can rarely be traced to one single author. Historians of British insanity avoid consulting periodical literature, choosing to use asylum records and coroners’ reports, as these sources are more straightforward than newspapers. However, Rab Houston’s recent study of the coverage of suicide in the north of Britain shows that the provincial press has been unjustly overlooked and can offer the material for a unique social analysis. Asylum records and coroners’ records do not contain the same detail provided in the press. Newspaper commentary can arguably reveal contemporary attitudes towards insanity and, moreover, sources such as asylum records only deal with the lower-class patients, as the middle- and upper-class insane were usually privately detained.  This thesis examines the press coverage of insanity in Leeds newspapers, and expands on previous research by looking at the way insanity was portrayed in the two most popular publications in the industrial region of Yorkshire: the Leeds Intelligencer and the Leeds Mercury. Chapter one focuses on legal cases that featured a verdict of insanity and explores the language used by the press in the reports of, mainly, violent domestic crime. Chapter two looks at reports of suicide and considers how contemporary views on financial and moral despondency influenced the portrayal of self-murder. Chapter three considers editorial articles that cannot be described as either crime or suicide reports. This chapter uncovers the presence of surprisingly humorous and entertaining articles on insanity found in editorials and the ‘Miscellany’ sections of the newspapers. Ultimately, this thesis argues that the reportage of insanity in the Leeds press was sensational, moralistic and selectively sympathetic; furthermore, such portrayal of insanity was reinforced throughout the body of the paper. Leeds newspapers segregated the insane by adopting a moralising tone and by choosing to use class-specific language towards the insane of different social ranks.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Wallace, Valerie