Adventures in Research: Master in Lunacy

Posted by ractrose on 4 Oct 2014 in Nonfiction

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My Curious Reading

Adventures in Research
Master in Lunacy







One of the excellent job titles from the days when it mattered whether you were an imbecile or an idiot.


From the Taunton Courier and Western Advisor of 5 July, 1882: “Alleged Insanity of a Somerset Gentleman”

The gentleman on examination was a man of property, whose wife had petitioned the Commission of Lunacy to declare him “of unsound mind”, allowing her to “protect her husband’s assets”. A Mr. Nicholson, Master in Lunacy, presided over the Commission, comprising nineteen jurymen. Mr. Fraser, the accused, gave testimony in response to his wife’s statement that he “heard voices from invisible beings”. He agreed he did. Admitting the voices, however, he said also that he didn’t mind them. He felt in control.

The jury was divided. Eight voted for insanity; eleven felt Mr. Fraser’s mind to be sound…if, presumably, individual. The Master in Lunacy said twelve votes in favor of sanity were required. One juror came over to the other side; Mr. Fraser was declared “of sound mind”.




The Windham Case



William Frederick Windham, 1840-1866


From The Great Lunacy Case of Mr. W. F. Windham, 1862



  • General Windham, uncle to William Frederick Windham, was the bringer (with others) of the suit to have his nephew declared incompetent.
  • The object was to prevent his squandering his inheritance. The counterclaim was that the General wanted to gain the property, Fellbrigg Hall, for himself, and objected to W. F.’s marriage. The estate was located in Norfolk.
  • His father’s brother and his stepmother had been appointed guardians at his father’s death; he had been sent away to school, and was briefly in the military.
  • Windham was twenty-one at time of the trial.
  • The testimony centered on strange and alarming behaviors; Windham’s alleged substandard intellect.


“There was this extraordinary defect of mind; he did not know the difference between truth and falsehood. He was in the habit of uttering the most transparent untruths, and Mr. Cheales [his tutor] would tell them it was utterly impossible to place the slightest reliance on what he said.”


The Great Lunacy Case of Mr. W. F. Windham, Reported by a Solicitor, 1862



  • Other witnesses reported: Temper fits, abuse of animals, gluttony, “dirty personal habits”.
  • In its day, the Windham case was cited as the longest trial in British history (34 days).
  • He was married to Agnes Willoughby, a schemer, if not a fortune-hunter.
  • Questioned privately, “[He] was reported to have answered all questions put to him unhesitatingly, straightforwardly, coherently, and consequentially.”


That Mr. Windham has been a thoughtless devil-may-care young fellow, may be gathered from our notes of the trial; that he was anything else the jury have denied. And we perfectly agree with them, notwithstandmg the bullying sophistry of Mr. Chambers, Q.C. That we may never see him in such a position as for the last two or three weeks he has enjoyed is, for his sake, our best wish. If, over this sad waste of money and reputation any man has gained credit, it is Sir Hugh Cairns; so, also, has Mr. Karslake. And we heartily congratulate them on their triumph. One regret we must express, and that is, for the great expense attendant on this trial. Probably Mr. Windham’s estate will be mulcted in the sum of £20,000. But there is one good this will do, it will draw the eyes of all to the iniquitous system—and so, we hope, out of evil good will come.






Mrs. Windham’s Appearance


This young lady is of a rather charming appearance, of the height a man most likes. Her hair is very light in colour and her eyes are a fine blue. Her “carriage” is indicative of energy and self-confidence, but when in perfect repose she is very fascinating—heightened as the charms are by an elegant costume, in which taste and neatness conspire to assist the natural grace of the wearer. Altogether, she is a young lady calculated to set wiser heads than that of Windham “spinning.” As to her previous history a great deal has been, and could still be said; but we are not writing a life of Miss Willoughby—we are simply recording the main features of the greatest “case” that has been heard of in modern days.






Durham Co. Advertiser, February 9, 1866



Having procured for himself a suit of clothes, he for some time insisted on travelling as guard on a line of railway in the neighbourhood of Norwich, but his latest project, we believe, has been that of a stage coach, of which he was alike proprietor and driver.


[Excerpt from Windham obituary, account of his last eccentricities.]


Windham died at twenty-five; the cause was found to be a blood clot in the pulmonary artery. Heavy drinking may have played a role.




USK Observer, February 8, 1862



Where are we to stop if we allow a jury to take away a man’s property whenever those who think they have a chance of inheriting it are dissatisfied with the manner in which he is using or abusing it? Life would not be worth having if a man could be tracked by spies, all his follies noted down, all his bargains criticised, all his vices registered, and if the whole accumulation, exaggerated, perhaps, by some spice of perjury, could be brought forward at any moment and placed before a jury by persons interested in depriving him of his property and his liberty.


[Excerpt from article above, a sensible conclusion.]




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