Restraining Confinement in Early America

Confinement has always had a certain Romantic quality in the public imagination. Or perhaps Gothic. Whether fictional, as in Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre, semi-fictional, as with the “Man in the Iron Mask,” or factual – think of the depredations of Bedlam asylum – the threat of confinement, being forcefully restrained in a single place, even a single room, offers perhaps the highest dramatic “stakes” after the threat of death. Given that confinement has a lingering hold on our imagination, when I tell people that I study cognitive disability in early America, a common response is: “Didn’t they just lock them up?” Confinement was a rare response to “madness” in early America, my reply begins, but then I pause. Why was confinement rare? Conventional explanations offered by historians, I feel, are unsatisfactory. This blog post’s purpose is to articulate why that is and propose a new way of thinking about responses to madness in early America, with confinement properly restrained.

Quote reads: "Madness (signs of.) A redness of the eyes, grinding of the teeth, strange malice to particular persons, want of sleep, singing in the ears, incredible strength, insensibility of cold, and an excessive rage when provokes to anger. Method of Cure. Bleeding is useful in this disorder, and take forty drops of tincture of black hellebore in a glass of water, two or three times in a day; or half a drachm of camphor may be taken every night before going to rest. Mead, and Kinneir."
The symptoms and cures for madness, according to John Theobald’s Every man his own Physician, published 1766. In practice, “madness” could encompass many actions and behaviors beyond this narrow prescription. (London: Printed for W Griffin in Catherine Street, 1766). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

In petitions from New England concerning those deemed “insane,” “mad,” or “lunatic,” confinement was rarely mentioned, whether in a family home or specialized institution. Ephraim and Elizabeth Terrell, for instance, told the Connecticut General Assembly in 1736 that they preferred to simply keep away from Elizabeth’s father, who did their children “a mischif in his pasions,” and “dare not leave them with Mother Lines [Elizabeth’s mother]” who “has been Crazi” (“Terrell Petition,” F91.C56 Reel 50, Estates of Incompetent Persons, Connecticut State Archives, Hartford).

Even extreme cases could be ambiguous. In 1800, Anne Hotchkiss of Woodbridge, Connecticut, “became insane to such a degree, as to destroy her property, and threaten the Lives, and property of others.” Records state that the town selectmen “took both person, and property under their immediate care” (Lipson 1986, 267-268). Whether that meant Hotchkiss was confined is unclear.

For more than half a century, historians have noted the reluctance to confine “mad” people in early America, yet the impression that Americans’ colonial forebears casually locked away their mentally ill neighbors persists (Rothman 1971, xiii). Why is this?

I have two suggestions: Foucault and Founders. Historians of madness in the early modern and modern world cannot help but write in the shadow of Michel Foucault, particularly Madness and Civilization. First, Foucault identified an ideological shift in Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century which resulted in the incarceration of large numbers of people deemed abnormal, the “Great Confinement.” Foucault made a potent link between confinement, madness, and modernity (Foucault 1961, 58). Historians then reproduced this focus on confinement, even when disagreeing with Foucault, or examining geographies he did not address, such as the Americas, which had very few workhouses or asylums (Jimenez 1987, 2). Many of these historians were writing amid twentieth-century institutional scandals and closures, such as the multiple exposés of Willowbrook hospital in New York State. Institutions, with their plentiful and meticulously kept archives, were naturally the focus of historians of madness in early America. 

The pre-institutional era has been the subject of opening chapters or prefaces, quickly passed through and then forgotten. Historians have allowed the asylum to bleed outwards, chronologically and geographically, leaving an impression of confinement being a more widespread response to madness than it really was.

Second, the confinement of both Sarah Shelton Henry, wife of the Virginia Patriot Patrick Henry (who cried “Give me liberty or give me death!”) and the Boston Patriot James Otis Jr. (coiner of the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny”) lend Founding connections to confinement that may have contributed to its outsized prominence in people’s impressions of madness in early America (Nielsen 2012, 33-34).

Despite Foucault’s scholarship and Founding connections, historians of early America have long pointed out that confinement was rare. Broadly speaking, historians have identified two key reasons why early Americans were, contrary to widespread impression, reluctant to confine people deemed “mad”: an ideology of tolerance, and cost.

Again, Foucault’s influence is important. If confinement had significant ideological causes and effects, so did the choice not to confine individuals. Writings about cognitive disability in early America, including and beyond madness, frequently feature phrases such as: “So long as they remained peaceable, the mad were left free to wander at will and participate in daily life” (Gamwell & Tomes 1995, 20), “unorthodox behaviors were simply part of everyday life” (Nielsen 2012, 36), or “One of the most notable features of the case is that… families tolerated…[unorthodox] behavior to a large extent” (Dayton 2015, 90).

In a hexagonal frame is a light charcoal sketch of a man with furrowed brows, small staring pupils, and a asymmetrical smile.
Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, “A Man’s Face,” late 18th or early 19th century, © Tate, Licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND, 3.0 Unported).

Anyone familiar with the historiography comes away with an impression of an early modern communitarianism, a fundamental unwillingness to confine those neighbors who acted oddly, an ideology of tolerance. Often, it provides a convenient contrasting backdrop to the subsequent period of institutionalization, medicalization, and the modern ideology of confinement.

Historians also acknowledge the cost of confinement that accompanied an apparent emotional unwillingness. Larry D. Eldridge notes that the “financial burdens of incarceration, from feeding and clothing to providing full-time overseers, were just too great” (Eldridge 1996, 378). Similarly, Kim Nielsen notes that Sarah Shelton Henry and James Otis Jr. hailed from wealthy families, who could afford the costs Eldridge listed (Nielsen 2012, 35).

Tolerance and cost. Combined, they make a straightforward answer to the question I began with. Straightforward, but inadequate. Tolerance is overstated and cost is underplayed, so much so that it is mischaracterized. The cost of confinement is often crudely put, a question of haves and have-nots. We may even be reminded of the closure of institutions during our own lifetimes due to austerity measures. But wealth in early America was a complex thing, and the burdens Eldridge mentioned are more correctly thought of as burdens of labor, rather than of mere money. We should reframe how we think of confinement as a question of household economy – even political economy.

I am not original in this line of thinking. Over twenty years ago, one scholar suggested that Europe’s “Great Confinement” was the consequence of bureaucratic, rather than ideological, transformation (Harrington 1999). More recently, Laurel Daen has emphasized the labor of women and people-of-color in caring for “strangers,” including the cognitively and physically disabled (Daen 2020). Ben Mutschler has identified the urgent reorganizing of household, and political, economies illness frequently demanded of early Americans (Mutschler 2020).

Viewing confinement as an issue of labor puts some evidence a new light. In 1758, the town of Wallingford had to be threatened with fines by the Connecticut General Assembly unless it restrained the “distracted” Mary Hall, who “stroll[ed] about from town to town and place to place,” possibly naked, “to the great disquiet of many people where she goes by reason of her ill behaviour” (Hoadly 1880, 111). Did Hall’s neighbors tolerate her behavior as an acceptable eccentricity? Somehow, I think not. Could the town simply not afford to keep her confined? In a sense, yes, but not in the way historians have recognized. 

As a financial burden, caring for Hall may not have cost very much. Financial accounts provided to the Connecticut General Assembly show us that it was acceptable for conservators of people deemed mentally incapable to spend relatively little on their care, though such sources have been selectively used to try to prove the opposite (Hammer 2019). What seems more likely is that Wallingford did not have the labor capacity to outfit a safe confinement space and monitor Hall regularly. In early America, interruptions to the delicate balance of labor necessary to keep households and communities functioning had to be mitigated swiftly and usually could not be allowed to go on for extended periods of time. Guarding Hall for the rest of her life, or duration of her distraction, was not an acceptable solution.

An ink sketch of five wigged men appearing to deliberate. From left to right, the first man stares off to the right, presumably where the action is taking place outside of the viewer's purview. The second and third man are angled towards one another, yet appear to remain attentive to the action. The fourth and fifth man are also angled towards one another in intense conversation and deliberation.
 In early America, a panel of one’s neighbors might be called upon judge a person’s sanity. Depending on the neighbors, medical or legal training may have been sparse. Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, title not known, late 18th or early 19th century, © Tate, Licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND, 3.0 Unported)

I think Hall’s community chose not to divert time and labor away from their economic pursuits and the General Assembly intervened when Hall’s disturbances posed a threat to the productivity of neighboring towns, by upsetting their own delicate labor systems. The Assembly warned Wallingford that constables who had to return Hall to them would receive four pence per mile of their journey, out of Wallingford’s coffers.

This way of thinking also demands new questions of well-known examples. Was the decision to confine Sarah Shelton Henry made possible, perhaps even easier, by her family’s enslaved workforce? Patrick Henry was the captor of 112 enslaved people at his death. He was wealthy, but more importantly had access to a large and adaptable pool of labor. This is a question that deserves more research, but if we treat confinement as a question of labor organization and political economy, it surely follows that it received differing answers in the varied economies of early America.

The tolerance/cost model has never reckoned with geographical or economic differences in this way. It also prompts reconsideration of the nineteenth-century wave of institutionalization and incarceration, which is often credited with ideological, rather than economic, origins. My new answer to the inevitable question may sound something like, “Confinement was a serious commitment of resources of time and labor which many early Americans were unwilling to divert from economic productivity, though the decision to confine may have been easier for slaveholders. The hesitancy to confine has often been interpreted as a creditable tolerance, which may be overstated.” Perhaps not catchy, but it may be more accurate.

It is worth considering what may be behind the question. When I am asked “Didn’t they lock them up?” I am inclined to hear “Aren’t we better than they were?” We generally like to think favorably of our forebears, but thinking of the past as being nasty and brutish reassures us that we have made progress. We are consoled by certain kinds of history, that tell us that things were worse in the past, so people should be grateful and content with the way things are now. This can encourage a complacency, even dismissiveness surrounding disabled people, making their demands for greater access, fairer allocation of resources, or justice seem overly ambitious or unrealistic. With confinement restrained, we can reach a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the difficult decisions early Americans were faced with, even if their responses may now seem less tolerant and less comforting.


Anon., n.d. “History of Red Hill.” Red Hill: Patrick Henry National Memorial. Accessed September 16, 2023.

Anon., n.d. “The Closing of Willowbrook.” Disability Justice. Accessed September 16, 2023.

Daen, Laurel. 2020. “‘To Board & Nurse a Stranger”: Poverty, Disability, and Community in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts,” Journal of Social History 53, no. 3: 1-26.

Dayton, Cornelia H. 2015. “‘”The Oddest Man that I Ever Saw”: Assessing Cognitive Disability on Eighteenth-Century Cape Cod,” Journal of Social History 49, no. 1: 77-99.

Eldridge, Larry D. 1996. “‘Crazy Brained”: Mental Illness in Colonial America,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 70, no. 3: 361-86.

Foucault, Michel. 1961. Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Random House Inc.

Gamwell, Lynn and Nancy Tomes. 1995. Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hammer, Carl I. 2019. ‘“Being Old and Dayly Finding the Symptoms of Mortality’: The Troubled Last Years of Hannah Beamon of Deerfield and the Law of 1726,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 17, no 2: 151-182.

Harrington, Joel F. 1999. “Escape from the Great Confinement: The Genealogy of a German Workhouse,” The Journal of Modern History 71, no. 2: 308-46.

Hoadly, Charles J., ed. 1880. Public Records of the State of Connecticut, From May, 1757, to March, 1762. Hartford, CT: Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co.

Jimenez, Mary Ann. 1987. Changing Faces of Madness: Early American Attitudes and Treatment of the Insane Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Lipson, Dorothy Ann, ed., 1986. Public Records of the State of Connecticut, From May 1804 through October 1805, Hartford, CT: Connecticut State Library.

Mutschler, Ben. 2020. The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nielsen, Kim E. 2012. A Disability History of the United States Boston: Beacon Press.

Rothman, David J. 1971. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown.

Terrell, Ephraim. “Petition of Ephraim and Elizabeth Terrell.” F91.C56. Reel 50. Estates of Incompetent Persons, Connecticut State Archives. Hartford.

Wulfstan Scouller is a PhD student at Yale University. He has a broad interest in early American social history, with a particular research focus on the place of cognitive disability in the law and political economy of the early modern British Atlantic.

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