Charles Dickens


(Household Words, 4 June 1853)

The popular notion of an Idiot would probably be found to vary very little, essentially, in different places, however modified by local circumstances. To the traveller in France or Italy, the name recalls a vacant creature all in rags, gibbering and blinking in the sun with a distorted face, and led about as a possession and a stock-in-trade by some phenomenon of filth and ugliness in the form of an old woman. In association with Switzerland, it suggests a horrible being, seated at a chalet door (perhaps possessing sense enough to lead the way to a neighbouring waterfall), of stunted and misshapen form, with a pendulous excrescence dangling from his throat, like a great skin bag with a weight in it. In the highlands of Scotland, or on the roads of Ireland, he becomes a red-haired Celt, rather more unreasonable than usual, plunging ferociously out of a mud cabin, and casting stones at the stranger's head. As a remembrance of our own childhood in an English country town, he is a shambling knock-kneed man who was never a child, with an eager utterance of discordant sounds which he seemed to keep in his protruding forehead, a tongue too large for his mouth, and a dreadful pair of hands that wanted to ramble over everything -- our own face included. But in all these cases the main idea of an idiot would be of a hopeless, irreclaimable, unimprovable being. And if he be further recalled as under restraint in a workhouse or lunatic asylum, he will still come upon the imagination as wallowing in the lowest depths of degradation and neglect: a miserable monster, whom nobody may put to death, but whom every one must wish dead, and be distressed to see alive.

Until within a few years, it was generally assumed, even by those who were not given to hasty assumptions, that because an idiot was, either wholly or in part, deficient in certain senses and instincts necessary, in combination with others, to the due performance of the ordinary functions of life -- and because those senses and instincts could not be supplied -- therefore nothing could be done for him, and he must always remain an object of pitiable isolation. But, a closer study of the subject has now demonstrated that the cultivation of such senses and instincts as the idiot is seen to possess, will, besides frequently developing others that are latent within him but obscured, so brighten those glimmering lights, as immensely to improve his condition, both with reference to himself and to society. Consequently there is no greater justification for abandoning him, in his degree, than for abandoning any other human creature.

This important truth, a conviction of which led to the establishment of Institutions for the care and education of idiots, receives daily and hourly confirmation from the experience of those Institutions. We will lay some of their results before our readers, but will first beg to present the great leading distinction between Idiocy and Insanity as being: -- that in the Insane certain faculties which once existed have become obliterated or impaired; and that, in Idiots, they either never existed or exist imperfectly. DR. VOISIN in his learned French treatise, defines idiocy to be "that particular state in which the instincts of reproduction and preservation, the moral sentiments, and the intellectual and perceptive powers are never manifested, or that particular state in which the different essentials of our being are only imperfectly developed."

DR. ABERCROMBIE, in his interesting book on the Intellectual Powers, has this passage on idiocy: "It is a simple torpor of the faculties, in the higher degrees amounting to total insensibility to every impression; and some remarkable facts are connected with the manner in which it arises without bodily disease. A man mentioned by Dr. Pinel, was so violently affected by some losses in trade, that he was deprived almost instantly of all his mental faculties. He did not take notice of anything, not even expressing a desire for food, but merely taking it when it was put into his mouth. A servant dressed him in the morning, and conducted him to a seat in his parlor, where he remained the whole day, with his body bent forward, and his eyes fixed on the floor. In this state he continued nearly five years, and then recovered completely and rather suddenly. The account which he afterwards gave of his condition during this period was, that his mind was entirely lost, and that it was only about two months before his final recovery, that he began to have sensations and thoughts of any kind. These at first served only to convey fears and apprehensions, especially in the night-time. Of perfect idiocy produced in the same manner by a moral cause, an affecting example is given by Pinel. Two young men, brothers, were carried off by the conscription, and, in the first action in which they were engaged, one of them was shot dead by the side of the other. The survivor was instantly struck with perfect idiocy. He was taken home to his father's house, where another brother was so affected by the sight of him, that he was seized in the same manner; and, in this state of perfect idiocy, they were both received into the Bicétre. For the production of such an extraordinary result, it is not necessary that the mental impression should be of a painful description. Pinel mentions an engineer, who, on receiving a flattering letter from Robespierre respecting an improvement he had proposed in the construction of cannon, was struck motionless on the spot, and soon after conveyed to the Bicétre in a state of complete idiocy." It may be questioned, we think, whether in all these cases there was not a strong predisposition to the melancholy state thus superinduced by circumstances, and it is to be observed that the general question of idiocy has received some light since Dr. Abercrombie's time.

It was not supposed until recently that a child who wanted the sense to feed itself, could ever be taught to write; or that one incapable of dressing or undressing, could ever learn arithmetic; yet, the faculties required for each of these two sets of operations are distinct, and this is known to be a mistake. Patients with natural instincts too weak to eat with decency, or to perform other daily functions properly, have been found to possess intellectual perceptions sufficiently strong to enable them to acquire one or more of the imitative and mechanical branches of art or science, with perfect success; and the cultivation of the best faculty has in nearly all cases improved the other faculties. Dr. Fodére (Traité du goîure et du crétinisme) had met, he says, with idiots gifted with especial talents for copying designs, for finding rhymes and for performing music. "I have known others," he adds, "put watches together and other pieces of mechanism; yet these individuals not only were unable to read books which treated of their arts, but were utterly incoherent when spoken to about them." At the Essex Hall Asylum for Idiots, near Colchester, there is a youth whose case, when first admitted, was looked upon as quite hopeless. He was deaf, incapable of articulating although not dumb, and appeared to have no sense of change of place or change of the circumstances surrounding him. Yet his tutors gradually found out that, like Dr. Fodére's mechanists, he had a latent power of construction. This being assiduously encouraged, he presently made a neat model of a ship, with nothing to copy it from, but the figure of a vessel printed on a cotton pocket-handkerchief. He is now the glazier and carpenter of the establishment, and does his work admirably. It is predicted of this once deaf and speechless creature, who now speaks and hears perfectly, that if he be placed under the roof of some carpenter and his wife, or on an estate, he will make a valuable journeyman, and be an amiable, gentle, and attached dependent. Another boy in the same asylum could do nothing at first but tailor's work. He has now acquired a passion for sewing on buttons. He always carries a bag, containing needles and thread, a thimble, and a large supply of buttons. Whenever a male visitor appears, this boy scrutinises the state of his buttons with the deepest interest. If he can only find a visitor with a loose button or with a button wanting, he is happy, and instantly sets to work to sew it on again with the greatest dexterity. The Reverend Mr. Sidney reports of this lad: "he was so anxious to exhibit his skill to me, that he wanted to cut off one of my buttons to show how well he could restore it; but, luckily, I happened to observe one nearly off a boy's jacket, and he sewed it on as neatly and firmly as you could conceive.

The devoted and distinguished founder of the asylum on the Abendberg, in Switzerland, Dr. Guggenbühl -- whose name has a peculiar attraction for us as being what an uneducated idiot might hit upon, in trying to say Jones -- is inclined to think that no special aptitude is so frequently developed among idiots as one for mental arithmetic. It is remarkable that among these disordered intellects, order and numbers should often be, of all other accomplishments, the most readily acquired. A patient admitted into the Park House Asylum for idiots, at Highgate -- at first useless and generally incapable -- was gradually trained to set out all the Sunday clothes for the rest of the inmates; and this duty (in which he is assisted by one or two of his school-fellows) he directs and performs with curious exactness. There is a boy at Essex Hall who cleans and takes care of all the knives and forks; he counts them carefully at stated times, and, if he misses one, never rests until he finds it. Several calculating boys are mentioned in the reports of the various asylums. They work out in their minds arithmetical problems of a by no means easy nature, that are put to them; but they are wholly unable to calculate on paper or slate, or to describe how they get at their results. Distinctive specialities belong to some idiots, so fine and curious as to be scarcely credible. A youth at the Highgate Asylum has the extraordinary gift of invariably knowing the time, within a minute or two, at any period of the day. On our asking him what o'clock it was, he instantly informed us; and he "went" better than our watch, though it is a watch of reputation. At Dr. Guggenbühl's establishment, there is a pupil who has never been able to acquire the correct pronunciation of his own native German language, but who has learned to speak and to read French correctly, and who writes it very well, as we have seen with our own eyes. Another youth was brought into the same asylum, to whom for a long time it was impossible to teach the difference between various objects, however opposite; it is doubtful whether he knew any distinction between a flower and a table. At last, he identified a cat; and from that moment cats became the especial business and pleasure of his life. After continually playing with the cat belonging to the asylum, and with her kittens, he improved sufficiently to be taught to draw. He could draw nothing but cats, and can draw nothing but cats. He produces drawings of cats and kittens in every conceivable variety of attitude and frolic, with astonishing expression. And although he cannot get beyond cats, still, as he has advanced in cats, so he has advanced in his habits and in his general intelligence.

Changes of a remarkable nature have been effected in the external appearance of idiots by training and culture. Dr. Guggenbühl tells us of a little child brought to his establishment in a state "truly dreadful; the bodily organisation was that of a stunted, withered skeleton, covered with a livid, wrinkled, cold skin. Where there were some traces of muscles, elasticity was wanting; the extremities were very small, the countenance deadly pale, the cheeks and forehead wrinkled, the eyes small and dark, and the whole expression of the face that of an old woman. In the spring, when fine weather adds to the favourable effect of the pure mountain air in the cure of these miserable children, she was brought to the Abendberg. The natural advantages of the situation were aided by the most careful medical treatment and diet. Although this poor creature had been gradually becoming more dwarf-like and deformed ever since her birth, she now advanced rapidly towards a perfect development. Three months worked a visible improvement; the muscles strengthened with her growth, the skin became elastic, and attained the usual degree of warmth, the wrinkles of the face vanished, the old-woman expression disappeared, and the pleasing traces of youth became apparent."

We presume the bodily sensitiveness of this afflicted class to be increased, as their deprivations are diminished. However this be, idiots often suffer less from physical pain than beings of a finer organisation. A boy, now at Highgate, was once found by his mother with a species of buckle thrust through his tongue. He had made this experiment merely to amuse himself, and testified no inconvenience whatever -- was vain of the ornament, but not otherwise moved by it. Idiots are found below the average sensitiveness to the electric battery; and yet, so remarkable are the contradictions in their nature, they are invariably affected by thunder and lightning. The mere approach of a thunderstorm is observed to disorder the stomachs of a whole idiot asylum. They generally like music -- bright colours almost always -- and are remarkably susceptible to the influence of sunlight. Such things as they do, they do, as an established rule, best on a bright day, and worst on a dark one. In respect of mental pain, as of physical, they have their compensation. Separation from friends does not affect them much, grief and sorrow hold but slight dominion over them, and the contemplation of death does not distress them. They are very fond of attending prayers in a body. What dim religious impressions they connect with public worship, it is impossible to say, but the struggling soul would seem to have some instinctive aspirations towards its Maker.

The Institutions from which these facts are derived, are, as we have mentioned, of recent establishment. In eighteen hundred and twenty-eight M. FERRUS, Chief physician of the hospital for the Insane at Bicêtre, near Paris, selected from the eight hundred cases under his care, such as were idiots, and organised a school where, each morning, they were taught habits of order and industry, reading, writing, cyphering, and gymnastics. In eighteen hundred and thirty-one M. VALRET followed the example in the Salpetrière lunatic asylum for females of which he had charge. In eighteen hundred and thirty-nine Dr. Guggenbühl, then a young physician at Zurich, observed a poor Cretin muttering a prayer before a crucifix, not comprehending what he was doing. He was so deeply affected by this sight, that he entered a cottage near, for the purpose of ascertaining some particulars; and learned, from the mother of the Cretin, that she had taught him the prayer when he was a little child. Dr. Guggenbühl became convinced, from that time, that there was a dormant mind in the Cretins; and resolved to make them his peculiar study. He succeeded, by dint of great perseverance, in establishing the asylum already several times referred to, on the Abendberg above Interlaken, and three thousand feet above the level of the sea, and above the level at which cretinism, so prevalent in Switzerland, is known to exist. The establishment has flourished under Dr. Guggenbühl's care; and he has travelled successfully into other countries to urge the foundation of other asylums. They were set on foot in various parts of Germany, in Sardinia, and in the United States, before they were thought of in England. But in eighteen hundred and forty-six some ladies in Bath, having read an account of Dr. Guggenbühl's efforts, established a school for Idiots in that city; which was, in eighteen hundred and fifty-one removed to Belvedere, a more elevated and airy situation. At the end of the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven, Dr. ANDREW REED and DR. CONOLLY excited public attention to the want of such an asylum in London, and so successfully, that they were soon enabled, by voluntary subscriptions, to take Park House, Highgate. The same society, accredited to the public by the same two eminent and respected names, now holds Essex Hall near Colchester, likewise. The first report thus graphically describes the opening of Park House.

"The first gathering of the idiotic family was a spectacle unique in itself, and sufficiently discouraging to the most resolved, and not to be forgotten in after time by any. It was a period of distraction, disorder, and noise of the most unnatural character. Some had defective sight; most had defective or no utterance; most were lame in limb or muscle; and all were of weak or perverted mind. Some had been spoiled, some neglected, and some unconscious and inert. Some were screaming at the top of the voice; some making constant and involuntary noises from nervous irritation; and some, terrified at scorn and ill-treatment, hid themselves in a corner, from the face of man, as from the face of an enemy.

To this establishment we paid a visit within a few weeks of the present date. It is a fine detached house, beautifully situated at a considerable elevation above the metropolis -- high ground is indispensable for the purpose -- and looking down upon the spot where Richard Whittington heard the bells summon him to his glorious destiny of being thrice Lord Mayor of London. We found the school-room for male pupils -- and full of pupils too -- as quiet and orderly as any school-room we have ever seen. Writing was in progress, and the copies were clean, plain, and good. Drawing appeared to be the favorite pursuit. Barns, gables, gates, houses, walls, hay-stacks, churches, fences, and the usual compositions, were in many cases exceedingly well executed. One pupil was very proud of a pump -- a portrait, as we conceived -- with the legend "Stick no Bills," on it. Two young men -- one, a curiously slow deep-voiced dark youth, and the other a round-shouldered healthy-looking fellow, rather overgrown and heavy -- stood before a map of England, pointed out towns with a wand as they were named, and told what they were famous for -- frequently correcting each other as the occasion arose; they also achieved some simple arithmetic. In a second room, likewise perfectly quiet and placid, were some little fellows busily plaiting straw of various colours. In a third the whole male body turned out on parade, and were drilled by an old soldier going through their exercise with such precision, that we were disposed to suggest the addition of an Idiot Corps to the Militia. We found a work-room full of girls, sewing, and making little fancy ornaments with beads and parti-coloured strips; some of the faces among them were extremely pretty, and gave little or no indication of the blank within. We found rooms full of children of all ages, in the keeping of female attendants whose pleasant and patient countenances were a strong assurance of their being well selected, except in only one instance where we certainly derived a less agreeable impression. We found a capital gymnasium, which is of the first importance, as the mental faculties of these poor creatures can only be approached by strengthening their bodies and enlivening their spirits. There was but one child in bed. Every room was airy, orderly, and cheerful; and everybody seemed devoted heart and soul to the good work in hand.

That class of persons, unhappily always too large a one for this world, who are so desperately careful to receive no uncomfortable emotions from sad realities or pictures of sad realities, that they become the incarnation of the demon selfishness, and are, by their sickly letting-alone, the most intolerably mischievous people in the community, will probably exclaim, "0, but all this must be excessively painful!" To which we reply, that such an affliction considered by itself is very painful; but that, considered with a rational reference to the alleviations and improvements of which it is plainly susceptible under such treatment, it ought to become the reverse of painful, and ought to do the visitor good. Madam you are a lady of very fine feelings, you are very easily shocked, you "can't bear" a great deal that a higher wisdom than yours would seem to have contemplated your bearing when your little place was allotted to you on this ball. This idiot child of thirteen, sitting in its little chair before the fire -- as to its bodily growth, a child of six; as to its mental development, nothing -- is an odious sight to you. This idiot old man of eight, with the extraordinarily small head, the paralytic gestures, and the half-palsied forefinger, eternally shaking before his hatchet face as he chatters and chatters, disturbs you very much. But, madam, it were worth while to enquire while the brazen head is yet saying unto you "Time is!" how much of the putting away of these unfortunates in past years, and how much of the putting away of many kinds of unfortunates at any time, may be attributable to that same refinement which cannot endure to be told about them. And, madam, if I may make so bold, I will venture to submit whether such delicate persons as your ladyship may not be laying up a rather considerable stock of responsibility; and you will excuse my saying that I would not have so sensitive a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole corporation.

When we had made the tour of the establishment and had looked at the whole prospect without and within, not forgetting the pet birds, or the idiot woman who was so busy in carrying the dinners about and so delighted to be useful, we came back to the schoolroom, and had, with the assistance of the master's fiddle, The sea, the sea, in chorus, and likewise All's well! In the course of which latter piece our friend the deep-voiced boy got a chance well known to, and appreciated by the amateurs of the last generation. Finally, several smoking-hot legs of mutton were served, and grace was said, and all sat down to dinner with a self-restraint and decorum perfectly wonderful.

There cannot be a doubt that these Institutions are deserving of all encouragement and support. They are truly humane, and they also afford opportunities for a most interesting study which may prove exceedingly beneficial to mankind. The causes of idiocy are as yet imperfectly understood. Little is known of the origin of the disorder, beyond the facts that idiocy is sometimes developed during the progress of dentition, and that it would seem to be generally associated with mental suffering, fright, or anxiety, or with a latent want of power, in the mother. These causes, however, are complex, and difficult to trace. A woman with two idiot children happened to mention that her husband was a drunkard and ill-used her. It was then supposed that their condition might be referable to his degraded habits and his treatment of his wife; but, on pursuing the inquiry, it appeared that these two children had been born in his sober and kind days, and that the subsequent children of his later life were healthy and sensible.

The funds of the society who maintain Park House and Essex Hall, are devoted in aid of the maintenance and education of idiots, for whom the parents pay a certain annual sum. This is an admirable means of helping those who help themselves, and who, as the subjects of a peculiar misfortune, have a pressing claim on such aid. But we hope, through the instrumentality of these establishments, to see the day, before long, when the pauper idiot will be similarly provided for, at the public expense. Then may some future MR. COLLIER -- if our friend in his zeal and diligence be destined to have any successor -- find in some future annotated copy of SHAKESPEARE, the following happy emendation:

"A tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound instruction,
Signifying something."

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