Category Archives: Insanity

Curiosities Insanity

Mad Windham the Train-Driving Egg Enthusiast

In a departure from all things early modern, today we have some Victorian fragments, courtesy of my guest blogger, the celebrated cartoonist Adrian Teale, whose work regularly features both on television and in national newspapers. Here, for our delight and amusement, Ade presents the curious story of William ‘Mad’ Windham.

In 1861, wealthy Etonian William Frederick Windham, of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, married a notorious Rotten Row courtesan called Agnes Willoughby, promising her an annuity of £1,500 per annum, and spoiling her with jewels and gifts of hard cash. Windham’s uncle was greatly concerned about the damage this would do to the family name, and was very worried about the gold-digging credentials of the courtesan in question. He decided the best course of action was to prove, in court, that his nephew was insane.

In a celebrated case which kept the press on the edge of its seat (The Times alone expended 170,000 words on the story), Windham’s mental state was scrutinized by a Commission in Lunacy, which was presented with examples of his outlandish behaviour. This included his ordering seventeen eggs for breakfast, howling through open windows if his dinner wasn’t ready the minute he asked for it, running naked around the house, and dancing on billiard tables. He had also been known to dress as a police officer and patrol the beat in the Haymarket. His principal obsession was steam engines, however, and he often persuaded railway officials to let him collect tickets and drive the trains.

After his uncle had set out his case, the court subjected Windham to a four-hour mental test, and found him lucid, charming, and – more importantly – sane. At the conclusion of the thirty-four day enquiry, the uncle’s case had collapsed. However, ‘Mad’ Windham did eventually lose the family fortune, and to make ends meet he used to drive the Norwich-to-Cromer express coach for a guinea per week. His marriage to Agnes broke down soon after their nuptials, and she ran off with a short-arsed, sombrero-wearing, Italian opera singer called Antonio Guiglini. So perhaps the uncle had a point.

Subject to editorial approval, a cartoon about this case will appear in History Today magazine….keep an eye on my Twitter page (@adeteal) for details.
See my work & CV under ‘T’ in the Members’ Portfolios section of 


Insanity Stage Vice

A charming lunatic

Today’s snippet comes from the life and times of Mr Alexander Cruden, a British eccentric, and, some might say, raving lunatic. What fascinates me about Cruden is his tenacity. A man who was incarcerated three times, declared war on a woman he’d never met, and patrolled the streets of London armed with a damp sponge deserves both our interest and our respect.

Alexander was born in 1699 in Aberdeen, son to a prominent merchant, and second of eleven children. He was educated in Aberdeen and took a master’s degree, in addition to which he attended lectures on divinity to support his intention of joining the church. Unfortunately, it was at this time that Alexander fell in love with a minster’s daughter. She spurned his affections and instead fell preganant with her own brother’s child. As a result Cruden became slightly unhinged and was confined to the tolbooth for a fortnight, there being no asylum at that time which could suitably hold him. Once released, he made immediately for london and lived as a private tutor there until 1726 when he began work as a proof-reader.


In 1732, Cruden was working as a bookseller and proof-reader at the Royal Exchange. In 1733 he began work on his celebrated Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, and in 1735 he received a royal warrant and began to style himself as The Queen’s Bookseller. He presented a copy of his book to Queen Caroline in November 1737, only days before her death. The death of the queen hit Cruden hard; he had lost both royal patron and a source of income, and once more a crisis exerted a toll on his mental health. He started paying unwelcome attention to a Mrs Pain, widow, and was subsequently confined to Mr Wright’s private madhouse in Bethnal Green in March 1738. Cruden lodged at Mr Wright’s for nine weeks, chained to his bed, until he was able to finally make his escape. Once free, he attempted to take action against those whom he held responsible and published a pamphlet entitled The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured. His attempts to bring his gaolers to justice came to nothing, no doubt in part because he took steps to conduct the court case himself.

In 1753, Cruden became involved in a public street brawl. It was often his habit to intervene in situations such as these in order to maintain the public calm, but on this occasion he was actively engaged in a fight for over an hour with a young man and a shovel. The youngster had ‘so greatly offended him that, contrary to his usual custom, he took the shovel and corrected him with some severity’. As a consequence, Cruden’s sister had Alexander confined to Inskip’s Asylum in Chelsea for seventeen days. When he was released, Cruden tried to bring a suit against her and three others to the tune of £10,000, but his efforts were unsuccessful. As was his request that his sister commit herself to Newgate Gaol for several days in penance.

Appalled by his treatment in Chelsea, Cruden wrote an account of it entitled The Adventures of Alexander the Corrector (1754). By this point Cruden was convinced he had been divinely appointed by God to act as a protector of public morals. He also felt a knighthood, and a spell as a parliamentary candidate might assist his endeavours in this regard. Perhaps unsurprisingly nothing came of these ambitions. Around the same time, Alexander also fell in love with a woman he did not know; Elizabeth Adney, daughter of the lord mayor of London, became the object of his passion. Cruden, convinced Miss Adney was his predestined partner, bombarded her with correspondence, but her reluctance to respond to his flood of letters, or indeed, to entertain him in any capacity whatsoever, resulted in him reconfiguring himself as Alexander the Conqueror, and delivering a formal declaration of war against the unfortunate woman in July 1754. He waged a fanatical and single-minded campaign against her, but, as with so many of his ventures, achieved little in the way of success.

For months he pestered her with calls, and persecuted her with letters, memorials, and remonstrances. When she left home, he caused ‘praying-bills’ to be distributed in various places of worship, requesting the prayers of the minister and congregation for her preservation and safe return; and when this took place, he issued further bills to the same congregations to return thanks.

In 1763, Cruden campaigned against the death sentence of a young seaman he had befriended, and managed to get the sentence reduced to transportation abroad. It was during this period that he spent much time carrying a sponge around the streets of London to efface any offensive scribblings which caught his eye:

he carried in his pockets a large piece of sponge. He subsequently attempted to obliterate all the obscene inscriptions with which idle persons were permitted at that time to disgrace blank walls in the metropolis. This occupation made his walks very tedious.

Cruden returned to Aberdeen in 1769, and a year later returned to London, lodging in Camden Street, Islington. He was found dead on the morning of 1st November 1770. During his lifetime he had expressed a preference to be buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Aberdeen, but he was interred instead in the dissenters’ burial-ground at Deadman’s Place, Southwark.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Astronomy Crime Insanity

Lunacy & Astronomy

This entertaining snippet comes from records of 18th Century court proceedings. Not content to have been acquitted on a technicality, Dr Elliott attempts to demonstrate his insanity via scientific hypothesis.

On the 9th of July 1787, a Dr Elliott, described in the journals of the day as ‘one of the literati’, fired two pistols, apparently, at a lady and gentleman, while walking in Prince’s Street, London. Neither, however, was injured, though both were very much frightened, and the lady’s dress was singed by the closeness of the explosion. Elliott was arrested, committed to Newgate, and, a few days after, tried for an attempted murder, but acquitted on the technical point, that there was no proof of the pistols having been loaded with ball. Unforeseeing this decision, Elliott’s friends had set up a plea of insanity, and among other witnesses in support thereof, Dr Simmons, of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, was examined.  This gentleman, whose long and extensive experience in cases of insanity, gave great weight to his evidence, testified that he had been intimately acquainted with Dr Elliott for more than ten years, and fully believed him to be insane.

On being further pressed by the recorder to adduce any particular instance of Elliott’s insanity, the witness stated that he had lately received a letter from the prisoner on the light of the celestial bodies, which indisputably proved his aberration of mind. The letter, which had been intended by the prisoner to have been laid before the Royal Society, was then produced and read in court. The part more particularly depended upon by the witness as a proof of the insanity of the writer, was an assertion that the sun is not a body of fire, as alleged by astronomers, ‘but its light proceeds from a dense and universal aurora, which may afford ample light to the inhabitants of the surface (of the sun) beneath, and yet be at such a distance aloft as not to annoy them.’ The recorder objected to this being proof of insanity, saying that if an extravagant hypothesis were to be considered a proof of lunacy, many learned and perfectly sane astronomers might be stigmatised as madmen.

Though the defence of insanity was not received, Elliott, as already observed, was acquitted on a legal point, but the unfortunate man died in prison, of self-inflicted starvation, on the 22d of July, having resolutely refused to take any food during the thirteen days which intervened between his arrest and death.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

© Shakespeare's England 2009-2014