Alcohol and Alienation in New Jersey, c. 1810 to 1890

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James E. Moran, History, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Canada

“Alcohol and Alienation in New Jersey, c. 1810 to 1890”


Presented to the conference:

Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society

St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017

See: All ‘Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society’ conference podcasts

Abstract: This paper examines the relationship between alcohol consumption and mental health in New Jersey between 1810 and 1890 in local communities, and in lunatic asylums. Specifically, it considers how family members of rural and urban households, neighbours, community medical and legal officials, and asylum doctors understood this relationship. Needless to say, alcohol as related to mental health was understood differently by the various constituents in this American state depending on their professional backgrounds, their understanding of mental health and, of course, their views on the “virtues” and “evils” of alcohol. An analysis of the available primary sources confirms that excessive drink was considered to be a major problem, one that could lead to various forms of mental trouble and, by extension, to challenging behaviour. It is also clear from the sources at hand that mental trouble caused by excessive drink was not necessarily considered to be a permanent mental state, although both lay and medical opinion recognized a “tipping” point after which the problem became intractable. Opinion as to the proper medical response to alcoholic insanity was equally varied. For example, in the annual reports of the New Jersey Lunatic Asylum (and neighbouring asylums) psychiatrists identified cases of alcoholism leading to aberrant mental states, but they concluded that some (though not all) of these were misdiagnosed as cases of insanity by local physicians and family members. In their view, only qualified professionals could determine the boundary between alcohol consumption and madness. The legal definition of alcoholism as it related to madness also shaped perceptions in nineteenth-century New Jersey. For example, outside of the institutional context, the concept of alcoholic insanity was considered to be a relatively common condition that sometimes required legal intervention in the form of a lunacy trial to determine whether the “inebriate” was “non compos mentis”. This fluidity of views on alcohol and alienation across the therapeutic and diagnostic spectrum, along with the persistence of local perceptions and responses, points toward a complex nineteenth century history of alcohol, psychiatry and society in New Jersey.



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