Alexander Cruden (1699–1770) Urges Reform of Insane Asylums

[ABOVE—Alexander Cruden from A Complete Concordance to the Sacred Scriptures (Blackie and Son, 1863)]

Alexander Cruden, a bookseller and corrector of proofs, is famed as the compiler of a useful Bible study tool—the first complete English language concordance of the Bible. Hardworking, loyal and gentle, he was also be obsessive (he titled himself “Alexander the Corrector,” believing God had appointed him to correct English morals); and his obsessive horror of blasphemy once caused him to strike a cursing man with a shovel, leading to one of his three incarcerations in madhouses.

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While it is true that Cruden was obssesive, this weakness gave him the drive to persist in the massive work of single-handedly compiling his concordance. It also once led him to unflagging exertions to save a childlike seaman from the gallows for a petty crime. Another time, his obsession with improving morals caused him to gently reprove a prostitute who accosted him, and his concerned rescued her from her trade.

In 1739, after a woman toyed with his affections and then tired of him, she had Cruden decoyed into a coach and incarcerated at Bethnal Green, a private asylum. At first he was chained by the leg to his bedstead both day and night and his hands were padlocked behind his back or tied up in the long crossed sleeves of his waistcoat, so that he had to feed himself like a dog, and could only get into bed by entering at the foot and wriggling his body up. Later he was chained only at night. Friends were kept from visiting him. A warder struck him such a blow on the face that he almost lost an eye and was weeks recovering. Medical authorities are agreed that his madness was so mild that he should never have been incarcerated at all, certainly not in so harsh a manner.

He recounted his story in a pamphlet with the lengthy title The London Citizen exceedingly injured: giving an account of his severe and long campaign at Bethnal Green for nine weeks and six days; the Citizen being sent there in March, 1738, by Robert Wightman, a notoriously conceited, whimsical man; where he was chained, handcuffed, straight-waistcoated, and imprisoned: with a history of Wightman’s Blind Bench, a sort of Court that met at Wightman’s room, and unaccountably proceeded to pass decrees in relation to the London Citizen, etc.

A copy of this pamphlet was delivered to King George, and is generally credited as one of the factors which prompted the king to initiate reforms in the handling of the insane.

Excerpt from The London Citizen exceedingly injured

Saturday. The prisoner, being still chained night and day to his beadstead in this hot season, and being alarmed with being sent to Bethlehem [Bedlam], happily projected to cut the bedstead through with a knife with which he eats his victuals. He made some progress in it this day.

May 28. Made his own bed himself, very early, to conceal his design.

Monday 29. Again used his knife upon the bedstead.

30th. [He wrote a letter asking for a saw, but prudently did not send it.] Therefore he went to work again, prayed hard and wrought hard till his shirt was almost as wet as if dipt in water; and as if he had received more than Common Vigour and Strength he finished the great operation about four o’clock in the afternoon. Upon which he kneeled down and returned God thanks. He prayed at night that he might awake seasonably for his escape, and slept some hours as soundly as ever he did in his life; committing this affair to God, who have never left nor forsaken him.

Wednesday, May 31st. The Prisoner’s Birthday, he awoke early, performed his devotions, held his chain in his hand, still fastened to his leg, and deliberately got out at the Window into the Garden; mounted the Garden wall with much difficulty, lost one of his slippers, and jumped down into the back way just before the clocks struck two.

Helped by a soldier, he was taken before the Lord Mayor by a constable and a watchman, where Wightman, master of the asylum, demanded his return.

Excerpt from The Wonderful Village

Cruden, almost in despair, fell in his knees before the court, and begged most earnestly not to be delivered into the hands of the cruel Wightman; and then, moved as it would seem by a sudden blaze of indignation at the infamy of the whole business, he stood erect and told his Lordship plainly that he would pursue him, or the greatest subject in England, to the bitter end, if they should send him to a madhouse when he was not mad.

The evident sincerity of his appeal, or, it may have been, the unsavoury keenness of Wightman to get him back, turned the scale. The Lord Mayor ordered his release, and within an hour or two he was safely lodged at Mr. Morgan’s house near Hyde Park, where Mrs. Morgan set to work to dress the injured foot.

The woman whom Cruden had rescued from prostitution, having become his servant, found him dead one morning, kneeling beside his bed in prayer.