An Insane American

George Cruikshank (1792-1878), after a sketch by George Arnald (1763-1841), William [James] Norris: an Insane American. Rivetted Alive in Iron, & for Many Years Confined, in that State, by Chains 12 Inches Long to an Upright Massive Bar in a Cell in Bethlem. Published by William Hone, London, July 1815. Etching with aquatint. Gift of Richard W. Meirs, class of 1888. Graphic Arts GC022 Cruikshank Collection.

Founded in 1247, Bethlem was a priory for the sisters and brothers of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem. It was first used as a hospital in 1330 and first housed patients recorded as “lunatics” in 1403. During the 18th century, the asylum, now nicknamed Bedlam, was opened to public visitors, a penny each and free on the first Tuesday of the month. 96,000 visitors were recorded in 1814.

One such visitor that year was the philanthropist, Edward Wakefield (1774-1854). He was shocked to see James (reported as William) Norris (17??-1814), once an American seaman, now chained to his bed. Norris had been admitted in 1800 and so terrorized the small staff that in June 1804 he was permanently confined in an iron harness. Ten years later when Wakefield visited, Norris was still in the same spot.

Norris’s isolation and constraints were described at the time:

A stout iron ring was riveted round his neck, from which a short chain passed through a ring made to slide upwards and downwards on an upright massive iron bar, more than six feet high, inserted into the wall. Round his body a strong iron bar about 12 inches wide was riveted; on each side of the bar was a ring; which was fashioned to and enclosed each of his arms, pinioned them close to his sides.

Wakefield was joined by William Hone (1774-1854) and James Bevans (1780-1842) to campaign for change in the conditions for patients, not only in Bedlam but throughout England. Their work led to the formation of the Committee on Madhouses in April 1815. Cruikshank was hired to etch Norris’s portrait, including the inscription: Sketch from the Life in Bethlem, 7th June 1814, by G. Arnald, Esq., A.R.A. Etched by G. Cruikshank from the Original Drawing Exhibited to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Madhouses, 1815.

Although Norris was removed from his shackles, he died within a few months. Bedlam was closed and the facility moved to a new home in Lambeth (today the home to the Imperial War Museum). For more on the history of the Bethlam hospital, see: