“She is Full of Electricity”: Fear and electrification

By Ceri Houlbrook, University of Hertfordshire

People fear what they don’t understand. But what you don’t understand is often determined by the period you live in, and so for every generation this may well be something different.

Accessing the fears and anxieties of people living in the past is no easy feat. There are very few historical sources that can give us direct insight into the types of things that worried, daunted, and frightened people. Hospital records are one of those few. And so, to gain some understanding of what people feared a century ago, I delved into the case-books of Lancaster Moor Hospital (pictured above), currently held in the Lancashire Archives.

Previously known as Lancaster Asylum and Lancaster County Mental Hospital, this institution first opened its doors in 1816 to treat the mentally ill. For every patient admitted, a handwritten entry was created, recording the patient’s name, age, religion, occupation, and an abstract of their medical certificate, outlining the nature of their condition.

Lancaster Moor dormitory

Many of these were very personal and difficult to read, bound up as they are in illness and pain. Patients were suffering from similar mental health conditions that are, sadly, very much prevalent today: depression, substance dependence, eating disorders, developmental disorders, and personality disorders. Many were suffering from high levels of anxiety and paranoia, and some entries go into detail about what they were feeling anxious or paranoid about. In a lot of cases, this was religious, money, or family matters, but as the records neared the end of the nineteenth century, one particular fear kept creeping up. The fear of electricity.

Some people feared electricity was effecting their bodies. One patient, admitted in 1883, is described as believing, “All of his clothes are full of electrical wire…tears his clothes off because there are wires in them.” A decade later, in 1893, another patient “states that she is full of electricity”, while another woman in 1896 was convinced “that she has electric wires all over her”.

Other people feared that electricity was infiltrating their homes. “Delusions,” observed one doctor about a woman admitted in 1888, explaining, “when I called, a workman was taking up the floor boarding – she told me it was to find an electric machine that disturbed her.”

These fears fed off the age-old concern that your neighbours harbour malicious intent towards you (think back to witchcraft accusations). “Strong delusion, e.g. his neighbours sent electricity into him,” reads the entry about a male patient admitted in 1885. “She imagines the people in the next house play tricks upon her by means of electricity,” reads another about a woman admitted in 1887.

Living in the twenty-first century, when electricity is a taken-for-granted aspect of our daily lives, I was initially surprised by these fears. But I shouldn’t have been. People fear what they don’t understand. And in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what was harder to understand than an invisible and intangible but powerful force that was entering homes and changing the way people lived?

 

Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home is on display at the University of Hertfordshire until 30 March 2018, and will be at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Ceri and the Electric Generations team here.

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