Biography and Psychology III: Walter Abraham Haigh

Walter Abraham Haigh was first admitted to Bethlem in October 1882. He was a tutor, who held a B.A. from Oxford University, and was 27 years old. He was diagnosed with Delusional Insanity and described as excited, and subject to fixed delusions and hallucinations, particularly of persecution. Victorian society was heavily class-based, and it may thus have been Haigh’s educated background that made his own explanations of his illness seem particularly interesting to his doctors: his casenotes are peppered with quotations, apparently reported verbatim.

Moreover, the extensive nature of the notes concerning Haigh suggests that he often conversed with the doctors, in addition to his usual asylum pursuits of playing the violin and chess. Haigh and superintendent, George Savage, certainly worked closely together. In March 1885, it was recorded that he “has during the last year rendered considerable assistance to Dr Savage in the production of his Manual of Insanity.” Indeed, Haigh is one of just two people acknowledged in the preface to Savage’s textbook: “W. Haigh, Esq., who has not only corrected my proofs, but has by criticism aided me much in the legal chapters.”

Without prior knowledge, it would be impossible to tell from Savage’s book that Haigh was one of Savage’s patients. Indeed, Haigh and Savage’s relationship serves to blur the distinction between doctor and patient entirely: it is Haigh who suggests his own treatment (the insertion of a seton in his neck – see image below for explanation of this treatment by “counter-irritation”), and the doctors quickly acquiesce. Moreover, despite continuing to admit to hallucinations and delusions often considered “dangerous” by Victorian psychiatrists, Haigh is given a free pass key to the asylum, although he is unwilling to leave the grounds, feeling suspicious of strangers.

Walter remained in touch with doctors at Bethlem after his discharge, regarded as well, in July 1888. He visited the Hospital over the Christmas of the same year, mentioning that he had been living in Dieppe as a tutor. The next year, he decided to go into the Church, and in 1890 took priest’s orders. Judging from his many letters, Haigh continued to suffer from the “hallucinations and illusions of contempt and persecution” that he had long complained of, but was nonetheless able to work and live outside the asylum (without, of course, the aid of medication), and does not appear to have been certified again, although he did return to Bethlem three times for a short stay as a voluntary boarder in the 1890s. “As to what my perversions of sensations are no “sane” person would have any idea.” He wrote in 1890, “But I do despise those who know I have been certified and who judge ignorantly.”

 Image of a Seton in the Neck

Image from Armamentarium Chirurgicum by Johannes Scultetus, c. 1655

Wellcome Library, London

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