“California is full of crazy people.”
This is a statement which we hear quite frequently, and one which we
generally know it to be true. It’s a statement everyone has heard more
than once, and is usually followed by; 1) “They ought to build more
mental institutions.” Or; 2) “The whole state should be designated an
insane asylum and a fence put up around it!”
In fact, these very same things were being said one hundred and
sixty-five years ago, in 1851, and there were felt to be so many
mentally ill people in this state, primarily due to the influx of
crazed miners, that the California state legislature decided that they
had to do something about it – and quickly. That’s a pretty impressive
crisis, as California had been a state for only a few months - since
September of 1850 - and was scarcely three years into the Gold Rush.
But all those crazy prospectors were coming to California and
apparently bringing several forms of mental illness with them.
Insanity, the doctors warned, was not only running rampant throughout
the newest state in the Union but was actually getting worse every day
because the hospitals were not equipped to deal with it. And the
miners just kept on coming.
So the state legislature, after a brief but vocal consideration,
decided to go with Option Number One above and build more mental
institutions. Or rather, to build the state’s first official mental
institution and fill it with the multitude of crazy miners of which
the doctors had warned. Public support for the new legislation was
strong, and Captain Charles Weber of Stockton even donated one hundred
acres of his own land for the project. This was thought to be an ideal
location as Stockton was close to the gold fields and could act as
something of a buffer, keeping the lunatics out of San Francisco. So
the legislation was passed, the governor signed it, the money was
spent, and the Insane Asylum of the State of California proudly opened
its doors to tenants. Over the next ten years over two thousand people
deemed to be mentally ill would pass through those doors, and more
than half of those were confined for treatment in excess of six
months. Over the next century tens of thousands of individuals
designated by doctors to be mentally aberrant would come to call it
But how, you ask yourself, just how were those thousands of people
deemed to be mentally ill? Certainly there were quite a few somewhat
disorderly people in the state – miners were young, boisterous,
energetic men, and it was common for them to act loud and obnoxious.
So just where were medical doctors going to draw the line? Without
such bastions of the psychiatric profession such as Freud and Jung to
rely upon for guidance, who was going to set the guidelines? Well,
here the doctors of California might be considered to have been ahead
of their time, because they composed a Top Ten List; a list of acts or
symptoms which would qualify you for residency in the State’s newest
hotel. They didn’t actually call it a Top Ten List, but it was what
they decided upon to use for a guideline. And what was actually on
that list might make you more than a little frightened.
So, counting down to Number One, at the bottom of the list there was:
If reading this list makes you feel a little scared of medical care in
the 1850’s, then that legitimate fear would have qualified you for a
visit to the brand new Insane Asylum of the State of California.
Fright was not considered to be a sane response to a situation, and
the longer that response lasted, the more insane you were. Never mind
the fact that there were plenty of things in California of which to be
frightened, such as frequently collapsing mine shafts, frequent
shootings, frequent stage robberies, frequent altercations with Native
Californians, frequent earthquakes, frequent deaths by accident, and
wild predators everywhere – Get Over It! If you felt a little nervous
about such things and happened to impart that fear to a doctor, then
that Esteemed Man of Medicine might well pack you off to the insane
asylum so that you could calm down - because being locked up in an
asylum always makes you feel better, right?
No, they weren’t kidding. Epilepsy can cause seizures, and those
seizures usually happen somewhat randomly. There are some common
things which can trigger those seizures, but those were not
necessarily recognized as such back in the 1850’s. So when a seizure
occurred and the individual collapsed to the ground the common
symptoms in evidence could be twitching, kicking, moaning, effusive
drooling, grinding of teeth, losing control of one’s bladder, and eyes
rolling back into the head. If an individual happened to display those
symptoms back in the 1600’s they probably would have been thought to
be either a witch or possessed by a devil. But the more enlightened
medical community of the 1850’s saw it for what the medical community
was certain it really was – mental illness. So, if while working in
the perpetual darkness of a mine you behaved normally but once the
bright light of day triggered a seizure then you were to be viewed
with suspicion, and preferably confined.
Yet at least instead of being executed you were merely locked up for
your own good. Thank god for progress.
Speaking of god, the next most popular cause of insanity was:
8) Religious and Spiritualistic Excitement.
Have you ever heard of Speaking in Tongues, been to a séance, or
thought you heard a voice when no one else was near? These would have
gotten you locked up in 1850’s California. As would have communicating
with any kind of spirit. In this guideline the doctors apparently
sought to walk a fine line. They did not disavow the validity of
believing in god yet felt that actually hearing god’s voice was just a
bit over the line, kind of on the level of having conversations with
your dead Aunt Flo. Native dances where the participants seemed to
enter a trance, altered states of consciousness, and just about any
foreign religion at all qualified under this quideline.
So by all means talk to Aunt Flo when her spirit comes to visit; just
don’t do so out loud.
7) Disappointment in Love.
In California of the early 1850’s the proportion of men to women was
greater than ten to one. Brothels were often infrequent and most women
usually only took up residence in the larger cities. Trapped in the
mines or working the sluices with only hundreds of other males for
companionship meant that a man would often go for months without even
seeing a woman, only dreaming of her. When a miner finally got enough
gold to go to town a woman would be one of the first three things he
would want (the others being whiskey and gambling). And when that
lonely miner did finally lay his eyes on a real woman he would
inevitably be enamored. Going back to the mines he would then think of
her for the next several months until he again got to town and would
spend those long days in the mines feeling even more lonely than ever.
Disappointment in Love was part of the definition of being a gold
miner in California. It came with the territory. But the doctors
decided that unrequited love was a mental illness in the Golden State,
unable to fathom that perhaps there were valid reasons why tens of
thousands of men who spent their days digging in the dirt and their
nights drinking and gambling were unable to form lasting relationships
with women who had yet to arrive on this edge of the continent.
Another symptom common to the gold miner was:
6) Loss of Property.
Most of the men who came to California in the Gold Rush brought little
to nothing with them, nor did most leave much property behind in their
former homes. That’s because they didn’t have any property. That was
why most of them came here – to get some gold so they could acquire
some property. Few actually managed to do that because most of the
flakes and the nuggets that made it into their leather pouches never
got saved for any length of time. It instead got spent on the three
forms of entertainment mentioned above. But many miners were
consistent losers at poker and faro – the two most common games of
chance in California. Instead of just accepting the fact that they
were bad gamblers they would instead get depressed and go on a
drinking binge. That demonstrated Weak Character. So by all means, Mr.
Miner, gamble and lose your stake. But don’t let others see that it
got you down, because that shows mental deficiency.
And then you’re just going to be taking up space in the Insane Asylum,
space really need by those who have:
5) A Physical Disability.
It would seem that the population of miners in California in the
1850’s was not really all that pleasing to the eye, apparently
resembling something out of a Mary Shelley novel with physical
deformities parading through the unpaved lanes like failed scientific
experiments. Men with missing legs, arms, and fingers; men with
crushed and useless limbs that trailed along behind them; men with
less than the usual allotment of two eyes, two ears, a nose, and other
various yet important appendages. Apparently such physical deformity
was a common side effect of working in the mines and was rampant in
California, making many men despondent over their Frankenstein-like
appearance and inability to attract the ladies (which would then have
led to Unrequited Love and left them with a whole different set of
problems). Unable to just Take It Like A Man, many such men turned to
drink or begging, or both. This was a red flag for mental illness.
Mining companies weren’t about to pay for rehabilitation – a policy
shared by the logging companies and railroads in later years. And
since doctors couldn’t cure them they instead watched for signs that
might indicate they were becoming social parasites so they could be
It was enough to make a man pee in his pants – which, coincidently,
was the next symptom of insanity:
Have you ever laughed so hard that maybe you lost just a bit of muscle
control? Off to the Insane Asylum with you! Yes, peeing and pooping in
your pants were definite signs of mental illness, although the
connection was a bit tenuous. Apparently a loss of control over such
basic bodily functions indicated a loss of mental control as well.
After all, if you were just sitting around the campfire having a plate
of beans with your fellow miners and suddenly those fine fellows saw
(or smelled) a puddle forming beneath your seat, you could hardly
blame them if they either quickly excused themselves and walked away
or politely coughed and said something like, “Uh, had a check-up
lately, Jim Bob?” Once Jim Bob explained his predicament to the doctor
then it was off to the asylum with him. And if he happened to have
been experiencing a religious fervor while losing control, then he was
really up the creek.
This brings us (finally) to the Top Three Reasons for Being Declared
Insane in California in the 1850’s, and with baited breath we can only
hope that they manage to meet the high standards set by all of those
Don’t worry – they will.
3) Inappropriate Sexual Activity with Others.
Prostitution was legal in California yet demonized by the religious
profession and frowned upon by the medical profession. It was Evil,
and only insane men do evil things. There were millions of men in
California who were thousands of miles from home and these men were
mostly in their twenties; the prime of life, just bursting with energy
and enthusiasm. And frustration. By comparison there were only a
handful of women available to those men. A miner’s chances of getting
married were substantially less than that of his simultaneously
undergoing a spiritual fervor and peeing in his pants while getting
hit by a meteor. Yet if a miner did seek to ease his frustration in
the company of a woman he’d never before met and would never see
again, it still did not seem like the actions of a reasonable and sane
man to the doctors, and seeking erotic activity without the sanctity
of matrimony was deemed the third most common cause of insanity in
It was enough to drive a man to drink. So it's not surprising that the
second most common symptom of insanity was:
At last! This is the only one on the Top Ten list of symptoms which
had some basis in reality, as alcohol could form a mental as well as a
physical addiction. But the docs didn’t limit their definition to
those who were falling-down drunk in the streets. No, this criteria
included also those who might display any sign of intemperance, which
included ingesting spirits at an inappropriate time, in an
inappropriate place, or in inappropriate company, as any of which
could be deemed aberrant behavior.
But life in California in those days was hard. Men worked hard, and
they wanted to play hard. Yet it was now official that gambling could
cause mental illness; drinking could tip you over the mental cliff;
sex with others outside of marriage could make you insane. What else
What’s that – you think you’ve thought of something?
Well, you’re wrong. What you just thought of is Number One on the list.
1 ) Erotic Activity With Yourself
If the boys in the mines thought Number Three (above) was bad, hearing
about this one just about caused them to explode. Literally.
Did you have a hard day in the mine, Big Fella? Well, get used to it;
it’s gonna get even harder. Because seeking any type of relief from
that stress might just land you in the Looney Bin. You already knew
that you couldn’t gamble with the boys or pray too loudly with the
pastor. You can’t talk to your dead relatives. You can’t feel fear
over just how damn hard life is. You can’t seek relief with women, and
now you can’t even seek relief with yourself with that one lonely
activity made so famous by Onan in the bible, because that has been
deemed to be - by far - the Number One Major Cause of Insanity in
California. If you go off into the woods with a woman, then you’ll go
to hell. If you go off into the woods alone – to do the Miner’s
Handshake, as one popular euphemism puts it - then you could go to the
insane asylum. Life just wasn’t fair.
One has to wonder – did these doctors really take themselves
seriously? The answer would be – Yes, indeed they did. They took
themselves just as seriously as doctors do today; they were quite as
certain that they were always making the right diagnoses just as are
modern doctors. Which makes one also wonder – what kind of list will
be made about modern doctors a hundred years from today?
Since miners were the group which was specifically targeted by the
doctors they had to adapt, and do so rapidly. The moral to all of
this, as was quickly learned by any intelligent miner, was to do
exactly as you wanted to do as long as you stayed high in the Sierra
Nevada Mountains and stayed away from doctors.
There were, of course, some people who did seem to be genuinely insane
by any standard – not counting the individuals who drafted the above
criteria, of course. If someone was violent or totally irrational then
they were usually locked up in the basement of the insane asylum where
they couldn’t hurt anyone.
Nothing like having a few dozen screamers in the dungeon to lend a
little atmosphere to the place.
One Last Insane Postscript:
In April of 1856 the Superintendent of the Insane Asylum, a man by the
name of Doctor Samuel Langdon, got into a bit of an argument with one
of his fellow care givers, Doctor William Ryer. Unable to resolve the
dispute with a quiet discussion of the issues - as would have, say,
any sane professional doctor might have done - Doctor Langdon instead
lost control and challenged Ryer to a duel. In the exchange of gunfire
which followed Doctor Langdon lost both the argument and the duel,
taking a bullet in the knee. He was quickly and quietly retired from
office and away from the embarrassing public spotlight which shone
upon him. However, since he had not been observed to gamble, drink,
drool, have a conversation with god, become incontinent, or engage in
erotic behavior while alone or with invisible entities, he was not
deemed quite crazy enough to be locked up in his own institution, and
no doubt went on to offer his friendly professional services to many
others while in private practice in the ensuing years.
Yet rumor had it that he always remained somewhat reluctant to shake
hands with a miner from the mountains.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501.c.3 nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy