Charles Reade, the Medico-Psychological Association, and “conspiracy theory” (2021)

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“It was at least more plausible that the conspiracy theory of Mr. Charles Reade”

by Federico Soldani – 31st Dec 2021

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Charles Reade, (born June 8, 1814, near Ipsden, Oxfordshire, Eng.—died April 11, 1884, London), English author whose novels attack, with passionate indignation and laborious research, the social injustices of his times.” A fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, he “embarked on a long career as a dramatist, theatre manager, and novelist.”

Wikipedia, accessed 31st December 2021 reports that “Reade fell out of fashion by the turn of the century — “it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him,” wrote George Orwell in an essay on Reade” (emphasis and links added in subsequent quotes as well) […]

The author George Orwell summed up Reade’s attraction as “the same charm as one finds in R. Austin Freeman‘s detective stories or Lieutenant-Commander Gould‘s collections of curiosities — the charm of useless knowledge,” going on to say that:

“Reade was a man of what one might call penny-encyclopaedic learning. He possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into books which would at any rate pass as novels. If you have the sort of mind that takes a pleasure in dates, lists, catalogues, concrete details, descriptions of processes, junk-shop windows and back numbers of the Exchange and Mart, the sort of mind that likes knowing exactly how a medieval catapult worked or just what objects a prison cell of the eighteen-forties contained, then you can hardly help enjoying Reade.”

(George Orwell, ‘Charles Reade’ 1940)

“Charles Reade,” illustrated by Frederick Waddy (1872).


As Jennifer Wallis writes in ‘Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum. Doctors, Patients, and Practices’ (Palgrave, 2017. See also ‘The Bones of the Insane’, 2013):

In the 1870s several British asylums came under close scrutiny in the popular and medical press. A number of patient deaths were reported that had a disturbing feature in common: broken ribs. The most alarming was the case of Rees Price, an elderly blind patient admitted to Carmarthen Asylum who had died shortly after admission. A postmortem found eight broken ribs and it was alleged that Price had received no proper medical examination upon admission, nor any special attention when he began to exhibit breathing difficulties. One of the responses to these revelations was a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette from novelist Charles Reade. Reade’s 1863 novel Hard Cash included a character who found himself committed to a private asylum where he was placed at the mercy of sadistic asylum attendants. Reade claimed that the research he had undertaken when writing this book cast light on the circumstances surrounding cases of rib fracture:

“The ex-keepers were all agreed in this that the keepers know how to break a patient’s bones without bruising the skin; and that the doctors have been duped again and again by them. To put it in my own words, the bent knees, big bluntish bones, and clothed, can be applied with terrible force, yet not leave their mark upon the skin of the victim. The refractory patient is thrown down and the keeper walks up and down him on his knees, and even jumps on his body, knees downwards, until he is completely cowed. Should a bone or two be broken in this process, it does not much matter to the keeper; a lunatic complaining of internal injury is not listened to. He is a being so full of illusions that nobody believes in any unseen injury he prates about.”


Cover of a 1871 issue of The Journal of Mental Science, edited by Henry Maudsley of London and John Sibbald of Edinburgh, Vol. XVI. With a quote from Francis Bacon in Latin: “ Nos vero intellectum longius a rebus non abstrahimus quam ut rerum imagines et radii (ut in sensu fit) coire possint. ”

These issues were discussed during the meeting of “THE MEDICO-PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION. The Report of a Quarterly Meeting of the Medico- Psychological Association, held in London, at the Royal Medico-chirurgical Society, by permission of the President and Council, on the 27th January, 1870.” A paper and a debate were published under “PSYCHOLOGICAL NEWS.”

The report was published in The Journal of Mental Science, edited by HENRY MAUDSLEY, M.D. Lond. [in the 1881 photo below, ed.] and JOHN SIBBALD, M.D. Edin..

Henry Maudsley. Photograph by G. Jerrard, 1881. Henry Maudsley – Wikipedia. Wellcome Library no. 13195i

“The Fifth Quarterly Meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association was held, by the kind permission of the President and Fellows of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, at their house in Berners Street, on Thursday, January 27th, Dr. Lockhart Robertson, M.D. Cantab., one of the Lord Chancellor’s Visitors in Lunacy, Ex-President of the Society, in the chair [in the 1881 photo below, ed.].

Members present – Dr. Lockhart Robertson (in the Chair), W. H. O. Sankey, Joseph Buton, J. Lockhart Clarke, W. B. Kesteven, W. Clement Daniel, J. Murray Lindsay, J. T. Sabben, Langdon Down, J. H. Paul, E. S. Haviland, Alonzo W. Stocker, J. Thompson Dickson, Fredk. Sutton, Arthur Harrison, W. Rhys Williams, H. L. Kempthorne, R. Boyd, Harrington Tuke, H. Maudsley. Visitors — J. B. Burra, R. Davey, and Robert Daly Walker.

Dr. SANKEY then read the following paper on “Ribs Fractured in Asylums”: “Doubtless there is at present no subject of greater importance to us and to the public, in relation to insanity, than that of the frequency with which fracture of the ribs has been found in patients dying in asylums. Its importance has relation to the causes of these injuries, to the obscurity which exists in connexion with their origin, and to the manner by which they are to be prevented.

In entering upon an inquiry into the causes of these fractures, I must separate all other cases of ill treatment and injury which have lately been collected together in articles that have appeared in the newspapers, and confine my remarks solely to the cases of fracture of the ribs.”


After the reading of Dr. Sankey’s paper “The PRESIDENT said that the Association were much indebted to Dr. Sankey for the opportune manner in which he had brought this question before them that evening. The question, as Dr. Sankey said, had of late been debated with much of sensational effect in the daily papers, particularly in the Pall Mall Gazette.
He (the President) believed that the writer in the Pall Mall was agitating the question and making capital out of the recent unfortunate cases — which he as much as any one deplored — in order to disparage the practice of non-restraint in our public asylums, and to cover the failures in that respect at the criminal asylum at Broadmoor, regarding which the Commissioners in Lunacy had so strongly commented. Broadmoor for some, to him unknown, reason enjoyed in a singular measure the powerful patronage and advocacy of the Pall Mall Gazette.
Nevertheless he (the President) must still express his most unqualified and undiminished faith in the treatment of the insane without mechanical restraint, and he would go so far as to say that he would rather have such a complication and misadventure as broken ribs to occur in the rare individual instances in which it did, than consent to a recurrence – however modified in guise it might be -to the abominations of the restraint system. The safety beds, the polkas and mazourkas of the Scotch asylums he equally condemned.”

The President concluded:

“The theory of Dr. Sankey as to the manner in which these injuries to the chest occurred in asylums deserved our careful attention. It was at least more plausible that the conspiracy theory of Mr. Charles Reade, and the precautionary measure suggested by Dr. Sankey of using a padded waistcoat in recent cases of mania with general paralysis – in which mental condition nearly all these cases under discussion were – seemed to him of practical value.”

Charles A. Lockhart Robertson. Photograph by G. Jerrard, 1881 C. Lockhart Robertson – Wikipedia. Wellcome Library no. 13477i

The above is one of the very first – if not the first – presently known uses of the expression “conspiracy theory.” Previous uses of similar expressions, happened for instance in the Scottish legal context, see “a theory of Conspiracy” as used in a report of a trial before the High Court of the Justiciary at Edinburgh on January 3, 1838 for the crimes of “illegal conspiracy and murder.”


In discussing Sankey’s paper, it was added by “Dr. TUKEI regret that Dr. Sankey, in his paper on the subject, seems to imply that there may be truth in the assertion of some of the sensational writers in the public press, that such lamentable accidents as those now under discussion are common , or are of ordinary routine. I deny this in toto; such accidents are rare, and that being so, it is useless to argue that they are in their nature unlikely, or occur only in general paralysis. The only wonder is that in public asylums, considering the savage nature of some of the half-educated victims of mental disease, and the liberty which the non-restraint system allows them, accidents do not more frequently happen; that within the last few years several superintendents, and many attendants, have been seriously hurt, would show there are two sides to this question.

The fact is that in the refractory wards of our public asylums the attendants, too few in number, carry their lives in their hands. The remedy is to increase their number, and add to the surveillance over them.”


[In the photo at the top, Charles Reade by George Goodman, albumen carte-de-visite, 1870-1884, National Portrait Gallery, London.]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "Charles Reade, the Medico-Psychological Association, and “conspiracy theory” (2021)," in PsyPolitics, December 31, 2021,

Last Updated on January 2, 2022 by Federico Soldani

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