James Norris – an insane American.

the insane American

James Norris: the 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.”


The sad tale of James Norris (mistakenly called William by the press) captured the attention of the public in 1814 when he was discovered in Bethlem Royal Hospital, mechanically restrained and in poor health, having been confined in isolation for more than ten years. Norris, a seaman from America, was originally incarcerated in ‘Bedlam’ for an unnamed lunacy and was, after a number of violent incidents, restrained in this extraordinary device designed specifically for him. No less than six members of parliament visited Norris during 1814, each maintaining that he was rational, quiet, and capable of coherent and topical conversation.

As a result of the publication of this image and the interest it generated in asylum reform, Norris was released from his restraints in 1814, yet remained confined in Bethlem. However, the conditions he had endured for more than ten years had so weakened his constitution that he died within a few weeks of his release, of either pneumonia or tuberculosis. The case of James Norris, and the public interest it created, was instrumental in the creation of the Mad House Act of 1828, which sought to license and regulate asylums for the insane, and to improve the treatment of the insane.

Three men were responsible for exposing the plight of William Norris, and eventually gaining his release: Edward Wakefield (1774-1854), member of parliament, reformer, and philanthropist, William Hone (1780-1842), political writer and publisher, and James Bevans, architect. These men were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums and thus formed a committee with the aim of visiting asylums around the country and making reports on what they found. The illustration of Norris and its subsequent publication was part of an orchestrated drive by these three men to bring the issue of asylum reform to the public. The number of times the image was copied by different artists pays tribute to the vision of the committee. This particular etching by G. Cruikshank, was published in 1815 by William Hone, sketched from life by G. Arnald in 1814. – Liz Mathew


William Norris – an insane American

Human Freaks 4 (39) Proquest durable URL


Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.


One Response to James Norris – an insane American.

  1. […] a long history of poor conditions, England started reforming its insane asylums. Cases like that of James Norris, a former seaman who spent ten years shackled to his bed with an iron harness, lead the reformers […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: