I attended the Bedlam: The asylum and beyond exhibit at the Wellcome Trust in London several weeks ago which highlighted the rise and fall of the institution of mental asylums.Unfortunately, the history of mental health treatment is appalling and Bedlam hospital in London was a place where “lunatics” were locked away. Those with mental illness often lived much of their lives without agency, a voice, or options. This exhibit focused on the history of “asylums” and highlighted changing attitudes towards mental illness. It also described patients and included art created by patients from the wards. I was particularly struck by one part of the exhibit – one lady who used embroidery to make a statement when her voice was taken away. These are the details that the exhibit included on Mary Frances Heaton:
“Mary Frances Heaton, a music teacher, was admitted to Wakefield asylum in 1837 suffering from epilepsy and ‘delusions’ of an affair with Lord Seymour, whose children were her pupils. She remained there for 36 years. She never accepted her diagnosis and over the years sewed intricate samplers detailing her version of events, including this letter to Queen Victoria protesting against her confinement.”
While much of her history is lost, Mary Frances Heaton’s samplers provide a fascinating example of someone who persistently demanded to be heard at a time where the voices of the “mentally ill” were silenced and ignored. By stitching letters, symbols, and stories onto her embroidery samplers, Heaton left a record. I found this tiny piece of the exhibit to be heartbreaking. While I can’t say whether or not there was truth to her diagnosis, I do wonder how much of the decision to lock her away had to do with gender, power, and class. The intersection of these forces – a woman challenging an upper-class powerful man may have resulted in her receiving the highly stigmatized “sentence” of a mental illness.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending – I could not find any more details of Heaton’s life and don’t expect there was a happily ever after to this tale of injustice, but I did think this story showcases an extraordinary effort to make her voice heard in the face of incredible injustice.
While the system of mental health treatment has (thankfully) transformed over the last century, the voices of people with mental illnesses are still silenced and there is still much work to do to combat the stigma of mental illness.
But with the limited resources and power Heaton had, she continued to try to make her voice heard and make sure her story was not ignored, which is why I consider Heaton a defiant hero.