The Twisted Tale of Harriet Mordaunt
It seemed fitting in this, my first blog, to write about a few women who were committed to mental institutions back in the 19th century. I confess I have a certain curiosity for these things, which is why I wrote a book about a woman who spent time in a “mad-house” in 1887. But upon landing on one particularly salacious case, I decided to focus on just one.
It’s a doozy (of the seriously screwed up kind).
First, let me just say that I’m drawn to these oftentimes horrific stories not just to see what happened once they were locked away—mental illness was so little understood at the time, and remedies weren’t well, really remedies at all—but how these unfortunate women landed in asylums in the first place.
The reason for commitment was often as telling—on the condemned, on the family, on society as a whole—as the life they led inside.
That’s because the people running the show—relatives, lawmakers, medical men—had all the power. All too often it was men of the establishment against one doomed woman.
Like the Blackwell’s Asylum I write about in A Feigned Madness, these institutions were little more than holding cells for the unfit. They were places where a relative, spouse, friend, or neighbor could be put away from the rest of society, more often than not, for life.
But what, exactly, did ‘unfit’ mean?
And now for that bizarro case.
At the age of eighteen, Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe had everything a young Scottish girl could hope for in landing a splendid match: youth and beauty, an impeccable family lineage, and a faultless reputation. When she married baronet Sir Charles Mordaunt in 1866, she acquired a title and an ancestral home to boot. After a brief honeymoon, the Mordaunts settled into Walton Hall, a newly renovated 72-bedroom pile in Warwickshire that had been in Sir Charles’ family for generations.
From the outset, the Mordaunts were part of what was called “The Marlborough House Set,” the aristocratic elites who socialized with the Prince and Princess of Wales. Nothing odd there.
But things were about to get weird.
Sir Charles was 12 years his wife’s senior, a robust, if rather stolid, outdoorsman who was more at home hunting and fishing than attending the gay society parties Harriet preferred. As a stipulation of their engagement, Harriet made her future husband promise he would never impede on her fun with friends, and so when he left in June of 1868 for a fishing trip in Norway, Harriet didn’t accompany him.
Birth and Deception
In February the following year, Harriet gave birth to a daughter named Violet. Many assumed the baby was born prematurely, as nine months previously Sir Charles had been in Norway. However, when the doctors initially believed the child might be blind, Harriet suddenly became hysterical. She believed the child’s condition was brought about by a hereditary sexually transmitted venereal disease (later doctors would rule that neither mother nor child had the disease. Violet’s eyesight was just fine).
It would have been better for Harriet if she’d stopped there, but she didn’t. She went on to admit to her husband she had been unfaithful to him during his absence with at least four other men. Violet, she told him, wasn’t his. She believed the child’s father was a viscount named Lowry Cole.
This might well have been scandal enough, but when Harriet named Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, as one of the men she had been with, scandal turned to media frenzy. Now, the royal family was involved.
At first, Sir Charles didn’t believe his wife. She had had a difficult birth and was overwrought. But after Harriet’s repeated entreaties, and finding letters from the prince hidden in her desk, Sir Charles was left with no choice other than to accept what she had told him.
He immediately filed for divorce.
What ensued came to be known as the Warwickshire Scandal, not least because a member of the royal family, a man slated to be the next King of England, was involved. It didn’t help that there were rumors that Albert Edward had had liaisons with other women.
Harriet’s father, Thomas Moncreiffe, filed an immediate counter petition. If the defense could prove Harriet was mad, Sir Charles could not by law divorce his wife (up until the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act divorce by reason of insanity could not be granted in England and Wales). Sir Charles was having none of it.
The debate led to a much-publicized criminal trial, wherein servants, doctors, and the men Harriet had named testified.
The Mordaunt case was the first time a Prince of Wales was called to testify in open court. I can just imagine the public’s unwavering attention, fed by daily morsels from the press. The prince’s testimony before the defense lasted just seven minutes. Unsurprisingly, he denied anything improper had happened between them, although he did admit to spending time with Harriet alone when Sir Charles wasn’t home.
Even so, the legal counsel on both sides treated the prince with kid gloves. Sir Charles' counsel didn’t even cross-examine him.
At the conclusion of the trial just seven days later, the jury ruled that Harriet was suffering from puerperal mania, a sort of postpartum psychosis that was little understood at the time but whose symptoms were generally understood to include hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. Thus, Harriet was ruled mentally unstable and couldn’t testify in her own defense. Sir Charles petition for divorce was dropped and Lady Mordaunt was committed to an asylum.
Sir Charles, however, didn’t give up. Several years and legal appeals later, the case was revoked on the basis that Lady Mordaunt’s insanity was not a bar to proceedings. Had the laws changed? No. It looked an awful lot like the court was doing Sir Charles a favor.
In 1875, Sir Charles got his divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery and subsequent child with Lord Cole. Cole never contested the action. Sir Charles would not see Harriet again. He remarried three years later.
What about Violet? Sir Charles made it clear he wanted nothing to do with her. She would be raised by Harriet’s parents in Scotland and would never be allowed to be presented at court like her cousins. Sir Charles did pay a small annual allowance for her care, however. She would go on to marry happily in 1890.
If there was any positive outcome for Harriet, is was that her social and financial status allowed for private asylum care, which was far better than the overcrowded, non-hygienic, abusive atmosphere of most public institutions at the time.
Even so, Harriet spent the rest of her days locked way. She died at age 58 after spending two-thirds of her life—37 years—in a number of small, private asylums.
Suspicions of Conspiracy
While it’s all too easy to judge historical events through a modern lens, I think it’s safe to say that Harriet lost all power during the ensuing scandal. From her own father’s first whisper of insanity, she seems to recede into the background. What was her side of the story? What would she have told the court?
Doctors for her defense seemed to believe her statements of unfaithfulness were merely temporary postpartum delusions. But Sir Charles believed his wife was feigning insanity in order to remain married and avoid the further scandal of divorce.
Was the finding of insanity, as some newspapers decried, a means to silence Harriet? Why did Sir Charles’ lawyers never question the Prince of Wales in court? And what about Lowry Cole’s paternal concession? Did he believe himself the father, or was he paid off by a member of the royal family?
We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that the handling of Harriet’s case makes it plain that women had few rights to govern their own lives in the 19th century. Whether they were insane or not.
To order my book about the daring Nellie Bly’s 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website.To order her book about the real life Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.