She ordered extravagant luncheons both at Stafford and Northampton stations and had no money to pay for them. The delusion that she is a duchess recurs frequently throughout her case notes.

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Susan’s parents and siblings

Susan – or Susannah – Burton was the seventh of the ten children of Benjamin Burton and his wife Hannah Maria (née Eaton). She was born in the 1st quarter of 1845 in the village of Brackley in Northamptonshire where her father worked as a shoemaker. Benjamin was born in the village of Helmdon, four miles north of Brackley, in 1806 and Hannah was born in 1808 in Stowe, Buckinghamshire.

The couple were married in Helmdon parish church on the 29th of November 1827. 

Susannah’s older siblings were:

  • Harriet, born in Syresham, a village near Brackley, in 1828
  • George Samuel, born in St Pancras, Middlesex, in 1832
  • Mary Ann, born in St Pancras, Middlesex, in 1834
  • William, born in St Pancras, Middlesex, in 1838
  • John Benjamin, born in Brackley in 1840
  • Sarah, born in Brackley in 1842

We do not know why George, Mary Ann and William were born in St Pancras. If the family moved there after Harriet’s birth in 1828 they had returned to Northamptonshire by the time John was born in 1840. We find Benjamin, Hannah and their five children all living in Helmdon in the 1841 Census.

Susan was baptised in Helmdon parish church on the 15th of February 1845. Her three younger siblings were:

  • Alfred, born in Helmdon in 1848
  • Thomas, born in Byfield in 1850
  • Anna Maria, born in Byfield in 1852

The 1850s and 1860s

By the time of the 1851 Census the family had moved to Byfield. Harriet was working as a domestic servant in the home of the Place family in Byfield and George was, like his father, a shoemaker. It has not been possible to find Mary Ann in the census.

In the 1861 Census we find that all the children except George and the three youngest have left home: in 1857 Harriet had married carpenter George Probert and the couple were living in Byfield with their two children:

Mary had married market gardener James Makepeace in 1856 but by 1861 the couple had moved to London and were living with their son in St Pancras where James was employed as a stable man; 

William was working as a shoemaker in Byfield where he lived with his wife Ann (née Goodridge) and their three children; living with them was William’s brother John who was also a shoemaker; 

Sarah was employed as a kitchen maid in Idlicote House near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire.

The onset of Susan’s mental health problems?

The only one of the siblings we cannot trace in the 1861 Census is, unfortunately, Susan. However, a Susan Burton was admitted to Norfolk Asylum on two occasions between 1857 and 1862 for short stays of a few months. On each occasion, she was discharged ‘recovered’. Could this have been our subject, already suffering from the mental health problems that would dominate her later life? From this distance it is impossible to know for certain.

The 1870s and 1880s

Sadly, Susan’s mother Hannah died in Byfield in 1869  aged 62. Two years later we find Susan in the 1871 Census working as a cook in the house of wholesale warehouseman Frederick Leaf and his family, Burlington Lodge, Crown Lane in Norwood. In 1875 Susan’s father, Benjamin, died in Byfield.

By the time of the 1881 Census Susan had moved to Stafford St Mary in Staffordshire where she was living with her shoe-maker brother Thomas, his wife Sarah and their four children at 54, Cherry Street. Susan is described as a domestic servant but we do not know if this means she was employed by her brother or worked elsewhere.

Berrywood Asylum

The next time we see Susan is when she is admitted to Berrywood Asylum in Northamptonshire on the 24th of March 1894 at the age of 49. This is the first definite evidence we have of Susan’s mental health problems. 

It has not been possible to find her in the 1891 Census so we do not know when she left her brother’s home to return to Northamptonshire. 

In her Manor Asylum case notes her previous residence is given as ‘Cramps watchmakers, Byfield’. Research has revealed that this business, owned by Edward D. Cramps, was active in Byfield High Street between 1883 and 1889. In the 1901 Census Mr Cramps is still living on the premises with his housekeeper sister, Fanny. It is possible Susan was employed there as a domestic servant before her admission to Berrywood.

The Manor Asylum

Susan was to remain in Berrywood until the 12th of October 1899 when she was transferred to the Manor. In her case notes she is described as a lodging house keeper and her nearest relative is given as her brother George who now lives, like their younger brother Thomas, in Stafford St Mary. (In the 1881 Census George was described as a ‘bootmaker employing 4 men’).

Despite Susan having spent over five years in Berrywood before her transfer,  and if one assumes that the asylum had maintained contact with her family (with George, at least – see below), then the personal details in her case notes are surprisingly sketchy.

Her age is ‘unknown – believed to be 50’; the date of her first attack is ‘not known’ and it is ‘not known’ if she is suicidal. We learn that her current attack started seven months ago and the cause is believed to be ‘religion’.

Susan’s condition

The doctor’s observations on examining her are as follows:

…the patient rambled with all kinds of nonsense and delusions. Fancied she was full of evil spirits and that nothing satisfied in the way of food – in fact if she took anything to eat the evil spirits and devils eat it. The holy spirit has been sent after her. The Virgin Mary wanted food. The Queen has bought a large house in London for her.

Her brother George had stated that, “She came unexpectedly to him from London in a very excited and strange manner, saying that her soul was wounded and that she was full of devils. Ordered extravagant luncheons both at Stafford and Northampton stations and had no money to pay for them.” 

Her first months in the Manor

The following comments are typical of those made by her doctors during her first few months in the Manor:

“…rambling and irrational in conversation and delusional. She makes curious noises and says they are from the small of her back where it pains her.”

“…says that work consists in making a noise and that her work here is nearly finished.”

“…when spoken to as a rule becomes bad-tempered and excited.”

“…believes that she has died and is slowly being raised from the dead.” 

“…always reading about hymns and prayers.”

“…patient very discontented. She describes the staff as disgraceful, idle lying scamps.”

“…the food, she says, is horrible and wants beetroot.”

“…sometimes believes there is a tiger in her bedroom.”

The delusion that she is a duchess recurs frequently throughout her case notes. Here are just a few of the relevant comments made by her doctors:

“…rude and abusive under examination…states that she is a Duchess and that I (should) invite the nurses to call her Gee-Gee.” 

“…patient says she is a duchess and has an animal inside her.”

“…says she is the Grand Duchess of Northampton.”

“…says she is a Grand Duchess and runs the asylum.”

“…Paranoia. Believes she is a duchess of royal birth, believes she is interfered with at night.”

“…her delusions of grandeur persist; believes she is an object of dislike.”

“…has many delusions of a grandiose nature; believes she is a grand duchess.” 

An inflammatory but eloquent letter

On 24th of April 1902 Susan wrote a letter to her doctor complaining about her treatment at the hands of the medical officers. The writing is not always legible but the following extracts are typical of the letter as a whole:

To Doctor Donaldson

I threaten your life by my license for advising these girls to take such liberties with me. I have been able to bear up very well these eight years against the bitter envy. Your perverse tongue proves to me you have no respect for weakness. Your conscience must be dead or you would not let such creatures to assault me. Last Tuesday Hutton pushed me out of the bathroom with great violence (illegible) when I see my friends I shall explain more. This afternoon the girl Frances, a defiant lying hussy, pushed me down the steps (illegible) I never was so assailed…

Despite the inflammatory tone of the letter, the vocabulary used and the accuracy of the spelling would suggest that Susan was an articulate, eloquent and educated woman.

Susan’s latter years in the Manor

As time went on Susan’s condition and behaviour deteriorated, as evidenced by her doctor’s comments in her case notes:

“…noisy and abusive. Her delusions persist. Thinks everyone is against her.”

“…chronic mania. Noisy, excited and abusive. Claims that the medical officers call her ‘pig’, ‘old cow’ etc.”

“…has many delusions of persecution…continuously grumbling about everything.”

“…is noisy, garrulous and quarrelsome.”

“…says she hears a tiger roaring and that I am to tell the Bishop and Lord Rosebery that it is all d-d nonsense.”

Susan’s death

The final entry in Susan’s case notes was written on the 6th of July 1916: 

“She collapsed last night. She had some ether of ammonia but refused to take it all. I went down…to her to inject her with strychnine but she was dead on my arrival.”

The official cause of death was given as (i) senile decay and (ii) heart disease. Susan was buried in Horton Cemetery on the 14th of July 1916 in grave 2226a. She was 71.

Susan’s siblings

As is so often the case, the Visitors’ Book for the Manor Asylum proved invaluable in the search for our subject’s relatives. During the 17 years Susan spent at the Manor she was visited on a number of occasions by her siblings, particularly George, Alfred, Thomas, Mary and various nieces.

The number of times her relatives’ addresses are updated in the book would indicate, I think, at least at first,  a desire on their part to remain in contact with her or receive news of her condition. Eventually, however, every address is scored through with the words “Letter returned ‘not known’”, “Letter returned ‘Gone away’”, or “Letter returned ‘Gone – no address’”. Had Susan’s siblings really moved away without leaving a forwarding address? Had they died? Or had they just lost interest in a sister who had spent the last 22 years of her life in asylums, becoming ever more deluded and abusive?

Were Susan’s mental health problems hereditary? 

One sibling who does not appear in the Manor’s Visitors’ Book is Susan’s eldest sister Harriet Probert. I discovered that she herself had been admitted to Berrywood Asylum in Northamptonshire on the 14th of January 1901 and discharged ‘recovered’ on the 15th of May 1902. 

However, she was readmitted on the 19th of August 1904 and died there on the 2nd of June 1906 aged 78. We do not know the nature or severity of Harriet’s psychiatric illness but her admission to Berrywood does suggest that Susan’s mental health problems may have been hereditary.

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