Hidden Histories

The Strange Insanity of Hannah Lewis, in 18th-century Philadelphia

Tuesday, 11/15/11

Surprisingly, exactly two hundred twelve years ago today, the Gazette of the United States and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, for November 15, 1799, recorded the death of HANNAH LEWIS, an elderly woman from Philadelphia. For seventeen years, Mrs. Lewis resided at America's first hospital for the mentally impaired, or the Pennsylvania Hospital, which began on May 11, 1751, by an 'Act of the Pennsylvania Assembly,' largely through the efforts of Philadelphia physician, Dr.Thomas Bond, and well-known resident and citizen, Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Rush, famed Philadelphia physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence wished for mentally impaired individuals to receive "humane and proper treatment," and served as a physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital from 1783 until his death in 1813. Within his personal papers on deposit at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (but owned by the Library Company of Philadelphia), is a "List of Lunatics in the Pennsylvania Hospital," for May 1, 1784, which states the "Disease, Causes, Mania," of the respective residents, among which one "Hannah Lewis" is included, with "Grief" being the reason for her mental difficulty or imbalance.

The well-known female Quaker diarist, Elizabeth Drinker, recorded the death of Hannah Lewis on November 14, 1799, stating how she was "in the 87th year of her age...a native of this City, and for the last 17 years a pattient {sic} of that house.---I knew her when I was a Child as did most in this City, she being always look'd on as a person deranged."

Yet just exactly what was her 'derangement?' The above Gazette and other Philadelphia papers describe it as the following: "Supposing herself to be a daughter of King George II, and having a mind to see her father {italics from the paper}, she made several attempts about forty years since to go to England, but was always detected and prevented by her friends. At length she eluded their vigilance and escaped to New York...There she concealed herself in a ship bound to London, where she arrived and remained about seven years, till her money and plate was all expended; her curiosity being gratified, she settled her 'tribute money' as she called it, at the rate of a heaped bushel of gold per annum, and returned to Philadelphia, supremely happy, in the idea of receiving punctual remitances every year."

With this she supported the Hospital (which she called her own house), and allowed her domestics to "live in splendor, equal to the pre-eminent dignity and rank, she always imagined she sustained in the world."

Samuel Coates (1748-1830), a Philadephia Quaker merchant, served on the Pennsylvania Hospital's Board of Managers, and as both the Secretary of the Board for twenty-six years, and President of the Hospital for some thirteen years of his life. He was particularly interested in the insane, and actually kept a "leather-bound memorandum book," in which he recorded his feelings, ideas, observations, and thoughts on madness. It is within this work, that we have the most detailed account of the 'madness of Hannah Lewis,' entitled, "Some Account of Hannah Lewis, A Lunatic, who died in the Pennsylvania Hospital."

Coates states how Hannah was the daughter of early Welsh settlers of Pennsylvania and that her problems began or "commenced soon after the Death of her husband, and was attributed to that cause," hence Benjamin Rush's statement that her derangement came from 'Grief,' as stated.  However, her manifestations of instability took on a somewhat 'different turn' that one would naturally expect, if derived from sorrow or despair.

Being a Quaker, we're told she commenced preaching in the "Friends Meeting, at the old Courthouse Steps, and in the open streets." Owen Jones (1711-1793), an early Quaker leader, visited her in an attempt to "dissuade her from preaching." In response, Hannah "invited him to sit down and accept a glass of wine and a bisquit," then said a prayer, but afterwards reproved him "as an unfit person to treat with her, he having just taken the Sacrament against the very principles he professed as a Quaker..." She soon denied her parentage, as well as her own children, describing them as "brats" which had been "imposed upon her...because she was rich."

It is this latter remark which brought to her, a "claim to fame," since she emphatically declared herself "to be a Member of the Royal Family, and eldest daughter of George the Second." Eventually arriving in England, she roamed the Royal Gardens, but "was permitted to range" according to Coates, since she was considered to be a harmless character. Eventually accruing a debt of several hundred pounds which she was unable to pay, she returned to Philadelphia. However, she came back to America "as she said," with "Tribute Money" from "her Father, the King of Great Britain," consisting of gold, silver, and copper coinage, believing she applied such funding "to the support of the Pennsylvania Hospital, which she called her Palace."

Samuel Coates further states, that among her friends, he was "one of the unfortunate ones that lost her affections," since he claimed part-ownership "in her Palace" or the Hospital. She thus accused him of stealing such things as her "silver tankard," of robbing her of "a bushel of gold and silver," of drinking "the Milk of her Nine Cows, swallowing 3 gallons of it at one time," and among many other accusations, also informed Coates of her displeasure in removing the pavements "she had laid with Jewels, Sapphires, and Diamonds, and replaced them with common bricks and Stones..."

If the above wasn't enough, Hannah informed poor Coates that he knew he "had murdered all her Children in Cold Blood, entered her Chamber in the Night, cut her into pieces, and carried off her back bones, till she bent like an Old Woman, pressed down by the Infirmities of Age," all of which were crimes, not only against her person, but also "her Kingdom."

On one occasion, Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania visited and conversed with her, a conversation which Samuel Coates witnessed and recorded within his memorandum book as follows:
 
   "Governor: How do you do Mrs. Lewis?
   Hannah: You make very free--Who are you?
   Governor: I am the Governor of Pennsylvania--don't you know me?
   Hannah: And I am the King's daughter, You say, you are the Governor, do You?
   Governor: Yes, I am.
   Hannah: The Devil you are!  I think you have a great deal of impudence to tell me so. Where did you get your commission? I never signed it...From the people did You? They were hard put to, when they made you a Governor...You are a very ill looking fellow...
   Governor: Mrs. Lewis, why you know me very well, and I have known you, ever since I was a Child.
   Hannah: That may be...What do you do with that fellow {meaning Samuel Coates}, he is a great Villain, and ought to have his Ears cutt off!"

Samuel Coates goes on to relate how Mrs. Lewis believed herself to be the most brilliant individual, and described "Newton was but a Child to her in Astronomy...She having lived seven thousand years in the Moon. Had direct communication with every Star...She also knew the Sea better than Neptune, who was but a fool, skimming the surface of the Water, while she was swimming nine thousand years in a fishes Eye, exploring the Deep..," where she spoke with whales, fish, etc. When asked in what language she addressed the denizens of the ocean, she replied: "In the Oyer and Terminer Tongue,..which a fool like You, known nothing of!"

Coates records how Hannah Lewis "would eat almost anything," stating how he had caught her "eating mice...that she cut her hair off, when it grew long, and plaited it in the form of a pincushion, curiously wrought."  For the last twelve years of her life, Coates stated she "required an allowance of rum," which she consumed "till within a few days of her death."  Perhaps it was this regular allotment of 'rum' that Hannah Lewis received that was in reality the deciding factor that brought about her bouts of insanity, rather than any psychological or emotional condition!

Coates states how from her father she had received a substantial inheritance, but which disappeared by her "roving about" and from her time spent in England. When found dead in her bed, she had upon her chest, carefully placed, "a few pieces of Glass and Pebbles," which she "valued as Jewells," plus "the heads perhaps of One hundred thousand Flies and Misquitoes, which she had been in the habit of de-capitating for Many years, as a punishment for their presumption, in biting the King's daughter."

One naturally feels sadness for the disturbed life of a woman who at one time had been quite sane. Regrettably, to my knowledge, nothing to date has been found as to what caused her "Grief," whether it was in fact tied to the loss of her husband. If so, the question becomes, who was he? How and when did he die? Such traumatic losses of loved-ones can cause depression and often psychological and emotional instability.

Perhaps a current reader has previously uncovered the background to the insanity of Hannah Lewis, if so, I invite their remarks to this blog entry. If not, hopefully some future researcher will someday shed light on the origins of the insanity of Hannah Lewis. Schizophrenia, early psychiatric accounts, are only a few of the diverse topics or subject matter awaiting the avid reseachers, who visit The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and utilize its varied and diverse collections.