Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/The Hermit of Red-Coat's Green

By DANIEL H. TUKE, M. D., M. R. C. P.

EVERYBODY remembers Mopes, the "slothful, unsavory, nasty reversal of the laws of human nature"—Dickens's famous character of "Tom Tiddler's Ground." The recent death of the original of that sketch has attracted fresh notice to his strange mode of life. I propose to consider the question of his insanity; and whether, if insane, the mental disorder in this and similar cases calls for interference with the individual's liberty.

Mr. James Lucas, the fourth child of an opulent London merchant, was born in 1813; there were five children in all, of whom a brother and sister survive. He had an aunt who, like himself, exhibited a contempt for the ordinary decencies of civilized life, and an uncle who was also eccentric, though not in an asylum. Nothing is known of the previous generation, except that the paternal grandfather was successful in making money. Lucas was considered a healthy boy in mind and body up to ten years, when he suffered from a ringworm, and had his head shaved, and an ointment, said by a relative to have been very strong, rubbed in. His mother claimed that at this time his character underwent a change. She said that "he was never quite the same" afterward. Whether or not the implied cause[1] be deemed adequate, it is certain that an alteration in his moral character, marked chiefly by waywardness of temper and untruthfulness, occurred at this time. He was spoiled by both parents. It is a striking fact that very many of the patients admitted into York Retreat were unduly indulged when children.

At seven, he was sent to school. He ran away, but was sent back and kept there until he was fourteen. With a view to moral restraint and discipline, he was next sent to Mr. Hicks, a physician of Whitwell. His stay was short: one day during Mr. Hicks's absence, he escaped and took refuge with a relative, who refused to give him up. Mr. Hicks, who is still living, remembers the lad, and tells me that he regarded him as the victim of ill-judged indulgence and injudicious treatment.. He displayed "incorrigible perverseness and obstinacy, combined with a certain amount of cunning." Mr. Hicks learned nothing of his previous condition except that, when driven out for an airing, he would, if taken from the carriage, stand still and shut his eyes.

He returned home, but his father was totally unable to manage him. He was self-willed, obstinate, impatient of restraint. Thwarted in any of his wishes, he took offense, and shut himself in his bedroom for days together, spending therein, it seems, the greater part of his time. He would not refuse to eat his meals if they were left at his door, but he resolutely refused to return the plates, until, at length, his room contained nearly all the crockery in the house. At one time he would put on but little clothing; at another, dress like a fop. On account of these eccentricities, his father moved into the country, but shortly returned, as he there fell into low company and became less controllable. He next would not allow the cinders to be removed from his grate, thus keeping the family in constant dread that he would set the house on fire. He objected so much to an attendant, that one who had been procured was discharged.

At his seventeenth year his father died. At twenty, his conduct became unbearable, and by medical advice he was forced to have a constant attendant. This supervision, which lasted two years, showed how his state of mind was regarded by those competent to judge the late Dr. Sutherland was one of the authorities consulted. It ceased only because his mother intensely disliked it. The family now lived at Red-Coat's Green, near Hitchen, in the house where the hermit afterward lived and died. He hunted occasionally with a gentleman of the neighborhood. He rode either with his shirt outside, or in a nankeen suit, barefooted, with a small cap, or bareheaded, his longhair streaming in the wind. He bestrode a high-peaked saddle, and used a rope for his bridle and stirrups. Sometimes, he would ride in a carriage, his hair done up in curl-papers. He became attentive to a young lady, to whom he sent a pair of doves in a cage, but she returned the present. He persecuted her sadly, by prowling around the house. His mother died in 1849. He was then the eldest surviving son, but a younger one was left executor. A fatal objection to his acting in that capacity was, that he would not sign his name to any paper bearing her Majesty's stamp. He held that she was not the rightful heir to the throne, and would not use a postage or receipt stamp lest he should seem to admit her supremacy. But he did not scruple to use a coin bearing her image.

He kept his mother's body in the house from the 24th of October, 1849, to January, 1850, promising each day to let her be buried "tomorrow." The greater part of his time was spent beside the corpse. At length his brother interfered and buried the body. It has been published that he was heart-broken at his mother's death. His relatives doubt the depth of this attachment. He, indeed, expressed himself as much attached to her, and intimated that he would die with her; but she often said that he never showed his affection by gratifying one of her wishes. However, he may have felt real sorrow at her death, and this seems to be implied by the fact that he allowed things in the house to remain just as they were when she died; her letters and money untouched, and the beds as they were then made. In fact, his distress seemed genuine. He often told a neighbor that he would willingly have died for her, and he would weep bitterly at the mention of her name.

His life as a hermit now began, but, however great his distress, we cannot attribute to it his strange mode of life. His brother believes that he afterward appeared worse only because all restraint was removed. His brother and sisters could not now live with him. I believe he never saw the latter again, while he became estranged from the former because of his interference about the interment. Lucas spoke in the bitterest terms of his brother, and even left a hay-stack untouched, all his life alleging that he would hold him responsible for it. Still, his brother visited him several times, and was received. It is important to observe that he made a will a few years after his mother's death, wherein he evinced no animosity toward his brother, nor displayed any eccentricity in the disposition of his property. The appearance of the house bespoke the character of the occupant. Windows and doors were carefully barricaded, and the house was allowed to go to ruin; so likewise was the garden. A tree which fell across the walk was not cleared away except to allow a passage to the house. I visited the hermit some years ago, going up to the window of what had been the kitchen. Glass and casement had long disappeared;

PSM V06 D318 Portrait of a hermit.jpg
Portrait of a Hermit

the strong upright iron bars alone remained. Here the possessor of ample means, a man of at least fair education, lived day and night. He appeared to emerge from a bed of ashes.[2] He had not slept in a bed for many years. He came forward, and entered, rather reluctantly, into conversation, with a suspicious expression. Unwashed for many years, his skin was in an undesirable condition, the whites of his eyes contrasting strangely with the rest of his face. Clothes he had none; only a dirty blanket loosely thrown over him. His hair, long a stranger to scissors or razor, was matted with dirt. He was about five feet six inches high, rather muscular, with dark hair and eyes, the latter prominent, and pale complexion. His forehead appeared well developed. The room had a fire, an old table, a chair, and numerous bottles. It is said he suspended a basket from the ceiling to keep his food from the rats. He spoke to me in a low, rather plaintive tone, which impressed me that he was laboring under a certain amount of fear or apprehension. Part of his conversation, otherwise perfectly rational, conveyed the same impression. He intimated that his relations were against him, and I understood him to assign it as the reason why his house was barricaded. He appeared to be laboring under a partial insanity—a monomania of suspicion or persecution. Whatever reasons he may have subsequently had for barricading his house, his brother informs me that some panes of glass were actually broken by stones during the papal aggression in 1850, because he leaned to Romanism, and then it was that bars of wood were nailed across the windows.

He wrote no letters, nor wrote at all, that I know of, except upon a check. He had a check-book and used it to pay some of his bills. When he required money, his bankers received a verbal message, and sent a clerk to transact business with him. The check was always very correctly written, and the counterfoil duly filled in. On his last check, dated April 14, 1874, the signature, unlike the previous ones, was rather shaky. Because of his antipathy to stamps, the receipt stamp had to be added afterward. The dividend-warrants that came to him remained uncashed for the same reason, forming a large collection of very dirty papers. About four years ago he was induced to authorize his bankers to receive his dividends, and thus surmounted his scruple to recognize the queen. Landed property of his at Liverpool, required for public purposes, was sold under compulsion because he would not become a party to the sale, as it involved the use of a stamp. The money was placed in the Bank of England, and remained there to his death, because he would not use a stamp to draw it out. I have a curious proof of his shrewdness and desire to get the money. A solicitor he knew had some connection with the Court of Chancery. One day he suggested to him to file a bill in chancery to obtain the money. His visitor replied that the court would then institute an inquiry into the condition of the owner. "What!" asked Lucas, alarmed, "do you mean de lunatico?" An affirmative answer killed the scheme.

Lucas was not a miser. He gave, to swarms of tramps, in coppers and gin, giving always more to a Romanist than a Protestant. It is said that on last Good Friday he doled out sweetmeats, coppers, gin-and-water (large quantities of which he always kept on hand) to two hundred children. For some years he gave a poor old woman four shillings a week. His diet was simple, though not scant. He ate bread, cheese, and red herrings, and drank both milk and gin. Once, however, he gave up milk—and this, of course, is an important feature of his case—because he suspected that poison had been put into it. At one time he charged a farmer who supplied him with eggs with putting poison into them. When the farmer replied that it would be rather a difficult thing to do, he said that some poison must have been given to the old hen. He did not habitually drink to excess, but was occasionally drunk. It is supposed that he drank largely of gin the evening before his death, while feeling depressed. Fear of poison frequently led him to change his baker, and he carefully selected a loaf. In his room was found nearly a cart-load of loaves which he probably suspected of containing poison.

He died of apoplexy at sixty-one, on the 19th of April last. A week before his death he appeared as well as usual; he was, in fact, lively and communicative, and seemingly without any unfriendly spirit or delusion regarding his friends. He spoke with an asthmatic visitor very intelligently of the symptoms and causes of that disease. He remembered the number of years (seven) since he had seen him, and the subject discussed, which the visitor had forgotten. Sometimes, however, he complained of losing his memory, and it was noticed latterly that in using a Greek word—he partially remembered both Greek and Latin—he could not recall the whole of it, and, contrary to his custom, would be at a loss for a word. One who frequently visited him says that he was sometimes low-spirited, crying like a child, bemoaning his condition, and attributing it to the unkindness of his brother, which I know to be entirely false. At other times, if contradicted, he would fly into a passion, swear, and act so violently that his guest would be glad to get out of the house. Because, while this visitor was present once, a medical man happened to call, he quarreled with him, and suspected the two of a conspiracy.

That there was no imbecility of mind may at once be granted. His conversation was coherent and sensible; he was shrewd and wide awake in the ordinary transactions of his limited life, and he fully understood the value of money; his memory was remarkably retentive.[3] Most of his visitors failed to detect any signs of madness, and it is doubtful whether any jury would have found him insane. The commissioners considered his case in 1853, and took the testimony of his brother and a neighbor, but concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant an interference. Mr. Forster saw the hermit last year, and found him singularly acute, without the least trace of mental aberration. He said to that gentleman: "You may think it strange my living like this. So do I sometimes, but it is not done without a reason." Nor could Forster's friend, Dickens, recognize the signs of madness in his behavior.

On the other hand, there is the family history pointing to hereditary predisposition to insanity, only wanting some exciting cause to develop it; also the change of character at ten, with an alleged physical cause; the action, as a moral cause, of an injuriously indulgent rearing; the constant waywardness, obstinate willfulness, in a word, wrongheadedness; the acts which frequently alarmed his family; the necessity at length of legal restraint; the freaks regarding dress; his extraordinary conduct on the death of his mother; the persistent delusion respecting the queen, involving much loss of property; the entire neglect of his dwelling and person; his groundless suspicion of and antipathy toward his brother; the delusion that poison was put into his food; his fits of mental depression; and his violent passion on the slightest contradiction. These characteristics—in many respects so familiar to us in asylum-life, and so easily conceivable in others if certain cases of insanity we have known had been allowed to develop—prove that the hermit's condition passed the limits of eccentricity, that his emotions were perverted by disease. But, while his case was primarily one of moral insanity—a madness of action rather than language, a state of degraded feeling rather than of intellectual incapacity—his suspicions at times took the form of a definite delusion. It should be carefully borne in mind that his isolated life, and neglect of his residence and dress, did not arise from the preoccupation of his thoughts by any absorbing pursuit. He had none. It arose from his diseased mental condition, and the solution of the problem of his life can be obtained only by tracing back his history to the unfavorable circumstances of his childhood, acting upon a brain in all probability predisposed to disease.

Should such a man be interfered with? Interference could not be made on account of the neglect of his property, or of his mode of life. But, conceding his insanity, would it have been desirable to place him under care? He was harmless to others, and also to himself, except in a very general sense; but might he not have been benefited and really more comfortable under medical treatment and control? And answering, as I think this case did, the definition of the law, that there must be "demonstrative proof of the incapacity of the individual to be trusted with himself and his own concerns," it certainly would have saved a great deal of trouble, had he been under the protection of the lord chancellor. I submit that such control would have been better for the neighborhood, for his family, and for the hermit himself.

  1. Mr. Erasmus Wilson states that no case ever came to his knowledge of a mental affection resulting from local applications to the scalp. I find from Dr. Russell Reynolds, that ho has had patients suffering from disorder of the emotions consequent on the use of hair-dyes.
  2. I observed that, when his room was entered after death, the floor was found to be covered two or more feet with cinders that had accumulated. A farmer informs me that he has since removed fourteen cart-loads of cinders from the house and around it.
  3. One of his visitors, a traveled man, was surprised to find that Lucas had so much acquaintance with the various localities which turned up in conversation. His knowledge of Shakespeare and of the literature of the Restoration was very considerable. A medical man informs me that, in conversing with him about the classics, he displayed much intelligence.