Persuading Sanity: Magic Lantern Images and the Nineteenth-Century Moral Treatment in America

By Haller, Beth; Larsen, Robin | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2005 | Go to article overview

Persuading Sanity: Magic Lantern Images and the Nineteenth-Century Moral Treatment in America


Haller, Beth, Larsen, Robin, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In the first half of the nineteenth century, while Western institutions reorganized themselves according to philosophies of the Enlightenment, doctors, alienists, and reformers adopted new attitudes toward "the mad."1 Abandoning chains and cages for the mentally ill in jails and almshouses, they began creating therapeutic models of confinement. In the 1820s, they founded the "insane asylum." Through surroundings and activities that uplifted the spirits and rebuilt moral fiber, the new superintendents of these new American institutions sought to drive out madness with good conduct.

After 1839, another new American professional group, photographers, introduced photographic reproduction and better projection technologies that also incorporated ideas of the Enlightenment. For these new specialists, the mission expanded to all citizens equal opportunities for seeing images that would educate, morally uplift, and amuse. During the 1840s, two Philadelphia photographers, William and Frederick Langenheim, worked to make photographic images more accessible, even to those confined to a new insane asylum in Philadelphia. Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who had been appointed to head the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in 1840, sought to combine his new ideas about the "moral treatment" of mental illness with his scientific interests in the new image projection technology. In 1844, he asked his friends the Langenheims to provide him with a magic lantern projector and their prepackaged illustrative slides. From then until he retired in 1883, Kirkbnde scheduled three magic lantern slide shows a week as part of his program of moral treatment at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane (Layne 189). After 1850, the Langenheims acquired the nation's first patent for the photographic collodion process, which replaced the daguerreotype process and allowed better photographic detail and reproductions. Kirkbride also made available to his patients literally thousands of life-sized photographic images (Hamilton and Hargreaves 37).

Kirkbride announced in 1844 that he expected the magic lantern shows to amuse patients, and more important, to persuade them to shift their mental state from insanity to sanity. Specifically, he expected - and he never deviated from these expectations - the shows to exert subtle control over patients' conduct and sense of moral responsibility. Framing the shows so as to induce persuasive guilt, Kirkbride also said in his announcement that he hoped they would instill physical calmness, alter moods of sadness and depression to cheerfulness, enhance a sense of social position and cultivation, and evoke gratitude toward the hospital's trouble and expense.

Kirkbride's unusual strategy of using commercially manufactured images as tools for curing "the mad" brings together the early history of American institutional psychiatry with the early history of a photographic screening practice that became a model for early US cinema (Musser 16). Slides and papers documenting the shows at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, which are housed at Philadelphia's Atwater Kent Museum, offer a unique chance to investigate how this new nineteenth-century screening practice was received within the hopeful context of a new, sophisticated form of therapeutic confinement for middle- and upper-class mental patients.

While public magic lantern screenings had been taking place since the late 160Os, when the use of photographic lantern show slides began, it was one of those "moments of profound transformation" m the precmema history of screening practices, Charles Musser explains in The Emergence of Cinema (16). Musser argues that such moments "allow for new possibilities, for an influx of new personnel, and for disruption and considerable discontinuity" (16). This was the year that "the screen enters a period of flux," as also happened when motion picture inventors transferred images onto screens. The screening practice then became "receptive to new influences from other cultural forms; it is at such times that its cultural interconnectedness becomes most apparent and perhaps important," Musser says (16). …

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