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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

In re Oakes [1840] NSWSupC 47


Supreme Court of New South Wales

September 1840

Source: Sydney Herald, 2 October 1840



            A commission of lunacy was held at Mrs Walker's Inn, Parramatta, on Monday, upon Francis Oakes of that place, before Messrs. Carter, Kerr, and Raymond, Commissioners, and a pannel of seventeen Jurors.  Mr. HUSTLER appeared in support of the commission, and Mr. Darvall for the lunatic.

            After the senior commissioner had addressed the Jury upon the nature of the enquiry, Mr. HUSTER stated the case on behalf of the petitioners, the wife and two sons of the supposed lunatic.  He commenced by disclaiming any thing but the best and kindest of motives in making the application for the commission which his clients had been driven to do - then proceeded as near as we could collect as follows: - If there were difficulties in the way of arriving at a correct definition of the insanity; if there were obstacles which prevented a specific name for the various kinds of lunacy, there was no less difficulty in finding any thing approximating to a positive evidence of its presence.  There was in lunacy as in many, nay most other diseases, an external sign not to be mistaken: there was not that similarity of manner and conduct, which would enable any one who had observed instances of idiocy or imbecility, to detect its presence in all subsequent cases, by that feebleness of perception and dulness of sensibility common to them all.  If the Lunatic Asylums of Europe were searched though (those beneficent institutions for the unhappy victims of this disease), you could find that it exhibited every mood from the most serious to the most gay, and took every tone from the most sublime to the most ridiculous.  Its varieties are as great as the varieties of human nature, its excesses commensurate with the force of human passions; its phantasies co-extensive with the range of human intellect.  At one time, and in one individual, it confines itself to some trifling feeling or opinion, at another it overcasts the whole moral and mental conformation - surrounding in some instances its objects with unreal persons and events, in others, causing them to regard real persons or events with an irrational favor or dislike, admiration or contempt.  If the walls of its receptacles could speak, they would tell us that sometimes it finds satisfaction in the most innocent folly, at others draws delight from the most atrocious crime.  It may be the fancy of an hour, or the distraction of a whole life - It may, and it often does, lurk so deeply as to elude the keenest search, to evade the most scrutinizing eye, and again it frequently obtrudes so openly as to attract the most careless notice.  The learned counsel then read some cases from a work on Medical Jurisprudence, bearing on the latter observation remarking that it appeared that the deficiency in reasoning powers seemed to be made up by an excess of cunning in those thus afflicted.  He proceeded - Dr. Haslam, who he believed was looked upon as one of the first authorities, and who had in the mother country both practised largely and written learnedly upon the subject, said that a false belief was the essence of insanity, and Lord Erskine, who whilst he was at the Bar and afterwards when on the Bench, had many opportunities of remarking upon this melancholy disease, having been engaged in all the enquiries of his time, and they were numerous, held that the mind became possessed by a delusive image.  Now it was undoubtedly true that most lunatics do indulge in some delusive image, do entertain some false belief.  They either assume the existence of persons and things which do not exist, and thus are subject to a delusive image, or they come to many conclusions about persons and things which do not exist, and thus fall into a false belief.  But there is another species of lunacy, which is the result of some long and exclusive indulgence of particular trains of thought or feeling, when these tests if we might so term them, are wanting, yet where the entire absorption of the faculties is in one predominant idea, the entire devotion of the whole of the energies both mental and bodily, to the attainment of some useless or injurious purpose, too plainly shows to us that the mind had lost its equilibrium.  In some passions for instance, a self-esteem or fear, that which at first was but an engrossing sentiment, goes on to be a positive delusion.  The self-adoring egotist, grows to fancy himself a sovereign, or a deity, whilst the timid valetudinarian become the prey of imaginary diseases, the victim of unreal persecutions.  In other passions again, such as desire, of avarice, or revenge, the total neglect or forgetfulness of every object save one, the entire insensibility to all the restraints of reason, morality and prudence, often proved to such an extent as to justify our holding an individual a lunatic, though strictly speaking he does not entertain any delusive image, his mind is not warped by any false belief and this appears to me to be the case in this instance - The life of Mr. Oakes since the first symptoms of insanity had shewn themselves was detailed to the jury and remarked on by the Counsel and in conclusion he said that if it was desirable for the relatives of this unhappy man, and it would be evident to the jury when they heard the evidence that it was, to restrain a person who from the peculiar impressions under which he laboured, had been found to be capable of acts detrimental both to their interest and his own from again doing that which it was most likely he would do, had the opportunity been left him.  It was no less desirable for the public, as the freaks of misplaced humanity (to use the mildest term) should be indulged with the least possible mischief if they were to be indulged at all.

            Dr. Stewart stated he was first called on in 1835 or 1836 to attend Mr. Oakes' family, he did not attend him till 1836.  March I think in that year, he was complaining of his head and of constipation in his bowels, I treated him for it - leeched, bled and blistered him; he became worse, and I called in Dr. Anderson, when we found it necessary to put him under restraint.  (Here the unhappy man broke out violently against the witness alleging that he had then neglected him.  He could prove he had made a profit on the medicine ordered for him; he was with difficulty silenced.)  He had frequently seen him since, and had no doubt whatever in his own mind but that he was insane.  He was ingeniously cross-examined by Mr. Darvall, as to his treatment but nothing of importance was elicited.

            Dr. Anderson.  I was formerly Colonial Surgeon in 1836 I think I was sent for by Dr. Stewart [to] see Mr. Oakes.  I had known him many y[ears] previously.  I thought him queer for some[time] before that.  I think as early as 28 J[une] laboring under depression of spirits; at [?] not the antipathy of his wife and family [?] under [?] seem to have attacked him, he lab[?] ruin the idea that his affairs were all g[?] that he would die in poverty.

[LINES OMITTED] spoken to me about his wife; I know Mrs. Oakes, I consider her a very exemplary person - I now decidedly think him insane and incapable of taking care of himself or his affairs.

            The Rev. I. Eyre - I came to the country 44 years ago; Mr. Oakes, came in the same ship; he was a mechanic missionary; he was always a well ordered, industrious, and pious man.  I first observed him wander, in 1836; I was on intimate terms with him then; I was sent for and I believe, in consequence of his having attempted to throw himself into a well; I slept in the same room with him; in the night he jumped out of bed, and escaped down to the door, I followed him, and found him dragged out by two persons; this is all I know at that time, of my own knowledge; afterwards, in 1836, he became very violent, against his son George, alleging, he was robbing him; (here the lunatic again interrupted the witness, and broke into a violent tirade against his family,) I had been more than once obliged to leave the house in consequence of his violence; I consider him decidedly insane, and quite incapable of managing his affairs; he had been comparatively well, for some time, till the present attack.

            The Rev. Wm. Walker, gave similar testimony, with the addition, that he had some six months ago, copied his will for him, and that, for some time previous he had been living with his family upon the best of terms; he considered this will to be a good one, in every sense of the word.  The witness spoke of many extravagances, which a sane man would not be guilty of.

            Mr. Norton Solicitor, said, he drew the will, and had seen Mr Oakes several time about it, at that time he was apparently quite sane; the will was a good one, just such a will as such a man in his senses ought to make.

            Mr. Darvall, for the lunatic, addresed the jury upon the improbability of finding him insane, upon the evidence that had been brought forward; he instanced the memory and sagacity he had displayed throughout the inquiry, and called several witnesses all of whom corroborated the case for the petitioners.  Mr. Hustler said that he had many more witnesses that he should have called if he thought it necessary, but it appeared to him, and he understood the jury to be satisfied from the exhibition made by the unfortunate man himself, as it was upon putting the question to them, that he had forborne from taking up their time.  Verdict, insane since 1831 with lucid intervals.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University