'Insane' Doncaster woman locked up for life for calling vicar a liar is commemorated

A Doncaster woman who was sent to an insane asylum for more than 40 years for calling a vicar a liar has been commemorated with a plaque in her honour.

Tuesday, 10th November 2020, 8:50 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th November 2020, 8:50 am
Mary Heaton was locked up for life for calling the vicar at Doncaster Minster a liar.

Mary Frances Heaton, who hailed from Doncaster, was sent to the asylum in 1837 – and was never released, dying in captivity in 1878.

Now a plaque has been unveiled in Wakefield to mark the injustic she suffered for 41 years.

Born into an affluent family in Doncaster, then in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Mary became a music teacher, living and working in London; but returned to Doncaster to care for her dying father.

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After his death, she resumed teaching in Doncaster.

One of her pupils was the daughter of the Rev. John Sharpe, vicar of St George's Minster.

He failed to pay for the twice-weekly lessons she had given in 1834 and 1835 and she interrupted one of his sermons, calling him "a whited sepulchre, a thief, a villain, a liar and a hypocrite".

She was taken to court, where the tribunal judged her to be "a lunatic insane and dangerous idiot", and committed her to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield, then in the West Riding.

During her incarceration, she was subjected to a variety of what are now considered pseudo-scientific treatments, including electric shocks to the pelvis, purgatives, and the ingestion of mercury.

Her medical records describe her at various times as wild, flighty, excitable, ungovernable, extravagant, violent and abusive.

Over time, her mental and physical health deteriorated.

After a failed escape attempt in 1843 and with her spirit broken, she became docile and, according to local historian Sarah Cobham, "took to quietly embroidering her story [in samplers] as a way of preserving her memories".

Only a few of her samplers survive; she gave many away as gifts. Towards the end of her life, she was transferred to another asylum in what is now South Yorkshire; she died, and was buried in a pauper's grave.

But this weekend her life has been acknowledged with a blue plaque to “the tragic patient” unveiled in Wakefield.

“She wasn’t mad, she was furious,” said Sarah Cobham who, along with other members of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project, researched Heaton’s life. “She’s a reminder that women were very quickly assumed insane or hysterical. Mary didn’t stand a chance.”

Cobham said:, “Women were deemed dangerous and insane during the 1830s for all sorts of reasons, none of which had anything to do with their actual mental health but had more to do with the lack of their perceived ‘womanly attributes’.

“Speaking out, getting excited, challenging male authority and refusing to conform would quickly be used as evidence of insanity.” Such “irrationality” was thought to be connected to women’s menstrual cycles, Cobham added.

“Hysteria” was also believed to be the result of unsatisfied maternal drive, sexual desire and bad habits.

“It was much easier to blame hysteria for these things than to investigate women’s intellectual frustration, lack of mobility or needs for autonomy and control,” said Cobham. “The trio of men who had sentenced Mary decided she was insane simply because she was a woman.”

Heaton’s blue plaque is the 12th in the Forgotten Women of Wakefield’s campaign for parity with men.