Oscar Wilde at the Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press.

R. P. Marland (2022) Oscar Wilde at the Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane, Notes & Queries, 68, 328–31. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab116

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Image: LOC.

Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of North America took the young lecturer on decorative art from New York to San Francisco and scores of cities in between. Lincoln, Nebraska was just another stop on the itinerary, but one that has been of special interest to Wilde’s biographers. This is chiefly because of Wilde’s visit to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, which has often been framed as prefiguring Wilde’s own stint behind bars after his 1895 conviction for ‘gross indecency’ (Richard Ellmann, in particular, was quick to identify any possible ‘tragic prolepsis’ in Wilde’s life). While perusing the cells at Lincoln Wilde spotted a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and remarked that it was ‘[s]trange and beautiful … that the sorrow of a single Florentine in exile should, hundreds of years afterwards, lighten the sorrow of some common prisoner in a modern gaol.’1 He would read the entirety of the Divine Comedy during his own imprisonment, later telling the journalist Chris Healy that ‘it saved my reason.’2 Wilde also spoke with a condemned prisoner at Lincoln; his Ballad of Reading Gaol centres on the execution of another prisoner, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a Trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who had murdered his wife.

Wilde’s sightseeing trip on the afternoon of 24 April 1882 did not end at the prison gates. Immediately afterwards he was driven three miles to the Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane (today, the Lincoln Regional Center). None of Wilde’s biographers, including those who have focussed on the American tour, have mentioned this visit.3 However, it was reported in contemporary newspapers,4 and an interviewer for The Omaha Daily Herald was even on hand to take down Wilde’s impressions:

After the penitentiary had been done, Mr. Wilde was asked if he would like to ride over to the insane asylum. He at first protested against additional horrors, but concluded that he would go as he was “in for it now.” So over to the hospital they went. ... Dr. Matthewson [sic] showed Mr. Wilde around the asylum, the first he had ever visited. The sad scenes here would move any heart, and it is no wonder that the aesthetic poet’s was troubled to the extreme. He burst out in indignation against the whitewashed walls and “sticky” floor, as he called it, saying that citizens would go insane with such surroundings, “with not even a bench to oneself, and one’s neighbor’s muttering. I would have the gayest colors possible in those wards, would furnish them with fantastic dresses, music boxes, means of enjoyment. Pooh! how dreary, how dreadful!”

Mr. Wilde seemed glad to get away, and the visits to these two abodes of crime and insanity seemed to affect the rest of his afternoon. “I have greater respect than ever before for virtue and sanity,” he said. He was thoughtful for a while and then remarked that whenever he had the blues or was disgusted with the world he took up Endymion and burying himself in that divine poem, forgot the world and its cares. He said he had always been melancholy when a boy, though surrounded by every pleasure, until he went to Italy and learned the new life.5

The Nebraska Asylum for the Insane was built three miles southwest of Lincoln in 1870. Within a year it had burned down. The locals were fearful that the state might commission a replacement elsewhere (substantial public buildings were a source of civic pride) and appropriated emergency funds to rebuild the hospital as the Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane (NSHI). The new four-storey building had 39 sleeping rooms for patients. The superintendent’s quarters were on the second floor and the staff slept on the fourth.6

The hospital’s fifth superintendent, Harley P. Mathewson, was born in Wheelock, Vermont in 1829. In 1857 he was working as a horse dealer in Boston.7 Presumably he qualified as a physician before enlisting in the U.S. Volunteer Army in 1863 as an assistant surgeon; at his discharge two years later he held the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.8 By 1872 he was working as a physician in Omaha.9 He was appointed superintendent of the NSHI on 15 November 1877. At that time there were 93 patients resident in the hospital; by November 1882 there were 273 (149 men; 124 women). When Wilde visited in 1882 new wings were being built to accommodate the rising number of patients, and a few years later these wings were extended. When George Tucker of the Royal College of Surgeons of London visited the hospital around 1887 he found that patients were sleeping two to a bed, an arrangement that the superintendent considered acceptable.10 Nevertheless, Mathewson clearly felt overwhelmed by the increase in numbers. In his biennial report to the Board of Public Lands and Buildings for November 1880 to November 1882 he requested that a second assistant physician be appointed.11 His request must have been refused because c. 1887 he still had only one assistant.12 Mathewson told Tucker that ‘200 patients were all that any Superintendent could see every day and attend to properly with a view to their recovery.’13

There was substantial movement in the population of the hospital. During the twelve months beginning 30 November 1881, 164 new patients were admitted and 95 were discharged, only six of whom Mathewson judged ‘unimproved’. Twenty-five died and one escaped.14 The vast majority of the male patients were farmers, and the commonest diagnosis at admission for both men and women was ‘acute mania’.15 Mathewson thought the chief causes of the ‘insanity’ of his patients were split evenly between heredity and ‘overwork and want of proper food’. He prescribed ‘[g]ood food, rest, sleep, [and] out-of-door exercise.’16

The Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane c. 1900. The outermost sections of the wings had not been built when Wilde visited in 1882; the first sections of the wings were then under construction.

Tucker thought that the patients ‘seemed comfortable, and were neat and tidy in dress.’ The hospital was ‘clean and orderly throughout’. He noted that the polished floors had cocoa matting down the centre, perhaps a remedy against the stickiness noticed by Wilde. However, like Wilde, Tucker ‘saw no amusements of any kind.’ There were a few pictures on the (still white) walls of the ground floor corridor. Mathewson probably opted not to hang pictures on the upper floor corridors because these floors were reserved for the ‘more excited’ or ‘turbulent and destructive’ patients (these patients had by now displaced staff members from the rooms on the fourth floor).17 Mathewson’s 1886 report indicates that he purchased the pictures during the preceding two years,18 and so it is unlikely that he was directly motivated by Wilde’s call for more decorative surroundings. He must have sympathized with his visitor’s sentiment though, because in his 1886 report he mentioned that the dining tables were frequently furnished with bouquets of flowers from the hospital’s garden.19 In 1882 he requested from the Board a budget of $400 per annum for ‘music and amusements’.20 Christmas was celebrated with the exchange of presents and dancing, and Fourth of July with fireworks and a lawn party.21

George Edward Woodberry, c. 1891. Image: NYPL.

In describing Wilde’s visit to Lincoln, his biographers have relied principally on two sources. One is a letter from Wilde to his friend Helena Sickert.22 The second is a letter from George Edward Woodberry, Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska, to his former tutor at Harvard, Charles Eliot Norton (Woodberry, along with his colleague Harrington Emerson and the Omaha Daily Herald correspondent Champion Clement Chase, had accompanied Wilde on his tour of Lincoln). Both letters were written the day after the visits. Wilde mentions seeing the prison but not the hospital. Woodberry mentions both places, writing:

…it was also very pretty irony in life, that [Wilde] should be forever associated in my mind with my first sight of our penitentiary and our insane asylum. We drove thither together through mud and damp air. I was much oppressed by the horrible things I saw, and thoroughly humiliated humanly. He bore it better—though he stopped at the last ward of lunacy and would not go on.23

Wilde’s biographers may have omitted to mention the visit to the NSHI, despite their having seen the Woodberry letter, because they assumed that the penitentiary and insane asylum were the same institution. Alternatively, with no knowledge of Chase’s article for the Herald, they chose not to mention the visit because they had so little information to go on.

Helena Swanwick, née Sickert, 1909. Image: Katchuri/Wikimedia.

The reasons for Wilde himself not mentioning the visit in his letter to Helena Sickert are perhaps easier to intuit. Wilde’s letters about his American adventures are among his most amusing and vivid. From New York he wrote to Mrs. George Lewis that one of his secretaries, ‘whose hair resembles mine is obliged to send off locks of his own hair to the myriad maidens of the city, and so is rapidly becoming bald.’24 Later, probably from Sioux City, he wrote that ‘I don’t know where I am: somewhere in the middle of coyotes and cañons: one is a “ravine” and the other a “fox”, I don't know which, but I think they change about.’25 He wrote from Salt Lake City, Utah, to the actress Mrs. Bernard Beere that the Mormons’ Opera House was ‘an enormous affair about the size of Covent Garden, and holds with ease fourteen families’,26 and from St Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse James had recently been assassinated and the outlaw’s effects were being auctioned off to relic-hunters, he wrote to the actor Norman Forbes-Robertson that James’ ‘favourite chromo-lithograph was disposed of at a price which in Europe only an authentic Titian can command, or an undoubted Mantegna.’27 Wilde’s letter to Sickert does include witticisms of this kind—he remarks that the condemned man he met in the penitentiary was spending his last remaining weeks on Earth reading novels, ‘a bad preparation for facing either God or Nothing’—as well as a romantic description of his recent visit to a silver mine in Leadville, Colorado.28 It seems likely that the more sobering visit to the hospital inspired neither humour nor patches of purple prose. While serving his sentence of two years’ hard labour at Reading Gaol, Wilde would tell a sympathetic warder that upon his release he intended never again to ‘write anything calculated to produce laughter in others . ... I shall be ... a mouthpiece for the world of Pain.’29 Until that time he probably shared the opinion of the dandyish Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray that ‘[t]he less said about life’s sores, the better.’ What’s more, in April 1882 Helena Sickert was only eighteen, and Wilde may have felt it especially inappropriate to dwell on what he had seen at the hospital in a letter to one so young.

During his incarceration Wilde grew concerned about his own mental health. When his friend Robert Ross visited him at Reading, Wilde asked if his brain seemed all right.30 After a year in prison he petitioned the Home Secretary to remit the remainder of his sentence, writing in third person as required by the regulations: ‘his chief danger is that of madness, his chief terror that of madness’.31 In desperation he wrote that, although he knew that his reputation and finances had been destroyed, that his children could never again bear his name, and that a miserable existence awaited him, ‘at least in all his hopelessness he still clings to the hope that he will not have to pass directly from the common gaol to the common lunatic asylum.’32

Perhaps in that moment Wilde was recalling his visit to Lincoln, when he had indeed passed directly from a gaol to an asylum. Fortunately for him, it was an experience he was not obliged to repeat.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to John Cooper for his comments and encouragement.

  1. Oscar Wilde to Helena Sickert, 25 April 1882, in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (eds.), The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 2000), 166.
  2. Chris Healy, Confessions of a Journalist (2nd ed.) (London, 1904), 135.
  3. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London, 1987), 191-192; David M. Friedman, Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity (New York, 2014), 212-214; Harford Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: A Biography (1975, London), 88; Roy Morris, Jr., Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 160-161; Matthew Sturgis, Oscar: A Life (London, 2018), 249-250.
  4. ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Chicago Daily Tribune, 25 April 1882, 7. Cited by John Cooper, ‘Lectures—1882’, Oscar Wilde in America https://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/lectures-1882/april/0424-lincoln-am.html, accessed 19 April 2021.
  5. [Champion Clement Chase], ‘The Poet in Lincoln’, The Omaha Daily Herald, 26 April 1882, 2. The reference to Keats’ Endymion is characteristic. While in America Wilde repeatedly praised the poet in lectures and interviews. He met Keats’ niece in Louisville, Kentucky, a month before visiting Lincoln. Wilde visited Italy in the summer of 1875 and the spring of 1877.
  6. Klaus Hartmann and Les Margolin, ‘The Nebraska Asylum for the Insane, 1870-1886’, Nebraska History, lxiii (1982), 164-82.
  7. Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, U.S., Marriage Records, 1840-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Accessed 19 April 2021.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Accessed 19 April 2021.
  9. Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Accessed 19 April 2021.
  10. George A. Tucker, Lunacy in Many Lands (Sydney, 1887), 359.
  11. Superintendent’s Report of the Nebraska State Hospital for the Insane, from Nov. 30, 1880 to Nov. 30, 1882 (Lincoln, NE, 1883), 5.
  12. Lunacy in Many Lands, 358.
  13. Lunacy in Many Lands, 359.
  14. Superintendent’s Report, 1880-1882, 10.
  15. Superintendent’s Report, 1880-1882, 16 & 18. Of the women who reported an occupation, most were housekeepers or farmers’ wives.
  16. Lunacy in Many Lands, 360.
  17. Lunacy in Many Lands, 359.
  18. Hartmann and Margolin.
  19. Hartmann and Margolin.
  20. Superintendent’s Report, 1880-1882, 6.
  21. Hartmann and Margolin.
  22. Complete Letters, 166.
  23. George Edward Woodberry to Charles Eliot Norton, 25 April 1882, in Lowry Charles Wimberley, ‘Oscar Wilde meets Woodberry’, Prairie Schooner, xxi (1947), 108-116.
  24. Oscar Wilde to Mrs George Lewis, [c. 15 January 1882], Complete Letters, 126.
  25. Oscar Wilde to Mrs George Lewis, [c. 20 March 1882], Complete Letters, 154.
  26. Oscar Wilde to Mrs Bernard Beere, [17 April 1882], Complete Letters, 161.
  27. Oscar Wilde to Norman Forbes-Robertson, 19 April 1882, Complete Letters, 164.
  28. Complete Letters, 165-6.
  29. Robert Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde (1907, New York), 397.
  30. Ellmann, 469.
  31. Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary (Sir Matthew White Ridley Bart), 2 July 1896, Complete Letters, 659.
  32. Complete Letters, 658.