First published: Winter 2013
Born in 1862, John Gilmour grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. As a young man he worked as a bookkeeper before emigrating to the USA in 1888. He spent the next few years between New York City and Trinidad, working as a sugar trader. In 1891 he married Emma Reid, another expatriate Scot whose family was involved in the Trinidadian sugar industry. They would have three children together.
Gilmour ended his working days in New York City as a department head at a sugar brokerage firm. He died in July 1931. Sandwiched between these years in the worlds of family and business, John Gilmour spent over ten years in various mental institutions. We know something of Gilmour’s life inside these institutions from several sources including case notes, letters, poems and articles, and a handful of startling drawings created at Gilmour’s last asylum, the Crichton Royal Institute in Dumfries, Scotland.
Gilmour’s drawings are among the many art works created by Crichton patients and now preserved at the Dumfries and Galloway Archives in Dumfries. The collection dates from the opening of the Crichton Royal Institute in 1839. Its first superintendent, William A. F. Browne, was a proponent of art therapy and collected many of the patients’ works. Art historian Maureen Park addresses the Browne-era art in her beautiful book Art and Madness. (1)
Gilmour was admitted to Crichton on 4 July, 1905. By that time he had spent short periods in three other asylums: St Ann’s in Trinidad, Amityville Insane Asylum on Long Island and the Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum. He would spend the next eight years at the Crichton. The case notes from the two Scottish institutions, and John Gilmour’s writings and drawings from the Crichton years, offer a sense of how he experienced life inside the asylum.
Both institutions’ case notes consistently portrayed Gilmour as man of good physical health and reasonably settled daily habits. He regularly worked outside in the Crichton gardens, and even took up golf at one point. The notes also consistently described a man in the iron embrace of paranoid delusions, including the belief that he had “contaminated his wife and children” with syphilis and that his supposed healers were bent on destroying him.
The final entry in his Glasgow case notes suggests this blend of the mundane and the manic. Gilmour “has been working in the gardens in the forenoons and has been doing well.” He was also on suicide watch, God having “told him to kill himself.” There was “no improvement mentally but rather the opposite.
He is still very delusional and often very miserable.” Despite his mental condition he was “discharged relieved”, meaning, in the nomenclature of the time, somewhat improved.
1. Maureen Park. Art in Madness: Dr W. A. F. Browne’s Collection of Patient Art at Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries. Dumfries, Scotland: Dumfries & Galloway Health Board, 2010
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #80