Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Psychiatric Power and Practice in 19th Century State Asylums: Newcomer v. VanDeusen


Sociology Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Social and Behavioral Sciences


In 1874 Dr. Nancy Newcomer was committed against her will by her son-in-law to the Kalamazoo Asylum for the Insane in Michigan. Her behavior, allegedly, had been erratic and emotional. Although a physician herself, she was unable to convince the medical superintendent, E.H. VanDeusen, that she was not insane; indeed, her efforts to do so only strengthened his assessment that she was. As a result, she remained in the asylum for many months until her discharge. Three years later, in a case watched with great interest by powerful asylum superintendents across the United States, Newcomer successfully sued VanDeusen for false imprisonment. Although the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision after taking testimony from scores of family members, asylum staff and patients, the Newcomer case brought into medical, legal and public discourse questions about the nature of insanity, the negotiation of diagnostic labels, and the ways in which psychiatric practice and power were both constituted and resisted in state asylums. This paper uses a Foucauldian perspective to analyze the contemporaneous discourse on the Newcomer v. VanDeusen case in the psychiatric and legal literature as well as in the newspapers which enthusiastically reported on it. Three of Foucaults most potent concepts will be used to further that analysis: disciplinary power, or the tactical functioning of power; confession,or the ritual for the production of truth; and subjectivation, the construction of ones own identity as subject to someone elses control.

Conference Name

International Academy of Law and Mental Health

Conference Location

Amsterdam, Netherlands

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