“Hopeless Imbecile” or Held “Against Her Will”?


The Hamilton Asylum for the Insane was in the news in May 1910, as John Dunn of Chicago seemed desperate to obtain the release of his wife, Ella (Twoney), who was a patient there. Apparently, Mr. Dunn had deserted his wife in 1895 – 15 years prior. By 1910, he claimed to be willing to shoot up the Asylum to gain her release!

This article appeared in the May 26, 1910 edition of the Ottawa Journal:


“Chicago Man Sent Bill for $2100 From Hamilton Institution to Discourage Him.”

“Special to The Journal”

“Hamilton, Ont., May 26 – John M. Dunn, of Chicago, has aroused all Chicago, by informing the newspapers of that city, that the Hamilton Asylum authorities are demanding $2100 from him before they will release his wife, and inmate of the institution. He has intimated that the authorities are ‘grafting’. Dr. English, the medical superintendent received a letter from Dunn, threatening to bring a gun here and riddle the institution with bullets.”

“Dunn has brought the case to the attention of Congressmen and Senators, and they have written in his interests. His wife was a former Galt girl, Ella Twoney, and he deserted her in 1895 at Detroit. Dunn offered to pay for her maintenance if she was released, and Dr. English, to discourage him, sent a bill for $2100. The doctor says the woman is a hopeless imbecile.”


In another article, Dunn claims his wife would become sane in “ten days or possibly a month” in his care. The following appeared in the May 27, 1910 edition of the Chicago Tribune:


“Hamilton, Ont., Official Says Claim of Chicagoan Is Baseless and That Wife Is Unfit to Be Released.”

“’If I could have my wife with me for ten days or possibly a month I am sure she would become sane,’ said John M. Dunn, a canvasser living at 4533 State street, who claims that his wife is being detained in an asylum for the insane at Hamilton, Ont., against her will and because he cannot pay a debt of $2,100 for her maintenance there.”

“He did not deny that she is mentally unbalanced, but said that for years he has been trying to have her released to him in order to test a theory that once away from the institution her mind would become normal.”

“Supt. W. M. English of the Hamilton asylum ridiculed Dunn’s statement yesterday that his wife is being detained because Dunn is unable to pay for her release.”

“Mr. English told a correspondent for THE TRIBUNE that the woman was deserted in 1895 and later taken to the asylum on a warrant. He says the woman’s condition is such as to preclude a possibility of recovery of her mind.”


These two news stories left me with a lot of unanswered questions. What happened to this marriage? Why, after 15 years, was John so intent on reuniting with Ella? Could Ella actually become sane under his care?

I think the best journalism appeared in the Edmonton Journal’s May 27, 1910 edition. It filled in a LOT of holes in the story and even has some “romance and tragedy”!


“Alleges She is Being Illegally Detained in Hamilton Asylum For Insane”

“CHICAGO, Ill., May 25. – Gradually going blind, enfeebled, penniless and craving for the comforting care by his wife in his last days, John M Dunn, a canvasser, 4533 State street, is appealing for aid yesterday, charged that the asylum for in insane at Hamilton,Ont., is holding his wife a prisoner, although admitting that she is mentally competent to be free, and refuses to release her until $2100 is paid.”

“Bowed down with grief to such an extent that he talked only under an emotional strain, Dunn declared that his wife was being held for ransom. He told a story replete with romance and tragedy and said, though in a tone of forgiveness, that his wife’s mother had her placed in an asylum 14 years ago, ‘because she married me through a Protestant ceremony and without the aid of a priest.’”

“Dunn has been struggling persistently ever since to recover his wife, with whom he lived nearly nine months, before she was taken from him while on her first visit to her mother after her marriage. After many visits to the asylum, much correspondence and years of patient waiting, Dunn has discovered that the only way he can secure the release of his wife from an institution in which he says she never should have been confined, is by paying a small fortune, which the asylum claims as the charge for her 14 years of maintenance. Dunn says she has been all these years in a charity ward. A dispatch from Hamilton, Ont., last night stated that the asylum in which Mrs. Dunn is an inmate in a provincial institution.”

“Dr. English, the superintendent, admitted having agreed to release the woman if all arrears were paid, but said he made the statement satisfied that Dunn could not furnish the money.”

“‘The woman is a hopeless imbecile,’ Dr. English declared. Furthermore, the physician charged that Mrs. Dunn became insane after her husband deserted her in Detroit.”

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