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Lives of a Bengal Maniac

During the 1870s, George Herman Lawson grew from a boy of six to a young man of sixteen sharing the common fantasy of working class youths of that period�the idea of leaving home and �seeing the world.� George did leave his parents at age sixteen, but circumstances suggest that it was not quite voluntary. In late 1880, George traveled a straight path across the Atlantic to London, where he was soon earning his keep as a common laborer living in the East End parish of Hackney. The slums of Hackney and the neighboring parish of Bethnal Green had improved slightly since George�s parents had left there to start a new life eleven years earlier�but the conditions still must have been jarring to George. 

In 1880, Robert and Mary Ann Lawson were barely making ends meet in their adopted home of Detroit. It strains credulity to think they paid George�s way back to England in order to pay a social visit to his cousins or to expand his horizons. They were well aware that the East End held no prospect of a bright future for a young man. It also seems unlikely that George had the wherewithal to pay his own passage or the cunning to stow away; or that of his own volition he selected the poorest section of London as the one spot on earth he most wanted to see. There remain two possibilities: George signed on as a seaman and, unhappy, jumped ship in England; or sixteen-year-old George Herman Lawson was on the run from something bad that had happened in Detroit. The crowded streets of Hackney, and the shelter of dimly remembered aunts and uncles, offered an asylum from whatever he was fleeing. 

The bleak life of an unskilled East End laborer did not sit well with George. Either that or he wore out his welcome with his relatives. On July 21, 1881, George Herman Lawson went across the River Thames to Woolwich, where he walked into the famous arsenal and enlisted in the British Army. He was seventeen�underage�so he lied to his enlistment officer and claimed to be nineteen. George was placed in Battery O, Fourth Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, and began training as a gunner. He remained at the barracks in Woolwich for a full year and was then sent to Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland. 

Fermoy housed the largest British Army barracks in Ireland. By 1882, it already had a long-held reputation as a deplorable place for enlisted men. Each barrack building was overcrowded, sometimes hosting three times the number of men that Army guidelines recommended. Bedding and other sanitary facilities were rated as poor. The surrounding Catholic populace did not often fraternize with the young Englishmen. Very few marriages ever occurred between the soldiers and Irish women, although there were prostitutes who catered to the British, the Curragh Wrens, who were outcasts in their own country. Even worse, from a young warrior�s perspective, simmering Irish nationalism was much more potent politically than militarily, offering no chance for action. The only relief from a boring and miserable existence�assuming they had opportunity to enjoy it�was the beautiful landscape of County Cork. 

George was stationed at Fermoy for a full year before his unit was sent to India. Their transit likely took them through the Suez Canal, which the British had seized just the year before when it was threatened by civil war in Egypt. On arrival in India in Sept., 1883, Lawson was stationed first in Meerut, site of the original Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Over the next two years he was transferred to Allahabad and then to Jubbulpore. He was in India during the height of the Raj, where a proportionally small number of  English bureaucrats and about 20,000 British soldiers occupied and ruled hundreds of millions of Indians, exploiting divisions within Indian society. The British trained an army of native soldiers, which they used throughout the world to maintain their colonial empire. They also fostered the switch in agriculture to export crops, like cotton and tea, instead of food crops. These policies contributed to devastating famines that hit India during the Raj period.

George Herman Lawson�s service record indicates that he saw no action in the field during his time in India. However, he was hospitalized five times for gonorrhea and once for syphilis. Lawson was not singular in his low moral or hygienic standards. A contemporary study of British soldiers in India found that in a company of 1000 men, at any one time over 500 were being treated for sexually transmitted diseases. Brothels were only a stone�s throw away from many barracks, worked by women even more ostracized from their society than their Irish counterparts. Nothing was done by the British authorities to insure minimum health standards among the prostitutes. For infected enlisted men, gonorrhea was treated by urethral irrigation with astringents or salts. Syphilis was treated with injections of mercuric chloride. In neither case were the treatments very effective.  

The reality of the health conditions of the British soldiers stationed in India does not match the popular image of the plucky, ruddy redcoat associated with Rudyard Kipling stories. However, Kipling was certainly aware of the ravages of disease that decimated the ranks of the white recruits. Native Indian troops had a much lower rate of infection, which the British somehow attributed to biological differences rather than moral behavior. Kipling wrote a story, �Love-o-Women,� in which the main character, Private Tighe, whose nickname is the title of the story, loses sensation in his legs to a syndrome associated with advanced syphilis: locomotor ataxia: 

�They call ut Locomotus attacks us,� he sez, �bekaze,� sez he, �ut attacks us like a locomotive, if ye know fwhat that manes. An� ut comes,� sez he, lookin� at me, �ut comes from bein� called Love-o-Women.� 

Kipling�s sympathetic portrayal of victims of sexually transmitted disease in this story was unprecedented in literature, and its publication in a sexually repressed society took some courage. 

Although late stage syphilis can cause mental disorders, the early stage case that George Lawson contracted can not explain problems he began to exhibit in the spring of 1886. In April of 1886 he was sent to a military hospital and diagnosed with �mania,� based on symptoms of sleeplessness, irritability, and delusions of grandeur. �Mania� was a standard term in the classification of mental illness in the nineteenth century, and was used to describe mental states that are today classified as separate conditions. However, the symptoms noted by the military doctors closely follow what today would be diagnosed as either Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia. It is difficult to say which of those two conditions he suffered from based upon the few details given in Lawson�s hospital records. 

At any rate, contemporary descriptions of �mania� can illustrate the sort of behaviors that George Lawson probably exhibited. The following description of �mania� comes from a 1901 text called Mental Diseases and their Modern Treatment by Selden Talcott, superintendent of the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Middletown, New York: 

�Struggling against these ill-defined and misty influences, the patient feels painfully the slow gathering of an unseen storm. He becomes anxious and apprehensive, wakeful and haggard. A sense of intolerable unrest pervades his entire being; yet he may for a time be able to conceal these sensations from his most intimate friends by calling to his aid all the reserve forces of self-control. Gradually sleeplessness occurs, and the appetite becomes capricious and irregular. Dark gloomy thoughts pervade the mind even as damp vapors infest the valleys. Delusions which he cannot banish creep in. The victim thinks himself followed, and turns often to look at his pursuers. He imagines that his life-long friends are failing him. He begins to suspect that his food is being drugged; that the medicine which he may be taking for some bodily ill is potent poison; that he is being practiced upon by electricity; that the air is full of baleful odors. Charged with these false beliefs his mind becomes a pent-up volcano, ready to belch forth at the slightest provocation. The whole current of life thus becomes gradually changed. The victim's daily toil becomes a burden. Social pleasures lose their fascination. The coming patient is given over to seclusion and brooding. The slightest cross to his wishes provokes him to fits of anger. The least anxiety induces an ebullition of rage. He neglects himself and becomes shabby in person. He ceases to care for his family, and is inclined both to jealousy and hatred of those who were formerly dearer than life. Finally the great upheaval comes. The bonds of propriety are suddenly snapped asunder. The patient yields himself up to his delusions, and is by them impelled to the commission of the seven deadly sins. No description is adequate to the practical reality. Honest men are transformed into demons, ready for any criminal act. Pure women become shameless, obscene, hideous. Mania is human nature unmasked and unrestrained. It is a condition which shows up in lurid light all the depths of total depravity. As mania develops in the patient, wild, incoherent, bubbling monstrosities of thought are begotten in the brain. These make their presence manifest by impelling the sick man to loquacious and unchecked babble. Incongruous as each remark may seem to its precedent, there yet runs a thread of continuity through the whole mass of illogical reasoning, just as a red thread runs through all the cordage of the British Navy. There is a certain fixedness of ideas in spite of irregular modes of expression. Each day brings a repetition of the same thought, but often with original rhetoric. Thus we observe truth in the classical statement that there is method in the madman's madness.�

If George Lawson babbled about unseen pursuers, his doctors were undoubtedly unaware that six years earlier he might have been forced by some sort of threat to flee from the United States to England.  If his delusions of grandeur included claims that he was a Wild West outlaw or a great U.S. Army scout and Indian fighter, they would not have known that Lawson grew up in Detroit hearing tales of the James Gang and Buffalo Bill Cody. 

            In June, 1886, George Lawson�s case was brought before a medical board in India where he was recommended for discharge. While that recommendation wound its way through the army bureaucracy, Lawson was confined to an asylum in Colaba, India. He was treated with bromide sedatives while his disposition was decided. The doctors at Colaba judged that his condition was caused by an �apparently hereditary predisposition.� In October, 1886, he was transferred back to England for a final evaluation at Netley Hospital, the main British Army medical facility. 

            On Dec. 28, 1886 he was invalided out of service in the British Army. Lawson was denied a military pension on the grounds that his condition had not been a consequence of military service. The final entry in his service record judged his character to be �bad.� He had served in no campaigns and was never wounded in battle, had never earned any medals or citations, and had no noted acts of gallantry. Upon discharge, George found his way back to the slums of London. 

           As the year 1887 began, George Lawson roamed the streets of the poor sections of London, a former delusional mental patient with good reason to hold a grudge against prostitutes. His education in America likely included cloth cutting, and his army training included bayonet use. He was literate and used Americanisms in his language. Had he remained in London for another year, today we might consider him a potential Jack the Ripper candidate. However, the Ripper murders did not begin until August, 1888. As far as we know, George�s criminal career was not as bloody, but did last much, much longer. 

            In March, 1888, George Lawson was back in the Americas, just across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario. He was getting married.













Royal Artillery gunner, 1880s. The ball on the helmet replaced a pointed spike, after too many accidents occurring around horses.


















Grounds outside Netley Hospital. The Hospital was built in large part as a response to the concerns raised by nurse Florence Nightingale over the lack of military hospital facilities.



For many years, Netley Hospital held the distinction of being the longest building in the world.

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