Towards the Asylum: Civil and Urgency Procedures (1839-1890)

Formal confinement of the insane in Upper Canada begun with a state-sponsored initiative (Brown, 1980). On May 11 1839, the provincial parliament approved an “Act to authorise the erection of an asylum within this province for the reception of insane and lunatic persons” (SUC, 1839, Chap. XI). This statute represented one of the earliest laws for the institutional care of the insane in Canada (Moran, 2000). Echoing the opinion of early promoters in England, France, and the US, the 1839 Act praised the establishment of a publicly funded asylum as a “necessary” reform (Sec. I). While a Temporary Asylum opened on January 21 1841 so to offer provisional care during the working period, a specific group of commissioners was appointed to purchase land and monitor the construction of the building (Bazar, 2007; Terbenche, 2011). Inspired by the model of the Worcester asylum in Massachusetts (Hudson, 2000), the commissioners thought it would have been beneficial for patients’ recovery to erect the building far from the city center since it was believed that individuals could better recuperate in the peaceful environment of the countryside (Edginton, 1994).

Form 51

However, the urbanization of Toronto and the birth of the local community of Parkdale in the 1870s, just west of the institution, led to the reabsorption of this mental hospital back into the city. In the 40-year period after 1851, Toronto’s population increased by five times, from 30,000 to 150,000 and by the mid-twentieth century, the core city alone was teeming 675,000 people, while the suburbs had another 360,000 inhabitants (Reaume, 2000). Though there was talk of closing down this location entirely, especially during the first two decades of the twentieth century, this never happened until 1976. To this day, the headquarter of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) stands on the very same grounds of the original asylum opened in 1850 (Court, 2008). Hence, the institution was located about one kilometer north of the shores of Lake Ontario and was placed on unoccupied farm land, away from the bustling core of the nearby city. The Toronto Provincial Lunatic Asylum officially opened its doors on January 26 1850 and it was advertised as the first purpose-built institution for the insane in Ontario (Reaume, 2000). In the future, it would serve as the prototype for the subsequent institutions opening across other provinces (Court, 2000).


How did people end up in a lunatic asylum such as this? Throughout the nineteenth-century, asylum admission constituted a differentiated process. People could be confined in public institutions following two major procedures, namely the civil and the urgency (Bartlett, 2000). The civil procedure, sometimes referred to as the “ordinary procedure” (SO, 1873, Chap. XXI), mainly concerned with the medical recognition of a case of insanity within the community. It involved the participation of a variable number of physicians and local authorities such as Judges, Justices of the Peace, and even Clergymen, who were supposed to examine the patient and to make inquiry into his/her whereabouts. Depending on the specific situation, the examination could result in a shared statement about patient’s insanity and consequent recommendation for asylum treatment. In Upper Canada, from 1839 to 1873, civil confinement of the insane has been regulated by provincial statutes dealing with asylum management. Despite several adjustments and additional provisions, for more than thirty years, civil committal to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum has involved “at least three resident practicing physicians” who were required to “collectively examine” the insane with the approval of a local authority (SUC, 1839, Chap. XI; SUC, 1853, Chap. 188; SUC, 1859, Chap. LXXI; SO, 1871, Chap. XVIII). The main document for registering civil committals was called “Form of Admission of a Patient to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at Toronto”, or more simply “Form of Admission”. It included signatures from three physicians, approval from a local authority, and a list of standardized questions describing the “History of the Patient”. This form, therefore, accompanied the patient to the asylum’s doors and it constituted a sufficient authority for the asylum board or superintendent to receive the person.


Besides this civil procedure, people could also end up in public institutions for the insane through a different path. A second process, indeed, allowed police authorities to apprehend an insane person who was found to have committed or attempted to commit criminal offences (Reaume, 2000). Differently to the civil process,  it was mainly in charge of police officers who had the power to arrest individuals on the basis of dangerousness. After a quick evaluation of the episode, Justices of the Peace conveyed the alleged insane to local gaols for a temporary staying so to verify the state of derangement (Wright, 2005). If the insanity of the prisoner appeared to be persistent, public authorities with the help of one or two gaol surgeons could require the inmate to be transferred to the provincial asylum. In Upper Canada, this procedure of committal was introduced in 1851 and it represented a valid option throughout the nineteenth-century (Bill No. 273, 1851; SO, 1869, Chap. XXXII). Sources of urgency committal were different from those previously considered. Whereas civil confinement was regulated with “Forms of Admission”, urgency committals were administered through “Warrants of Removal” or “Transfer Warrants” signed by the secretary of the Lieutenant-Governor (Bill No. 273, 1851, Sec. IV). These documents consisted of a standard formula declaring that the prisoner was found to be insane and that he/she had to be removed from the gaol and transferred to the lunatic asylum.


The earliest record of a “Warrant of Removal” at the Toronto asylum is dated June 7 1852. It ordered the transfer of Nancy B., a prisoner of the “Common Gaol of the United Counties of Essex and Hamilton” who was arrested “for disorderly conduct” and transferred to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (RG 10-268, B296106, Warrant N° 1185). Starting in 1869, Warrants of Removal also included a list of standardized questions describing patient’s history signed by the gaol surgeon. This template named “Queries to be answered before the Admission of a Patient to the Lunatic Asylum”, included patient’s generalities and investigated the same areas that were required for cases of civil committal, such as “supposed cause of insanity”, “delusions”, and “habits of of the patient as to temperance, industry, and general conduct” (RG 10-268, B296097).

warrant 6

Primary Sources

Archives of Ontario,

RG 10-268 – Queen Street Mental Health Centre admission warrants and histories

Containers from 1 to 7 for the series 1851-1873

LegislationsOntario/Upper Canada

Statutes of Upper Canada (1839) An Act to authorise the erection of an Asylum within this Province, for the reception of Insane and Lunatic persons, Chap. XI., 2nd Victoria, Fourth Session.

Bill No. 273 (1851) An Act for making provision for the confinement and maintenance of Lunatics and other persons of unsound mind charged with or convicted of offences; or whom, from the character of their malady. it may be dangerous to permit to go abroad, Fourth Session, 3rd Parliament, 14 & 15 Victoria.

Statutes of Upper Canada (1853) An Act for the better management of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at Toronto, Chap. 187-188.

Consolidated Statutes of Upper Canada (1859) An Act respecting the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at Toronto, Chap. LXXI.

Statutes of Ontario (1871) An Act respecting Asylums for the Insane, Chap. XVIII.

Statutes of Ontario (1873) An Act to make further Provision as to the Custody of Insane Persons, Chap. XXXI.

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