Unhappy patient bites porter at one of London’s finest hospitals

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On Wednesday the 6 September 1883 the assistant medical officer at the Highgate Infirmary on Dartmouth Park Hill ordered that Eli Sparksman be discharged. The 20 year-old gardener had no home to go to however, and seemed reluctant to leave. The assistant MO ordered one of the porters to find him and escort him off the premises but this seemingly simple instruction resulted in a court case at Highgate Police court.

Highgate Infirmary had opened in 1870 and quickly established itself; none other than Florence Nightingale described it as ‘the finest metropolitan hospital’. Until 1893 it was part of the Central London Sick Asylum district, thereafter reverting to the St Pancras Poor Law Union. It served the poor of north London and in 1930 became the Highgate Hospital. In 1948 it was incorporated into the Whittington (where I was born) as its Highgate wing, close to the cemetery at Highgate.

Sparksman had reacted badly to be told to change his clothes and leave the institution, and refused, demanding instead to be seen by Dr McCann the head of the hospital. Acting on the instructiosn he’d been given Walter Bowen went looking for Eli Sparksman, and the porter eventually found the young patient wandering in the infirmary’s garden.

He tried to lead Sparksman back inside the building but as they were climbing the steps up from the garden Eli became ‘very violent’, and threw himself to the ground. As Bowen tried to drag him to his feet the patient attacked him, biting his hand ‘in a very savage manner’.

Despite his injury the porter got his charge back inside to the ward where Sparksman threatened to ‘knock his head off with a stone’ if he got him outside again. Hospital staff today continue to be attacked and abused by patients, some of them drunk and disorderly others, like Eli I suspect, suffering from a form of mental illness. In this instance the police were called and PC Deeks arrived to take the man into custody. The policeman later testified that Sparksman was both violent and verbally abusive towards him as he took him back to Kentish Town nick.

The case came up before the magistrates at Highgate where no account seems to be taken of Eli’s mental health. The police knew him as ‘a very bad boy’ (which given that he was 20 and not 12 suggests again that this was a person who today would be diagnosed with a learning difficulty or mental illness and not treated as a criminal).  The bench had no truck with violence towards medical or police officials and sent Eli to prison for a month at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, September 11, 1883]

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