Bedlam in the New World: Madness, Colonialism, and a Mexican Madhouse,1567-1821

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Bedlam in the New World: Madness, Colonialism, and a Mexican Madhouse,1567-1821

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Title: Bedlam in the New World: Madness, Colonialism, and a Mexican Madhouse,1567-1821
Author: Ramos, Christina ORCID  0000-0002-3834-3987
Citation: Ramos, Christina. 2015. Bedlam in the New World: Madness, Colonialism, and a Mexican Madhouse,1567-1821. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: In spite of a vast and robust literature on madness and its institutions, colonial Mexico remains unchartered domain and little is known about the Hospital de San Hipólito in Mexico City, the first hospital of the Americas to specialize in the care and confinement of the mentally disturbed. Founded in 1567 by a penitent conquistador, San Hipólito provided caridad or charity, including specialized medical and custodial services, to some of New Spain’s most marginal, troubled, and troublesome subjects. This dissertation examines the history of this precocious colonial institution—including its growing alignment with both the Inquisition and secular criminal courts from which it often received patients—raising questions about medical and nonmedical understandings of madness, or locura, and its connection to categories of race, class, and gender; patient experience and agency; and how the hospital fit (and did not) into larger imperial agendas.

Although the dissertation charts the entirety of San Hipólito’s colonial history, a major focal point is the second half of the eighteenth century. It was during this period—often associated with the tightening of colonial rule under the absolutist Bourbon monarchs—that the hospital was remodeled and amplified, and its wards increasingly populated by allegedly insane criminals forcefully confined by mandate of the Inquisition and the secular law enforcement. Ostensibly intended for pobres dementes (mad paupers), by the late eighteenth century, San Hipólito had assumed a central role in the management of madness not just in connection to poverty, but also in relation to a range of religious and sexual offenses, and violent crimes such as murder. Drawing on hospital records, as well as criminal and Inquisition cases, I stress that such changes were broadly linked to the growing medicalization of madness rather than to its putative criminalization or the transformation of the hospital into an instrument of social control. San Hipólito was far from a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of a powerful colonial regime; its history reveals the ad hoc nature of confinement, and cases involving patient flight and concerns over feigned madness underscore the inability of the colonial state to fully govern the lives of its subjects.
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