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  • Virginia Penny's "State of Desperation"Anger, Insanity, And Struggles For Justice In Nineteenth-Century Kentucky
  • Pippa Holloway (bio)

Virginia Penny called the moment when her anger veered into madness "a state of desperation." In 1882, after a long and unsuccessful struggle to protect the assets and health of her brother Henry, who had spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions, she carried a gun into the city court in Louisville and threatened to kill the attorneys who were his legal guardians. Police arrested her, and the court held an inquest to determine whether she was insane. After a meandering statement in which she sought to explain her actions by chronicling her fury at the judge, police chief, attorneys, and asylum officials, the jury found her insane and ordered her confined to the Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum—the same facility that held her brother.1

Three months later, Penny clawed her way to back into court after clandestinely instructing a friend on how to file a habeas corpus petition on her behalf. A judge ordered a second hearing. Several asylum personnel testified that she should remain institutionalized, including Robert Gale, the asylum superintendent. Gale explained the reasons for his diagnosis: "In various ways—the ideas she has; the theories she has of deportment; her peculiar notion of her rights, and interference in the matters belonging to other people…her denunciation of men whose standing is as good as any in the community; her persistent efforts to outlaw everybody; her attempts to form societies, and the abuse she heaps on some of the most reputable men in the city." Gale's statement laid bare the gendered critiques of her behavior that had resulted in her incarceration. He concluded that Penny's beliefs and activism constituted lunacy. She clearly unsettled him, with her vehement self-assurance and disregard for his sense of hierarchy. In an era in which women's rights were limited, she insisted she had rights. She was excessive and abnormal, denouncing and abusing those around her and violating his idea of how an upper-class white southern woman should behave. Gale repeated that her attacks on elite men and her efforts to unite citizens against them constituted insanity, concluding that he was "confident that she was a lunatic."2

In a long rebuttal, Penny pled for her freedom and offered her version of events, detailing her concerns about her brother's financial affairs and the frustrations she [End Page 3] had experienced trying to help him. When she had spoken with his legal guardians about her concerns, she had been regarded in a "shameful and insolent way" and "insulted and treated as a lunatic." In her conclusion, she assured the court that she rejected violence but vowed to continue exercising her rights to petition and speak. "Hereafter the only weapons I shall use will be my pen and tongue, which I think everyone is entitled to." The jury determined that she was of "sound mind" and "restored to her proper senses," and the judge ordered her release.3

Virginia Penny was known for her research and writing about women's employment, most of which she undertook before the Civil War, while she was in her thirties and early forties.4 She was nationally known as an advocate for women's participation in the paid labor force and was elected to a leadership role in the American Equal Rights Association.5 Her early decades have not been examined thoroughly, but they seem to fit into historical accounts of activist women of the era. She was an independent, outspoken woman who never married, campaigned for women's rights, and fearlessly challenged male authority.

Penny's later life is harder to characterize. She continued to consider herself an activist, but her shifting focus, penchant for conflict, and unpredictable selection of campaigns made her more of a lone warrior than a movement organizer. Her outspoken advocacy provoked negative repercussions that ranged from ridicule to institutionalization. Discord seemed to follow her everywhere. Records of her encounters in this period reveal a woman who seethed at the world and refused to compromise. She was incensed by injustice and furious when her efforts at reform...