My 39 year old great great grandfather died of "lunacy" in 1845. He was married with two small children. He was a tailor. He lived in Leith, Edinburgh.

What would or could be the meaning of "Lunacy" in this context?

  • Tailor is suspiciously close to "hatter". Any known partners or sidelines or perhaps earlier apprenticeships? Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 9:56
  • 1
    Could you add to your question where you found this information? You ask "what could be the meaning of 'Lunacy' in this context" -- without giving us the context. Do you have his death certificate from the GRO? If so, please say so.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 18:53
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    @Jan This is a good point. Civil registration did not begin in Scotland until 1855, so clearly this information is not from a statutory death certificate. Is it from a burial record? A newspaper report? Knowing who wrote "lunacy" is a key part of interpreting the cause of death. Was it a coroner, a doctor, a poorhouse manager, a relative, a journalist?
    – Harry V.
    Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 16:18
  • Good catch @HarryVervet -- I knew that Civil Registration starts later in Scotland; I guess I had assumed he could have died across the border -- note that the Q says where he lived but doesn't give an explicit place of death.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 19:51

3 Answers 3


While the exact diagnosis is almost certainly impossible without data from elsewhere that probably doesn't exist, we should at least attempt to see how the words were used at that time.

Anyone familiar with UK censuses, will know that a number of them have in the final column, a question similar to "If (1) Deaf-and-Dumb, (2) Blind (3) Lunatic, Imbecile or Idiot". People tend to apply modern terminology and assume that all the 3 terms in the last question are the same and / or that these are insults. This is simply not true. Theoretically, the terms in the last mean:

  • Lunatic : a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity;
  • Imbecile : persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia;
  • Idiot : persons who suffer from a mental deficiency from birth;

See this Genes Reunited thread - this is a secondary source but matches my memory of other readings, except that I can never remember which is which. The same thread goes on to warn that "that according to the 1881 Census Report 'No accurate line of demarcation can be drawn between the several conditions indicated by these terms..." The same report says that these are the popular meanings but 'it is certain that neither this nor any other definite distinction between the terms was rigorously observed in the schedules, and consequently no attempt has been made by us to separate imbeciles from idiots. The term lunatic also is used with some vagueness, and probably some persons suffering from congenital idiocy, and many more suffering from dementia, were returned under this name.'

The default assumption should surely be that the three categories above theoretically applied and so your GG-GF did have periods of lucidity. How long, how lucid, and what the root cause was, we will almost certainly never know.


We can assume that your ancestor suffered from some kind of mental condition. Please see Lunatic (English Wikipedia). Given the poor state of psychiatric knowledge and care at this time, it will be hard to establish a modern diagnosis.

Highly hypothetical: He was married, had children and a profession. This makes some life-long condition less likely. More acute neurological illnesses however may present with psychiatric symptoms as well (e.g. brain hemorrhage or a brain infection, encephalitis). You could neither diagnose nor treat these conditions back then and patients often were labeled with some psychiatric diagnosis


Added to lejonet's answer, I generally associate 'lunacy' with bipolar disorder more in particular, because of its cyclic nature. And it is a life-long condition, but can remain 'silent' for a bit, meaning that being married and having children is most usual.

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