Biographies are important. Not only do they offer insights into the lives of particular people, they also provide commentary on cultures, traditions and times by situating people's lived experiences in socio-economic, political and historical contexts. US historian Kim E. Nielsen's Money, Marriage and Madness: The Life of Anna Ott, published in 2020 by the University of Illinois Press, is the biography of a nineteenth century American woman. Yet, unlike standard biographies, Nielsen's work is more of an exposé of the gendered history of the United States of America in the 1800s rather than an authoritative narrative on the life of Mrs. Anna Ott. I recommend this book because it adds to the large body of existing scholarship on the history of madness and the gendered laws on which several of our modern nation-states were once built.

Dr. Anna Barbara Blaser Miesse Ott's story is remarkable, oddly familiar, and uncomfortably common. She migrated to America with her parents in 1834 from Switzerland. Her teenage years in Ohio were fairly easy after her family relocated to the United States. As a white woman, raised by well-to-do parents, Anna Barbara Blaser did not face the hardships that several first-generation immigrants had to go through in the nineteenth century. However, Anna was a victim of her sex like most women around the world. She married Jonathan Miesse, a local physician, and stayed with him in Ohio, close to their families, for nearly two decades. This book tells us the story of a physician's wife who later went on to become a doctor and eventually died in a mental asylum as an incarcerated patient.

Why did Anna B. Ott's first marriage with Jonathan Miesse not work out? Did Anna commit acts of adultery? Why did Miesse blame her for ignoring her duties towards her husband, two children, and family while filing for divorce in a court of law? Did Anna defend herself in court? If not, why did she think it wise to quietly accept the charges levelled against her? Nielsen's biography, despite her best efforts, is a frustrating read because it raises more questions than it can answer. Anna B. Ott's voice is conspicuously missing in this work – because it is missing (or has been erased) from the pages of history. Much of the narrative, therefore, is surmised in the absence of evidence or testimony or detailed historical records. The experience of reading this biography is similar to attempting to piece together a narrative by reading Sappho's poems that are now extant only in fragments. It is what Carolyn Heilbrun calls "women's storylessness" 1.

Anna B. Ott's first marriage, though unsuccessful in the traditional sense, turned out to be financially rewarding. She got almost $6000 from her estranged husband as a settlement, which she invested in real estate. Some of her choices were so smart that they were almost radical for a nineteenth century American woman. Nielsen's work reflects on several debates that were topical in the 1800s in the US: women's property rights, marriage laws, widow remarriage, divorce laws, custody of children in broken marriages, and the limits to the control that women had over their possessions, bodies, and lives. Embedding Anna B. Ott's narrative within this larger framework and reflecting on the power dynamics of nineteenth century society helps Nielsen convey to her readers a sense of the impact that laws had, and can have, on political and, more importantly, on personal lives. Nielson writes in her 'Introduction:'

This is the biography of a woman heretofore unwritten into history, but a woman whose life mattered and matters (2).

Why did Anna B. Ott decide to marry her sister's widow, George V. Ott, in 1856 within a year of her sister's death and six months after her divorce from Jonathan Miesse? How did her sister die? Did Anna know of George Ott's violent streak when she married him? Was George Ott violent towards her sister as well? Did Anna know of the child that George Ott fathered outside his marriage? As an educated woman, with money and property, why was she in a rush to enter into the institution of matrimony so soon after her first divorce and with a man of questionable character? Once again, there are no answers except the fact that society is less hostile to a married woman than to single women. This might have influenced some of Anna's inexplicable choices.

Anna decided to refashion herself after her first divorce in 1856. She left Ohio and moved to Wisconsin with her new husband where she was the only female physician for several years. The new couple lived on the estate that Anna had previously purchased with the money she received from Jonathan Miesse. George Ott ran a tannery business from another property that Anna owned and, until things started going downhill, he also paid his wife rent.

Anna B. Ott must have gained a fair amount of medical knowledge working closely with (almost as an apprentice to) her first husband, the physician Jonathan Miesse. However, she actively lied on her passport, as well as to people around her, about having attended medical school. Evidence proves that she had no formal training as a physician given that women were not allowed into institutes of higher learning, especially into medical schools, including in Ohio, until the late nineteenth century. However, Anna must have been good at her craft since she made a good amount of money in Wisconsin as a female physician.

Despite her initial success, unfortunately for Dr. Anna B. Ott, things did not turn out well on the personal front. This biography offers us disturbing accounts of the domestic abuse Anna suffered at the hands of her second husband, who finally testified against her madness in 1873. What is clear from Nielsen's work is that Anna's mental diagnosis was quite possibly bogus.

Anna B. Ott filed for divorce from her exceedingly violent husband in the 1860s. Nineteenth century divorce laws required that one partner accepted guilt for the marriage to be dissolved. Anna was intelligent, independent, well-regarded, and wealthy: qualities that are admirable in men but frowned on in women, especially in her contemporary society. Anna was also an early suffragette. While there are no records of her actively participating in women's campaigns, she chose to vote in the 1873 elections along with several other women who were fighting for their basic rights as citizens. Soon after, George Ott declared in the court that his wife was insane. He refused to accept his guilt and instead alleged that his wife was too loud, too wild, too scheming, too manic – in short, she was mad. How often have we heard of 'too-much-women' getting branded as mad or manic by a society that is unable and unwilling to accept their radical politics? Anna B. Ott must have been considered deviant by the patriarchal society in which she lived. She was a threat to age-old norms of dominance and hegemony, and therefore, needed to be punished and removed for this society to return to its state of normalcy. Nielsen writes in her introductory note:

Diagnoses and prescriptive treatments are never ahistorical concepts removed from culture and place (3).

Anna B. Ott's diagnosis as a manic, delusional person, which eventually led to her incarceration, demonstrates to us that diagnoses are often gendered, racialised, and class or caste based. They are never entirely neutral or value-free. Citing an example, Nielsen notes:

… [W]ithin a few decades schizophrenia went from being a white woman's disease of passivity to a black man's disease of aggressiveness. … The power to diagnose has frequently led to abuses of that power (4).

Anna B. Ott protested against the ill-treatment at the hands of her husband. Given her experiences with Miesse and Ott, Anna was also fiercely protective of her financial assets. Her natural instinct to preserve herself and her property were seen as markers of her intellectual disability. Nielsen raises fundamental questions in this work about an ableist and patriarchal society that often declares anything that doesn't follow reified, widespread notions of normalcy as ab-normal, thereby creating what Snyder and Mitchell 2 would call a "lethal social atmosphere" (30). The inability of ableist-patriarchal structures to negotiate with Anna B. Ott's brand of feminism and self-assertion led to her being incarcerated in the Mendota Asylum (later, Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane). She died in the asylum in 1893.

The last two chapters of Nielsen's book look at the impact institutionalised incarceration had on Anna B. Ott's life. I commend Nielsen's efforts in trying to shine light on these conditions, especially in the absence of archival resources. Anna B. Ott's madness is not something that can be medically proven beyond doubt. On the few occasions that she behaved violently in the asylum in 1975 (though there is no record of what provoked this kind of behaviour from an individual who was otherwise known to be orderly and behaved with all propriety), Anna was subject to devices of torture that were acceptable in the nineteenth century. For example, she was placed in a crib, which was a form of restraint quite popular along with other coercive methods of treatment such as keeping patients in 'dark rooms' or 'blind rooms' or strapping them to their bed. Though Anna must have had a relatively easier stay at the asylum because she came from money and her court-appointed guardian was kind enough to allow her funds to be used for her upkeep, the attempt to straightjacket Anna for her apparent aberrations stem from a power structure that was incapable of making room for her kind of activism.

The mad woman in the attic is not just a literary trope, it is a reflection of the brutal realities of a society that deems women like Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and Anna B. Ott as slightly insane and marginalises and persecutes them for their acts of defiance. Nielsen calls her work a "silhouette biography" (7) instead of a "substantive portrait" (7) and it sometimes reads like a work of creative non-fiction set in nineteenth century America instead of an academic study because of its archival limitations. However, it is important for us as readers to understand that Anna B Ott's archival exclusion is symptomatic of her historical erasure and the historical erasure of countless institutionalised people, especially women.


  1. Qtd. in Nielson's biography (p. 12)
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  2. Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. 2006. Cultural Locations of Disability. USA: University of Chicago Press.
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