American Jiu-Jitsu in the “Walled City”

The following passage is excerpted from “The Walled City: a Story of the Criminal Insane”, written by Edward Huntington Williams and originally published in 1913. It describes an apparently un-named, but at least partially codified system of self defence and escort/restraint holds covertly developed by workers in American psychiatric hospitals during the 19th century.

The Japanese are credited with originating the much-heralded art of “jiu jitsu.” But long before the word that stands for joint twisting, nerve-squeezing, and muscle-pulling was known in this country, a system of similar, if less elaborate, disabling methods was known to practically every veteran keeper in all the Walled Cities of the country.

Without some such effective system— some system of self-defense that gave them a distinct advantage over their charges—it would have been difficult for the attendants of half a century ago to have kept some of the more violent cases within bounds, since striking with the closed hand was forbidden the attendants, altho no such restriction was placed upon their charges. And so ingenious keepers, some time early in the history of asylums, studied out an elaborate system of what we should now call “jiu jitsu,” and this was surreptitiously communicated to colleagues all over the country from Atlantic to Pacific. Surreptitiously, since if it had been made public it would have been vigorously supprest by the authorities, no matter how useful it might be, in deference to public opinion already hypersensitive to the subject of “asylum abuses.” But in point of fact, this same system of “American jiu jitsu,” if it may be so called, was sometimes a merciful as well as an effective way of handling excited and ungovernable patients.

One of its chief merits, from the attendant’s point of view, was the fact that it could be used without detection by any but an initiated onlooker. This was of inestimable value when patients were being escorted through places outside the walls of the City. At such times Citizens are likely to become excited, or take advantage of their surroundings and the sympathy of the gaping crowds, which is almost invariably with the captive, no matter how black a criminal he may be. Under these circumstances, should he become unruly, and be handled roughly by the attendant, even in self-defense, that officer would more than likely be set upon and mobbed by the onlookers. On the other hand, no one would be likely to offer more than verbal interference if the officer seemed merely to be holding his charge firmly.

Knowing this, the attendant, orientated in “jiu jitsu,” could take his patient by the arm, to all appearances simply holding his wrist with one hand and grasping his upper arm just above the elbow with the other, and guide him where he pleased without much trouble. For unknown to the spectators, the keeper’s fingers, resting apparently innocently upon his charge’s elbow, really covered a large nerve trunk on the inner side of the elbow joint, where the slightest contraction of his fingers could be made to produce a sensation that would bring any but the most unruly Citizen under control.

This was simply one of the multiform methods of controlling patients, a score of other “jiu jitsu” twists and locks being known and used on occasion. None of these methods were countenanced by any of the officers in control of any institution; and, in truth, a large number of the officers never even suspected their existence, although the attendants sometimes used them under the very noses of their superior officers, without detection, or without injury to the patient. And when the much advertised Japanese jiu jitsu took the country by storm as a novelty a few years ago these veteran attendants had their little laugh all to themselves. It wasn’t so much of a novelty to them as to the generality of people.

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