The Stressful Life of Martin Harrison

Our post this week seeks to explore the possibility that mental illness caused by stressful living conditions lead to Harrison’s involvement in the murder of Ada Brown. Additionally we played with the idea that Harrison may have had a history of violence towards women, due to the deaths of not only four wives, but three daughters as well. Finally, we hope to illustrate how ill-equipped the criminal justice system may have been in regards to the treatment of mentally ill criminals.


Martin Harrison was born in approximately 1833, in Connecticut, rather than Massachusetts as we discussed in class. His job description on Ancestry.com indicated that Harrison was a laborer, which would make sense for the time period. As discussed in our first post, the majority of Hartford’s economic welfare was centered on and around waterfronts. With the Industrial Revolution, businesses began to move away from the waterfronts, and shifted their focus towards banking and insurance, as opposed to river-commerce. This shift lead to the development of tenement living along the riverfronts. Living conditions were poor and often unsafe. Harrison lived on 64 Pleasant Street, which was less than a mile away from the Connecticut River, indicating that he was among those people who inhabited the riverfront tenements after the aforementioned economic shift. From this, we can make an educated guess that Harrison lived in very small quarters. His living space may not have been properly ventilated, and was likely to have been extremely unpleasant.

Studies have indicated that there is a correlation between living conditions and mental health. More specifically, there is a strong correlation between poor living conditions and increased amounts of stress. Stress is defined as “the unspecific physiological and psychological reaction to perceived threats to our physical, psychological or social integrity.”  (Adli, 2011) Using this definition for stress along with our knowledge of tenement conditions, it is clear that urban living, specifically tenement living, could have posed a threat to one’s mental health and their ability, then, to handle stress appropriately. For example, if one’s basic needs for shelter and safety are not adequately met, their mental wellbeing may be negatively compromised.

Pleasant Street during the 19th century was the home to many tenement buildings. Living conditions here were poor, like in any other tenement building, and could have been major stressors for their residents. From  an “evolutionary point of view, stress is the mechanism that prepares us for any ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, and also causes us to evolve in order to better adapt to our environment.” (Adli, 2011) Living in an urban environment can be a potential risk factor for psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder and schizophrenia. Social stress may contribute the most towards the increased risk of mental illness for those living in urban areas. “Living in crowded areas is associated with increased social stress, since the environment becomes less controllable for the individual.” (Adli, 2011) Urban dwellers have a 20% higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, and a 40 % higher risk of developing mood disorders. (Adli, 2011)  Harrison is a prime example of someone under extreme stress, and while there is no evidence that Harrison killed Ada due to stress, a connection can be inferred.  

The use of alcohol as both a recreational substance and as a coping mechanism would have been significant during Ada Brown’s lifetime. It would not have been uncommon for those under extreme amounts of stress to abuse alcohol in an attempt to cope. With the stress we can assume Harrison was experiencing, it would not be a stretch to assume he may have been overly dependant on alcohol to carry him through day to day life. As discussed in prior posts, it may have been possible that Harrison was an alcoholic. Alcoholism was, and is still today, considered a mental illness. If Harrison had underlying mental health issues in addition to a potential drinking problem, this might give us more insight into how the events on the night of Ada’s murder unfolded, since we know that both Ada and Harrison had been drinking that evening.

There is also a correlation between urban living and increased crime rates. The characteristics that go hand in hand with this correlation include the social influences and family structure of those who have committed a crime. As stated in both the dossier and previous post, Harrison had four wives. Elizabeth Harrison was a wife of Martin Harrison. Elizabeth and Martin had three children together, all of whom died in 1863. Harrison’s first daughter,  Anna R. Harrison was born in Hartford in 1858, and died on August 11, 1863 at the age of 5. Georgia O Harrison was born in 1862, and died on July 22, 1863. Their last daughter,  Flora F. Harrison passed away on June 25, 1863; Her date of birth was unknown. All three daughters died within 47 days of each other. Even though I was able to find the information on Elizabeth and Martin’s children, I was not able to find any direct information on Elizabeth herself.  Another wife of Harrison’s was a young woman from England named Josephine Harrison (maiden name not found). She was a housekeeper, and tended to their home on Pleasant Street. However Josephine was 20 years younger than Harrison, and passed away at 27, in 1880, four years before Ada’s death. I was not able to find information on Harrison’s other two wives. The services for each deceased wife were paid for by the state. It is possible that Harrison, as a result of extreme stress, had a part in the deaths of his wives and daughters. However, there is no clear evidence so we are left to guess what truly happened to these women.

After the death of his last wife, Harrison was advised to go to the hospital.We are not clear on whether this was a mental institution or a general hospital, but given the possibility of his alcoholism and possible additional mental health concerns, one might guess he was sent for psychiatric care.  At this point in history treatment options existed beyond family, with custody and care for the individual, to lodging the mentally ill in a workhouse or abandoning them. This was also the time where private madhouses were established and were opened to the public to those who could afford treatment. Harrison however had no family whom could of abandoned him in a hospital, nor did he have the means to go to a private established madhouse, due to the fact that the state was paying for the services of his wives.

After killing Ada Brown, Harrison was issued to Wethersfield State Prison on January ninth, 1885, for seven years under the crime of manslaughter.  During this time in history, there was little knowledge within the legal system on how to treat those with mental illness  who have committed a crime. Untrained, unqualified individuals treated mentally ill patients like animals, with no respect and justified their treatment with the illness, staffed a majority of prisons and asylums. We can see this in the Auburn System. Last week we spoke briefly on the Auburn system, which was a penal method in the 19th century, by making the inmates work during the day in groups, but were kept in solitary confinement at night, which enforced silence at all times. This concept was very hard on the mental ill. Many mentally ill inmates did not understand the concept of their punishment and could not see what they did was wrong, and how being in solitary confinement would help their situation.  Even though I was able to find information on the mentally ill and punishments, I was unsuccessful in finding information on punishment times.

In conclusion, the inherent stress of tenement living, mixed with a inclination towards (or addiction to) alcohol, as well as a potential inclination towards violence, (as seen in the deaths of all four of his previous wives),  may have lead to Harrison’s involvement in the murder of Ada Brown. Upon sentencing, it is possible that Harrison was issued a lighter sentence and sent to Wethersfield State Prison to live under the Auburn System because the justice system was unsure of what else to do regarding a mentally ill criminal.


Works Cited

Lea Johnston, Vulnerability and Just Desert: A Theory of Sentencing and Mental Illness, 103 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 147 (2013). http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol103/iss1/4

Melamed, Y. (2010). Mentally ill persons who commit crimes: Punishment or treatment? ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY, 38(1), 100–103. Retrieved from http://jaapl.org/content/38/1/100.full

Adli, M. (2011, November). Stress – Health, Empathy & Evolution | Cheryl Stringall … Retrieved November 6, 2016,

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