Magic and madness; Aiden Sinclair on the chilling history of Colney Hatch Asylum
At Aiden Sinclair's magic show, you won't see any bunnies pulled out of hats or ladies cut in half. Sinclair describes From a Padded Room: An Evening in Colney Hatch Asylum, which plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 8, at the Tattered Cover LoDo event hall, as an empathic journey back in time to the very real British asylum and the horrible practices that went on in its halls. Beyond the chilling entertainment, $5 from each ticket sold will go to support SafeHouse Denver, which provides emergency shelter, counseling and advocacy for survivors of domestic violence.
We caught up with Sinclair in advance of the show to learn about the history of Colney Hatch and his mission to raise awareness about domestic abuse.
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Westword: How did the show come about?
Aiden Sinclair: The show came about by coincidence. A friend of mine in Cheyenne is a gentleman named Forrest King and he's an extremely talented artist. And the cool thing about him is all of his painting is really driven toward social issues that a lot of people don't talk about at all. So he did this painting that's called the "Battered Bride," and the first time I saw this painting it was extremely emotional. It's one of those things that's really hard to look at, but you can't look away at the same time.
So he had approached me about doing some magic at a benefit that he had, and as soon as he asked if I would do a benefit I said absolutely. It kind of struck me that normally when I perform magic for people the object of magic is the suspension of reality -- it's to take people away from the world and bring them into some imaginative creation that's somewhat impossible. Generally as a magician, for eighteen years I've been very happy to take people away from their problems. This, however, seemed like something that you needed to bring people to, not away from. And I thought it was important that if you have a bunch of people getting together to donate money to a cause, they should really be conscious of exactly what it is that they're donating to and that they're helping people.
Forrest King, "The Battered Bride."
So we stopped the show and took it off of production and went into pre-production of this show specifically for this cause. Just to raise money for safehouses. So that was the trick. How do you write a show about domestic violence and still have something that's entertaining, that people would want to sit down and watch?
What drew you to the history of Colney Hatch Asylum?
It's an extremely compelling history, and it's also amazing to me that here was this amazing place that from the outside looks like a Victorian estate, it's really gorgeous, the grounds look like the palace of Versailles, and then the most horrible things you can imagine went on behind those gates, inside those buildings.
Under English law up until about 1960 it was really easy for a man to have his wife committed. It basically took two signatures. One of them was a physician who could say that the lady was not of sound mind and body. She could be committed for far less than it would cost to get a divorce. It's extremely tragic. So we started to do some research, we thought that it would be cool to do some sort of dark show about an insane asylum. I really didn't know anything about the history of the asylums in the United Kingdom previous to that, but when we started to do research, it got really scary. We found out this particular institution housed 3,500 patients. It was built in 1851 and 75 percent of the population was women -- and it's determined that now, looking back at the records, it really looks like probably most of them had no mental illness whatsoever. You would see diagnoses like alcoholic dementia, which was probably the most common, and basically a guy would go to a physician and say that when his wife drank her personality changed so severely that he couldn't live with her. And that was enough.
That, alone, is terrible. If you can imagine it was just an innocent person who got in a relationship and for whatever reason that relationship didn't work out, and it was generally people of means who would do this. They were men who had money to pay the asylum bill, and they would have their wives committed. And it was usually without their knowledge or consent in any way.