[Ads-l] "Lunatics/inmates running the asylum"

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 1 19:34:11 EDT 2017

In the wake of the NFL "controversy" about one of the owners saying he didn't want the inmates running the prison (which I assume was just a mangled version of "inmates running the asylum"), I looked for the history of the expression.

The early examples of the expression almost all deal with Hollywood.  I found a comment on phrases.org.uk that pointed to a film history book (published in 1926)<https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/59/messages/666.html> that cited a book published in 1926 that attributed it to the head of a studio who made the remark when he heard that D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were forming United Artists studio in 1919.  This was the earliest one I found (at the time).  Most of the later examples before 1963 also related to Hollywood.

I posted a piece on my blog with several examples<https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2017/10/red-skelton-pat-riley-and-nfl-players.html>.

But of course then I had to make one last pass at it and upset the apple cart.

The earliest example I found was in a "lecture" performance by a man named James Clement Ambrose in 1894.  He gave lecture entitled, "The Fool in Politics":

"The lecture was really a series of epigrams and was packed full of though from the opening to the closing sentence.

The fools in politics are the stupidly wicked and the intelligently vicious.

The voter should swear on school books as well as on the Bible.

Educate men without religion and you make them clever devils.

If this country is an asylum for all nations, then do not let the lunatics run the asylum."

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, August 20, 1894, page 1. Chronicling America.

An example from 1922 also relates to the immigration debate:

"'The 3 per cent. act ended the asylum idea just in time to prevent the United States from becoming the almshouse of the world - many of the alien inmates would li8ke to run the asylum,' he [(Representative Johnson, Washington, chairman of the House Committee on Immigration)] added."

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 5, 1922, page 2.

The other two exceptions to the Hollywood angle are a 1934 article referring to Hitler and Goebbels as lunatics running the asylum (The Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), April 1, 1934, page 10) and  a 1948 article describing Washington DC as the only place where lunatics run the asylum (Longview News-Journal, October 11, 1949, page 12).

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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