The Lunatics Have Taken Charge of the Asylum

Edgar Allan Poe? Richard Rowland? Terry Ramsaye? Laurence Stallings? H. L. Mencken? William Gibbs McAdoo? Jack Oakie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The leaders of a group often face a variety of criticisms. Harsh detractors employ a vivid metaphor from the domain of mental health. Here are two examples:

  1. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
  2. The inmates are in charge of the asylum.

This barb has often been aimed at Hollywood. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this metaphor known to QI appeared in the 1926 book “A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925” by Terry Ramsaye. The statement was applied to the upstart movie studio United Artists and its four founders: prominent film director D. W. Griffith, popular comic actor Charlie Chaplin, well-known star Mary Pickford, and matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The classic comment of the occasion came from Richard Rowland, then head of Metro Pictures Corporation. He received the interesting tidings from Arthur James, press and intelligence agent of Metro. Rowland meditated on the significance of the new move for almost a full second.

“So,” he remarked, “the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

It should be added, lest there be an assumption that the comment sprang from snobbery, that Rowland has been philosopher enough to classify himself as “one of the accidentally successful.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1845 the famous horror writer Edgar Allan Poe published a short story titled “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”. The tale was set in a private hospital for the mentally ill, and the central plot revelation reflected the expression under examination. The takeover of the asylum was described by Poe, but he did not use the scenario as a metaphor: 2

And, sure enough, one fine morning the keepers found themselves pinioned hand and foot, and thrown into the cells, where they were attended, as if they were the lunatics, by the lunatics themselves, who had usurped the offices of the keepers.

In 1926 the saying was attributed to Richard Rowland as mentioned previously.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” included the following entry which credited U.S. playwright and screenwriter Laurence Stallings: 3

A place where the inmates are in charge of the asylum.
Ascribed to LAURENCE STALLINGS, c. 1930

A columnist in July 1944 attributed the remark to politician William Gibbs McAdoo. The newspaper spelled “McAdoo” as “MacAdoo”: 4

When a group of stars in 1919 organized United Artists to make their own pictures—and take a larger share of the proceeds—the late William Gibbs MacAdoo cracked “The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

In October 1944 columnist Earl Wilson interviewed actor Jack Oakie who employed the saying: 5

“For 18 years,” he said, in his husky voice, “I’ve been going to college out at the Asylum.”

“The Asylum?” I said.

“Hollywood,” he said, “where the lunatics have finally taken over.”

In 1946 a columnist credited Laurence Stallings with the saying, but “Laurence” was misspelled as “Lawrence”: 6

It was Lawrence Stallings who was supposed to have been first with: “Hollywood is a place where the inmates are in charge of the asylum,” and Vicki Baum, who didn’t do so badly down there, remarked: “What I like about Hollywood is that one can get along by knowing two words of English—’swell’ and lousy’.”

In conclusion, Richard Rowland is the leading candidate for originator of this expression based on the 1926 citation. Laurence Stallings and William Gibbs McAdoo may have employed this saying, but the value of the supporting citations was reduced because of their late appearance in the 1940s.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to previous researchers H. L. Mencken, Laurence J. Peter, Nigel Rees, Fred R. Shapiro, and others.)

Image Notes: Painting by Vincent van Gogh circa 1889 of the grounds of the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, France. Image has been resized, cropped, and retouched.

Notes:

  1. 1964 (1926 Copyright), A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 by Terry Ramsaye, Chapter 79: Mary, McAdoo and Monte Carlo, Quote Page 795, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1845 November, Graham’s Magazine (Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art), Volume 28, Number 5, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether by Edgar Allan Poe, Start Page 193, Quote Page 198, Column 2, George R. Graham & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Hollywood, Quote Page 541, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1944 July 27, San Pedro News-Pilot, Hollywood by Robbin Coons, Quote Page 6, Column 2,San Pedro, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1944 October 29, The Miami News, Earl Wilson On Broadway: Oakie Grad of Film Campus, Quote Page 7D, Column 2, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1946 June 14, Oakland Tribune, Other Fellow by Ad Schuster, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)