If thanks to a time machine you could visit the 15th century Royal Bethlem Hospital, you might think of seeing a horror movie scene. The notorious institution, which was the first to specialise in mental health treatment in Europe and later inspired the 1946 horror film Bedlam, was founded in 1247 during the reign of Henry III. Bethlem was the only institution in Europe that sheltered people rejected by society, those who had mental or even criminal problems. The term “bedlam”, the definition of “chaos and confusion”, was coined in the English language as a distortion of Bethlem, precisely to describe the real asylum, during the darkest period it experienced, in the 18th century.
During that time, patients were subjected to horrible cruelty, experimentation and humiliation. Founded in 1247, it was the first hospital of its kind in the United Kingdom: there was no previously a place to lock up mentally ill, disabled or criminals with mental problems away from society. You could be hospitalized for “chronic mania” or “acute melancholy”, but also for committing crimes such as infanticide, murder or various brutality.
Being admitted to Bedlam did not mean in any way to undertake a rehabilitation path, since “treatment” implied little more than isolation and experimentation. One of the distressing treatments invented by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles) was called rotational therapy and involved putting a patient in a chair suspended in the air who was then spun round for hours. The obvious purpose was to provoke vomiting, a popular purgative cure for most of the ailments during that period. The “guests” were tied to the wall with an iron chain, hooked to an arm, a leg, or even to the neck and to the waist. Meanwhile, in the 18th and 19th centuries patients were dunked in cold baths, starved and beaten. Some patients have spent tens of years under these conditions. During this brutal period a Quaker philanthropist Edward Wakefield visited Bethlem in 1814 and described seeing naked and starved men chained to walls.
Beyond social customs of the time, the lack of funds explains why the hospital became Bethlem Bedlam. Asylum was a poorly funded government institution, strongly linked to the economic support of patient families and private donors. Of course, the vast majority of those in Bedlam did not come from wealthy families, or even just the middle class. Patients were often poor, ignorant and victims not only of mental illness, but also of a society that rejected them.
Starting from the 18th century, to make up for the lack of funds, Bedlam became more of a circus than a hospital: people came from all over the United Kingdom to see patients, paying an entrance fee, so much so that the hospital became one of the major attractions of London, after Westminster Abbey and Buckingam Palace. Patients were also ‘treated’ by being spun round in chairs in front of paying punters. Around the mid-1800s, a man named William Hood became the doctor in charge of Bedlam, claiming he wanted to create real rehabilitation programs that would serve patients in the hospital rather than administrators. The “Bedlamites”, as they were nicknamed, were subjected to horrible treatments, both for experimentation but also only for cruelty, and aroused interest only for the study of their bodies, which were then thrown into a mass grave in Liverpool Street, discovered only a few years ago.
During the years between the two world wars, Bethlem Royal Hospital was moved to a more decentralized and rural location, also to improve the quality of life of patients. The move also helped the institution get rid of its horrible reputation. Thanks to the Museum of the Mind, today we can see photographs of some of the Bedlamites: many of them were photographed at the time of admission, with just a note or two on their condition, and looking at these photos today, it is natural to wonder how many of these patients have survived Bedlam.
Photographer Henry Hering took pictures of Bethlem patients, from 1846 to 1858, in order to examine their faces for evidence of their mental health conditions. For example, one woman, Sarah Gardner, a domestic servant, was admitted to Bethlem when she was 26-years-old in 1857 after she suffered from ‘great mental depression’. Eliza Josolyne, 23, was admitted to Bethlem in February 1857, with the cause of her apparent insanity recorded as ‘overwork’. The young woman had been working as the only servant in a 20-room house and was unable to keep up with the work over winter. So, she became stressed for extremely harsh weather conditions…..and she ended up in Bedlam. Some of the hospital’s notable patients there is John Frith, who believed he was St Paul and tried to attack King George III by throwing a stone at him in January 1790.