Today, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London is a modern psychiatric hospital. But if you were unlucky enough to be sent there in its earlier days, you would know why its name, even today, is synonymous with chaos and madness.
Bethlem Hospital (quickly shortened to ‘Bedlam’) was Europe’s first insane asylum. Founded by the church as an almshouse in 1247, it became the first institution to attempt to treat the insane in 1357. It has been housing the mentally ill for more than 600 years. But for nearly all of those years, its inmates survived in conditions of almost unimaginable horror, filth and abuse.
A report from the 1600s found the sewer below the building was constantly blocked, with filth piling up at the entrances. There was no connection at the time between health and hygiene, and water had to be hand carried, so even regular hospitals were filthy, and Bedlam was worse.
People with illnesses that we now recognize as schizophrenia, depression, autism, and epilepsy might all have found themselves in Bedlam.
Worst of all, their suffering was entertainment for the rest of London. The old hospital was open to the public. To raise funds, its inmates were put on display, their bizarre behavior and often cruel ‘treatment’ considered a form of theater. Ladies in fine gowns with handkerchiefs in front of their noses toured the halls as we might visit a House of Horror.
Inmates considered dangerous were permanently chained. Others were free to wander around. Manacles, confinement in tiny cages, immersion in icy water—all were tried as cures for mental diseases. So were starvation, bloodletting, beatings and isolation. ‘Rotational’ therapy involved spinning a patient in a chair suspended from the ceiling until they vomited. Many patients who might have survived their illness died from the therapy. In fact, patients who were considered too frail to survive the treatment were turned away.
Of course, even into the 1960s, our ‘modern’ treatment for mental illness included things we now consider barbaric like padded cells, straitjackets and lobotomies. And even a contemporary psychiatric hospital can be a grim place to visit.
But the misery and the shame of Bedlam Hospital is gone, with only the word to remind us how it was.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons