Thursday, 24 October 2019

Bethlem Hospital: London's Infamous, Horrible, And Terrifying Insane Asylum

Mental institutions and real-life insane asylums of the past were essentially real-life horror movies. It shouldn't be a shock that their conditions were bad, but in reality, they were so much worse than we can imagine. London's Bethlem Hospital is a prime example. Originally founded in 1247 as a way to help fund the Crusades, the hospital quickly fell into disrepair, setting back psychiatric treatment by years. The inner workings of the hospital were so chaotic that the term "bedlam" came from the name of this horrific mental institution. 

Bethlem began with the best of intentions

Source: (
Founded by the Italian Bishop Goffredo de Prefetti, the Bethlem Hospital was meant to serve as an alms collection location to keep the Crusades up and running. The monks who ran the establishment often took in the sick and the needy, a decent act which belies the horrors that were carried out at the hospital after it proved itself inoperable. It was built on top of the sewer system, and the constant backup made the water in the hospital unusable. By 1330, Bethlem was solely used as a home for the mentally ill and the poor, but it was another 300 years before all hell broke loose.  

Rotational therapy was used to "cure" patients

Source: (museum of the mind)
After relocating north of London to the Moorfields in the 1600s, the hospital's mentally ill patients became a playground for the gross misuse of power. By 1675, the hospital was filled with schizophrenic and epileptic patients who were "treated" with rotational therapy, which involved strapping them to a chair suspended from the ceiling and spinning them around until they vomited. Once strapped in the chair, patients were often spun more than 100 times a minute, inducing mind-bending vertigo. As horrible as this is, the practice did provide research that helped modern vertigo patients. It's all about the silver lining, people.

Many doctors believed in bloodletting

Source: (
At the time, bloodletting was believed to be a completely acceptable and normal way to cure a patient of a variety of mental and physical ailments. Doctors thought that they could literally bleed a sickness out of a patient, which not only doesn't work, it extra-double doesn't work on mental illnesses. Many of the patients were forced to undergo treatment with leeches and the induction of blisters, which mostly just sounds unpleasant, but it often proved fatal. Reportedly, the physicians at the time at least understood that everyone needs blood, so only patients who were deemed strong enough to undergo treatment were allowed to have this "cure."

 A family of physicians brought out the worst in Bedlam

Source: (
As dire as things were at Bethlem Hospital in the 1600s, they became downright nightmarish when James Monro took over as the chief physician in 1728. He began a lineage of head physicians who carried out increasingly violent and sadistic acts against patients that gave the Marquis de Sade a run for his money. The Monro dynasty lasted for 125 years, and throughout that time, patients were "treated" with beatings, starvation, and dunkings in ice baths. It's unclear if the Monro family actually thought they were helping their patients or if they just wanted to use their power as an excuse to carry out their nastiest fantasies. 

Patients were put in straitjackets and given laxatives

Source: (science museum)
Each form of "treatment" that patients were subjected to was worse than the last. When they weren't being spun around in chairs or beaten before they were thrown in an ice bath, the staff attempted to literally---and disgustingly---expel their illnesses from their bodies. A doctor named William Black wrote that patients were placed in straitjackets and given laxatives, which was seen at Bethlem as one of the "principal remedies." Hearing voices? Some explosive diarrhea oughta clear that up. Seizures? One diarrhea for you. Diarrhea for everyone!

Londoners were invited to see the inmates

Source: (the mirror)
As if these treatments weren't humiliating enough, the inmates at Bethlem were treated as if they were animals in a zoo. By then, the antics of Bethlem's doctors were notorious, so naturally, concerned Londoners lined up around the block to report it to ... no, no, they actually lined up to walk the hospital's halls, peeking in on patients and marveling at their disabilities. They paid for the privilege, and doctors were happy to pocket the cash. According to the BBC, the hospital saw 96,000 visitors a year, and while it's unclear where that figure came from, there's no doubt that a lot of people spent an afternoon "enjoying" the sights of the hospital. 

Mass graves were discovered on the hospital grounds

Source: (museum of the mind)
It may not surprise you that there was a high number of deaths among those interred at Bethlem Hospital, but nobody was prepared for the sheer scale of it. Modern-day construction of the London Underground unearthed mass graves on the grounds of Bethlem, created specifically to get rid of the corpses of those who didn't survive the hospital's care. Discovered in 2013, the mass graves dating back to 1569, and there are somewhere close to 20,000 people buried in them. Amazingly, authorities have managed to identify some of the deceased, but many others will likely never get a face and name.

Bedlam served as the inspiration for numerous plays 

Source: (
It's not as if people didn't know that conditions at Bethlem Hospital were bad during the hundreds of years in which it operated as a torture chamber for the mentally ill. Referred to as "Bedlam" as early as the 17th century, the asylum was included and referenced in plays by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Playwrights and dramatists used Bedlam, or just the idea of Bedlam, as a way to explore the concept of madness and how easy it is for a sane person to be labeled "crazy."

Bethlem is still a functioning psychiatric hospital to this day

Source: (visit london)
It may shock you to know that the hospital is still up and running, but before you run to your local social services office, rest assured that it's not the horror show that it once was. Long gone are the days of patients being spun in chairs hung from the ceiling or dunked in ice baths and beaten to within an inch of their lives. Current staff is formally trained, they care about their patients, and no one's getting leeched. In 1997, the hospital even opened a gallery to showcase art created by patients during their stay at the hospital. It's unfortunate that it took so long for the hospital to become a normal place, but you know what they say: better late than never.

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