All About History
Horrors of the aslyum
From chaining patients to walls to dunking them in cold water, the treatment of patients in lunatic asylums has left a lot to be desired
Why did mental health hospitals in the 19th century go from human zoos to the talking cure?
Bedlam conjures up images of madmen, chaos and noise. More than any other word in the English language, it darkly hints at the ‘madness’ that can afflict each and every one of us. This maligned word comes from the Bethlehem, or Bethlem, Royal Hospital, one of the earliest British asylums for housing the mentally ill. In fact, it was the first hospital in England specifically designed to care for these individuals. Founded back in the 13th century, it saw notable inmates such as Mary Frith, a cross-dressing thief who was sent there in the 1640s.
But it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that Bedlam really became infamous. Inmates had once been chained up or locked in their cells if they were deemed to be dangerous or disturbing to others — otherwise, they had relative freedom. As the 17th century progressed, there were an increasing number of complaints of corrupt staff and poor diets, with several patients suffering from starvation. There were only two meals a day, the meagre food being mainly bread and meat with few vegetables. At the time, it was believed that madness could be exacerbated by rich foods. Cold baths were a common treatment from the 1680s, and patients were subject to bloodletting or had blisters raised on their skin in the belief that it could cure hysteria. Many of the therapies resulted in pain, vomiting or diarrhoea, with the blisters leading to burns and sores. For all to see
Until 1770, visitors could make a trip to Bethlem in much the same way as we might go to a museum or play today. Outings to see the patients became part of the holiday season, with many guests travelling to London at Christmas or Easter. Although the visits were designed to raise money for the hospital and provoke compassion among the wider community, the inmates were ultimately there for others’ entertainment. If you were able to pay the fee, you could stand and watch them ‘perform’ in their cells. Asylums became like human zoos, creating entertainment for the wealthy and the fashionable.
However, some visits inspired literature. One poem from the 1790s, entitled ‘On Visiting
Bedlam’, referred to a “poor fond maid, oppressed by woe and care”. She was once the envy of her town and a man fell in love with her, but her parents refused to let them marry. The suitor went off to sea and never came back while the woman was driven to madness by grief. The poem was actually quite modern in its approach, seeing madness as the consequence of social situations and pressures, recognising the importance of understanding the individual’s background in order to help them.
“Asylums became like human zoos, creating entertainment”