Bedlam: The Real Horror Story Asylum

Published March 4, 2015
Updated December 29, 2017

Learn about the real Bedlam, the Bethlem Royal Hospital insane asylum so notorious that it entered the English language as a word for confusion and disorder.

If you were to visit the Bethlem Royal Hospital circa the 15th Century, it would look like a scene out of American Horror Story. Bethlem was the only institution in Europe that handled society’s “rejects”–namely the mentally or criminally ill–for the vast majority of European history.

It did not, however, treat patients with a kind and affirming hand. Quite the opposite happened: patients were subjected to horrendous cruelty, experimentation, neglect and humiliation — all of which was entirely socially acceptable up until the 20th century.

Bedlam Asylum Patient Eliza Camplin

Eliza Camplin — admitted for acute mania. Source: Museum Of The Mind

The term “bedlam”, defined as “chaos and confusion”, was coined as a descriptor for the Bethlem Asylum during the height of its chaos in the 18th century. Founded in 1247, it was the first hospital of its kind in Great Britain. Never before had there been a place for the mentally infirm, disabled and criminally-minded to be adequately locked away from society.

While patients came to Bethlem suffering from complaints such as “chronic mania” or “acute melancholy”, people were just as likely to be admitted for crimes such as infanticide, homicide and even “ruffianism”.

Elizabeth Thew In Bethlem Royal Hospital

Elizabeth Thew, admitted after committing infanticide. Source: Museum Of The Mind

Being admitted to Bedlam, as it was called, didn’t necessarily mean a person was well on their way to being rehabilitated, since “treatment” implied little more than isolation and experiment.

If the patient managed to survive the asylum at all, they and their families were typically worse for the wear by the end of their stay. Patients were subjected to “treatments” such as “rotating therapy” wherein they were seated in a chair suspended from the ceiling and spun as much as 100 rotations per minute.

The obvious purpose was to induce vomiting, a popular purgative cure for most ailments during this period. Incidentally, the resulting vertigo in these patients actually contributed a large body of research to contemporary vertigo patients. Their dizziness, it seems, was not all for naught.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.
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