How A Supposed Psychiatric Hospital Turned Into A House Of Torture

It would look like a scenario from American Horror Story if you went to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in the 15th century. For the vast majority of European history, Bethlem was the only institution in Europe that dealt with society’s “rejects” – the mentally or criminally ill — and it was dangerously overcrowded and underfunded.

Treating patients with a loving and affirming touch was not one of them. Patients were subjected to heinous cruelty, experimentation, neglect, and humiliation, all of which were socially acceptable until the twentieth century.

As a result, during the height of the Bethlem Asylum’s misdeeds in the 18th century, the term “bedlam,” which means “chaos and confusion,” was coined as a descriptor. Discover the harrowing tale of the institution that coined the phrase “total mayhem.”

Bethlem Royal Hospital’s Origin

Bethlem Royal Hospital was the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, opening in 1247. Never before had there been a facility where those suffering from mental illness, physical impairment, or a criminal record could be adequately isolated from society.

At the time, the structure considered an architectural marvel. Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was rebuilt in the 1600s and was inspired by Louis XIV’s Tuileries Palace in Paris, with expansive, tree-lined gardens and walkways.

Despite the fact that it was considered to as a palace, it immediately became notorious for the less-than-wonderful events that took place inside.

Patients came to Bethlem with diagnoses like “chronic madness” or “acute sadness,” and they were just as likely to be admitted for crimes like infanticide, homicide, or even “ruffianism.”

Being admitted didn’t always imply that a person was on the road to recovery, because “therapy” at this hospital entailed little more than seclusion and experimentation.

Patients are spun up to 100 times per minute

If the patient and their relatives made it out of the asylum alive, they were usually much worse wear by the end of their stay. Patients were given “treatments” like “spinning therapy,” in which they sat in a chair hung from the ceiling and spun up to 100 times per minute.

The obvious goal was to cause vomiting, which was a popular purgative treatment for most diseases at the time. This was because medieval physicians believed that mental sickness was caused by a lack of activity in the body rather than the mind, and that it could only be cured by vigorous action.

In fact, the vertigo that resulted in these patients lead to a vast amount of research in modern vertigo patients. At the very least, their suffering was not in vain.

However, it was a lack of financing and resources, not social mores, that explained why Bethlem became the legendary Bedlam.

How The Hospital Turned Into A Nightmare

The hospital had devolved into mismanagement and turmoil by the 1600s. Bedlam was the only mental health facility in the United Kingdom at the time, and it was entirely reliant on government financing and patient donations.

Despite the fact that it was underfunded by the government and relied significantly on the financial support of a patient’s family and private donors, many of the patients admitted hailed from the lower and middle classes.

And because many of the patients were ignorant, they were victims of not only their mental illnesses, but also a society that despised them. Indeed, the hospital was so notorious for its abuse that it was mentioned in Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton’s plays.

Freaks admitted in the hospital

Bedlam had become more of a spectacle than a hospital by the 18th century. People traveled from all over to see the Bethlem Royal Hospital patients, with some even planning vacations around it.

According to the BBC, the facility receives 96,000 visitors annually.

Of course, none of these patients were “freaks,” but because Bedlam’s finances were so reliant on the money people paid to see them, patients were compelled to act bizarrely.

In addition, as the hospital’s patient population grew, it fell into disrepair. The 1601 Relief of the Impoverished Act declared that the church could care for poor persons who were unable to work, but the remainder had to go to workhouses or prisons. As a result, beggars and petty criminals frequently pretended to be insane in order to avoid being transported there, causing Bedlam to become overcrowded.

The “Bedlamites,” as they were dubbed, were exposed to gruesome treatments, both experimental and outright brutal, and their bodies were frequently desired solely for the study of their bodies. Others were simply tossed into a Liverpool Street mass grave.

Indeed, it wasn’t until lately that researchers discovered how unsettling the hospital’s conditions were. Construction workers at the hospital discovered a shocking mass grave of 20,000 victims in 2013. The earliest are from the 1500s.

Attempting to Reverse the Hospital’s Negative Trends


The British House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses investigated the conditions in which patients were treated in county asylums, private institutions, and charitable asylums in 1815. The outcomes were startling.

When it was determined that the current Principal Physician at Bedlam, Thomas Monro, was “wanting in humanity” with his patients, he was compelled to quit.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a physician in resident at Bedlam named William Hood had decided that the hospital needed to be totally revamped. He sought to develop real rehabilitation programs that would benefit the patients of the hospital rather than the administration.

Patient in the hospital

Hood campaigned for a distinction between mentally ill patients and those incarcerated for crimes. For his devotion to this office, he was knighted subsequently.

During World War II, Bethlem Royal Hospital was relocated to a more rural area in order to improve the patients’ quality of life. The move also contributed to the institution’s eradication of its heinous history. However, owing to the Museum of the Mind archives, we can get a peek of the Bedlamites’ haunting visage, which can be observed throughout this piece.

Upon admittance, several of them were photographed and given a paragraph or two about their “diagnosis.” Looking at these photographs today, one would question how many of these patients made it out of Bedlam alive – and if they did, if any of them ever fully recovered.

Despite the fact that historian Roy Porter described the Bethlem Hospital as “a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and brutality,” its horrific past has been rewritten thanks to a 1997 drive to “reclaim” it. Today, the hospital does not shy away from its traumatic past, instead presenting work by current and previous patients in its own art gallery.

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