THE INSANITY FACTOR

Although I generally confine my reading to police procedurals, detectives of some sort, and espionage, I know that there are many readers who enjoy books that introduce the insanity factor.  Even if someone did not see “The Shining”, Jack Nicholson’s performance is part of the cultural fabric of the United States.

Crime and mental illness are woven throughout the mystery genre so that sometimes it is easy to forget the real souls who live in a world that exists inside their heads.  It is also too easy to forget the circumstances under which some of the mentally ill are condemned to live.

On April 8, 2011, Dan Waddell wrote the following article for Murder Is Everywhere, a reminder of how some things haven’t changed throughout the ages.

The World’s One Bedlam

Thomas More once observed that London itself was one large madhouse. As counsellor to Henry VIII, he knew a thing or two about lunatics. He had a point, too. You don’t need to travel far in London to see some poor soul muttering to himself, conducting imaginary conversations, or ranting out loud, and that’s just in the Houses of Parliament (ahem.) The city seems to attract the lost and the befuddled, and probably creates many more.

So it’s no surprise that it housed the world’s first lunatic asylum, Bethlehem Hospital, which later became universally known as ‘Bedlam.’ The word has entered the English language, used to describe chaos, disarray or tumult. (Interestingly, another London mental institution has given us a synonym for someone deemed mad. St Mary’s was in the east end borough of Barking, and the latter is colloquially used to describe someone who acts strangely or out of the norm.)

Bedlam still exists, known as the Royal Bethlem Hospital in Bromley, Kent, though thankfully it has managed to shed much of the stigma attached to it, in the same way society has with mental illness, up to a point at least. It has been always been a portable institution. It first opened as a priory in Bishopsgate – now home of Liverpool Street Station – in 1247 and started admit the mentally ill from 1357. Over time it gradually admitted more until its sole purpose was a psychiatric hospital. A pretty disgusting one. Stories of the depravities inflicted upon the inmates are legion, but some of them were allowed to come and go and wander the streets where they were viewed with dread as well as pity and forced to wear a tin badge to mark them out. Inside the walls, one witness wrote, the screams and moans were ‘so many, so hideous, so great; that they are more able to drive a man that hath his wits rather out of them.’

An image of the Bedlam built in Moorfields

Bedlam had become so squalid by the mid 17th century that it became a civic scandal, and so it was moved to Moorfields, where it soon became a symbol for all that was evil and iniquitous about London, employed as a metaphor in the poetry of Alexander Pope and depicted by that great chronicler of London’s lost and neglected, William Hogarth. The same was the case when it moved for a third time to St George’s Fields, Southwark, in the early 19th century. The building was grand and imposing, yet inside the conditions were still stark and disturbing. Inmates were restrained, chained and often drugged, and the moans and screams persisted. There was a monthly ball where the patients danced with each other, which creates a bizarre image. But by the 1930s people had had enough of housing a centre of madness in a city teeming with it, and it was moved out to the country, given a whole meaning to the phrase ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’

An 18th century map showing the site of the Bedlam graveyard

Yet, as always, the past refused to be forgotten, and this week London had to confront again its lunatic ancestors. Building on Crossrail, the long-promised railway that will ‘speed’ commuters across central London, it says here, had to be halted this week near Liverpool Street Station when they dug up hundreds, possibly thousands of human remains, on the site of what was the graveyard in the original Bedlam. The bodies will be removed for study – what age, what sex, what maladies did they suffer from – and some might could well be housed in the Museum of London, though regulation stipulates they need to be relocated in a place as close as possible to their original graves within two years of discovery. Crossrail is going to cause a huge inconvenience, but interesting finds like this are likely to become more common, and if it offers tantalising glimpses into the city’s murky past like this one the hassle might all be worth it.


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