Thursday, March 19, 2015

Secrets of London’s infamous Bedlam mental hospital revealed at Findmypast


  • Findmypast is working with Bethlem Museum of the Mind at Bethlem Royal Hospital, in London, UK, popularly known as Bedlam, to make its extensive patient records from 1683 – 1932 available online for the very first time
  • Over 248,000 records, many including photos, reveal the lives and stories of its inmates
  • Highlights of the detailed records show why people were committed included stabbing people with cutlery, insatiable appetite for pleasure, condemnation of sinful behaviour from public officials, objecting to a forced marriage, religious fervour, paralysis, women dressing as men and more
London, UK, 19 March 2015 – Leading family history website, Findmypast, today announced an exciting partnership with Bethlem Museum of the Mind to release Bethlem Royal Hospital’s extensive patient records online for the very first time. The records are being released today to mark the official reopening of the museum in Beckenham, with Findmypast making scans of the original patient case notes and staff registers available online for browsing and searching by everyone.

As one of the world’s oldest hospitals for the treatment of mental illness, Bethlem Royal Hospital has a chequered past in how it determined not only who was insane, but also in its treatment of patients. The records released today go into detail about each patient, in many cases documenting their mental state and including photographs of the inmates once photography became available.

The records also detail the reasons why they had been deemed insane, with first-hand accounts of the behaviour of the inmates and their families. Some of the more unusual reasons for incarceration given in the records include:
  • Attempted royal assassination with a dessert knife: Margaret Nicolson was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital in August 1787 for attempting to stab King George III with a pearl-handled dessert knife. Her records from Bethlem Royal Hospital show that she was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital “by the Order of the Committee” i.e. by parliament vote, as opposed to by an individual or family, and a trial followed in September 1787. Nicholson spent the rest of her life in Bethlem Royal Hospital, dying there in May 1828.
  • An insatiable appetite for pleasure, including lounging in the fashionable shopping streets of London: Ingrid Schwitzguebel was admitted in July 1909 by her husband. His reasons for committing her was that she was “living almost exclusively for pleasure, in fact her desire for theatres, musicals, lounging in the London fashionable streets, looking at shops etc, is insatiable.” However, other motives may have been at play as the records go on to show that she suspected her husband of an “immoral life of going with other women”, and had “threatened to attack him with a hat pin.”
  • Objecting to a forced marriage with a cousin: Kate Jeffery was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital for Melancholia in October 1910, with her blaming her relatives for attempting to force her into a marriage with a cousin whom she thought immoral. An original letter from Jeffery herself is included in the records in which she rails against imprisonment, saying that “my uncle and brother must have thought themselves very fortunate to meet with Dr Gooding and the Aldridges. People will know where to send their unwanted relatives.
  • General paralysis: Richard Cook Thompson was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital in February 1901 with general paralysis as the official diagnosis. That said, the records show more clearly why he was sent to a mental institution and not a regular hospital, with the notes recording that “he is one of the Apostles, he has a message from Almighty God to go to Windsor Castle, these things are not true”. Thompson was not the only one to believe he was a messenger of God, with James Duggan also incarcerated in October 1906 for saying “he is the pope of Rome.
  • Overtaxed brain due to writing a dictionary: At 66 years old, Alexander Tolhausen, was one of the older inmates at Bethlem Royal Hospital when he was committed in July 1886 for an overtaxed brain. Tolhausen’s illness was attributed to working on a technological dictionary in French, English and German with symptoms including “gets up and dresses and undresses himself sometimes six times a day”, “threw his breakfast at his wife” and “that his house was unhealthy
  • Belief in themselves as a persecuted God: Ethel Julia Ouselay Collins was committed for “mixing of her ideas with religious matters,” including believing that she had “not been born yet” and was “a God chained on a pedestal.” It was also documented that she had “delusions of suspicion and persecution.
“These records provide an extraordinary level of detail about the patients of the Bethlem Royal Hospital as far back as the 17th century,” said Debra Chatfield, family historian at Findmypast. “Containing letters written in their own words and handwriting, photographs at different stages of their illness, and reports on their day to day behaviour by close family members and the medical staff at the hospital, these records provide, for the very first time online, real insight into life in this infamous institution. It’s hard not to empathise with the inmates as you learn about their often harrowing and tragic stories. Publishing these records online allows those stories to be told for the first time to a wider audience, and you might discover that you had an ancestor who was sent to Bedlam.”

To discover more about the inmates at Bethlem Royal Hospital and see the full images and transcripts of the records, please visit www.findmypast.com/bethlem

About Findmypast

Findmypast is an international leader in online family history and genealogy research with customers and operations in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. Its searchable online archive includes over two billion family history records, from parish records and censuses to migration records, military collections, historical newspapers, the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and lots more. For members around the world, the site is a crucial resource for building family trees and making family connections.

Findmypast has an unrivalled record of innovation in the field of family history, and works closely with the genealogy community, including local libraries, archives, societies, and other organizations from around the world, to preserve, digitize, and provide access to historical records. Findmypast’s historical records, advanced search tools and accurate data work together to help both professional and budding genealogists discover, explore and share their family stories.