Trivia: When Watching "Lunatics" Was Entertainment

The Interior of Bedlam, from A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (1763)

In the 18th century, watching and taunting "lunatics" in an asylum was a popular form of entertainment.

The cost of admission at the Hospital of St. Mary in London, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world (later renamed Bethlem Hospital), was one penny. The asylum was so chaotic that it became the basis of the word "bedlam."

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this gives me an excuse to spout off about a book i've just read called 'the air loom gang' by mike jay. it's the story of james tilley mathews, who because of his complex paranoid delusions and the ambitions of the apothecary at bethlem, co-instigated what is widely held to be the birth of psychiatry. he was also the first person recorded to have delusions about an 'influencing machine' (the air loom) controlling his thoughts. before him, it was all demons, witches etc.

it seems the freakshow image of the bethlem hospital is a bit of a caricature - there were plenty of mad people kicking around london anyway, so paying a penny to go and see more wasn't on the agenda for most. the bethlem mostly failed as an institution because it was built on the cheap. it's an absolutely superb book. i'll shut up now.
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