Considering the total lack of care for one another in 19th century society, it is not surprising that lunatic asylums, or madhouses, were a common part of Victorian England. Any unusual or eccentric behaviour was considered ‘mad’ and almost anybody, the authorities, the church and even your own family could commit you to life in a madhouse.

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A typical Victorian madhouse

A typical Victorian madhouse

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The most famous lunatic asylum in London was the Bethlehem Hospital, Bedlam for short, which was founded by Henry VIII in 1547 and by the 19th century was housed at St George’s Fields in Southwark in the building that now houses the Imperial War Museum. By 1864, Bedlam was under the auspices of the government and the treatment of inmates was humane compared to private madhouses such as the fictional Fogg’s Lunatic Asylum.

There were no laws for private asylums and they were notorious for the gratuitous mistreatment of “those afflicted with idiotcy, palsy, or epileptic or convulsive fits, or any dangerous disease.” They also confined many “normal” people committed for convenience by almost anyone at all. Judge Turpin would have no trouble placing Johanna there as long as he continued to pay Jonas Fogg his exorbitant fees.

The treatment of the miserable creatures committed to its brutal rulers, appears to have been characterised by utter indifference to the feelings and comforts of the patients, and a studied aggravation of their miseries. Indeed, to our shame be it recorded, these miseries were made the materials for actual profit to the hospital; a sum of about £400. being annually collected by exhibiting the poor maniacs, chiefly naked, and uniformly chained to the walls of their dungeons by use of iron chains with locks and keys, manacles and stocks, and by exciting them to the most violent manifestations of their maladies. This practice of showing the patients, like wild beasts, was abolished in 1770, but the abolition was unaccompanied by any other improvement in their treatment.

Most patients were thrown together in large rooms or “wards” whatever their problems and allowed to congregate together – rape and violence of all kinds was condoned between inmates.

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"Bedlam" by William Hogarth

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“Special” or “private” inmates, like Johanna, were usually kept separate, chained by one arm or leg to the wall, covered by a just a “blanket-gown” and laying upon fithy straw. This “blanket-gown” was nothing more than a piece of cloth. This ensured the female prisoners were basically naked and vulnerable to be raped (“ravished”) by their warders and their friends. Sometimes, depending on the fee paid, a simple smock was allowed, particularly in the winter months.

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A Victorian Lunatic

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Some of the worst cruelty perpetrated on inmates were the “experiments” conducted by the warders and “doctors” in the asylums. These were as bad, if not worse, than the “experiments” the Nazis performed on their concentration camp inmates.

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A Victorian Lunatic

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As discussed at rehearsals, watching the film Marat/Sade would be very helpful in your charactisations.

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