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Please use these notes to give historical context to my book The Asylum Doctor's Daughter.
Spoiler alert: Please be aware that plot points from my book Disorder are revealed in these author notes.
Bethlem Royal Hospital, first established during the reign of Henry III, has undergone massive transformations in its nearly eight hundred years. What began as a collection site for alms in a priory eventually turned into a home for the mad. Overseen by the city of London, it turned dark throughout the centuries, culminating in horrific acts upon humanity. These included starvation, nakedness, floor trap doors that plunged patients into water, spinning chairs suspended from the ceiling to induce vomiting, and torture before a paying audience. Most of the extreme horrors were, as mentioned, before Dr. Hood’s time.
Dr. William Charles Hood was assigned to Bethlem soon after the hospital ushered out what were referred to as its “mad doctors,” Bethlem’s previous overseers. Dr. Hood came from Colney Hatch, where the ideological view of patients with mental illness was progressive, and means of torture, restraint, and punishment had been eliminated. He longed to convert Bethlem this way, and many of his changes are mentioned in this book. He stands as an instrumental figure in transforming Bethlem Royal Hospital into the positive place it is today.
The hospital in 1859 was laid out as described, with separate wards for males and females and detached criminal wards on the grounds. It was here that Richard Dadd spent many years. He was a talented artist who had traveled the world, and upon his return, it was discovered his mental state had suffered in his time away. He was soon tortured by thoughts that his father was the devil and was later convicted of murdering him and attacking a stranger in a park. He was sentenced to Bethlem’s criminal ward. He was granted permission to paint while incarcerated and produced many beautiful pieces of art. It is said he painted from the bottom corner of his canvas up, creating masterpieces. A well-known portrait of Mr. Dadd working on a fairy painting while in Bethlem was taken in 1856 by Mr. Henry Hering, the photographer mentioned in this book.
I based all of Bethlem’s patients in this story on actual patient case notes from the hospital. A fabulous book, Presumed Curable, details the lives of numerous patients from the latter half of the nineteenth century, using the medical officers’ notes. The real Mr. Freeman and Miss Harley (names changed) entered Bethlem in ways the book describes, with Mr. Freeman promising to bring back pheasant from a shoot and Miss Harley screaming so loudly she disturbed the hospital (she, in actuality, was so loud that it spooked her horse outside).
Westminster Bridge was under construction during the time of this story, but I discovered conflicting information on exactly how it was being rebuilt. Thanks to Mike Paterson with London Historians, I was able to reconcile some of the conflicting views. It was vital I understood this, as the bridge and Big Ben played key roles in the story. (Big Ben actually did ring out for the first time in 1859.)
Mudie’s Select Library was as described in this book, a massive library with one million books that patrons could borrow one at a time for a guinea a year (two if the patron chose to have books delivered). The great hall of Mudie’s with its two stories of books on iron shelves wasn’t completed until 1860, so Kat would not have been traveling up and down its stairs and into the catacombs when Bedlam’s Daughter took place. It was such a great location to trap her in the catacombs, however, that as the author I stretched the dates a little. I hope you can forgive me. :)
Mudie’s was known to put out a best seller list of some sort, books his company prized as worthy of reading. Mr. Mudie censored books he deemed inappropriate and not in line with Victorian morals and only ordered books which complied to those standards, so he is said to have influenced the publishing business. It was difficult for some authors to get their work published, as a story wasn’t worth pursuing that wouldn’t be considered for circulation at Mudie’s.
The Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace were household terms and proud points of history for Londoners in the 1850s. All is as described in the chapters, including the exhibitions. It is said that one of Queen Victoria’s favorite displays was the stuffed animal exhibit, with its small animals depicting human scenes. It is also true that shows were put on at dusk at the Crystal Palace in the latter half of the century. During this time, zeppelins were used at the end of the show, and actors playing soldiers jumped from these to attack the armies on the ground. Since the book’s setting in 1859 did not grant me the ability to use a zeppelin, my soldiers jumped from the glass building instead.
1859 did grant me a Christmas ball at Bethlem. Finding a sketch and description of the ball in the Illustrated Times was what placed me in Victorian London for this story. The ball was reported as a time of peace. It was truly a snapshot of a moment when the lines between mad and sane were blurred, as is sometimes the case today.
One final note: as shown in this book and revealed to be true in Bethlem’s history, suicide and its attempts were not uncommon among the hospital’s patients. In my research, I read many stories of the varied ways patients tried to take their lives. The addition of suicide in this story was not for entertainment’s sake but in keeping with facts. Suicide is prevalent today, so if you find you have thoughts toward this, I beg you to let someone know. You can seek help through The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Please reach out to someone now. Your life matters.