“This sorry specimen came to us late last month. Her husband brought her. The poor fellow was simply beside himself with worry. He is much improved now that he is confident in the knowledge that she is in our care.”
The warden gestured to the woman behind the bars. A tattered shawl hung around her thin shoulders. A brown mouse sat in the palm of her right hand, nibbling a crumb of bread. The visitors chose not to see the cracks in the wall, or the lack of glass in the window. They did not smell the fouled straw matting on the floor. They did not hear the drip of water in the corner.
“What is her condition?” asked the visitor. He adopted a suitable expression of concern, although his wife looked terrified by the mouse.
“I believe her to be simply melancholic, but the Physician believes her to be delusional. Her paranoia is at an advanced stage, although she is a quiet patient and keeps to herself,” replied the warden.
“What form do her delusions take?” asked the visitor’s wife.
“She calls herself Ann Crook, and believes herself to be the future Queen of England. She denounced her husband when he admitted her, telling us that he was a member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her real husband, so she claims, is Prince Albert Victor,” replied the warden.
“How astonishing!” said the visitor.
“And there is no basis in her claims?” asked his wife.
“We believe not, although she is lucid when she tries to explain. Indeed, one might have trouble believing her to be insane, although the Physician has made this diagnosis, and he is never wrong,” said the warden.
“On what basis did he make his diagnosis?” asked the visitor.
“She ranted and she raved on admittance. She demanded to speak with her husband, and then the police, and she even called for a newspaper man. She has calmed since those early days.”
“Is it safe to speak with her?” asked the visitor’s wife.
“Good Lord, Marian - why ever would you want to do that?” asked the visitor.
“Curiosity, William,” replied his wife.
“She is entirely safe to converse with. I shall call her,” said the warden.
“No need, warden. I can ’ear all you say from ’ere,” said the woman. She looked up from the mouse’s antics.
“Pray tell me, madam. What is your name?” asked the visitor’s wife.
“Ann Crook, but everyone ‘ere calls me Louisa Smith,” replied the woman.
“Are you really the wife of a prince?” asked the wife.
“If I say yes, then I’m a lunatic, and I live in this ‘ell. If I say no, then I’m a liar, and I damn myself to ‘ell,” replied the woman. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll keep quiet.”
“Why would the Prince have you deposited here?” asked the wife.
“I dunno about you but I don’t think a Prince would abandon his wife. His mother, on the other ‘and...well if she’s a cold, uncaring sort who’s only interested in the future of her bleedin’ Empire...then she might well ‘ave somethin’ to do with it,” replied the woman. “She can’t ‘ave her son producing an ‘eir with a Catholic, now, can she?”
“You’re a Catholic?” asked the visitor.
“Not any more, I ain’t. God deserted me when I got dumped in ‘ere. So I deserted ‘im. See how he likes it,” replied the woman.
“Dear me, God does not desert anyone! He loves all of his flock. If you only reach out to him-”
“Pardon my language, my lady, but arses to that,” said the woman.
“Come on now, Louisa. Less of that,” said the warden. He tapped his keys on the bars.
“Or you’ll what? Bleed me? Purge me? Vomit me? The bleedin’ Physician does that!” said the woman.
“Gracious, does he really?” asked the visitor. “I thought such antiquated practices had long been abandoned by the madhouses.”
“I’m in no position to discuss that Physician’s practices, but he’s one of the most brilliant doctors in London. People literally queue to have their unfortunate relations placed under his care in this very hospital,” snapped the warden.
“And they queue up in ‘ere to get back out,” said the woman. “You pay no mind to ‘is blatherin’ on. I’m not the only one who shouldn’t be ‘ere. You stop and think about it - where’s the best place to put someone if you don’t want people to listen to ‘em?”
“William, I think we should be going,” said the wife.
She clutched her husband’s arm. He looked down at her and nodded.
“I really am terribly sorry for your plight, Mrs Smith,” said the visitor.
The warden led them away down the corridor. They didn’t hear the raving of the lunatics upstairs. They didn’t hear the sobbing of the melancholics, locked in their damp cells with only their own neuroses for company.
They didn’t hear the silent plea of an innocent woman.
* * *
This flash was inspired by a book I read about London’s infamous Royal Bethlem Hospital, known as ‘Bedlam’. Written by Paul Chambers, Bedlam: London’s Hospital for the Mad tells several tales of people imprisoned in asylums in the 18th and 19th centuries by relatives eager to get their hands on their wealth, or by people wanting to silence an outspoken individual without resorting to more nefarious means. The conditions, and treatment, described here are all based on documented evidence. The inclusion of Ann Crook is my nod towards Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper epic, From Hell.
The image is from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, wherein a man falls from grace and ends his days a gibbering wreck in Bedlam.