among ever more worthy causes, and income from paying guests limited by [Bethlem’s] grim reputation … the governors decided to install donation boxes at the entrance of the new building and to open it for public visits. Londoners thronged to the new attraction: it joined a tourist trail that included the Tower, the royal palaces, the zoo, the theatres of Covent Garden and the promenade of the Strand. Visiting crowds attracted the same camp followers as elsewhere: street sellers, pickpockets and sex workers. The spectacular facade and grounds were an attraction in their own right, as well as the perfect proscenium for the continuous drama that played inside.
“Many people left written descriptions of their visits and they often appear to have witnessed quite different scenes. There were certainly some visitors of the calibre that the governors had hoped for: ‘persons of quality’ attending in the spirit of charity and donating to the poor boxes, which accrued several hundred pounds a year. Samuel Pepys sent his out-of-town family to visit on their tour of the capital, and James Boswell noted his visit in his journal. Some visitors recorded pity and compassion for the inmates, whereas others took the experience as a moral lesson, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. For the serious-minded, a visit to Bethlem was an educative experience. Young people in particular should be shown what madness looked like, and the fate of those who suffered from it, as a warning against the dangers of pride, self· love and indulging the passions at the expense of reason.
“Many visitors were relatives of the inmates, bringing them food and keeping them company. But plenty more came out of frank curiosity or for raucous entertainment. Particularly on Sundays and holidays, the scene in the galleries could be boisterous and rowdy. Like a ghost train or a freak show — or indeed the surgery and autopsy demonstrations that were also on offer to London public at the time — it offered an extreme but safely contained experience, and a stage on which high-spirited visitors could perform acts of daring or display their wit. Some members of the public mocked and imitated the inmates, or pestered them with questions about why they were locked up. Many inmates gave as good as they got, performing their madness in return, singing ditties or drawing sketches, and earning pennies or drink in reward. … The behaviour of young and drunken men and women, laughing and the hooting, reduced them to the same level as those on the other side of the bars: each was performing for the other, indulging their pride and passions at the expense of their shared humanity. [Thomas] Tryon found the hospital’s regime of bleeding and purging equally cruel and misguided, because in his view madness was not an imbalance of bodily humours but an affliction of the soul. ‘The world,’ he concluded, ‘has become a great Bedlam, where those who are more mad lock up those who are less.’ “