Snatched off to London’s notorious madhouse Bethlem hospital in 1797, James Matthews is denied access to his family or any contact with the outside world. Insisting he’s been imprisoned for political reasons, his rants about ‘gangs’ that inhabit people’s bodies and an ‘airloom’ that alters your brain keep him chained in a stark cell. His wife, Margaret, tries to verify the underlying reason for his incarceration, but is thwarted at every turn. An apothecary, John Haslam, struggles to care for his various lunatics as the only constant doctor they have, and begins to believe Matthews’ ravings about political intrigue when prominent government officials demand the patient be sequestered in the incurable ward. Soon Haslam’s own desire for literary aggrandizement stalls any true effort in fighting for his most infamous patient’s release. Haslam finds his own reputation at risk in delving into the past of this ‘dangerous’ republican during the troubled times of the French Revolution.
Based on the true story of James Tilly Matthews, Bedlam follows the twenty-year commitment of a London tea merchant as told by Matthew’s wife, his doctor and the patient himself. Always near the center looms London’s notorious madhouse, Bethlem Hospital, nicknamed Bedlam, which became a catch-phrase for chaos and insanity. The novel is also a discourse on the treatment of the insane in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Filled with conspiracies and gruesome details of patient care in a crueler time, you will wonder which parts are real, and which are the ramblings of a madman. Full of wit and humor as well as poignancy, the story is fascinating because it’s basically true.