bedlam

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bedlam a scene of uproar or confusion, deriving ultimately from Bedlam, a corruption of Bethlehem, in the name of the ‘Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem’, founded by the Sheriff of London in Bishopsgate in 1247 for the housing of the clergy of St Mary of Bethlehem when they visited Britain. The house is mentioned as a hospital for the sick in 1330, and lunatics are stated to have been there in 1402. On the dissolution of Chancery it passed to the London civic authorities and in 1547 became a royal foundation. Its place was taken in 1675 by a new hospital in Moorfields, and this again was transferred to the Lambeth Road in 1815. The site now houses the Imperial War Museum.

The use of ‘bedlam’ as a general term to mean an asylum for the insane is recorded from the mid 17th century. (See also Tom of Chancery.)


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Bedlam, more properly Bethlem hospital, was originally attached to the priory of St Mary Bethlehem outside Bishopsgate, founded in 1247 by Simon FitzMary, sheriff of London, and used for the ‘distracted’ from 1377. After the priory's dissolution (1546), it was granted to the city, and from 1557 jointly managed with Bridewell. The only public madhouse and a popular resort for sightseers from the early 17th cent., it became infamous for the callous cruelty meted out to the insane—‘bedlam’ is still used figuratively for any place of uproar. The hospital was relocated from Moorfields to Lambeth (1815), and is now at Beckenham (Kent), linked with the Maudsley Hospital.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Bedlam ★★★ 1945

Creeper set in the famed asylum in 18thcentury London. A woman, wrongfully committed, tries to stop the evil doings of the chief (Karloff) of Bedlam, and endangers herself. Fine horror film cowritten by producer Lewton. 79m/B VHS, DVD . Jason Robards Sr., Ian Wolfe, Glenn Vernon, Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Robert Clarke, Ellen Corby, Leyland Hodgson, Joan Newton; D: Mark Robson; W: Mark Robson, Val Lewton; C: Nicholas Musuraca; M: Roy Webb.

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bed·lam / ˈbedləm/ • n. a scene of uproar and confusion: there was bedlam in the courtroom. ORIGIN: late Middle English: early form of Bethlehem, referring to the hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, used as an asylum for the insane.

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Bedlam, bedlam Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, orig. for the entertainment of the bishop and canons of the Church of St. Mary at Bethlehem XV; †inmate of this XVI; lunatic asylum XVII; scene of uproar XVII. (Early forms of the town name are OE. Betleem, Bedlem.)