Forensic Case Files: Bedlam Cemetery Unearthed

We’ve talked about London’s Crossrail project before here on Skeleton Keys. Two years ago, this massive project to dig ­­21km of new underground tunnels in London uncovered a burial ground of Black Plague victims. Just last week, a new archeological treasure was unearthed—a cemetery of over 3,000 16th and 17th century skeletons, many of which came from London’s infamous Bedlam Hospital.

The word ‘bedlam’—a term associated with insanity or madness—comes from the real name of the first European hospital specializing in mental illness: the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247 as the priory of New Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. ‘Bethlehem’ was often referred to as ‘Bethlem’, which in turn took on the nickname ‘Bedlam’. Never originally intended to be a hospital, Bedlam originated as a collection center for alms to support the Crusades. However, by the late 14th and early 15th centuries, it was being used to house and care for the insane, with patient records dating back to 1403. By 1460, the hospital had taken on this role as its specialization.

The Bedlam burial ground, London’s first municipal cemetery, was originally located just outside the city walls. It was not only used by Bedlam hospital, but by the city as a whole—it contains Black Death victims from the Great Plague of London in 1665, as well as victims on the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the 1660s really weren’t a great time to live in London!). The death toll from the Great Fire is unknown due to a lack of record keeping of the lower and middle classes—officially only six upper class individuals died in a fire where nearly 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 houses were lost; this seems like an unrealistically low number. But an estimated 100,000 or 25% of London’s population died in the Great Plague, many of whom were interred in the Bedlam burial ground.

I admire the Crossrail administrators for their involvement in their city’s history. On multiple occasions, the project has screeched to a sudden halt as important Roman or Renaissance artefacts or skeletons were discovered during the dig. Each time, the project has paused in that area for months while archeologists swooped in to recover their priceless pieces of history. In this case, a team of sixty archeologists working six days a week hope to excavate and remove all the skeletons in the next four weeks, after which, excavation will continue. After examination, the skeletons will be reinterred in Essex.

Photo credit: Crossrail