The Surgeon of Crowthorne : A Tale of Murder, Madness and Love of Words
I’m an archivist, really, masquerading as a writer. For my day job, I am in charge of archives from across England’s Royal County of Berkshire, spanning from the twelfth century to the present day. I have care of collections from Reading Gaol – of Oscar Wilde fame, the conservators of the River Thames, and also Broadmoor Hospital. The latter was built in 1863 as the first criminal lunatic asylum for England and Wales. It’s a place where true crime and social history interact. My book tries to paint a picture of individuals who did dreadful things but also had a life beyond their mental illness.
On May 27th, 1863, three coaches pulled up at the gates of a new asylum, built amongst the tall, dense pines of Windsor Forest. Broadmoor's first patients had arrived. In Broadmoor Revealed, Mark Stevens writes about what life was like for the criminally insane over one hundred years ago. From fresh research into the Broadmoor archives, Mark has uncovered the lost lives of patients whose mental illnesses led them to become involved in crime.
Discover the five women who went on to become mothers in Broadmoor, giving birth to new life when three of them had previously taken it. Find out how several Victorian immigrants ended their hopeful journeys to England in madness and disaster. And follow the numerous escapes, actual and attempted, as the first doctors tried to assert control over the residents.
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Although Kate Summerscale is best known for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, this is a book to read for those interested in mental illness and crime. The boy of the title is indeed a child – one who killed his mother and entered the asylum at the age of eighteen. The influence of Victorian social media – the penny dreadfuls and sensational journalism – feels relevant as today’s youth are lambasted for similar fascinations. The story ends far from Broadmoor and provides hope of recovery from even the most desperate and tragic situations.
I like to write about public Victorian asylums – where the bulk of English people with mental illnesses were admitted. But the counterpoint is the private system, where the poor, rich mad spent their time in nice surroundings with wacky treatments. Sarah Wise captures this perfectly through a real-life investigation of the people in the attic – think Jane Eyre, or The Woman in White – and how the law sought to protect them.
Long before the Victorian asylums, there was Bethlem – London’s ancient hospital for lunatics. Like Broadmoor, Bethlem also looked after high-profile criminals, but within a private and charitable institution that was mostly for the capital’s waifs and strays. Bedlam gives you a sense of how mental health developed as a concept from the medieval period to the present day.
In England, the Victorian asylums were built as beacons of hope, infused with optimism. But by the late 20th century virtually all of them had gone, unloved and unmourned. So what happened? Peter Barham takes you through the rise and fall of England’s national mental health service.
We think you will like The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, Tombland, and Thunderstruck if you like this list.
From Emily's list on The best books for rethinking the line between sanity and madness.
Ever since the anti-psychiatry movement began in the 1960s, the asylum has gotten a pretty bad rap (think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book I would have recommended had I been given a sixth choice!). Barbara Taylor’s brave memoir brings an unexpectedly positive reassessment of an institution where she spent several years of her life: Friern Mental Hospital, also known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. After experiencing severe anxiety, Taylor was admitted to Friern in 1988 where she found a meaningful community and therapeutic support network before the hospital was dismantled in the early 1990s. The ultimate erosion of the asylum system, Taylor contends, left patients like her with few places to turn for long-term care and support.
From Sarah's list on The best historical fiction books that sent me straight to Google to find out more.
At the time of writing, this is believed to be the last in the Shardlake novels and I, for one, am already missing them. I have loved every one of the books in the series, following the adventures of the lawyer/crime solver Matthew Shardlake and his assistants Jack Barak and Nicholas Overton. The author has a real way of bringing the Tudor age to life and as a reader you are instantly transported into the 1500s with Sansom’s descriptive and quite brilliant writing. As a general recommendation I could have picked any of the Shardlake novels but under the heading of books that made me want to know more, the reason I have selected Tombland specifically as one of my top 5 books is the author’s focus on the peasants’ revolt in Norfolk in 1549.
The rebellion was led by a man named Robert Kett and although I had vaguely heard the name, I knew little about him or the reasons for the revolt. And it is this revolt that not just forms the backdrop to the latest Shardlake murder investigation but throws the protagonist and his friends right into the heart of the action. The author even includes a Historical Essay in the book on reimagining Kett's Rebellion and long after I had reached the end of the book and was mourning the end of Shardlake (not literally, he lives on, as I do in the hope Sansom will write about him again), I was off into the internet reading all about Kett and the uprising.
From Rebecca's list on The best books about crimes you've never heard of.
The crime discussed in this book was once so famous that Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew titled his autobiography I Caught Crippen even though he’d also been involved with the Jack the Ripper murders. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American from Michigan—my home state has more than a few notorious citizens—who stood accused of murdering his second wife in London and then fleeing from the police with his mistress. Larson does what he does best, combining a murder case with a history lesson, and weaves in the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless alongside Crippen’s flight from the law. The two converge in the middle of the Atlantic in the sort of exciting tale you’d expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.