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Change Minds Online 2023: Ernest Preisig by David Luck

Ern P Photo

Ernest Preisig was born in Switzerland and was 24 when he came to Bethlem Royal Hospital in February  1888. The Bethlem records state he had previously received treatment in Wyl near St Sall, though I think this is a confused spelling of the town Wil in the St Gallen region, to the north west of the country. His admission book records his place of abode as Buhler, St Gall- in actual fact Buhler is close by to St Gallen, though they are in different cantons. Preisig seems to be a name of germanic origin, and so it would make sense that he was from this part of Switzerland close to the borders with Germany and Austria. There are other Preisigs born in and around the canton of St Gallen, but I've been unable to locate any mention of Ernest's birth or any definite family of his in this area. 

The informant to the Hospital, which means the person who bought him to Bethlem and spoke to the doctors there, is described as the brother-in-law of Ernest's brother-in-law. If this is the same man as the authority listed (and it usually is), this was a man called Godfrey Dyne, who according to the census lived in Forest Hill in south-east London with his son George, a merchant in Swiss textiles. Ernest was described as a former clerk, and the north west of Switzerland was a large producer of wool, and so it would seem to make sense that Ernest worked in some capacity for Dyne's business. Godfrey appears in previous census entries as a 'Professor of language' and its possible George took advantage of this skill and the family connections to run an export business of textiles from Switzerland. The servant who looked after George's children was also Swiss, implying strong links with that country.

Ernest had been admitted to a hospital in Wil in September 1887, only months before his admission to Bethlem. The Bethlem casebook records that his earliest symptoms were assaulting another clerk, which may have been the incident that led to this first admission to the Swiss Asylum. He must have been newly arrived in the UK when the Dynes and his landlady noticed issues with his behaviour. Perhaps he had come to London hoping for a new start following his problems in Switzerland, maybe moving from the Swiss side of the Dyne's business to the British side, or possibly using his family connections with them to stay close by and have a change of scenery. The records do not give an answer as to why he took up residence at Charlotte Webb's boarding house in Forest Hill.

By the time he was admitted to Bethlem the doctor's certificates (required by all patients for admission) record that his landlady considered him unfit to wander by himself as he was 'filthy and disgusting in his habits' and was often violent. The informant to the Hospital recorded that he had tried to indecently assault someone at his lodgings, and also that he had problems with alcohol. Ernest is described as always 'running away' from any employment, which to me does sound like the frustrations of someone who had tried to get Ernest work.

All these notes seem to be about somebody very different to the person who appears in the actual medical progress section of the casebook. Ernest is noted as being a quiet and well-behaved patient who 'eats well, sleeps well' and 'helps in the garden'. By the end of March it is recorded that he has almost lost his delusions, and by April Ernest himself tells the doctors that his head is much better- the sole note of 25th April is 'doing very well'. After a month long stay at the Convalescent Home in Witley Ernest was discharged well by the Committee of the Hospital in June 1888.

Unfortunately this is where his story ends. I have not been able to find any further trace of Ernest. The Hospital notes that he wished to join the army- I wonder if he meant the Swiss or German armies, though in either case he would have had to leave Britain. The Bethlem doctors note that his English is 'very bad', and as far as I can see he didn't take the opportunity to stay and improve it in Britain.

We cannot diagnose someone from the past, but Ernest comes across like a bored young man (he had been a clerk from the ages of 16 to 24 according to the Hospital notes) who drank too much and was unable to communicate very well with those around him. He would also have been a man from a rural background who had very suddenly arrived in one of the biggest cities in Europe just after he had come out of an asylum. This is not to excuse the behaviour in the casebook, but if we look at it through this lens of cultural misunderstanding, loneliness and frustration perhaps the emotional stress and strain on Ernest becomes more understandable. He certainly seems to have responded to the calm, ordered environment of the Hospital, and perhaps Bethlem offered the sort of place he had been looking for.

According to the census, the Dynes continued in textile trading, though George is no longer described as trading in Swiss textiles after 1901. It's possible that the experience with Ernest was enough to make them take their business elsewhere.




DL Edited and fina

When I came to making my creative response to my research on Ernest, I found there wasn't much I could write about him. There was such a contradiction between the troublesome young ruffian described in the pre-admission  section of the casebook and the quiet, considerate and rather shy patient observed by the Bethlem doctors that I felt Ernest himself had been lost in the record. I instead decided to create something that centred the few facts I could find out about Ernest, his background in Switzerland and the beautiful nature that he grew up in. The St Gallen region is incredibly picturesque forests, hills and lakes. I created a collage using coloured paper and cut-up images of art created by famous Bethlem patients, including Richard Dadd, and placed an image of Bethlem (as it was) in the middle. I hope it captures the disorientation that Ernest must have felt, and the contradictions of his life in Switzerland and his time in the Hospital.

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