Change Minds Online 2023: Hannah Levy Bensusan by Sophia Gal
Hannah Levy Bensusan was 18-and-a-half years old when she became an inpatient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1893. Hannah came from Upper Norwood, an area that during this period had a wealthy Jewish population, and the Bensusan clan was no exception. Her father, Jacob S. L. Bensusan was an ostrich feather merchant. Her brother, Samuel L. Bensusan, was carving a name for himself as a writer. Her sister Esther, a wood engraver, had recently married the artist Lucien Pissarro and was pregnant with their child. As recorded in the Bethlem casebooks, Hannah had no previous afflictions of similar nature. Her physical health was good, with no family history of illness (the only sign of such a thing being her mother’s father, who was ‘an eccentric.’) Hannah’s symptoms first became visible on April 17, when she started refusing food, had abnormal bouts of violence, and told a friend that she was engaged to a young man and that the Queen would be very pleased. She would be admitted to the hospital 11 days later on April 28, 1893.
During her time in the hospital, Hannah’s speech was found to be incomprehensible. She would refuse to take food or medicine, culminating in her having to be fed via a nasal tube. There were also reports of incontinence. She was observed to have had “great mental fear and excitement:” during her assessment, she clung to the doctor and insisted he not leave because she feared that there were people about to murder her and mad dogs chasing after her. Her physical assessment found that she believed she could see people in the corner of the room. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers reports that Hannah would “occasionally spring back as if she was going to be struck,” and feared lighting the candle in her room. Hannah would be abusive towards the doctors and nurses, calling them ‘thick’ and ‘devils,’ and sometimes getting physically violent. Dr. Theophilus Hyslop reported on June 29th that she was “somewhat inclined to be erotic,” following ward orderlies around the courts while kissing her hand. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with ‘Acute Mania.’
Dr. Rivers recorded that Hannah was friendly with an ‘excited’ patient referred to as “Miss Hewitt.” Triangulation via the Bethlem casebooks indicated that this was Sarah Ann Hewitt, a 37-year-old hair ornament maker who was admitted to the Bethlem following the death of her husband. Diagnosed with ‘melancholia,’ Hewitt suffered hallucinations of insects crawling over her food and screams of people she knew being tortured. While both women were in the hospital, it was moving away from restraint and towards occupation - whether through useful work or recreation - at the behest of Superintendent George Henry Savage. By this time, mental illness was blamed on ‘morbid introspection,’ and to counter this patients had to be kept busy. Sports such as rackets, lawn tennis and other ball games were common, as well as reading, drawing and writing. Indoor games such as pool were also played. The case was similar across other asylums - at the high-security Broadmoor artist Richard Dadd was known to enjoy cricket and chess.
On May 8th, Dr. Rivers reported that Hannah “looks better,” and “takes food well,” and on October 14th, Dr. Hyslop reported that she had “profoundly improved.” By December 5th, Hannah “dresses more tidy, is fatter, and looks as if on the road to recovery.” As such, the winter months saw her going on frequent leave. On April 4, 1894, Hannah would be discharged by certificate, thus spending less than a year of her life institutionalised. There are few records of her life from then on, but the death registry states that she died in Holborn in 1902, at the age of 28. That the registry lists her as ‘Bensusan’ indicates that she was unmarried at the time of her death. Hannah’s cause of death is unrecorded, leaving the nature of her being in Holborn uncertain; whether she was visiting or if she had moved, and if this was the latter, whether her family joined her.
Hannah Levy Bensusan became an inpatient at Bethlem Royal Hospital on April 28, 1893, at the age of 18. Before her arrival, her symptoms included the refusal of food, bouts of violence, and insistence that she had been engaged to a young man and that the Queen would be very pleased with this. At the hospital, this behaviour continued: Bensusan would refuse food to the point of needing a nasal tube and physically attack doctors and nurses, calling them ‘thick’ and ‘devils’. She was reported to have had “great mental fear and excitement,” fearing that murderers and mad dogs were coming after her and believing she could see people in the corner of the room. In addition, her speech was observed to have been incomprehensible and there were reports of incontinence. Bensusan received the diagnosis of “Acute Mania,” and remained in the hospital until April 4, 1894.
During the late 19th century, it was believed that ‘morbid introspection’ was the cause of mental illness, and this had to be countered by occupation. By this point in history, recreation was considered just as curative as useful work, which is why sports such as rackets and lawn tennis were enjoyed at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Indoor activities such as reading, drawing, and writing were also enjoyed, and patients were known to publish their own journals from the hospital. Even in the high-security Broadmoor, patients were known to enjoy cricket and chess.
Bensusan's chess opponent, depicted here, is Sarah Ann Hewitt, an “excited” patient that she was observed to have been friendly with. Hewitt was a 37-year-old hair ornament maker who was admitted to Bethlem following the death of her husband. There, she was reported to have suffered hallucinations of insects crawling over her food and the screams of people she knew being tortured. Hewitt was diagnosed with “melancholia."