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Hospital Snapshots 12

This series has primarily focused on the portraits captured by photographer Henry Hering, depicting Bethlem patients in the 1850s. Victorian doctors used these to determine the progress of recovering patients, a concept most readily apparent in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ snapshots previously discussed. However, there exist many further photographic records yet to be properly plumbed – many are obscure or in some way unusual, and many (as a result) are highly intriguing. What follows will attempt explore one such photograph.

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Alexander Reith was 34 years old when admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital, a year following his ‘first attack’, wherein he (falsely) believed himself to be ‘under restraint’ at Christmas. He was considered dangerous after having ‘fired off [his] revolver several times’, ‘just to see the flame.’ But despite this, Reith was discharged well on the 4th of November 1896, after just three months in the hospital.

Three years and four months passed before Reith was admitted to the Middlesbrough County Asylum for unknown reasons.

The photograph is particularly interesting because it was, evidently, not created by either hospital. It appears to be an excerpt from some external publication (judging by the nature of the printing and the incongruous inclusion of a caption). Its exact source is currently unknown, and the date of publication can be estimated at between 4th November 1896 and 9th March 1899 (the dates of Reith’s discharge from Bethlem and admission to Middlesbrough), and although logical, even this assumption is unfounded. Perhaps Reith himself produced the photograph, although his possible motives for doing so are unclear.

There is also no guarantee that the character shown is indeed Alexander Reith. The latter’s distinguishing features included being ‘totally devoid of hair on his head or body’, a description which, while useful, is difficult to affirm by the image alone. Although, notably, the figure is clean-shaven and appears to have a high forehead – is he truly bald or merely straying from the fashion of the time?

The photograph is an enigma, where even the true identity of the subject is called into question. Like so much else, it is nigh-on impossible to confirm.

The caption is also exceedingly unusual. Not only was it rare for patients to remain in contact with hospitals after being discharged, but its very message, ‘I am feeling better!!’ puts an uncommonly vast emphasis on the self, and subsequently achieves the rare poignancy of triumph reflected also in the subject’s expression. Jodine William's winning entry for the Artfund 2016 Photo Competition has drawn from a similar power, the message of ‘My mental health does not define me!!’ expressing the self-same defiance and interior strength. The painting titled ‘It has not worked’ by Charlotte Johnson-Wahl conveys a similar power, although the latter two examples encapsulate emotions which lie on the opposite pole to Reith’s exultation. In fact, the renewed positivity of the caption augments its rarity, and its alignment with the radiance of the character adds to its fundamental strength.

But the fact remains that Alexander Reith was re-admitted to another hospital three years after leaving Bethlem. So even the verisimilitude of the message is drawn into scrutiny, and we invariably wonder whether or not the subject was ever actually ‘feeling better’. And, due to the ambiguity of the evidence, the question will persist.