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Change Minds Online 2023: Mary Ann Stephenson Jones by Emma

MJ Photo

Mary Ann Stephenson Jones, taken by Barker and Parker at Bethlem in 1888

Mary Anne Stephenson Jones was an inpatient at Bethlem in 1888 suffering delusions and hallucinations brought on from her daughter’s server illness and lack of sleep. Below is a letter from myself to Mary Anne dated March 2023. 

Dearest Mary Ann,

Although you have long since passed, a fragment of your life has become known to me through the case books of the Bethlem Hospital Archive. I suspect this time in your long life might not be what you would choose prying eyes to focus on but, I wonder if that month you spent at Bethlem, like mine, 130 years later, was so terrifying and profound that it did leave a curiously deep imprint. And, that you couldn’t help but revisit it time and time again.  

All I have are the Doctors notes from your Bethlem inpatient stay, 8th March 1888 to 11th April 1888, written as short bi-daily observations and the summaries of your symptoms as expressed by your husband, James Jones, and two local doctors just prior to admission. They hold  little, if anything, of your experience as You experienced it. 

You had nine children by age 43, I had two at 40. It blows my mind as to how much hard work caring for nine children, two under 10 years old would be. Your third youngest, Annie Pheobe Jones, age 15 at the time, critically unwell with lung inflammation and abscess of the abdomen. Naturally, you couldn’t leave her side to sleep; you knew that her life was in great danger. The intensity and horror of your Annie’s illness and your 36 hours of sleeplessness, cradling and praying with all your might that the situation was not real, that she would recover, was too much to bear. I understand that. 

As mothers, I think, we can often feel our children’s suffering quite acutely. I, therefore, wasn’t surprised to read you also complained of experiencing abdominal pain. I think there is a name for feeling, empathising, loved one’s pain, and of course the anxiety and fear must have been crippling. 

I read, you said you while nursing Annie that you seen the devil in the fire as you glanced towards the alluring light; I imagine you gulped your breath down as you continued to try and focus on your child and block the sighting.  I was glad that while suffering delusions and hallucinations that you also reported an angel on your shoulder and that Jesus communicated with you by writing letters. What a comfort that must have been.  I project from my own experience that those beings of white light whether overlayed on ‘real’ physical form or as part of pure hallucination/ delusion help smooth the terror and the perceived danger of the deepest darkness. 

It made me smile when reading that you took a great dislike to the Dr. as I did to one of mine, (part of a ring that took babies you see), as you thought he wanted to keep you away from your daughter’s room. Perhaps there was truth in your fear, I imagine he probably wanted you to sleep but how can you when your daughter is at deaths door. 

Still, undoubtably, we must look after ourselves if we are to be fit enough to look after our babies. I too, didn’t manage this well and the lack of sleep and stress from a newly birthing twins, one fighting for her life awaiting surgery, caught up with me also. 

I hope despite the bruising on your body they mention and the overwhelming pain you were suffering you felt cared for during your stay at Bethlem. I hear that at the time of your inpatient stay Private Patients (PP) often had better experiences. It is somewhat remarkable to think that from the time you were admitted to discharged as documented ‘recovered’ was only one month and that was without antipsychotic medication.  

Needle work, they document, kept you occupied, and perhaps was used to self-hypnotise during your own mending period once your insight resurfaced. I’m reminded of the ‘null and void’ existence that Antonia White mentions in her book ‘Beyond the Glass’ and the sense of life as rows of plain knitting - the repetitive acceptable pleasantry from dull motion. Perhaps though this needle work was more than pleasant to you and in my experience the smoothing nature of such work is often necessary as a steppingstone back to what I hope was for you eventually a joyful, fully alive and present time. 

It says in your notes you popped back to the hospital to seek advice in the September as although you slept well you felt depressed and I imagine with your youngest child at two and a half/ three years you got little time to yourself to recuperate once discharged home. Still, it feels encouraging you were drawn to come back. Perhaps overall you felt supported and were grateful for the care you had at Bethlem. From what I have discovered you lived another 42 years after your admission, and I hope despite the dreadful void from your dear daughter Pheobe’s passing that they were happy ones. You look a very strong, determined women to me. I like to think had we been on earth at the same time we would have been friends.  Sending love to you dear Mary Ann and all your family in heaven. 

Your fellow Bethlem acquaintance,



Emma's artwork in situ at the Museum

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