Hi friends! Thanks for bearing with us as we took a little break last week to deal with life. We’re back today with Episode 80! First, Rachel talks about Natalie Wood, beloved Hollywood starlet whose death has never truly been solved. Oh, and PS, Christopher Walken was there. Then Emily shares the history of the Bethlehem Royal Hospital an insane asylum that was so horrific it created a new term for mayhem.
Trigger Warnings: Rape, Police Brutality, Suicide
Story 1 – Natalie Wood
Today, for our 80th episode, I’m going to tell you all about the life and mysterious death of Natalie Wood.
Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko on July 20, 1938 to Russian immigrant parents in San Francisco, CA. This was her mother’s second marriage – she had also previously had a child, that I don’t think was raised with Natalie. She started performing at an early age, with her mother enrolling her in ballet classes, and landed her first movie role at age 4 in “Happy Land,” which came out in 1943.
Apparently, her mom orchestrated a meeting between Natalie and the film’s director, Irving Pichel; Natalie would later say that her mom said, “make Mr. Pichel love you.”
A lot of pressure for a 4-year-old, in my opinion. From what I read, her mother Maria was the driving force behind Natalie’s career, moving the family to LA and making sure Natalie Wood would charm all sorts of people into loving her. Maria seemed to have been into some spirituality – when she was a child, she had an encounter with a fortune teller back in her native Siberia who told Maria that her second child “would be a great beauty,” that she would be famous, but also that she should “beware of dark water.” Ominous.
Natalie Wood landed her first starring role in 1947, in the classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” She played the little girl who questions whether or not Santa is real, and she won over audiences with her adorableness and her precociousness. She was only 8 years old. Natalie didn’t attend traditional school, instead studying with a tutor on set of her movies as she continued to act. Natalie would recall feeling guilty that the rest of the cast would have to wait for her to finish her schooling each day, and then she would run onto the stage eagerly. She was bright, earning straight As, as well as being a talented actress. Her nickname on set was “One-Take Natalie.” She was so good that she knew her lines as well as everyone else’s.
At 16, Natalie Wood costarred with James Dean and Sal Mineo in “Rebel without a Cause,” which is arguably her most famous role. She played Judy, who was James Dean’s love interest, and she earned an Oscar nomination for this role. She would later say that this was the first role she was truly excited about – she picked it, instead of being told to do it by her parents, and they actually opposed her taking it at first.
But all that success came with a cost. A biography of Natalie Wood that came out in 2001, written by Suzanne Finstad, alleged that when Natalie was 16-years-old, she was – trigger warning- raped by a powerful actor. This actor was not named; however, he was allegedly married, and he raped her so brutally that she was injured physically. It allegedly occurred in the Chateau Marmont when Natalie was auditioning and went on for hours. She would also have psychological ramifications, of course, shuddering when she heard this actor’s name, but feeling as though she had to pretend nothing happened, for fear of crossing someone so powerful in Hollywood. She only told a couple of close friends. Natalie’s sister, Lana Wood, would later name Natalie’s assailant as actor Kirk Douglas.
After graduating from high school in 1956, Natalie Wood signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and she spent the next decade or so playing girlfriend roles, which wasn’t her favorite. She also disliked her role in “The Searchers,” which was a 1956 Western starring John Wayne – she felt miscast as an abducted white girl who ended up being raised by Native Americans.
Her career started to take a dip at this point, but it was revitalized when she starred with Warren Beatty in 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass” – she got to be driven into madness in that one, which sounds kind of fun. She also starred in “West Side Story” and an urban retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” She was a method actor, and started to transform from a precocious young child actor to a woman with serious talent.
Of course, the more famous she was, the more likely she was to be subjected to the tabloids. Natalie Wood got married to costar Robert Wagner in 1957. She was 19 and he was 27, which, as the kids would say, gives me the ick. They separated in 1961 and officially divorced in 1962. She would go on to date more famous actors, including Warren Beatty and Michael Cane. In 1965 she was briefly engaged to Ladislav Blatnik, a Venezuelan shoe manufacturer, but the marriage was not to be.
Natalie Wood wasn’t living her best life in the 60s though – she was in therapy for what I’m guessing is depression. Trigger warning – she attempted suicide by overdose in 1966. She took a break from acting to focus on her mental health, and she married writer/producer Richard Gregson in 1969. She gave birth to their daughter, Natasha, in 1970, and then she filed for divorce in 1971. In early 1972 Natalie and Robert Wagner rekindled their romance, and they were remarried that same year. They had a daughter named Courtney in 1974, and Natalie seemed to step out of the spotlight to focus on raising her daughters.
Her final role was in the 1983 sci-fi movie, “Brainstorm,” in which she costarred with Christopher Walken.
This brings us to the beautiful Santa Catalina Island. On November 28, 1981, Natalie WOod and Robert Wagner invited Christopher Walken onto their boat, “Splendour,” which by the way is spelled the British way, so you know it’s fancy. The only other person aboard the ship was its captain, Dennis Davern.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding what happened on this boat, because at 8am on November 30th, Natalie’s body was discovered floating near a dinghy from the Splendour. She was wearing a flannel nightgown, a down jacket, and socks.
At the time, her death was ruled an accidental drowning, with investigators theorizing that Natalie fell in the water after attempting to secure the loose dinghy to keep it from banging into the boat. But Natalie Wood had a lifelong fear of water, due to the prophecy the fortune-teller shared with her mother. Also, she didn’t know how to swim.
So let’s back up and talk about what could have happened.
For what it’s worth, most of the information surrounding Natalie’s death came out from Dennis Davern, the captain, who kept quiet at the time but then came out years later and even coauthored a book about the night Natalie died.
There were reports that Natalie went to bed, while the men stayed up chatting. Later that evening, Robert Wagner reported that he went to go find his wife, but she was gone, as was the boat’s dinghy.
After her body was recovered, it was autopsied, which revealed multiple bruises on Natalie’s arms and a cut on her left cheek. The coroner did not think much of these bruises, dismissing them as superficial and thinking she probably got them while she was in the water, struggling to pull herself up onto the dingy. There were scratch marks on the dinghy that was consistent with that theory, however, no one ever took clippings from Natalie Wood’s nails to test if she really did make those scratch marks, and by the time they thought to do that, the dinghy was no longer able to be examined. The coroner thought Natalie died shortly after entering the water, which tracks because she couldn’t swim.
There were reports from other boaters at the time that they heard a woman crying out for help, until around 11:30pm, when they suddenly stopped.
Now I immediately thought, “What the fuck, boaters? You didn’t think to check out the screams of a woman in the water?” They apparently did call the harbormaster, who didn’t answer, and there was a rager being thrown on another boat nearby, so they chalked it up to some youths playing a joke.
Fine, but screaming “someone help me, I’m drowning,” is not actually funny.
New information wouldn’t come out until 2011, when Dennis Davern came forward, sharing that he hadn’t given police all the information about that fateful night. From here on out I’ll be referring to him as Captain Dennis – who claimed that he believed Robert Wagner to be responsible for his wife’s death.
According to Captain Dennis, Natalie and Robert were arguing pretty much the whole weekend. It seems that Robert was jealous of how close she was with Christopher Walken. Natalie and Chris had allegedly spent hours at a bar on the island before Robert showed up, pissed, and crashed their party. Then, Natalie, Christopher, Robert, and Dennis, went to dinner at Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant. I can’t imagine how awkward that dinner was, so of course, they started drinking. They had champagne, two bottles of wine, and cocktails. Just a reminder, this is for 4 people, and two of them were already toasted.
At some point in the evening, restaurant employees remember one of the actors, either Robert Wagner or Christopher Walken, threw a glass at the wall, which shattered. Around 10pm, the 3 drunk actors, and drunk Captain Dennis, boarded the dinghy and headed back to the Splendour.
Back in 1981, Walken told investigators that he and Wagner had a “small beef,” but he said tempers were high because shooting for so long on that sci-fi movie had kept Robert and Natalie away from their child or too long. Everyone initially said that when they got back to the boat, everything chilled out.
But, in 2011, Captain Dennis said that everyone kept drinking when they got back to the boat, and that Robert Wagner was not a happy drunk. He claimed that Wagner broke a wine bottle over the table and screamed “ARE YOU TRYING TO FUCK MY WIFE?!?!”
According to Captain Dennis, at this point in the evening, Christopher Walken noped out of there and walken-ed (hey-o) right on back to his cabin. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood also went back to their cabin, but they kept fighting, and Dennis reports eventually hearing their fighting move from the cabin to the deck until, and this is a direct quote, “everything went silent.”
Captain Dennis allegedly went to check things out, but he ran into only Wagner, who calmly told him that Natalie was missing and that the captain should go look for her. Wagner also allegedly made it a point to tell Dennis that the dinghy was missing too.
If true, this must have made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, because Captain Dennis knew that Natalie was deathly afraid of water and that it would have been extremely unlikely for her to have taken that dinghy out by herself. Also sketchy? The captain alleged that Robert Wagner didn’t want to call for help, because he didn’t want to draw any attention to the situation. Remember how I mentioned that others on a nearby boat claim to have heard a woman screaming for help until about 11:30pm?
Well don’t you worry, because Robert Wagner did eventually call for help. 2 hours after the screaming had stopped, at 1:30 in the morning. But Roger Smith, who was the captain of the LA County rescue boat, and one of the people to help pull Natalie Wood’s body out of the water, states that he didn’t get the call to search for her until after 5 am.
And because of all this new information from Captain Dennis, the case of Natalie Wood’s death was reopened 30 years after it happened, in November of 2011. In 2018 Wagner was named a person of interest and hasn’t said shit, but apparently Christopher Walken has fully cooperated with investigators. I read that he still believes it was a horrible accident, not a murder. He said in a 1997 interview that it was raining, and he believes the boat would have been slippery and it could have happened.
Natalie Wood’s death certificate has since been changed from “accidental drowning,” to “drowning and undetermined factors.”
It seems that they can’t pin anything concrete on Robert Wagner, as everything is circumstantial. However, authorities know that he was the last person to see Natalie Wood alive, and all of the other witnesses have told consistent stories, but Wagner’s change frequently.
It could be that Robert Wagner doesn’t want to relive the tragedy, and that’s why he doesn’t want to talk to investigators, or it could be that he is guilty of killing his wife. Most of the original witnesses have since died, so unless new evidence miraculously comes out, we can only speculate.
Story 2 – Bethlehem Royal Hospital
Now Before we truly dive into my story I wanted to have a little vocabulary lesson. Have you heard the word bedlam? Can you define it?
The term “bedlam,” is defined as “chaos and confusion.” Now if we want to go into the origins of this word, dig a little deeper, we would find that this word was actually coined in the 18th century specifically to describe one location in Great Britain. Today I’m going to tell you about the disturbing story of the institution that caused the need to create a term for utter mayhem — The Bethlehem Asylum.
First, a little background. The Bethlem Royal Hospital in England was the first facility of its kind – a facility to treat people with mental illness. Sounds like a good point of progress right? Wrong. As we know, mental institutions of the olden days were particularly horrible. And this particular asylum was created in 1247 – founded by Simon Fitzmary, an alderman and former sheriff of the City of London – so, about the oldest of olden days that we can even imagine.
Like many old hospitals, Bethlem began as a religious order; it was founded as a monestary dedicated to St Mary of Bethlehem. In 1346, as the hospital struggled to survive, the City of London agreed to take it over. But, by 1400, it had become a medieval “hospital” – which then didn’t imply medical care, but simply meant “a refuge for strangers in need” – likely those that were impoverished and needed support.
Over time, Bethlem began to specialise in caring for those who weren’t simply poor, but also incapable of caring for themselves – particularly those considered ‘mad’. And by 1403, ‘lunatic’ patients formed the majority of the Bethlem’s clients.
Essentially, it was an institution stood up to handle society’s “rejects” – aka the mentally or criminally unwell. Of course ‘madness’ included people with learning disabilities, ‘falling sickness’ (epilepsy) and dementia.
Now, there had never before been a place for those with mental illness, physical disability, and a criminal history to be adequately locked away from society. So, this was a landmark kind of location.
But, the hospital fell into disrepair as its patient population boomed. The 1601 Relief of the Poor act stated that poor people unable to work could be cared for by the church, while the rest had to go to workhouses or prisons. As such, beggars and petty criminals often feigned insanity in order to avoid being sent there, thus overcrowding the already chaotic Bedlam.
The “Bedlamites,” as they were nicknamed, were subjected to horrific treatments, both experimental and some downright cruel, and were often desired only for the study of their corpses. Others were simply thrown into a mass grave on Liverpool Street.
In the 1600s they rebuilt the facility.
Designed by Robert Hooke, a City Surveyor, and natural philosopher, the new building was 540 ft-long – complete with Corinthian columns and cupola-topped turret – and it was inspired by Louis XIV’s Tuileries Palace in Paris. It looked over formal gardens with tree-lined promenades. The overall impression was of the French king’s opulent estate at Versailles, not of an asylum. Other than the two ominous statues were installed over its entrance gate–one named “Melancholy” who appeared calm and the other named “Raving Madness” who was chained and angry.
This was apparently one of the attempts to recreate London as something grand and modern, instead of the old medieval town. And it was a kind of civic pride, and it was a sense of charitable mission: that this was going to make London a grander and better place for everybody. That they even had a ‘palace for lunatics’. Which by the way, the word lunatics is considered insulting – and I’m only using it because that’s what the quotes from people of that time said.
Sadly, even though this place was referred to as a palace, the interior (and reality) of the hospital was altogether different. Because the ornate façade was so heavy, it immediately cracked at the back. Whenever it rained, the walls ran with water. And as the hospital was built on the rubble next to the city’s Roman wall, it didn’t even have a proper foundation.
The new hospital was, quite literally, putting a pretty face on what many Londoners saw as a messy, distasteful problem. “You had this weird, creaking, collapsing building from the very beginning. It was a contrast everyone picked up on at the time: this grand façade – and how grim it was on the inside,”
That’s right, there were… less than marvelous goings-on happening inside. The hospital did not, treat patients with a kind and affirming hand. In fact, quite the opposite happened; patients were subjected to horrendous cruelty, experimentation, neglect, and humiliation — all of which were entirely socially acceptable at that point.
Patients came to Bethlem suffering from complaints such as “chronic mania” or “acute melancholy,” and people were just as likely to be admitted for crimes such as infanticide, homicide, and even “ruffianism.”was released i
Being admitted, then, didn’t necessarily mean a person was well on their way to being rehabilitated, since “treatment” at this facility implied little more than isolation and experimentation.
Patients were subjected to “treatments” such as “rotating therapy,” wherein they were seated in a chair suspended from the ceiling and spun as many as 100 rotations per minute.
The obvious purpose was to induce vomiting, a popular purgative cure for most ailments during this period. This was because medieval physicians believed that mental illness existed in the body and not in the mind and could therefore only be exorcised through rigorous activity.
Incidentally, the resulting vertigo in these patients actually contributed a large body of research in contemporary vertigo patients. At least their torture was not all for naught.
In 1728, James Monro became Bethlem’s chief physician, initiating a Monro family dynasty that lasted for roughly four generations. As the Monros shifted their focus from apothecaries to surgeons, treatment procedures grew worse. Patients were routinely beaten, starved, and dunked in ice cold baths.
Patients were also victim to bloodletting by leeches, cupping glass therapy, and the inducing of blisters. Treatment was so severe that the facility refused to admit patients deemed too meek to withstand it. Indeed, many did not survive.
Each form of “treatment” that patients were subjected to was worse than the last. When they weren’t being spun around in chairs or beaten before they were thrown in an ice bath, the staff attempted to literally—and disgustingly—expel their illnesses from their bodies. A doctor named William Black wrote that patients were placed in straitjackets and given laxatives, which was seen at Bethlem as one of the “principal remedies.” Hearing voices? Some explosive diarrhea oughta clear that up. Seizures? One diarrhea for you. Diarrhea for everyone!
In the end, though, it was a lack of funding and resources that explained why Bethlem became the notorious Bedlam.
As the hospital descended into mismanagement and chaos it became dependent upon government funding and patient donation.
It was poorly-funded by the government nonetheless and heavily relied upon the financial support of a patient’s family and private donors, but many of the patients admitted came from poverty or the middle class.
And uneducated as many of the patients were, they became victims not only to whatever mental infirmities they possessed but a society that was repelled by them. Indeed, the hospital was so notoriously abusive that it was even referenced in plays by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.
By the 18th century, Bedlam had become less of a hospital and more a sideshow. People actually came from all over to see the patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital, some even arranging holidays around it. The hospital saw 96,000 visitors a year.
Of course, none of these patients were actually “freaks,” but since Bedlam was so fiscally reliant upon the money guests would pay to see them, patients were certainly driven to behave outlandishly.
It wasn’t until more recently that researchers have learned just how disturbing the conditions at the hospital were. In 2013, construction workers at the hospital unearthed a startling mass grave of some 20,000 patients. The oldest date back to the 1500s.
In 1815, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses examined the conditions under which county asylums, private institutions, and charitable asylums treated their patients. The results were shocking.
The Principal Physician at Bedlam, Thomas Monro, was forced to resign when it was discovered that he was “wanting in humanity” toward his patients.
By the mid-1800s, a man named William Hood who had become a physician in residence at Bedlam decided the hospital needed to be completely changed. He hoped to create actual rehabilitation programs which would serve the hospital’s patients rather than the administrators.
Hood pushed for a separation between patients who were mentally ill and those institutionalized for crimes. He was later knighted for his service to this post.
During World War II, Bethlem Royal Hospital was moved to a more rural location, which was meant to improve the quality of life for its patients. The move also helped to rid the institution of its horrendous legacy. Though, thanks to the Museum of the Mind archives, we are able to get a glimpse of the haunted faces of Bedlamites, as seen throughout this article.
Many of them were photographed upon their admission, with a note or two about their “diagnosis.” One wonders, looking at these photos today, how many of these patients survived Bedlam — and if they did, if any of them were ever truly well again.
Though the historian Roy Porter called the Bethlem Hospital “a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,” a 1997 campaign to “reclaim” it has seen its terrible legacy be rewritten. Today, the hospital does not shy away from its disturbing history, and instead, features its own art gallery displaying work of current and former patients