Have you ever unknowingly made candles out of a dead body? This might seem impossible, but it’s exactly what physician Augustus Bozzi Granville did. In 1821, in the midst of Victorian Egyptomania, he had a chance to unwrap, dissect, and thoroughly examine an ancient mummy. During the process, he discovered a wax-like substance surrounding the mummy, which he thought to be a mix of beeswax and bitumen used by Egyptian embalmers. In reality, he came across adipocere (commonly known as corpse wax), a product of saponification of fatty tissues.
In his autobiography, Granville sums up his discovery: “I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction.”
He was so sure of his discovery, that he used the very same ancient “wax” to prepare a set of small candles to beautifully illuminate his lecture on the mummy at the Royal Institution.
To further support his claims regarding the mummification method, Granville experimented with preserving body parts of stillborn children with the use of wax “according to the Egyptian method”. All of his specimens can still be seen at the British Museum.
Bored with your old trinkets? Want to surprise your coworkers during the next Zoom meeting? Well, look no further, because Victorians have what you need – hair jewelry! And we don’t mean hair accessories, we’re talking about jewelry pieces made of actual human hair. Earrings, rings, necklaces, brooches, you name it – everything can be woven out of hair or at least contain locks of hair.
The practice was prevalent throughout the Victorian era, with higher classes adopting the trend first thanks to goldsmiths and other artisans offering high-quality jewelry that could be personalized by adding a beloved person’s hair and precious materials. Such mementos could not only be a way to keep your family and friends close, but also objects of mourning. The mourning hair jewelry became especially common after the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria decided to wear a locket of Albert’s hair around her neck, thus popularizing this way of showing love for the deceased. Around the same time, hair work became a common pastime for women of lower classes. Ladies would learn how to create these intricate items from each other or could use patterns printed in women’s magazines.
The topic of this week’s comic was suggested by IG @sewing_ducky, who also became one of the characters! If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on VeinityFair Patreon or try your luck in the next giveaways
Photo manipulation is as old as photographs themselves!
The Victorians came up with several clever tricks to make photographs more entertaining, e.g., they used photomontage and combination printing to produce headless portraits, inspired by popular stage magicians. Double exposure was also used to add objects not present in the original exposure, such as ghostly figures or floating items. Unfortunately, some people used these techniques in a more questionable way.
A few photographers started working as mediums and marketed their spirit photographs as evidence of the afterlife. The spiritualist movement quickly adopted the use of spirit photography and published numerous books on the subject.
If you’ve ever visited an old Scottish kirkyard, you might have stumbled upon an iron or stone contraption protecting a grave. They are called mortsafes and many people think they were used by their superstitious ancestors to keep the dead inside their coffins. While it is true some Victorians believed in vampires and other supernatural beings, the truth behind the mortsafes is even more interesting than the myth. These heavy objects were placed on the grave or encapsulated a coffin (in a form of a cage) to protect the dead from resurrectionists, in other words body snatchers, who would dig up fresh bodies and sell them to surgeons.
The most famous resurrectionists of the time were Burke and Hare who supplied a surgeon named Robert Knox in the early 19th century. These grave robbers (and later murderers) conducted their activities in Edinburgh, the leading center of anatomical study at the time, which is probably the reason why most of the surviving mortsafes can be found in Scotland. The iron cages and other contraptions were expensive, so it was popular to “rent” a mortsafe and reuse it for a different grave in several months, once a body was decomposed and therefore useless for anatomists. The popularity of mortsafes started to diminish after the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832.
The Victorians are known for their obsession with death and elaborate mourning practices, something that was undoubtedly influenced by the high mortality rate of the times. ☠️ The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 allowed them to explore mortality and grief through a new medium – post-mortem photography. 📸Families would have their pictures taken with dead relatives lying peacefully in a bed or, more unusually, posed in a life-like manner on a chair. Some resources even claim that special metal constructions could be used to make the corpses ‘stand” for the photo, however, this is more likely just a myth fueled by misinterpreted 19th-century pictures.
While post-mortem photography might seem morbid today, it’s worth remembering that these photos were often the only images that people had of their loved ones: first photographs were costly, not easily available, and required long exposure time. These photos were valuable family keepsakes. 💜
While there are a few online collections of post-mortem photography, you can also check out this video on debunking the “standing corpse” photographs: Ask a Mortician
While it might seem morbid today, children playing funeral were not a rare sight in the Victorian era. ⚰️⚰️ It was a reflection of the times – high mortality rate meant that children often witnessed death in their families, not only of grandparents and parents but also siblings.
Special doll sets containing small coffins and mourning fabrics were sometimes given to girls, who would then practice dressing the doll, laying it in the coffin, and performing other tasks connected with a funeral, like attending the mourners. 🧸 ⚰️🧸 ⚰️
Check out this fragment of an “Ask a Mortician” episode for more info (some dolls in the video are a bit disturbing, feel warned).
The Egyptomania that took over Europe in the 19th century caused a few disturbing trends in society. One of them were so-called unwrapping parties, during which people would observe or even take part in unwrapping ancient mummies, stealing the valuables they could find, or even dissect what was left of the body for “souvenirs” or magic-like medicine. Such parties were supposedly happening in London.
While some scholars today question whether such parties really happened, we can be quite sure that at least one person – surgeon Thomas Pettigrew – was fond of such gatherings, turning them into bizarre shows.
Victorian mourning veils were popular accessories worn by grieving women. ⚰️ The veils could be as long as six feet and were traditionally made out of black crape, a scratchy fabric believed to be the most appropriate for mourning. 🖤
Unfortunately, some of the black dyes (like logwood dye) used in the production were quite poisonous, 🐍 causing a variety of ailments from light rashes to serious respiratory problems. Widows were especially affected by these dangers as the Victorian society expected them to wear crape veils for at least a year and a day during the so-called deep mourning stage.