Veinity Fair is finally back! I missed you guys and I hope you’re ready for some more Victorian trivia and peculiar comics!
Let’s start just where we left off, with topics chosen by a few lucky winners of previous contests and auctions. Today’s comic was inspired by the winner of a local charity auction who took on the role of our early Victorian investigator.
The famous Scotland Yard was formed in 1829, but the Metropolitan Police was far from organized in its infancy. In the beginning, the MP was merely keeping watch on the streets and investigation procedures were just being formed, relying primarily on the so-called “story model” rather than the meticulous practices we’re used to today. Because of that, even crime scenes were often left unattended, with curious crowds peeking in and collecting ‘souvenirs’, as in the below example:
The Examiner 11.12.1831
THE DISEASED APPETITE FOR HORRORS,
“The landlord upon whose premises a murder is committed, is nowadays a made man. The place becomes a show—the neighbourhood as the scene of a fair, The barn in which Maria Martin was murdered by Corder, was sold in toothpicks: the hedge through which the body of Mr. Weare was dragged, was purchased by the inch. Bishop’s house bids fait to go off in tobacco-stoppers and snuffboxes; and the well will be drained—if one lady has not already finished it at a draught —at the rate of a guinea a quart. (…)”
Happy New Year! What did you do for New Year’s Eve? Maybe you spent the night at a fancy dinner party inside a giant concrete Iguanodon, surrounded by prominent scientists? That’s exactly what Richard Owen, a paleontologist famous for coining the word Dinosauria, did on 31 December 1853. The party took place at The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, and the Iguanodon was a part of a larger exhibition of dinosaur models sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under Owen’s scientific direction. The lavish dinner consisted of eight courses and the whole event was reportedly quite boisterous.
It is not entirely clear whether the scientists spent the night inside of the model itself or rather the mould in which it was made. What is clear though is the fact that Owen’s Iguanodon was not scientifically correct, even given the research available at the time. His rival and the discoverer of the Iguanodon, Gideon Mantell, came to the conclusion that the animal was a reptile of a slender build, not a heavy mammal-like creature Owen believed it to be. Unfortunately for Mantell, Owen was a fame-driven creationist who did not hesitate to steal specimens and research from other scientists, bend data to fit his own agenda, and publish negative reviews of his colleagues’ work behind their back. Plagued by opium addiction he developed after a carriage accident, Mantell was no match for the cunning rival.
On 10 November 1852, Mantell died of an opium overdose, leaving Owen completely free to prepare the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures according to his own vision. The post-mortem showed that Mantell had been suffering from severe scoliosis. A section of his spine was removed from the body stored at the Royal College of Surgeons, where no other but Richard Owen was the conservator at the time.
On December 26, 1882, certain James A. Williams was granted a patent for a rather peculiar invention: an animal trap with a spring-loaded firearm. In his patent application, Williams described how the contraption worked:
“[I]t consists in the combination of a suitable frame upon which a revolver or pistol is secured, a treadle which is secured to the front end of this frame, and a suitable spring and levers, by which the firearm is discharged when the animal steps upon the treadle (…) The object of my invention is to provide a means by which animals which burrow in the ground can be destroyed, and which trap will give an alarm each time that it goes off, so that it can be reset.”
Of all the 19th-century ideas on how to deal with pests, this must be one of the most dramatic and over-the-top! The Texan inventor went even further and noted that “[t]his invention may also be used in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.”
If you happen to be near PEI in Canada, make sure to check out the “Cabinet of Killer Curios” exhibit in the Eptek Art & Culture Centre! The exhibit features deadly & creepy Victorian objects from the collections of the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation, and a little bird told me a few Veinity Fair prints make their appearance as well!
In the early 1880s, an electric light revolution started to take over big American cities. Two electric power transmission systems were introduced: street lamps utilizing high-voltage alternating current (AC) and indoor lighting using low-voltage direct current (DC). The latter was heavily promoted by Thomas Edison, especially when his company was suddenly threatened by new competition: George Westinghouse and his transformers and wire system enabling AC to be used for indoor lighting. The introduction of this new system started the so-called war of the currents, in which the Edison Electric Light Company tried to besmirch Westinghouse’s name and solutions by sparking fear in the public. And while at the time it was true the AC system could be extremely dangerous, the actions taken by some of the people involved were questionable to say the least and involved lying to the press, blackmail, and even killing animals.
This comic was inspired by Andrzej who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.
Many Victorians enjoyed sugary treats in amounts unimaginable to the previous generations. This combined with poor hygiene and dentistry only in its infancy caused high levels of tooth decay. In many cases the rotting teeth couldn’t be saved and had to be extracted, leaving people with rather toothless smiles. Not all was lost though, at least not to those who could afford a nice set of dentures.
Replacement teeth were traditionally made of ivory (like walrus, hippopotamus, or elephant), but could be prone to breaking and discoloring. A better solution turned out to be making ivory-based dentures set with … real human teeth. There were a few popular ways to obtain those: buying them from the poor, forcing them out of unfortunate victims (often enslaved people), and using resurrectionists’ services to dig up some teeth from graves or ransack casualties at battlefields. It is said that one of the biggest teeth scavenging took place after the Battle of Waterloo, giving the name to “Waterloo teeth”.
19th-century ‘Ambition Pills’ were supplements for men that promised to get rid of a variety of problems: impotence, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, and nervous debility. Unsurprisingly, a few decades after the introduction of those pills, a study found that their ingredients were questionable. In 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that each pill contained “a little over one-thirtieth of a grain of strychnin” and that it was “possible for any one to purchase enough strychnin in a single box of Wendell’s Ambition Pills to kill an adult.”
I know you’ve all been waiting for the great comeback of our favorite poison – arsenic.
In 1874, a surprising medical case investigated by doctor Wintreberg was described in “Revue de Thérapeutique Médico-Chirurgicale.” One of Wintreberg’s patients was suffering from recurring and painful anal ulcers, and there was no indication as to what could have caused them. Lotions, enemas, special diet – nothing helped for long. After some time it turned out that a few other members of the family started experiencing the same symptoms, which gave Wintreberg a clue as to what was going on. After a brief “investigation” it turned out the culprit was … green poster paper the family used in their latrines. Tests confirmed that the poster paper contained copper arsenite! Fortunately, it was enough for the family to throw the paper away to ease their symptoms.
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.
The majority of Victorians had little knowledge on how diseases spread and what to do to treat them. Even the most educated ones were divided between the miasmatic theory and the germ theory of disease for decades; and physicians’ advice could be wildly contradictory.
Add to that hundreds of ‘cure-all’ drugs, which often were more harmful than the diseases themselves, and we get a picture of utter chaos and misinformation. No wonder many Victorians decided to trust more traditional remedies to which they were used, even if it meant using bizarre ingredients. One of the favorite traditional remedies were liquids and ointments with… earthworms. These products were used for bruises and were based on a recipe that had been around from medieval times! The worms were first boiled in oil and then broken up in a mortar and mixed with wine and other ingredients. Then the mixture was boiled and used in a liquid form on the bruises.