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.
You can find his and other bizarre stories about arsenic in “Kolor śmierci, odcień grobu czyli 50 odcieni morderczej zieleni” by a friend of mine, Wiktoria Król. Unfortunately, the book is only available in Polish right now, but who knows what the future holds!
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.
A baffling cough medicine recipe from Constance Moore’s “Hints on Health from the Victorians.” It goes without saying that you should NOT try it!
Do you suffer from headaches, sadness, low energy, high energy, hearing loss, anxiety, pain, hallucinations, or any other problem AND you have a uterus? This can only lead to one diagnosis: hysteria! Hysteria (from the Greek hystera = uterus) began as the idea of the uterus moving around the body, causing all sorts of physical and mental troubles on the way. The first mentions of the wandering womb date back to 1900 BC. Throughout the ages, hysteria remained an umbrella diagnosis for a variety of issues women faced, from more ‘reasonable’ ones (different ailments) to everything seen as ‘unwomanly’ behaviors, like being short-tempered, not wanting to marry, or not being interested in having children.
As the history of hysteria spans thousands of years, the exact nature of the illness varies depending on the time period we’re looking into. Apart from the wandering womb, other reasons for hysteria included the imbalance of humors in the uterus, too much sex, not enough sex, childlessness, and even … demonic possession. Many beliefs, folk medicine, and superstitions surrounding these ideas survived in the minds of common folk for centuries, even when more scientific methods were taking hold.
The shift from the physical to more psychological background of hysteria in the 18th and 19th century was a small step forward, however, as it was still a catch-all diagnosis for diseases that should have been studied separately and, unfortunately, often a tool for controlling women who did not want to conform to the societal expectations. In extreme cases, ‘hysterical’ women were forced to spend the rest of their lives in asylums or undergo completely unnecessary surgical hysterectomies. The unwillingness of physicians to study female medical problems and sexuality combined with the blind belief in the well-established practices of the past led to the creation of dozens of bizarre therapies and cures, which we’ll be exploring in the following weeks.
In the summer of 1858, Victoria and Albert took a leisurely cruise down the Thames, unprepared for the severity of the Great Stink. It is said that they lasted on board only a few minutes, despite bringing scented handkerchieves with them. 🙊🙊
If you missed my previous post on the Great Stink itself, check it out!
Also, here’s an awesome video on the Great Stink!
The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢
The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.
In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩
When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰
This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜
Don’t forget to check out this awesome video on the Great Stink!
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 Great Book Scare was a period between 1880 and 1920 when the general public was obsessed with the idea that library books were a major source of epidemics. 📚😱
Even though the evidence for this was small, especially compared to other potential disease sources, many in the U.S and the U.K. believed that library books could spread everything from tuberculosis to smallpox. 🦠🦠 The authorities and doctors alike started to come up with ideas on how to limit the risk such as treating books with vapors from heated carbolic acid crystals, using formaldehyde, and … just completely destructing books if they had come into contact with a sick person. 😷
Finally, the fear has died out after it turned out that library workers and patrons weren’t really getting sick more often than others. You can read more about these regulations in this article.