Sunday, 15 October 2017

Strange Victorian Foods For The Poor  

                                                     Pretzel Vendors in the 1880s
Many of the foods we eat today would be very strange to our 19th century forebears, but those of you who still have family around who remember the great depression, or who spoke to their great-grandparents may have heard if some of these foods. I'm still willing to bet some of these will be a surprise to you.

Many lower-income families lived in tenements without kitchens or even fireplaces, making cooking impossible. Street food—the original fast food—sold by vendors kept body and soul together – though much of the fare seems odd by today’s standards. Here are some of the weird foods you could purchase if you invented a time machine, and possessed a curious palate and a strong stomach.

                                                                        Jellied Eels

Jellied eels originated on the East End of London during the Victorian Era. The dish was made with chopped eels that were boiled in a stock. The whole mixture was allowed to cool, causing the fats to set and congeal into a jelly. It was served cold. These can still be found in some parts of London and are considered a delicacy by some. I've never tried them.

Eels were imported from Holland, cut into pieces, and boiled. The juices were thickened with flour and parsley, and the whole thing seasoned with pepper and kept hot for sale. A portion of meat was served in a cup (the liquor separately). Customers could add vinegar if they chose. A scrape of butter cost extra. A customer had to eat his snack quickly, since the vendor needed the cup returned. If you were lucky, the vendor would dip the cup in a bucket of dirty water before service. Most of the time, he didn’t bother.


Hot drinks were popular in a world where drinking unboiled water was often risky. Saloop had been popular since the 1600s. It was a hot and supposedly nutritious, heavily sweetened drink made from ground orchid roots. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, the basis of the drink changed to sassafras bark, flavored with milk and sugar. Regardless, saloop was considered a delicious and starchy way to start or finish the day. If you were lucky, the beverage was made with the proper roots or bark, and not something like used tea leaves picked from the trash heap.

                                                               Sheep Trotters
Sheep’s trotters are exactly what they sound like: feet from a sheep. The Victorians liked to boil them at home when they couldn’t afford other meat. If you were out and about, though, this fried sheep’s trotters would be served by pretty much every single food vendor out there, right alongside a ham sandwich. A bit chewy, a bit bony, but the Victorians thought they were delicious. These I have tried. They didn't taste of much, but to people who rarely got any meat I can see that they were a change from a constant array of cheap vegetables.    

                                                          Calves head and feet

Our ancestors wasted nothing when it came to food. They used every scrap of meat and offal. Yep. Believe it or not, this was considered quite the delicacy.

According to a recipe in ‘The Accomplisht Cook’, this was how you cooked Calf’s Head:

Take a calves head, cleave it and take out the brains, skins, and blood about it, then steep them and the head in fair warm water the space of four or five hours, shift them three or four times and cleanse the head; then boil the brains, & make a pudding with some grated bread, brains, some beef-suet minced small, with some minced veal & sage…fill the head with this pudding, then close it up and bind it fast with some packthread, spit it, and bind on the caul round the head with some of the pudding round about it, rost it & save the gravy, blow off the fat, and put to the gravy; for the sauce a little white-wine, a slic’t nutmeg & a piece of sweet butter, the juyce of an orange, salt, and sugar. Then bread up the head with some grated bread; beaten cinamon, minced lemon peel, and a little salt.

Noticing a weird obsession with strange parts of the animal? The Victorians might have been obsessed with opulence and appearances, but they were also famous for being thrifty. In the Victorian Era, no part of the animal went to waste.

                                                              Water Souchy

“Water Souchy” is a fancy name for “seafood water”. To make water souchy, you go out fishing or look in your ice box and scrape together whatever seafood you can find, throw it in a pot, boil it with a couple parsley roots, some old wine, and vinegar if you have it, and voila! Water Souchy. A lot of the time, the soup ended up tasting a lot like mud, and a degree of caution was essential to consuming the dish, as the cooks rarely ever boned the fish.

If broxy kind of rhymes with “pox” it’s purely coincidental…or is it? Meat was pretty expensive during the Victorian Era, but besides beans and eggs, it was the most readily available protein. Poor families who couldn’t afford better cuts of meat bought broxy from a butcher instead. Broxy was a butcher’s term for any kind of meat, usually sheep, that had dropped dead of disease. Since sheep carried lots of communicable diseases, including tetanus, salmonella, and ringworm, you’d probably drop dead too once you ate broxy.


Though technically not a street food, I had to include this one on the list. Tuberculosis – then called consumption – was rampant at the time. It was believed that the fresh, hot blood of a slaughtered animal would build up the sick person’s constitution, alleviating the disease. Consumptives would line up in the slaughterhouse with cups ready to catch the blood, which was swallowed right away. If you were lucky, the animal was dead when the collecting began.

                                                                       Rice Milk

Rice “milk” was made by boiling rice in skimmed milk. A cupful was served hot with a spoonful of sugar and a sprinkle of allspice. The dish resembled a very thin, watery rice pudding. Cheap to produce, it was often sold by female vendors from a metal basin over a charcoal fire. Once again, customers consumed the portion while standing in the street. If you were lucky, the vendor wiped off the spoon before you ate with it.


A bloater (common enough to be painted by Van Gogh above) was a salted herring, cold smoked whole – head, eyeballs, guts and all. Hence the bloating. Vendors would impale the fish on a long fork and “toast” over a flame to cook it before selling to customers who consumed the whole gamey, soft, flabby thing. If you were lucky, the fish had roe in its belly cavity. If you were really lucky, the fish fell off the fork, a stray cat stole it, and you didn’t have to eat it.

                                                               Donkey's Milk

Regular cow’s milk was available in summer from vendors who had the animals on the street, udders ready to deliver. They also purchased skim milk from dairies for resale, carrying pails or milk cans in yokes across their shoulders. However, some customers preferred richer, more exotic beverages such as donkey’s or asses’ milk. A few women believed drinking this milk – or eating curds and whey (cottage cheese) – made them appear more youthful. If you were lucky, you got actual dairy – not a mixture of chalk and water.

                                              Pickled Oysters, Whelks, and Periwinkles

Most types of shellfish were a cheap source of protien but, shellfish has a distressing tendency to go off quickly – hence the popularity of pickling to preserve the goods as long as possible. When shellfish was sold fresh, about half of the customers preferred to eat it raw and still alive as opposed to boiled. If you were lucky, the oysters, whelks, etc., were relatively fresh when they went into the pickling solution.


Sunday, 8 October 2017

A Woman Scorned

When Laura Fair went on trial in 1871for murdering her double-crossing married lover, a morality play was acted out in a San Francisco courtroom that made headlines across the United States and became a national obsession.

by Chuck Lyons

Laurel Fair was born Laura Hall in Holly Spring, Mississippi on June 22, 1837. She was married for the first time when she was 16, and by 1863 had been married three times, widowed twice, and was supporting a young daughter. By then, she owned and was operating a hotel in Virginia City, Nevada, just as the Comstock Lode was making some people very rich.

That’s when Alexander Crittenden entered her life. 

A West Point graduate, a 47-year-old San Francisco lawyer, and a former California state legislator, Crittenden went to Virginia City to establish a law practice there and—he hoped—get in on the prosperity silver was bringing to the area. When he arrived he settled into the Tahoe House, Fair’s hotel, and by the end of 1863 the prosperous lawyer and the successful hotel owner were “involved,” were swearing undying love for each other, and were talking of marriage. .

Unfortunately, and probably without Fair knowing it, Crittenden was already married, a fact he had apparently forgotten to mention.

Even more unfortunate for Crittenden, in early 1864 his oldest son, a married (and pregnant) daughter, and his legally-wed wife showed up in Virginia City to take up residence with him. The cat, so to speak, was out of the bag. The lawyer was able to weather the storm, however, by promising he would divorce his wife and marry Fair. It would just take time, he said. Five years later, Crittenden was back in San Francisco living with his wife and family and continuing to “visit” Fair who had followed him to the Bay area.

Along the way, Crittenden had also sent Fair briefly to Indiana where, he said, divorce laws were more lenient.           

He would meet her there, he said, but never showed up.

By 1870, Fair had had enough and was said to have even fired a shot at Crittenden one night during an argument. She then took refuge where she had found it before—she got married to a man named Jesse Snyder, an act that upset Crittenden greatly. “I am wretched,” he wrote to Fair about her marriage, “insufferably, infinitely wretched. I have no heart or mind for anything—can think of nothing but you.”

The two reconciled and both promised to divorce their current spouse.

Fair did; Crittenden didn’t.


About this time, something gave way in Laura. She traded in the Colt revolver with which she taken the pot shot at Crittenden for a four-barrel Sharps derringer, dressed herself all in black—including a black veil, and followed Crittenden to the railroad station in Oakland.  There she witnessed Clara’s return from the East and what appeared to her to be a loving reunion with her husband.

Fair followed the couple and three of their seven children who had also come along to welcome their mother home as they boarded the El Capitan, a side-wheel steamer, for the trip back to San Francisco.  Obscured behind her veil, she took a seat where she could watch them. Finally, as the ferry was just heading out, she got up and walked over to Crittenden, who stood up as he approached. She shot him once in the chest, dropped the derringer, and walked away.

Crittenden’s son, 14-year-old Parker, and a policeman who happened to be aboard the ferry pursued Fair and confronted her in the ferry’s wheelhouse.

“I did it,” she was reported to have said.  “I don’t deny it. He has ruined me and my child, and I meant to kill him.”

In that at least she had succeeded.

Crittenden was taken to his San Francisco home where he lived for another 48 hours before dying.

The days of the “lawless frontier,” which was never completely lawless anyway, were coming to an end. By 1870 the West was changing, something Laura Fair was to learn the hard way.

She was used to being a woman in the male-dominated West and to getting her own way because of it. But Laura was in for a surprise. The West was changing, and she was charged with murder.

Delaying any action in Laura’s case was a question of jurisdiction. El Capitan was traveling between Alameda County and San Francisco County when the shooting took place and it was not immediately clear in which county the shooting had taken place. It took a survey of the harbor to determine that Crittenden had met his fate San Francisco County.

So it was five months before Fair went on trial in the San Francisco County Courthouse, a trial, one historian wrote, that “became a national sensation. It captured the fears of adulterous men everywhere, and drew the sympathy of women’s rights crusaders.” It was also, as a contemporary historian has put it, “a ritualized dramatic playing out of the moral values of the community.”

But what were those moral values?

For the suffragettes and early feminists who crowed the courtroom the trial was about the double standard that, they said, ruled Victorian morality, a standard that winked at men having affairs but considered adulterous women as house-wrecking harpies. For the good citizens of San Francisco it was about the “evil siren” who broke up a good family. One newspaper called her "a saucy wench."And for the West as a whole it was about the coming of order and law to the area.

The Trial

The trial that followed became a national obsession. It questioned women’s rights in 19th century American society and Victorian morality as it affected society in general and the West in particular. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony noted that “female hysteria,” a part of Fair’s defense, had long been used to subjugate women to men, and prosecutors claimed Fair’s action were the result of “sexual excesses.”

She knew about excesses.

The defense readily admitted that Fair had shot Crittenden but credited her actions to “partial intellectual insanity and partial moral insanity” due to the years of deceit—some called it abuse—she had suffered at the hands of Crittenden. She also suffered, the defense said, from “retarded menstruation,” a condition that caused her to be “out of her mind” for several days each month.

The defense argued further that Fair would not have killed Crittenden—and certainly not in such a public place—had she been sane. She had been overwhelmed by an irresistible impulse, it claimed, a theory that agreed more or less with the general Victorian concept of how women thought and acted.

The prosecution on the other hand pictured Fair as a seductress who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted and as a money-hungry adulteress. Several character witnesses portrayed Fair as a “loose woman,” and one of the prosecuting attorneys accused her of having the power of a “female Hercules transcending the power of all the men of the world."

After deliberating for something like 40 minutes, the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder.

Fair was sentenced to be hanged.

As one area newspaper put it commenting on the verdict, “The chastity of California womanhood, the sanctity of the home, and the Christian religion itself (have) been saved from the assaults of the ungodly.” The New York Times, taking a broader view, opined that “the very principles on which society and order are established seem to have crumbled away,” and the New York World wrote, ”It is in behalf of women like Mrs. Crittenden, and in despite of women like Mrs. Fair, that the divorce laws are kept stringent.” On the other hand Emily Pitts Stevens, founder of the California Woman Suffrage Association  wrote that if Fair were hanged “the very name of San Francisco will be odious for ages to come!"

But Fair was not hanged.

Her conviction was overturned on appeal for several more or less technical reasons including the admission of testimony about her “loose ways,” and she was granted a retrial. That trial found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

Laura Fair continued to reside in the Bay Area and died quietly there in 1919 at age 82.  She had been a subject of local gossip until something else came along to replace her in the public consciousness, had tried the lecture circuit to explain her side of things with limited success, and had appeared in 1873—under a different name—in the satirical novel The Gilded Age by the young Mark Twain.

She left behind her what is probably her last word on the subject: “When an American woman in justice avenges her outraged name, the act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists and libertines.”

Those who lived anyway.


San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Victorian craze that sparked a mini-sexual revolution

By Justin Parkinson

         A Victorian Valentine's card refers to Cupid wearing 'the nimble wheel' going 'a-RINKING'

Rollerskating is a long-established hobby, allowing for exercise and fresh air. But was its original popularity partly down to a desire for more romantic freedom?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that taking one's potential mother-in-law on a date is a questionable idea.
Pity the upper- and middle-class Victorians, whose every romantic move, at a dance or a soiree, was monitored by their elders.

There was little means of escaping this stultifying atmosphere until, in 1863, the American inventor James Leonard Plimpton patented a four-wheeled roller skate that was capable of turning. Skates had already been around for about 100 years, but were cumbersome because steering meant having to stop and pick up one's feet. Plimpton's innovation meant skaters could move easily in a circle.

Aware of the commercial possibilities, Plimpton opened the first rollerskating rinks in New York and Rhode Island. Promoted as family-friendly health and fitness venues, they grew in popularity.

                                         Plimpton's 1863 four-wheeled roller skate

By the mid-1870s, a craze for indoor rollerskating had come to Britain, with 50 rinks in place in London at one point. The press dubbed the phenomenon "rinkomania", but the healthy exercise that Plimpton had boasted of was not all that attracted the young "rinkers".

"The skating rink is the neutral ground on which the sexes may meet," reported Australia's Port Macquarie News of goings-on in London and elsewhere, "without all the pomp and circumstances of society. The rink knows no Mother Grundy, with her eagle eye and sharp tongue, for Mother Grundy dare not trust herself on skates, and so the rinker is happier than the horseman of whom Horace sang."

Holding hands and whispering sweet nothings became easier without Mother Grundy - a contemporary term for a stern matriarch - and her ilk tagging along. Prolonged eye contact with one's intended replaced stolen glances.

         A group of enthusiasts in 1876 gathers around a fellow skater who has fallen over

In 1876, it was satirically reported in Punch magazine that London's Royal Albert Hall, named after Queen Victoria's late husband and opened only in 1871 as a venue for the high arts, could itself become a rink. A cartoon in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in the March of that year joked: "If you would be my Valentine; On Plimpton rollers learn to shine." The composer Edward Hoffman created a piece called the Rinkomania Grand Promenade March.

The Lady's Letter from London column in the California Mail reported that rinkomania was "spreading with extraordinary rapidity, until every available space is threatened with being converted into an asphalted plain, on which young men and maidens... may spin and twirl about on wheels, attired in rink hats and the latest rink costumes".

Increasing popularity of the Roller Skate. George du Maurier cartoon from Punch, 18 March 1876I

Indeed, the clothing worn departed from the formality of the time. A craze for ice skating in the US had seen greater use of closer-fitting dresses for convenience. This transferred to the wheeled version.

It was hardly the sort of sexual revolution Britain and much of the rest of the Western world was to experience almost a century later, with the advent of "free love", mini-skirts and the pill, but at least it offered a little more freedom.

"If a youth possesseth good parts do they not shine to greater advantage in the whirring arena of wheels; if a maiden be graceful, doth not her grace become still more charmingly enhanced by the very poetry of motion?" asked the Port Macquarie News.

"Above all, does not roller skating recommend itself beyond all other pastimes, insomuch as even the first crude effort to strike a balance, not to say an attitude, is aided in the case of the fair sex by the gentle and respectful, yet firm and sufficient, support of some skilled cavalier, whose well-timed assistance and experienced counsels, smooth the rugged - no, that won't do - render less glacial the slippery path."

A path rendered less glacial was as much as the skilled cavaliers of mid to late-Victorian Britain could hope for. But rollerskating became less popular by the 1890s, with many rinks, built in a hurry at the height of the craze, going out of business.

                                                            John Joseph Merlin

John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian inventor, was the first recorded person to invent a roller skate, in London in about 1760
Merlin wore a pair of his new skates to a masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London. He was not a good skater and crashed into a large mirror, severely injuring himself

He had reportedly been trying to play the violin at the same time

In his 1897 book Social Transformations of the Victorian Age, Thomas Hay Sweet Escott looked back fondly at the 1870s, when he had been a young man. He recalled how the middle classes had "slipped about, and called it skating".
Most acquaintances between men and women had been "probably blameless. They often ended in blissful and desirable marriage. But not without a shock to her sense of maternal propriety did the English matron of old-fashioned ideas see, or hear of, her daughter being twirled round in the arms of some youth just introduced, or perhaps without even the preliminary of that easy form."

It's something young people today would take for granted. At the time it was truly revolutionary.


Punch Magazine
Port Macquarie News

Monday, 25 September 2017

Ghost Photography

The Victorians were huge fans of the paranormal and loved to combine it with their newest technology - Photography.


The first ‘ghost’ photographs were produced by accident and were a result of the long exposures required by the earliest photographic processes. If the subject moved during the exposure, they appeared in the finished photograph as a blurred, transparent, ghost-like figure.

              Portrait of Prince Arthur, 1854, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society                                                           Collection, National Media Museum

A portrait of one of Queen Victoria’s children, Prince Arthur, taken by Roger Fenton in 1854, clearly illustrates this effect. At the side of the young prince can be seen the ghost-like figure of his nurse who, obviously anxious that he might fall off the box on which he is posing, has moved into the frame part way through the exposure.

In 1856, the eminent scientist Sir David Brewster noted this unusual aspect of photography in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory and Construction:

“For the purpose of amusement, the photographer may carry us even into the realms of the supernatural. His art…enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture. While a party is engaged with their whist or their gossip, a female figure appears in the midst of them with all the attributes of the supernatural. Her form is transparent, every object or person beyond her being seen in shadowy but distinct outline.”


From the late 1850s onwards, ghost photographs were sold commercially, usually as stereocards. They were produced solely as novelties and amusements and no attempt was made to present them as genuine spirit photographs.

‘Ghost’ photographs were comparatively easy to produce and instructions on how to make them appeared in many publications, such as this example from Walter Woodbury’s book, Photographic Amusements.

                      Illustration from Walter Woodbury’s Photographic Amusements, 1896

“It is a very simple matter to make quite convincing ghost pictures…We must first prepare our ‘ghost’ by dressing someone in a white sheet. Then we pose the sitter and the ghost in appropriate attitudes and give part of the required exposure. Then, leaving everything else just as it is, we remove the ghost and complete the exposure. On developing the film, we find the sitter and the background properly exposed and only a rather faint image of the ghost, with objects behind it showing through on account of the double exposure.”

                                   Ghost, c. 1935, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum


Unfortunately, the ease with which novelty ghost photographs could be made, meant that the technique was soon abused by fakes and charlatans who used it to prey on the gullible and the vulnerable by taking ‘spirit’ photographs of their deceased loved ones.

In our collection we have an album of spirit photographs associated with William Hope and the ‘Crewe Circle’, unearthed in a second-hand bookshop by one of our curators.

This was the very first series of images that we uploaded to Flickr when we joined the Commons five years ago. Since then, our set of 23 spirit photographs has received a combined 1,227,347 views, with tags like ‘fraud’, ‘hoax’ and ‘fake’ added by Flickr members as frequently as ‘spiritualism’, ‘spectre’ and ‘paranormal’.

                                              Elderly couple with a young female spirit


Portrait of Prince Arthur, 1854, Roger Fenton © The Royal Photographic Society Collection
Elderly couple with a young female spirit, c. 1920, William Hope, Science Museum Group collection
Ghost, c. 1935, Kodak Collection, Science Museum Group collection

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Spinach Ice Cream And 5 Other Weird Victorian Recipes

 Laurence Scales 

The Victorian cookery writer Agnes Marshall (1855-1905) has faded from memory despite running a cookery school in Mortimer Street and, like Jamie Oliver, putting her name on every kind of saleable utensil. (Jelly moulds were particularly big just then.)
Marshall's cookery book of 1885 include recipes for fairly normal things such as coffee cake, cauliflower cheese and curried chicken — but there are some more problematic meals for the modern cook...

Turtle soup

Warning: Contains no mock turtle. But to make it easier Mrs Marshall says you can use sun-dried turtle.
Preparation time: The long Easter weekend should be just about enough.
Method: "Soak it in cold water for three days, constantly changing the water, then put it to cook for 10-12 hours in good stock.
"Add more stock as the pot reduces. Strain; thicken with arrowroot mixed in a wineglassful of sherry. Cut the turtle into pieces. Add a small tin of turtle fat. Flavour with lemon."

Iced cream with foie gras


Preparation: You need a mould in the shape of a duck. If you don’t have one we think one in the shape of anything else would probably taste the same.
A couple of other necessities Mrs Marshall suggests: "If you have glass eyes for the duck they give it a finished appearance."
Method: "Take one and a half pints of cream and season it with a pinch of cayenne pepper and a little salt; mix with it three quarters of a pint of liquid aspic jelly and freeze in the freezing machine until the mixture is setting, then line the duck mould with it. Fill up the centre with pâté de foie gras."

Beef and lark pie

Warning: You need a lot of larks; 36 are needed for a dinner party of six people.
Method: "Take some boned larks, fill them inside with a farce." (Don’t worry. It’s French. This farce is made of egg yolk, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, suet, herbs and nutmeg.)
"Fill them until plump. Take about 1lb of fillet of beef for every 12 larks."
The collective noun for larks is an exaltation, though at this point an exclamation of larks might be more appropriate.
"Sauté cubes of the beef for a few minutes. Add some stock, and the larks. Cover with puff pastry and bake for an hour and a half. Serve hot or cold for dinner, luncheon or breakfast."

                                        An advert for Mrs Marshall's cookery school.

Ox ears

Careful now. We would not want to make a pig’s ear of this, although Mrs Marshall says the pork version is just as good.
"Scald and remove the hair. Bring to the boil and rinse. Then, in a herb and vegetable stock, boil the ears for eight-10 hours. Press between two plates until cold. Now they are ready to cook.
"Cut each ear into three or four pieces, and steep in warm butter, season with a little fresh chopped mushroom that has been washed, a little chopped eschalot, parsley, thyme, bayleaf and mignonette pepper*, and dip into whole beaten up egg and into freshly made white breadcrumbs, and fry in clean boiling fat till a pretty golden colour."
*That’s something like a peck of pickled pepper.
Serving suggestion: Discard.

Iced cream with spinach

Warning: It might come as a bit of a shock if your guests were expecting pistachio.
Method: Bring some spinach to the boil with a pinch of soda. Strain off and press. Boil half a pint of milk and stir in on to four yolks of eggs, and put it on the stove again to thicken. To half a pint of this custard add a small dessert-spoonful of castor sugar, and a pinch of salt; mix with the spinach, pass through the tammy and freeze; add, when partly frozen, half a teacupful of whipped cream sweetened with a very slight dust of castor sugar.

Serving suggestion: Mrs Marshall says to arrange it in ‘cutlets’ with a border of iced cream made with sugar, orange flower water and vanilla. Why not? It can't be worse than some smoothies we have seen.

Ichthys fish sausage

Note to Mrs Marshall: Do not expect your customers to buy something that they cannot pronounce.
Actually, Mrs Marshall did not make these. They came from the factory in Hull of WP English, confusingly described in an ad as ‘sole manufacturer’ even though they were made from cod.
Serving suggestion: "They are excellent when fried in a little butter."
Is that all? Agnes must have had shares in the company.

Ice cream queen

But let's end on a high. As you'll have seen from a couple of the above recipes, Marshall was a great populariser of ice cream, for which she developed her own ice cream maker. Think of one you might get from Argos but made from planks — you can see one at the London Canal Museum.
She also invented the cornet, and even advocated using liquid air to make ice cream at a time when scientists were still busy trying to liquefy various gases for the first time.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Unwritten Laws of the Past and the Freedom to Kill 

Dan Sickles, congressman from New York, was married to the most beautiful woman in Washington but his other interests, including his mistresses, often kept him away from home. His lonely young wife, Teresa, found comfort in the arms of Philip Barton Key, D.C. District Attorney and son of poet Francis Scott Key. When Sickles learned of their affair he armed himself and confronted Key on the street. Blinded by rage he shot and killed his wife’s lover. Was it premeditated murder or temporary insanity?
                                                                 Teresa Sickles
When Daniel Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852, she was 15 years old, and he was 33. She was the daughter of his music teacher and had known Sicles all her life. Her family refused to give their consent to the marriage, but undeterred, the couple was married in a civil ceremony. Seven months later, their only child, Laura Buchanan Sickles was born. 

                                                                 Philip Barton Key

At the time of their marriage, Dan Sickles was an attorney and a New York Assemblyman, a rising star in the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine. Sickles also had a reputation as a ladies' man. Though he loved his beautiful young wife, he continued his extra marital affairs including a long term relationship with Fanny White, owner of a well-known New York brothel. If Teresa knew of these affairs, she chose to endure them in silence.

                                                                         Daniel Sickles

In 1856, Dan Sickles was elected to the U.S. Congress and moved his wife and young daughter to Washington D. C. The Sickles were very popular in Washington social circles. Teresa, beautiful, charming and well educated, was a perfect Washington hostess winning the admiration of men and women alike. But when they weren’t entertaining, Dan’s work and other interests kept him away and Teresa spent much of her time alone.

To ease her loneliness Teresa began spending time in the company of Philip Barton Key, Washington D. C. District Attorney and son of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner." It began as innocent meetings on the street but soon became a romantic affair. When Dan was away, their trysts would end in the parlor of the Sickles's home. Key rented a house in a poor section of Washington so they could meet in private and avoid detection.

In spite of Key's precautions, their affair became common knowledge in Washington's social circle. Dan Sickle seemed to be the only one in the city unaware of his wife's romance with Philip Barton Key. That situation changed when Sickles received an anonymous letter giving the details of Teresa's affair with Key stating "...I do assure you he has as much use of your wife as you do." Sickles investigated and when he was convinced the story was true he confronted Teresa and made her sign a complete confession.

The following day, Sunday February 27, 1859, Key, unaware that they had been discovered, stood in Lafayette Park, across the street from the Sickles' home waving a handkerchief to get Teresa's attention. Dan Sickles saw the signal and went into a rage. He armed himself with several pistols and rushed into the square saying "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die."

Sickles fired a pistol at close range but it only caused a glancing blow to Key's hand. Key grabbed Sickles lapels, Sickles dropped the derringer he was holding and the two men grappled. Sickles pulled away and drew another pistol. In defense, Key threw the only weapon he had, a pair of opera glasses, at his opponent. Sickles fired again, hitting Key near the groin. Key fell to the ground and Sickles fired a third shot that struck Key in the chest. Sickles backed off then and onlookers took Key to a nearby house. He died soon after. 

Trial: April 4-26, 1859

Dan Sickles had a team of high powered attorneys handling his case, including Edwin M. Stanton who later became Secretary of War. Sickles had the sympathy of Washington society, and if adultery could have been used as defense to murder he would have been easily acquitted. Instead, his attorneys argued that Teresa's infidelity had driven him temporarily insane. The jury agreed and for the first time in American history temporary insanity was successfully used as a defense to the charge of murder.

Verdict: Not guilty

Dan Sickles had the support of the public who felt his action against Philip Barton Key was justified. Opinion changed dramatically that summer when Sickles took Teresa back and the two lived together again as husband and wife. This was considered a greater transgression than killing Key. Teresa never regained her position in society. She died of tuberculosis in 1867. Sickles went on to be a Union Major General in Civil War and lost a leg at Gettysburg. He died in 1914 at the age of 94.

Compare this to the treatment of Mrs. Kate Southern

                          The sad case of Mrs. Kate Southern! The beautiful, virtuous Georgia
                          wife, who, being maddened to insanity by the outrageous taunts
                          of a bad woman who had enticed her husband away, killed her
                         (Philadelphia, Pa.: Old Franklin Pub. House, 1878). McDade 894.

Dozens of cases invoking the "unwritten law" would be heard in American courts by the end of the 19th century, homicidal jealousy was limited to men.   Any woman committing murder under similar circumstances would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  This became abundantly clear in the case of Kate Southern, a Georgia woman who was charged with murdering a rival for her husband's affections in early 1878.

                                     Images from an 1878 edition of the National Police Gazette.
According to the lurid news coverage,  Kate had married her husband, Bob Southern, despite the active opposition of Narcissa Fowler (frequently described in the newspaper coverage as a "woman of notoriously lewd character") who had been sexualyl intimate with Bob before, and after,  his marriage.   Though Kate knew about the affair and had been "unsettled and annoyed by the knowledge", she seemed determined to keep Bob and Narcissa as far apart as possible.    Narcissa actively tried undermining Kate's marriage, including starting scandalous rumours about her and saying that "they would have no peace or satisfaction as long as (Narcissa) lived."

                                 Images from an 1878 edition of the National Police Gazette.
A few months after Kate and Bob were married, Narcissa confronted Kate at a party where, under the influence of the whiskey she had been drinking, she began insulting Kate using what one witness later described as "epithets too vulgar and obscene to be written or spoken."   After finally provoking Kate into a fistfight, Kate's sister, Amorelli Hambrick got involved as well.   Though Narcissa likely had no idea that Kate was armed with a knife, she learned this quickly enough when Kate stabbed her repeatedly.  The newspaper coverage fails to mention whether Narcissa died at the scene or later but Kate promptly fled.   Joined by her husband and other members of her family, she became a fugitive until a posse eventually tracked her and her husband down.   After being returned to Pickens County where the stabbing occurred, Kate Southern was subsequently charged with murder.  Her sister was charged as an accomplice while her husband was charged with helping her escape.

The legal defense that Kate received at her trial was far less spirited than what Images from an 1878 edition of the National Police Gazette. managed to arrange.  Many observers accused Kate's lawyers of mismanaging her defense but their legal options were fairly limited.  There was certainly no question of seeking any kind of defense based on the "unwritten law."   Though husbands could claim that a wife's infidelity was an attack on their "personal honour", wives were expected to endure the extramarital affairs of their husbands in silence.   Women could claim self-defense if they were being raped but killing an unfaithful husband or the other woman typically led to a criminal conviction.  Presumably, the courts didn't feel comfortable giving wives the same "license to kill" that husbands enjoyed.

And so it was with Kate Southern.   It probably didn't help that her defense attorneys failed to launch much of  a defense on her behalf.   Many of the newspaper reporters commenting on the trial openly criticized the lawyers for not calling any witnesses on Kate's behalf or their failure to cross-examine many of the witnesses that were called.    All that they were able to come with was a half-hearted insanity defense which failed to convince the jury.  Her conviction hardly came as a surprise to anyone though the penalty handed down by the judge certainly was.   Kate Southern was sentenced to death by hanging.

Almost immediately after news of the sentence got out,  the campaign to save Kate's life began to mobilize.  Her attorneys mounted an appeal to Georgia's Governor to commute the sentence.   This included numerous depositions from Kate's family members (including her husband) which attempted to show that she was provoked into killing Narcissa.   It also helped that Kate had recently given birth and descriptions of Kate in prison with her baby where she awaited her execution helped the media campaign to save her life.  Petitions with thousands of signatures (mostly women) were sent pleading  for clemency.

The campaign worked.   Kate'a sentence was commuted to ten years in prison to be spent in a Georgia prison camp.  Her sister, Amorelli, was sent to the same camp to serve her own sentence.   Thousands of supporters came out to watch the train that would take Kate to prison.  As one newspaper description reported, "at all the towns through which the train passed, the people (ministers, gamblers, women, and all classes) crowded to the depots to see and express their sympathy for her, and at Atlanta, where a large purse was collected for her benefit, the excitement was so great that the car windows were broken."    Her husband found work near the prison and was even granted conjugal visits (Kate had two more children during her time in prison).    After serving only three years of her sentence, she was granted a full pardon and allowed to return home.

Kate Southern largely faded into obscurity after she was released but her case continued to generate controversy.  In the years that followed, more conservative newspaper editors accused Kate's supporters of allowing her gender to save her from execution and argued against granting clemency for women committing murder.  And there would  be no more clemency.   When Emma Simpson shot her estranged husband in 1919, believing that "the new unwritten law, which does not permit a married man to love another woman, will be my defense,"   even Clarence Darrow couldn't save her from being found "insane but guilty."

While the number of cases claiming the "unwritten law" became less frequent by the 1920s,  husbands committing murder to defend their "personal honour"  still used the defense well into the 20th century.  In many U.S. states, the law allowing husbands to kill "interlopers" was formally enshrined into legal statutes (thus making it the "written law").    When and where the law could be used became a major sticking point for many judges who insisted that husbands could only kill their wive's lovers if it was done in the "heat of passion."  If the husband allowed time for his anger to cool and to become more reasonable, then any homicide committed afterwards became "deliberate revenge" and he could be prosecuted.

In Texas, for example, one statute held that, "Homicide is justifiable when committed by the husband upon one taken in the act of adultery with the wife, provided the killing take place before the parties to the act have separated. Such circumstance cannot justify a homicide where it appears that there has been, on the part of the husband, any connivance in or assent to the adulterous connection."    In other words, the couple had to be caught in flagrante delicto for the killing to be legal (it was eventually repealed in 1974).  Other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, and Utah passed similar law, almost all of which would be repealed by the end of the 1970s.

Today, while husbands are no longer so free to kill to avenge "personal honour", the "temporary insanity" or "diminished capacity" defense is still around in one form or another.  Perhaps fittingly these days, it is more likely to be used by women on trial for murdering their husbands due to domestic abuse (a.k.a. the "battered woman defense") than vice-versa.   Whatever the status of "unwritten law" today however, defense attorneys are still known to use it during murder trials simply because it might work.  There is often no telling what a sympathetic jury might decide to do in cases where they regard the husband (or wife) as being fully justified in committing murder in the heat of passion.

And so, the legacy of Daniel Sickles and Kate Southern remains with us even today.


The National Police Gazette

Monday, 4 September 2017



The 1850 murder of Gustave Fougnies in Belgium is not famous because of the cleverness of his killers. Not at all. They - his sister and brother-in-law - practically set off signal flares announcing their parts in a suspicious death.
It's not famous because it was such a classic high society murder. The killers were the dashing, expensive, and deeply indebted Comte and Countess de Bocarmé. The death occurred during a dangerously intimate dinner at their chateau, a 18th century mansion on an estatein southern Belgium.
Nor it is remembered because the Comte died by guillotine in 1851 - so many did after all.
No, this is a famous murder because of its use of a notably lethal poison. And because the solving of this particular murder changed the history of toxicology, helped lay the foundation for modern forensic science. The poison, by the way, was the plant alkaloid nicotine. And it was chosen because at the time, no one - absolutely no one - knew how to detect a plant alkaloid in a dead body. During the unsuccessful prosecution of a morphine murder only a few years earlier, a French prosecutor actually started shouting about it in the courtroom: "Henceforth, let us tell would-be poisoners...use plant poisons. Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti (physical evidence) for it cannot be found."

                                  Note: Carbon (black), hydrogen (white), nitrogen (blue)
And that was certainly the idea when the Comte and his wife decided to murder her young brother for his money. That they could kill him with this very special poison. And never be caught.
We probably know nicotine best today for its role in creating the highly addictivechemistry of tobacco, a reason that so many people find it difficult to quit smoking even though the habit is so conclusively linked to disorders ranging from heart disease to lung cancer. The compound has such a potent effect on the brain that some researchers have even suggested that it provides a gateway for drugs such as cocaine. Others have wondered whether that potency could somehow be harnessed to good effect, as a treatment for disorders ranging from Alzheimer'sto depression, although its addictive nature makes such approaches obviously complicated.
But back in the 19th century, of course, there was no way to peel apart its neurochemicaleffects. What people did know was that nicotine was one lethal compound. Tobacco, a plant native to the Americas, had caught the attention of the Europeans during the 16th century. One of its strongest advocates was Jean Nicot de Villemain, the French ambassador to Portugal, who acquired plants and seeds from the Portuguese colony in Brazil and promoted their use during the 1560s. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, is named after him, as is the plant's primary alkaloid.
Nicotine was first isolated from tobacco leaves in 1828 by two German chemists, Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and Karl Ludwing Reinmann (its structure would be determined in 1893 and it would be first synthesized in 1904). Do you wonder what it's made of? Three of the most common elements on Earth - carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen - and this represents one of the things I like best about chemistry, the way nature takes the planet's ordinary ingredients and mixes them up to such varied effect. The formula for nicotine is a straightforward: C14H10N2. Of course, that underestimates its complexity. If you look at a 3D model of nicotine (frankly, these always remind me balloon art) you'll see what a clustering twist of compound it really is:
And it's that elegant arrangement that turns nicotine into such an effective poison, moving through the bloodstream with exceptional speed. When inhaled, nicotine travels from lung to brain in an estimated seven seconds. Toxicologists estimate that a fully smoked cigarette delivers about 1 mg of nicotine to the lungs; this compares to a lethal dose estimate of 30-60 mg. (For further comparison, the lethal dose range for arsenic is 70-200 mg.) The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) notes that: "Nicotine is one of the most toxic of all poisons and has a rapid onset of action. Apart from local caustic actions, the target organs are the peripheral and central nervous systems."
Obviously, again, people didn't know all that in earlier centuries. They wouldn't have called it a neurotoxin as we do today. But they did know that it was a poison that killed humans, pets and pests alike and by the 18th century, nicotine had become a very popular insecticide. That use has continued into modern times although pure nicotine pesticides have been gradually phased out due to their broad spectrum toxicity. (Their replacements, neonicotinoide pesticides, which have a chemically similar but theoretically less dangerous structure are now under fire as contributing to the widespread collapse of bee colonies). It's worth noting that because they're based on plant chemistry, pure nicotine poisons have been acceptable to the U.S. government for use by organic farmers treating insect infestations. And also that these same pesticides have occasionally turned up in more recent homicide investigations and in one unnerving2003 mass poisoning incident in Michigan.
We know about those poisonings, these successful murders and these attempted ones, because of what we learned from that bungled murder in Belgium more than 150 years ago. With the help, of course, of one completely obsessive chemist named Jean Servais Stas.

As the story goes, Comte Hyppolyte de Bocarmé rather fancied himself a chemist also. He built a laboratory in the wash house of his rambling estate, ostensibly for the purpose of brewing up perfumes. But in the summer of 1850 - according to one of the gardeners - he also bought an astonishingly large quantity of tobacco leaves and stored them in a barn. Slowly the leaves began to disappear though.
The count's wife, Lydie, was the daughter of a wealthy apothecary and she, like her husband, enjoyed an extravagant life style. The couple became famous for wild parties and hunting sprees - and for living beyond their income. They both counted on a large inheritance when her father died. But the old man left almost all his money to his son, Gustave. The brother, long-troubled by ill health, made his own will, handily leaving all to his sister. And the Bocarmés continued living on their expectations - but with increasing impatience.
By the fall of 1850, as it would turn out, the Comte had distilled two large vials of pure nicotine from his tobacco leaves. Investigators would also later discover the bodies of farm cats and birds that he'd apparently used to test his poison. If you spend any time studying poisoners, you learn that they are by nature planners and plotters and patient with it. So who knows how long he might have waited on his brother-in-law's ill health. But Gustave forced his hand - he decided to get married.
On the night of November 20, 1850, the 32-year-old Fougnies was invited to a celebratory dinner at his sister's home. As the servants testified, everything about the evening was, from the beginning, odd. The children, who usually ate with the family, were instead sent away to the nursery. The countess insisted on serving the meal herself when normally she liked to be waited upon. One servant said he heard a call for help; all heard the thump of a body hitting the floor.
And then the comte and countess poured vinegar down the dead man's throat and washed his body as well in that mild acid. They scraped the floor; the comte's clothes were sent to be washed. His shirt was burned to ash. The conspiring couple announced that her brother had suddenly dropped dead of a stroke. But no one could help but notice that the dead man's face was bruised, cut, and appeared burned by some caustic substance (pure nicotine is, in fact, corrosive). Unnerved, the chateau's servants took the unusual step of contacting the authorities - in this case, a local priest - themselves. The priest contacted a magistrate who took one look at the battered body and summoned the police.
Their investigation led the police to suspect that Fougnies had been poisoned with nicotine. But everything, the tobacco leaves, the laboratory, even the dead animals made only a chain of circumstantial evidence. At the start of the 19th century, no tests existed that could detect a poison in corpse. In the 1830s, the British chemist James Marsh had developed the first procedure for detecting the metallic poison arsenic in a body. But the Marsh testrequired that the tissue be destroyed and, as it turned out, that destructive process also destroyed the more fragile plant alkaloids like nicotine. No test had been developed by 1850 to overcome that problem.
The magistrate decided to take his problem to Jean Servais Stas, the country's best chemist, famous, in particular, for his work with atomic weights. Stas found himself infuriated by this perversion of chemistry. He retired to his Brussels laboratory with organ tissues from Fougnies' body and he began a series of experimentsthat lasted three full months. Chemists can also be patient, after all. And in that time period, he managed to figure out a method using ether, acetic acid and ethanol (for preservation), that enabled him to extract the oily liquid of nicotine from the preserved tissues. His approach has been updated since, but the Stas-Otto method remains a fundamental part of toxicology today.
It's not surprising then that Comte de Bocarmé was found guilty, executed on July 19, 1851. His last request was for a clean death; he asked that the blade be very sharp. His wife, Lydie, claimed that she'd acted solely out of fear of her husband and was found not guilty. Also, perhaps, not surprising. Little is known of her life afterwards. We barely remember her, her husband, even her poor dead brother. But perhaps we should try. They - these incompetent killers, this nicotine murder - changed our lives. This poison and this crime broke down one of the largest barriers in toxicology and helped lay the foundation for the profession of forensic chemistry that we know today.

Images: 1) Murderpedia 2)Wikimedia Commons