Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments of the 1800s

Why scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries conducted crude experiments with reanimating corpses.


In this 1867 illustration, a crowd of scientists watch in horror as Andrew Ure makes the lifeless body of Matthew Clydesdale tremble and twitch with electricity.

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1818, SCOTTISH chemist Andrew Ure stood next to the lifeless corpse of an executed murderer, the man hanging by his neck at the gallows only minutes before. He was performing an anatomical research demonstration for a theater filled with curious students, anatomists, and doctors at the University of Glasgow. But this was no ordinary cadaver dissection. Ure held two metallic rods charged by a 270-plate voltaic battery to various nerves and watched in delight as the body convulsed, writhed, and shuddered in a grotesque dance of death.

“When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger,” Ure later described to the Glasgow Literary Society, “the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”

Ure is one of many scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries who conducted crude experiments with galvanism—the stimulation of muscles with pulses of electrical current. The bright sparks and loud explosions made for stunning effects that lured in both scientists and artists, with this era of reanimation serving as inspiration for Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. While most scientists were using galvanism to search for clues about life, Ure wanted to see if it could actually bring someone back from the dead.

“This was a time when people were trying to understand the origin of life, when religion was losing some of its hold,” says Juliet Burba, chief curator of the exhibit “Mary and Her Monster” at the Bakken Museum in Minnesota, which will open October 29. “There was a lot of interest in the question: What is the essence that animates life? Could it be electricity?”

                                    A sketch of Luigi Galvani's 1780 frog muscle experiment.  

In 1780, Italian anatomy professor Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch and jerk with sparks of electricity. Others quickly began to experiment by applying electricity to other animals that quickly grew morbid. Galvani’s nephew, physicist Giovanni Aldini, obtained the body of an ox, proceeding to cut off the head and use electricity to twist its tongue. He sent such high levels of voltage through the diaphragm of the ox that it resulted in “a very strong action on the rectum, which even produced an expulsion of the feces,” Aldini wrote.   

People outside of science were also fascinated by electricity. They would attend shows where bull heads and pigs were electrified, and watch public dissections at research institutions such as the Company of Surgeons in England, which later became the Royal College of Surgeons.

Scientists like Aldini would put on shows, electrifying cow heads and making their tongues writhe and twitch.

When scientists tired of testing animals, they turned to corpses, particularly corpses of murderers. In 1751, England passed the Murder Act, which allowed the bodies of executed murderers to be used for experimentation. “The reasons the Murder Act came about were twofold: there weren’t enough bodies for anatomists, and it was seen as a further punishment for the murderer,” says Burba. “It was considered additional punishment to have your body dissected.”

Lying on Ure’s table was the muscular, athletic corpse of 35-year-old coal miner, Matthew Clydesdale. On August 1818, Clydesdale drunkenly murdered an 80-year-old miner with a coal pick and was sentenced to be hung at the gallows. His body remained suspended and limp for nearly an hour, while a thief who had been executed next to Clydesdale at the same time convulsed violently for several moments after death. The blood was drained from the body for half an hour before the experiments began.

                  The 1751 Murder Act allowed scientists to run experiments on corpses of prisoners.

Andrew Ure, who had little to no known experience with electricity, was a mere assistant to James Jeffray, an anatomy professor at the University of Glasgow. He had studied medicine at Glasgow University and served briefly as an army surgeon, but was otherwise known for teaching chemistry. “Not much is known about Ure, but he was sort of a minor figure in the history of science,” says Alex Boese, author of Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments. One of Ure’s main accomplishments was this single bizarre galvanic experiment, he says. 

Others, such as Aldini, conducted similar experiments, but scholars write that Ure was convinced that electricity could restore life back into the dead. “While Aldini contented himself with the role of spasmodic puppeteer, Ure’s ambitions were well nigh Frankesteinian,” wrote Ulf Houe in Studies in Romanticism.

Ure charged the battery with dilute nitric and sulphuric acids five minutes before the police delivered the body to the University of Glasgow’s anatomical theater. Incisions were made at the neck, hip, and heels, exposing different nerves that were jolted with the metallic rods. When Ure sent charges through Clydesdale’s diaphragm and saw his chest heave and fall, he wrote that “the success of it was truly wonderful.”

                                                       An engraving of Andrew Ure.

Ure’s descriptions of the experiment are vivid. He poetically noted how the convulsive movements resembled “a violent shuddering from cold” and how the fingers “moved nimbly, like those of a violin performer.” Other passages, like this one about stimulating muscles in Clydesdale’s forehead and brow, are more macabre:

“Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean,” wrote Ure, comparing the result to the visage of tragic actor, Edmund Kean, and the fantastical works of romantic painter Henry Fuseli. He continued: “At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.”

The whole experiment lasted about an hour. “Both Jeffray and Ure were quite deliberately intent on the restoration of life,” wrote F.L.M. Pattinson in the Scottish Medical Journal. But the reasons for the lack of success were thought to have little to do with the method: Ure concluded that if death was not caused by bodily injury there was a probability that life could have been restored. But, if the experiment succeeded it wouldn’t have been celebrated since he would be reviving a murderer, he wrote.

Two demons hover behind a galvanized corpse, one chuckling: "There! We've lost him after all. See! They are bringing him to life again!"

Mary Shelley was aware of the types of scientific experiments researchers were toying with at the time. “Science was something that the public paid attention to,” says Burba. “There was a lot of crossover, so there were poets who knew a lot about science and scientists who wrote poetry.”

Two years before Ure conducted the experiment, Mary Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein, and published the novel in 1818, the same year as Ure’s experiment. By sheer coincidence, Victor Frankenstein also brought the monster to life “on a dreary night of November.” However, unlike Ure, the scene of the creature’s resurrection is brief and vague, with no mention of the word “electricity.” Shelley wrote that Frankenstein “collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

Some historians have hypothesized that Shelley was inspired by other medical procedures being studied at the time, including blood transfusion and organ transplants. It isn’t until later in her introduction of the 1831 edition of the book that Shelley mentions galvanism: “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

                   A steel engraving of Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

It’s unclear whether Frankenstein further encouraged Ure or others to dapple in galvanic experimentation, or if Shelley was particularly struck by any one experiment. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and these galvanic experiments happened in tandem, Burba explains, pointing out that the language in the novel reflects that of scientists of that era. “Both of these things were happening within a cultural milieu where there was great interest in electricity as well as the effects of electricity on bodies—whether electricity might be the ‘spark of being’ that animates life.” 

No actual scientific knowledge or data came from Ure’s experiment, yet he still enthusiastically lectured about his experience. He wrote up the results in a pamphlet, which was seen as “publicity of the crudest kind,” W.V. Farrar wrote in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. “This rather ‘Gothick’ experiment, reported in such appropriate literary style, no doubt made Ure’s name better known.”

These animated and horrifying displays eventually went out of style as sectors of the public began to view them as evil and “satanic in nature.” Electricity’s first rudimentary experiments on the body did make way for resuscitation technologies such as defibrillation, but the focus is now on saving lives, not reanimating a long-dead corpse.

It all started with a little frog muscle experiment, one that anatomy students still conduct in labs today. 

“Traditionally, we overlook horrors in the name of science,” says Boese. “We have codes of what’s acceptable behavior in normal everyday life, but people put on a lab coat and there are totally different codes of conduct that seem to apply. These scientists in the early 18th century were gentleman, upstanding members of society, yet they’re doing these things that seem totally sociopathic and bizarre.”

Some of their experiments on non-human animals have stood the test of time, however. Students in biology classes still conduct Galvani’s famous frog muscle experiment today.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

The First Lady Of San Quentin - Mary Von

                                                                       Mary Von

Shayne Davidson

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

          Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour — Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money — something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand — the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco — it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

                                                              San Quentin circa 1900

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Featured photo: Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Daniel Dunglas Home Magician or Psychic?

by Stephen Wagner
                          Did D. D. Home truly possess extraordinary paranormal abilities?

Daniel Dunglas Home was the most celebrated medium of the 19th century. Although his name is not very well known today, he astonished audiences, friends, heads of state, and the rich and famous with startling paranormal feats and levitation. His seemingly impossible powers bewildered those who witnessed them, including many respected scientists and journalists.

Or was he a gifted magician, far ahead of his time, who was able to fool even the closest of observers with slight of hand and magician's illusions? Although there were certainly many skeptics among his contemporaries who denounced him as a clever fraud, they could never really prove how he accomplished his many incredible demonstrations. To this day, there is much mystery surrounding Home.


Home (pronounced "Hume") was born in 1833 in Currie, Scotland. Like many people who seek the public spotlight or a presence in "show business," Home seems to have exaggerated or fabricated details of his early life and heritage. For example, he was baptized as Daniel Home and seems to have adopted the middle name of Dunglas. Although he claimed to that his father was the bastard son of the tenth earl of Scotland, his father was actually an ordinary laborer and, by some accounts, an abusive drunk.

As a baby, he was adopted by an aunt and at age nine was brought to America where his new family settled in Connecticut.

Home may also have created some myths about his childhood. He said that as an adolescent he began to experience premonitions. At age 17, poltergeist activity would occur when he entered a room: mysterious raps would be heard and furniture would move by itself.

Were these stories Home made up to enhance his mystical persona, or were they early signs of unexplained abilities that Home would later be able to control?

Although he had little formal education, as an adult Home could converse intelligently on a number of subjects, could play the piano, and developed an easy wit and charm that facilitated his profession as a "professional house guest." It was at this time that his remarkable abilities came to prominence. His early reputation as a medium was made by his séances, which participants declared as uncanny, and his apparent powers of clairvoyance and healing.


Over his controversial career, these are just some of the feats D. D. Home was seen to perform around the world:

In a well-lit room before Professor David Wells of Harvard and three other spiritualist investigators, Home caused a table to move all about, even though he stood nowhere near it. It took all the strength of two of the witnesses to restrain the table. Upon its release, the table levitated completely off the floor for several seconds. When Wells and two others sat on the table, it continued to rock. They could find no scientific explanation for the experience.
Next page: Levitations, manifestations and more

In 1852, Home first demonstrated self-levitation. Witnesses watched in astonishment as he rose a foot or more above the floor. When they tried to hold him down, they too were lifted off the ground.
During séances, he was able to make phantom hands appear, which sitters were able to feel. In 1857, he held a séance in Paris with Napolean III and his empress, Eugénie. The empress held a spirit hand that she recognized as her dead father's -- because of the characteristic deformity of one finger.
He was able to elongate his body by as much as 11 inches.

In a July, 1868 séance in a normally lit room of the home of a client, the host's elderly mother was levitated in the chair in which she sat.

In December, 1868, Home gave what is perhaps his most famous performance. At his apartment in London, Home conducted a séance for three respected gentlemen. After some "conventional" spirit apparitions, Home began to walk around the room. His body elongated, according to the witnesses, then Home rose off the ground. Returning to the floor he then went into an adjoining room. The men heard a window open in that room and shortly after saw Home apparently floating in midair outside their window. The apartment was three stories up. Home opened the window from the outside, then "glided into the room feet foremost and sat down."

In 1871, Home was tested by William Crookes, a respected physicist and fellow of the Royal Society. With a contraption of weights he had devised, Crookes sought to measure the "power, force or influence, proceeding from his hand." Crookes measured a force equal to about three-quarters of a pound, and was at a complete loss to explain it. Crookes was also witness to Home's levitation, which, he wrote, challenged his "most firmly rooted articles of scientific belief."

In a demonstration he did many times, Home could hold white-hot embers in his bare hands. He was even seen to plunge his hands and his face into a hearth fire, "moving it about as though bathing it in water." His skin showed no signs of injury whatsoever.


                                                                 Harry Houdini

Home astonished many, but not all.

Harry Houdini, known for his debunking of spiritualists and séances, denounced Home as a fraud and claimed to be able to duplicate his feats of levitation... although he never did. And while many skeptics were sure Home's demonstrations were only trickery, Home was not once in any of his 1,500 séances caught in any kind of deception or exposed in perpetrating a hoax. This fact alone earned him his great reputation.

So, while reason says that Home was an extremely gifted magician and illusionist, on a par, perhaps, with some of the great illusionists working today such legerdemain was never proved. And because many of his feats were accomplished in broad daylight in full view and inspection of witnesses, Home must be regarded either as one of the greatest magicians of all time or a true medium with extraordinary, unexplained powers.

That brings about an interesting point, if one takes the position that Home's abilities were not supernatural: If Home had presented himself as a magician rather than a medium, he might be regarded and remembered today with greater awe than the legendary Houdini.


Monday, 30 October 2017

How Did Halloween Come to be Such A Big Holiday?

Halloween was Celtic New Year and has been celebrated in the Celtic fringes of the British Isles since time immemorial. One of my personal bugbears is when English people complain about it being an American holiday. It is not. It has been celebrated over here for thousands of years. It's just not an English holiday. That does not mean it's not British.

Our Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors have been celebtrating verions for thousands of years. In Cornwall it was called Allentide. in the Isle Of Man it is still called Hop-tu-Naa. The Welsh call it Calan Gaeaf. Children and women would dance around a village fire and, during this process, everyone would write their names on rocks and place them in and around said fire. When the fire started to die out they would all run home, "Adref, adref, am y cyntaf', Hwch ddu gwta a gipio'r ola'." (Home, home, on the double, The tailless black sow shall snatch the last [one].) The following morning, all the stones containing villagers' names would be checked. If, however, a stone was missing, the person who wrote their name on the stone would die within one year. 

Immigrants from all these countries took their traditions to the new world where they were embraced and celebrated until it finally grew into the holiday we know today. Irish and Scottish traditions are similar and closely related and the immigrants celebrated with fireworks, telling ghost stories, playing games,and making mischief. There were games such as bobbing for apples, dooking, the dropping of forks on apples without using hands, and Puicini - an Irish fortune-telling game using saucers. Young women were frequently told if they sat in dark rooms and gazed into a mirror, the face of their future husbands would appear, however, if a skull appeared, the poor girl would be destined to die before marriage.

It took until the 1930s for the holiday to become as widespread as it is today, but as I am Scottish let's look at some of the ways the holiday was celebrated there. 

Halloween -or Samhain- marked the start of the new Celtic year with the celebration bringing light an protection as the darkness drew in. Here we look at nine old customs of Halloween in Scotland, some which are rooted in Celtic times and others which lasted until the 19th Century. From fortune telling cabbage stalks to burning nuts and disappearing stones of the dead, how Scotland marked this important turning point in the calendar is far removed from the celebrations of today.

 Samhain is Irish Gaelic for "summer's end." The standard Irish pronunciation is "sow-in" with the "ow" like in "cow." Other pronunciations that follow with the many Gaelic dialects include "sow-een" "shahvin" "sowin" (with "ow" like in "glow"). The Scots Gaelic spelling is "Samhuin" or "Samhuinn." There is no linguistic foundation for saying this word "samhane" the way it might look if it were English. When in doubt, just say "Hallows" or even "Hallowe'en."

In Scottish Gaelic we say "Samhuinn" as "SAH-vin" or "SAH-win": the 'mh' is sort of somewhere between a 'v' and a 'w'

Halloween, or Samhain, was one of the two great fire festivals of the Celtic calendar and traditionally marked the beginning of the new year. Hallow fires would be kindled to mark the end of the harvest season and the return of animals to the fold. Fires were generally lit on high points of the landscape far from homes and steadings and were seen an attack on the “powers of darkness” at a time of shortenings days and weakened sun, according to McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland. He added: “In particular, the witches were holding high revelry, and their great conventions to work woe upon mankind were assembled on high hill and bleak moorland.

“Man resorted with cheerful confidence to the heaven-given weapon of holy fire.” Debris from Hallow fire would be taken to rejuvenate hearths in the home. The Hallow fire continued to be lit to the end of the 18th Century, according to accounts.

Folk would walk the circuit of their fields with burning torches on Halloween to ward off evil and ensure fertile land for the following year. The mother and father of the house lit splints from a peat fire before passing them to servants and children of the house. They would then head outdoors and tread the border of the property before throwing the splints to the ground and allowing them.

To ward off potentially malevolent entities, large bonfires were lit in communities and it is believed that this practice survives today in the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns with creepy grimaces. While the use of pumpkins is actually an American invention, in Scotland it has been custom to carve lanterns out of ‘neeps’ or turnips. That's no easy task. The vegetable is very solid and I remember my father's hand aching for a week after he'd worked on one for us kids.

With witches feared to be at full power at Halloween, there was only one place for them - the fire. Boys are said to have gone door-to-door asking for a peat to burn the witch. At Balmoral, when Queen Victoria was in residence, a huge bonfire was set in front of the castle by men dressed in Highland garb, according to McPherson. Among the men was a trolley - known as a shandy dann - which contained the effigy of a “hideous old woman” who was marched at speed towards the fire to the strain of bagpipes. 

Following a sudden stop, a form of charge sheet was read aloud to outline as why the witch should be tipped on the flames. McPherson wrote: “With a rush an a shout and skirling of bagpipes, the sledge and its occupant are hurled topsy-turvy into the fire. “Then follow cheers and hoots of derisive laughter as the inflammable wrappings of the shandy dann cracks and sputters out. “All the while the residents of the castle stand enjoying the curious rite, and no one there entered more heartily into it than the head of the Empire herself.”

In some parts, great attention was paid to the ashes and other debris of the fire. Once the Hallow fire had burnt out, a stone would be placed on the ash to represent each member of the family. The next morning, the family would return to the fire to check the stones. If a stone was missing, the person it represented would be dead before the next Hallow fire was set. This ritual was recorded in Aberdeenshire and Callander with a version also noted in North Wales as stated above.

                                                                    The Seonaidh

The Celtic water spirit the Seonaidh (pronounced Shoney) was gifted a pot of ale on Halloween to bestow blessings on the local fisherman. Reports suggest that people on the Isle of Lewis would gather on the beach while one fisherman waded into the water up to his waist before pouring the ale into the sea.

Richard Waitt's The Cromartie Fool illustrates the Halloween custom of picking kail to determine the nature of a future spouse. 

The old rituals acted out on Halloween often had a hint of fortune telling. Pulling the kail castoc - or cabbage stalk - was noted in a poem by Robert Burns in 1785. Traditionally, a male and female would go blindfolded to the kailyard - or kitchen garden - and pull the first ‘castoc’ that they saw. It size and shape was said to tell the look of their future spouse. The taste would determine their nature and whether they be sweet or sour. If much earth had stuck to the stalk, the dowry on the bride would be substantial. The stems would then be placed over the front door. The name of the first person to walk under the kail would be the name of the husband or the wife. Different versions of the custom exist. On Islay, kail stocks were also important in the celebration of Halloween. In Islay Voices by Jenni Minto and Les Wilson, one account tells of young men stealing kail and taking the stalks to an old woman skilled in using them to read fortunes. 

The kail stalks were sometimes turned into a form of pipe on Halloween for “bundering”. Boys and young men would go door-to-door with their hollowed out pipes, which would be packed with a type of kindling, and blow smoke into homes to purify them. 

Halloween seemed to be the time to search for answers about a future spouse. In a game called 'Win’ing the blew clew' a woman searching for her husband would tease and spin a ball of wool from a male lamb’s fleece and throw it into the fire on Halloween, holding on to the end of a thread. The woman would take this an start winding another ball. When it started to tug , she would ask the fire “Who’s that, that holds the end of my thread?” 

The voice from the fire would ‘say’ the name of her husband to be, according to the custom. In some places, blue yarn had to be thrown into the fire.

Another way to predict a future spouse was to burn nuts. Each nut would be given the name of a likely suitor before being laid on the fire. How the nuts reacted to the heat would determine the course of the courtship. Peas were often used in the ritual too. Two were placed on a live peat, one representing a boy and the other a girl. If the two stayed put on the peat as it burned, a happy marriage was signalled. If one rolled away, it suggested there would be no union.

Guising or ‘galoshin’ is ancient and something the old folks would actually look forward to as they helped the children make their outfits for the holiday.. Instead of trick-or-treating, children would literally disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes to go guising. According to folklore, this was so that they could venture out safely without being detected by wicked ghouls. Guisers also couldn’t simply knock on the doors of their neighbours yelling ‘trick-or-treat’ and expect sweets in return. They had to perform a ‘trick’ first by reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies. That was the origin of the saying 'trick or treat' yelled by modern children. 

A staple of children’s Halloween parties across the country, this time-honoured game involves trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water using your mouth, with your hands tied behind your back. If you want to up the stakes at this game of 'dookin’ for apples' have a go at catching them with a fork dropped from a high perch on a stool.

However you celebrate this ancient holiday, whether it be sitting quietly at home or surrounded by excited children dressed as spooks and superheroes, have a great one. Happy Halloween.

Creative Commons pictures
Samhain pic copyright Klara Osickova
McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sentenced To Be Dissected

                                          John Horwood

Not strictly Victorian, but certainly 19th century, we have the strange tale of the Bristol lad sentenced to be used by medical science for dissection at the age of eighteen.

In January 1821 seventeen year old Eliza Balsum was crossing the stream on the outskirts of Bristol with her new beau William Waddy. They were laughing and joking as they used the stepping stones to keep clear of the water. On the other side of the stream appeared John Horwood. He had previously been Eliza’s boyfriend but she had broken off the relationship towards the end of 1820 and he had threatened violence against her. Seething with jealousy, John cast a stone, hurling it at Eliza. It struck her on the temple, causing her to fall. The poor girl was supported back to her mother’s home nearby, still conscious but in obvious discomfort.

                                                       Dr Smith in his masonic robes.

After a couple of days being treated at home she attended the Bristol Royal Infirmary as an outpatient, where she was treated by Dr. Richard Smith, senior surgeon. He observed the depressed fracture at her right temple and admitted as a patient to his hospital. Dr. Smith was present when a statement was made by Eliza, in which she named John Horwood as her attacker. Days passed, and Eliza’s condition got worse rather than better, until the good doctor decided that he needed to operate to relieve the pressure on the brain. Trepanning (i.e. drilling a hole in the skull) was a barbarous method of treatment in the days before anaesthesia, and with no understanding of antisepsis. Within a couple of days the girl was dead – and John Horwood was immediately charged with murder. The date was 17th February 1821. His trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster (Bristol) and lasted one day. Ironically the trial saw the two people who caused Eliza’s death to be present in the same room, Horwood and Smith, but in very different contexts: one as them as the accused; and the other as main witness. There was therefore no examination as to the actual cause of death, or whether the trepanning operation was bungled. Instead, Dr. Smith recounted the statement made by Eliza, outlined his valiant efforts to save the poor wretch, and convinced the court that it was all John Horwood’s fault. It was 13th April 1821 and John had turned 18 years of age just three days previously. John Horwood was found guilty and sentenced to hang at the New Gaol prison. His remains were then to be given over to the surgeons at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for their dissection classes.

Little remains today of the prison apart from its gatehouse which still overlooks the New Cut. Crowds gathered here for executions risked falling into its waters.

Finding himself within the oppressive confines of the condemned cell, John Horwood abandoned his previous indifference to his victim and reverted to his chapel upbringing.

"Lord, thou knowest that I did not mean then to take away her life but merely to punish her: though I confess that I made up my mind, some time or other, to murder her," he confessed. It is not known of the confession was exerted under duress or freely given.

On Friday 13th April, 1821 the prison hosted its first public execution. Horwood took several minutes to die by slow strangulation. The event was hugely popular with the populace of Bristol, with thousands of people turning out to watch. The prison was adjacent to the unfenced stretch of river known as the New Cut, and the authorities were seriously worried that the crush would lead to spectators falling in and drowning. 

Hanging in those days was not a quick process. The 'long drop' method had yet to be developed. This used the victim's own weight, combined with a fall, to break their necks, creating merciful unconsciousness. Instead the condemned, bound hand and foot, were dropped through a trap door on a short rope to strangle to death over a period of minutes - usually accompanied with much writhing around. 

                                  A contempoary  print showing John Horwoods execution. This comes from the book bound in Horwood's own skin.

After the execution, a group of friends and family lay in wait hoping to prevent the conclusion of the boy's sentence - his dissection. They planned to ambush the cart carrying his body and spirit it away by boat back to his home town of Hanham.

However, the gaol authorities thwarted this plan by delivering the corpse under cover of night to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where the surgeon Richard Smith carried out the dissection as one of his classes. In an even more gruesome twist, Smith had the boy's skin preserved and tanned.

The account of the trial was bound in John Horwoods own skin. Its black cover was embossed with a skull and crossbones at each corner and on its front bore the gilded legend Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood which translated means, "The skin of John Horwood." 

A bill for ten pounds from the binder sits inside its covers.

For years the macabre book lay within the vaults of the BRI but it now resides in the Bristol Record Office, ironically located at the opposite end of the Cumberland Road where John Horwood's life was ended for him.

The book has now become too fragile over the passing years to allow the public access to it. The Record Office, however, has made its contents available on microfiche within their searchroom.

                                     An illustration from the book bound in Horwood's skin

In a final twist the records show that some considered Dr. Smith himself to be the cause of poor Eliza's death.  

And what of the mortal remains of John Horwood? After languishing for 190 years in a cupboard, it was finally time for him to be laid to rest. So it was that in April 2011, on the exact anniversary and time of his death, John’s body was brought back to Hanham and given a proper funeral. It marked the end of a personal crusade by Mary Halliwell, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Horwood’s brother. The coffin was draped in velvet and carried on a wheeled bier in the manner of funerals of the period of his death. A dignified end at last to a somewhat undignified episode which shows us not just the barbarity of English justice but also the inadequacy of medical treatment some 200 years ago.

John Horwood was finally buried on April 13th, 2011. This is a picture of the cortege made up of his his descendants and history buffs.

                                                            The funeral of John Horwood.

BBC Bristol

Getty Images

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