I recently read Kate Lister’s fantastic book ‘The Curious History of Sex’. In one of the chapters entitled ‘Boy’s Toys: The History of the Sex Doll’, I was struck by the story of Maria Van Butchell. She was embalmed by her husband, Martin Van Butchell, in 1775 for the purposes of public display. For this blog post, I explored the embalming further and the life of the eccentric 18th century dentist, who worked closely with some of the most famous anatomists of the time.
Van Butchell (born in c.1735) trained under the famous surgeon John Hunter and became interested in dentistry. He charged highly for his dentistry services (he was a very capable dentist), and he became known for his eccentricities as well as his surgical skill (sometimes he was referred to as a ‘kook’). He specialised in anal fistulas and haemorrhoids as well as dentistry and was considered to have had a strange way of dressing himself at the time. However, the oddest thing he is known to have done involved his wife, Maria (sometimes referred to as Mary).
On the 15th January 1775, Maria died. Van Butchell asked the surgeons William Hunter and William Cruickshank to embalm her so she could be displayed as part of his dental practice. Embalming of loved ones was not commonplace at the time, making the request even stranger still. It is difficult to untangle what was actually used in the embalming method, but sources suggest she was ‘stuffed’ with ‘powdered nitre’ and injected with carmine, turpentine and wine in order to give her a ‘rosy glow’. She was also reported to have been dressed in her wedding dress and given two glass eyes. Finally, after a thin paste of plaster Paris was applied, Maria was placed in a glass topped coffin for display in the drawing room for patients to look at.
Quack dentistry was a booming business at the time, but the presence of Maria meant Van Butchell had to put an advertisement in the newspaper stating only a limited number of persons could visit the practice every day. It was evident her presence seemed to be good for business. Despite the embalming being carried out by two renowned anatomists, the preservation method had not been perfected at the time and many referred to Maria as a ‘repulsive’ object who eventually began to decay. Van Butchell remarried a woman named Elizabeth, who understandably protested the presence of Maria in the drawing room. Maria’s body was eventually donated to the Hunterian Museum for display in 1815. She remained there until the body was destroyed in a German bombing in 1941.
So why did Van Butchell embalm Maria? Understandably, one cannot help but notice the misogyny of the time at play. It was reported that Van Butchell had a clause in his marriage contract that allowed him to use Maria as property when she remained ‘above ground’. Maria was his property in his eyes- something he could do with whatever he wanted. As Kate Lister discusses in her book, there are disturbing necrophiliac undertones associated with her embalming. A disturbing epitaph that accompanied her in the Hunterian Museum even referred to her as ‘A much-loved wife at home to keep, Caress, touch talk to, even sleep…’. One can fully understand why this embalming example shows up in the sex doll chapter of Lister’s book. Van Butchell was also known to be dogmatic in life, demanding Maria only wear black and his second wife Elizabeth only wear white as contrast. Even before her embalming, Maria was still regarded as a ‘doll’ that could be dressed how he liked- in her death, Van Butchell carried on this tradition.
Christen AG, Christen JA. Martin Van Butchell (1735-1814): the eccentric, “kook” dentist of old London. J Hist Dent. 1999;47(3):99‐104.
Lister, K., 2020. A Curious History of Sex. Unbound Publishing.
Watkins D. The strange tale of Martin van Butchell. Br Dent J. 1989;167(9):319‐320. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.4807021