The Victorians as Dark Tourists: Mortality, Morbidity, and the Macabre.

Dark tourism is an umbrella terms that usually refers to sites, archaeology, museums, and other aspects of heritage linked to the themes surrounding death, tragedy, and destruction. It is quite difficult to define what exactly counts as dark tourism, but usually it counts places such as medical museums, graveyards, disaster sites such as Chernobyl, or murder trails (Jack the Ripper comes to mind). According to Psychology Today, the reasons people visit these sites vary. A ‘dark tourist’ may feel drawn to a site/attraction as they may be feeling curious, empathetic, nostalgic, or perhaps they have an interest in horror or simply want to educate themselves. Whatever the reason, dark tourism is on the rise in recent years (I would probably describe myself as a dark tourist)- but when we think of a past population fascinated with the macabre, who do we think of? The Victorians are usually top of the list.

Whether you think the Victorians had a morbid fascination with death and the macabre, or whether you think they were simply realistic about their own mortality, it cannot be denied the Victorians DID death to an extreme by modern, western standards. Mourning and the dead played a large role in everyday life, with much influence stemming from Queen Victoria’s 40-year mourning period of her husband Prince Albert. In this blog post, I will highlight some examples that can be used to call Victorians the ultimate ‘dark tourists’. Even though death played an important role in their everyday, personal lives (with extended mourning periods the norm and showy funerary monuments sought after), it can be said the Victorians sought out the macabre as a means of entertainment as well. These are just a few examples I have highlighted- there are many more I simply cannot fit into a blogpost.

Medical Museums

One of the most famous examples of the Victorian medical museum is that of Dr Joseph Kahn’s. In the first half of the 19th C there was a growing interest in anatomy amongst the public for a couple of reasons. One was the case of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare in the 1820s, and the other was the incorporation of waxworks to display anatomical structures. Kahn opened his anatomical and pathology museum on Oxford Street in the 1850s, and consisted of specimens preserved in fluids, as well as wax models. Initially the museum was highly praised by the Lancet, but there was some distaste shown concerning the sections showing venereal disease and embryology. Ladies were admitted separately and were not allowed to view some specimens. The museum collection toured around Britain, with separate sections only allowed entry by ‘medical men’. The tour was extremely successful amongst the Victorian population but failed to turn over a lot of financial prophet. Kahn’s downfall came with his involvement in quackery, particularly surrounded his selling of venereal disease cures on site. The medical profession began an anti-quackery campaign against Kahn, and many suggested he should have been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 (the Kahn Museum under the Jordan’s was prosecuted in 1873). Eventually the museum closed and was broken up, but there are surviving accounts from the general public on visiting the museum. Many members of the population described their visits as a harmless day out, and it is thought that many likely learned the facts of life there as well as other anatomical aspects of the body. ‘Medical dark tourism’ is a category defined in dark tourism and describes visits to medical museums with human specimens amongst other medical related sites. It is clear many Victorians fell within this category in the same manner many do today.    

Medical Museum of Dr Kahn

The Morgue

When one thinks of death as spectacle in the 19th century- the Paris Morgue stands out. The Morgue became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris by the late 19th century – around 40,000 people are thought to have visited a day at its height. Public access initially allowed members of the public to view unidentified dead to see if they were a missing family member. However, most viewers simply went to the morgue as a means to view death up close. Cold water dropped from the ceiling to stall decomposition before refrigeration, and visitors were protected from the smell of decomp by a viewing screen. They went to the morgue as a ‘dark tourist’, and often the crowds became so large that the police had to be called to keep everything in order (This often happened if it was a child on display). Guidebooks of the time mentioned the morgue as a tourist attraction, with many vendors outside selling snacks to the visiting crowds- it sounds almost like a fairground. Many described the morgue as ‘theatre’ which often became the case when police publicly brought suspected murderers to the morgue to confront the sight of their victims on display. Victorian high society in London was aware of the morgue, attracted to the idea of death as entertainment, but afraid to engage in a typically working-class activity. Dickens wrote about the Paris Morgue in his travel writings, which London society members read about. In London at the time, a morgue opened but did not allow public access like Paris- any unidentified dead were described on paper and put up outside. Although the London morgue was not a tourist site like Paris, the London Victorian population obviously revealed in death, with public execution and Madame Tussaud’s executed criminals wax works attended by large crowds.

People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers
Viewing at the Paris Morgue

Mummy Unwrapping

In times past, a trip to Egypt would not have been complete without bringing home a mummy or a piece of a mummy as a ‘souvenir’. ‘Egyptomania’ swept across high society, with archaeological human remains at the centre of the fascination. In the mid-19th century, Egyptologist Thomas Pettigrew was interested in the cranial shape of mummies and staged public mummy unwrappings (often at the Royal College of Surgeons). Many paying spectators attended these unwrappings, with audience members allowed to sometimes handle the mummy and its wrappings. Many referenced ‘mummy dust’ that would be inhaled upon the unwrapping and handling of the remains – Dickens himself also referred to ‘mummy dust’ in his writings. It is debated how many of these mummies were unwrapped at Victorian parties, but one cannot deny the mix of archaeology, anatomy and death would have been irresistible to the Victorians if these parties did indeed take place. The Duke of Hamilton was so taken with ancient mummies that he asked Pettigrew to mummify him upon his death – Pettigrew obliged, and the duke is apparently still sealed in a sarcophagus. Pettigrew went on to become a founding member of the British Archaeological Society, with mummy unwrappings eventually falling out of favour. It is suggested that Victorians did not feel ‘shocked’ after numerous unwrappings – if you had seen one, you had seen them all (They were probably onto looking at modern specimens at the medical museum as a means to entertain their morbid curiosity). Again, we see the Victorian fascination with death as entertainment, as a mean to satisfy the ‘dark tourist’ within them.     


A ‘mummy unwrapping’


Bates, A. W. (2006) ‘Dr Kahn’s Museum: Obscene Anatomy in Victorian London’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(12), pp. 618–624. doi: 10.1177/014107680609901209.

Classen, C., 2014. Touching the deep past: The lure of ancient bodies in nineteenth-century museums and culture. The Senses and Society9(3), pp.268-283.

Martens, B. (2008). Death as Spectacle: The Paris Morgue in Dickens and Browning. Dickens Studies Annual, 39, 223-248. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from

Coffin Ships: Death whilst trying to escape death during the Irish Potato Famine

‘Coffin Ships’ were the name given to the emigration ships that carried members of the Irish population across the Atlantic to North America and Canada during the Irish famine. Emigrants were trying to flee from the devastating potato famine which began in 1845, when the potato crop began to fail from blight (P. infestans). Ireland’s population has never gotten back to the numbers it was before the ‘Great Hunger’ (An Gorta Mor as Gaeilge). Between the years of 1846- 51 one million people died in Ireland due to starvation and disease, with a further two million people emigrating to places such as North America and Canada between 1845-55. Growing up in Ireland, we were always taught about the devastating effects of the famine, even as far back as primary school. I remember reading the fiction book ‘Under the Hawthorne tree’ by Marita Conlon-Mckenna. This was a children’s book, but it was set during the Irish Famine and dealt with death and dying during this period. The famine is often a politically charged topic, as it is often questioned how effective the British government were in assisting the Irish. Debates surrounding the inaction of Queen Victoria, and around that fact that exports to Britain during the famine may have actually increased during the years of starvation, are often discussed by historians. Tony Blair issued a formal apology to Ireland for the British governments mishandling of the crisis in 1997 when he was prime minister.

There is an extremely rich narrative surrounding the Irish Potato Famine, but for this blog post I will be focusing on ‘Coffin Ships’. I grew up outside the town of New Ross in Wexford which has a replica of the Dunbrody famine ship, so my interest in these floating ‘coffins’ has a long history. JFK visited New Ross five months before his assassination, as his great grandfather sailed from New Ross to Boston during the famine in 1848.

Due to the large number of evictions of poor Irish tenants during the famine, many ended up on the streets. This resulted in many having no choice but to flee the country on a ship, or it was often more economical for a landlord to pay for a poor family’s crossings- making false promises of a better life. The ships immigrants boarded in the hope of a new life during the famine were often not seaworthy, as well as being overcrowded, and unsanitary. There was a severe lack of food and clean water on board, and it was clear the people who set sail on these ships were in a desperate situation. The ships during the famine also set sail during the winter months to accommodate the demand (and to make more money) of those wishing to flee, meaning they were sailing during icy, bad weather – before this, transatlantic crossings were mainly done during the Spring and Summer months. Death was all around the Irish population at home, and now it was all around them as they hoped to sail to a better life. On board the ship there was no escape from disease, dehydration, and starvation either- the very things they were trying to flee. Steerage passengers were only allowed outside on deck for a very limited amount of time each day.

Artwork showing steerage conditions- Below Deck by Rodney Charman (1970) – Image:

Thousands of ships left the country full of passengers, mostly setting sail from the west coast. Disease such as typhoid, typhus, dysentery, and cholera would spread rapidly throughout steerage- the average death rate on board was 20% but could be as high as 50%. Bodies were usually buried at sea. The British built ships were not required to have doctors on board, and even those who were ill upon inspection by doctors before boarding were still allowed to travel. Passenger shipping laws were neglectful of the passengers, with many taking double the number of passengers the ship was meant for.

If passengers managed to survive the six-week journey, the were often infected with disease and extremely weak upon arrival – they were not exactly opened with open arms when they reached their destination either. Families had been surrounded by death and dying, and now found themselves in a new country where they were poor and illiterate. Many were thought to spread disease amongst the Canadian and American populations, thus resulting in shunning of these immigrants – there was also a lot of anti-Catholic sentiments at the time.

These ‘Coffin Ships’ are an important aspect in Irish history that touches upon the themes of death, dying and bereavement – all over the world we see memorials to those who died during the potato famine. Many were trying escape death, but instead died upon these ships. Many died when they reached the shores, and many were accused of causing death in the populations they newly inhabited. Bereavement was everywhere, with families even holding an ‘American Wake’ for those who purchased a one-way ticket to America – as it was highly likely they never see their family again (and that is if they survived the journey). Many mourned their dead, for the life they once had, and for those who left Ireland.

Famine memorial in Custom House Quay, Dublin- Image:


Documenting Death: Netflix Documentaries on Death Worth Watching

With a never-ending tier system and lockdown inevitability, Netflix has become a familiar fixture in most households. At a time when going out to the pub with friends or a restaurant with your partner has become a thing of the past (and the very distant future), the streaming service has become more popular than ever. In taking a break from the usual Netflix recommendations (i.e., Stranger Things and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), for this blog post I will be discussing some documentaries which explore the topic of death- more important than ever amid the Covid-19 pandemic and emerging vaccination programme. I will not be discussing docuseries (including the new series Surviving Death), only ‘standalone’ documentaries. Viewer discretion is advised, as some may find the topics triggering and upsetting, particularly if recently bereaved.

End Game (40 minutes)

This film follows the palliative care teams and patients (and their families) reaching the end of their life at the University College San Francisco hospital and the Zen Project Hospice. All different types of people working in end-of-life care are featured, including nurses, doctors, and hospice volunteers. One case looks at a lady called Mitra as she approaches the end of her life, and the conflicting opinions of her husband and mother in deciding what to do about her care. They also find themselves making the decision on whether Mitra should be autopsied after she passes, removing her cancerous organs for medical donation, or if she should die at home or in hospice. This documentary focuses on the difficult decision’s family members’ must make, as well as the decisions patients may have to make whilst in pain, facing their own mortality or under the influence of medication. Emotional, raw, and often difficult, End Game highlights the importance in discussing and accepting death.  

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Extremis (24 Minutes)

Like End Game, Extremis looks at the patients in hospital settings and the decisions families must make regarding the end of their life. The shortest of the documentaries, Extremis also touches on topics related to religion (we see a Christian family discuss a loved one), and hope (families praying for a miracle). Unlike End Game, we only see the patients in a hospital setting, not a hospice, and all the patients are much further along in their end-of-life journey. Again, the discussion and acceptance of death is highlighted in this very short documentary, with medical professionals struggling with giving families a false sense of hope, not giving families enough hope, and ultimately making the best decision for their patients with the inclusion of their loved ones.    

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Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice (1 Hour 19 Minutes)

The popularity of cryonics has rose in recent years. A controversial method of preservation, cryonics supposedly allows for cellular viability to be maintained in death by keeping the body in an intense state of hyperthermia – for the price of $200,000 (or $80,000 to just preserve the brain). This documentary follows Thai parents Sahatorn and Nareerat. Their daughter, Matheryn, nicknamed ‘Einz’ (meaning Love), was diagnosed with an ependymoblastoma as a toddler. This is the deadliest form of brain cancer – a parents’ worst nightmare. Einzs’ father Sahatorn worked in the scientific field and thought cryonics would be the best option for his daughter. Seeing this little girl endure endless surgeries and treatments is heart-breaking, and it is understandable to see these parents trying to do what they feel is best for their little girl. The cryonics process was begun straight after her death at the age of two, with the hope she will be revived and given a second chance at life in the future. A difficult watch, this documentary shows the lengths a family will go to hold on to someone they love, bringing up many important talking points regarding death and the dead body.        


Ram Dass, Going Home (31 Minutes)

This documentary follows Ram Dass, an American spiritual leader, as he is approaching the end of his life. ‘A short film about being’, Ram Dass discusses his spiritual beliefs, recounts stories from his life (including his experimenting with drugs), and his health issues. Despite suffering a stroke, he remained upbeat and was thankful for the ‘grace’ it brought him, as he thought it allowed him to look more inwardly. His guru, Maharaj-ji, allowed Ram to embrace his spiritual practice fully – love is mentioned numerous times and seems to be at the core of his practice. Intellectually heavier than the other documentaries, this film is for those interested in the spiritual side of death, particularly incarnation. Death is discussed as just another stage in life or ‘another step towards home’.

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Dick Johnson is Dead (1 Hour 30 Minutes)

This film is for those who may find the topic of death and dying difficult. It follows filmmaker Kirsten and her father, Dick, as she documents his mortality in an accessible, off beat manner. Kirsten stages Dicks death in numerous comical ways, to ‘soften the blow’ of his impending death. Having lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease some years previously, Dick is now battling against dementia. Dick, a retired psychiatrist, goes along with his daughters’ dark humour. In the opening scene of the documentary, Dick is seen acting out his own funeral by climbing into a coffin with one of his close friends observing. A critically acclaimed documentary, Dick Johnson is Dead is well worth a watch, particularly for anyone who wants to learn more about the topic of death but finds its challenging or unsettling.

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From Embalming to Eyeballs: Five (More) Fantastic Books About Death

A while back I did a blog post on five fantastic books about death. It was quite a popular post, and I thought there are so many more fantastic books out there that deserve some recognition! Despite coming from an archaeological background, my book collection extends to all aspects of death and dying. These aspects include bereavement, cemeteries, the human corpse, anatomical history, and mortuary science to name a few. Subjects related to death are extensive, and I am sure I will have another blog post soon with even more excellent books for the morbidly curious to check out.

Technologies of the Human Corpse by John Troyer
John Troyer grew up in the American funeral industry and is now an associate professor at the University of Bath. He is the director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University. Troyer discusses the human corpse and its relationship with material and conceptual technology. Technologies of the Human Corpse examines topics such as AIDS/HIV, embalming, death photography, the 1970s ‘happy death movement’ as well as the Body Worlds exhibit and the black-market trade of cadavers. The politics associated with the dead body are complicated and sensitive, Troyer expertly navigates and discusses controversial topics. Troyer also wrote an introduction for the 40th anniversary edition of Lyn H. Lofland’s book The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death. Lofland’s book is also essential reading for those interested in death studies.

Technologies of the Human Corpse

Death: A Graveside Companion by Joanna Ebenstein
Joanna Ebenstein is the founder of Morbid Anatomy, an online blog, website and now a museum. Joanna has recently realised a book called Anatomica: The Exquisite and Unsettling Art of Human Anatomy, which looks at artworks associated with human anatomy. Another fantastic book by Joanna is called The Anatomical Venus, which discusses the famous Venus waxworks of Italy- particularly the work of Clemente Susini. Whilst both books are associated with aspects related to death, the book I will be suggesting in this blog post is Death: A Graveside Companion, which is edited by Ebenstein. The contents include works by John Troyer, anatomical sculptor Eleanor Crook, Elizabeth Harper (who runs the excellent blog All the Saints You Should Know), and a piece on death themed amusements by Ebenstein herself. The book is beautiful and has outstanding imagery and font. An essential for anyone interested in death and dying.

Death: A Graveside Companion

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, who also featured on my last post, has realised her new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Doughty has also wrote From Here to Eternity and When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Doughty is also the founder of the Order of the Good Death and runs a YouTube channel called Ask a Mortician. Caitlin Doughty worked in the death industry and now advocates online for more death education, as well as working towards a ‘good death’. A self-labelled ‘funeral industry rabble-rouser’, Doughty is not everyone’s cup of tea, but her books are accessible and humorous for those interested in the death industry. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Chronicles the answers to questions Doughty has gotten over years concerned death and dying.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner): The Essential Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb
As someone who often talks about death, I was very intrigued by Michael Hebb’s book. Hebb states that we have so many conversations with each other, but we are not having one of the most important ones – the one about death. Hebb is also the founder of, encouraging families to gather around the dinner table and chat about the end of life in an engaging, insightful, and empowering way. Let’s Talk About Death shares prompts that have led to numerous discussions about death and gives a fascinating insight into the challenges that come from talking (and not talking) about death.

Lets Talk About Death (Over Dinner)

Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
Arnold’s excellent book chronicles the history of London and its dead. Starting off discussing roman burials, Arnold moves onto to the plague outbreaks, the erection of Victorian cemeteries, and moves all the way to the mourning associated with the death of Princess Diana. The book has numerous aspects of death, including archaeology, history, death studies and architecture. Necropolis can really be considered an ‘all-rounder’ particularly for those with a fascination of history. Catharine Arnold has written an array of books, including Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History, and City of Sin: London and its Vices to name a few. I am looking forward to exploring more of her work and cannot recommend Necropolis enough.

Necropolis: London and its dead


The Archaeology of Vaccination (18th- 20th Centuries): An Examination of Four Diseases

With the recent development of Covid-19 vaccines by Moderna, Oxford University and Pfizer, there seems to be little else on everyone’s mind. Vaccination against deadly diseases has a history that can been illustrated in archaeological examples left behind. Death rates from crude attempts at ‘variolation’ (the practice of grounding up smallpox scabs for inhalation or scratching onto the skin) had a death rate as high as 30% in China during the 16th century. Refining of such techniques using inoculation and vaccination has led to a revolution in global health, with some diseases such as smallpox eradicated completely.
This blog post will examine the history of vaccines in the last 300 years, associated with four deadly diseases, by examining archaeological examples in museums. There are many more vaccinations for an array of diseases, but I have narrowed it down to four for this blog post. Although proven to be safe and effective, vaccines are becoming more and more controversial in today’s society- something that can be traced back to past societies as well.

Disease: Smallpox
Symptoms: Fever, aches, vomiting, rash, sores, and pustules that eventually scab and fall off.
Objects: Civil War Era Vaccine (Mutter Museum) and Lancets of Edward Jenner 19th century (Science Museum)

When one thinks of vaccination, Edward Jenner and smallpox usually springs to mind. Inoculation was being practiced in China as far back as 1000 years ago. This inoculation was being carried out using pus or scabs from smallpox to boost immunity against the disease. It was around the 18th century this concept began to develop in Europe. Lady Wortley Montagu seen the ‘scratch method’ of inoculation in 1721 in Turkey and used this method to inoculate her own children against smallpox. She is credited with introducing this method to London high society.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) noticed a similar practice on English farms and in the surrounding communities. Milkmaids in the countryside were renowned for having a clear complexion. This was because they were often infected with cowpox, meaning they were often left immune to smallpox (thus not having any facial scarring). Locals began to inoculate themselves with cowpox to immunize against the deadlier smallpox. Jenner adapted this method in his own practice, applying pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox pustule (these were usually on the hand) to that of a young boy in 1796. You can still see the lancets Jenner used to apply the pus to the boy’s arm, he would have used the scratching technique. He later exposed the boy to smallpox, after which no disease developed. In 1798, Jenner published his findings in a book entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; a Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox’ (Vacca is the Latin word for cow).

George Washington insisted on quarantining regulations within the Continental army in the 1770’s when smallpox outbreaks occurred, eventually crudely inoculating the army in 1777. A higher percentage of British troops had already suffered from smallpox, unlike the Americans who were more susceptible to catching the disease. Unlike Jenner, Washington was inoculating the army with the live smallpox virus- a very risky procedure instead of using a milder related orthopoxvirus. Vaccination was also being carried out in the army during the American Civil war (c.1860’s), an example of a lancet vaccination kit can be seen at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Like Jenner’s kit, it consisted of lancets for scratching. DNA testing of the blades revealed a virus used for vaccination was present, there were no signs of the smallpox virus itself.

Six lancets of Edward Jenner used for vaccination
Civil War era lancet kit for vaccination

Disease: Cholera
Symptoms: Diarrhoea, vomiting, thirst, cramps.
Objects: Glass Amboules of Cholera Vaccine 1924 and 1892 (Wellcome Collection)

Cholera is most associated with the physician John Snow, who mapped the cases of cholera in Soho, London in the 1850’s – Asiatic cholera reached Britain in 1831. This allowed him to conclude that the water supply was the source of the disease, debunking claims concerning miasma theory. Prior to this there had been numerous outbreaks of cholera in Britain, with 1854 becoming the worst year of the disease to take hold. Snow realised sewerage contamination was the cause of the disease, suggesting the removal of the pump handle in the affected area.
However, it was not until 1885 that the vaccine was developed by Spanish physician Jaime Ferrán (1852-1929). The cholera vaccine was the first vaccine to protect humans against a bacterial disease. The vaccine was developed when Ferrán cultivated bacteria from an ill person and then administered injections into the arm (not the scratch technique). He went on to develop vaccines for plague, rabies, and tetanus. Louis Pasteur is also credited with developing a cholera vaccine using chickens. He used a weakened culture to inoculate the chickens, after survival they were immune to the disease. The Wellcome collection houses a 1892 example of the vaccine that had been developed from inoculating guinea-pigs.
In the Wellcome Collection, there is an example of the cholera vaccine dating to 1924. The amboules are French (from Paris), and have the name of a laboratory that developed vaccines for the army. Because of the water-borne nature of the disease, cholera, as well as typhoid, were considered serious threats to soldiers. Vaccination was a part of an initiative to keep the army healthy. This strongly echoes the times of the smallpox outbreaks amongst American soldiers in the previous centuries – however we see the move away from the previously crude ‘scratch’ technique with a lancet.

1892 cholera vaccine example
1924 French cholera vaccine

Disease: Influenza
Symptoms: Fatigue, aches, chills, cough, sore throat, fever, headache.
Object: 1919 Influenza Vaccine (Pharmaceutical Society Museum)

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, there has been many comparisons drawn between today’s pandemic and the Spanish Flu H1N1 pandemic of 1918. The spread of the disease was exacerbated by movement of troops at the end of World War 1. Half a billion people all over the world were infected, eventually killing somewhere between 50-100 million people- the most severe pandemic in recent history. Mortality rates were high in children under 5, the elderly and those aged between 20-40 years old (the healthy being susceptible was unique in this pandemic). Prior to the vaccine, interventions such as quarantine, hand hygiene, social distancing, and disinfecting were used to control the illness.

Vaccines had been developed for other diseases at the time of the outbreak, so it was hopeful a vaccine could be developed for influenza. A few vaccines developed around this time are now thought to have been ineffective. As the disease was viral influenza, it would not have been treated by these newly developed bacterial vaccines, but many may have prevented pneumonia from developing. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that researchers realised that influenza was caused by a virus (in the 1918 case it was influenza A strain) – it was successfully isolated in 1933. It can be said then that the 1919 vaccine example from the Pharmaceutical Society Museum was likely ineffective during the outbreak. This had been developed by the Royal Army Medical College using lung scrapings from infected patients.
The influenza A vaccine was developed in the 1930’s, followed shortly by the influenza B vaccine in 1942. In 1945 the vaccine (for both A and B) was approved for military use in the US and for public use in 1946. Both Dr Thomas Francis and Dr Jonas Salk were involved in flu vaccine research and development after Ernest William Goodpasture was able to grow viruses using chicken embryos in 1931.

1919 Influenza Vaccine

Disease: Tuberculosis
Symptoms: Cough with bloody phlegm, weight loss, sweats, fever, fatigue, neck swellings.
Object: Freeze dried BCG (bacillus Calmette-Guerin) Vaccine 1980 (Science Museum Group)

The BCG vaccine is made from a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis, close in nature to M. tuberculosis which causes TB. Bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin are credited with developing the vaccine between 1908 and 1921 at the Pasteur Institute, Lille, France – the oral dose was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1928. Calmette was a pupil of Louis Pasteur and had acquired Mycobacterium bovis from the milk of an infected cow. The vaccine was adopted in France and Scandinavia initially, with widespread distribution stalled due to a contamination that killed 75 babies vaccinated within 10 days of birth- known as the 1930 Lubeck Disaster. The vaccine eventually became widespread after the Second world war and is administered via needle into the arm today.
The Science Museum houses a set of freeze-dried intradermal BCG vaccine dating to 1980-85. Made by Evans Medical Ltd, freeze drying allowing for transportation over long distances. This would have been particularly significant at the time as in the 1980’s there was a rise in TB cases in developed countries due to healthcare complacency, movement of people from countries with a lot of TB cases, and the spread of the HIV (there is evidence of co-infection). According to the World Health Organisation, TB kills 1.8 million people every year, with one third of the global population infected but asymptomatic. Despite initial reluctance in uptake, over 4 billion people have now been vaccinated against TB, making it the most widely used vaccine in the world. Unlike the UK, the US has never introduced mass use of the vaccine as it is thought there are not many cases of TB in America- vaccines can be purchased privately for around $100-200.

Freeze dried BCG Vaccine dated between 1980-1985

Arnold, C., 2008. Necropolis: London and its dead. Simon and Schuster.

Death Folklore in Ireland: Three Examples of Death Omens in Irish Culture

Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland I often came in across traditional stories associated with death. As far back as primary school, I was warned all about the Banshee and her screams and attended traditional Irish wakes of loved ones. Death was an important part of our culture. I recently read Dr Marie Cassidy’s book ‘Beyond the Tape: The Life and Many Deaths of a State Pathologist’, her memoir which recounts her years as Ireland’s State Pathologist between 2004 and 2018. One statement in her book stood out to me, ‘The Irish are obsessed with death’. No truer words were spoken in my opinion, and since moving to the UK 5 years ago that has become more apparent to me as I talk about death with others. Cassidy states attending funerals in Ireland is a national sport and instead of checking your horoscope, the Irish listen to the death notices on the radio- this conjures up so many memories from my childhood! The Irish feeling comfortable with death likely steams from our past, including stories of folklore and mythology. In this blogpost I will discuss three examples of death omens in Irish culture.

The Banshee (Bean Sidhe)
Perhaps the most famous of all Irish legends associated with death is the Banshee or Bean Sidhe, meaning ‘woman of the fairies’. Most children in Ireland know about this legend, usually told by grandparents to give them a scare. There are endless sources on the Banshee, all stating she is a supernatural being whose scream foretells the death of a loved one. She usually wears a dark cloak, has a ghostly complexion and has flowing red or white hair. There are conflicting ‘first-hand’ accounts of her age, either stating she is young or siren like, or old with a hag like appearance – either a maiden or a crone. It is her cry or scream that terrifies anyone who crosses her path, with Irish families with O’ or Mac/Mc as part of their surname most likely to become a victim to her shrieking. She often combs her long hair and will only turn violent or aggressive if someone finds her comb and steals it. I was often told as a child not to pick up any comb if found near a graveyard as it was likely the Banshee’s.
Keening women or bean chaointe (as Gaeilge) were a part of Irish mourning tradition and may have associations with the origins of the Banshee legend. Many writers state she only cries for the families of the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Neills, and the O’Gradys to name a few. Sometimes she is described as a washer woman (bean nighe) seen washing the blood-stained clothes of the family member about to die.

The Banshee with flowing hair and red eyes from crying

The Coiste Bodhar (Death Coach or Coach-a-bower)
The death coach in Irish folklore is often thought to be summoned by the wails of the Banshee. A headless horseman drives the coach, sometimes thought to carry a black coffin, and pulled by headless horses (very similar to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Like the Banshee, the coach foretells the death of a loved one, and will only leave once it has claimed a soul. The creature known as the Dullahan drives the coach (sometimes called Gan Ceann as Gaeilge), a headless male figure that sometimes carries their own head with a hideous grin. WB Yeats mentions the coach in his collection of Irish Folk Tales. Yeats states the coach will rumble to your door and, if you open it, blood will be thrown into your face. Yeats also states that as well as the coach and the banshee, some families know death is near by the crack of a whip or the attendance of ravens. Often it is stated that the coach travels so quickly it sets fire to the road, and that locks on houses and gates would not deter the coachman- the only thing to scare away the Dullahan was the sight of gold.

The Death Coach driven by the Dullahan

In Ireland, a Fetch is a supernatural double of a living person – like that of a doppelganger. Sighting of a fetch, particularly at night, signifies the death of that person. Some suggest the word originates from the Irish word for seer or prophet (fáith), other than that there is very little said about the origins of the term (it may also have some association with Norway). It is thought the term dates back as far as the 16th century but rose to prominence in the 19th century when mentioned in the gothic story ‘The Fetches’ by John and Michael Banim. The Fetch was also mentioned in the letters of Sir Walter Scott on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830.

1891 depiction of a Fetch


Death and Sex: The Sexualisation of Victorian Women’s Mourning Attire

In 2014-2015, the Met Museum in New York held an exhibition entitled ‘Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire’. The exhibit displayed 30 pieces of Victorian mourning attire (for female mourners) dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit gave a fascinating insight into the standards women were expected to uphold during their period of mourning in the 1800’s. When we think of Victorian bereavement rituals, we automatically think of the ‘widow’s weeds’ all black ensemble. And whilst we might think this attire might have been just been about death, dying and grief, it may also may have been about something else- sex. The Death Becomes Her Exhibit illustrated this point.

According to one of the curators for the exhibit, Harold Koda, “The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.” This suggested that the widow’s weeds were a symbol of sexual experience- she was no longer virginal (unlike the white worn at a wedding), and likely viewed by men as a candidate for casual sex. If she was a willing participant or initiated this arrangement, as Koda remarks, she was a threat to the social order.

In her article, ‘Sex, Death, Glamour: Victorian Funeral Style at the Met’, Bess Lovejoy discusses the Met exhibit and the links between Victorian widows and sex. The widow was a figure that aroused sympathy as well as sexual appeal. The long dresses oozed glamour, with black seen as ‘becoming’. As Lovejoy states- black is chic and sophisticated, along with beautifully made mourning jewellery the ensemble must have been striking. Mirroring a wedding dress with a veil, voluminous skirt and corseted waist, one can see how the lines were blurred between sex and death when one viewed the widow’s weeds. It is even suggested in the article that death can evoke interest in the opposite sex (as studies have shown). One glamourous dress that stands out in the exhibit is the ultra-glitzy purple sequined gown Queen Alexandra wore when she was mourning Queen Victoria (It was due to Queen Victoria and her prolonged mourning of Albert that mourning periods in black became commonplace).   

Dress worn by Alexandra whilst in mourning for Queen Victoria

The burden of wearing black during the mourning period mainly fell to the woman of the house. In full mourning garb, the woman would wear all black, eventually ‘diluting’ to a ‘half mourning’ period. During this period muted colours like grey and purple were worn. The intense period of mourning could last two years before muted colours became a wardrobe stable. Death was such a regular part of Victorian society that women could be wearing black for years on end. Interestingly, it was thought that ending the mourning period early meant a woman was sexually active. To see a widow out of her mourning dress was scandalous and once again linked to sex.

Dress similar in appearance to a wedding dress

It is suggested that these dresses were used to restrain men from making sexual advances. The wearing of black in fact was meant as a deterrent to male suitors – even though this likely had the opposite effect, especially if the widow was young. Society viewed a young widow as dangerous- she was untethered by marriage but had full sexual experience. She may have been vulnerable, having lost her social and financial status through her husband, but the black dress was a reminder to many of her associations with death as well as sex.  


The post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe: a case study of bodily integrity in death

When we think of the famous starlet, Marilyn Monroe, we think of the vivacious blond bombshell so full of life on our movie screens. Marilyn, born Norma Jean Mortensen, is by far one of the most well-known faces from the golden era of Hollywood. Like her life, her death was also full of controversy and is subject to conspiracy. I have read numerous articles and books, watched documentaries and listened to podcasts surrounding the circumstances of her death- with accusations of murder against the Kennedys, the Mafia and her medical team in numerous sources. Instead of discussing the topic of her death, I have decided to discuss the post-mortem treatment of Marilyn’s body. In life, her bodily autonomy was a subject of discussion for many a Hollywood executive. Whilst Marilyn was proud of her body and her overt sex appeal, one cannot deny how she was manipulated and used by many around her. She was painted as the ‘dumb blond’, despite the fact she was extremely intelligent and well read, she had an interest particularly in art history and classical literature. Unfortunately, issues regarding her bodily integrity also became apparent upon her death.

Marilyn died in her home on the 5th of August 1962. She was naked in her bed, with her telephone in her hand having died from an apparent overdose. Once the news had broke of her death, paparazzi surrounded her house and images taken of her dead body in her bedroom by the police were later publicly released. The bottles of prescription drugs on her bedside cabinet were pointed out by someone posing in the infamous photograph beside her corpse. Videos were taken of the gurney rolling out of the house with her lifeless body laying upon it. Just mere hours after her death, Marilyn was already being exploited by the media- they swarmed the funeral home she was taken to (there have been reports her corpse was stuffed in a broom closet away from prying eyes).

Newspaper headline with Marilyn’s Death

An unsavoury article released by the Daily Mail in 2015 discusses the claims made by the famous funeral service, Abbott and Hast, that Marilyn looked awful upon her death. Abbott and Hast were famous during the 1960’s as the funeral service used by the rich and famous, having also handled the bodies of Natalie Wood and Clark Gable. According to Allan Abbott, he states when he saw the body of Marilyn that she ‘looked like a very average, aging woman who had not been taking very good care of herself’. He even goes on to comment on the condition of her manicure, her hair colour and the fact that she had not shaved her legs in ‘at least a week’. Her appearance was scrutinised even in death, even then she was held to the highest of beauty standards. She was still a female subject that could be criticised by the male gaze, worsened by the fact Abbott was trusted to care for her in a confidential, respectful manner but decided to make his comments public. Abbott further discusses her case in his book ‘Pardon My Hearse’, chronicling his time as a mortician in Hollywood. Marilyn’s makeup artist Whitey Snyder came to the funeral home to do her makeup and to fit a wig that was used on one of her movies. Synder discussed Marilyn’s breasts with Abbott in the funeral home, stating that they had begun to sag at her age and that she wore ‘falsies’ to keep her physique. One of the workers exclaimed ‘what happened to her boobs?’ when they first saw her after the autopsy, as the incision in her chest area and rib cutting had caused them to change shape. Once the employee had decided to stuff her bra with cotton wool in the coffin, they stood back and stated, ‘Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe!’ Sexualisation and scrutinization of her physique deemed acceptable even as she was laid out to be viewed by loved ones. As someone who has trained in a funeral home setting, I cannot but feel disgusted by this blatant lack of disrespect and breach of confidentiality. Abbott even auctioned off the ‘falsie’ breasts brought to the funeral home by her executrix, and some of her hair that was removed by the embalmer. It is unsettling but not unsurprising that these items were deemed acceptable to auction.

Medical attendants removing the body of Marilyn Monroe

Before Marilyn was transported to the funeral home at Westwood Village Mortuary for preparation, her body was brought in for autopsy. Her autopsy was carried out by Dr Thomas Noguchi, the deputy chief examiner. Her death was ruled a probable suicide from barbiturates, most notably Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate. At the morgue, a Life magazine photographer bribed a mortuary attendant with a bottle of whiskey to take a photo of her un-embalmed, freshly autopsied body. Another infamous photo of her corpse has been the subject of much scrutiny, with even more derogatory commentary made concerning her appearance in the years following her death (there have even been sickening claims of necrophilia). There have also been allegations that the Hollywood Museum of death stored and displayed some of the post autopsy images of her. Marilyn or her loved ones had no control over the photos being taken of her body, and she had no control over their subsequent distribution and display in the years following.

Pills on Marilyn bedside table

Marilyn’s funeral took place on the 8th of August 1962 at the Westwood Village Mortuary Chapel, she was buried afterwards in the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. It was organised by her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio; she was dressed in green Pucci dress with a green chiffon scarf with the casket opened for the ceremony.

Having recently listened to the excellent podcast episode by Morbid Podcast on the death of Marilyn Monroe, there are even more disturbing facts surrounding her resting place. A man named Richard Poncher requested to be buried in the space above Marilyn, he also requested to be buried face down so he could ‘lie on top of her’- this wish was granted upon his death. Hugh Hefner, the infamous mogul of Playboy magazine, was buried next to Marilyn. This was the very same man who used her nude photos without her permission in the first playmate edition of the magazine in the 1950s. If you visit her grave today, bright pink and red lipstick marks adorn the monument from her fans- particularly unsettling as Marilyn never wanted to be remembered as the ‘dumb blonde’ lipstick wearing sex pot she was portrayed as onscreen.

Marilyn’s body serves as a reminder of the importance of bodily integrity in death as well as life. Her case is a poignant study of how death does not make one exempt from bodily scrutiny and exploitation. The legal issues regarding the rights of the dead and bodily integrity are complicated and controversial. We are concerned with the autonomy of the dead as they are strongly linked to the body of the living who expresses their wishes whilst alive. The question arises as to whether the dead provoke feelings of concern regarding the treatment of the corpse. Using Marilyn as an example, it does not seem that controversial to say the dead deserve the same respect as the living.  


Taraborrelli, J.R., 2009. The secret life of Marilyn Monroe. Grand Central Publishing.

Young, H., 2012. The right to posthumous bodily integrity and implications of whose right it is. Marq. Elder’s Adviser14, p.197.

Embalming: A Help or Hindrance to Grief? A Personal and Professional Experience

Whilst many European countries do not feel the need to embalm their dead, Ireland is not one of them. Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland, I was exposed to the deceased bodies of loved ones from a very young age as it is tradition for us to ‘wake’ our dead at home. I was eight years old when I saw my first dead body, it was that of my grandfather who had died from a long battle with lung cancer. I remember seeing him a day before he died, he was struggling to breathe, gaunt and his skin had yellowed. It scared me to see him like this, so I was apprehensive seeing him in the coffin that was placed in the living room of my grandparents’ house. But he had transformed from the ill man I had seen the night before to someone who looked the peaceful picture of health. I did not know it at the time, but I came to realise it was the embalmer who had been responsible for this transformation. I lost other grandparents, cousins, aunties, uncles, and parents later down the line and was never afraid of viewing them in their coffin because of the peace I felt at seeing my grandfather.

I recently came across an article on by Sallie Tisdale who discussed viewing her mother after she had died of breast cancer. She describes the transformative type process I just described seeing my grandfather, but for her the experience was overwhelmingly negative. She felt acceptance of her loss was hindered by the viewing, as her mother was made to ‘look alive’. Tisdale asks the important question, ‘why do we so often make a dead person appear alive?’
Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death does an excellent job of educating the public on embalming practices in America. Doughty does a series of YouTube videos (Ask a Mortician Channel) discussing what happens to a body during embalming. On the Order of the Good Death Websites there is plenty of information about how embalming became common practice (spoiler- The American Civil War played a large part) as well as the dangers and myths associated with dead bodies and the practice itself. Doughty does not condemn the practice but makes sure that the public know it is not always necessary, it can often be an extra cost to families.

From personal experience, embalming has helped immensely in the grieving process. My Father passed when I was 19 years old very suddenly in an accident and he was embalmed as part of the Catholic wake tradition. However, it was my Mother’s death when I was 25 years old where I felt embalming personally helped my grieving. My Mother died of brain cancer and had been ill for quite some time before her passing. She was only 50 years old when she died and had always looked quite youthful for her age until the disease began to progress. She was a shadow of her former self in the care home she was in, she had swollen limbs from excessive medication, her complexion was pale, and she was constantly agitated and confused. On her passing, seeing her in the funeral home after her embalming felt like a huge relief. She looked like her glamourous self again, more peaceful in death than she had been in life. Unlike Tisdale, I was appreciative of the practice as we had a chance to say goodbye to our Mother in the way we wanted to remember her. This may also have been down to differences in the work and skill of each embalmer, our embalmer did not go overboard with any makeup etc. Two weeks after her death I began assisting an embalmer and understood the practice fully. Whilst the practice itself is quite invasive, I was fascinated by it and asked the mortician about families who opted out of the practice. He told me they always make sure families know the extras costs and tell them it is not always necessary, but some still feel the need to go ahead with the embalming as it is how they grieve. What is important here is that families know their options, and the funeral home are not exploiting people when they are vulnerable.

There have also been suggestions that embalming has psychological implications in American society. Psychologists have suggested that embalming can be considered a ‘final assault on the self’ and that the natural looking deceased can encourage denial of death in loved ones. There is also some suggestion in other studies that there was more regret surrounding not viewing the body than having the body embalmed. Again, personal preference plays a large role. One lady describes how viewing her mother after she was embalmed disturbed her, but it brought her brother peace.

As someone with a background in archaeology, with an interest in how we preserved the dead in the past (as educational specimens and as part of funeral rites), it is no wonder this has interlinked with my professional life. Although modern embalming methods are strongly linked to the American Civil War, different cultures from all over the world have been preserving their dead in various ways as part of their grieving process for thousands of years- in the same way that many have not. It comes down to understanding the various options out there, and what works for some does not work for others. So, does embalming hinder the grieving process? The answer will never be the same for everyone.

Palermo, G.B., Gumz, E.J. The last invasion of human privacy and its psychological consequences on survivors: A critique of the practice of embalming. Theoretical Medicine 15, 397–408 (1994).

The Archaeology of Public Execution in 19th Century Britain: a narrative told through the examination of three accused.

Prior to the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, executions of criminals were public affairs. After the introduction of this act, executions were carried out within the walls of the prison, away from the prying eyes of the general public. In the Victorian era, hanging could attract thousands of spectators- with the events usually advertised prior and reported on in local broadsheets. Prior to 1861 around 222 crimes were considered capital offences until this was rectified by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act. The act meant four crimes were considered a hanging offence, these included murder, arson in a royal dockyard, violent piracy and treason.
The introduction of the ‘long drop’ during this period allowed for a more successful attempt at an instantaneous death. Prior to this strangulation was the only means by which death occurred when hanged. With this new ‘improved method’, the hanged would likely die from dislocated vertebrae or a rupture of the jugular vein. It is likely the accused I discuss below were not on the receiving end of this method, as it was only being introduced into England by William Marwood in the 1870’s after the concept had been developed in Ireland after the autopsy of a hanging at Galway Gaol in 1853.
The examples of the executions I have chosen for this blog post dated prior to 1868 (except for one part of the discussion), before the introduction of the act. From 1874 more measures to ensure quicker methods of hanging were introduced and the accused were treated more humanely. It is through the victims of execution that we get insights into societal attitudes to execution as spectacle, i.e. how they were treated and what remains of them in the archaeological and historical record.

William Burke: Executed in 1829, Edinburgh.
Perhaps the most infamous murderers of the 19th century, Burke and Hare are thought to have killed upwards of 16 people for the price of seven to ten pounds per body. The victims were killed for dissection and paid for by for the well-known anatomy professor, Robert Knox. The duo is most associated with the term ‘body snatchers’ and had a part to play in the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy Act that allowed legal cadaver donation to medical science to stop the illicit cadaver trade. Burke was hanged in front of a crowd of 25,000 and his body was put on public display before being donated to medical science. The famous Professor Alexander Monro tertius carried out the public dissection of Burke’s corpse. This shows that, even after the execution had been carried out, the bodies of criminals were still used as public entertainment. Hare escaped across the border into England after testifying against Burke, and his whereabouts became unknown shortly after that. Anatomy students are thought to have taken Burke’s skin to use as book binding and as other ‘souvenirs’. His death mask and skeleton are still on display in the Surgeons Hall museum Edinburgh and at University of Edinburgh, as well as a pocketbook made from his skin. The keeping of such ‘curiosities’ emphasises the fascination society had, and still has, on criminals of violent crimes. I myself have visited Surgeons Hall museum to view these types of specimens.

Death Mask of Burke
Skeleton of Burke
Skin Pocketbook

Maria Manning: Executed with her husband, Fredrick, in 1849, London.
Maria was born in Switzerland in 1821 and moved to London to work as a maid to Lady Blantyre. Blantyre was a wealthy woman, and the daughter of the Duchess of Sunderland. After having been proposed to by two men- Fredrick Manning and Patrick O Connor- Maria chose to marry Fredrick, a decision she came to regret as O Connor had been the wealthier of the two men. She lured O Connor to her home for dinner, under the pretence she would provide sexual favours, and shot him in the back of the head. The shot did not kill him, with Fredrick finished him off with a crowbar. The murder was motivated by money and jealously, with O Connors body being discovered under the couple’s flagstones by police. Up to 50,000 people are thought to have attended the hangings, with Charles Dickens attending the execution himself. Maria was considered ‘the star of the show’, with her black satin dress she was executed in sold for profit and her death mask was included in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. The Wellcome Trust has the copy of the lithograph entitled ‘The death mask of Maria Manning, the murdered: three views’ by John Lane, created in attempt to assist Tussaud with the likeness. The sexual motivations for the murder and the dominance of the female in the marriage both intrigued and disgusted Victorians. Maria was sensationalised as glamorous, and with the executions of women being particularly rare it’s no wonder her execution caused such an interest. The couple were apparently the first couple to be hanged together since 1700. The broadsheet printed on the execution is held by the British Library, these sheets were cheaply produced and sold on the streets to the masses. It is thought the Manning broadsheet printed around 2.5 million copies.

Death Mask of Manning
The Manning Broadsheet
Lithograph by John Lane

Sarah Lloyd: Executed in 1800, Bury St Edmonds.
Sarah Lloyd was no more than 22 years of age when she was executed. Her story is tragic and emphasises the importance put upon obedience in female servants at the time. An illiterate servant, Sarah was enlisted by a man called Joseph Clarke to steal from her mistress, after which he attempted to set the house on fire. Clarke never admitted to any crime, and the judge decided Sarah would be made an example of. He sentenced her to death despite numerous outcries. The local Rev Drummond petitioned for Sarah as he recognised her as a ‘helpless instrument’ who had fallen under Clarke’s spell. Clarke did not receive any punishment for his crimes. Sarah was executed in front of a weeping crowd on the 23rd April 1800, she highlighted the type of person that was the most likely to be executed – a person of lower class and with little education (Sarah wasn’t even sure of her own age, she may have been only 19 years old when executed). Her gravestone states ‘May my example be a warning to thousands’- her reported last words as she stood on the gallows. Archaeologically, this seems to be all that remains of her execution, perhaps echoing how unimportant she was deemed in society. The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis, who was executed in 1955. Like Lloyd, there was a large public outcry when Ellis was sentenced. She was a mother of two who had shot an abusive partner, David Blakely, thought to have induced a miscarriage shortly before the murder. Ellis had been to hospital multiple times for treatment of injuries inflicted by Blakely. Another woman by the name of Sarah Lloyd had murdered her elderly neighbour in 1955 by hitting her with a shovel and pouring boiling water on her- she had been sentenced to death but did not hang, even though no one petitioned for her. Ellis was not given the same treatment. As with the 1800 case of Sarah Lloyd, Ruth Ellis was not given any leniency because of her background – she was thought to provide sexual favours for men and liked to drink. Both hangings caused public outrage (though Ellis committed premeditated murder), even though they were over 150 years apart. Although Ellis does not fit with the 19th century timeline (her execution was carried out privately), her execution is a good example of how the public narrative was similar in much earlier cases towards certain accused.

Grave Stone of Lloyd
Ruth Ellis and David Blakely
Newspaper Article on Ellis

Public execution: entertainment for the masses, or a warning to others?
Archaeological material associated with victims of public execution in 19th century Britain can be interpreted in several ways. The material, whether that was the body itself or newspaper clippings etc., show that the public reaction towards the gruesome spectacle was very much based on the crime committed and the person who committed them. Hangings weren’t all we assume they were- a crowd of the poor population shouting obscenities at the accused. As with the case of Sarah Lloyd, the public did not want her hanged, and often the educated, more wealthier classes would also attend the hangings. The input of mathematicians and medical doctors in developing the more humane long drop method in the second half of the 19th century also comments on the changing attitudes towards the accused. The suffered during and prior to the execution became a concern where it hadn’t before – perhaps due to outcries from the general public and medical community alike? The keeping of ‘mementos’ from the hanged (particularly in the case of Burke) also highlights the celebrity status that could accompany the criminals. The fascination we still have with these artefacts can only comment on our own fascination with these executions- but the important question to ask is do we view them as victims or simply as criminals?

Moore, J., (2018) Murder by Numbers: Fascinating Figures Behind the Worlds Worst Crimes. The History Press: UK.
Ballinger, A., (2019) Dead Woman Walking: Executed Women in England and Wales, 1900-55. Routledge.