Irish Women and Death Series: Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and the Introduction of the BCG Vaccine.

Perhaps one of the lesser-known Irish heroines is Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. Born in Ireland in 1890, Dorothy became of pioneer of the BCG vaccine and the tuberculin test in Ireland. Although this blog post series is entitled ‘Irish Women and Death’, this is about an Irish woman who prevented death and dying amongst the Irish people. She was credited by her peers with playing a huge part in helping bring an end to the tuberculosis epidemic in Ireland. Often referred to as ‘Ireland’s rebel doctor’, this is the story of Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and her battle against death in Ireland.

Dorothy went to study medicine in Trinity College Dublin in 1916, a very tumultuous year in Ireland in which the Easter Rising took place. The execution of the rebels caused her to swing her sympathies towards the nationalists, even though she was very friendly with a key figure in the British administration. After the Rising, Dorothy joined Cumann na mBan (League of Women/ Irish Women’s Council), a nationalist group for Irish women as she began to question to British regime in Ireland. She even trained some Cumann na mBan members in first aid at the West Cork IRA stronghold – risking her career in the process. She treated the wounded during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, working as a medical officer for the RIC barracks.

Whilst in her third year of medical school, the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Ireland after the First World War. Dorothy was exposed to huge amounts of death and dying, tending to the inflicted living as well as conducting post-mortems on the dead. The rate of death and infection no doubt had a huge impact on Dorothy’s later championing of vaccination. As part of her MD thesis, she investigated the diagnosis of tuberculosis in early childhood.

After witnessing a huge amount of child mortality in the 1920’s in Dublin whilst working as physician in a children’s hospital, it was in 1931 that came was a defining moment in Dorothy’s career. In Vienna, she saw Dr Franz Hamburger use tuberculin to diagnose tuberculosis by observing a skin reaction. Dorothy brought a tube of tuberculin back to Ireland, and by 1934, she had managed to carry out over 500 tests. Her findings concluded that vaccination needed to be implemented in Ireland (as many had not been exposed to tb so immunity could not develop), and in Sweden in 1936 Dorothy saw the use of the BCG vaccine. She was the first person to use the vaccine in Ireland in 1937, around the same time of the Ring Disaster – this brought the effectiveness of vaccination into question as a group of children who had been vaccinated against diphtheria had developed tuberculosis.

Dorothy attempted to set up an Antituberculosis League in Ireland in the 1940’s, but unfortunately the Archbishop of Dublin at the time protested against the number of protestants who were present in the league. The league was never established, but Dorothy still campaigned for vaccination against tuberculosis in Ireland and across Europe. In 1949, the Irish health minister asked Dorothy to lead a new committee to implement vaccination in Ireland. Dorothy was also nominated for a WHO prize for her contribution to social medicine. She suffered a stroke in 1950 and died in 1954 from a second stroke. Many attributed her stroke and death to stress and overworking. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price is one of the unknown heroines of the Irish healthcare system who worked herself to death in an attempt to prevent death on a mass scale in Ireland.   


Irish Women and Death Series: The Last Witch Killing in Ireland in 1895

When we think of the women murdered for being witches, we often associate these killings with events that happened hundreds of years ago – the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 usually come to mind for example, or the reign of terror committed by the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins in the middle of the 17th century. However, it was in 1895 the last ‘Witch killing’ was committed in Ireland. Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and members of her family/community in County Tipperary, Ireland. The trial of her murderers was a media sensation at home and abroad, coinciding with the debate surrounding Home Rule in Ireland at the time. The murder of Bridget is not an isolated incident of a woman murdered for being different at the hands of a man. Religion, superstition, oppression, and patriarchy are key themes surrounding the incident as well as post-mortem bodily integrity. In this blog post, I intend to tell the story of Bridget’s murder, as well as the links between her murder and the death folklore that was prevalent in Ireland at the time, some of which still lingers today. We also see an amalgamation of pagan superstition and the Catholic religion – both were used as a weapon of oppression that justified her death to the man who committed the murder, despite the fact they are often thought to be separate entities and that the Catholic church condemned the old oral mythological stories. The killing of ‘witches’ in the past usually stemmed from a fear of the women accused, with the topic of women and death often unsettling, and provocative.

Bridget (Boland) was born in a small village in rural Tipperary in the late 1860’s. She became a dressmaker, and eventually married her husband Michael Cleary in 1887. Michael worked as a cooper, and the couple lived comfortably as Bridget also independently ran a small business selling eggs as well as dressmaking and hat making. The slate roofed cottage they lived in was modest, but in comparison to other homes in the area at the time it was very comfortable. Angela Bourke’s excellent book ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story’ tells us a little more about Bridget’s personality. Many described her as sexually attractive and stylish, with a very strong personality. Her attire was commented on – instead of wearing the traditional shawl around her head like many 19th century Irish women, Bridget wore a black straw hat adorned with ribbon and feathers. Bourke also attests to the fact that hen keeping may have caused men to feel resentment towards independent women, with the henwife or ‘cailleach na gCearc’ in oral stories depicted as wise and cunning, with strong associations with the supernatural. Interestingly, ‘cailleach’ is also used to refer to a ‘witch’ in the Irish language. On top of Bridget’s eccentricities, she was also childless. Herself and Michael had been married for seven years when she was murdered, and it was unlikely they were childless by choice – many who believed in fairies often stated that women who went with them often returned infertile.

Bridget Cleary

One week in early March in 1895, Bridget caught a chill whilst out collecting payment for eggs. She took to her bed, likely suffering from pneumonia or bronchitis. A local storyteller and avid fairy believer by the name of Jack Dunne visited her at home. Dunne and Michael in conversation with each other likely allowed for the development of the fairy and witchcraft narrative. The location at which Bridget had caught a chill was close to a local ringfort or fairy fort, an archaeological dwelling that was often avoided in Irish society as it was thought to house the Fae who should not be antagonised. Dr Crean was the local medical doctor, and he treated Bridget for bronchitis and ‘nervous excitement’ often associated with women. A priest was also called to administer last rites and deliver communion as concern mounted for her health. However, her family became increasingly convinced her deposition was associated with the fairy folk or the work of the devil, and a local ‘witch doctor’ was consulted by Michael and the adamant Dunne. The ‘witch doctor’ was Denis Ganey, and he provided herbs to be administered. It was now the belief that Bridget was no longer herself, rather she was a changeling who had taken her place as the real Bridget had been taken by fairies. A group of male relatives held Bridget down in bed and force fed her the herbs boiled in milk. They were reported to have screamed ‘Take it you, witch!’ as Bridget resisted the mixture. Her face was burned with a hot iron poker to force her to swallow the ‘medicine’ and the contents of a chamber pot were thrown on her. Both iron and urine were thought to deter fairies and other supernatural beings. The men shook her and held her down, shouting and asking, ‘Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’ Interestingly, the dousing of urine, aggressive shaking of women by men, and the involvement of fairies, were often associated with difficult childbirth and death in labour. Bridget’s ordeal suffered for days, and it was evident that religious elements were also part of the driving force behind the violence. As well as local superstition entangled in the narrative, prayers were also said, and holy water was also used to douse her body. Bridget was both devil and fairy, witch, and woman – a manifestation of all things feared at the time. Things escalated the night of the of 15th/ 16th March when Bridget was finally dressed and out of bed. A small crowd had gathered in the house consisting of relatives and locals. Although it seemed the ‘fairy illness’ had passed, Bridget was still weak from bronchitis. When she did not answer her husband straight away when he questioned who she was, he pushed her to the floor, accused her once again of not being his wife, and tried to force feed her bread. Holding his knee on her chest, he stripped her clothing down to her chemise and stockings – Bourke attests to the sexual elements of the violence against her. Michael then held a hot poker to her face before her chemise went up in flames. It is here where things are a bit hazy. Either Michael knocked his wife unconscious by hitting her head or initially setting her alight with the poker rendered her unconscious from shock. This may have killed her, but after she initially lost consciousness (whether dead or not) Michael doused her in oil numerous times and set her alight again. She may have been burned alive (immolated) or she was already dead when set alight with the oil (likely kerosene). She was 26 or 28 years old at the time of her murder.

The cottage where the murder took place

Immediately following her death Michael was adamant it was not his wife he had just killed, stating she was a fairy imposter or a witch, and that his real wife would return to him on a white horse from the fairy fort. Cleary allegedly threatened those in the house at the time with a knife, making them swear to secrecy and help him bury the body of the ‘changeling’. She was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a shallow grave near the home before being discovered by police a week later after rumours began to circulate that she had gone missing or was ‘away with the fairies.’ Ten people were arrested in connection with the murder, many of whom were her own family members – Michael Cleary was eventually sentenced to 20 years hard labour (for manslaughter, not murder), with the others accused serving sentences between 6 months and 5 years. During the trial Home Rule was brought up as part of the narrative, and the case was used as a means to comment on the ‘barbarism’ of the Irish ‘peasantry’ (The Cleary’s were far from peasants), arguing the Irish could not possibly govern themselves when they committed atrocities such as the ‘burning’.

The post-mortem integrity of Bridget’s body should be noted in this case. Bridget was laid out for display in an outhouse under police guard as she was viewed by members of the jury. Her body was severely burnt in the lower half, with her intestines protruding along with her bones. Her face was unburnt but held a ghastly expression according to those who viewed her. The post-mortem examination concluded that she died from her burns. Although it was deemed necessary to ‘display’ her body for viewing, it still seems unsettling and a concern for her bodily integrity in death – children tried to crawl over the walls near the building to catch a glimpse of her exposed corpse.

With death and funeral culture being such a huge part of Irish heritage, it is extremely telling to learn that Bridget’s funeral was boycotted by locals and the parish church despite the fact she was an innocent victim. To not partake in assisting a Christian burial in Ireland was the grimmest form of boycott, with religious ceremonies and funerary traditions such as keening and ‘wakes’ a huge aspect of Irish society. Four police constables assisted in her burial which was done at night by the light of a lantern. A very simple, crude coffin was provided by the Poor Law Union and no hearse was used. Today, the exact spot in which she is buried is not marked by a headstone with intact writing. Her exact spot is often under dispute, but she is in a particular quadrant of the old graveyard in Cloneen marked with some sort of weathered stone near the grave of her mother. Bridget is both forgotten and remembered as her case was an international media sensation, but the fact her exact burial spot is not marked is also telling. Today, the cottage the murder was committed in is still standing and a children’s rhyme is still spoken…

‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’    

The case of Bridget’s death has several themes to unpick, with witchcraft, sexual attraction, patriarchal control, post- mortem integrity, femicide, infidelity, death culture, infertility, lunacy, hysteria, religion, folklore, and superstition all featured in the reporting associated with the case in historical and modern sources. Her death has complexities and has numerous multi layered interpretations but will remain an infamous story of a young woman and her untimely death. Today, you can leave a virtual flower on her grave (link in sources) as a touching tribute to an innocent young woman.

Area in the graveyard Bridget may be located
Another area in the graveyard Bridget may be located


Bourke, A., 1995. Reading a woman’s death: colonial text and oral tradition in nineteenth-century Ireland. Feminist Studies21(3), pp.553-586.

Bourke, A., 2010. The burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story. Random House

Coleman, S., 2006. Bridget Cleary Speaks!. Irish Journal of Anthropology9(1), pp.35-36.

Hogan, M., 2021. The Murder of Bridget Cleary. Tipperary: Unpublished essay.

The Archaeology of Assassination: Grief, Gore, and Glorification.

In this blog post I will look at three examples of assassination and the material that has been left behind from them. These objects and archaeological sites are poignant reminders of the grief the loved ones of those targeted felt upon their death, as well as the intense fear of those present when these assassinations occurred. These objects are emotionally charged, with some containing the biological material of the assassinated. Often these types of archaeological artifacts are controversial regrading their display, but they seem capture the public interest in museum settings. These examples are just some of the famous archaeological materials, sites, or ‘relics’ left behind from some of the history’s most famous assassinations. 

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1864)- Objects: The Derringer pistol of John Wilkes Booth and the lead bullet from Lincoln’s autopsy.

John Wilkes Booth entered the theatre box of Lincoln and his wife on the 14th of April 1865. This was a mere 5 days after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant, bringing an end to the American Civil War. Booth shot Lincoln once in the head using a 5.87-inch tiny derringer pistol. The tiny ‘pocket pistol’ was only armed with one shot, and the lead ball fired from the gun entered below Lincolns left ear before it was retrieved during his autopsy at the White House by Dr Edward Curtis. The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, with the pistol itself on display at Ford’s Theatre. In 1940, the War department allowed the weapon to be displayed along with other relics associated with the assassination. 

Interestingly, there is a poll on Ford Theatre’s website asking whether the murder weapon should be on display, and if so, how should it be displayed? Four presidents have been assassinated in the US (all with guns), with two of the firearms used on display whilst two are not. The Buffalo history museum currently displays the pistol used to assassinate William McKinley in 1901. Are these weapons a gruesome oddity, or are they important artifacts associated with death that should be put on display? Are they glorifying the assassins who pulled the trigger, or are the glorifying the ones who were shot by these weapons? We may never know the answer to these questions, and whilst these artifacts are undoubtedly significant historical archaeological artifacts, the loved ones left behind and their grief should always be considered in the display of such trauma related objects – in the case of Lincoln, over 100 years has passed since his death, meaning immediate loved ones have died also.

The pistol used by John Wilkes Booth (Source:
The bullet that killed Lincoln (Source:

2. John F. Kennedy (1963)- Object: The blood-stained dress of Jackie Kennedy.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of Harvey Lee Oswald is perhaps the most famous assassination of all time. Kennedy was shot in the head on the 22nd of November 1963 as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Bullets struck both his head and neck, and he slumped onto his wife who held his head as they sped to the hospital a few minutes away. Nothing could be done to save JFK, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour after the motorcade had commenced in Dallas. One of the most iconic images surrounding the assassination is Jackie in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. Jackie kept the blood-stained suit on hours after her husband’s death. She was seen wearing it as she accompanied her husband’s body to Air Force One and as she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office. Jackie was sending a clear message, stating ‘I want them to see what they have done’ – the first lady wanted the world to know what had happened to her husband. The pink suit became iconic, an outward display of glamour as well as grief. So where is the suit now?

The pink suit was brought to the National Archives for safe keeping, and Caroline Kennedy agreed in 2003 that the suit could go on display once 100 years had passed. The suit is kept in a controlled environment for preservation and will be shown to the public in 2103. What a fascinating piece of archaeology this suit is and will become, with the bloody remains of one of the most famous men of all time splattered across the garment. The suit is shown in the iconic photographs of a formidable, grieving widow. The suit will serve as a reminder of the distress Jackie must have felt having been seated next to her husband and sprayed with his blood upon the impact of the bullet that killed him. Jackie suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, suffering from nightmares, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems in the time that followed. That pink Chanel suit is both a physical and emotional reminder of traumatic death and dying as well as the strength of one woman, showing that even the most powerful in the world are not immune to such tragedies.  

Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel suit (Source:

3. Julius Caesar (44BC)- Place: Curia of Pompey.

Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman Senators at the Curia of Pompey (built in 55BC) – a meeting place at Pompey’s Theatre. Led by Brutus and Longinus, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the senators after tensions rose when Caesar was named dictator perpetuo. He was stabbed on the 15th of March – infamously known as ‘the Ides of March’ in 44BC. In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) claimed to have found the spot where the assassination took place. In Largo di Torre Argentina square, Rome, a 3m wide structure was found by archaeologists. Augustus (Caesars’ adopted son) is known to have built a structure matching the description of the concrete building described by researchers – allowing excavators to confirm the significance of the site. The site was a cat sanctuary before researchers began to carry out excavations of the complex – and continues to house cat colonies today. At present, the ruins can only be observed at the street level above.

In 2022, the area the Curia of Pompey is located, known as the Area Sacra, is to open to the public as an open-air museum. Restorations will begin in the area, where the ruins of other Republican era temples are located, with the aim of opening after the Covid-19 pandemic to attract tourism. Is it wrong to use the site as a tourist attraction, knowing that this is where one of the most infamous assassinations took place? Is this an element of dark tourism? These are questions that many will consider as the structure becomes accessible to the public, but there are many other archaeological sites that ‘showcase’ assassination or public execution. Such sites may include gallows or beheading sites that can be found in many historical places across the UK. What the Curia of Pompey does is highlight and humanise the death of a world leader who has become more than a mere man in the two thousand years since his murder. Perhaps the archaeology associated with his assassination will allow the public to think more about his death, and the bereavement of his family and allies that followed.

Area Sacra where the Curia of Pompey is located (Source: Lonely Planet)


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.  

Image from:

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.