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:


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 Embalming of Maria Van Butchell by William Hunter and William Cruickshank, 1775.

I recently read Kate Lister’s fantastic book ‘The Curious History of Sex’. In one of the chapters entitled ‘Boy’s Toys: The History of the Sex Doll’, I was struck by the story of Maria Van Butchell. She was embalmed by her husband, Martin Van Butchell, in 1775 for the purposes of public display. For this blog post, I explored the embalming further and the life of the eccentric 18th century dentist, who worked closely with some of the most famous anatomists of the time.
Van Butchell (born in c.1735) trained under the famous surgeon John Hunter and became interested in dentistry. He charged highly for his dentistry services (he was a very capable dentist), and he became known for his eccentricities as well as his surgical skill (sometimes he was referred to as a ‘kook’). He specialised in anal fistulas and haemorrhoids as well as dentistry and was considered to have had a strange way of dressing himself at the time. However, the oddest thing he is known to have done involved his wife, Maria (sometimes referred to as Mary).
On the 15th January 1775, Maria died. Van Butchell asked the surgeons William Hunter and William Cruickshank to embalm her so she could be displayed as part of his dental practice. Embalming of loved ones was not commonplace at the time, making the request even stranger still. It is difficult to untangle what was actually used in the embalming method, but sources suggest she was ‘stuffed’ with ‘powdered nitre’ and injected with carmine, turpentine and wine in order to give her a ‘rosy glow’. She was also reported to have been dressed in her wedding dress and given two glass eyes. Finally, after a thin paste of plaster Paris was applied, Maria was placed in a glass topped coffin for display in the drawing room for patients to look at.

Quack dentistry was a booming business at the time, but the presence of Maria meant Van Butchell had to put an advertisement in the newspaper stating only a limited number of persons could visit the practice every day. It was evident her presence seemed to be good for business. Despite the embalming being carried out by two renowned anatomists, the preservation method had not been perfected at the time and many referred to Maria as a ‘repulsive’ object who eventually began to decay. Van Butchell remarried a woman named Elizabeth, who understandably protested the presence of Maria in the drawing room. Maria’s body was eventually donated to the Hunterian Museum for display in 1815. She remained there until the body was destroyed in a German bombing in 1941.
So why did Van Butchell embalm Maria? Understandably, one cannot help but notice the misogyny of the time at play. It was reported that Van Butchell had a clause in his marriage contract that allowed him to use Maria as property when she remained ‘above ground’. Maria was his property in his eyes- something he could do with whatever he wanted. As Kate Lister discusses in her book, there are disturbing necrophiliac undertones associated with her embalming. A disturbing epitaph that accompanied her in the Hunterian Museum even referred to her as ‘A much-loved wife at home to keep, Caress, touch talk to, even sleep…’. One can fully understand why this embalming example shows up in the sex doll chapter of Lister’s book. Van Butchell was also known to be dogmatic in life, demanding Maria only wear black and his second wife Elizabeth only wear white as contrast. Even before her embalming, Maria was still regarded as a ‘doll’ that could be dressed how he liked- in her death, Van Butchell carried on this tradition.


Christen AG, Christen JA. Martin Van Butchell (1735-1814): the eccentric, “kook” dentist of old London. J Hist Dent. 1999;47(3):99‐104.
Lister, K., 2020. A Curious History of Sex. Unbound Publishing.
Watkins D. The strange tale of Martin van Butchell. Br Dent J. 1989;167(9):319‐320. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.4807021

Who was ‘Typhoid Mary’? Mary Mallon and the fever of early 20th Century New York City

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, Ireland, in 1869. At around the age of 15, Mary migrated to New York City to live with her Aunt and Uncle and took up work as a cook.
It was in the Summer of 1906 when Mary was working for a wealthy banker called Charles Warren that she earned her nickname ‘Typhoid Mary’, she has become infamous as a healthier carrier of Salmonella typhi. However, it should be noted that Mary was likely not the most lethal of typhoid carriers in New York, with banker Tony Labella reportedly causing over 100 cases in 1922. Nevertheless, Mary has become synonymous with the disease.
Typhoid fever was linked with the poorer population as poor sanitation and overcrowding were thought to trigger outbreaks. It was a shock to the population when the wealthy family of Charles Warren contracted the disease in Oyster Bay in the Summer of 1906. The family hired a sanitation engineer called George Soper to investigate why the family had been infected, and after testing of the water supply and shellfish came up negative, Soper linked the disease to an individual- Mary. Mary would make peach ice cream for the family in the Summer heat, thus allowing the bacteria to survive in the cold dessert after it transferred from her hands due to inadequate washing. It was then discovered that seven families who Mary had worked for in the six years previously had also had outbreaks of the disease. She was linked to infecting over 20 people with the disease, resulting in the death of a least one person. Soper labelled her as ‘patient zero’ and Mary was thought to be the likely cause of the New York outbreak that year that infected over 3,000 New Yorkers, rising to 4,500 the following year. The seriousness of her carrier status was elevated by the fact a vaccine was not developed at the time – this was only created in 1911. Mary was forcefully quarantined by the police at a cottage at Riverside hospital and her stool samples tested positive for Salmonella typhi.

Newspaper advertisement of ‘Typhoid Mary’

Mary was confined until 1910 by the health department, even attempting to sue them in 1909 (unsuccessfully). A range of treatments did not help her condition, with officials even offering to remove her gallbladder- which she refused. After her release, Mary changed her name and began to work as a cook again, despite promising officials she would not. She further contaminated at least 25 people whilst working in Sloane Maternity Hospital, Manhattan. She was confined at Riverside once again, where she remained until her death of pneumonia in 1938 (She had suffered a stroke in 1932 and never walked again). It is likely her poor, immigrant status was linked to her long confinement- many others who may have caused more serious outbreaks were only quarantined for a few weeks before being released. Mary was not fully educated by medical staff on her condition and carrier status – this is likely why she did not stay out of the kitchen when first released.

Mary at Riverside Hospital

‘Typhoid Mary’ became the butt of jokes in the city and her name often appeared in medical books and newspapers. Mary is an example of how public health can have societal prejudices; many doctors did not work with her to help her understand her status. She was just used as a ‘lab rat’, spreading the disease out of ‘ignorance, not malice’. She is now known as ‘the famous typhoid carrier who ever lived’ (she was not even the deadliest carrier of the time), with at least 51 people becoming infected from her spread and 3 dying from the infection.
Her body was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in the Bronx. There are conflicting rumours that she had been autopsied upon her death. Some suggest a post-mortem revealed her gallbladder to contain Salmonella typhi. Others state this was a rumour created by health officials as to rationalise her forced confinement and calm public opinion on the matter. Ethical concerns were raised concerning her treatment and long-term isolation.

Newspaper image of Mary


Alchemy and Embalming: The Surprising Merge of Two Scientific Arts

When we think of alchemical practice, we often think of a pseudoscience related to magic and mysticism, steeped in inaccurate scientific endeavours. One cannot help but think of the infamous philosopher stone- the famed substance claimed to turn base metals into precious metals such as gold. The stone was often thought to provide the maker with immortality. However, whilst alchemists have been associated with quackery, one cannot help but observe their role in the origins of chemistry. With observation into the themes of alchemical research it is clear embalming practices may have a larger role than once previously observed. It is, after all, modern chemists who have perfected the process so why wouldn’t the first chemists of the past be linked to such a scientific practice? In this blog post I discuss the surprising links alchemical practice had with the art of embalming, and how we can begin to think of alchemists in a different light.

As I mentioned in my last blog post Jesus Christ was thought to have been embalmed. Links were made between his bodily preservation and his subsequent resurrection. The 13th century alchemical writer Arnald of Villanova uses the steps in the resurrection of Christ to allegorically describe the process of the alchemical treatment of mercury. This description attempted to elevate alchemy by linking it to Christianity, and in the 19th century alchemical text the Rosarium philosophorum we see Christs Resurrection depicted to show a step in the alchemical process. The fact mercury is linked to resurrection and the philosophers stone is interesting, as mercury became a fluid used in the embalming method. Mercury was one of the more important substances to alchemists, as it was suggested to be the ‘seed of all metals.’ Mercury in turn became an important substance for anatomists who wished to study the vessels within the human body. Mercurial embalming injections were first mentioned by Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi (1628-94) in 1661 in his study of the finest branches of the lungs. It has been suggested the use of mercury had visual as well as alchemical elements in its manifestation. Malphgi may have been referencing alchemy when he mentions the structures looking like ‘branches of a tree’- the tree being a huge symbol in alchemy with creations like the Arbor Philosophorum (Diana’s Tree) and Arbor Saturnus (Saturn’s Tree) prevalent in experimentation. The density of mercury was thought of as having the same density as blood, hence the use of the material in embalming injections. Malphgi, and other enlightened minds of the era, used metals to understand the flow of blood. When heated, both mercury and blood separated into ‘a red solid part and a fluid, white, watery part’, cementing alchemists/ anatomist’s theories that the two were strongly linked. The serous matter in the blood at the time suggested to many researchers to be lymphatic fluid, with Anthony Nuck (1650-1692) of Leiden University exploring the lymphatic system further by developing a mercurial mix that would harden through the addition of lead and tin. Nuck often looked to alchemy for reference, referring to mercury as ‘Noster Mercurius’ which refers to the alchemical union of sulphur and argent vive to create philosophical mercury. Anatomical mercury was also used by the famous Alexander Monro Secunsus and by Eduard Sandifort, Professor of Anatomy at Leiden, in the second half of the 18th Century. The fluidity of academic fields in this era can be observed in the links between embalming and alchemy, with scientific historians agreeing distinctions were made in later years.

As well as mercury, arsenic has links in both fields. Ancient Egyptians, sometimes referred to as the first alchemists, used arsenic to harden copper and as an addition to embalming fluid. It was, in fact, an Arab alchemist from the 8th century that first transformed the tasteless, oxide powder we know today before it became more prevalent as an embalming fluid ingredient. Chronic arsenic poisoning became an issue for embalmers and arsenic quickly became known as one of the chemical world’s most deadly poisons. Aqua vitae is mentioned by the 16th Century physician Peter Forestus as an ingredient in washing embalming fluid. It is notable that this terminology is used as the phrasing is alchemical latin- the distilling of wine called ‘burning water’ by John of Rupescissa in the 14th century. Again, we see links between scientific ingredients in two practices that had a ‘recipe literature’. Forestus (also known as Pieter Van Foreest) disliked ‘quackery’ within the medical profession and was trusted enough to conduct the autopsy and embalming of William of Orange after his assassination. This again would suggest the significance of such alchemical phrasing used by a formidable physician known as ‘the Dutch Hippocrates’.

We can look even further back in time to see the original connections made between alchemy and embalming. As per my brief mention, the Egyptians have been referred to as ‘the first alchemists’. In my other blogposts, I have also talked about this civilisation as one of the first embalmers in the ancient world (as well as being the most famous). Anubis was the God of embalmers, and many priests carried out methods of bodily preservation ritual with magical as well as scientific methods wearing the Anubis headdress. The jackal head image also appears on ‘magician’ boxes from the period. Mortuary symbolism is linked to alchemy and the embalming process alike. The intention of embalming of pharaohs was transformation of the body to an incorruptible vessel, capable of surviving forever in the underworld. The transformation ideology is one of the strongest in alchemical imagery, as well as resurrection as I have already discussed. The method of embalming using salts for dehydration also became commonplace in the alchemical labs of the era, such as the alchemical operation of calcinatio for reducing humidity prima materia.

Alchemical embalming connections are imbedded in ancient as well as more modern anatomical culture. From the Egyptians to the enlightened, one cannot help but notice the links between both practices in a time when there were less distinctions between fields of study. This aspect of alchemical history, as well as embalming history, is a subject matter that needs further investigation and attention, suggesting more than ever the need for multi-disciplinary research.

Brenner E. Human body preservation – old and new techniques. J Anat. 2014;224(3):316–344. doi:10.1111/joa.12160
Cavalli, T.F., 2010. Embodying Osiris: The secrets of alchemical transformation. Quest Books.
Doyle, D., 2009. Notoriety to respectability: a short history of arsenic prior to its present day use in haematology. British journal of haematology, 145(3), pp.309-317.
Grimes, S.L., 2006. Zosimus of Panopolis: Alchemy, nature, and religion in late antiquity. Syracuse University.
Guiley, R., 2006. The encyclopedia of magic and alchemy. Infobase Publishing.
Hendriksen, M.M., 2014. Anatomical Mercury: Changing Understandings of Quicksilver, Blood, and the Lymphatic System, 1650–1800. Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences, 70(4), pp.516-548.
Houtzager, H.L., 1997. Pieter Van Foreest, The Dutch Hippocrates. Vesalius: acta internationales historiae medicinae, 3(1), pp.3-12.
Principe, L.M., 2012. The secrets of alchemy. University of Chicago Press.

The First Female Anatomist: Who Was Alessandra Giliani?

I recently stumbled across the name Alessandra Giliani whilst listening to a podcast. I had never heard the name before and was fixated on the idea of a female anatomist in a field dominated by men, particularly during the early 14th century when Giliani was practicing. After some researching, it is clear this woman has a special place in anatomy history, with doubts as to whether she actually existed. Her life has been fictionalised by novelist Barbara Quick in the novel ‘A Golden Web’, but who exactly was she?

Alessandra Giliani was born in Persiceto, Italy in 1307. She studied under Mondino de Luzzi (who died the same year as her in 1326) at the University of Bologna. There, she worked as his assistant, specialising in dissection demonstrations and as a prosector. Whilst researching at the University, she also invented a method of observing small blood vessels in the body without damaging any human tissue. The technique involved injecting dyes into the body and allowing the solution to dry. Mondini de Luzzi had published a pivotal text on anatomy in 1316 and was a world-renowned researcher. Her young age as his assistant, let alone her gender, was an impressive achievement of the time. It has also been suggested that she was engaged to Otto Angenious. Another anatomist who worked as Mondino’s assistant, Angenius honoured Giliani after she passed away with a plaque of a description of her work.

Sources are very limited today about the life of Giliani. There have been suggestions that she was a fictional character created by Alessandro Machiavelli in the 18th century. It has also been suggested that her importance as an anatomist has been downplayed in history due to the unconventional role taken on by a woman in both the religious and social settings of the time. As a result of this, all evidence of her work is thought to have been destroyed or ‘lost’. Archaeologically, the only evidence that points to her existence is an image of a young, possibly female, anatomist depicted in the work of Mondino de Luzzi (see featured image). However the text was published first in 1316, long before Giliani worked for him, but was republished again years after her death with the image. One source, however, does mention the young anatomist. Michele Medici mentions her in his 19th century text that explores the history of the anatomy school at the University of Bologna.

Giliani died in 1326 at the age of 19. It is not clear how she died, but it is thought it was from a septic wound. Despite the tragedy of her early death, and despite the lack of resources on her work, she remains an inspirational and enigmatic character in the world of anatomy. It pains me to think of her work as lost in time, but hopefully historians will one day be able to tell the full story of Alessandra Giliani.


Bare, Bereft and Beautiful: The Anatomical Venus

The average cadaver depicted in modern media isn’t always average in appearance. They are often young, female and beautiful – shown in sharp contrast to the raw ugliness associated with the death and murder we see on our television screens, or read in forensic fiction (Most recently I have seen this in Silent Witness, The Fall and The Autopsy of Jane Doe to name a few). They seem slightly out of place among the nitty gritty – a slumbering, white rose among bloody thorns. Why is this the case? Is this to garner more sympathy from the viewer or reader for the fallen Jane Doe? Or simply a way of cushioning the blow of death for sensitive eyes? We seem to be in a horrified awe of the modern Anatomical Venus.

So, what exactly was the Anatomical Venus? For that answer we must look to the past and the rise of the study of anatomy in 18th century Italy. I first heard of these ‘Venuses’ when I read the book Past Mortems: Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors by Carla Valentine. Valentine trained as an anatomical pathology technician and is now the curator of the St Bart’s Pathology Museum in London. She mentions these reclining, wax figures with faces of ‘post orgasmic bliss’. Despite their beautiful appearance these specimens were used for dissections by medical students of the time, with each figure full of removable wax organs. After seeing the images comprised in Joanna Ebenstein’s excellent book The Anatomical Venus, it is fair to comment that they are almost perverse in nature. With real flowing hair, adorned with jewelry (a pearl necklace in one case nonetheless) and real pubic hair, these wax women are very much like the reclining Venuses depicted in renaissance art (Titian’s Venus of Urbino particularly springs to mind). They are very far from the gory nature of dissection we associate with the public dissections of criminals and body snatchers of 19th century Edinburgh for example.

The Medici Venus
The Anatomical Venus by Joanna Ebenstein

The most prominent of these specimens is known as the Medici Venus. The first of her kind, she was created by master wax sculptor Clemente Susini in the workshop of La Specola in 1780’s Florence. Susini, along with his master Fontana, were commissioned to create hundreds of wax specimens. But the Medici Venus was the only one with such intense detail and that was fully dis-mountable. With the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, came reformation in all aspects of society, including matters relating to art, science and the divine. The Medici Venus embodied all three. The human body was marveled as one of God’s most incredible creations, something that ought to be celebrated without the unsightly appearance of blood, pus and other secretions from real life cadavers. Prior to her creation, smaller female anatomical figures had been created in wood and ivory with small fetuses inserted in some cases, but none displayed the hyper-realistic aesthetic of this reclining wax work.
Perhaps the most ironic observation from her creation was the involvement of the Church. Wax has always had significance in the Catholic Church, seen with the rise in use of expensive beeswax candles in the 17th Century, divine wax imprinted amulets and the iconography of bees. Wax was considered malleable and fragile, like the human body Jesus Christ was crucified in, but not real enough to provoke the ‘sins of the flesh’. This paradoxical concept is even more bizarre when we see the perfect faces of ecstasy in early female saint sculptures. The medium of wax was almost an ‘acceptable buffer’ to view the female body. After all, how could lust be stimulated in such a divine specimen that shows gods perfect creation? And yet, as stated by Arnaud-Eloi Gautier d’Agoty in the 19th century, ‘For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics. But how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?’ The answer was found in the ingenious, wax woman, who even had a tiny wax fetus inside her belly despite her apparently perfect, virginal body.

Having recently visited the Surgeons Museum in Edinburgh, I cannot help but wonder how one feels viewing these ‘dissected graces’ on display in Florence. Although the Surgeons Museum shows very real human tissues, including a child with resin pumped arteries and a varnished exterior, the specimens do not make for uncomfortable viewing. They are not propped on satin pillows and made to look perfect. Despite the dissectible Venuses being made of wax they seem harder to look at. They are fetishized in their display. Never once alive but ‘created’ as a sexualised symbol to appease a religious, yet scientific, society.