Treating the (Last) Pandemic: Heroin, Aspirin, and The Spanish Flu

On September 16th, 1918, Lieutenant Colonel Philip S Deane, head of Health and Sanitation at the Emergency Fleet Corporation, claimed the outbreak of the Spanish Flu on the East Coast was due to the crews of a handful of German submarines who had made it to New York. How ever it had gotten there, it was the Germans’ fault, and in any case, it was no big deal. In the same statement, he said the Spanish Flu was, “Nothing more or less than old-fashioned grippe.” Grippe was a term for the common flu.

Sound familiar? Despite apparent precautions being taken, the Spanish Flu claimed its first victim in the US in Philadelphia, spreading among the sailors and marines until the naval hospital was completely overwhelmed and hundreds of people needing immediate help were transferred to the nearest municipal hospital or treated outside in the navy yard.

Within 24 hours, 41 deaths were recorded in Boston. More were reported throughout New England, and as it began to spread to the civilian population, a nationwide warning against public hysteria was issued. The virus worked quickly, and it could develop into pneumonia.

All around the world, the death toll was staggering, with an estimated 50 million people losing their lives before it was over. But then, as now, people didn’t necessarily know what they were dealing with or how to treat it.

In a 1918 article on “the so-called influenza epidemic,” Chicago doctor Albert J. Croft suggested that the Spanish Flu wasn’t a virus at all, but the result of gasses from the First World War ascending to the atmosphere and forming a kind of toxic dome around Earth. It made more sense to him than a virus spreading quickly enough to infect people on opposite sides of the planet; it had to be environmental, or at the very least, Divine Retribution for the war—which plenty of people believed (and vehemently blamed the Germans for starting).

Assuming the flu was a toxin, Dr. Croft recommended laxatives to flush it out, along with saline enemas. He also recommended phenacetin, a pain reliever that destroyed kidneys (and also killed Howard Hughes), and strychnine.*

But Dr. Croft was not the only person recommending enemas and strychnine. An October memorandum from the base hospital at Camp Zachary in Kentucky outlined the standard treatment for patients admitted with the Spanish Flu.

It started out simple enough, as everyone had the equivalent of Vick’s Vaporub applied to the nose, and they were given a cup of warm milk and a basic enema. More severe cases were treated with small doses of strychnine or an enema of hot black coffee, brandy, and water.

And worse—yes, worse—for this type of enema, you’d have to hold it there for 20 minutes.

Coffee with brandy is delicious. There’s a certain logic to treating the Spanish flu with a Spanish coffee, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to drink it.

If you can believe it, that wasn’t actually the worst of it. Patients with a cough or chest pain—basically all of them—were given heroin.heroin-bottle-collection_1518_canvas

As an opiate, heroin was effective as a cough suppressant, but that’s not the only thing it was used for.

As William Small explained in the Eclectic Medical Journal of August 1919, sleep was critical for surviving the Spanish flu. As fever and chills could make it difficult to sleep, anything that would help you to sleep was a good thing. Laudanum would have been the obvious answer, but no:

“It has been our custom never to allow a sleepless night. Tepid sponging may first be tried, but, if insufficient, the patient should be given heroin hypodermically, repeated once or twice, if necessary, at intervals of an hour and a half until sleep is obtained. A satisfactory night’s rest is almost always followed by considerable improvement in general condition.”

You’d certainly think so.

Heroin

This sounds shocking to us now, but at this point, heroin had been used in medicine for about twenty years.

Medical grade heroin—also known as diamorphine—was first synthesized by British chemist C.R. Alder Wright in 1874. Nothing really came of his experiment until 1897, when another chemist tried again.

Felix Hoffmann worked for Bayer pharmaceuticals in Germany. If Bayer sounds familiar, it certainly should—it’s still one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. They still sell one of Hoffman’s most famous inventions—aspirin, which he synthesized on August 10th, 1897.

Eleven days later, the man who gave the world aspirin invented heroin.Drug_store_sign_for_products_Heroin_and_Aspirin_before_US_Heroin_ban_1924

At the time, morphine addiction was a serious problem in Europe and the United States following the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War, so Bayer tried to develop a less addictive alternative. The drug Hoffman created didn’t come out quite as expected—it was twice as potent as morphine, and it would become one of the most addictive substances in the world.

It was called heroin after the German word heroisch, meaning “heroic” or “strong.”

When it first hit the market, it was hailed as a wonder drug. They said it was a non-addictive substitute for morphine without as many side effects. Between 1898 and 1910, Bayer advertised it as a cure for headaches and general malaise, and it was sold in cough syrup for children. It was even given to babies to help them sleep.

In its capacity as a replacement for morphine, heroin became a recreational drug in the United States as early as 1912.

It wasn’t exactly difficult to get. Heroin was a common ingredient in over-the-counter remedies. One of these was Hayes Healing Honey. For just 35 cents, you could get a bottle containing morphine, heroin, and chloroform in 7% alcohol. While honey does help a sore throat, whether Hayes actually contained any is anybody’s guess. Packages are rare now, and honey isn’t listed as an ingredient.

Local drug stores carried heroin products, and you could even get it through the mail—it was so popular that it was sold in the then-iconic Sears & Roebuck catalogue. For $2.50, you could get several doses, a syringe, and a stylish travel case. Much of the advertising was aimed at women, who handled more of the childcare and were more likely to become addicted themselves. Apart from veterans, women were the most likely to use it for various illnesses as well as menstrual cramps, insomnia, and pain related to childbirth.

By the time the Spanish Flu started in 1918, heroin had become prescription-only in the United States, but prescriptions weren’t exactly hard to come by, and the country’s addiction had long since set in. It was still used in hospitals and cures for the common cold. Heroin was part of the standard treatment for the Spanish Flu as it was an effective cough suppressant and helped people to sleep.

As we know now, heroin is incredibly dangerous. As easy as it is to overdose now, it would have been far more likely in the chaos of overrun hospitals during the Spanish Flu. The cause of death would have been hard to identify. Like those who lost their lives to the Spanish Flu, many would have appeared to have died in their sleep.

Oddly enough, Hoffman’s other invention—aspirin—may have caused several deaths attributed to the Spanish Flu as well.

In 1917, just one year before the Spanish Flu, Bayer lost its patent on aspirin in America. American companies flooded the market with it to try to compete, but the boxes didn’t include any dosage information. For a long time, no one knew exactly how much you were supposed to take.

Still, when the Spanish Flu came to the United States, aspirin was recommended as a treatment and bought in huge quantities by the Navy as well as the general populace. The Journal of the American Medical Association advised people to take up to twenty-five tablets a day, more than twice the maximum safe dosage as we now know it.

Just like heroin, aspirin overdose looks a lot like the flu. People would take it to treat the flu and, apparently not recovering, they would continue to take more until they died of what was assumed to be the flu. We have no way of knowing how many deaths from the Spanish Flu were actually caused by aspirin or heroin overdose.

Heroin was banned in the United States in 1924.

Jessica Cale

*Do NOT try this at home

Sources

Nicholas Bakalar. In 1918 Pandemic, Another Possible Killer: Aspirin. The New York Times.

Dallas Morning News. The Theory Advanced by Dr. Albert J. Croft of Chicago. December 8th, 1918.

Memorandum For the Treatment of Influenza Pneumonia, Base Hospital, Camp Zachary, Taylor, Kentucky. MS C 38 Glentworth Reeve Butler Papers, 1917 – 1918. October 3rd, 1918.

New Orleans States. German Pirates Bring Influenza. September 19th, 1918.

James Rambin. In 1918, Austinites Faught a Pandemic by Getting Drunk and Doing Heroin. Towers.

William D. D. Small. The Treatment of Influenza. The Eclectic Medical Journal. August, 1919.

Yale School of Medicine. From Cough Medicine to Deadly Addiction, a Century of Heroin and Drug-Abuse Policy.  

 

“Some other girl’s mediocre brother”: Rejected Men in Nineteenth-Century English Culture

Leighton,_Edmund_Blair_-_Off_-_1899The title of this blogpost comes from one of my very favourite things I’ve found in my years spent researching Victorian marriage, engagement, courtship, and romantic culture in England. It is a little book entitled Shall Girl’s Propose?, written in 1893 by an author who gives himself the moniker of ‘a speculative bachelor.’ The premise of the book is simple— it succinctly outlines the process of late nineteenth-century courtship and engagement while mocking romantic culture and making absurdist suggestions for how it might be improved. The book is equally playful and incisive in its observations of proposal and engagement, especially regarding gender dynamics of the period. For example, on the titular topic of women proposing, our speculative bachelor writes,

I have been wondering all my life why it is that, in the matter of initiative, a coarse, unattractive young man should have the privilege to ask any unmarried woman in the whole world to marry him, while his refined and so much more accomplished sister must make no motion toward any choice of her own, except to sit still and wait for some other girl’s mediocre brother to make a proposal to her.

While this passage, on its face, laments women’s lack of autonomy because of society denying them the ability to actively pursue their desired spouse, it also speaks to a power in their necessitated passivity. It speaks to women being in a position to pass (even harsh) judgement on men who must come to them, share their romantic sentiments in a very vulnerable way, and ask for their hands in marriage. While men were required to take these emotional and social risks, nineteenth-century women, in a rare shift in power dynamic, held the power of acceptance or rejection, even humiliation.

As most in the middle class throughout the nineteenth century married within their immediate social, professional, or even family circles, proposals were a favourite topic of gossip and opened men up to scrutiny as intended husbands not only from women, but also family and friends. The potential for embarrassment and shame in the aftermath of a proposal if one was rejected was so great for men that many etiquette manuals of the time (primarily those written by men) devoted particular admonishments for women who might use a man’s words and actions during a proposal against him. The author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, for instance, did not mince words when it condemned proposal gossip among women as barbaric— “boasting of proposals is a savage custom, akin to wearing scalps.”

Going on, the author of Shall Girls Propose? claims that even the best and most attractive women were required to choose from “six to twelve offers at most in a lifetime”—even if none of those options were particularly attractive. Compared to our modern experiences with engagements, this is a shockingly high level of rejection.

However, the idea that women would receive more than a proposal or two in their lifetime was the norm. Various sources from throughout the century suggest that women received anywhere from three or four proposals to several dozen. Sometimes they were received in quick succession—often when word got out in a community or social circle that an eligible young lady was considering one proposal, any other interested party took that as his last opportunity to throw his hat into the ring before she accepted, thus creating nuptial feeding frenzies.

Our speculative bachelor goes on to describe another cultural peccadillo pertaining to women’s response to proposals—throughout the nineteenth century, an amalgamation of popularly held ideas such as female modesty, conventions of vetting and testing potential husbands, and the experience or feigning of fear and surprise resulted in women refusing initial proposals, even if they were interested or intending to accept. He describes,

To refuse, and yet not dismiss your appeal, requires on their part no little tact and philosophy. Most girls think that if you capture them easily, you will be led to esteem them lightly. They are apt, therefore, to throw obstacles in your way and make you struggle for their hand. Doing this diplomatically, so that they shall not lose you at last, often requires a high degree of art.

This type of “no” coupled with definite refusals resulted in a very high instance of dismissal for men who needed to steel themselves against the sting of rejection. Managing suitors, weighing options, and fielding proposals from left, right, and centre certainly affected the lives and experiences of nineteenth-century Englishwomen in no insignificant way; however, today we turn our attention to those “coarse, unattractive young men” and “mediocre brothers” turned hopeful and rejected bridegrooms— “[those] who can’t get a chance to try.”

Prerequisites to Proposals: Look Before You Leap 

Throughout the 19th century, the entire burden of proposing marriage fell to men, and they were keenly aware of how serious a task they were undertaking, especially within the middle class. It was a widely held belief that a man wasn’t complete until he was supporting a wife and family. At the same time, men and women were advised to take into account a wide range of practical criteria, in addition to the presence of romantic love, when choosing a potential spouse.

The confluence of these ideas meant that the rejection of a marriage proposal could signify sentiments beyond a lack of reciprocal love. It was often experienced as a commentary on a man’s ability as a potential husband, and therefore, a man. A rejection could occur on the basis of class, financial holdings, his character, etc., all of which would have come as a blow to the all-important Victorian reputation. All of this social and cultural weight culminated in the proposal, which the author of The Marriage That Will Suit You and How to Enjoy It (1859) described as, “a vast moment (…) one on which may hang your life-long happiness.”

While fluctuating slightly throughout the nineteenth century, the average age of English couples getting married was around 28 for men and 25 to 26 for women in the middle class. Men tended to be a bit older when they married because they needed to have the financial stability to rent a proper home, furnish that home, hire at least one member of staff, and maintain a wife (custom dictated) in the same lifestyle she would be leaving in her father’s home. In addition, he would need to have the finances to provide for the impending family that would result from his nuptials.

Etiquette manuals of the time harp on this particular point ubiquitously and ad nauseam with examples ranging from simple metaphor (“The man who cannot buy a cage, ought not to attempt to keep a bird”) to Dr. John Kirton lambasting the practice in his 1883 book Happy Homes and How to Make Them:

To marry without provisions is to say the least of it WRONG, and ought therefore to be condemned.

That not being quite strong enough for Dr. Kirton, to fully impress upon the point he yells, in all capital letters, to the women of England:

NEVER CONSENT TO HAVE THE DAY OF YOUR WEDDING FIXED UNTIL YOU HAVE GOOD EVIDENCE THAT YOU ARE TO HAVE A FURNISHED HOME OF YOUR OWN TO GO TO (…) LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP.

While some men proposed on the prospect of having financial stability in the foreseeable future—men in university, apprenticeships, or other professional training—those who were accepted almost always had a previous close connection to the bride’s family, either as family friends or relations, or through having a professional connection. For instance, it was very common for daughters of doctors to marry their fathers’ trainees. Ideally it was recommended that a man would be in a position to propose and then take a year to get everything prepared, including accommodation and savings, before the wedding. Too-long engagements were considered hazardous and to be avoided.

In addition to the requisite funds, there were other requirements men were advised to self-evaluate in order to claim himself ready for marriage. In a chapter titled “Qualifications for Married Life” in his book A New Light on Love, Courtship, and Marriage (1894), the author sets seven qualifications for a man questioning if he is ready for marriage:

1. He must be of proper age, meaning twenty-one at the very least
2. He must have sufficient means
3. He must be of a sound mind
4. He must be of a sound body
5. He must have a good domestic disposition
6. He must have good habits
7. He must have high moral principles

In addition to reciprocated love, these are the criteria by which men were evaluated by potential spouses and formed the basis on which they would be either accepted or rejected.

The Victorian Marrying Man

241359627_567107208051476_8687593156737928633_nMen in possession of these attributes (or, perhaps more likely, self assured they were in possession of them) had the impetus to take on either the persona of a bachelor or of a “marrying man.” The nineteenth century “marrying man” was serious about getting married and had the ability to do so. The use of the term “marrying man” inherently states direct action and a clear goal of matrimony—seeking a wife deliberately.

Whether claimed or implied by actions, the label of being a “marrying man” put men in a vulnerable social position. It is a label that, associated with a man’s name, would immediately compel those around him to size him up as a potential husband. It also implied that he was actively courting and entering encounters with women with a specific goal in mind. While technically applicable to any man looking to settle down, in nineteenth-century literature, media, and common usage, “marrying man” was most often used to describe two types of men—the first was a young, wealthy, good-looking, sometimes landed gentleman looking both for a companion and woman to run his household. It was also used mockingly to describe a man usually overly keen to get married or cluelessly proposing to women well out of his league.

To put it in Austenian terms, in Pride and Prejudice, both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Collins might be described as “marrying men,” though obviously with contrasting associations. Typically this second type of man was also otherwise socially or physically less than desirable—unattractive, socially awkward, or too old.

A good example of this is Mrs. Harriet Gordon Smythies’ novel The Marrying Man (1841), in which the titular character is the curmudgeonly and old Mr. Burridge, who convinces himself that his teenage neighbour, Jessy, must be in love with him after she tolerates his company on several occasions. The narrative follows Burridge’s bumbling attempts to court Jessy—by cornering her into conversation and giving her gifts such as a hideous bright yellow shawl and “obsolete lolly-pops” for Christmas. Throughout the book, he is unconscious of his own absurdity and vulgarity in the eyes of all those around him, including Jessy herself.

This literary construct of the “marrying man” is representative of ideas surrounding single and seeking men pervasive throughout the nineteenth century. It is a representative caricature of how society viewed them and how they were often sorted into the two categories of desirable and esteemed or pitiable, mockable, and even repugnant depending on the evaluator.

In addition to advice on the broader requirements of character, pedigree, and financial stability, in order to help men appeal to potential wives—and prevent any embarrassment in their presence—etiquette manuals offered endless directives for every conceivable minutiae of interacting with the opposite sex. An example from Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1876) reads:

Do not smoke in the presence of ladies, and never stand with your back to the fire,
nor put your feet on the rungs of a chair, nor loll back on sofas, nor yawn, nor read
aloud without being asked to do so, nor put your elbows on a table, nor drum
tunes with your fingers, nor indulge in any of those minor vulgarities which may
render you disagreeable to others.

With anxieties about gossip and the preoccupation that he may have “minor vulgarities” rendering him “disagreeable to others,” it’s no wonder that the overly timid and shy suitor was a popular figure in the nineteenth-century zeitgeist. When it came to proposing, such men might have opted for proposing by letter, which was not uncommon throughout the century, though looked down upon in general.

Popping the Question and The Many Types of “No”

241296898_385060559913271_3238499374290822323_nFor those braving an in-person proposal, they would need to brace themselves for rejection. Most of them would receive at least an initial “no.”

Now, there were many kinds of “no” this could be. The first would be prompted by modesty and shyness. It could be that the young woman wanted to consult her parents and interrogate her own feelings before committing, which was considered a very sensible thing to do. It could also mean that she was testing the young man’s commitment and that upon a second or third proposal she might accept him.

In a lecture on courtship in 1860, Rev. Joseph Bush addressed this scenario by recommending to men, “If a young woman should ever say no to you, give her seven days to consider of it; and if then she still persists in a positive and permanent no, take it as final.”

Some women, it was often thought, simply needed more convincing of a lover’s suit, and men often redoubled efforts to prove their love and capabilities in consequence. As put in Whom to Marry (1894), “It is a great mistake for a man to be discouraged by a first refusal. A girl likes to be ardently sought in marriage. It flatters her vanity.” This was the most common “no” and one that was typically transformed into a “yes” in due course. Therefore many men could take heart and were often braced for the initial refusal and ready to work to change the mind of his intended.

Strategies for turning a “no” to a “yes” ranged from dignified reasoning, assurances of love, and promises of happiness to the less dignified grovelling, as exhibited by the character of Mr. Cheesacre in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864), whose “whimpering” and “blubbering” after being rejected eventually caused proposee Mrs. Greenow to snap embarrassedly, “Mr. Cheesacre, don’t make a fool of yourself. Get up.”

How to deal with a rejected proposal was something covered extensively in advisory literature of the time; men were coached on how to make women change their minds, but also how to look for the signs of a genuine “no” and how to walk away with dignity and magnanimity. Put by one author, “[his conduct] should be characterised by extreme delicacy and a chivalrous resolve to avoid occasioning any possible annoyance or uneasiness to the fair author of his pain.”

As proposals required men to commit and declare their feelings, intentions, and desires, the resulting intimacy was inherently uncomfortable for both parties. The shame and stigma associated with a rejected proposal was so great that many books advised that men go travelling to physically remove themselves from their social context in the aftermath. This is a practice mirrored in nineteenth-century fiction, where you see the majority of rejected men culled off by sending them to faraway lands or into military service to avoid the awkwardness of their proximity to the main love plot.

For obvious reasons, few rejected men reflected on their rejected status in writing. However, the documentary evidence reveals the experience of a rejected proposal as fear and anxiety inducing, as well as humiliating. The figure of the rejected man featured heavily in Victorian culture and, with the almost ubiquity of experience, men often found camaraderie in their shared rejection. The rejected man featured heavily in fiction, poetry, music, and a particularly brutal and macabre genre of popular jokes.

The following are jokes that were published in periodicals in the 1890s:

“When a girl says just ‘no,’ there may be some brightness in the future; but when she says,
‘I will always feel like a sister towards you,’ it’s time to hunt up a clothes line and a good substantial crossbeam.”

He: “Don’t you think you could love me a little if you knew that I would die for you?”
She: “Possibly, if you would give me proof satisfactory to a coroner’s jury.”

“You must have said something awful funny to Miss Snyder over in the corner, because I
heard her laughing so.”
“I didn’t think it funny,” retorted Bones; “I asked her to marry me.”

The vein of self-depreciation and pity running through the narrative of the rejected man echoes a sense of victimisation both by individual women and by society more broadly. As a result, it seems that there were at least some men who saw securing a wife as a numbers game, and they were systematic in working through their friend groups, communities, and siblings’ friends.

The serial proposing—and therefore rejected—man was a pest found in many social circles and oft complained about. The practice of proposal-spamming was more common than one might assume. An article in an issue of the periodical Cupid detailing exactly the practice of proposing to multiple women in quick succession offers the following audacious example:

One of the most curious proposals of which I have heard was that made by a widower to a maid,
wherein he begged her acceptance of his suit; but, half expecting it might fail, urged in a
postscript in the concluding paragraph that, if an acceptance on her part was wholly out of the
question, she should help him to intercede on behalf of the same labour from her sister! The result
of this extraordinary plea was a double feature, of necessity.

This stunning example of a dual rejection suggests a brazenness that we can only assume shielded the proposer of the shame that plagued some other rejected men. It is not known whether he was ever able to seal the deal. However, we can only assume that his bold swing only served to harm his chances of a “yes” going forward. Perhaps he was relegated to perpetual bachelorhood—one of the many so-called failed Victorian men categorised as “those who won’t get a chance to try.”

Maggie Kalenak is currently a fourth year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Girton College. Her work focuses on romantic culture, as well as courtship, engagement, and marriage in nineteenth-century England. Her methodology emphasises material culture, history of emotions, and sensory history studies. She is available for consultancy.

Sources

(A) Speculative Bachelor, Shall Girls Propose? And Other Papers on Love and Marriage. London: Gay and Bird, 27 King William St., West Strand, 1893.

Bush, Rev. Joseph. ‘Courtship and Marriage: A Lecture.’ Published by Request. London: John Mason and York: Lawson and Groves, 1860.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2006

Cupid (1891)

Davidoff, Lenore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1987.

Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1894.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Birth to Deathbed. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Is Marriage A Failure? With Apologies to Mrs. Mona Caird. A Series of Sketches in “Mona”— Tint by Ernest G. Reynolds and Some Rhymes NOT Without Reason Specially Written by Samuel K. Cowan M.A. London: Angus Thomas, 1889.

Levine, Philippa. ‘“So Few Prizes and So Many Blanks”: Marriage and Feminism in Later Nineteenth-Century England,’ Journal of British Studies. Vol.28, No.2 (April 1989), 150-174.

Mill, Sydney. New Light on Love, Courtship and Marriage. Belfast: Belfast Publishing Co., 110 Royal Avenue, 1894.

Smythies, Harriet Maria Gordon. The Marrying Man, A Novel. London: T.C. Newby, 72 Mortimer Street, 1841.

Tit-Bits Magazine (1893)

Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her? London: Penguin Books, 2004 (1864).

Wheeler, Maud. Whom to Marry or All About Love and Matrimony. London: The Roxburghe Press, 1894.

Images

(Top) Off. Edmund Blair Leighton, 1889. Manchester Art Gallery.

(Center) Cover of The Marrying Man, 1841. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak. 

(Bottom) A vinegar valentine. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak. 

“We are determined to foment a rebellion”: Women and Espionage in the American Revolution

Patience WrightIt’s no secret that women in the eighteenth century had little to no political freedoms. The patriarchy that had worked so well for the male elite of Britain and the rest of western Europe had, by that time, been transplanted in the American colonies. Despite the lack of women’s rights in Britain’s New World colonies, even during the famous period of salutary neglect, American women had hope that revolution and independence from the empire would bring about new rights.

As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in 1776:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Clearly, some women in America held out hope for a better future once freed from the patriarchy of Britain. While Abigail Adamas is remembered as one of the important women of the American Revolution, many others risked their lives for the cause.

As many women worked as nurses and cooks for the American army, some took a more direct route: espionage.

Don’t Send a Man to Do a Woman’s Job

Of all the spies that Washington and the American military effort employed throughout the war, the women who volunteered their services proved the most effective. Most men, especially those who served in the military, viewed women as innocent and non-threatening. Due to this sexist oversight, British commanders inadvertently gave female spies premo access to military intelligence, often discussing important matters in front of the women they deemed so harmless.

The story of Patience Lovell Wright (pictured top right, National Portrait Gallery) is perhaps the best example of British officers and higher-ups disregarding the presence of a woman when discussing matters of war.

Born in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1725, little is known of Wright before her husband’s death in 1769. A widowed mother of five children, Patience began making wax sculptures to make ends meet. Originally created for clothing models, her lifelike representation of heads and hands soon gained her notoriety.

In early 1772, Wright picked up stakes and moved to England. Centering her new shop out of London, Wright quickly gained patronage from some of the most influential members of British society. She even had members of Parliament and the king’s court come to her to have their likenesses done. By the time the American Revolution had begun, this expat had the perfect setup to turn spy.

By making small talk and overhearing gossip, Wright gained insight into the political and military affairs of the British. Once she had a piece of juicy intel, she would hide it in a sculpture and send it to American agents in Europe and the Americas. She kept in touch with such notable patriots as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Through these connections, Wright helped the American cause back home stay informed on the latest news from the British capital.

lydia darraghAnother woman who took advantage of the era’s patriarchal bent was Lydia Darragh (right). Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, the Darraghs moved to Philadelphia in the 1750s. Whether they took an extreme liking to the colonies or saw a means of striking back at the British for their age-old abuses of the Irish, the Darragh family supplied the Continental forces with soldiers and spies.

After British officers were quartered in the Darraghs’ home, they must have overlooked the family due to their pacifist Quaker beliefs, because they often discussed plans for military campaigns within earshot of Lydia. What they didn’t know, though, was that she was listening. Taking what she heard from the officers as she went about her day, Lydia and her husband would translate the information into a shorthand often used by the family. She then sewed these letters into the buttons on the coat of her teenage son, who would then simply walk across British lines to deliver his button-messages to his older brother serving with the American forces.

On December 2nd, 1777, Lydia put herself in even greater danger. Somehow made aware of a particularly secretive and important meeting between the officers stationed in her home, Wright hid herself in a closet that adjoined the room in which these loose-lipped redcoats met. Startled by what she heard, she left the house as soon as she could under the pretense of needing more flour. She then made a beeline for a small mill on the outskirts of town, where she met Colonel Elias Boudinot and delivered the message: the British were planning a clandestine attack on George Washington’s forces camped in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.

When the British forces marched on Whitemarsh and found no Washington, they realized their secret attack wasn’t so secret after all. Though Lydia was questioned, she was never seriously considered a threat, so her familial spy ring remained at large.

Part of a spy ring now made famous by AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, Anna Strong is another perfect example of the overlooked woman turned spy.

Operating out of Setauket, Long Island, Strong was one of the handful of New Yorkers who made up the Culper Spy Ring. Just like Wright and Darragh, Strong had the guts and the guile to pass on information about the British in plain sight.

One of four members of the Culper Spy Ring, Strong’s job was to coordinate the passage of information. The other members included Abraham Woodhull, who procured the intel; Caleb Brewster, who transported information off the island; and Benjamin Talmidge, the ring’s spymaster within Washington’s forces.

In order to avoid detection, the Culper Ring used six different inlets along the Long Island coast as dead drops. When new intel was gathered, Woodhull took it to one of these drop zones. In order for Brewster to know which of the six drop zones Woodhull had used, Strong invented a code the British never cracked: she would hang a black petticoat out on her laundry line when a drop had been made. She would then scatter handkerchiefs along the line, with a the number of handkerchiefs corresponding to a particular drop zone.

By appearing to simply be carrying out her daily duties, Strong facilitated the safe passage of confidential information across enemy lines for years. What’s more, the Culper Spy Ring was never caught.

On both sides of the American Revolution, women stood up for what they believed in. While many of them did not have their names recorded in the history books, they left their imprint on history. By taking advantage of the sexism inherent in eighteenth-century society, female spies gathered information men could not and, in so doing, changed the tide of the war.

Jordan BakerJordan Baker holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. A lover of all things historical, he concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com.

New Podcast Streaming Now

Dirty, Sexy History is already a terrific way to burn lots of time, but have you ever wished you could listen to it while you’re cleaning, driving, or pretending to work? (It’s called being efficient, thanks)

We’ve got your back. For our readers who prefer to to listen to their history, DSH has a brand new podcast streaming now where we talk about all the same things we cover here, with added segments drawing parallels between current events and things that happened in the past. 

We’ll still be posting new articles here, of course! But the podcast is a companion to the blog with a slightly different angle (and a mellow Midwestern accent), so we do hope you’ll check it out. 

Listen and subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Anchor, Pocket Casts, Scribd, and RadioPublic

Episode 2.6. The Gilded Edge with Dr Catherine Prendergast Dirty Sexy History

At the beginning of the 20th century, Carmel-by-the-Sea was an idyllic artists’ colony in Northern California. At the center of the excitement was “King of the Bohemians” George Sterling and his wife, Carrie. But all was not as sunny as it seemed. When George’s secret lover, poet Nora May French, came to Carmel, it set the three on a collision course that would end in suicide by cyanide—three of them. But what really happened? This week, we talk to Dr Catherine Prendergast about her new book, The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle that Shook America
  1. Episode 2.6. The Gilded Edge with Dr Catherine Prendergast
  2. Episode 2.5. The Women’s House of Detention
  3. Episode 2.4. Before We Were Trans: Gender Nonconformity in History with Dr Kit Heyam
  4. Episode 2.3. The Real Stede Bonnet with Jeremy Moss
  5. Episode 2.2: Secrets and Scandals of Regency Britain with Violet Fenn

Tales from the Crypt: Robertson’s Phantasmagoria and the 18th Century Origins of Horror Cinema

Given how often horror is dismissed as a low-culture guilty pleasure, it might surprise you to hear that modern cinema was more or less invented because of it. That’s right—when the first Magic Lantern was invented around 1650, it wasn’t to immortalize the pensive expression of some seventeenth-century Daniel Day Lewis.

People wanted to see skulls.

The invention of the Magic Lantern, an early projector, is commonly attributed to Christiaan Huygens. His contemporary, Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher catalogued its construction and uses in a suitably scientific manner, then secretly used it to project the image of death into people’s windows to boost church attendance. Horrified by the sudden, inexplicable image of a skeleton with a scythe directly inspired by Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre—still the equivalent of a bestselling coffee-table book at this point—Kircher’s victims presumably didn’t hear him giggling to himself in the bushes. (Kircher’s 1671 illustration below)

1671_kircheri_-_ars_magna_lucis_et_umbrae_-_769

Johann Georg Schröpfer exploited the commercial potential of the Magic Lantern when he used one during “seances” in his café. Hosting the desperate and the curious, he projected the images of phantoms at key moments, the effect of which was no doubt aided by the fact that he also drugged the punch before they began.

Horror-themed Magic Lantern shows continued to grow in popularity throughout the eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1798 that the process was reimagined and perfected by an eccentric and charismatic showman known as Robertson.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Man at the Crossroads…

Étienne-Gaspard (also styled as Stephan Casper) Robert was born in Liège in 1763. From an early age, he was interested in art, and was particularly drawn to macabre imagery. He was an eccentric child, and later opened his memoirs by recounting an early attempt to summon the devil:

robertsonWho has not believed in the devil and werewolves in his early years! I confess frankly, I believed in the devil, in evocations, in enchantments, in infernal pacts, and even in the brooms of witches; I thought an old woman, my neighbor, was, as everyone assured, in regular commerce with Lucifer. I envied his power and his relationships; I locked myself in a room to cut off the head of a rooster and force the prince of demons to show himself to me; I waited for seven to eight hours, I insulted, jeered that he did not dare to appear: “If you exist,” I cried, slapping my table, “get out of where you are, and let’s see your horns, or I deny, I say that you’ve never been.” It was not fear, as we have seen, that made me believe in his power, but the desire to share it.

His devout merchant parents put pressure on him to become a priest. He studied for the priesthood briefly, but Robert’s heart was elsewhere. Still wanting the devil’s own powers of conjuring, he studied art, philosophy, physics, and the supernatural while at university in Leuven.

A gifted physicist with a particular interest in optics, Robert began to experiment with projections in the 1780s. Over time, he discovered that he could produce a number of elaborate effects through various improvements of his own invention, not least of which was adding wheels to the machine and a system for moving slides that changed the size of the image projected to create the illusion of movement.

…with a Death Ray

mirror_robertson2In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue a career in art and made it just in time for the Revolution. Making ends meet as a tutor for aristocratic families, Robert—now calling himself Robertson, thinking it sounded more scientific—quickly found himself in a precarious situation. He bounced back and forth between Paris and Belgium for a couple of years, until he returned to Paris and tried to make himself useful to the French government when France declared war with Britain in 1796. Using his background in optics, he gave them the plans for a giant mirror-powered death ray inspired by the myth of the mirrors of Archimedes and designed to use the power of the sun to set fire to the British fleet. (right)

They ignored him.

Undeterred, Robertson spent the next two years working on improvements to the existing Magic Lantern design. He painted his own slides and found that giving his hand-painted ghouls black backgrounds made them appear to float in midair when projected in the dark. He experimented with different light sources and methods of movement, projecting the images onto different surfaces. This became the groundwork for the show that would eventually make his name.

image

Robertson’s Phantasmagoria

Armed with modified Magic Lanterns, dozens of hand-painted slides, an Argand lamp, and a deadpan sense of humor, Robertson debuted his Phantasmagoria at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier in January of 1798. (Above; note Robertson behind the projector to the left)

One attendee described the performance:

“The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to be begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it’s the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than one should be deprived of one’s liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.”

Robertson explained that the spectres were only illusion and presented the show as a physics experiment, but he had come prepared. He offered to raise the dead, and when audience members shouted out requests, he had a slide to suit each one. For every request, he would throw what appeared to be a handful of butterflies or a chalice of blood onto the fire, then an image of the deceased (or someone who could be seen as such) would swoop in from the shadows the astonish the crowd. People attempted to embrace the images, while others drew swords.

When the audience left, they were terrified, convinced they had seen real ghosts despite Robertson’s explanations. Though he’d asserted that he was only a physicist, people thought he was a necromancer. This created such a stir that the show was investigated and shut down by the authorities because they were genuinely concerned that Robertson could bring Louis XVI back to life.

Once again in an awkward position, Robertson was forced to temporarily flee for Bordeaux.

Fantasmagorie_de_Robertson.tif

Resurrection

Once the initial panic died down, Robertson was able to return to Paris and begin his show in earnest later that year. As impressive as his first shows were, he was able to fully showcase his skill and imagination in a new location. He rented out the Couvent des Capucines, a derelict ruin in a convenient location. Only about two hundred years old, it had been abandoned and used as a cesspit during the Revolution. By 1798, it was a crumbling, picturesque shell more than suited to his purposes.

Best of all, to get to the part where the show was held, you had to walk through the cemetery.

From arrival to departure, the whole experience was unnerving. The old convent was falling apart, and it was already known for the sex workers who operated in the crypts. Arriving at night, audience members would have to pick their way around damaged gravestones in the dark.

Inside, the rooms were draped in dark fabric and painted with esoteric symbols, displaying scientific oddities and optical illusions. The last stop before the show was the Galerie de la Femme Invisible, which showcased an empty glass coffin suspended in the air. It was supposed to contain the Invisible Woman, who answered questions and chatted to new arrivals. The voice actually came through a concealed tube designed by Fitz-James, Robertson’s ventriloquist friend, and was operated by a female assistant.

After the final gallery, the audience descended into the crypts.  

Robertson was a charismatic host, but he made the atmosphere work for him as well. Filled with incense and the eerie, otherworldly sound of a glass harmonica and funeral bells, the crypts must have been terrifying. Surrounded by walls covered in velvet and bones, they sat on old graves until Robertson himself entered and pointedly locked the doors before addressing the crowd by the light of a single sepulchral lantern:

“The experiment which you are about to see must interest philosophy. The two great epochs of man are his entry into life and his departure from it. All that happens can be considered as being placed between two black and impenetrable veils which conceal these two epochs, and which no one has yet raised. But the most mournful silence reigns on the other side of this funerary crepe, and it is to fill this silence, which says so many things to the imagination, that magicians, sibyls, and the priests of Memphis employ the illusions of an unknown art, of which I am going to try to demonstrate some methods under your eyes. I have offered you spectres, and now I am going to make known shadows appear.”

At this point he blew out the last candle, because of course, then finished:  

“Citizens and gentlemen—I have promised that I will raise the dead, and I will raise them.”

Suddenly, the crypts were overwhelmed by the sound of rain, thunder, and funeral bells. Lightning appeared to strike, illuminating Death himself emerging from the shadows and floating through the audience with a scythe in his hand.  

If nothing else, Robertson knew how to make an entrance.

The show was about an hour and a half, and it was made up of several scenes introduced by Robertson on the themes of love, death, and resurrection, incorporating ancient gods and figures from history and mythology. Between the ghosts and dancing demons, the story of Eros and Psyche was told; Isis and other mystery goddesses were honored; and Hades and Persephone presided over everything. The Graces were summoned only to degrade into skeletons before the startled audience, and a woman representing love and death was a common feature, appearing throughout to tease the audience until she was killed by the Fates, only to be resurrected with rose petals near the end.

This was no ordinary slideshow—Robertson’s innovation and mastery of the Magic Lantern produced effects difficult to imagine even now. The scenes he created were elaborate, detailed, and animated; between the speed of the changing slides, variable depth, and visual effects, Robertson had all but created early 3D cinema. Multiple devices hidden by screens projected monsters and ghouls onto walls, smoke, and special lengths of canvas and gauze treated with wax for translucence. Ventriloquists and sound effects brought them to life in ways people had never before experienced. The ghosts appeared so real, audience members tried to fight them.

This was exactly what Robertson was going for. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton.

It was known to happen. The shows could be so frightening that one contributor to the Ami des Lois advised pregnant women to avoid them for fear of miscarriage. Given their reputation, there was some concern the shows would result in riots or hysteria, but Robertson had everything under control: shows ran the same length every night, and everything was always shut down by ten.

Not one to miss an opportunity for a strong conclusion, Robertson ended his shows the same way. Addressing the audience a final time, he said:

“I have gone through all the phenomena of the phantasmagoria. I have unveiled the secrets of the priests of Memphis, shown you what is occult in physics, but it remains for me to offer you one more thing, which is only too real. Those of you who have perhaps smiled at my experiments, those who have experienced a few moments of fear, here is the only truly terrible spectacle, the one wholly to be feared. Strong men, frail men, monarchs and subjects, believers and atheists, beautiful and ugly—here is the lot which awaits you; this is what you will be one day. Remember the Phantasmagoria.”

The light suddenly returned to reveal a skeleton on a pedestal in the middle of the room.

Subtle, he was not. 

The audiences loved it.

Based in the convent until 1804 (the convent itself was demolished in 1806), the Phantasmagoria made Robertson a wealthy man. So many competitors attempted to copy his show that he was forced to patent his version of the Magic Lantern, the Fantascope. Through the subsequent legal action, Robertson was obliged to reveal his technical secrets, which, even when they were known, could never quite be replicated by anyone else.

Despite copycat shows popping up all over Europe and America, Robertson himself enjoyed a forty-year career, touring the world, writing his memoirs, and pursuing his interest in the science of ballooning, making fifty-nine ascents in several different countries during his lifetime. In 1799, his mistress, Eulalie Caron, gave birth to their first child, a son named Guillaume-Eugène. Robertson married her in 1804, and their second son, Démétrius, was born in 1807. Eulalie and their two sons accompanied Robertson on his world tours, spending time in Prague, Vienna, and Russia. In Paris, they lived at No. 12 Boulevard Montmartre, now Café Zéphyr, until Eulalie’s death in 1813 at the age of only thirty-four. Eugène later became a noted balloonist in his own right.

Legacy

Until his death in 1837, Robertson asserted that he was first and foremost a physicist, but in his memoirs, he reflected on how his early desire to attain the devil’s powers had guided his life:

I finally adopted a very wise policy: since the devil refused to communicate to me the science of creating prodigies, I would apply myself to creating devils, and I would have only to wave my wand to force all the infernal cortège to be seen in the light. My habitation became a true Pandemonium.

Robertson had become a legend in his own lifetime. In an article written in 1855, Charles Dickens summarized his importance to popular science:  

He was a charmer who charmed wisely…a born conjurer, inasmuch as he was gifted with a predominant taste for experiments in natural science. He was useful man enough in an age of superstition to get up fashionable entertainments at which spectres were to appear and horrify the public, without trading on the public ignorance by any false pretense.

Robertson was one of many great scientists who sought to beat back the ignorance and superstition of his day by using his science to entertain as well as educate. He is, in a very real sense, the forefather of all those today who seek to bring science to a larger popular audience. For that, at the very least, he deserves to be remembered and acknowledged by scientists today, as well as all those who believe in bringing scientific knowledge to the public.

Robertson’s legacy long outlived the Enlightenment. Today Robertson is widely regarded as an important forerunner of modern cinema, and his grave is one of the most visited monuments in Père Lachaise. Rather than featuring the man himself, the scene depicts his audience cowering before the phantoms he brought to life.

robertsongrave

Just as he would have wanted.

Jessica Cale  

Sources:

Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique. Biographie nationale, 21. 1907.

Barber, X. Theodore. “Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America.” Film History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989, pp. 73–86. 

Dickens, Charles. “Robertson, Artist in Ghosts.” Household Words, No. 253. January 27th, 1855.

Mannoni, Laurent, and Ben Brewster. “The Phantasmagoria.” Film History, vol. 8, no. 4, 1996, pp. 390–415. 

Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires

Skulls in the Stars. “How Étienne-Gaspard Robert Terrified Paris for Science.” February 11th, 2013. 

Contraception in Cookbooks: Herbal Family Planning in the Early Modern Period and Beyond

When condoms began to somewhat resemble their modern form in the sixteenth century, it was a result of centuries of trial and error. Venereal diseases had plagued people since the time immemorial, and various barrier methods had been tried with limited efficacy. Gabriele Falloppio’s De Morbo Gallico recommended wrapping up in linen sheaths soaked in salt. Other reusable condoms were made from sheep intestines that could be washed between uses, but they were tied on with ribbons, so…silver linings?

As you can imagine, these weren’t particularly effective. Madame de Sévigné described condoms as “an armor against enjoyment and a spiderweb against danger.” If they did succeed in preventing the spread of venereal disease, we can only assume it was because they put people off the idea of sex altogether.

Note that as different types of condoms were being developed, it was with the aim of preventing venereal disease, not pregnancy. Why not?

Because there was already something else available.

Eve’s Herbs

By the sixteenth century, herbal contraception and abortifacients had been fairly common for at least two thousand years, and their use wasn’t that big of a deal. Emmenagogues—herbs that stimulate menstruation when delayed for any reason—were common medicine. Physicians and monks provided them when needed, often as cures for non-specific “stomach issues” that plagued women. Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote of the medical uses of abortifacient plants in the twelfth century, but she wasn’t the first scholar to tackle the subject.

In the first century AD, Dioscorides of Anazarbus published a medical text that included a list of plants that acted as contraceptives or abortifacients alongside treatments for common problems. The list and its accompanying recipes proved so useful that the text in its entirety continued to be copied and consulted for centuries. Both Galen and Pliny the Elder wrote on methods of limiting family size, and in the second century AD, Soranus’s four-volume work on women’s ailments, Peri Gynaikeion Biblia Tetra, showed an advanced understanding of the difference between contraception and abortion.

But for many in later years, the distinction was unclear and largely unimportant. During the Middle Ages, there was some debate about when life truly began—“ensoulment” at birth rather than conception—so contraception and abortion before about three months were seen as essentially the same thing. As it was something women tended to deal with on their own, it didn’t really concern anyone apart from the women, their medical providers, and their confessors. [Read more about the medieval moral view of abortion here]

The study of common plants with abortifacient properties continued for centuries, but those involved with medicine weren’t the only people preserving that knowledge. Women shared that information with each other, passing it between generations one person at a time until a more efficient method of communication became available.

W3271, frontispiece || engraved title page

Contraception in Cookbooks  

Knowledge of herbal abortifacients not only survived the Middle Ages, but it became more accessible as time went on. As books became more affordable to the general populace, what had mainly been shared between women and among physicians became available to anyone who could read. While family planning was still very much a private matter, coded recipes appeared in popular cookbooks.

Hannah Woolley was a kind of seventeenth century Martha Stewart, writing books on household management to support herself after her husband passed away in 1661. As a servant to a lady during her younger years, Woolley had picked up a number of recipes for food and home remedies as well as invaluable housekeeping tips. She became a household name after self-funding the publication of her first book in 1661, The Ladies Directory, followed by The Cook’s Guide shortly thereafter. Her books flew off the shelves and sold out of multiple printings.

Between the recipes for perfume and preserves, however, there was advice of a more sensitive nature. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight—published in twelve editions between 1675 and 1720—contained the following:

    1. To bring down the Flowers.

Take of Alligant, Muskadine, or Claret

a pint, burn it, and sweeten it well

with Sugar, put thereto two spoonfuls

of Sallet-Oyl; then take a good Bead of

Amber in powder in a spoon, with some

of the Wine after it: Take this Evening

and Morning.

By the seventeenth century, “bringing down the flowers” was a common euphemism for abortion, or stimulating menstruation that was unexpectedly late. That this recipe was included in the early modern version of The Joy of Cooking gives us some indication of how abortion was viewed in practice: it was a women’s issue best left to women. As before, a woman wasn’t really regarded as pregnant until “quickening,” or the first detectable signs of fetal movement around three-to-five months into a pregnancy. As such, stimulating menstruation early enough was a non-issue.

Though she was respected as an amateur physician, Woolley didn’t concoct this recipe herself; there were more than two hundred plants with known abortifacient properties available in Britain, and this was only one combination. Recipes to “draw down the flowers” or “procure the months” were included in many common books of recipes and herbal remedies, and the ingredients for them could be found growing outdoors or purchased from an apothecary.

Those without access to these cookbooks or household herbals had other ways of finding the same information. Women shared these recipes with each other verbally, and “cunning women” and midwives could also be consulted.

In the 1560s, Elizabeth Francis of Chelmsford was reported as having visited her “grandmother Eve” in Hatfield Peverel, who advised her what herbs to drink to terminate her pregnancy. Alice Butcher reported that similar potions could be obtained from the apothecary in Warrington in 1612. In nineteenth-century Cambridgeshire, it was “Granny” Grey of Littleport to ask for pills of hemlock, rue, and pennyroyal.

Interestingly enough, many abortifacient herbs were anti-estrogenic, which made them effective at preventing pregnancy as well as ending it. A relative of silphium, Queen Anne’s Lace (also known as Wild Carrot) was recorded as a contraceptive as far back as ancient Rome, when its properties were documented by Soranus. Historian John Riddle has reported that the seeds of this plant are a potent contraceptive if harvested in autumn and chewed immediately after sex. Modern clinical studies do support this; the seeds contain estrogen and act as a progesterone blocker, effectively preventing pregnancy in animals.

Additionally, artemisia and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator,” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers. Like Queen Anne’s Lace, studies have confirmed that it works: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives.

Hannah Woolley loved it. Her books contain a number of wormwood recipes, including this one, which would have come out a lot like absinthe:

    1. To make Wormwood-Water

Take two Gallons of good Ale, a pound

of Anniseeds, half a pound of Licorise,

and beat them very fine; then take two

good handfuls of the Crops of Wormwood,

and put them into Ale, and let

them stand all Night, and let them stand

in a Limbeck with a moderate Fire.

Licorice is also known to be an effective emmenagogue; it has been used in Asian and Central American medicine for the same purpose. Likewise Artemisia, which is not without its side effects. Wormwood is known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can lead to seizures and kidney failure.

Juniper, an ingredient in gin—enduringly popular since the Gin Craze of the eighteenth century—has been used as a contraceptive since Ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all listed it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their works in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect similar to a natural miscarriage, so it could be used without detection.

Medievalpreg

Sit and Drink Pennyroyal Tea

Today most people probably know it from the Nirvana song, but pennyroyal tea has been used as an emmenagogue since antiquity. Aristophanes mentioned it in Lysistrata, and it appears in the Eleusinian Mysteries as kykeon, a ritual beverage drunk in the service of goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Pennyroyal is a fairly common variety of mint with a strong spearmint taste, and its abortifacient properties were known globally. One early depiction that leaves little to the imagination is this illustration of a midwife preparing pennyroyal tea for a pregnant woman in the thirteenth century (above). See that herb? That’s pennyroyal.

Clinical studies have proven its efficacy as an abortifacient, however, pennyroyal is extremely toxic, and it would have been very easy to overdose. Still, its potency and availability made it a very popular method of ending pregnancies.

Drinking pennyroyal tea for this purpose was so common by the early twentieth century that Dr. P.F. Braithwaite wrote a piece for the British Medical Journal in October of 1906 detailing one patient’s experience in hopes of dissuading people from trying it:

On August 5th at 8.15 p.m., I was sent for to see a young married woman who had suddenly been taken ill. It appeared that, having gone a week beyond her time for menstruating, she had taken some “pennyroyal tea,” an infusion she had made herself from threepennyworth of pennyroyal, with threepennyworth of rum added to it. This had no effect on her in any way, so, on the evening I saw her she had taken threepennyworth of “essence of pennyroyal,” procured at the nearest herbalist’s, again adding threepennyworth of rum. (…) Ten minutes after swallowing this essence she began to feel strange and started to go upstairs; feeling worse, however, she sat on the bottom step and began to retch. (…) She then became unconscious.

Dr. Braithwaite was able to revive the woman and induced vomiting with a mixture of mustard and hot water just as she was experience confusion and numbness in her extremities. Fortunately, she survived:

In view of the widespread habit, amongst women of the working classes, of taking preparations of pennyroyal, and their firm belief in the harmlessness of it, the case seemed to me worth recording, as serious illness was indubitably caused by it, even though recovery was never, perhaps, in doubt.

Pennyroyal is a kind of mint that is not particularly difficult to grow. It could be purchased around the world, and as Braithwaite mentions here, its concentrated essence was available without prescription at any herbalist’s shop. No longer just a tea, by the early twentieth century, it was an active ingredient in abortifacient pills around the world, as well as a potent insecticide.

Changing Laws

Abortion first became a criminal offence in Britain in 1803 under the Malicious Stabbings or Shooting Act, more commonly known as Lord Ellenborough’s Act. Though the act was mainly concerned with those assaulted by weapons, it officially changed when life was thought to begin—it was no longer at quickening, but conception. This was well before the Church, which not officially rule that life began at conception until 1869. Early stage abortion went from common practice to serious felony overnight. Organizing or abetting an abortion became a capital offense, so doctors who would have previously been sympathetic distanced themselves for their own protection. Once again, women were on their own.

As print media became increasingly accessible, advertisements for various mysterious-sounding women’s remedies began to appear in papers with increasing frequency. While once women might have had to visit the village “wise women” for assistance in identifying and preparing herbs, now those same concoctions were available in pill form through the mail. One popular brand was Widow Welch’s Pills. It would have contained a herbal abortifacient like pennyroyal, and it was sold as a cure for “female obstruction” into the twentieth century.

Similar to Widow Beecham's_pills_advertWelch’s were “French Periodical Pills,” “Farrer’s Catholic Pills,” and “Madame Drunette’s Lunar Pills,” also advertised in newspapers and women’s magazines. As in previous centuries, they were often advertised as menstrual regulators. In 1868, a medical journal writer replied to ads offering relief to women “temporarily indisposed” and discovered that more than half of them were discreetly advertising abortion. Beecham’s Pills (right) were marketed as a laxative from 1842, and the company spent nearly £100,000 on advertising by 1880, boasting that they sold six million boxes annually. Over-the-counter pills with the same active ingredients were available in Britain, Australia, Europe, and North America.

While abortions laws remained restrictive in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, they were not punished so severely in the United States. If caught, terminating a pregnancy within the first few months was at most a misdemeanor. Over-the-counter menstrual regulators like Widow Welch’s did very well in the States, and during the 1860s, abortion services were also available in bigger cities, including New York, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, it is estimated that a shocking 25% of all pregnancies in the United States ended in abortion.

Takeaways

Herbal contraception certainly had its drawbacks. For one thing, it wasn’t always effective. For another, it could prove to be fatal. Many herbs succeeded in inducing miscarriage because they were essentially poison taken in low doses. Taking them wouldn’t have been as simple or painless as taking a prescription contraceptive; it’s no coincidence that many early recipes to stimulate menstruation included opium or alcohol for the pain. That people continued to use them for thousands of years despite the risk of kidney failure, damage to the nervous system, cardiac arrest, or death only shows that despite legislation and social stigma, women have always found ways to control their own reproductive destinies.

Abstinence is not a workable solution, and it never has been. If anyone tries to tell you that people in the past simply did not have sex unless it was for procreation and that contraception of any kind didn’t exist, remember Hannah Woolley. Imagine her books selling out, printing after printing until they reached kitchens across Britain and beyond, providing the recipes many women needed but no one ever talked about. Remember that sourcing pennyroyal was as easy as going to the market. Think of Widow Welch’s and the dozens of other over-the-counter menstrual regulators that sold by the millions well into the twentieth century.

People have always liked sex and, for good or ill, found ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Sex in history isn’t always as it appears, and even the most devout, respected, well-behaved figures had their secrets.

Jessica Cale

 

Sources

Braithwaite, P. F. “A Case Of Poisoning By Pennyroyal: Recovery.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 2388, 1906.

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).

Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675.

Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Chamberlain, Geoffrey. British Maternal Mortality in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2006 Nov; 99(11).

Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages.

Hobson, James. Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency.

Nelson, Sarah E. “Persephone’s Seeds: Abortifacients and Contraceptives in Ancient Greek Medicine and Their Recent Scientific Appraisal.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009.

Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West.

Sweet, Victoria. Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 73, no. 3, 1999.

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History.

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages.

Falloppio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Woolley, Hannah. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight. 1670.

A Cure for (Anything) that Ails You: Cocaine in Victorian Medicine

10.2307_community.28537599-1Although the medicinal properties of the coca plant had been well known to the indigenous people of South America for thousands of years, cocaine as we know it was first isolated from the coca plant by German chemists in the 1850s. Having observed its status among indigenous people, scientists wanted to explore its uses in medicine. Among other things, the Incans had used it as a painkiller in early brain surgery. It had to be good, right?

No one was prepared for how good.

Not only did cocaine turn out to be an effective anesthetic, but it reduced bleeding by constricting blood vessels. Doctors loved it, dentists used it for toothaches and routine surgery, and Dr. Karl Koller, a friend of Sigmund Freud, confirmed its ophthalmic use when he applied it to his own eye and repeatedly stabbed it with pins. Freud himself was a champion of the drug, using it to fight his own indigestion and depression for years. He wrote a formal report praising the drug, “Uber Cocaine,” a seventy-page opus we can only assume he completed in one sitting.

While medical professionals were experimenting with it, it hit the market in Vin Mariani, a wine fortified with coca leaves developed by French chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863. “French coca wine,” as it was soon called, proved to particularly potent. The alcohol in the wine accomplished what the chemists were attempting in Germany and pulled the cocaine from the coca, so each bottle contained about a teaspoon of cocaine. It doesn’t sound like much, but it only takes about 20mg to produce a high. Each bottle contained approximately 160mg. Pope Leo XIII was so impressed that he gave Mariani a gold medal and kept a hipflask filled with it for easy access.

10.2307_community.24785561A Miracle Cure

When cocaine was released to the public as a pharmaceutical, the conditions couldn’t have been better. After the Civil War (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), morphine addiction was common among veterans with chronic pain on both sides of the Atlantic. Like laudanum, another common opiate, morphine was available for purchase without prescription. Cocaine was likewise available over the counter, and doctors encouraged its use to fight morphine addiction and alcoholism.

And why wouldn’t they? It was thought to be harmless. In 1877, a doctor in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now the New England Journal of Medicine) reported: “Coca…diminishes weariness, strengthens the pulse, calms nervous excitement, and increases mental activity. (…) Careful observations lead me to believe that, so far from being injurious, the moderate consumption of coca is not only wholesome, but frequently beneficial.”

Thomas Edison and Jules Verne championed it. In fiction, Sherlock Holmes used it to stave off “the dull routine of existence.” US Surgeon General Dr. William Hammond said it was harmless and particularly useful for athletes and “brain-workers,” reassuring the public that it was not addictive in the slightest.

10.2307_community.28561236Cocaine was touted as a miracle substance, added to every remedy for every purpose. It was sold as a powder—it was claimed it eliminated dandruff when applied to the scalp or treated allergies when inhaled through the nose. The Hay Fever Association named cocaine an official remedy. Beauty columns reported that it cured cold sores when applied to the skin. It was sold in candies or syrups to fight fatigue, toothaches, or sore throat. It came in bottles, tablets, wine, powder, cigarettes, salve, and even with syringes for easy injection. Cocaine is even thought to be one of the secret ingredients of Dr. Keeley’s legendary “Gold Cure,” a concoction administered at his addiction treatment centers throughout the end of the nineteenth century.

Coca-Cola

In Georgia, Dr. John Pemberton unwittingly turned cocaine into an enduring global phenomenon of another kind in 1886. A biochemist and Confederate Army veteran, he spent the decades following the war experimenting with painkillers and other compounds for commercial consumption. Pemberton had survived a sabre wound to the chest during the Battle of Columbus in April of 1865, but it pained him for the rest of his life, leading to a morphine addiction that would last until his death in 1888.

coca-cola_ideal_brain_tonic_1890sHe had some success with his Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which was marketed to veterans and “highly strung” Southern women as a recreational beverage with medicinal properties. A wine fortified with coca and kola nut, it was claimed it fought depression, morphine addiction, alcoholism, and anxiety. Pemberton created his non-alcoholic version when Fulton County enacted temperance legislation in 1886; the wine was replaced with soda water, it was sold at drug stores, and Coca-Cola was born.

The active ingredient certainly sped its success. It woke people up, helped them to work longer hours with greater focus, and it made them feel wonderful. Pemberton marketed it as a “valuable brain tonic…delicious, refreshing, pure joy, exhilarating.”

The public agreed. Coca-Cola survived Pemberton’s death, using his original recipe until the cocaine was removed in 1906.

Coming down

It took several years for the long-term effects of cocaine to become apparent. Freud himself fell out of love with it in the 1890s, when he began to observe increasingly negative reactions among his own patients. He eventually gave it up himself when it began to affect his own performance, causing him to nearly kill of his own patients during a surgery.

Although cocaine was effective for short-term use for toothaches and dental surgery, its effects on the teeth overtime proved to be more than detrimental; it increased tooth decay and erosion, periodontal disease, oral lesions and infections, and loss of taste and smell.10.2307_community.28556929-1

By 1891, there were thirteen deaths attributed to cocaine, as well as countless reported addictions. Though it worked as a stimulant and painkiller, its other side effects were less appealing. Finally, it was discovered to cause delirium, breathing issues, convulsions, high blood pressure, coma, and cardiac arrest.

Cocaine was outlawed in the US with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. It experienced a further surge in Germany following WWI and was used in Nazi experiments throughout WWII. It is still legal for medical use or decriminalized in many countries around the world as well as the state of Oregon.

Jessica Cale

 

Further reading

Gardiner, Richard. “The Civil War Origin of Coca-Cola in Columbus, Georgia”, Muscogiana: Journal of the Muscogee Genealogical Society(Spring 2012), Vol. 23: 21–24

Lestrange, Aymon de (2018). Coca wine : Angelo Mariani’s miraculous elixir and the birth of modern advertising ([English translation, revised and expanded edition] ed.). Rochester, Vermont.

Musto, David F. “Why Did Sherlock Holmes Use Cocaine?” Pharmacy in History, vol. 31, no. 2, 1989, pp. 78–80. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41112485.

Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

“Cocaine.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 6169, 1979, pp. 971–972. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25431933.

Images: 

  1. An Invitation to Cocaine. William Golden Mortimer, 1904.
  2. An advertisement for Hall’s Coca Wine, 1915.
  3. Advertisement for Iron Bitters. Iron Bitters was an over-the-counter cure-all with cocaine as an active ingredient.
  4. Advertisement for Coca-Cola, 1890s.
  5. Advertisement for Cocaine Toothache Drops, 1885. Like Iron Bitters, these were marketed for children.

Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

The archetype of the beautiful, doomed courtesan has appeared so often in media over the past two centuries that it has become a cliché. Think of La Traviata, Carmen, Les Misérables, even Moulin Rouge—their stories have become tragedies that titillate while serving as precautionary tales about the dangers of sex work. People live vicariously through these stories while condemning the heroines they want to emulate and their real-life counterparts. Real life isn’t like an opera.

Except for when it is. Though there have been countless sex workers in history living extraordinary lives, this archetype in popular media can be traced back to just one: Marie Duplessis (1824 – 1847), known by her contemporaries and immortalized by Alexandre Dumas fils as la Dame aux Camélias.

Though much of what people know about her today comes from Dumas’s fictionalized version of her life, there’s more to the story of the woman who inspired so much art—and possibly music—during her short life. Today, we’re going to look at the real story of Marie Duplessis and the romance that inspired Liszt’s Liebesträume.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Saint-Germain-de-Clairfeuille on January 15th, 1824. Her father, Marin Plessis, was the son of a sex worker and a country priest. Marin Plessis was far from a model father—Alphonsine was his second daughter, and he was apparently so disappointed she wasn’t a boy that he abused his wife until she left the family to seek out work as a maid in Paris, where she died when Alphonsine was eight.

Neglected and unwanted, Alphonsine was sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Madame Boisard, who raised her with her own daughters until Alphonsine was raped by a farmhand at age twelve. Blaming Alphonsine for her own attack, Boisard sent Alphonsine back to her father, who promptly sold her to a man in his seventies who lived in the middle of nowhere.

Although Alphonsine had no idea where she was, she escaped a number of times and attempted to find work in laundries or shops in the surrounding villages. Eventually she made it Exmes, where she worked as a maid until her father reappeared, briefly sold her to an umbrella manufacturer, then took her to Paris. Marin Plessis died later that year.

Paris is where the legend of la Dame aux Camélias really begins. At fifteen, Alphonsine was an orphan temporarily staying with poor relations in the Rue des Deux-Écus. Later, it was claimed that she became a courtesan because she had expensive tastes, but the truth was probably less glamorous. Abandoned, raped, or abused by everyone who was supposed to care for her, she was alone again, and she was hungry. Nestor Roqueplan, the director of the Théâtre des Variétés, later remembered meeting her before she changed her name. Dressed in rags, she was “gazing longingly at a friend potato stall” on the Pont-Neuf. Feeling sorry for her, he bought her a cornet of pommes frites.

Not a year later, Roqueplan was stunned to see that same starving girl on the arm of a nobleman in the Ranelagh Gardens. Marie Duplessis had arrived.

She named herself Marie after the Virgin, and she claimed she added “du” to her surname because she wanted to buy the Plessis estate at Nonant. It wasn’t the new name that made her a success, however. As Gustave Claudin describes her in Mes Souvenirs:

Her distinction, grace, and charm were sure to make her a star in the world of gallantry…Marie Duplessis was thin and pale, and had magnificent hair which came down to the ground. She was wayward, capricious, and wild, adoring today what she had hated yesterday, and vice versa. She possessed the art of elegance to the highest degree. You could certainly say of Marie Duplessis that she had style. No one tried to copy her inimitable originality. As long as the florists could provide them, she carried bouquets of white camellias.

She was charming and tirelessly kind in a way that endeared her to polite society, gaining her access to places other courtesans could never hope to enter. Still in her teens, Marie had seen too much, but it wasn’t her past that gave her the melancholy that was noted to interrupt her joyful moods—it was her lack of future. From Albert Vandam, An Englishman in Paris:

She had a natural tact and an instinctive refinement which no education could have enhanced. She never made grammatical mistakes, no coarse expression ever passed her lips. Lola Montes could not make friends; Alphonsine Plessis could not make enemies. She never became riotous like the others, not even boisterous; for amidst the more animated scenes she was haunted by the sure knowledge that she would die young, and life, but for that knowledge, would have been very sweet to her. 

At some point during her short life, Marie had contracted tuberculosis. It was both common and very contagious, though it was still not widely known how it was spread. Though many people were able to live with it, Marie’s case was already advanced. She knew she was dying, and so did everyone else.

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

It didn’t detract from her popularity, however. She was widely regarded as a great beauty, with actress Judith Bernat gushing, “She had an angelic oval face, black eyes caressing in their melancholy, a dazzling complexion and, above all, splendid hair. Oh, that beautiful black silk hair!” Her considerable beauty was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever.

Still, Marie lived an exciting life. After learning to read with the help of one of her lovers’ grandmothers, she read the papers every morning, played piano, and attended the theater religiously, where she was a favorite patron and given box seats to the opening night of every show. She collected art and artists in equal measure, hosting literary salons at her museum-like apartment, where she impressed Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, and Théophile Gauthier with her wit.

At the height of her popularity, she was said to have one lover for every day of the week. She chose each one, and she was so in demand that they were obliged to accept the arrangement and settle for sharing a wardrobe in her room. Still very childlike in many ways—by 1845, she was only twenty-one and still went to expensive restaurants just to fill up on sweets and macarons—she didn’t spend all of her money on frivolities; while she lived, she donated twenty thousand francs to the church every year.

Lisztomania

Exhibit A: Liszt in 1837. Ary Scheffer. I mean–

By 1845, the only person in Paris with more of a following than Marie was composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso who had shown such promise as a child, he’d been sent to study piano in Vienna at nine, gave his first formal concert there at eleven, and published his first piece of music in an anthology with adult experts at age twelve. By sixteen, he was living in Paris with his mother, who he supported by teaching piano lessons while drinking and smoking heavily, a habit that made him so ill that a Paris newspaper ran an obituary on him in error when he was seventeen. Needless to say, he didn’t have much of a childhood either. Like Marie, he made up for his lack of traditional schooling by reading as widely as he could in what little spare time he had.

Women liked Liszt. So much so, in fact, that Countess Marie d’Agoult left her husband and family to live with Liszt in Geneva when he was still in his early twenties. They had three children—Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel—but had more or less called it quits by 1840, when Liszt returned to touring.

When Lisztomania struck Paris shortly thereafter, Liszt was thirty-three and, by all accounts, a total smokeshow. It wasn’t only that he was considered handsome, which he absolutely was, but his skill and stage presence made his audiences crazy—particularly the women. His music was exciting, avant-garde, and technically challenging, and he threw himself into it, regularly adding or changing things as he went to play up to the crowd. They ate it up in a way that wouldn’t be seen until Elvis entered the building a century later.

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

Women literally climbed over each other to touch him, fighting over his discarded handkerchiefs and gloves. Broken piano strings were turned into keepsake bracelets, stolen coffee dregs were preserved in tiny glass bottles, and one woman even saved one of his cigar butts from the gutter and had his initials embedded into it with diamonds.

Lisztomania was viewed as a serious and likely contagious condition by medical professionals at the time, who warned of its ability to cause mass hysteria—his audiences were rowdy in a way other classical audiences weren’t—and asphyxia, given how many ladies fainted in his presence.

Liszt wasn’t immune to the attention, but he must have loved his work—throughout the 1840s, he toured constantly, regularly giving four concerts a week.

He met Marie Duplessis in the foyer of a theater in 1845. He was there with drama critic Jules Janin, who described their first conversation:

Head held high, she made her way through the astonished throng, and we were surprised, Liszt and I, when she came and sat down familiarly on the bench beside us, for neither of us had ever spoken to her. She was a woman of wit and taste and good sense. She began by addressing herself to the great musician; she told him that she had recently heard him, and that he had made her dream…and so they talked throughout the third act of the melodrama…

As different as their backgrounds were, they had a lot in common. Though he was still touring Europe and playing several nights a week, he gave her piano lessons in her apartment. They were lovers while he was in town, and though she continued to see others, her love for Liszt endured.

While he was away, Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, convinced her to move to the country with him so her tuberculosis might be helped by the fresh air away from the city. When her condition did not improve and her patience with Dumas wore thin, she returned to Paris.

There, Marie surprised everyone by quickly marrying the Comte de Perregaux, becoming a countess in 1846. It ended as quickly as it began. With Marie’s tuberculosis worsening, Perregaux grew tired of her and left her at her Paris apartment, refusing her money for maintenance or medical bills. Marie’s time was running out.

When Liszt returned to Paris, they stayed together once again. He later wrote about this visit and what she’d said that had haunted him:

“I shall not live; I’m a strange woman, I shan’t be able to cling to this life that I cannot live and I cannot bear. Take me with you, take me away wherever you want; I shan’t be in your way, I sleep all day, in the evening you’ll let me go to the theater, and at night you can do what you like with me!” 

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

I’ve never told you how strangely attached I became to that charming creature during my last stay in Paris. I’d told her that I would take her to Constantinople, because it was really the only possible journey I could take with her.

Although Liszt had wanted to take her away, Marie didn’t make it to Constantinople. Desperate to extend her short life, Marie spent the rest of her money visiting health spas around Europe, but it was no use. At the end of January, she went to her last play, Les Pommes de Terre Malades, a vaudeville act at the Palais-Royal. She died at three o’clock in the morning on February 3rd. She was 23.

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

Marie was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. She had asked to be buried in a quiet place at dawn with no fuss, but her funeral became a public event, after which her apartment was opened up and all of her possessions and carefully curated treasures were sold off. Like Liszt’s fans, everyone wanted a piece of her, some souvenir to help them emulate the timeless, haunting beauty of la Dame aux Camélias. A year later, Dumas published his story, setting himself up as the romantic hero in the tragedy of her life.

The real romantic hero, however, was on tour when it happened, but he was rather quieter about it. “Poor Mariette Duplessis. She was the first woman with whom I was in love,” Liszt wrote to the Countess d’Agoult, the mother of his children and still a friend. “Some unknown, mysterious chord from an antique elegy echoes in my heart when I recall her.”

Liszt lived another forty years after Marie’s death. By the late 1850s, he had made so much money from touring that, like Marie, he gave most of his income to charity. He continued to tour and taught free piano classes, and though he had a few other affairs, none of them lasted. After two of his children, Blandine and Daniel, died in the early 1860s, he entered the church, where he became an abbé and was ordained as an exorcist in 1865. He continued teaching, performing, and working with the church until he died of pneumonia at 74.

La Dame aux Camélias

The advertisement for La Dame aux Camelias starring Sarah Bernhardt, by Alphonse Mucha

Barely a year after Marie passed away, Alexandre Dumas fils published La Dame aux Camélias, a thinly veiled dramatization of her life. Because he had been one of her lovers and was young enough that no one believed he could have made it up, it was mostly taken at face value and became a runaway success when it was adapted into a play. In spite of his famous father, Dumas was illegitimate and had no fortune of his own, so he must have been delighted to make his while cashing in on the death of the woman who broke his heart.

Because his depiction of her is flattering if sensational, readers assumed he was in love with her; if he had been, he wasn’t anymore, only playing to the public’s adoration of her. They loved her, and they were the ones buying the book. On opening night of the play years later, he took his final act of strange revenge on Marie by giving Sarah Bernhardt, the actress playing her onstage, the last letter he had written to Marie, denouncing her and ending the relationship she had already given up on by returning to Liszt in Paris.

If he had loved her in life, Dumas hated her in death, so it’s ironic that it was his book made her immortal. Marie’s beauty made tuberculosis a fashionable disease, the symptoms of which are still held up to be beauty standards to this day. La Dame aux Camélias was later adapted into La Traviata, which became the template for every tragic romance about young, beautiful, doomed sex workers ever since, up to and including Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

But we haven’t come all this way to let Dumas have the last word. A key hint to Marie’s true nature might have been in plain sight all along. In the Victorian language of flowers, camellias stood for longing. In Marie’s own words, spoken to actress Judith Bernat not long before she died:

“Why did I sell myself? Because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for, irresistibly. Whatever I may seem to be, I promise you I’m not covetous or debauched. I wanted to know the refinements and pleasures of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society…I’ve always chosen my friends. And I’ve loved, oh, yes, I’ve really loved, but no one has ever responded to my love. That is the real horror of my life.”

Although Dumas’s book remains the most widely known memorial to Marie Duplessis, it wasn’t the only one. In 1850, Liszt completed Liebesträume (Dreams of Love), the title echoing the first conversation he had with Marie. It was a three-part series of piano solos based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. It has been argued that he chose these to illustrate three different types of love, but read together, they are also three stages of one great one, played out in his brief yet monumental romance with Marie—love at first sight, erotic love, and love after loss. You can see (and listen) for yourself here:

Liebesträume No 1.
Hohe Liebe (Holy Love) by Ludwig Uhland

In the arms of your love you lie intoxicated,
The fruits of life beckon to you;
Only one glance has fallen upon me,
But I am richer than all of you.

I gladly do without earthly joy
And, a martyr, I gaze ahead,
For over me in the golden distance
Heaven has opened.

Liebesträume No 2.
Seliger Tod (Blessed Death) by Ludwig Uhland

I died
From the delight of love;
I was buried
In her arms;
I was awakened
From their kisses;
I saw the sky
In her eyes.

Liebesträume No 3. [excerpt]
O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (O Love, As Long As You Can) by Ferdinand Freliligrath

O love, as long as you can,
O love, as long as you may,
The time will come, the time will come
When you will stand at a grave and mourn!

You will kneel alongside the grave
And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist
Never will you see the beloved again
Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

You will say: Look at me from below,
I who mourn here alongside your grave!
Forgive my slights!
Dear God, I meant no harm!

Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,
He lies beyond your comfort;
The lips you kissed so often speak
Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Jessica Cale

Sources
Baxter, John. Montmartre: Paris’s Village of Art and Sin
Ollivier, D. (ed): Correspondance de Liszt et de la Comtesse d’Agoult
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (1811–1847)

Trans and Non-binary Identities from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome: Inanna, Cybele, and the Gallai

Ishtar. Lewis Spence (1916)

How many times have you heard that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing? With more people becoming aware of differing gender identities and many feeling empowered to share their own, the subject has become a staple of lazy comedy at best and an excuse for horrific violence and harmful legislation at worst. While arguments for the repression of these identities vary, one theme seems to repeat—the idea that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing that manifested spontaneously in the modern world.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To talk about trans and non-binary identities in history, I’m not going to start with Dr. James Barry. I’m not going to talk about William Dorsey Swann, the Chevalier d’Eon, or even the Molly houses of Georgian London. We’ll get there—don’t worry—but today, we’re taking it all the way back to the beginning.

Mesopotamia

For those of you just joining us, Mesopotamia was home to the first known civilization in human history. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq is now, the area was populated by the Sumerians and Akkadians from the earliest days of recorded history, around 3100 BCE.

Mesopotamia was polytheistic, and one of the many gods worshiped was Inanna. Also known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, violence, and justice. Although she was the goddess of sex, it’s interesting to note that she was not a goddess of procreation or indeed a mother herself. She was usually portrayed as promiscuous, but this wasn’t a negative thing—as far as Inanna was concerned, sex was a sacred rite to be enjoyed as an expression of love and not exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Sex wasn’t something shameful yet. An all-powerful goddess with a devoted cult, she is often portrayed with lions. Surviving artifacts from later periods, when she evolved into or was combined with Ishtar, even show her riding a chariot being pulled by lions.

If love, beauty, war, and justice aren’t enough for one goddess to handle, Inanna also had another very important ability.

She could change men into women and women into men.

That’s not just awkward phrasing there—that’s a quote. Around 2280 BCE, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the Akkadian High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, wrote a number of poems and hymns for Inanna, including “The Great-Hearted Mistress,” “The Exaltation of Inanna,” an “Goddess of the Fearsome Power.” She describes some of this power here:

Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

This isn’t a metaphor, and it isn’t the only source that mentions this.

In the Epic of Erra, a Babylonian poem, there are references to kurgarra and assinnu, classes of servants of the goddess, “whose maleness Ishtar turned to female, for the awe of the people.” The British Museum has a fragment of a five-thousand-year-old statue with a still clear inscription that translates to: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

But these are only references to the goddess’s ability to transform gender. The most compelling evidence for trans and non-binary identities among her worshipers is the existence of her priests, known as the Gala.

The Gala were a class of priests sacred to Inanna. It was said they were initially created by the god Enki to sing “heart-soothing laments,” for the goddess, and they certainly did that. To begin with, one of their primary roles was to sing hymns and laments to the goddess in eme-sal, a Sumerian dialect spoken primarily by women that was used to render the speech of female gods. They presided over religious rites, healed the sick, predicted the future, made music, raised money for the poor, and “dissolved evil” during lunar eclipses. Akkadian omen texts said that having sex with them was lucky. They were well-known and respected members of their communities, and many of them were what we would think of now as transgender.

While it can be problematic to apply modern terminology to five-thousand-year-old gender identities, I’ll tell you what we know of them. Whether called in a dream, given a vision of the goddess, or driven by devotion, biological males entered into the service of the goddess and became female for all intents and purposes, taking on feminine pronouns and dressing and living as women. While various sources argue that ritual castration was involved, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that this early, and in any case, surgery is still not necessary to validate gender identity today. As they saw it, Inanna had made them women, and though they didn’t have the same verbiage for it, their society accepted that identity.* After all, this change was a gift of the goddess.

Swapping genders and pronouns wasn’t a comment on their sexuality, as it could be in later years. I shouldn’t have to tell you that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: gender identity is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you love. We cannot make blanket assumptions about the sexual orientation of the Gala, but we do know that they had relationships as diverse as people do today—many served as sacred sex workers within Inanna’s temples, but others did not. Some were married (to men or women) and had families, often adopting children together. Queer families certainly existed, and homosexuality was not a crime. It wasn’t shameful or a hot-button issue—it was a normal aspect of everyday life, not even mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which provided the basis for law in the region for more than a thousand years.

Looking at the Gala in isolation, you might think their existence was an anomaly of the ancient world. Those cults got up to some strange things; that could hardly be common!

Except it was.

Inanna was a very popular goddess, and her worship spread and evolved throughout the ancient world. While her name changed to Ishtar, Rhea, Cybele, Bahucharā Mātā, and Astarte, one thing remained the same: her priests.

Cybele on a cart drawn by lions. Bronze, 2nd century AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art

All Roads Lead to Rome 

When Phrygian goddess Cybele became a part of the official state religion of Rome in 204 BCE, her Gallai came with her. At this point, genderqueer priests had served Cybele, Inanna, and other interpretations of the goddess for nearly three thousand years. They were a common sight in the ancient world, but Rome wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

Concerned with inheritance and property law, Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Gallai because of the ban on castration. Whether or not they actually practiced this is debatable, but as far as Rome was concerned, anyone who could not procreate for any reason—including disinterest, infertility, homosexuality, celibacy, or impotence—was neither truly male nor female. Castrated or not, the Gallai’s non-binary status meant they could not inherit property.

To the Romans, gender not only depended more on one’s ability to procreate than anything else, but it was subject to change. Greek and Roman medical texts from the time describe gender not as fixed, but fluid depending on humors like heat and moisture in the body. According to them, these factors could determine an infant’s sex during pregnancy, and they could also change one’s gender after birth. While the terminology was not there in the same way it is today, all of this points to the existence and tacit acceptance of a third gender in Ancient Rome, even if they did not have the same citizenship or property rights as their cisgender (and procreating) neighbors.

In spite of this, some Romans gave up their citizenship to become Gallai. Others had been slaves or had come from other parts of Asia. While it’s unclear how many Gallai were castrated or at what point in their service this happened, there is more documentation to support this happening at this point. Pliny does not go into detail but describes the process as relatively safe, and it was said to take place on Dies Sanguinis, “the Day of Blood,” on March 24th.

Still, castration alone does not change gender. Castrated or not, Gallai throughout the Roman Empire dressed, worshiped, and lived as women. They were noted for their saffron gowns, long hair, heavy makeup, and extravagant jewelry. They existed in every part of the Greco-Roman world at every level of society and were mentioned by Ovid, Seneca, Persius, Martial, and Statius as a common sight in the first century. Apuleius even described them in The Golden Ass:

“The following day they went out, wearing various colored undergarments with turbans and saffron robes and linen garments thrown over them, and every one hideously made up, their faces crazy with muddy paints and their eyes artfully lined.”

Statue of a priest of Cybele

If nothing else, the Gallai knew how to make an entrance. One of the ways in which they practiced healing was through a sort of music therapy that involved parading through town while singing and playing chaotic music to induce a sort of transcendental, joyful mania in the crowd. Others told fortunes—along with service to the goddess, castration was believed to give one the ability to see the future—or begged or danced for money on behalf of the poor. They were hard to miss, wonders in their own time. Diodorus called them terata—“marvels, monsters, prodigies, signs.” As historian Will Roscoe so beautifully put it, they were “the sacred breaking through to the level of the mundane.”

Early Christians weren’t as fond of the Gallai. They preached spiritual androgyny, but physical androgyny was complicated; although trans and non-binary identities had existed throughout the ancient world for more than three thousand years, they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. At this point, they may have been such a common part of society that they would have been more or less taken for granted.

Still, early Christian apologists describe the Gallai in less flattering but suspiciously familiar-sounding terms:

“They wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?” – Fermicus Maternus

“Even till yesterday, with dripping hair and painted faces, with flowing limbs and feminine walk, they passed through the streets and alleys of Carthage, exacting from merchants that by which they might shamefully live.” – St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 7.26

Ugh! Buying groceries. How dare she?

It wasn’t only toxic masculinity and transphobia that fueled this distaste; the cult of Cybele was hugely influential throughout the ancient world and was one of early Christianity’s biggest rivals. In some places, Christians and followers of Cybele had street fights when their religious festivals overlapped in the spring, and the Gallai came to represent to some what they didn’t like about pagan culture.**

Nevertheless, Cybele continued to be worshiped until the fall of Rome, with the religion’s last known rites being celebrated in 394 CE.

So far, so Mediterranean. What about the rest of the world?

But Wait, There’s More 

In India, the Hijra are intersex and transgender people with history dating back to antiquity. Like Cybele’s devotees, they are connected to music. They are considered the third gender there, and they were even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Beyond India, trans and non-binary priests have been documented throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Like the Gala and Gallai, all of these roles involved the worship of a goddess, gender transgression, elements of healing, and actual or symbolic castration. In their capacity as religious figures focused on sacred rites and community care, they were all important and respected members of their various communities.

In the Americas, the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 to describe the non-binary people who had existed within Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Although written historical records on this are limited, historical references can still be found.

When Don Pedro Fages wrote his account of the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition of what is now California, he reported meeting two-spirit people within the local tribes:

“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession. (…) They are called joyas (jewels) and are held in great esteem.”

Earlier, Bacqueville de la Potherie described a third, non-binary gender identity among the Iroquois in his Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale (1722).

Trans and non-binary gender identities have existed in many cultures since antiquity, and the fact that they developed independently of each other strongly suggests that they are natural rather than learned. Not only are these identities older than 1960, but they predate Christianity by some three thousand years. So the next time someone tells you they want to “return to traditional values,” you be sure to ask them, “How far back do you want to go?”

Jessica Cale

*Note: worth mentioning that this presumably also happened for trans men, although there is unfortunately less documentation of them from this period.
**Like music, makeup, and having fun.

Sources

Berkowitz, Eric. Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

Fages, P.; Priestley, H. I.; Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.

Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between myth and history: king, priest, and God; Volume 149 of Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. BRILL. pp. 96–97.

Morgan, Cheryl. Evidence for Trans Lives in Sumer. Notches: http://notchesblog.com/2017/05/02/evidence-for-trans-lives-in-sumer/

Roscoe, Will. “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion.” History of Religions 35, no. 3 (1996): 195-230. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062813.

 

 

Coming of Age as Simone de Beauvoir: From Catholic Schoolgirl to Avant-Garde Rebel

Coming of age in early 20th-century Paris, Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908) transformed herself from a devout Catholic schoolgirl into one of the foremost intellectual rebels of the 20th century. Energetic, probing, in search of commitment and deeply suspicious of the compromises of bourgeois life, she became a major figure in 20th century philosophy. Her subject? Liberty and contingency—choosing and being chosen for; transcendence and immanence.

Beauvoir’s groundbreaking 1949 work, The Second Sex, applied the concepts of liberty and contingency to the study of women. Declaring that “One is not born but becomes a woman,” she developed the concept of woman as “the Other,” analyzing its implications for philosophy, literature, and aspects of everyday life—including coming of age.

Though Beauvoir’s approach was highly original, it was also embedded in its mid-20th century moment. It paralleled the work of writers of African descent—including Richard Wright and Frantz Fanon—who were using philosophy and psychology to explore the experience of racially marginalized groups. Without definitively rejecting philosophy’s universal claims, these writers were challenging philosophy to deal with the experience of society’s outsider citizens.

Avoiding easy analogies between women and racial minorities, Beauvoir’s perspective in The Second Sex is both philosophically subtle and steeped in women’s everyday experience. The world was perplexed and amused by the seeming paradox—a philosophizing woman. It was also outraged by the author’s sexual candor.

Un Ménage à deux – ou trois

Along with her philosophical works, Beauvoir created a steady stream of memoirs and novels. Liberty and contingency are ever-present, as humans struggle to stand out against circumstance: world war, fascism, oppression, and “othering.”

Privately, Beauvoir’s writings on women, gender, and sexuality were informed by her decades-long open relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, sealed by their famous pact to tell each other “everything.” Together they analyzed the intimate details of the liaisons dangereuses they formed with others, including several young women whom they both seduced. Some of these ménages à trois were deeply unsavory—a torment for the young women relegated to supporting roles in the Sartre-Beauvoir “family,” and passed between the sexually investigatory and unscrupulous couple.

A Gilded Cage

Feminist philosopher, atheist, and sexual nonconformist, Simone de Beauvoir began life in a gilded cage, a plight she chronicles in her coming-of-age book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. For such girls, a large dowry—not learning or talent—was supposed to smooth the way. Mothers and teachers enforced sexual ignorance, and arranged marriages were common. For those seeking a way out, the convent beckoned.

Beauvoir was not made for a gilded cage—the conventional roles of wife and mother that her class, her family, and her rigid Catholic upbringing assigned to women. From an early age, she was a person of spiritual searching, restless intellect, boundless energy, and emotional extremes.

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

de Beauvoir at five

In 1913, when Beauvoir was five years old, her parents enrolled her in le cours Désir, a private Catholic school for the chaperoned girls of the upper-middle class. Then came the trauma of World War I. As ideals crashed and burned and an age of mechanical warfare began, accompanied by the Bolshevik Revolution, the destruction of the war years gave way to the desperate improvisations of a young and uprooted generation.

L’Action française, a far-right monarchist movement with which Beauvoir’s father sympathized, sparred with the Catholic Church, which claimed the allegiance of her teachers and her closest friend’s family. Both L’Action française and the Catholic Church denounced the avant-garde culture that fascinated Beauvoir—godless intellectuals, surrealists, and immoralists, those who sought the sting of life in dissipation or the “truly gratuitous” act.

During the war years, young Simone swooned over the ideals of God and country, pleasing her mother and teachers; Papa encouraged her clever accomplishments at le cours Désir. Then circumstances changed. The war damaged the Beauvoir family’s financial status, and they faced genteel poverty—a life of unheated apartments, straightened means, marital squabbles, and dashed hopes for Simone.

Her dowry gone, she could no longer expect to marry well. Though her father was no feminist, he was concerned for her future and encouraged her to enter the civil service, where she would earn a fixed salary and a pension. Beauvoir resolved to teach in a lycée, but though her father agreed, her teachers at le cours Désir were scandalized: “To them a state school was nothing better than a licensed brothel.”

Coming of Age: Between the Library and the “Licensed Brothel”

Simone responded with fervor, immersing herself in academic labors with a single-minded zealotry that shocked her conventional parents, her teachers, and the parish priest. Solitary, yearning, prey to sexual stirrings, and grandly ambitious, she began to neglect her appearance, her family obligations, and God in a passionate search for Truth.

Adults regarded Simone as slightly mad—and indeed, the figure she cuts during late adolescence owes something to her famous predecessor in gender rebellion and psychological extremes: Jeanne d’Arc.

Young Simone had dreamed of becoming a nun; now, rushing headlong toward her coming of age, she measured her parents’ shortcomings, and God’s: “If I had rediscovered in Heaven, amplified to infinity, the monstrous alliance of fragility and implacability, of caprice and artificial necessity which had oppressed me since my birth, rather than worship Him I would have chosen damnation. . . . I thought it great good luck that I had been able to get away from Him.”

Having renounced God, Beauvoir also refused the roles of well-bred daughter and wife. It’s not hard to see why. Her parents and teachers censored her reading, and her mother had long kept her in sexual ignorance. The woman who made the famous pact with Sartre reached adolescence not knowing where babies came from—though she doubted they came through the chimney.

Poorly dressed and somewhat déclassé, Beauvoir had no hope of competing as a conventional woman—nor was she free. At age 19, she had to beg her mother to stop opening her letters. Her closest friend was so desperate to escape family demands that she cut her own foot with an axe.

Cousin Jacques

For Beauvoir and other rising intellectuals of her generation, the assumptions and conventions of prewar Europe had been swept away. Like her cousin Jacques, a cultured but boozy young man, Beauvoir regarded bourgeois domesticity as full of spiritual and intellectual peril. For women especially, it loomed as a dangerous trap. She celebrated her twentieth birthday by writing in her diary, “Dementia praecox would be a way out.”

For several years, cousin Jacques seemed to offer another way out—a love match, a compromise. But despite encouragement from both families and some adolescent longings on Beauvoir’s part, he played another role altogether—that of male guide and corrupter. Trusted as a chaperon, he contributed to her coming of age by giving her books by André Gide and Jean Cocteau—and by leading her through a night of bar-hopping and debauchery that bound her to him “by an indissoluble complicity, as if we had committed a murder, or crossed the Sahara together on foot.”

Such adventures were hardly the prelude to a marriage proposal. Soon Beauvoir was frequenting Montparnasse bars alone—and the one she preferred was the Jockey, a hangout for sex workers.

Gratuitous Acts

Formed at le cours Désir, Beauvoir thought of sex in the vocabulary of sin and vice. If she was amused by the raw, overt sexuality of the Jockey regulars, that was because she refused to grasp its human meanings. Seeking “life” and completely at odds with authority, she found a temporary home there, where she indulged in ludicrous antics.

One evening, Beauvoir took a wild chance and accepted a ride from a man; when he demanded sex, she was forced to escape by jumping from the car. Gide, the surrealists, and cousin Jacques had taught her the principles that would guide her future—live dangerously, refuse nothing. But having come of age in sexual ignorance, she was not yet choosing, because choice implies knowledge. Catching the last Métro home, Beauvoir took solace in her dangerous caper as Jacques might have done—she congratulated herself for having performed a truly gratuitous act.

Sarah Relyea’s debut novel, Playground Zero, is a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Her first book was the nonfiction Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. Follow Sarah on Facebook and Goodreads. You can find her at sarahrelyea.com

Further reading

Simone de Beauvoir. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex

Sarah Relyea, Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin