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.

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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

In Love and Dirt: The Unconventional Romance of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby

When Arthur Munby died in 1910 at the age of 82, he made headlines not for his death, but for how he had lived his life. He had been a friend and colleague of John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and other influential artists and writers in the circles surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Munby himself was an accomplished author and photographer fascinated by the lives of working-class women. His favorite subject was one working-class woman in particular: his long-time lover and later secret wife, Hannah Cullwick.

How they managed to keep their relationship secret for fifty-four years was anyone’s guess. Munby was a gentleman, and Cullwick was a maid-of-all-work from Shropshire. Most of what we know about Cullwick comes from her diaries, which she kept throughout her life. Extensive, detailed, and unflinchingly honest, Cullwick’s diaries offer an unparalleled insight into not only her own life, but the lives of working-class women of this period, who were otherwise routinely ignored.

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Hannah Cullwick in men’s wear in 1860, giving precisely zero fucks

Cullwick was not a woman who could easily be ignored. Born in Shifnal to a housemaid and saddler in 1833, she trained in domestic service and worked full-time from the age of eight. Cullwick met Munby in London in 1854, and she took a job there to be closer to him in 1856. She distinguished herself as a particularly tireless worker, and though she had served as a cook, housemaid, and housekeeper, she preferred to work as a lower servant because she saw the position as a way to escape the confines of traditional femininity and service.

What we would now think of as a thoroughly “modern” woman, Cullwick took pride in her position, strength, and ability to take care of herself. No shrinking violet, she was 5’8” and 161 pounds of muscle, with thirteen-and-a-half-inch biceps and large, coarse hands. She usually worked sixteen-hour days doing exhausting manual labor, but she wasn’t the only one; while about half of all working-class women were in service, Cullwick’s generation was the last where large numbers of women were employed to do heavy manual labor. Until the mid-nineteenth century, women frequently did what was later regarded as “men’s work”: working fields, pulling trucks, digging roads, fishing, and working in coal mines. Outside of her job, she came and went as she pleased, visiting friends and roaming London alone without incident like many other women in her position did. She was self-assured, knew her own mind, and was more than capable of handling herself.

While Munby appreciated working-class women, his view of them was as condescending as one might expect for a man of his class in this period. Cullwick stood out to him for her intelligence and love of poetry, and Munby attempted to instruct her in the redemptive power of hard work.

Although Cullwick took his “instruction” to heart, she didn’t need it. She had taken pride in her work long before she’d met Munby, and his attraction to women in service complimented her unwavering dedication to her work, as difficult and ugly as it could get. Cullwick was assertive and even prideful in public, but in private, she became Munby’s willing submissive in what we would now recognize as a consensual Dom/sub relationship.

Munby was not Cullwick’s employer, and though she worked for a friend of his during their courtship, Munby was never in a position to threaten her job. She knew her worth and could have found other employment easily if it came down to it, and their relationship had started before she took the job to be closer to him. Though their relationship involved more than a little power play, they entered into it on as equal footing as anyone from such different classes could.

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Cullwick with boots, 1864

Cullwick loved to meet Munby “in her dirt,” as she described her physical state after spending a long day cleaning filth without washing afterward. She submitted to his requests, served him, and even referred to him as “Massa,” their idea of how a black servant might say it. Though slavery had ended in Britain in 1833, they played with the concept in private, Cullwick darkening her skin with lead or soot. Less about race for her and more about subverting the Victorian ideal of femininity, Cullwick found submitting in this way liberating; outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, Cullwick was free to be herself, even if what she wanted was unconventional.

Her relationship with Munby certainly defied convention. For years, Cullwick wore a short chain around her neck joined with a padlock only Munby had the key to. She took particular pleasure in cleaning boots, and she would sometimes clean Munby’s boots with her tongue. In her diary, she claimed she could tell where he had been by how his boots tasted.

Though their differences made them an odd couple, it’s hard to imaging Munby and Cullwick finding the same happiness with anyone else. From Cullwick’s breathless diary entries about sneaking time with Munby or the delicious secret knowledge that he had passed the house and watched her scrubbing the steps, her feelings about him are more than clear. Though they lived apart during their first two decades together, she found ways to express her feelings. She wrote to him, sent him valentines, and even went to the excruciating lengths of polishing brass with her bare hands because she knew he liked them hard, rough, and red.

Given Munby’s position and love of working women, it has been suggested that his instruction of Cullwick in the virtues of service was enough to convince her to devote herself to it, but Cullwick knew her own mind and never needed convincing. In spite of the submissive role she played with Munby in private, she was not afraid to assert herself or make her wishes clear. Her diary hints that her love of being dirty outweighed his interest in seeing her that way; on more than one occasion, she would arrive intentionally filthy and he would ask her to bathe.

Even when she was on her own, Cullwick reveled in dirt, describing it with a sensuality bordering on the erotic. In this diary entry from October of 1863, she details the pleasure she took in cleaning a chimney:

“I work’d till eight o’clock & then had supper. Clean’d away & then to bed at ten o’clock. I’d a capital chance to go up the chimney, so I lock’d up & waited until ½ past ten till the grate was cool enough & then I took the carpets up & got the tub o’ water ready to wash me in. Moved the fender & swept ashes up. Stripp’d myself quite naked & put a pair of old boots on & tied an old duster over my hair & then I got up into the chimney with a brush. There was a lot o’ soot & it was soft & warm. Before I swept I pull’d the duster over my eyes & mouth, & I sat on the beam that goes across the middle & cross’d my legs along it & I was quite safe & comfortable & out o’ sight. I swept lots o’ soot down & it come all over me & I sat there for ten minutes or more, & when I’d swept all round & as far as I could reach I come down, & I lay on the hearth in the soot a minute or two thinking, & I wish’d rather that Massa could see me. I black’d my face over & then got the looking glass & look’d at myself & I was certainly a fright & hideous all over, at least I should o’ seem’d so to anybody but Massa. I set on & wash’d myself after, & I’d hard work to get the black off & was obliged to leave my shoulders for Massa to finish. I got the tub emptied & to bed before twelve.”

After twenty years as lovers, Munby and Cullwick married in secret in 1873. Cullwick was forty, and Munby was forty-five. Having spent thirty-two years as a full-time servant, Cullwick finally had the opportunity to move up in the world, but she didn’t want it. While Munby encouraged Cullwick to explore her new role as his wife, she refused and insisted on remaining his servant. This was not because she felt unworthy of it, but because she had no patience for the societal restrictions that came with the change in status and preferred to keep the freedom she’d had in service. Keeping her own last name, she lived with him as his servant until 1877, when she left to return to service in Shropshire. Their relationship wasn’t over, though—Munby visited her regularly until her death in 1909.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant. Liz Stanley, Ed.

Everything Old is New Again: Surprisingly “Modern” Fashion Trends of the Victorian Period

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Mourning portrait

Looking through Victorian portraits, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all anyone ever wore was black. Mourning had its own trends and traditions—enough of them that we could write another entire article about them—but what about the rest of the time? Surely people didn’t wear black every day.

Black wasn’t even common for menswear before Beau Brummell set the trend that was to last through the next two hundred years (and counting). Famous for his hours-long morning routine as well as his feelings on boot maintenance*, Brummell’s true legacy surrounds us every day. Prior to his championing simple and elegant menswear in dark colors, many men of fashion dressed as ostentatiously as women, wearing bright colors, makeup, wigs, and high heels. Brummell’s influence changed all of that and set the tone for fashion for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond. All clothing became more conservative, serviceable, and monochrome, right?

Not exactly.

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Studio portrait

With fashion history, there are two major things that lead to serious misunderstandings: portraits and survival bias. Photography was still rare, and mainly used for special occasions. If you only had one chance to preserve your likeness, you would probably want to present yourself in the best (and most universal way) possible—serious, capable, well-dressed. What people wore in pictures wasn’t necessarily what they liked to wear every day.

Survival bias is a term used to describe the skewed view we get by assuming pieces that have survived to the present day are representative of common sizes, styles, etc. The opposite is true: unless carefully preserved for posterity, most pieces that survived did because they were too small to be of any use to anyone. Clothing was incredibly expensive, and it was often patched until it fell apart, or deconstructed and re-fitted as a hand-me-down for someone else. Finer fabrics and useful shoes would have been worn until they were useless or actually disintegrated, while clothing and shoes too small to wear might have been kept just in case someone else needed them. Very few people could fit into a dress with a twenty-inch waist; it’s worth noting that there are far fewer surviving examples closer to the thirty-inch mark, which is where most women probably fell. Likewise, stranger trends or things that would have fallen out of fashion more quickly may be harder to find because they were rarer to begin with, not to mention less likely to be passed down.

With all that out of the way, today we’re going to be looking at a few nineteenth century fashion trends that feel like they should be too modern for the period. Every generation wants to think they’ve invented something new, but inspiration doesn’t often come out of thin air. Let’s take a look.

Unnaturally Colored Hair: Wig powder in colors like pastel pink, purple, and blue had been popular throughout the eighteenth century, but bright colors didn’t entirely leave when wigs started to go out of fashion. In the beginning of the century, Henry Cope became known as “the Green Man of Brighton” because he powdered his hair green. No one could doubt his devotion to his favorite color—his clothes, apartment, and even his poodle were also green, and he was never seen eating anything other than green fruit and vegetables.

Hot pink: In 1860, two new aniline dyes were developed for clothing: magenta and solferino (like fuchsia). Magenta was so popular that it was referred to as “the queen of colours” and was used to dye dresses, underwear, petticoats, ribbons, bonnets, and stockings. That’s right—the most popular color of the 1860s was neon pink. Black and white photography doesn’t really do it justice.

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Unknown woman, 1896. I think we can all agree she is absolutely killing it

Menswear for women: Anne Lister wasn’t the only woman rocking a waistcoat. During the 1860s, traditionally masculine items like coats, jackets, waistcoats, and cravats became popular for women—who wore them tailored properly, of course. Years before Marlene Dietrich wore that tux, Victorian women slayed in top hats and cravats. While the definition of ideal womanhood became more and more constrained, there were always women who pushed boundaries and did exactly as they pleased—and more than you might expect. In the early 1860s, one of the most popular items for women was the Garibaldi jacket – a very masculine military coat in bright red with gold trim. Even when menswear went out of style again, some continued to wear more masculine clothing for their own reasons. While we don’t know for sure how common this was, the fact that menswear for women existed at all indicates that there was demand for it and that many tailors may have been more open-minded than you’d expect. Either way, it’s a good look.

Brightly colored underwear: Around the mid-nineteenth century, elaborate undergarments became a necessity for giving those enormous skirts their fashionable bell shape. Along with crinolines to hold the skirts up, women would wear corsets, petticoats, chemises or chemisettes, and sometimes knickers. Underwear could be as detailed as the dresses that covered it, and it was designed to be seen—even if only in private. To keep it interesting, all of these pieces were often dyed bright colors—especially brilliant red.

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Hannah Cullwick wore a chain padlocked around her neck. Here she is in menswear giving exactly zero fucks

Patterned tights: Stockings came in more varieties than just black or beige. They came in plaid, stripes, any solid color imaginable, and some had embroidery or different patterns on them as well.

Fetish gear: In the 1870s, there was a trend for women to wear a scarf tied around their knees or very low around the hips and across the pelvis. These scarves were nicknamed “fig leaves,” and they were worn to attract men with the suggestion that the woman was “tied up at his mercy.”

Less about fashion and more about submission, Victorian housemaid Hannah Cullwick used to wear a chain padlocked around her neck to show her devotion to her lover—and later husband—Arthur Munby. They were involved in a decades-long Dom/sub relationship, and only Munby had the key.

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Johanna von Klinkosch in fishnet sleeves

Goth accessories: In 1875, dog collars, chokers, and chains were some of the most popular jewelry trends. Bats, crucifixes, and insects were common motifs for accessories throughout the decade, and daggers that opened into fans were a must-have. Although it’s difficult to find written references to fishnet or fishnet clothing prior to about 1900, here’s an actual photo of Johanna von Klinkosch wearing fishnet sleeves in the 1870s. Madonna, who?

Cosmetics: The idea that no one bathed prior to 1900 is ridiculous. Victorians bathed regularly, and while being fully immersed in water might not have been as common, people would still wash with cloths, water, and a variety of soaps and skincare products. Showers had taken on their modern form by the end of the nineteenth century. Makeup did tend to focus on skincare, but rouge was worn on the lips and cheeks, and lamp black was used as mascara, eyeliner, or to darken the eyebrows. That’s right—eyebrows in the 1800s could be just as on fleek as they are today. Application was subtle, but some products packed more of a punch. Pale, semi-translucent skin was so popular that some—like Virginie Gautreau, John Singer Sargent’s Madame X—dusted themselves with violet powder to neutralize the warmth in their skin and make it appear ghostly white. By the end of the nineteenth century, cosmetics weren’t discussed as vice or virtue, but were seen as a logical part of any lady’s daily beauty regime.

edith-burchett-via-Pinterest-320x444Tattoos: Before the nineteenth century, tattoos in the Western world tended to be something one got on religious pilgrimages, but all of that changed during the Victorian period. Initially more common among sailors, soldiers, and convicts, tattoos grew in popularity across society throughout the nineteenth century and were even instrumental in a high-profile court case. In the 1870s, a man claimed to be Roger Tichborne, the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. The claim was thrown out when it was discovered that the real Tichborne had several tattoos, and the claimant had none.

Tattoos became popular among the elite in the 1880s. The Prince of Wales and his son, Albert Victor, both had them, and they weren’t the only ones. Several members of the aristocracy—both male and female—got them, and from there, the craze only really expanded. A number of professional tattoo artists set up shops during the late nineteenth century, and following the invention of the electric tattooing machine in 1891, the were available to almost anyone. Some tattoos were even permanent makeup—some women preferred to have their eyebrows and rouge tattooed on.

Nipple piercings: In the late 1890s, a woman wrote into Society magazine about the

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Chokers and crucifixes were popular in the 1870s and the 1990s

trend for nipple rings, detailing her own experience getting them and reporting that they gave her an “extremely agreeable titillating feeling.” Society wasn’t exactly a serious publication, but this wasn’t the only report of the phenomenon. In the late 1890s, there was a trend for women—usually wealthy women because of the prohibitive cost of the jewelry—to get nipple piercings. Many had to travel to Paris to do it, but one Bond Street jeweler reported that he had pierced the nipples of no fewer than forty ladies and young women. They wore rings or studs of gold, with or without jewels, and often connected the piercings with a chain. One actress at the Gaiety Theatre was said to wear a chain of pearls connecting hers with a bow at each end. The trend was so far-reaching that near the end of the century, a New York physician published a brochure warning young American women off of them as they would encourage “unhealthy sexuality.”

This list is by no means exhaustive, and we’ll probably add to it at a later date. History is full of surprises if you’re paying attention. Next time you hear someone praise a portrait of some dour-looking Victorian lady, just remember—know in your heart—that it’s entirely possible she’s got red underwear and at least one tattoo.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Alker, Zoe and Shoemaker, Robert. How Tattoos Became Fashionable in Victorian England. The Conversation.

Blanch, Lesley, ed. Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs.

Bloch, Iwan. Sexual Life in England, Past and Present.

Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s clothing in the Nineteenth Century.

Murden, Sarah. The Green Man of Brighton – Henry Cope. All Things Georgian.

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty.

Stanley, Liz (ed). The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant.

 

*they should be polished with champagne, because of course

Bonfire of Destiny: Fire at the Bazar de la Charité

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Le Petit Journal. May 16th, 1897

On May 4th, 1897, a fire broke out at the Bazar de la Charité. The bazaar was an annual event in Paris, organized by the aristocracy to raise money for their favorite charities through the sale of various items. 1897 was its thirteenth year, and a fantastic structure was built for the occasion at Rue Jean-Goujon 17.

The building was 240 feet long and only 62 feet wide, and the long, thin gallery was packed. A temporary medieval village had been built inside, and because it only needed to last for the four days the bazaar was open, cheaper materials had been used. The miniature houses, shops, and stalls selling items were built out of cardboard and pine and decorated with papier-mâché. The roof itself was tarred canvas, and a gas-filled balloon hung from the center of it. The temporary floor covered a shallow pit the carpenters had filled with their plywood scraps.

It was a popular event, and on the night of May 4th, an estimated 1,800 people were in attendance. They came from all over Europe and America to see and be seen, to support the charities and meet the aristocratic women volunteering at the booths. It was an important society event like no other. For the sake of charity, some otherwise unapproachable young aristocratic women would let fans kiss their cheeks for money. It was for a good cause, after all.

At the entrance to the bazaar was another draw—a cinematograph playing short films. It ran on ether and oxygen. Within twenty minutes of the bazaar’s opening for the night, a match lit to illuminate the cinematograph ignited the ether and oxygen. Both are extremely flammable and can cause explosions under the right conditions.

Conditions that night couldn’t have been better for catastrophe. The fire quickly spread to the cheap wall hangings, burning the pine plywood and climbing to the canvas roof. The papier-mâché wilted and the cardboard went up like kindling. Burning tar dripped from the ceiling, scalding skin and igniting hair. Throughout the 1890s, petroleum-based hair lotions and dry shampoos were popular in Paris and London, but they could spontaneously combust when they were near enough heat. Most of the damage was done within the first ten minutes, and though firefighters arrived quickly, for many it was too late.

Inside, people were trampled and some suffocated in the panic. The fire seemed to be coming from the main door, and none of the other seven exits were clearly marked. When they were found, many were jammed shut when people tried to force them, not realizing they opened to the inside. Within thirty minutes, the building had been reduced to ash, and all that remained were charred bodies and scraps of women’s clothing.

Most of the 126 dead and more than 200 injured were women, and many of them were aristocrats. Though the night would have been a great opportunity to show off their best dresses, it was the dresses themselves that kept the women from escaping. The size and shape of them could hinder movement, but most of them just caught fire.

In the 19th century, some of the most popular fabrics for women’s clothing were also the most flammable. Bobbinet, muslin, tarlatan, and gauze were delicate, diaphanous, and looked great by gaslight. They glowed in the right conditions, but the airiness of the fabrics was what made them so dangerous. All their beautiful, flimsy dresses went up like paper, spreading from one skirt to the next. With everyone so close together in the stampede, there would have been no way to prevent a dress from catching short of tearing it off.

That’s what many women did. On the street outside, other female passersby waited to help the victims rip off their burning dresses. But those who escaped with their dresses intact could not count on avoiding injury. Some made it out only to discover their underwear burning beneath their clothes.

Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria, the Duchess of Alençon and sister to the Empress of Austria, lost her life in the fire. She remained until everyone working under her had been rescued. When she was found, her body was so badly burned that she had to be identified by her dentist, who recognized the gold fillings in her teeth. Some other victims could only be identified by their dental records, making the fire an important landmark in early forensic dentistry.

Others were identified by surviving items of clothing or personal effects. Elise Blonska, Jules Claretie’s librarian, was identified by her distinctive orthopedic corset. Identified by her jewelry was Jeanne de Kergorlay, who died saving others. A stronger woman, she stayed inside to help lift people up to escape through a high window. She died when the floor collapsed beneath her.

Not everyone in the fire was as heroic. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men toss women out of the way or beat them back with canes to escape themselves. On May 16th of 1897, The New York Times detailed these reports in an article titled “Cowardice of Paris Men Exhibited in Brutal Form During the Burning of the Charity Bazaar.” Because of the class of the men involved, some Parisian newspapers tried to cast doubt on the accusations. Surviving women confirmed them, however, and though no names were mentioned, the numbers do support those accounts—of the 126 dead, only six were male, among them a 14-year-old groom and a 5-year-old child.

At the end of the day, many of the heroes were of a humbler class. Aside from the many women who lost their lives trying to save their workers, visitors, and each other, a number of others distinguished themselves in their efforts to help. The cook and manager of the Hôtel du Palais next door—M. Gaumery and Mme Roche-Sautier—pulled 150 people to safety through the kitchen window of the hotel. Two priests at a neighboring convent—Father Bailly and Father Ambroise—helped to evacuate 30 people. Firefighters saved as many as they could, and onlookers stood by to help the women out of their flaming dresses.

In the aftermath of the fire, the site became a place of pilgrimage. A prominent undertaker was told to obtain dozens of pine coffins as quickly as possible, but when he found out who they were for, he ordered better ones. The public was likewise affected, and the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation was later built on the site, funded by the public. Every year on May 4th, Mass is held there to commemorate the victims.

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Blume, Mary. Remembering a Belle Époque Inferno in Paris. The New York Times. 

Nudson, Rae. A History of Women Who Burned to Death in Flammable Dresses. Racked. 

Vincent, Susan. Hair: An Illustrated History.

Walton, Geri. The Tragic 1897 Charity Bazaar Fire of Paris. 

Winock, Michel. L’incendie du Bazar de la Charité. L’Histoire.

Bonfire of Destiny is streaming now on Netflix. 

 

Divine Inspiration: How Rome’s Unknown Dead Became Catacomb Saints

St Valerius

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

On May 31st, 1578, vineyard workers in Rome found a passageway that led into an extensive network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath the Via Salaria. The Coemeterium Jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) and surrounding catacombs were burial sites from the earliest days of Christianity, dating from between the first and fifth centuries AD.

By the time these catacombs were found, the Catholic Church had been struggling with the Reformation for decades. While certain human remains had been venerated as sacred relics for centuries*, Protestant Reformers rejected the practice of keeping relics as idolatry. Bodies were to return to dust, and that included the bodies of saints as well. Throughout the Reformation, countless relics were interred, vandalized, or destroyed.

With relics under scrutiny from Reformers, the issue was addressed at the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council of Trent in 1563. The Council maintained that relics were an essential part of Catholic life, and they had a point—kept in local churches, relics were still important to communities. Though they were viewed as sacred, their origins were rightly questioned. Forgeries—random bones or other found items sold as sacred—were common and undermined the value of the remains as religious artifacts. To combat the sale of forgeries, the Council decided that going forward, all relics would have to be authenticated by the Church. 

Relics had always been popular among the laity, and the transportation of new holy relics into German-speaking countries became a strategy of the Counter-Reformation. They needed to replace what had been destroyed, but where were they going to find more saints?

heavenly-1

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

The discovery of the catacombs under the Via Salaria must have felt like an answer to a prayer. The catacombs held the remains of an estimated 750,000 people, including early Christians, Jews, and some pagan Romans. While cremation was more common among pagan Romans, Christians wanted to be buried to allow for the possibility of resurrection; though thousands were resurrected following their discovery, not one of them could have predicted what awaited them after death.

The Church needed relics, and they found them. The bodies of those believed to be Christian martyrs became known as the Katakombenheiligen, the Catacomb Saints. While they had not been canonized and their identities were unknown, these bodies were used to show the connection between the earliest Christians and the post-Reformation Church. They were to symbolize the essential truth of the Catholic doctrine through that connection, and to boost morale among the Catholic communities hurting following the looting of their churches.

But if their identities were unknown, how could they prove they were martyrs? Because they had died during a time of persecution, many were assumed to be martyrs, but depending on who was asked, there were some other signs as well—some believed the bones of martyrs smelled sweeter, while others claimed they had an otherworldly glow. Though the Church had resolved to use more scientific methods of identification following the Council of Trent, conditions in the catacombs were less than ideal. The newest bones were still more than a thousand years old at that point, and any identifying plaques or stones were long gone. Worse, many bodies had been moved over the years to protect them from looting invaders.

The bones that were found could not be positively identified as Christian, much less martyrs, so they relied on largely illegible engravings on the surrounding stones. Anytime they found a capital M—which could be there for any reason from names to common inscriptions—or a depiction of a palm frond, they took this as evidence they had found a martyr’s grave. During one investigation of another catacomb in the 1560s, an Augustinian monk concluded there were at most three identifiable martyrs down there, but by the following century, there were said to be up to 200,000.

As soon as they were found, the remains began to make their way north. It’s impossible to estimate just how many skeletons and individual bones were shipped to the German-speaking countries affected by the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but demand was so high that the Church had to create a new office to manage the excavation of the catacombs as well as starting the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies to oversee the whole process. The saints’ popularity increased following the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); churches wanted to replace the relics that had been ransacked, and wealthier families also purchased them as symbols of piety.

heavenly-7

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

They were certainly symbols of status. The skeletons were given Latin names and decorated from skull to metatarsal in gold and jewels. Decoration varied, but it was often extravagant. The jewels were real or expensive imitations, and the skeletons were dressed in robes of velvet and silk embroidered with gold thread. A few were even given silver plate armor.

As striking as the end result was, there was more to constructing the catacomb saints than decorating dead bodies. Bones that old required expert handling and reconstruction, so they were given to nuns who specialized in the preservation of relics. Many of their convents were known for their mastery of decorative arts, and the state of the Katakombenheiligen today is a testament to their skill and devotion.

Restoration and decoration was a delicate process that could take years to complete. Bones were strengthened with glue, painted, and protected with layers of nearly transparent silk gauze or tulle. Missing pieces were reconstructed with wax, wood, or papier-mâché. In the cases where skulls were missing or too badly damaged, they were replaced with ceramic or wood and plaster.

Given the time, resources, and dedication it would have taken to construct the saints, it is devastating to consider how few have survived to the present day. Viewed as morbid and embarrassing during the nineteenth century**, many were stripped of their jewels and hidden or destroyed. Of all of the catacomb saints that once filled Europe, only about ten percent remain, and few can be viewed by the public. Quite aside from their religious significance, they are stunning works of art and represent a part of history that, while potentially controversial to some, is nevertheless worth remembering.

On August 15th of every year, Roggenburg does just that. Every year, it holds a Leiberfest (Celebration of the Bodies) in order to display and honor the catacomb saints. Once common among towns that had them, Roggenburg’s annual Leiberfest is the last one in the world. During this festival, Roggenburg’s four Katakombenheiligen are brought out of storage and paraded through town on litters decorated with flowers. The three female saints–Laurentia, Severina, and Valeria–are carried by young women wearing white, and St Venatius is carried by young men in top hats and tails.

Jessica Cale

*This practice also occurs in many other world religions
**Yes, even the nineteenth century found them morbid

Further reading: 

For more on the Katakombenheiligen, be sure to check out Paul Koudounaris’s Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Atlas Obscura also has a fun post about Roggenburg’s Leiberfest here.

Deadly Euphoria: A Short History of Erotic Asphyxiation in England

1 CRIMINAL CONVERSATION BON TON 1791

Bon-Ton Magazine, 1791

When Frantisek Kotzwara died in September of 1791, he was an accomplished man of only forty-one. A notable Czech composer famous for his sonata “The Battle of Prague,” he was working in London as a multi-instrumentalist for the King’s Theatre Orchestra. In spite of his successes in life, today he is better known for the manner of his death.

Standing trial for murder at the Old Bailey, Susannah Hill explained what happened. Hill was a sex worker, and Kotzwara was a client. On the 2nd of September, they had dinner and drinks together, then she took him back to her room, “where a number of most indecent acts took place.” So far so normal, but Kotzwara had a special request. He wanted Hill to hang him.

Claiming it would add to his pleasure, he asked to be hanged for five minutes, then released. He gave her money and sent her out to get rope, and she came back with two thin cords, placing them around his neck at his request. He hanged himself off her door, but when she cut him down after five minutes as he had told her to do, Kotzwara collapsed and died.

Although the jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder” with the intention of discouraging other young women from attempting the practice, the judge refused to make an example of Hill for her part in the tragic accident. He ultimately ruled Kotzwara’s death manslaughter, and Hill was free to go. Due to the sensitive nature of the case, the judge ordered all of its documents destroyed to protect the public.

That went about as well as you’d expect. In spite of his best efforts to bury it, the story got out. Hill’s full testimony was printed in the pamphlet Modern Propensities, not unlike a tell-all gossip magazine today. Bon-Ton magazine took it further, detailing the Kotzwara case and discussing the appeal of strangulation. It would have been on people’s minds. In 1791, the same year Kotzwara died, the Marquis de Sade had also published Justine, which featured a lurid scene depicting erotic asphyxiation.

Kotzwara was not the first to experiment with asphyxiation in Britain, and he certainly wasn’t the last. Erotic asphyxiation—or autoerotic if practiced alone—had been used in several cultures around the world as a spiritual as well as sexual practice. In England, it was recommended as a cure for erectile dysfunction from the early 17th century. Public hangings were routine and well-attended, with crowds of sometimes thousands watching the condemned slowly strangle to death over a period of several minutes. That the men often became erect or even ejaculated before death would not have been missed. This effect was caused by damage to the spinal cord or brain rather than actual sexual pleasure, but many were still curious enough to try it.

Two years after Kotzwara’s death, Bon-Ton reported that the well-known dangers of erotic asphyxiation had not dissuaded people from attempting it. They detailed the experience of a gentleman from Bristol with erectile dysfunction, which they referred to rather euphemistically as “(requiring) assistance in the secret affairs of Venus.” During a visit to London, the gentleman repeated Kotzwara’s experience with another sex worker on Charlotte Street. Well aware of the case, the young woman only reluctantly agreed, and cut him down the moment he started to have “alarming symptoms,” well within the first minute of suspension. Because of her quick thinking, the gentleman survived and wrote favorably of the experiment.

Not everyone was so lucky. Cutting off oxygen or blood flow to the brain is incredibly dangerous, and it can result in cardiac arrest, sudden loss of consciousness, suffocation, and brain damage. Even with partners or safety measures in place, death can occur so quickly that there is no way to do it safely. Because of its taboo nature, accidental deaths due to erotic or autoerotic asphyxiation have always been under-reported or misinterpreted as suicide, so outside of a few high-profile cases, it is impossible to know how many people have died in this way. Statistics have never been recorded in Britain, but a recent study estimated that as many as 1,000 deaths occur every year in the United States from autoerotic asphyxiation.*

In spite of the serious and well-publicized dangers, interest in erotic asphyxiation endured in no small part because of its effects on the mind. Kotzwara did it for the dream state it induced. In addition to heightened physical sensations, depriving the brain of oxygen could produce a hallucinogenic effect that, as Modern Propensities put it, would help people to “ascend the upper sphere of conjunctive transports.” The aim was not only to orgasm, but to straddle the boundary between life and death to see what was on the other side.

As dangerous as it was, the high produced by the combination of hypoxia and orgasm could prove addictive, so demand for it continued. Throughout the nineteenth century, a number of Hanged Men’s Clubs opened for the purpose in London, staffed with sex workers who claimed to be able to do it safely every time. It was an impossible guarantee, and medical professionals continued to make the risks known to the public. With these warnings, its use as a cure for impotence was eclipsed by its ability to help one transcend physical reality into a euphoric dream state. It was a specific, dangerous high not unlike opium or laudanum, but with the added promise of orgasm as well.

For some, interest in it might not have been in spite of its close association with death but because of it. Throughout the nineteenth century, the dead or dying were often fetishized, and a lot of popular literature depicted death in a romantic light. As interest in spiritualism and seances took off, asphyxiation may have felt like the next logical step for some—a way to not only contact the other side, but to see it for oneself.

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bloch, Ivan. Sexual Life in England Past and Present.

Ober, William B. The Sticky End of Frantisek Koczwara, composer of “The Battle of Prague.” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 1984. Volume 5, Issue 2, 145-150

Seidl, Stephen. Accidental Autoerotic Death: A Review on the Lethal Paraphiliac Syndrome. Forensic Pathology Reviews, Vol 1. Edited by Michael Tsokos.

Tarr, Clayton Carlton. Pleasurable Suspension: Erotic Asphyxiation in the Nineteenth Century. Nineteenth Century Contexts, 2016. Vol 38, No 1, 55-68.

*Really, really, REALLY do not try this at home

 

A Corpse Goes to a Ball: In Which Jess Ruins Frozen For You Forever

charlotte 3

A Frozen Charlotte doll

A lot of today’s fairy tales are sanitized versions of earlier, creepier folk tales with dubious morals and more disturbing endings swept under the rug by sentient broomsticks and cartoon mice. The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are just a few that come to mind, but as it happens, even Frozen has a surprisingly morbid precedent—not in the story itself, but in a massively popular children’s fad of the Victorian period.

Frozen Charlotte dolls can still be found in antique stories and online auctions, but their photos often raise questions—what is this, is it haunted, and most importantly, why is she in a coffin?

charlotte 5

Frozen Charlotte with advice of a different kind

“Bathing babies” have fairly innocent origins in nineteenth century Germany, but America had to make it weird. Originally simple porcelain dolls sold as kind of early rubber ducks for children to play with in the bath, they made their way to America in the 1850s, where they took on a rather creepier life—afterlife?—of their own.

In 1840, the New York Observer ran an article titled A Corpse Going to a Ball. Though it gave no specific location, it reported that on January 1st of that year, a young woman had frozen to death on her way to a New Year’s Ball. It definitely could have happened, but the story was reprinted and retold until it became almost a parable against vanity, the argument being that if the girl hadn’t been so set on showing off her new dress, she could have covered up in the sleigh and might have survived.

Inspired by the story, Maine author Seba Smith published his poem A Corpse Going to a Ball in The Rover on December 28th, 1843, just in time for the anniversary of her death. Also known as “Young Charlotte” or “Fair Charlotte,” it was set to music that inspired a seventy-year trend in toys. Here’s a sample:

“How very fast the freezing air
Is gathering on my brow.”
With a trembling voice young Charlotte cried,
“I’m growing warmer now.”
And away they did ride o’er the mountainside,
And through the pale star light,
Until the village inn they reached,
And the ballroom hove in sight.

When they reached the inn, young Charles jumped out,
And gave his hand to her,
“Why sit you there like a monument,
And have no power to stir?”
He called her once, he called her twice,
She answered not a word;
He called all for her hand again,
But still she never stirred.

He stripped the mantle off her brow,
And the pale stars on her shone,
And quickly into the lighted hall,
Her helpless form was born.
They tried all within their power,
Her life for to restore,
But Charlotte was a frozen corpse,
And is never to speak more.

He threw himself down by her side,
And the bitter tears did flow,
He said, “My dear and intended bride,
You never more shall know.”
He threw his arms around her neck,
He kissed her marble brow,
And his thoughts went back to the place where she said,
“I am growing warmer now.”

They bore her out into the sleigh,
And Charles with her rode home,
And when they reached the cottage door,
Oh, how her parents mourned!
They mourned the loss of their daughter dear,
And Charles mourned o’er her doom,
Until at last his heart did break,
Now they both slumber in one tomb.

Of course they do, because Victorians.

charlotteThe poem and song that followed were a phenomenon. Not to be outdone by Victorian England’s cult of mourning—in full swing throughout the second half of the nineteenth century—the United States capitalized on the popular morbid fascination with the story and packaged it for mass consumption. Made of china or bisque and often missing limbs, they were usually painted ghostly white with minimal features, and could be bought alone, in coffins with blankets/shrouds, or even as jewelry between 1850 and 1920.

They were so popular that black versions were made as well as boys, like an early undead Ken—Frozen Charlies, after her young lover who died of a broken heart. It seems they missed the opportunity to make mini mausoleums like creepier Barbie Dream Houses, but not to worry — like Frozen Charlottes and Charlies, you can also find those on Etsy.

They could still be played with in dollhouses or the bath, but because of their small size, they were often used as charms in Christmas cakes or puddings. King cakes are still baked with a tiny figure of a baby inside, which is supposed to bring luck and prosperity to whoever receives that slice. Traditionally, similar charms would be baked into cakes for holidays, weddings, or birthdays to determine the fate of the recipient for the following year. If a coin is wealth and a ring is marriage, what do you think getting the corpse means?

By the twentieth century, poor Charlotte had even become a dessert. “Frozen Charlottes” were the frozen version of the Charlotte Russe, a popular dessert made of ladyfingers and Bavarian cream, so they were a bit like an ice cream cake with a tragic backstory.

Even though Charlotte’s demise was repackaged along with her effigy, like all the best stories, this one probably has some truth to it.

You don’t have to be that cold to freeze to death. The baseline temperature for a human body is 98.6 degrees, but it only has to fall to 95 before it starts to shut down. The symptoms of hypothermia make getting help difficult; speech slurs, confusion sets in, energy fades, and the person loses coordination. They eventually lose consciousness, but before they do, they start to feel hot (“I’m feeling warmer now”), leading the person to believe they are out of danger when the need for help is greater than ever. In severe weather, one could freeze to death within an hour. If the ball was sixteen miles away, how long would it have taken them to get there in a horse-drawn sleigh?

Best case scenario? Two hours.

It’s a tragic story, and one that held an enduring fascination for nineteenth century America. With several states experiencing extreme weather and daily travel sometimes spanning great distances, hypothermia was a real threat. “Young Charlotte” was sung all across the country, and you can listen to it here.

Not quite as catchy as Let it Go, is it?

Jessica Cale

See also: Nourishing Death, Dangerous Minds, Atlas Obscura

 

 

 

Son’ka ‘Golden Hand’ and The City of Thieves

SophiaBlyuvshtein1A sharp, beguiling pair of eyes cuts through the din of the crowded dining room at Odessa’s luxurious Petersburg Restaurant, the plates of wealthy land owners, industrialists, and judges loaded with Black Sea caviar and their mouths stuffed with talk of flaccid corruption.

The following day, the same individual glides elegantly amid the weekend crowds along the sun-drenched, cosmopolitan Nikolaevskii Boulevard. Sheltered from the sun by the frills of an umbrella and face partly covered by the arc of a wide-brimmed hat, a single gesture immediately slows the pace of a pram pushed along by her teenage nanny as the flower sellers happily interrupted the hawking of their wares to dote on the infant. She is accompanied here by what appears to be a former army general, the military pride glinting on his chest suggesting a brush with the armies of Napoleon, or perhaps a role in the brutal sacking of the Caucasus, as he looks wistfully beyond the flotilla of boats scattered in the harbor.

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Odessa’s stylish Cafe Fankoni toward the end of the 19th century

Later unaccompanied, her arm gently brushes the pages of The Odessa Post as she heads into the ‘Ladies’ Salon’ at the back of the stylish Café Fankoni. As its sophisticated clientele are voyeuristically transported by reporters into the murky world of the nearby suburb Moldavanka, the same sharp eyes exchange knowing glances with dancer Kitty Florence and the ‘Queen of Thieves’ Ol’ga D’ichanko, who had also arrived a few days earlier, dividing the moustachioed gentlemen on the veranda between them without uttering a single word. (1)

Everything about the life of Son’ka ‘Golden Hand’ remains shrouded in seductive mystery. Only a few pieces of evidence litter her trail–a signature, perhaps even forged; a handful of blurry photos displaying her array of different disguises; Son’ka’s nickname, earned through her proclivity as a teenage pickpocket during her rural upbringing in a small town outside Warsaw in the early 1850s. By the time she hit her early twenties, whispers of this name would accompany her travels between Moscow’s swanky Aquarium Nightclub and St. Petersburg’s elegant Balabinskaia Hotel, stretching even further afield to the European capitals of Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin.

The balmy summertime air and melting pot of crime and corruption which characterized the fin-de-siècle port city of Odessa undoubtedly provided the perfect working retreat for the leader of the criminal gang known as ‘Jacks of Hearts.’ (2) Allegedly, this group was comprised from a procession of Son’ka’s former lovers, many of whom she had stolen from such as her first husband, the merchant Isak Rosenbad. Once duped, they were happy to work alongside her as they made their money back multiple times over.

Not that Son’ka was ever incapable of working alone. Arriving at the imposing doorways of dynastic family homes and asking to see the master, waiting alone in the drawing room provided the perfect opportunity to search for whatever money and valuables she could lay her hands on. On the infrequent occasions she was interrupted, a quick costume change would see her silk and jewelry removed in one swift movement as she escaped dressed as a cook or maid through the servant’s quarters. (3)

Despite her nickname being earned through the art of pickpocketing, Son’ka received the most infamy as the reported innovator of a crime which would become known as ‘Guten Morgen.’ (4) During her stay in Odessa, this meant creeping softly down the hallway of the extravagant Londonskaia Hotel, felt slippers on top of her shoes, and trying the handles of 20-Ruble-a-night luxury suites usually occupied with male guests sleeping off a potent cocktail of vodka and baccarat. If any of her dozing marks happened to wake, Son’ka would slip off her clothes as if in her own room before acting embarrassed for the mistake. Appealing to their leniency and drunken lust, Son’ka would invariably leave with the stolen goods after sex, an increasingly popular crime in the late Imperial Russian Empire known as khipesnitsi. (5)

sonka

Son’ka in her high-society attire, thought to be in her mid to late 30s

On one occasion, however, she came across a middle-aged man passed out on the couch astride a loaded revolver. Underneath a burning candle on the accompanying table sat a pile of letters, sealed and ready to be posted. Only one envelope remained open, containing a letter explaining to his mother how he had gambled away the money sent to pay for the treatment of his sick sister. Reaching into the lining of her dress, Son’ka took out 500 Rubles, placed the pile of notes gently under the cold handle of the revolver, and left as if she had never entered. (6)

This apparent clemency did not, however, extend to high-end jewelry stores, as Son’ka would stakeout the shops of Odessa’s Deribasovskaia Street before looking to distract the clerk with the help of more accomplices, hiding the gems under her deliberately grown fingernails. She would sometimes replace the diamonds with cheap forgeries and, on other occasions, hide them in a plant pot on the counter to collect the following day.

When a tip-off eventually led the police to her ramshackle apartment on Moldavanka’s Old Free Port Street, they found a wardrobe full of Parisian hats, fur capes, and a bespoke dress with multiple pockets to conceal even the tiniest gem. Her dresser was cluttered with the nefarious flotsam of false eyebrows, wigs, and, sitting proudly among them, a blue diamond hanging on a velvet ribbon stolen from the noble Langeron family by her lover, Wolf Bromberg.

By then Son’ka had disappeared, however, via the hustle and bustle of the Central Train Station. Appearing in the guise of ‘Countess Sofia Ivanova Timrot,’ she flirted with wealthy aristocrats about their potential investments and waited for them to fall asleep, drugging them with opium or chloroform if need be, and continued to steal from carriage to carriage as she hurtled back toward the perceived shelter of Warsaw. (7)

Although her heart would be perpetually drawn back to the chthonic alchemy of Odessa, Son’ka would only return on one occasion to the ‘City of Thieves.’ Approaching her late thirties, this fateful trip saw her arrested following one of Wolf’s property scams in which the Italian jeweler Galiano paid part deposit of a necklace for a house overlooking the fashionable Langeron Beach. Sentenced to exile following her Moscow trial in December 1880, Son’ka’s recapture following her escape from a small Siberian village saw her dispatched to hard labor on the desolate penal colony of Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific, where temperatures would reach a perishing -20 degrees in winter.

Living on the exile settlement, Son’ka oversaw the running of a café-chantant (singing café), casino, and carousel which paid homage those in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but her frequent escape attempts alongside the suggested murder of the shopkeeper Nikitin saw Son’ka savagely beaten by the frayed rawhide lash of the executioner Komlev and thrown into solitary confinement.

sonkasakhalin

Son’ka shackled on Sakhalin Island in the 1890s

Odessa now came to her as the sprightly and suave, if somewhat controversial, journalist Vlas Doroshevich visited the island to interview her, where he described her shackled in a famous image. Lamenting the loss of her daughters, who had been sent to finishing school in Paris, Son’ka’s final act of sorcery was to create the illusion that she may have switched places with a fake stand-in and that her death, recorded on the island in 1902, might not have even been her at all.

Dr. Mark Vincent

profileMore of Mark’s writing can be found at: http://www.cultoftheurka.wordpress.com
Follow him on Twitter @VincentCriminal
Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris/Bloomsbury)

 

Notes: 

(1) References to Kitty Florence and Ol’ga D’ichanko, along with a number of locations, taken from Roshanna Sylvester’s wonderful book: Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2005), p.56 & 122.

(2) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’ Against the Past or Toward the Future?’, New Zealand Slavonic Journal, 44 (2010), p.123.

(3) Gregory Breitman, Prestupnii Mir, (Kiev: 1901), p.47.

(4) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’, p.123.

(5) Sylvester describes khipesnitsi as a con game which involved seducing and blackmailing respectable middle-aged ‘family men’: Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa, pp.94-95.

(6) Brietman, Prestupnii Mir, p.43.

(7) Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p.113 & 139.