Taxation, Smuggling, and Sheep Dung: The Dirty History of Tea in Britain


Still Life: Tea Set. Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1781-3.

Tea is thought to have been popularized in Britain by Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. Although she adopted English fashion following her marriage to Charles II in 1662, she continued to favor the cuisine of her native Portugal. Tea was already popular in Portugal, Holland, and other parts of Europe through trade with the east, but it was still unusual in England in 1660 when Pepys recorded trying it for the first time on September 25th, 1660:

“To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Colonel Slingsby, and I sat awhile, and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland; where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what he thought of it. At this time, tea was usually drunk without anything added to it. Milk was difficult to keep fresh and was mainly used for butter or cheese. It was brewed by pouring hot water into a pot, and slotted spoons were used to extract the leaves. As it gained popularity throughout the seventeenth century, there was some confusion as to how to make it. Sir Kinelm Digby advised that brewing should take “no longer than while you can say the Misere Psalm very leisurely.”

The first tea cups to arrive in Britain were mismatched, handle-less Chinese porcelain used primarily as ballast on the clipper ships. Matching sets were not purchased until the eighteenth century with the development of the British ceramic industry. Inviting people over for tea took off as a way for the hostess to show off both her purchasing power (tea and tea sets were prohibitively expensive) and manners (in knowing how to serve it).

Although tea was hugely popular in the eighteenth century, few could afford it. The East India Company held the monopoly on importing it, and on top of the already high prices, tea was taxed heavily. Tea was a luxury item everyone wanted, so to answer the demand for an affordable product, two things became commonplace: smuggling and adulteration.

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Smugglers. John Atkinson, 1808

Smuggling flourished. Much tea was smuggled in from continental Europe on small ships, but some was purchased from the East India Company’s own officers who would use the space allotted to them to undercut the company with some private trade of their own. Throughout the eighteenth century, smuggling grew in scale and became more organized, until an anonymous pamphlet in 1780 complained that so many men were employed as smugglers Britain’s agriculture was suffering as a result. Fortunately, tea smuggling stopped abruptly when William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act of 1784, reducing the tax on tea from an outrageous 119% to a more reasonable 12.5%.

‘British tea’ was a regional substitute for the genuine article that was produced briefly both as an addition to imported tea and as something to drink on its own. Made from the buds of elder, hawthorn, and ash trees, it was banned in 1777 out of concern over the destruction of the trees.

Even after the Commutation Act made tea more affordable, merchants added other substances to it to further reduce the price. Green tea was colored with highly toxic copper carbonate and lead chromate. Because of this, black tea became more popular, although adulterated back tea wasn’t much better. Often cut with sheep’s dung, floor sweepings, or black lead, if it wasn’t lethal, it would have tasted revolting. It was made palatable with the addition of milk, which wasn’t much better. By the time it became a common addition to tea in the nineteenth century, milk was often watered down and whitened with chalk dust.


Chemical Lectures by Thomas Rowlandson. Caricature depicting Friedrich Accum. Accum was a chemist and his Treatise on Adulteration of Food (1820) denounced the common practice of cutting food and tea with additives.

The public was largely aware of these abuses, and it seems to have been generally accepted as a trade off for an affordable product. Parliament eventually brought in the Food and Drugs Act of 1860, but tea continued to be adulterated throughout the century.

Tea had become so cheap by the nineteenth century, that it was a dietary staple for those who could afford little else. It continued to be popular across class lines, and coffee and tea stalls popped up all over London until there were an estimated three hundred in 1840. Encouraged and sometimes sponsored by the Temperance movement, they remained open all day to offer an alternative to alcohol. Coffee and tea were sold in the streets with hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and bread, and many people purchased their meals from these street vendors. Made in cans over charcoal burners, coffee and tea were served in china. People would drink it quickly and return the cup to be (hopefully) washed and used by the next customer.

By 1901, the average person in Britain drank an estimated six pounds of tea per year. Tea had become so much a part of British life that the government took over tea importation during the First World War to ensure it continues to be affordable and readily available. Tea was acknowledged to boost morale, and was one of the products rationed during the Second World War.

Jessica Cale


Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Running Press, 2008.
Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. Walker Publishing, 2011.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for September 25th, 1660.
The UK Tea & Infusions Association. Catherine of Braganza and Tea Smuggling.

For more on smuggling, read Virginia Heath’s post How Smuggling Shaped the English Language.

Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape


Cyrene and the Cattle, Edward Calvert. Beloved of Apollo, Cyrene was the mythological namesake of Cyrene in Libya.

Silphium was a type of giant fennel that grew in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE. It was so central to the economy of Cyrene that most of their coins had images of the plant or its seeds. It was delicious, smelled wonderful, and could treat everything from sore throats and indigestion to snake bites and epilepsy. It was its other uses, however, that made it famous and caused its eventual extinction.

Silphium was known throughout the Mediterranean as a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. It was regarded as “worth its weight in silver,” and was believed to be a gift of Apollo. The Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans had a special glyph for it. Even Catullus, my favorite of all of the classical perverts, alluded to it in his naughty, naughty poems:

You ask, Lesbia, how many kisses might
You give to satisfy me and beyond.
Greater than the number of African sands that
Lie in silphum-bearing Cyrene between the
Sacred sepulcher of ancient Battus
And the oracle of agitated Jove,
Or than the many stars that, when night
Is still, see the secret loves of men.
It is enough and beyond to love-stricken
Catullus for you to kiss so many kisses
Which neither busybodies can count,
Nor can evil tongues curse. (Catullus 7)


Apollo Kitharoidos from Cyrene. Silphium was thought to be a gift from Apollo. You’re welcome.

Pausanius’ Description of Greece leaves little doubt as to what it was used for in his story of Dioscuri meeting Phormion’s daughter:

“By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Given the fact that the plant looked more or less like a big modern-day fennel, it probably wasn’t there for decorative purposes.

Women were commonly advised to mix the juice from a small amount of silphium with water to “regulate their menstrual cycles”. Silphium water was also effective when applied to wool and used as a pessary. Its effectiveness was unquestioned and may even help to explain the exceptionally low birth rates in Ancient Rome. (The other explanation? Lead poisoning. See Contraception in History, Part I)

Unfortunately, silphium was a very temperamental plant and could only really grow on one narrow coastal area about a hundred miles long. That doesn’t sound like so much when you consider that this plant provided contraception to much of the ancient world. It was thought to be farmed to extinction within six hundred years.

Although Pliny the Elder reported the plant extinct by the first century CE, we have not been able to positively identify it, so it is impossible to know for certain whether this is truly the case or if it was as effective as it was believed to be. Related plants have been used for similar purposes over the years with mixed results. Asafoetida was once used as a poor substitute, but these days it has been consigned to the spice rack.


Ancient coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed

Many explanations have been given for the origins of the heart symbol over the years. Actual human hearts are not particularly heart-shaped, and as for the upside-down heart shape of a woman’s arse? Please. One more likely explanation is that it comes from the image of the silphium seed that was etched onto coins and known by sight throughout the Mediterranean world. If there was a plant you could eat that provided effective contraception without otherwise killing you, you’d want to know what it looked like, too.

And what does it look like? A heart. (right) 

Upside-down arse, indeed!

Jessica Cale


Bellows, Alan. The Birth Control of Yesteryear.

Catullus, Poem 7.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories.

[An earlier version of this appeared on] 

Bohemian Rhapsody: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre


“A woman’s body, a beautiful woman’s body, is not made for love, you see… it’s too beautiful, isn’t it?”


Toulouse-Lautrec, dressed as a clown

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24th, 1864 at the Hȏtel du Bosc at Albi to Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and Countess Adèle Tapié de Céleyran. The counts of Toulouse could trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, and by the late nineteenth century, they lived in genteel comfort in estates across the south of France. They had maintained their fortune largely through the intermarriage within the family, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents were first cousins.

He suffered from pycnodysostosis, a hereditary disease that rendered his bone structure sensitive and weak. After he broke both of his legs as a child, they stopped growing altogether, leaving him permanently stunted at 5’1”. It was during his convalescence that he first began to develop his skill as an artist. Even after he could walk again, his condition kept him from many of the leisure pursuits enjoyed by his family, particularly hunting and riding, so he spent his time drawing and painting. When he decided to pursue a career as a painter, his family was supportive.

Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre in 1884 at the age of nineteen. As he wrote to his family:

“Of course Papa would think me an outsider… It has cost me an effort, and you know as well as I do that leading a Bohemian life goes against the grain and taxes my will sorely in the attempt to get used to it, since I still bear with me a load of sentimental considerations that I shall have to throw overboard if I am to get anywhere…”


A rare profile of van Gogh, 1887

Throw them overboard he did. In his quest to develop his art and understand his subjects, he threw himself into the thriving bohemian culture of Montmartre. It was a hard-partying world of absinthe, revolutionary politics, brothels, and nightclubs open at all hours and filled with notable figures like Oscar Wilde and Renoir. Edgar Degas’ studio was in the same house as Toulouse-Lautrec’s first apartment, and they painted some of the same people. Vincent van Gogh was also an outsider in Paris and the two became friends.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s art is characterized by a love of life and empathy for his subjects. In confident strokes and bold colors, he captured movement and mood like no other, recording the vibrancy and ugliness of the Montmartre nightlife with unflinching honesty and near spiritual devotion. His sketches, paintings, and lithographs portray the intangible — innocence in immorality, truth in the theatrical — with playfulness and startling simplicity.

Toulouse-Lautrec had the advantage of being born wealthy. He was not dependent upon his art to survive, so everything he did, he did for love — love of life, love of his art, and love of his subjects. While many others were obliged to take commissions, Toulouse-Lautrec haunted bars, brothels, and dance halls in his relentless pursuit of life itself. He was fascinated by physical prowess due in no small part to his own limitations, and as such, he painted dancers, acrobats, and even jockeys.


La Toilette, 1896

He was particularly fond of prostitutes, and the feeling was mutual. They adored him and allowed him to stay with them. He felt most at home in brothels, and even lived in one for some time. Prostitutes were his favorite models. He explains: “Professional models always seem to have been stuffed, whereas these girls are alive… They loll and stretch on the divans like animals… They are utterly without affectation.” His Elles album captured the details of their daily lives — washing, dressing, waiting, talking — with affection and empathy, bringing out the nuanced beauty in the mundane.

His love of life unfortunately contributed to his tragically early death at the age of thirty-five from complications related to alcoholism and syphilis. Although his life was short, his contribution to modern art cannot be overemphasized. While he may not have the name recognition of van Gogh, his work was no less influential. His at times unnerving realism and choice of subjects has influenced generations of artists, and his posters made a mark on pop art and advertising that can still be felt today.

Toulouse-Lautrec saw himself as an observer, and most of his subjects were real people. Although many of them were notable at the time, they achieved a degree of immortality through his work. Let’s take a look at some of the figures of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre:

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(Left) La Goulue Arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. (Right) La Goulue

La Goulue: Dancer Louise Weber was known by her stage name La Goulue (“the glutton”) for her habit of finishing off customers’ drinks as she danced past their tables. The “Queen of Montmartre” embroidered hearts on her knickers and kicked men’s hats off with her toes.


Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891

Valentin-le-Désosseé (Valentin the Snakeman, or Valentin the Boneless) was the stage name of wine merchant Jacques Renaudin. He is the distinctive-looking man in the foreground of this lithograph, and he danced at the Moulin Rouge in his spare time.

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(Left) Ambassadeurs – Aristide Bruant, 1892. (Right) Aristide Bruant

Aristide Bruant was a popular singer fond of abusing the audience at Le Mirliton, his cabaret club in Montmartre. Standing on top of the tables, he would sing songs about life in the working-class suburbs wearing dramatic costumes of his own design and punctuating his works with a cane he didn’t need. Toulouse-Lautrec was a big fan, and was known to sing his songs in his studio. You can find many of his recordings on YouTube today.

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(Left) Yvette Guilbert Taking a Curtain Call, 1894. (Right) Yvette Guilbert

Yvette Guilbert was also a singer of chanson réaliste, a predecessor of Edith Piaf, and she sometimes sang Bruant’s songs. She was a tall, slender woman and her trademark long black gloves appear in the background of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings. She despaired of the way he portrayed her, but saw value in its honesty whereas other artists had been kinder. She was actually rather lovely. Many of her recordings still exist, and you can listen to them here.

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(Left) Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1893. (Right) Jane Avril by Paul Sescau, 1890.

Jane Avril was a famous cancan dancer and a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec. While he made many promotional images of her, this painting shows a more intimate side to her, lost in thought as she is walking home through Montmartre.


The Clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge (1895)

Cha-U-Kao: Cha-U-Kao was a female clown at the Moulin Rouge and an open lesbian. Toulouse-Lautrec opened his Elles series with her image. Many of the prostitutes he met were involved in lesbian relationships, and he found this to be quite moving: “When you see the way they love…(it is) the technique of tenderness.”

Jessica Cale

Further reading
Arnold, Matthias. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Taschen, 2000.

Women and Whiskey are Plentiful Here: Occupied Nashville’s Soiled Doves

NashvilleNashville, Tennessee was the largest city on the Western Front during the Civil War. With over 100,000 troops passing through the city from its occupation in 1862 until the end of the war in 1865, there was a real problem with idle troops and prostitutes.

The state of Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy on June 24, 1861. Following a vote by the people, Governor Isham G. Harris proclaimed “All connections by the State of Tennessee with the Federal Union dissolved…Tennessee is a free, independent government.” Nashville became a target of the Union forces due to the city’s importance as a port on the Cumberland River. Its importance as the capital of Tennessee made it a desirable prize. When it became the first Confederate state capital to fall to Union troops, the city was evacuated and Governor Harris issued a call for the legislature to assemble in Memphis.

Text from the March 8, 1862 Harper’s Weekly edition stated:

The commerce of Nashville is very large, being carried on by river and railroads, and by turnpike roads…The average annual shipments are—30,000 bales of cotton, 6000 hogsheads of tobacco, 2,000,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000,000 bushels of Indian corn, and 10,000 casks of bacon. The leading business of the city is in dry goods, hardware, drugs, and groceries. Book publishing is carried on more extensively than in any other Western town, and the publishing house of the Southern Methodist Conference is one of the largest book manufactories in the United States. The value of the taxable property here is $15,000,000.

What exactly does this mean and how did Nashville become so sexy? First, let’s look into a little history of Tennessee. Why was it the last state to leave the Union? It’s complicated. East Tennessee was very pro-Union, comprised of mainly small farmers due to the mountainous terrain. Middle Tennessee was much the same, although the farms were larger. Corn was king unlike cotton of the deep south. That corn made its way throughout the United States, with the British Empire being the biggest consumer of the crop. West Tennessee and Memphis had ties to the cotton of the deep south, however the city of Memphis mainly had allegiance to the banking industry in New York City. Farmers in the state were making a fortune and they didn’t want a war. But, eventually when the Union fired back on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the people of Tennessee felt that the U.S. government had overstepped its boundaries, and the state begrudgingly tossed in its lot with the Confederacy.

Nashville-Union Occupation

Still, Tennessee remained divided. The town of Shelbyville became known as “Little Boston” because it so vehemently decried the choice to leave the Union. Bedford County, the home of the controversial Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest sent as many troops to fight for the Confederacy as it did the Union. When Nashville was occupied by Union forces, there were many Union sympathizers living there, even though it was considered a Confederate capital.

In 1860, before the war began, Nashville had seen an era of economic prosperity. Annual commerce was over $25 million, which was remarkable for a population of slightly less than 20,000 residents, according to the 1860 census. Steamboats had cruised the Cumberland River, and four railroads converged on Nashville. With a major university, a medical school, and numerous academies, scholars from across the South were attracted to Nashville to pursue their education. Publishers called Nashville home and their products enhanced the culture and prestige of the city. There were eight Methodist Churches, three Presbyterian, along with many other denominations, including Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran. This cultural renaissance was complemented by the state capitol building, completed in 1855.

Closer to the river was a shadow district, known as Smokey Row, where an industry catered to the visitors brought into the city on business. This area by the docks thrived on nightlife. The 1860 census names 207 women whose occupation was listed as prostitute; 198 were white and nine were mulatto. Eighty-seven were illiterate; eight could read but not write. Twenty were widows and most were born in Tennessee. They were known as public women. They were called soiled doves, nymphs du pave (girls of the pavement), and frail but fair women. During the Civil War era terms for houses in the district were houses of ill fame, ill repute, bawdy houses, or parlor houses.

U.S. Major General William Rosecrans believed Nashville was an ideal location for his troops. The placement of the city on the rail lines and the Cumberland River made for excellent movement of men and artillery. It appeared to be the perfect spot on the Western Front to gather troops, teach maneuvers, and sharpen tactical abilities for the next round of fighting. Union troops settled into the city, and unexpected trade began to boom. The strong Yankee dollar took over the town. The next four years would see a very different Nashville.


General Rosecrans underestimated the allure of Smokey Row.

Abandoned women began arriving from the industrial cities of the northern states, then from the war ravaged rural areas of the southern states. By 1862, the number of working women in Nashville had increased substantially from the 207 in 1860. Keep in mind that the early Union troops were young volunteers between the ages of 18-22, most of them were away from home for the first time. They were eager to spend their small wages on the soiled doves in the bawdy houses.

By early 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were not only at war against the Confederate Army, they were at war with disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea infections spread through the Union troops. The infections were practically as lethal to soldiers as combat at that time. Almost 9 percent of Union troops would be infected with STDs before the end of the Civil War. The only known way to treat infection was with mercury. Considering that the battle injury rate was 18 percent, the severity of this plague was alarming, with deadly consequences for General Rosecrans’s command.

Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening had swept across the country in the mid-1850s. The result of this fervor, particularly in the North, saw women become involved in efforts including temperance, the abolition of slavery, and other reform movements. Due to the spread of STDs first in the military, then into the civilian populations, their cultured, Southern sisters were not far behind them. Demands were made to clean up the city.

Local physicians responded to the dilemma and a Dr. Coleman ran an advertisement in which he announced that he had opened a Dispensary for Private Diseases. Another physician, Dr. A. Richard Jones, opened a medical office offering the same service on Dederick Street.

Meanwhile, Capt. Ephraim Wilson described the first major attempt to control wartime prostitution: “During the winter of 1862-63, the Army had a social enemy to contend with which seriously threatened its very existence…the women of the town.”

Union officials decided on what they believed to be the easiest solution. Since they couldn’t stop soldiers from visiting local prostitutes, something had to be done to move the girls out of Nashville. The movement to legalize prostitution in Nashville began in June 1863, when Brigadier General R. S. Granger noted that officers and medical staff petitioned him to “save the army from venereal disease, a fate worse . . . than to perish on the battlefield.”

Capt. Wilson continued to document the situation, “Fifteen hundred of them at a single time were gathered up and placed aboard a train and were compelled to leave and conducted under guard to Louisville.” Louisville at first objected to receiving such a formidable array of unwelcome guests, but finally consented to do so, and Nashville was afterward all the happier and better off for their conspicuous absence.” But, the women had not agreed to this relocation plan and were soon back in Nashville.

At the same time, a frailer group of women were placed on board a steamship name the Idahoe. (Yes, you read the name correctly. Truth is always stranger than fiction.) Louisville refused to take them since they were sick, and due to concerns that there may be Confederate spies among them, and the steamer headed for Cincinnati. That city refused them as well. It should be noted that at both ports men swam the river and attempted to climb on board when they heard news that a steamship filled with women of easy virtue was approaching. Union troops shot at the men to keep them from climbing on board. The women, knowing that they had lost income at both ports, destroyed the interior of the steamer. The owner never recouped his losses and the ladies were returned to Nashville.

The problem became increasingly worse. The Union Army had overlooked a basic, strategic factor which no army should ignore – that of supply and demand.

Finally, in an attempt to regulate the spread of disease, a referendum was passed where prostitutes had to be examined, declared disease free, treated and given a license to practice their trade. The Union Army in Nashville established the United States’s first system of legalized prostitution.


The plan was simple. Each lady would register and receive a license for $5, which allowed her to freely practice her trade. An Army doctor examined the girls each week at an additional 50 cent fee, to ensure they remained disease free. Those who had caught a disease were sent to a hospital established specifically for them. Anyone found ‘working’ without a license, or those who didn’t appear for a weekly examination were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Once suspicious of the military laws because of the treatment they had received, Nashville’s soiled doves took to the new system with as much enthusiasm as those who established it. One doctor penned that they no longer had to turn to “quacks and charlatans” for ineffective treatments, and eagerly showed potential customers their licenses to prove that they were disease-free.

The war ended, the soldiers moved on, and the women went their way, too. Nashville became the Music City in the 20th Century and is a global publishing hub. As for the ladies, they probably did a great deal to boost morale, and the coffers of the city, especially as the war became longer and deadlier than anyone ever imagined. These women offered their talents, and we have to admire their courage, feel their suffering, and acknowledge their ability to survive during this tragic era in our nation’s history.

Deb Hunter writes fiction as Hunter S. Jones, publishing as an indie author, as well as through MadeGlobal Publishing. She is a member of the prestigious Society of Authors founded by Lord Tennyson, Society of Civil War Historians (US), Dangerous Women Project Global Writers Initiative (University of Edinburgh), Romance Writers of America (PAN member), Historical Writers’ Association, Historical Novel Society, English Historical Fiction Authors, Atlanta Writers Club, Atlanta Writers Conference, and Rivendell Writers Colony which is associated with The University of the South. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her Scottish born husband.

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Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium of 1,036 True Stories. Thomas P. Lowry, Xlibris Press, 2006. (He notes the terms whore, whorehouse, and bordello were infrequently used terms during the Civil War era.)
The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Thomas P. Lowry. Stackpole Press, 1994.
Charles Smart, ed., The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Part III, vol. II, Medical Volume. District of Columbia, 1888.
U.S. Census Bureau (1860). Tennessee State Government Archives, History. Retrieved from http://Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL).
“A Strange Cargo,” Cleveland Morning Leader, July 21, 1863.
“Harper’s Weekly,” March 8, 1862.
“The Curious Case of Nashville’s Frail Sisterhood.” Angela Serratore, Smithsonian Magazine, 2013.
“City’s Civil War ‘Secret’ Revealed,” George Zepp, The Tennessean, 2003.
Photograph of the Nashville Wharf, taken by Calvert Brothers, shortly after the Civil War. From the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Nashville under Union occupation, c. 1863. Library of Congress.
Nashville prostitution license, 1863. National Archives.
All photographs are public domain or owned by the author.

The Age of Agony: Surgery in the 19th Century

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

Surgery in the early 19th century usually meant a death sentence. It was the last resort and never undertaken lightly. Statistics from the time put the chance of dying as a result as high as 80% and surgeons were still not really considered to be proper doctors. Even the simplest of procedures carried a level of risk because there were three ferocious killers that had to be contended with: infection, pain, and bleeding.

Complex operations on the internal organs were impossible, so most operations at this time were either amputations of gangrenous limbs or the hacking away of obvious and engorged tumours and growths. It was not uncommon for a person to succumb to shock and die during such an operation. The pain must have been excruciating. Without anaesthetics, they would feel every cut, their only comfort a leather strap to chew on while they were forcibly held down by however many people it took to keep them in place. In the British army, soldiers had to ‘bite the bullet’ before the field surgeon got to work, although all surgeons were trained to prefer their patients screaming. It was a good gauge to know whether or not they were actually still alive.

L0001337 Amputation of the thigh, 19th century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Amputation of the thigh, 19th century 1820 Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery Bell, Sir Charles Published: 1820 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Amputation of the Thigh. Sir Charles Bell, 1820.

Assuming these tragic individuals did not expire from heart failure on the table, the loss of blood would probably kill them. The discovery of blood types, which made successful transfusion possible, would not come until 1901, so surgeons had to devise other ways to stop their patients bleeding out on the table. Tourniquets were standard issue, but when amputating a limb, many arteries and veins would be cut through. To quickly stem the flow of bleeding the only weapon a surgeon had in his arsenal was a cautery, a metal tool which could be heated in a fire and then pressed firmly onto an open wound to seal the blood vessels. This technique was more successful on smaller wounds than larger, and even then, speed was off the essence. The poor soul on the table would enjoy both the horrendous pain of cauterisation alongside the sounds and smell of his own burning flesh.

Because of the risk of excessive blood loss, operations had to be quick, and no one was quicker than Robert Liston. Although brilliant for his time, Liston was also a bit of a showman and throngs of eager fans turned up to watch him work. He would stalk into the operating theatre at the same moment the patient had been restrained, with the ominous words “Time me, gentleman!” Then he would grab the unfortunate’s offending leg and begin to cut. Spectators reported Liston frequently held his knife in his teeth while he quickly sawed through the bone, then threw the severed limb into a bucket at his feet before he tied off the arteries. His average speed from first incision to wound closure was two and a half minutes. As barbaric as this seems, few people died on Liston’s table…of course, they died afterwards in their droves.

His legend was further embellished by his brutish behaviour. Once, when a patient fled the operating room crying in terror and barricaded himself into an adjoining room, Liston single-handedly broke down the door and dragged the man kicking and screaming back to the table. In one operation, not only did he amputate a man’s leg, he accidentally cut off his testicle as well. In another, he sawed through both the leg of the patient and three of the fingers of the man holding the patient down. Both men later died of infection.

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

Infection was by far the biggest risk. In 1800, the concept of germs and bacteria even existing was at least another sixty years away. As was antiseptic. Surgeons worked in unhygienic conditions, rarely washing either their hands or their knives before an operation. Often in hospitals, because it was such a rarity, the procedure would be carried out in front of an audience, hence the term ‘operating theatre’ we still use today. The opportunities for contamination under these circumstances were huge. Both the surgeon and the audience wore their street clothes and boots, and the cramped gallery would be filled with the potentially deadly microbes released by their breath. ‘Surgical sepsis’ could set in within hours of the operation, and once that occurred, it was curtains for the patient. In a world where germs had yet to be discovered, they certainly did not have any medicines to treat them.

In fact, people would try anything to avoid having surgery. There are hundreds of recorded cases of giant tumours which would be inconceivable today. Liston once removed a forty-five-pound tumour from one man’s scrotum which was so large, the patient pushed it around in a wheelbarrow rather than face the spectre of a death which came from a visit to a sawbones. Despite all of my research, I still have no idea if this poor fellow actually survived. Statistically speaking, I sincerely doubt that he did.

Virginia Heath writes witty, raunchy Regency romances for Harlequin Mills & Boon. That Despicable Rogue is available now and her second novel, Her Enemy at the Altar, comes out in July 2016.

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The Storming of the Bastille and the Beginning of a Revolution


The Storming of The Bastille. Jean-Pierre Houel, 1789.

“The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.” – Camille Desmoulins

When the French Revolution features in art and literature, the bias tends to favor the royalty over the common people; the specter of Madame Guillotine casts a shadow that can still be seen today, and in our sympathy for the tragic figures who lost their lives, the grievances and casualties of the public are routinely overlooked. It was not a misunderstanding about cake that led to the French Revolution. When the Bastille was stormed on July 14th, 1789, it was a long time coming.

Death and Taxes

The social classes were divided into three estates: the First Estate was the Roman Catholic clergy, the Second Estate was the King and the nobility, and the Third Estate represented everyone else. Class was determined entirely by birth, and Louis XVI was an absolute monarch with no real limits to his power.

By 1789, there were thirty million people living in France. France was still a feudal society, so the eighty percent of the population living off of the land in rural areas were obliged to rent it from the nobility. They were taxed heavily and most of them lived below subsistence and had for generations.

W.H. Lewis explains: “If the Devil himself had been given a free hand to plan the ruin of France, he could not have invented any scheme more likely to achieve that object than the system of taxation in vogue, a system which would seem to have been designed with the sole object of ensuring a minimum return to the King at a maximum price to his subjects, with the heaviest share falling on the poorest section of the population.”

The nobility, the clergy, and government officials were entirely tax exempt. More than a century earlier in 1664, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, wrote that there were 46,000 people working in the departments of finance and justice alone, of which 40,000 were largely redundant, having purchased sinecures for the sole purpose of avoiding paying taxes.

Only the Third Estate paid taxes, so the poorest ninety-seven percent of the country supported the top three percent. The taxes the peasants paid were not used for their benefit, and the fees could change arbitrarily from year to year. Peasants seen to be existing above subsistence level habitually had their taxes doubled. As Lewis assures us, the fees were as high as the government thought they could be without inspiring open revolt.

The money collected from the peasants was kept by the nobility with the exception of the salt tax, which was given to the King. In perhaps the most obvious example of the failure of trickle-down economics, the nobility frittered away fortunes in Versailles while the peasants who made this extravagance possible were dying in the fields outside.

Strapped for cash after assisting in the American War of Independence, Louis attempted to compel his nobility to relinquish more of the taxes they collected to the government. They refused. On June 7th, 1788, parliament also refused the King’s request for a loan to cover the deficit and they were all fired. The parliamentarians of Grenoble, where this took place, protested this action by rejecting the King’s dismissal. The soldiers sent to break up the crowd were met with hostility and projectiles, and the parliamentarians doubled down by refusing to pay taxes to the King and calling on the other regions to do likewise.


Jacques Necker, Minister of Finance beloved by the Third Estate

Out of options, the King called the Estates General Meeting, a gathering of representatives from the three estates at Versailles. Although the Third Estate represented ninety-seven percent of the country, the balance of power was weighted against them and they could easily be outvoted on any issue by the First and Second. Taking this into consideration, they asked for twice the representation and this request was granted by Necker, the King’s finance minister, adding to the popularity he had gained by supporting the parliamentarians at Grenoble.

The Third Estate’s hopes of a fair hearing for their grievances was dashed when they discovered that their extra representation would count for nothing; although they had twice the representation as promised, the Third Estate would still receive only one vote. The gesture was an empty one. When Necker made the ridiculous suggestion that the clergy and nobility should also pay taxes, the nobility turned against the King.

The Third Estate was represented at this meeting by Robespierre, a young lawyer devoted to helping the millions of poor. Having lost faith with the political process, Robespierre and prominent members of the Third Estate established themselves as the National Assembly, and called on representatives from the other two estates to join them for a meeting of their own. They did, and together they decided to write a constitution for the people of France.

The King was not invited.


Arrest of de Launay. Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, 1790. Notice the smoking cannon aimed at the crowd.

The Storming of the Bastille

The National Assembly became the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789. Three days later, the King fired Necker.

The King had not only replaced Necker with the militaristic Baron de Breteuil, but he had also sent twenty thousand troops to march on Paris to deal with the protesters. The news was delivered first hand by reporter Camille Desmoulins who had rushed back to Paris from Versailles to address the crowds at the Palais-Royal.

Unfortunately for Louis, Necker was very popular among the Third Estate. He had listened to them when no one else of his class would, and he had been the one to propose taxing the wealthy. Even the Paris troops demanded his reinstatement, and refused to fire on the protesters.

Tensions were high. Desmoulins stood on a table outside a café and rallied the crowd:

“Citizens, Necker has been driven out. After such an act they will dare anything, and may be preparing a massacre of patriots this very night. To arms! To arms! The famous police are here; well, let them look at me. I call on my brothers to take liberty.”

Camille Desmoulins, journalist fond of artfully placed semicolons and giving impassioned speeches on cafe tables.

Camille Desmoulins, journalist fond of “artfully placed semicolons” and giving impassioned speeches on cafe tables.

Desmoulins’ words had some effect; crowds marched on the Abbaye prison to free several guardsmen who had been jailed for refusing to fire on the protesters. Theater performances were cancelled out of respect for the uprising. A people’s militia was formed and had more than thirteen thousand volunteers just to start, and its numbers swelled to perhaps fifty thousand before long.

As terrifying as fifty thousand angry people must have been, they wouldn’t have much of a chance against the King’s army without weapons. We take for granted the availability of weapons today, but they were much harder to come by in eighteenth century France. In need of means of defense, crowds marched on the Hotel des Invalides and took thirty thousand muskets. Desperate, they even took items from the museum in the Place Louis XV, including a crossbow that had previously belonged to Henri IV.

The Bastille mainly held political prisoners at the pleasure of the King and without benefit of trial, so it had come to be seen as a symbol of the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs in the heart of the poor district of St-Antoine. It was a natural target.

It also held a truly spectacular amount of gunpowder.

The Bastille was seen as impenetrable, and hundreds of barrels of gunpowder had recently been moved behind the drawbridge for safe keeping. Early in the morning of July 14th, a crowd of perhaps one thousand tradesmen approached the gates and demanded the gunpowder.

De Launay, the prison Governor, invited a group of them inside for breakfast to kill time while reports of approaching royalist troops spread throughout the city. The breakfast went on for three hours while the rest of the crowd waited outside until one man managed to climb onto the drawbridge from the roof of a neighboring shop and cut its chains, allowing the protesters to cross into the outer courtyard.

Breakfast negotiations were cut short and before long, de Launay had cannon fired into the crowd.

Violence is never an appropriate way to respond to protest, and firing cannonballs into a crowd of demonstrators drew the wrong kind of attention. Many French Guards rushed to the Bastille to defend the protesters, and a Swiss Guard inside handed a set of keys to a rebel through a hole in the wall. They passed through the second drawbridge, but were forced to use a plank to cross the moat on the other side.

Nevertheless, they made it through. Only six Bastille guards were killed to the protesters’ staggering ninety-four, and de Launay’s head was cut off by an unemployed cook. All seven prisoners of the Bastille were freed. The Marquis de Sade would have been one of them, but he had been moved to another location the week before.

Upon hearing of the event, Governor Morris wrote from Versailles:

“A person came in and announced the taking of the Bastille, the governor of which is beheaded, and a crowd carries his head in triumph through the city. Yesterday it was the fashion in Versailles not to believe that there were any disturbances in Paris. I presume that this day’s transactions will induce a conviction that all is not perfectly quiet.”


Following the events of July 14th, the King reinstated Necker and formally recognized the National Assembly. Lafayette was appointed head of the newly formed National Guard consisting of the police and army, and the Paris Commune was formed.

The Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) was issued August 26th, the medieval system of feudalism was abolished August 4th, and the Bastille was demolished by February 1790. The abolition of the monarchy followed in 1792, and Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were executed for treason in 1793.

Score Card:
Third Estate Casualties: 94
Other Casualties: 6
Prisoners freed: 18
Weapons Stolen: 30,000+, hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, one famous crossbow
Bastille: -1

Jessica Cale


Lewis, W.H. The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV. William Morrow & Co, 1953.
Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2003.

Executions at Tyburn: Ritual and Reality


Once enough to send a shiver down the spine of anyone in London or greater Middlesex, the infamous Tyburn gallows have at last begun to fade from collective memory.

Between 1196 and 1783, an estimated 60,000 people were executed at Tyburn. Murderers, sometimes, and highwaymen, certainly, but for every major criminal executed at Tyburn, there were four more condemned for petty theft. Most of the people hanged at Tyburn were under 21, and many of them were still children.

By the eighteenth century, “Tyburn had become associated with mockery, irreverence, and the defiance of authority. The activities there encapsulated rough-and-ready humour, elements of carnival and, on occasion, very public displays of approval of sympathy for the condemned miscreants. For their part, the latter sometimes seem to have relished their brief moment of glory and to have drawn succour from it.” (1)

The public executions at Tyburn and the rituals surrounding them were intended to demonstrate the omnipotence of the law and to serve as a deterrent to crime. Hangings took place eight times a year in a highly ritualized and somber manner that was intended to put the fear of God into the condemned and the spectators alike.

The evening before the execution, the condemned would be offered the final sacrament by the prison chaplain before the bell tolled in the tower of St. Sepulchre’s Church. In 1604, Robert Dow left the church fifty pounds annually to toll the bells for the condemned both the evening before and the day of the execution. The hand bell was also rung within the prison at this time to accompany the following cry:

“All you that in the condemned hole do lie, Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die; Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near, That you before the Almighty must appear. Examine well yourselves; in time repent, That you may not to eternal Flames be sent. And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your souls.”

At dawn on the day of execution, the prisoner would have his irons struck off and replaced with a cord or handcuffs. A halter was placed around his neck by the Knight of the Halter, and he was loaded into the cart with the Ordinary and the coffin he was to be buried in. The cart stopped in front of St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell was rung again, and the bellman would ask the crowd to pray for the soul of the condemned. The Ordinary was not there to provide comfort. His presence “indicated the involvement of the Church in the punishment of sin and recognized that although the prisoner’s physical life was about to be terminated, his soul could still be saved even at this late hour.” (1)

execution-at-tyburn1The law had their rituals and the public had theirs. While the authorities effectively stage-managed the executions to discourage the public from criminal acts, there is no evidence that this was any real deterrent as many attendees would later go on to commit similar crimes themselves.

Execution days were brilliant for businesses of all kinds. In addition to the pubs that benefited along the three-hour journey from Newgate to Tyburn, the “hanging fair” itself was ripe with opportunity for profit. Young pickpockets, known as “Tyburn Blossoms” did well in the tightly-packed and distracted crowds, the execution more an opportunity than a deterrent. Prostitutes could count on being busy as the carnival atmosphere and the grim demonstration of mortality drove many to the pursuit of more earthly delights. Cakes, pies, and baked potatoes were sold, and the “Last Dying Confessions” were purchased and circulated. Seats could be bought, and the grandstand known as Mother Proctor’s Pew made £5,000 (about £450,000 in today’s money) from the execution of Earl Ferrers alone.

Meeting a good end was crucial. While most would have been insensible with fear, the crowd loved those who showed a brave face. Some of the condemned gave daring or subversive speeches, joked with the crowd, or confessed at length, embellishing their crimes with lurid detail. The best executions had ballads written about them and were retold in newspapers and pamphlets. For so many who had lived lives of desperation and neglect, the idea of a little postmortem glory must have had its appeal.

The crowd loved a good show, and some of the condemned took the execution as a last opportunity to rebel. One way they did this was through their clothing. On the morning of the execution the prisoners were allowed to choose their clothes for the day. As the executioners could turn a handsome profit by selling the clothes of the condemned following the hanging, some chose to wear as little as possible to limit this.

A young Irish woman named Hannah Dagoe took this to the extreme. Intent on cheating the hangman out of the money he would receive for the sale of her clothes, she spent the three mile journey stripping them off and throwing them into the crowd. When they reached the gallows, she wore almost nothing at all. To add insult to injury, she kneed the hangman in the groin and leaped out of the cart herself, breaking her own neck.

What had been intended as a public display of punishment to encourage law and order evolved over time into regular acts of quiet rebellion. Executions became raucous fairs attended by thousands where pickpockets and prostitutes did their most profitable work. Displays of contrition and the warnings of the condemned were replaced with lurid confessions and triumphant farewells. While the law exercised power by executing people for relatively minor crimes, the people showed resistance by celebrating the condemned as heroes.

Evidence of the disregard the public had for the executions can be found in the tongue-in-cheek terms they developed for them. Tyburn became the “three-legged mare” or the “deadly nevergreen.” “Going west,” became a euphemism for execution, and being hanged was “to dance the Paddington frisk.”

The last hanging at Tyburn took place in 1783. After this, hangings were moved closer to Newgate to a site where crowds would be easier to control. They remained there until the end of public execution in 1868.


Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Alan Brooke and David Brandon. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.

The Thieves’ Opera. Lucy Moore. Harcourt, 1997.

An earlier version of this appeared on

American Resurrection: The Doctors’ Riot of 1788

CityOfNewYork 1788

New York City, 1788

By 1788, New York City was a rough and tumble, post-revolutionary town consumed by a frantic building boom after the recent British occupation. The city had not fanned out into boroughs. The population of thirty thousand, largely unwashed and illiterate, were packed like sardines into a part of the island of Manhattan that ended at Chambers Street, the location of the African Burial Ground. Racial tensions continued for over three decades until the Revolutionary War. When the Revolution ended, physicians were in extremely short supply since many returned to the mother country or immigrated to Canada.

Horses, goats, and cows wandered through the dirt streets. Gangs of shipyard ruffians roamed throughout the town with impunity since they outnumbered the small corps of volunteer city watchmen. Sewage littered the streets and city dweller released swine at night to devour the refuse. The port of New York was home to the second largest slave market in the newly created republic and because of New York’s history of volatile ethnic strife. Slave owners deliberately imported blacks directly from Africa. Since the Africans spoke many varied dialects and languages, few were able to communicate with either other.

The masses of blacks, either enslaved or free, needed to help build the city were prohibited from associating with whites and even denied burial with them. According to author Thomas Gallagher, “When they died, they were interred in the African Burial Ground above Chamber’s Street.”

The macabre events that almost brought down the entire city occurred in that humble graveyard. Body snatching, the only way medical students obtained fresh specimen for dissection, assumed a disquieting racial element in 18th century New York. The students routinely looted the Burial Ground for freshly buried corpses while the rest of society looked away. They shared the sentiments of a landowner who described himself considered himself as “a strong advocate for science.”


Ressurectionists. Hablot Knight Browne, 1847.

I rather believe that the only subjects procured for dissection, are productions of Africa…and those too, who have…been transmitted to gaols …for…burglary and other capital crimes; and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”

A small vocal part of the population did object. On February 3, 1788, the free blacks of New York petitioned the Common Council to prevent the desecration of their graveyard. They made their declaration public.

Most humbly sirs, we declare that it has lately been the practice of a number of young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic, to repair to the burying ground, assigned for the use of your petitioners. Under cover of the night, in the most wanton sallies of excess, they dig up bodies of our deceased friends and relatives of your petitioners, carrying them away without respect for age or sex. The students of the physic mangle their flesh out of a wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds. Your petitioners are well aware of the necessity of physicians and surgeons consulting dead subjects for the benefit of mankind. Your petitioners do not presuppose it as an injury to the deceased and would not be adverse to dissection in particular circumstances, that is, if it is conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires. Your petitioners do not wish to impede the world of these students of the physic but most humbly pray your honors to take our case into consideration and adopt such measure as may seem meet to prevent similar abuses in the future.

The Common Council ignored the petition and did nothing; however, the concerns of the blacks continued to ferment because the disinterment of recently buried bodies, “resurrection”, was blatant in post-Revolutionary New York. There were no ways to refrigerate cadavers and French chemist, Jean-Nicolas Gannal had not yet perfected arterial embalming.

The medical profession had a dilemma; there were not enough bodies for dissection. Four years earlier, the state of Massachusetts attempted to discourage dueling and accommodate the needs of medical students. Massachusetts gave over the bodies of those killed in duels and those executed for killing another in a duel to medical students and the infamous Spunkers of the Harvard Medical School.

New York had no such laws. What doctors needed was a law giving all the city’s unclaimed bodies to Columbia College and other authorized anatomy schools, but this the lawmakers, aware of the temper of the people, refused to pass. The only legal way to dispose of a dead body, therefore, was to bury it. Once buried, no one could exhume a body, except by consent of the relatives, without committing an indictable offense against the common law. Although students stole the bodies of poor whites, the churchyards, where citizens of substance were buried, had been left unmolested.

This impasse left the professors with three choices: They could abandon the teaching of anatomy altogether and thereby stunt the growth of American surgery; they could teach theory only and send their students out to practice on live patients; or they could obtain bodies stealing them. In Britain, professional body snatchers called resurrectionists kept medical schools supplied with anatomical subjects. Resurrectionists were usually criminals, and sometimes murderers, who not only stole bodies recklessly, but often fought skirmishes over them within graveyard walls. In America, in the years immediately following the Revolution, the professors eliminated the middleman by stealing bodies themselves, so discreetly they did not arouse the public’s attention.

The trouble began when the studies of anatomy students progressed to the point they needed to do the dissecting themselves. Once, professors procured bodies for their students by paying resurrectionists to steal bodies for them and defrayed the cost by raising laboratory fees. In New York, however, medical students, known as students of the physic, had their own special back-to-school list; paper, quills, books, and bodies. The boys went on the hunt for bodies, despoiling graves of the poor and people of color.

On the morning of February 15, 1788, the first in the chain of the events to come occurred in the offices of the New York Daily Advertiser in New York City. Many New Yorkers were acquainted with Francis Childs, the newspaper’s printer, editor, and founder, because of his anti-slavery sentiments. Like everyone in New York, Childs was aware of the activities of the students of the physic. Childs had received a shocking missive about the activities of the students of the physic from a reader who asked the Daily Advertiser to publish it. The author of the letter wished to remain anonymous and signed it with the nom de plume “Humanio”.

Mr. Printer, the repositories of the dead have been held in a manner sacred, in all ages, and almost in all countries. It is a shame that they should be so very scandalously dealt with, as I have been informed they are in this City. It is said that few blacks are buried, whose bodies are permitted to remain in the grave. And, that even enclosed burying-grounds, belonging to Churches, have been robbed of their dead: That swine have been seen devouring the entrails and flesh of women … that human flesh has been taken up along the docks, sewed up in bags; and that this horrid practice is pursued to make a merchandize of human bones, more than for the purpose of improvement in Anatomy. If a law was passed, prohibiting the bodies of any other than Criminals from being dissected, unless by particular desire of the dying … for the benefit of mankind, a stop might be put to the horrid practice here; and the minds of a very great number of my fellow-liberated, or still enslaved Negroes, quieted. By publishing this, you will greatly oblige both them, and your very humble servant.


While Boston had established Harvard College a hundred and fifty years earlier, the only qualified medical school in New York in 1788 was part of Columbia College, formally the King’s College. King George II had mandated the fledgling medical school in 1754. The college housed it in a three-story stone building in the area that became Park Place. The school was equipped with an anatomical theatre and under the control of thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Charles McKnight. Dr. McKnight, a New Jersey native, was the product of a staunchly pro-revolutionary family and had served as a senior surgeon in the American Army of the Revolution.


Columbia College

In addition to Dr. McKnight, two other doctors who, though not part of the Columbia faculty, were famous in medical circles because of their skill in anatomy. Born in Connecticut of English and French ancestry, Dr. Richard Bayley had been educated in England. Although he had served as a surgeon in the British army during the Revolutionary War, his skill at surgery opened doors for him in the newly formed Republic. According to historians, there had been grumbling among some of his fellow doctors who charged Bayley with “cutting up his patients and performing cruel experiments upon the sick soldiery” while working as an army surgeon in Newport, Rhode Island. However, because of the need for doctors in the new country, desperate medical professions forgave Bayley’s past transgressions.

Dr. Bayley and his protégé, Wright Post, had been giving private lectures at the otherwise unused New York Hospital building which had been vacant since the British had housed soldiers in it during the Revolution. The twenty-two-year-old Post was born and bred in New York State. Despite his youth, Post had apprenticed for two years under Dr. Bayley before studying medicine for two years in London. In those days, surgeons often gave private instruction in anatomy, both to college students and to working medical apprentices.

At the same time that Humanio’s letter appeared in the Daily Advertiser, newspapers throughout the city also carried notices of Bayle and Post offering anatomy lectures. The public began to link the lectures with the stealing of dead bodies from the city’s graveyards. Although many of the city elite felt the study of anatomy was necessary for doctors, most of New York shared the same attitude as people of color toward grave robbing. Rich and poor alike considered post-mortem dissection a great indignity to the dead. The public criticized surgeons for their lack of skill and scolded them for trying to develop it.

The grave-robbing students had a number of advantages; there were graveyards tucked in nooks and corners all over New York. The general lawlessness following the war and the ineffectiveness of the city watch (forty-odd men with clubs who guarded the city at night) also worked to their benefit. Potter’s field and the Blacks burial were adjacent to each other in the upper reaches of the Fields, a triangular plot of ground that is the site of City Hall Park. Medical students from both Columbia and the New York Hospital classes were only a few blocks from the city’s two least respected and ignored cemeteries. In addition, since gravediggers often buried several paupers in a single grave, the students could obtain more bodies in less time than in a churchyard where undertakers rarely buried more than one person on the same day.

The students robbed graves after dark, especially on moonless nights when the city’s only light came from the few whale-oil lamps set on posts throughout the street. The lamps were filthy and poorly trimmed. Instead of giving off a full light, they “barely made the darkness visible.” On moonlit nights, the lamplighters usually didn’t light the lamps at all. When a cloud obscured the moon, the only dangers to the students were slamming into one of the posts, colliding with a goat or pig, attack by rowdies in an alley, or even tripping over a mourner or someone hired to protect a grave.

In most cases, the soil above a fresh grave was loose. Since the students worked in relays at top speed, it took only about an hour to uncover a coffin, remove the corpse, and restore the earth to its former position. The students removed rocky or pebbly soil with wooden shovels to avoid the noisy scraping of metal against stone. Sometimes, the early morning sun threatened to make an appearance or the moon emerged from behind a cloud. Speed became essential. The students dug up the head of the coffin and broke off enough of the lid to drag the body out. A corpse had to be disrobed and the clothes returned to the coffin before the students could refill grave and make their escape. The clothes and the coffin belonged to the heirs or relatives. To take them would be stealing.

Since bodies were of no use for dissection purposes after advanced decay had set in, the students made the thefts when it was most dangerous, when the relatives of the dead might be on watch or visiting the graves. Friends or relatives would often place an object on or just below the surface of a freshly made grave, so they could tell whether the earth had been disturbed. Unlike the professors, who were discreet when grave robbing, the students did not take the time to cover their tracks and more and more bodies were discovered to be missing.

Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser seemed only to make the students more daring in their escapades and more contemptuous of the public’s attitude.

One “student of physic” wrote to Mr. Childs in defense of himself and his colleagues:

Great offence, it seems, has been given to some very tender and well meaning souls by gentlemen of the medical department, for taking out of the common burying ground of this city bodies that had been interred there; one in particular, whose philanthropy is truly laudable, has obtained a place for his moving lamentations in your useful paper. Whence is skill in surgery to be derived? Kind and generous Humanio … your head is too empty, and your heart too full … And to whom would Humanio call for assistance, should he snap his leg, or burst a blood vessel? Run, run [he would say] to that barbarous man who has dissected most flesh and anatomized most bones.

Doctors Bayley, Post, and McKnight must have winced to see this unnecessarily abusive letter printed in the Daily Advertiser on the same day as an announcement that showed the students had upped the ante and things were coming to a head.

100 Dollars REWARD
Whereas one night last week, the grave of a person recently interred in Trinity Churchyard was opened, and the Corpse, with part of the clothes, were carried off.—Any person who will discover the offenders, so that they may be convicted and brought to justice, will receive the above reward from the Corporation of the Trinity Church—
By Order of the Vestry
Robert C. Livingston, Treasurer
New York Feb. 21, 1788

The Daily Advertiser published another contemporary account of the body snatching:

We have been in a state of great tumult for a day or two past. The causes of which, as well as I can digest from various accounts, are as follows: The young students of physic, have for some time past, been loudly complained of for their very frequent and wanton trespasses in the burial ground of this City. The corpse of a young gentleman from the West Indies was lately taken up, the grave left open and the funeral clothing scattered about. A very handsome and much esteemed young lady, of good connection was also carried off. These, with various other acts of a similar kind, inflamed the minds of people exceedingly and the young member of the faculty as well as the mansions of the dead, have been quickly watched.

With this theft from Trinity churchyard, blacks and poor whites suddenly found powerful allies since the city’s most respected and influential families buried their dead there. Reaction against the students spread rapidly, and since neither public petitions nor private pressure could move the Common Council to action, letters to the Daily Advertiser increased, along with its circulation.

Meanwhile, the free blacks in the city, having waited for the Common Council to act, had obtained the use of a private burial yard in Gold Street. A man named Scipio Gray owned the yard, lived next to it, and acted as the yard’s custodian. The acts of the students had inflamed the citizens and one would think that the students would have avoided this private yard. They did not. On a dark midnight, a group of them along with the “student of physic” who had answered Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser, went to Scipio Gray’s house and ordered him, “at the peril of his life,” to remain indoors. Several of them then went to the yard and disinterred two bodies, the corpse of a child and an aged person. When Mr. Gray asked them “if they were not ashamed of their conduct,” the student of physic replied that he would do the same to his own grandfather and grandmother and “think it no crime.”

Humanio who either witnessed the events or heard about them second hand, wrote about them in a second letter to the Daily Advertiser. The Student’s answer did not deny the charges; instead, issued another insult to Humanio

Do not to be so rash and imprudent, as again to attempt to espouse the cause of his fellow sufferers (for I take him to be some manumitted slave) without first applying for another quarter’s tuition at the free blacks school; that he may thereby be enabled to convey his meanings, at least in good, if not in elegant, language.
Student of Physic,
Jun. Broad-Way

When the Advertiser printed this letter, on March 1, 1788, it drew a line between the majority of the city did not want the dead resurrected and the few who felt disinterring them was in the public interest.

A clash became inevitable and all eyes turned to a youth named John Hicks Jr. Young Hicks studied medicine along with Bayley’s other students. Hick’s father had worked in the General Hospital as an “Established Mate” during the British occupation. The city directory listed Hicks, Sr. as a doctor. The younger Hicks, like the writer of the letters to Humanio, was both a “junior” and a medical student with a Broadway address. From accounts of the time, many in the city suspected John Hicks Jr. of being both the writer of the “student of the physic” letters and the boy who threatened Scipio Gray, but no historian has proved it. Accounts from the period show that citizens around the town already knew of the macabre antics of young Hicks. College students were younger in the 18th century. The average freshman was fifteen years old. Hicks, who was not to receive his M.D. for five more years, was an undoubtedly spoiled and exceptionally cruel teen.


New York Hospital

The citizens’ anger with doctors in general, and medical students in particular, came to a head on April 13, 1788. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon and the cloudy skies promised rain. Jonquils and bluestems bloomed about the city and the only sound on the grounds of the New York Hospital was childish laughter as a group of children played in front of the hospital. Though it was the Sabbath, a group of medical students busied themselves with dissection. It was late afternoon when John Hicks Jr. and his fellows were working in the third floor dissection room. As the boys played below, Hicks grabbed a dismembered limb, depending on the account, a leg or possibly an arm, and dangled it out the window at the children. Some witnesses claimed a student placed it out the window to dry, but whatever the reason, seeing the body part raised the children’s curiosity. The building had been under repair and according to most accounts, workmen had left a ladder long enough to reach the dissecting room window. The children mounted the ladder to see what the students were up to and the macabre shenanigans of John Hicks Jr. confronted them.

Writers and historians have retold and embellished the legend over the years. The most popular version of the story claimed that since one of the boys had recently lost his mother, the scene of black and white cadavers of both genders in various stages of dismemberment was especially horrific to him. In some accounts, the child screamed that his mother had died and Hicks lifted an arm from one of the tables and told the boy to “look at his mother’s arm”. In another account, Hicks supposedly pointed a hand at the youngster peering through the window. “This is your mother’s arm. I just dug it up!”

The tykes scrambled down the ladder and the child who had just lost his mother ran off screaming for his father. The war of words between Humanio and the student of the physic had put everyone in the city on tenterhooks and the city was a powder keg ready to blow. The tyke’s father enlisted his chums to help him exhume his wife’s coffin and when they pulled it from the ground, they found it empty. The riot was on.

As fascinating as that scenario is, William Heth’s eyewitness account of incident did not mention a child, but told of a human limb being dangled from a window and attracting a crowd. Perhaps the story of the children was a fabrication and the less dramatic account of Hicks waving a severed limb out a window was the actual event that triggered the riot; whatever his specific action, they sparked the violence. Citizens began to mass around the building. At the sound of the approaching throng, Hicks, along with the other medical students and professors, made a hasty retreat. By the time the mob broke into the building demanding that the doctors present themselves, the hospital was abandoned except for Wright Post and four of the senior medical students who also refused to leave. Post stood in wait for the throng with young men, all of whom only two or three years younger than himself. The young men were determined to save a valuable collection of anatomy specimens and wax renderings doctors had collected over the years. It was also possible that they wanted to prevent the crowd from discovering a far grislier sight in the anatomy room.


The rioters were in a deadly temper when they stormed the lecture room. Once they came upon the collection of anatomical and pathological specimens that Dr. Post and his students had risked their young lives to protect, they became even more frenzied. Though no one laid a hand on him or his comrades, Dr. Post was powerless to stop the mob from carting away the medical treasures. There are accounts of the collection being burned in a great bonfire, but since it was raining, that is unlikely.

Perhaps the riot would have ended at this point; unfortunately, something, possibly a stench wafting from another room, alerted the rioters. The Daily Advertiser described it as “a shocking shamble of human flesh.” Dr. James Thacher, a witness to the storming of the New York Hospital, detailed the grotesque spectacle in his memoirs:

The concourse assembled on this occasion was immense, and some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged at this discovery, they seized upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.

Another contemporary report published after the riot, also described what the rioters found:

On Sunday last, as some children were playing, part of an arm or leg tumbled out at them. The cry of barbarity was soon spread and the young sons of Galen fled in every direction as the mob raised and the hospital apartments were ransacked. In the Anatomy room, were found four fresh bodies, one boiling in a kettle two other cutting up with certain parts of the two sexes hanging up in a most brutal position. These circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the mob beyond all bonds to the total destruction of every anatomy in the hospital, one which was of so much value and utility, that it is justly esteemed a great public loss.

It is a wonder that Post and his students were not killed and turned into anatomical specimen themselves. By the time the throng dragged the young doctors into the street, an estimated two thousand people had witnessed the incident. They beat one of Post’s students, David Hosak, so severely that a friend pushed his way through the mob to pull him to safety. Mayor James Duane and the sheriff, followed by bailiffs, tried to bring the crowd to order. In an attempt to protect the doctors from the mob tearing them apart, he ordered the battered medical men escorted to the Fields, the area of the city where the symbols of law and order, the jailhouse, the almshouse, the gallows, the whipping post, and the stocks were located.

Later that evening, a group splintered from the throng and buried the dissected subjects. Bands of rioters left the Hospital grounds and moved across the city, spreading word of the monstrosities they had seen and promising “a general Hegira of physicians”. By then the whole of New York was ensnared by the madness. Medical students who had escaped were hurried out of town while the physicians remaining in the city were forced to “slip out of windows, creep behind bean barrels, crawl up chimneys and hide beneath feather beds”.

Dr. Baley

Dr. Richard Bayley

As more and more New Yorkers joined the crowd, the threat of an outright rebellion loomed large. The mob marched down Broadway carrying lanterns to light their way in search of the real culprit, “the odious Dr. Hicks”. The authorities arrested Dr. Bayley in a bid to protect him from the wrath of the mob who wanted to cut off the doctors’ hands. Bayley joined Post and the students in jail. Some of the rowdies in the crowd began attacks on any man dressed in black, the traditional color of doctors. A splinter group even paid a visit to a home with the sign, “Sir John Temple” affixed to the door. It is estimated that eighty percent of the populace were illiterate and though Sir John Temple was not a doctor, one of them misread the printing on the post. The mob ransacked the house without realizing that “Sir John” did not mean “surgeon”. According to Mrs. Lamb, an eye witness, “(the mob) were just barely restrained from leveling it to the ground”.

The next morning, Monday, April 14th, 1788, the throng massed in front of New York Hospital once again, looking for John Hicks Jr. They had not found him in his parent’s home, but there were reports he had sought sanctuary in the home of Dr. John Cochran that stood across from Trinity Church. Though Dr. Cochran had retired from medical practice, he was a man of great prominence in New York, a personal friend of George Washington, and one of the bastions of New York society. Perhaps because the citizens of New York held Cochran in such high regard, young Hicks chose his residence as a hiding place.

When the esteemed gentleman answered the door, the leaders of the mob stormed his home. The rioters tore Cochran’s place apart searching for him from cellar to garret. Some even opened the scuttle to see if he was hiding on the roof but found nothing. Their search must have been a cursory one; if one of the rioters had climbed through the scuttle, they would have discovered the teen cowering behind the chimney of the next house. The temper of the mob was such that they would have torn Hicks apart, limb by limb. Instead, Hicks managed to escape once again and left New York along with the other medical students and professors. He eluded capture leaving the mob to focus their anger on the doctors who remained. The throng searched the houses of suspected physicians and by the evening, had ransacked the homes of every doctor in New York.

On Tuesday, Dr. Bayley effectively washed his hands of the mess by signing a sworn affidavit denying any personal involvement in the business of resurrection and claiming ignorance of his students’ nighttime activities.

He hath not, directly or indirectly, had any agency or concern whatsoever, in removing the bodies of any person or persons, interred in any churchyard, or cemetery, belonging to any place of public worship in [this] city; and that he hath not offered any sum of money to procure any human body so interred, for the purposes of dissection: and this deponent further saith, that no person or persons under his tuition, have had any agency or concern in digging up or removing any dead body interred in any of the said churchyards or cemeteries, to his knowledge or belief; and further this deponent saith not.

Within a few days, his statement was followed by similar affidavits from Dr. McKnight, several fifth year students, and most interestingly, from John Hicks Sr., father of the most hated man in New York. Most notable was the absence of a statement by Wright Post.

The city’s newspapers published Bayley’s statement and stoked the flames of discontent. By afternoon, the mob had massed together and pressed on towards Columbia College. Upon their arrival, the most famous Columbia alumnus and trustee, Alexander Hamilton, stood on the steps of the college to greet them. Hamilton surely viewed the students’ actions with distaste, but was determined to save New York and his alma mater from violence, but his attempt at peacemaking failed. The rioters broke past him and swarmed through every room in the college searching for cadavers and body parts. Luckily for both Columbia and Alexander Hamilton, students had removed all anatomical specimens the previous day. Their action may have saved Columbia from destruction.

Mayor Duane, Governor Clinton, Chancellor Robert Livingston, and the city fathers joined Hamilton as he sloshed through the rain and tried to dissuade the common folk from doing further damage. The Brahmans of New York followed the throng when they abandoned the college and continued their search down Smith Street in the more elegant part of New York, the “court end of the city”. It was a world of Georgian mansions and cobblestone streets, a universe away from the hovels that most of the rioters lived in. Perhaps New York was a city of “haves and have-nots” but that afternoon the have-nots held all the power.

The rioters marched to the McKnight and Bayley residences and invaded their homes. They searched for John Hicks Jr., dissected bodies, and proof that the doctors were up to ghoulish activities, but found nothing. Disgruntled and angry, they disbursed for the evening.

By Wednesday, anger toward the doctors and simmering hatred for the upper classes finally blew up and the mob wanted blood. The mayor ordered an armed brigade and artillery regiment, but even that show of force didn’t stop the rioters from trekking towards the Fields and the imprisoned physicians. By the time the crowd reached their destination, it numbered 5,000, fully a sixth of the city.

The imprisoned doctors had great reason to fear for their lives when they heard the yells of the throng marching towards them. One group of rioters tore through the fence erected to protect New York from jailbreaks while others broke the wooden plants of the gallows into battering rams and attacked the jail’s brick walls. The jailhouse windows were unbarred and the doctors joined their jailers in fighting off rioters. The guards had been ordered not to use their muskets and no lives were lost, but one of the rioters squeezed through a ground-floor window and was bayoneted by a guard. News that one of their own had been injured so enflamed the mob that the destruction of the jail commenced with renewed vigor.

A force of eighteen militiamen marched towards the Fields with the mayor at the head. The militia was composed of volunteers aged sixteen to fifty who drilled once a month, more for camaraderie than anything else. Like most of New York, the militiamen were sympathetic to the rioters and their leaders ordered them not to fire upon the mob. Baron von Steuben, the aging Prussian warrior who helped lead the Continental Army to victory, joined the Mayor and the militia in the march towards the jail. The city leaders assumed the sight of muskets slung about the militiamen’s shoulders would subdue the rioters and were correct…at least for a while. The presence of the militia brought about a temporary lull in the violence, but as soon as they marched out of sight, the mob commenced battering the jailhouse walls again.

The doctors were in even greater danger than before. Another group of militiamen came to their rescue, but the mob rushed them, smashed their muskets, and chased them downtown. According to a letter written to John Sullivan, the Governor of New Hampshire, the sight of the militia made the crowd even angrier:

(The militiamen) so enraged the mob that they determined to force the jail and cut off the young doctors’ hands. They accordingly made the attack, broke down the yard – all the lower windows of the place and made an entry on the lower floor.

That evening it began to rain again. Clinton, Duane and von Steuben assembled an army of officers and gentlemen swordsmen and marched with them towards the jail in another bid to rescue the doctors. The city fathers did not want a confrontation between their muskets and an unarmed mob. General Matthew Clarkson, a dashing thirty-year-old war hero, heard about the brouhaha and decided to join the militiamen. He stopped at the home of the venerable John Jay, a Columbia alumnus from the pre-Revolution days. Since Clarkson was unarmed, he asked Jay for a sword. Jay gave him a sword, grabbed another for himself and the two went directly to the Fields to join the militia assembled at the jailhouse.

An officer who made the trek wrote a contemporary report:

We marched up to the jail and the mob waited for us until we were within ten paces of the door; our orders were not to fire. The mob were of the opinion that we dare not fire, or if we did, it would be over their heads. This sentiment added to their temerity and as soon as we entered the jail yard, they began to throw brick bats, stones and sticks.

As President of the Manumission Society, John Jay enjoyed a degree of respect second only to General Washington and the city fathers hoped his presence would have a calming effect on the mob. It did not. As Jay stood in place, one of the rioters pitched a rock that struck him on the head and the venerable gentleman collapsed at General Clarkson’s feet. Soon another city official, Commodore Nicholson, fell to the ground after a rock struck him. The throng continued their advance armed with rocks. Baron von Steuben was next one struck. He fell backward and commanded the militiamen to fire.

The militiamen in the jail yard began firing, first pointing their weapons above the heads of the rioters. Muskets were difficult to aim with any accuracy but in the second volley, the militia pointed them toward the rioters. Several went down. The militia split into two groups, some remaining near the jail while others advanced towards the crowd with their bayonets fixed. Though they drove some of the rioters back, the militiamen were greatly outnumbered and found themselves surrounded. They shot their muskets one more time then began to reload in the darkness and pouring rain. That lull in the firing gave the mob a chance to press on.

A company of cavalrymen galloped up Broadway to the Fields and charged through the rioters who were marching towards the jailhouse. Fighting continued throughout the night and some rioters died. Records of the period differ as to the number of casualties: some say three died on the spot, some say five, another eight and still others swear fifteen to twenty died immediately. The rioters engaged several militiamen, gentleman soldiers and volunteers in hand-to-hand combat and the toll was great on both sides. It is probable many of the wounded died later but no accurate count exists.

For the next few days, the militia patrolled the streets and normal life began anew. John Jay and Baron von Steuben survived but their wounds were significant enough to put them on bed rest for ten days. The city jail was almost destroyed and extra guards stood watch in the Fields as the building was being rebuilt. The anger towards doctors was so great that the city leaders ousted them from the New York Hospital building and presented with a bill for the damages.

Three months in jail was the usual sentence for stealing a body, but anger remained over the young woman’s corpse purloined from the Trinity Courtyard. The trial began in late April and the first student brought to justice was a youth named George Swinney. He along with another student, Isaac Gano, had taken the “dead body of a white woman out of a coffin from a grave in Trinity Church Yard”. The court indicted the ringleader, John Hicks Jr., on four counts of body stealing but his case was never heard.

The anger and ill will towards the physicians did not end with the riot and the doctors who remained in the city had to tread lightly. Repercussions from the riot continued for years and according to Dr. Jules C. Ladenheim, author of the definitive paper on the riot, it was a factor in New York being one of the last colonies to ratify the Constitution. In January of 1789, the State Legislature pushed forward a statute to prevent “the odious practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead bodies interred in cemeteries or burial places”.

Borrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898.
Friedenberg, Zachary B. The Doctor in Colonial America.
Gallagher, Thomas. The Body Snatchers.
Lademheim, Jules Calvin. The Doctors’ Mob of 1788.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan.
Marks, Geoffrey and Beatty, William K. The Story of Medicine In America.
Ottley, Roi. The Negro in New York.

Francesca Miller is a Los Angeles native with a background in Hollywood history. She has worked as an entertainment journalist and co-authored the biography of Sarah Benhardt, The Diva and Doctor God, which has been optioned by Poverty Row Entertainment for a feature film. Her work has been published in History Today, The Lancet, and Simply Sxy, and she collaborated on The Soul of Los Angeles, a history of African Americans in Los Angeles. She is a member of the RWA and SCBWI. She writes dark Young Adult Fiction with strong female protagonists as well as romance as Lee Rene. Her Depression-era New Adult romantic mystery, Mitzi of the Ritz, is due to be released by Solstice Publishing in late 2016.

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Gay Icon, Intriguer, Author, Adventuress: The Many Lives of Aphra Behn


Bit of a mystery, is Aphra – who says that the reinvention of one’s past is an activity reserved to Hollywood starlets?

She kept her early years a closely-guarded secret.

The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) states that she was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse. (That story recurs, as a contemporary, Anne Finch, wrote that she was born in Wye in Kent, the “Daughter to a Barber”) However, a contemporary essay by the unidentified “One of the Fair Sex” maintains that Aphra was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson of nearby Canterbury. Johnson was a gentleman related to Lord Willoughby, who appointed him lieutenant-general of Surinam, for which Willoughby was the royal patentee.

Whether Aphra was Johnson’s by-blow or fostered by him is not known, but what has been established with reasonable certainty was that in 1663 she accompanied Johnson, his wife, and a boy, described as her brother, on a voyage to take up residence in the West Indies. Johnson died on the way, and his wife and children lived for several months in Surinam. Her novel, Oroonoko (1688), is allegedly based on her experiences there and her friendship with a prince of the indigenous peoples…. although there is no evidence that Oroonoko existed, that she had a friendship with him, or that the slave rebellion of the novel ever happened. Colonel Thomas Colepeper, the only person who claimed to have known her as a child, wrote that she was born at “Sturry or Canterbury” to a Mr Johnson and that she had a sister named Frances.

Southerne_Oroonoko_1776_performanceShortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, she may have married Johan Behn. He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg. He died – or they separated – soon after 1664, and from this point she used “Mrs Behn” as her professional name. Whatever the truth of it, none of it appears in the records… I have played a little fast and loose with Aphra’s activities, for it was not until 1666 that she appears officially attached to the court.

She was recruited as a political spy in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II, possibly under the auspices of courtier and theatre-owner Thomas Killigrew. (And possibly not.) It happens to suit my story to have her in 1665 as already recruited as a spy, simply because, like many things about the divine Astraea – her code name, and the name she used for much of her later writing – we don’t know she wasn’t, and it tickles me to think of the dubiously-widowed Mrs Behn languishing on the Continent with other impoverished Royalist ex-pats, spinning lurid tales and batting her eyelashes at Russell.

(He didn’t. He wouldn’t…. Did he?)

Her role in Antwerp was to establish an intimacy with the son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who had been executed in 1660 – which is a discreet way of saying she was expected to seduce him. William Scot was believed to be ready to become a spy in the King’s service, reporting on the plots of Roundhead exiles. Aphra arrived in Bruges in July 1666, probably with two others (I wonder who?), tasked with turning Scot into a double agent, but it failed.

The cost of living in Europe shocked her, and only a month after arrival, she was forced to pawn her jewelry. Money had to be borrowed so that she could return to London, where a year’s petitioning of Charles for payment for her expenses was ultimately unsuccessful. It may be that she was never paid by the crown. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but there’s no evidence she ever went to prison for debt. Knowing the fair Astraea, it’s equally likely that she would have served His Majesty for love, and laughed at the warrant.

She began to work for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company players as a scribe, to keep the wolf from the door. (Not her first writing, but her first paid gig, at least.) Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). After her third play, The Dutch Lover, failed, she disappears for three years. It is speculated that she went travelling again, possibly in her capacity as a spy – though I wouldn’t put a staged comeback past Mistress Behn’s sense of the dramatic.

Linked with notable writers of the day, she was acknowledged as part of the circle of the Earl of Rochester. (Interestingly, her name was never romantically linked with any of the Merry Gang.) As a mature woman her primary publicly acknowledged relationship was with a bisexual man, John Hoyle, himself the subject of public scandal for murder and sodomy. She was known to have had male lovers – those poems weren’t written by a woman who didn’t know what sex was – but she also writes explicitly of the love of women for each other. Did she have female lovers? She says so, but then she also claimed that Nature had meant her as a nun. More of the self-mythologising of the fair Astraea.

Gay icon, intriguer, author, adventuress. Unconventional businesswoman who lived and died on her own terms, as independently as she had lived. I wasn’t entirely serious, comparing her to stars of the silver screen, but the more I think about it – tirelessly self-promoting, glamorous, self-reliant, deceptively professional, and ultimately tragic. In her last years her health began to fail, beset by poverty and debt, but she continued to write, though it became increasingly hard for her to hold a pen. She died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”

Oh, I don’t know.
Reckon the gal’d be proud of the likes of me and you, Jess…

masthead-coverM. J. Logue is a re-enactor, half-trained archivist, sometime copywriter, retired professional tarot reader, and almost always a writer. When not living with a troop of Parliamentarian cavalry circa 1642, she lives in the West Country with her husband, her son, and five cats.

The new book is The Broom at the Masthead – in which the Divine Astraea does not have an affair with Russell, but not for want of trying – and the blog is