The Ketubah, an Ancient Marriage Contract

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The Wedding. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1861)

Marriage is a contract. In terms of religion, a couple that marries enters into the default contract defined by their faith. When two people agree to marriage in the absence of a written contract, they also accept the default contract provided by the state and its laws.

The state’s contract is essentially economic, despite the romantic glow in which modern culture dresses marriage. Anyone who does genealogical research quickly realizes that the recording of marriage followed closely on the recording of deeds and wills, which are among the earliest recorded personal contracts. Other records—birth, death, even divorce—came much later. Marriage and property are deeply enmeshed in law, impacting inheritance and ownership. In our modern era, other economic factors impacted by marriage laws include tax breaks, benefits, and entitlements.

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A ketubah from 1740.

These laws and customs have not always been kind to women. Not long ago, English Common Law, under the doctrine of coverture, held that a married couple was one person under the law. That person, of course was the husband. A woman gave up all legal right—even the right to her own children—when she married. In that arrangement, it isn’t difficult to understand the need for marriage settlements, particularly among the property classes. A contract designed to assure a woman and her children would have some financial means of support in the event of widowhood provided at least some protection where the law didn’t.

In our own day, pre-nuptial agreements spell out property rights, particularly among the super wealthy in a similar manner. Couples also may establish contracts that spell out everything from the division of labor to the custody of pets.

Long before any of that, the Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, provided all married women with the security of certain financial arrangements. The earliest know example of a ketubah dates to 440 BC. Because such documents were legal rather than religious, they were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and this one is no exception. It outlines settlements paid to the bride’s father and the amount both families contributed to the dowry. It explicitly names the wife as the beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

At no time in history has the ketubah had anything to do with purchasing a bride. In Judaic law husbands did not have property rights over their wives. The ketubah is a “charter of women’s rights in marriage and men’s duties.” A ketubah is not, actually, a contract between husband and wife. It is traditionally a document in which witnesses verify the groom has met his obligations and may marry, and that the bride has freely accepted his proposal. The witnesses testify that the groom will meet all human and financial obligations, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

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A ketubah from Gibraltar, 1826.

The elements in a traditional ketubah are:

  • Date, place and names
  • Testimony that the proposal has been made
  • Promise of basic support to “honor, provide, and support.” The promise of food, clothing, and conjugal rights are a woman’s right and a husband’s obligation and considered so fundamental to marriage they would be required even without a contract. This is the heart of the contract.
  • Promise of specific amounts to the wife in the event the marriage terminates (designed as a deterrent to divorce in a male dominated society)
  • Testimony that the bride has accepted the proposal as outlined above.
  • Promise of a dowry given to the bride by her father including such items and valuable she might bring to her new home. The groom’s acceptance is noted and he provides and additional gift to the bride.
  • Testimony that the groom agrees to a mortgage or lien on all his belongings including “the mantle on my shoulders,” to meet the obligations of the contract should it become necessary.

The promise of the woman’s conjugal rights is interesting because of the contrast to other religious traditions. In Jewish tradition marriage is holy, and not entirely, or even primarily, intended for procreation. The Torah Genesis 2:18 states “it is not good for man to be alone,” indicating companionship as the goal of marriage. Refraining from marriage is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

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A Persian ketubah, 1879.

In “An Open Heart,” my contribution to the Bluestocking Belles’ 2016 holiday anthology, Holly and Hopeful Hearts, Adam proposes to Esther privately first to make sure she is willing. She accepts his proposal publicly when it is put to her by a matchmaker, but begins to question the elements of the ketubah. To the horror of the matchmaker and her elders, she and Adam agree to add clauses about the education of their daughters. Esther demands that they receive equal opportunity for at least Judaic learning within the family, while the two of them continue to support women’s education more broadly.

Now couples routinely modify the traditional text to reflect their beliefs going much farther than Esther and Adam. One site lists texts for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Same Sex, Secular Humanist, and Sephardic marriages as well as a “write your own” option. Couples generally sign the ketubah shortly before the wedding, as do two witnesses. The document becomes a family treasure, often a work of art in fine calligraphy that is framed and hung in the home.

holly-and-hopeful-hearts-2Caroline Warfield grew up in a peripatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest

Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Coverture

Ketubah.com: The Origins of the Ketubah.

Lamm, Maurice. The Marriage Contract (Ketubah). Chabad.org.

Rich, Tracey. Marriage. Judaism 101.

Guy Fawkes Night: 400 Years of Fire and Madness

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The conspirators. Crispijn van de Passe

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

“Remember, remember the fifth of November” is more than just a line from V for Vendetta. Also known as Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) is a holiday celebrated every year on the fifth of November in the UK. Bigger and more widely celebrated than Halloween, people get together after dark to drink mulled wine and watch massive displays of fireworks. But what is it, where did it come from, and what did Guy Fawkes do that was so great?

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy planned by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant James I and to replace him with a Catholic leader. On November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives that had been stashed beneath the House of Lords for this very purpose. Fawkes was tortured into a confession and was sentenced to a traitor’s execution of hanging, drawing, and quartering, but managed to end his own life by throwing himself from the scaffold to avoid suffering the rest.

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The Execution of Guy Fawkes. Claes Jansz Visscher.

Why would we celebrate that?!

The tradition started that very week when people around London lit bonfires to celebrate that King James had survived the plot. In 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act actually enforced annual celebration on this day. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and was celebrated on command every November.

Three Hundred Years of Madness

If it’s not weird enough for you to be ordered to celebrate, you just can’t have that much fire and booze without attracting a certain amount of madness. Gunpowder Treason Day became the focus of a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment, with effigies of the pope being burned alongside other hate figures. This only got worse when Charles I married the Catholic Henrietta Maria in 1625. During the Interregnum, Parliamentarians feared further Catholic plots, and fueled the paranoia of the public by suggesting that Catholics were plotting to blow them up, too.

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“The Guy Fawkes of 1850, Preparing to Blow Up All of England!”Anti-Catholic cartoon in Punch, November 1850.

The Restoration of Charles II brought new life to the holiday. It became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne” and was taken over by London’s apprentices as a sort of fire festival “attacking sobriety and good order.” The fires got bigger and the celebrations madder and more violent until fireworks and bonfires were banned by the London militia in 1682.

The damage had already been done, however, and celebrations continued in various forms over the years, all incorporating the element of fire. Frequent violence between the classes in the nineteenth century only added to the festivities, and the Observance of 5th November Act was finally repealed in 1859 (but the violence continued into the twentieth century).

Guy Fawkes Today

Sometime during the late 18th century, children began to drag effigies of Guy Fawkes around while begging for pennies “for the Guy.” This became a tradition, and Gunpowder Treason Day gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day (also Guy Fawkes Night and Bonfire Night). Today it’s a pretty harmless and family-friendly holiday celebrated with fireworks, music, and if you’re unlucky, laser shows. In most places in Britain, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an effigy of anybody, let alone an open flame. People may not be cooking potatoes on sticks over bonfires anymore, but food trucks aren’t usually far away.

For those of you who have read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta or seen the movie but missed the context, the Gunpowder Plot is a pretty central theme and is repeated through the use of one of the traditional rhymes, V’s plan, and his Guy Fawkes mask.

Here’s one of the better known (and actually least unsettling) Guy Fawkes Day rhymes:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?

Burn him!

The Rakehell in Fact and Fiction

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A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth (1732-33). This progress was a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth showing the decline and fall of a man who wastes his money on luxurious living, sex, and gambling.

In modern historical romantic fiction, the hero is often described as a rake. Frequently, he has the reputation but not the behaviour. He is either misunderstood, or he is deliberately hiding his true nature under a mask, perhaps for reasons of state.

Even the genuine player is not what they would have called a rakehell back in the day. He cats around, sleeping with multiple lovers (either sequentially or concurrently) or keeping a series of mistresses, or both. But when he falls in love with the heroine he puts all of that behind him, and—after undergoing various trials—becomes a faithful husband and devoted family man.

Yesterday’s rakehell was a sexual predator

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John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester was part of the Merry Gang, the original Restoration rakes who surrounded Charles II. He is known for his lovers, his poetry, his profligate behavior, and an unending stream of scandal. He is said to have been constantly drunk for five years, and died at only 33 years of age.

The Georgian and Regency rakehell was a far less benign figure. Back then, a rakehell was defined as a person who was lewd, debauched, and womanising. Rakes gambled, partied and drank hard, and they pursued their pleasures with cold calculation. To earn the name of rake or rakehell meant doing something outrageous—seducing innocents, conducting orgies in public, waving a public flag of corrupt behaviour under the noses of the keepers of moral outrage. For example, two of those who defined the term back in Restoration England simulated sex with one another while preaching naked to the crowd from an alehouse balcony.

Then, as now, rakes were self-centred narcissists who acknowledged no moral code, and no external restraint either. Their position in Society and their wealth meant they could ignore the law, and they didn’t care about public opinion. What they wanted, they took. A French tourist, writing towards the end of the 19th century said:

“What a character! How very English! . . . Unyielding pride, the desire to subjugate others, the provocative love of battle, the need for ascendency, these are his predominant features. Sensuality is but of secondary importance. . . In France libertines were frivolous fellows, whereas here they were mean brutes. . .”

Most aristocrats in the 18th century would not have called themselves rakes

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Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, fount time between his political duties and his promiscuous sexual activities to found and run the Hellfire Club, whose members included some of the most powerful men of the day. They gathered to share their interests: sex, drink, food, dressing up, politics, blasphemy, and the occult.

Historians have commented that we see the long Georgian century through the lens of the Victorian era, and our impressions about moral behaviour are coloured by Victorian attitudes. The Georgians expected men to be sexually active, and where women were concerned, they worked on the philosophy that if no one knew about it, it wasn’t happening. If visiting brothels, taking a lover, or keeping a mistress, was all it took to be defined as a rake, most of the male half of Polite Society would be so called. And a fair percentage of the female half.

Drunkenness certainly didn’t make a man a rake—the consumption of alcohol recorded in diaries of the time is staggering. Fornication and adultery weren’t enough either, at least when conducted with a modicum of discretion (which meant in private or, if in public, then with other people who were doing the same thing).

In the late 18th and early 19th century, one in five women in London earned their living from the sex trade, guide books to the charms, locations, and prices of various sex workers were best-selling publications, men vied for the attention of the reigning courtesans of the day and of leading actresses, and both men and women chose their spouses for pedigree and social advantage then sought love elsewhere. The number of children born out of wedlock rose from four in 100 to seven (and dropped again in the Victorian). And many women had children who looked suspiciously unlike their husbands.

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Lord Byron. Described as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Byron was admired for his poetry and derided for his lifestyle. When a series of love affairs turned sour, he married, but within a year his wife could no longer take his drinking, increased debt, and lustful ways (with men and women).

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Some of today’s sports and entertainment stars, and spoilt sons of the wealthy, certainly deserve to be called rakehells in the original sense of the word. And just as the posted videos and images of today show how much the serial conquests are about showing off to the rake’s mates, the betting books that are often a feature of historical romances performed the same function back then.

Given access to social media, yesterday’s rakehell would be on Tinder.

Lord Byron earned the appellation ‘rake’ with many sexual escapades, including—so rumour had it—an affair with his sister. His drinking and gambling didn’t help, either. But none of these would have been particularly notable if they had not been carried out in public.

The Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova mixed in the highest circles, and did not become notorious until he wrote the story of his life.

On the other hand, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived with his wife and his mistress, who was his wife’s best friend. The three did not share the details of their relationship with the wider world, so there was gossip, but not condemnation. Devonshire is also rumoured to have been one of Lady Jersey’s lovers (the mother of the Lady Jersey of Almack fame). He was not, at the time, regarded as a rake.

Jude Knight

jude-knightJude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

Since publishing Candle’s Christmas Chair in December 2014, Jude’s name has seldom been off Amazon bestseller lists for one or more books. She is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, and of the Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America. You can visit her at http://www.judeknightauthor.com

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For Jude’s new companion piece, Writing a Believable Rakehell, please visit our sister blog here.

For a related history piece, check out Jude’s excellent Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

For more on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, read our post John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester: Satirist, Poet, and Libertine.

Historical Underwear and the Surprising Thing Used to Clean It (Hint: It Starts with a U)

[From the archives] Okay, so we’ve had a lot of posts lately that have been on the serious side (fire, plague, syphilis, under-paying jobs), so for a change of pace, I thought I’d write about something a little more fun.

Underwear!

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15th century. Yes, really. (University of Innsbruck)

What’s not to like? Everyone knows that the best part of costume dramas in the historically accurate underwear (that can’t just be me). Fans of historical anything will already be so familiar with corsets that you might feel like you know your way in and out of one, but what about the rest?

Underwear is a surprisingly tricky subject. You’ll often hear that people just didn’t wear any, but that wasn’t always the case. Charles II wore one of the world’s first versions of silk boxer shorts to bed–would you expect anything less?–and Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, is noted to have worn “drawers.” While it’s true that seventeenth century undergarments were a long way off from Victoria’s Secret, they were very common and almost always the cleanest thing a person wore. It was extremely difficult to clean many finer items of clothing, and people depended in part on frequent changes of undergarments such as shifts to preserve the more expensive outer layers.

As Lucy Worsley writes in If Walls Could Talk:

“In the Tudor or Stuart concept of hygiene, clean underwear played an important part. The wearing of clean linen next to the skin was considered essential in the ‘dirty’ centuries. People thought it was dangerous to immerse their bodies in water but perfectly safe to use linen to absorb the body’s juices, and then to wash the linen regularly. In fact, a show of brilliant white linen at the collar and cuffs was important to publicise the cleanliness of your body–and. by implication, the purity of your mind.”

The brighter the linen, the cleaner the mind. So how did they maintain the extraordinarily bright whites seen in portraits (apart from being kind to their painters)?

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15th Century tie-on underwear, not unlike something you could find at Ann Summers. Probably used for menstruation. (University of Innsbruck)

Urine!

That’s right, the second U of the day was used a stain remover right up until the twentieth century. Garments were scrubbed with a soap made of lye before the dirt was beaten out of them and they were hung in the sun to dry, ideally over sweet-smelling rosemary or hawthorn bushes. But for tough stains, you couldn’t beat urine. Satisfying as it might be, surely just peeing on one’s employer’s clothes would be too easy. So how was it done?

“Lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.”
-Hannah Woolley, 1670

As you can see, sometimes it took quite a lot to do the job. Housemaids would even reserve urine from the house’s chamber pots for this specific purpose. Effective as it must have been, I can’t help but wonder how much lye and rosemary it took to neutralize the smell.

If that didn’t work, there was always perfume.

Perfume, pomanders, and scented washballs, waters, and other cosmetics were extremely popular and available in every scent imaginable from rosewater to civet (a musk from a wild cat). Although Worsley warns us about the perceived dangers of bathing, Sally Pointer assures us that both sexes bathed in scented flower waters regularly, so the situation was probably not as dire as you might imagine.

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Unidentified tailor, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1570. Notice the pristine white ruffles under his doublet. Someone knows the secret to keeping their whites whiter.

For a bonus U: Giovanni Battista Moroni’s unidentified tailor (1570). This has very little to do with underwear (see caption), but I found him when looking for photos for you and thought you’d earned something pretty to look at after that syphilis post.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty

Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1670).

Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.

Maybe She’s Born With It (Maybe It’s Lead!): Powder and Patch in the 17th Century

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Barbara Palmer, The Duchess of Cleveland. John Michael Wright, 1670.

So many seventeenth-century portraits feature women with smooth, perfectly white complexions. The paint used in the portraits would have been very similar to the makeup used by the subjects, both being comprised chiefly of white lead. By the Restoration, cosmetics were widely available and used across the social spectrum. In a time when freckles were undesirable and so many faces were marred with smallpox scars, demand for complexion correctives was high, and white lead made its first comeback as a cosmetic since the end of the Roman Empire.

Ceruse was made of lead carbonite and could be combined with lemon juice or vinegar. It was bought as a powder and mixed into a paste with water or egg whites and applied with a damp cloth to whiten the face, neck, and chest. It clung well to the skin and didn’t have to be applied too heavily to produce an even, matte result. It could be set with a mask of egg whites to varnish the skin or powders of starch or ground alabaster.

While it could create the illusion of perfection for a time, ceruse was not without its failings. The egg whites dried quickly on the skin, and they would have created an uncomfortably tight mask that would wrinkle and crack with any facial movement at all, so smiling and talking were out. Over the course of a day, it could even turn grey, necessitating touch-ups with alabaster powder to disguise the changing tone. Ceruse was also found to have a depilatory effect on the eyebrows and hairline, which could be seen as an advantage (or disadvantage, if false mouse-skin eyebrows don’t appeal to you) and could partially explain the artificially high hairlines that appeared in portraits throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Still, it was preferable to the alternative, a combination of borax and sulphur, which created a pale powder that was very drying as well as slightly yellow; not very compatible with the fashionable pink and white complexion of the time.

Ceruse was also extremely poisonous. The most sought-after ceruse came from Venice, seen by many as the center of the fashionable world, which was the most expensive and contained the highest concentration of lead. In 1651, Noah Biggs warned against the use of lead in lab equipment and near any water supplies in The Vanity of the Craft of Physic, and the Royal Society noted that people involved in the manufacture of white lead suffered from cramps and blindness by 1661. Although lead was known to cause madness, it continued to be used in cosmetics, medicine, and other household products.

The first person known to die from lead poisoning caused by makeup was Lady Coventry in 1760.

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Les Mouches Sous Louis XIV. Octave Uzanne, 1902.

Patches

Patches reached their height of popularity in the seventeenth century. Lady Castlemaine advised ladies to wear them daily, except when in mourning. They could be made of taffeta or other thin, black fabrics, and even red Spanish Leather. They came in all shapes and were affixed to the face with gum to disguise blemishes or pockmarks, or to provide a “mark of Venus.”

They were called different things depending on their position on the face. A patch beside the mouth was called a “kiss.” At the middle of the cheek, it was a “finery,” a “boldness” beside the nostril, and a “passion” at the corner of the eye. During the 1650s, it became fashionable to wear patches shaped as coaches complete with galloping horses, although it’s difficult to imagine how large a patch would have had to be to resemble anything of the kind.

If a coach and six was not to the wearer’s taste, the Exchanges were restocked daily with a plethora of shapes. From The Gentlewoman’s Companion (Hannah Woolley, 1675):

“By the impertinent pains of this curious Facespoiling-mender, the Exchanges (for now we have three great Arsenals of choice Vanities) are furnished with a daily supply and variety of Beautyspots … and these Patches are cut out into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts, and Fishes of all sorts, so that their Faces may be properly termed a Landscape of living Creatures. The vanity and pride of these Gentlewomen hath in a manner abstracted Noah’s Ark, and exprest a Compendium of the Creation in their Front and Cheeks. Add to this the gallantry of their Garb, with all the Ornamental appurtances which rackt Innvention can discover, and then you will say … That she was defective in nothing but a vertueus mind.”

Despite this scathing attack on the virtue of London’s patch-wearing populace, patches continued to be common throughout the eighteenth century. During the reign of Queen Anne, they were even worn to indicate political allegiances by wearing them on different sides of the face.

As you might have noticed from some of my posts, I have a particular interest in cosmetics throughout history. I use rather a lot of my research on the subject in my books. In Tyburn, heroine Sally Green is a prostitute and sometime actress, and she uses ceruse, rouge, patches, and an early kind of eyeliner, while silently judging those who use blue crayons to draw veins on their skin (because that’s just weird). My publisher is running a promotion of Tyburn this month, so if you’re curious about my fiction series, The Southwark Saga, you can download your copy through one of the links below.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Picard, Liza. Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s 
Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty
Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675)

Tyburn can be downloaded free until October 20th through the following links:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AU | Amazon India 
Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Google Play | iBooks

An earlier version of this post appeared on the brilliant 17th century history blog, Hoydens & Firebrands.

Executioner, Death, or The Devil Himself? The Legend of Jack Ketch

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Jack Ketch in the Plotter’s Ballad (1678-9). Ketch is seen right of center holding a rope and an axe.

[From the archives] Jack Ketch, otherwise known as John Ketch or Richard Jaquet, began his twenty-three year career as London’s leading executioner in 1663. He was not the only executioner dispatching the condemned at Tyburn, but he was the most infamous, earning a reputation for brutality remarkable even for a man in his profession. After his death in 1686, his name became slang for any executioner, the devil, and even death itself. Over time, his reputation took on such epic proportions that he became a sort of bogeyman. So who was he?

Like many executioners, Ketch spent much of his early life on the wrong side of the law, and is known to have spent time in Marshalsea Prison. Little is definitively known about his origins. He is first mentioned in the Old Bailey proceedings in January 1676 in the case of a man who was executed for a murder taking place in Whitechapel, and who also killed the bailiff charged with arresting him. The mention is a small one, but the meaning is clear: “the jury brought him in guilty, and Jack Ketch will make him free”.

after Francis Barlow, line engraving, 1679

Coleman drawn to his execution. Francis Barlow, 1679

The first public reference to him appeared in the broadside The Plotters Ballad two years later. In the Receipt for the Cure of Traytrous Recusants, or Wholesome Physicke for Popish Contagion, he is represented in a woodcut depicting the execution of Edward Coleman. Accused by Titus Oates of being involved in a “Popish Plot”, he was executed for treason in December 1678. In the woodcut, Coleman is saying “I am sick of this traitorous disease.” Ketch, illustrated holding a rope and an axe, replies, “Here’s your cure sir.” (see top)

Ketch was paid for his services, and went on strike in 1682 for better wages and won. In addition to his wages, he received bribes, but he would have made most of his money by selling off pieces of the condemned. As a matter of course, executioners were given the clothes of the dead and the rope, which they sold for significant profit. A used noose could be sold for as much as a shilling an inch.

Grizzly as it sounds, execution paraphernalia was widely believed to carry serious magic and was in high demand. Even so much as a strand of a hangman’s rope was believed to cure any number of ailments when it was worn around the neck, and gamblers sought pieces to improve their luck. Nooses had been used to cure headaches by wrapping them around the temples of the afflicted since ancient Rome. The efficacy of these cures was not in question, and the public was willing to pay for whatever they could get.

Jack Ketch had a reputation of brutality and incompetence, but the truth might be more complicated than that. Although executions were highly ritualized, there was nothing in place that we might think of as “quality control,” and bribery was a more than frequent occurrence–it was the norm. Apart from his wages and the money he made from selling off pieces of the deceased, Ketch would have received a great deal of money in bribes. If the condemned had the coin, they would attempt to bribe the executioner for a swift and merciful death. There was no mechanism in place to break the neck upon hanging at this point, so many died at Tyburn of slow strangulation, a process that could take an agonizing forty-five minutes. It would have been up Ketch to set the pace of their death and to limit–or draw out–their suffering.

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The execution of the Duke of Monmouth

The condemned were not the only people bribing executioners. Following the horribly botched executions of Lord William Russell in 1683 and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, rumors ran rampant that although both men paid Ketch to be merciful, their enemies paid him more to make them suffer. He denied the rumors, as anyone surely would, but one has to wonder how a man who made his living executing people for twenty-three years could fail at his task so spectacularly. He was no amateur, yet during the execution of poor Monmouth, Ketch struck him five times with an axe Monmouth himself is said to have proclaimed “too dull,” and in the end had to take the Duke’s head with a knife. The spectacle had been so horrific that Ketch had to make his escape under the protection of a military guard to avoid being lynched by the crowd.

For every botched execution Ketch presided over, there were several that went off without a hitch. He was said to have known ways to tie the rope that would alternately cause the victim’s neck to break quickly or to merely render them unconscious. Indeed, if the body was moved swiftly to a coffin or intercepted by friends or relatives before it was snatched by surgeons or torn apart by the blood-thirsty crowd, there was a change they might later be revived with peppermint oil. If a person was lucky enough to survive their execution, they were typically allowed to carry on living, as this was very rare. In 1709, years after Ketch’s death, John Smith was hanged at Tyburn and left there for some time before he was cut down and revived. He made a full recovery. He was allowed to live out his life and from that day was known as “Half-Hanged Smith.”

Ketch died in November of 1686. For at least the next two hundred years, his name was applied to a whole host of things related to execution. Apart from his name becoming slang for any executioner, “Jack Ketch’s Kitchen” was a name given to a room in Newgate prison where they boiled the severed limbs of those quartered for high treason. A “Jack Ketch’s Pippin” was a candidate for the gallows. A noose became, rather uncreatively, “Jack Ketch’s Necklace”, while the slum around Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell became “Jack Ketch’s Warren”.

Jack Ketch makes an appearance in my book, Tyburn, as an acquaintance of highwayman Mark Virtue. For more on Jack Ketch and the history of Tyburn as a place of execution, check out our post here.

Jessica Cale

Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter. London, The Biography.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, Peter. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
The Old Bailey Online
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Suffering in Some Strange Heaven: An Introduction to Laudanum

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Illustration for the cover of The Goblin Market. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862

“I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While the medicinal properties of opium have been known since prehistoric times, it was 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus who first developed laudanum. He discovered that when mixed with alcohol as opposed to water, opium’s pain-killing properties were heightened. He mixed it with crushed pearls, musk, saffron, and ambergris* and called it laudanum, from the Latin word laudare: to praise.

Now thought of as primarily a Victorian drug, laudanum first reached England in the 1660s when physician Thomas Sydenham developed his own recipe. While Sydenham left out the ambergris, the fundamentals remained the same: alcohol and opium was a potent cure-all and in his Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676), he gave it the praise Paracelsus had predicted a century before. Laudanum took off during the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth, it could be found in almost every home in Britain.

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“Papine,” an opium tincture

Although the recipe was flexible, it remained at heart an uncomplicated but potent combination of alcohol and opium. It was an over the counter drug cheap enough to be used across the social spectrum and simple enough to be brewed at home. Laudanum was used for an endless list of ailments including but not limited to teething, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, hysteria, menstrual cramps, pregnancy pains, mood swings, depression, stomach upset, diarrhea, consumption, cough, heart disease, and cholera.

It was certainly an effective cough suppressant; related opioids such as morphine and codeine are still prescribed for cough today. It was a potent painkiller, induced deep sleep and vivid dreams, produced feelings of euphoria, and was addictive as it was cheap. Not to be limited to medicinal purposes, laudanum was taken recreationally or mixed with other alcohol such as absinthe to stimulate creativity among artists. Some notable fans of the substance include Dickens, Bram Stoker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Elliott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Rossetti’s wife, model Elizabeth Siddal, who tragically died of a laudanum overdose.

Women tended to be medicated more than men, and many opium-derived medications were known euphemistically as “Woman’s Friend.” Likewise, Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of water, treacle, and opium specifically for infants was knows as “Mother’s Friend.”

Charles Kingsley describes opium addiction in Alton Locke (1850) as ‘elevation’, a particular problem of women:

“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.” “But what is it?” “Opium, bor’ alive, opium!”

There were several different laudanum varieties available and they could be made at home. It was dreadfully bitter, so sweeteners like honey and spice were added to improve the flavor. Sydenham’s recipe from 1660 was still in use by the 1890s when it was published in William Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes:

“Sydenham’s Laudanum: This is prepared as follows: opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.”

Dick’s Encyclopedia contains dozens of recipes for homemade laudanum, and even more for other remedies containing opium. As relatively appealing as cinnamon and cloves sound, by the 19th century, laudanum could also be mixed with mercury, ether, chloroform, hashish, or belladonna; if it didn’t kill you, it would make you see some very interesting things.

Whether or not the malady justified the use of such a powerful drug, laudanum and other opium derivatives were used frequently and without a great deal of hesitation. It was a good cough suppressant, kept children quiet, and induced restful sleep. Rhapsodic descriptions of its effects make it sound like magic.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde conveys the horrors and pleasures of an East End opium den in a single paragraph (it isn’t exactly laudanum, but it’s the same active ingredient):

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Opium Smokers in the East End of London. Illustrated London News, 1874.

“As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy.”

Strange heavens aside, laudanum was not a friendly substance. In 1889, The Journal of Mental Sciences published what was purported to be an anonymous letter by the wonderful title of Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker which describes at length her experience of addiction:

“It got me into such a state of indifference that I no longer took the least interest in anything, and did nothing all day but loll on the sofa reading novels, falling asleep every now and then, and drinking tea. Occasionally I would take a walk or drive, but not often. Even my music I no longer took much interest in, and would play only when the mood seized me, but felt it too much of a bother to practice. I would get up about ten in the morning, and make a pretence of sewing; a pretty pretence, it took me four months to knit a stocking!

“Worse than all, I got so deceitful, that no one could tell when I was speaking the truth. It was only this last year it was discovered; those living in the house with you are not so apt to notice things, and it was my married sisters who first began to wonder what had come over me. By that time it was a matter of supreme indifference to me what they thought, and even when it was found out, I had become so callous that I didn’t feel the least shame. (…) My memory was getting dreadful; often, in talking to people I knew intimately, I would forget their names and make other absurd mistakes of a similar kind. As my elder sister was away from home, I took a turn at being housekeeper. Mother thinks every girl should know how to manage a house, and she lets each of us do it in our own way, without interfering. Her patience was sorely tried with my way of doing it, as you may imagine; I was constantly losing the keys, or forgetting where I had left them. I forgot to put sugar in puddings, left things to burn, and a hundred other things of the same kind.”

While this anonymous writer did recover, laudanum addiction was difficult to beat. People became tolerant to it quickly, and recovery was more likely to be achieved by tapering doses. Although laudanum was a common cough suppressant, it could work too well by causing shortness of breath and respiratory depression, or keeping the user from breathing at all. It can also inhibit digestion, cause constipation, depression, and itching. It was so potent that it was easy to overdose accidentally as an adult, and many infants and children died from it as well. Tragically, it was also a common method of suicide.

laudanumWe might not understand the appeal of such a debilitating and ultimately lethal substance, but for most people in the nineteenth century, laudanum must have felt like a godsend. Disease, poverty, and hunger were widespread, and those lucky enough to be employed suffered through long hours in terrible conditions to earn their pittance. Even for the wealthy and well-to-do, Britain was cold, wet, and overrun with discomforts that may necessitate its use. Menstrual cramps, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, cough, stomach upset, cholera, tuberculosis — if one drug could treat them all and that drug happened to be miraculously affordable and so common there was little to no stigma attached to it, there was no reason not to rely on it from time to time.

Laudanum is still in production today, but it is no longer available over the counter. Now referred to almost exclusively as Tincture of Opium, it is listed as a Schedule II substance due to its highly addictive nature and is used for stomach ailments, pain, and to treat infants born to mothers with opioid addiction.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Anonymous. Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker. The Journal of Mental Sciences January 1889

Berridge, Victoria. “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies, 21(4) 1978.

Dick, William B. Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1890.

Diniejko, Andrzej. Victorian Drug Use. The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/science/addiction/addiction2.html

Kingsley, Charles. Alton Locke (1850).

O’Reilly, Edward. Laudanum: A Dose of the Nineteenth Century.

Sydenham, Thomas. Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676)

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

*presumably crushed diamonds would have been too extravagant