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

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

People wanted to see skulls.

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

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

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

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Man at the Crossroads…

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

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

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

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

…with a Death Ray

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

They ignored him.

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

image

Robertson’s Phantasmagoria

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

One attendee described the performance:

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

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

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

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

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Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtle, he was not. 

The audiences loved it.

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

robertsongrave

Just as he would have wanted.

Jessica Cale  

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires

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

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

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

No one was prepared for how good.

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

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

10.2307_community.24785561A Miracle Cure

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

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

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

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

Coca-Cola

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

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

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

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

Coming down

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

 

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

Images: 

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

Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

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

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

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

Lisztomania

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

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

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

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

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

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

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

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

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

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

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

La Dame aux Camélias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

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

Bonfire of Destiny: Fire at the Bazar de la Charité

624px-Le_Petit_Journal_-_Bazar_de_la_Charité

Le Petit Journal. May 16th, 1897

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

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

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

Vincent, Susan. Hair: An Illustrated History.

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

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

Bonfire of Destiny is streaming now on Netflix. 

 

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

St Valerius

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

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

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

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

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

heavenly-1

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

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

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

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

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

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

heavenly-7

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

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

Further reading: 

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

Deadly Euphoria: A Short History of Erotic Asphyxiation in England

1 CRIMINAL CONVERSATION BON TON 1791

Bon-Ton Magazine, 1791

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

charlotte 3

A Frozen Charlotte doll

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

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

charlotte 5

Frozen Charlotte with advice of a different kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course they do, because Victorians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best case scenario? Two hours.

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

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

Jessica Cale

See also: Nourishing Death, Dangerous Minds, Atlas Obscura

 

 

 

Mummy Horror: The Three Sisters of Nantwich

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Every town has its eccentrics, those individuals that are known within the community for their being on the very edge of it. Throughout history they have been shunned, persecuted, and humiliated. In a large majority of these cases, their only crime was that, in appearance or action, they did not fit society’s definition of normal. Just occasionally, however, their difference hid a dark and secretive truth.

In the small market town of Nantwich, Cheshire, three unmarried sisters lived on Barker Street with their elderly mother. By 1926, they had fallen into lives of seclusion, limiting their existence to a single bottom-floor room. Their house had, for four years past, been inaccessible to visitors, and they were well-known to the townsfolk “by their peculiarities.”

Neighbours and passing strangers were taken aback by the regular desperate screams that escaped from the house. The women were known to the local authorities for their numerous “groundless” complaints, amongst which was the apparent sighting of a man hanging in their garden. When they did interact with others, the experience was as bizarre as you might expect. Whenever the sisters were asked about their mother’s welfare, they would reluctantly confirm her satisfactory condition and immediately turn away.

The story of the three sisters and their mother was about to become far more peculiar. It would be a story that would leap from the small Cheshire town into newspapers and homes around the country, provoking a wave of national interest. Its infamy was sealed when George Buckingham, a bailiff, broke down the door of their retreat. As he did so, he heard screams of “You have no right here. This is God’s house.” Through a door from the kitchen, he saw something “like a body” wrapped up and sat upon a chair.

One of the sisters, Margaret, revealed something extraordinary. “That is my mother,” she said. “You must not touch it. She has been there some years.” George demanded that the cover be removed. When they refused, he called for the inspector, who ordered the same. They refused again, and the inspector was forced to remove the grim disguise. What he found was the clothed, mummified corpse of Mrs. Emma Nixon, the mother of the three sisters. The body–by this time “as hard as a board”–had dry and shrunken tissue and skin like parchment. The corpse was tied into a reclined position using a belt and had its feet in a box.

Next to Mrs. Nixon’s wrinkled remains was a table of fresh eggs, bread, fruit, and joints of meat, like an offering to the god for whom their mother’s body had been kept. The sisters described it as “God’s table” and the stuff on it as “God’s dinner.” Further investigation of the house–which, aside from its dark secret below, was extremely clean–found a large number of unused goods which had been stored in the uninhabited rooms above.

It soon became obvious that it was the youngest sister who had believed herself to hear the strange demands from God. Her sisters thought her to be a prophetess and interpreter, and they believed her claims wholly. She spoke of a bird that would sit in a tree at the bottom of their garden. When it whistled, she interpreted it as God instructing her what to do. Her sister Margaret told those inquiring that her mother “never was ill,” but that “God took her” and told them to leave her lifeless body where it sat.

At an inquest, the sisters were questioned as to how long their mother had been dead. Their responses ware as repetitive and eerily unwavering as those given on the day of the discovery. They would simply reply, “She is not dead. God is looking after her.” After so many years, coroners could not determine Emma’s cause of death with any certainty but were satisfied enough to accept that nothing untoward had happened.

Aside from what happened after it, that is. The future of the three sisters of Nantwich was bleak; they were sent to live the rest of their lives in an asylum.

Conor Reeves is an undergraduate studying for a BA in History at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, where he was co-president of the History Society. His main historical interests are gender, conflict, and anything relating to the First World War. He has been researching his former school during the Great War for over a half a decade and is writing a book about his research, The Roll-Call of King Death, which should be out at the end of 2019. 

Sources
“Mummy Horror.” Nottingham Evening Post. Monday, 22 March 1926.
Sheffield Daily Telegraph. Tuesday, 23 March 1926.
“Secrets of House of Death.” Dundee Evening Telegraph. Monday, 22 March 1926.
“The Three Afflicted Sisters. Further Grim Disclosures at the Inquest.” Lancashire Evening Post. Saturday, 20 March 1926.

Harlots, Night Moths, Huntresses of the Tombs: The Enduring Legacy of Rome’s Bustuariae

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Street of Tombs, Pompeii. From the Handbook of Archaeology by H. Westropp (1867)

By the first century AD, there were more than 32,000 sex workers registered in the city of Rome. There were likely just as many who were unregistered in the city, and countless more worked throughout the empire. To get an idea of their popularity, you only have to look at how many words they had for the profession. Meretrices were regulated and paid taxes, prostibulae were free agents, ambulatae walked the street, delicatae were high-class courtesans, and famosae were daughters of the patrician families who did it more for fun than anything else. Most operated within the cities, but a select few worked just outside.

The bustuariae worked out of cemeteries, catering to mourners and those with darker desires. By day, they were professional mourners and were known to write their services and prices on the tombstones in chalk. They would meet their clients at the cemeteries again at night, sneaking into mausoleums or using the graves as beds. Also known as noctilucae (night moths*), they cultivated a certain look. Known for pale skin and severe expressions, they themselves appeared to be dead.

As it so happens, that was part of the appeal. Some widowers sought them out, working out their grief through sex. Others paid the bustuariae extra to pretend to be dead. Questionable kinks aside, working in cemeteries may have been as practical as fanciful. The women knew the cemeteries better than anyone and could entertain in any number of concealed locations, and they were guaranteed a steady stream of new clients.

Mentioned with a certain degree of derision by Martial, Juvenal, and even Catullus, bustuariae were considered to be among the lowest of the sex workers, and some seem to have lived in the cemeteries as well. While there are legends of ghoulish bustuariae (such as Nuctina, a woman who apparently slept with coins over her eyes in a grave with her name on it), they appear to be just that–legends. Nevertheless, the trade thrived. Bustuariae could be found throughout the empire as far as Roman Londinium to the north, but their true legacy extended further still.

19th century mournerThe connection between sex and death endured long after Rome fell, and the bustuariae survived as well. Writing in the 1880s, Guy de Maupassant describes an encounter with one in Montmartre Cemetery in his short story, Graveyard Sirens**. Montmartre, of course, is the exact place you’d expect to find one. (See also Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris)

Encountering a beautiful young woman in deep mourning with a ghostly pallor, the hero begins an affair with her after he goes to visit his late mistress’s grave. Even after he ends it, he remains obsessed with the unnamed woman:

“I did not forget her. The recollection of her haunted me like a mystery, like a psychological problem, one of those inexplicable questions whose solution baffles us.”

Finding her a month later with another man in mourning in the same cemetery, the hero asks himself:

“To what race of beings belonged this huntress of the tombs? Was she just a common girl, one who went to seek among the tombs for men who were in sorrow, haunted by the recollection of some woman, a wife or a sweetheart, and still troubled by the memory of vanished caresses? Was she unique? Are there many such? Is it a profession? Do they parade the cemetery as they parade the street? Or else was she only impressed with the admirable, profoundly philosophical idea of exploiting love recollections, which are revived in these funereal places?”

Guy de Maupassant, we suspect, already knew the answer.

Jessica Cale

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. 
Catullus. Poem 59, Rufa Among the Graves.
Gill, N.S. Prostitution Notes from the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. 
Juvenal. Satires, Book XXII.
Martial. Epigrams, I: 34,8 and III: 93,15
Maupassant, Guy de. Graveyard Sirens.
Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society.

*Noctilucae. Now defined as any creature that shines in the dark. 

**Sometimes called “Tombstones” in English

Boiling to be Beautiful in 1930s America

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Advertisements and articles about pills containing DNP. The Food and Drug Administration.

About the time radium cosmetics went out of fashion, a new deadly beauty product hit the market: 2,4-Dinitrophenol, known as DNP.

DNP’s use as a diet pill took off in 1933, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published the discovery that the chemical could raise metabolism by up to fifty percent, causing a weight loss of up to two pounds a week with little to no effort. Reported as “not demonstrably harmful,” DNP quickly became the key ingredient in dozens of new weight-loss pills, only the latest in a tradition of dangerous treatments that had at various times contained amphetamines, snake oil, and even tapeworms.

By the 1930s, the diet industry was booming. While ideal silhouettes for both men and women have always been subject to change, women’s bodies in the ‘30s were shrinking faster than ever. When Hollywood’s Hays Code was finally enforced in 1934, even voluptuous figures could be viewed as obscene.

The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of strict moral guidelines applied to the film industry’s major studios from 1930 until 1968. The Hays Code controlled or prohibited any content that could be deemed immoral, especially anything sexually suggestive. While it eliminated shared beds for married couples, first night scenes, heavy kissing, and sex work, it also inadvertently changed the way women looked–or wanted to look–across the nation. A curvaceous silhouette à la Mae West suggested licentiousness, and actresses became thinner to avoid the problem, changing the fashionable figure from the Victorian hourglass into the leaner frame that would remain in vogue for most of the twentieth century.

Women across the country followed suit, and the boyish figure popularized by the flappers of the ‘20s endured. In a time of economic uncertainty, their bodies were something they could control. Fad diets, amphetamines, laxatives, and cigarettes were as popular as ever, but nothing brought results like DNP. Within a year, at least 100,000 people were habitually taking pills containing DNP in the US alone. More than 1.2 million pills were distributed from a single clinic in San Francisco. It was cheap, available over the counter in most states, and very effective. It was so effective, in fact, that there was some concern that companies producing gym equipment and plus-sized clothing would go out of business.

DNP wasn’t a new substance. It had been used in pesticides, preservatives, and explosives for years. Highly flammable, it has eighty-one percent of the explosive strength of TNT, and it tastes like sulphur. It was its explosive properties that made it so effective for weight loss. Instead of converting food to fat or energy, DNP turns it into heat, “setting tiny internal fires” that can raise the body’s temperature high enough to cause brain damage and essentially cooking people from the inside out.

What could possibly go wrong? As it so happens, quite a bit. In addition to excessive sweating (often yellow) and shortness of breath, DNP can cause lesions, yellowing of the eyes, severe lethargy, cataracts, liver problems, damage to the brain and nervous system, loss of bone marrow, and heart failure. It should be no surprise that all those “tiny internal fires” make people overheat, sometimes fatally. DNP is incredibly dangerous, and deaths have been reported after even limited use.

Within three years of the initial report on its benefits, more than one hundred women in Los Angeles had lost all or part of their sight due to cataracts. A San Francisco doctor overdosed and quite literally cooked to death. Seven people were known to have died in the US as a direct result of taking DNP by 1936, but by then, it was used as a supplement around the world. In the Soviet Union, it was given to soldiers to keep them warm in the winter.

Even so, there was nothing prohibiting its sale in the United States. The Food and Drugs Act of 1906 didn’t apply because obesity wasn’t considered a medical condition. DNP continued to be sold under various names until the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938.

Under the new act, cosmetics and supplements had to be proven safe before they could be sold. Pills containing DNP were pulled from the shelves and makeup companies were finally regulated, effectively ending a long tradition of putting known toxic substances–including lead, arsenic, belladonna, mercury, and radium–into cosmetics.

But by then, the damage was done. DNP is widely regarded to be the most effective weight-loss drug of the twentieth century, but it is also the most lethal. Although it’s illegal to sell for consumption, its efficacy has ensured that people still find ways to buy it in spite of the near certainty of death.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Cutting WC, Mehrtens HG, and Tainter ML. Actions and uses of dinitrophenol: Promising metabolic applications. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 101 (3). 1933.

Haynes, Gavin. The Killer Weight Loss Drug DNP Is Still Claiming Young Lives. Vice. August 6th, 2018.

McKinney, Kelsey. Hollywood’s devastating gender divide, explained. Vox. January 26th, 2015.

Medicine: Again, Dinitrophenol. Time Magazine. June 29th, 1936.

McGillis, Eric. Rapid-onset hyperthermia and hypercapnea preceding rigor mortis and cardiopulmonary arrest in a DNP overdose. North American Congress of Clinical Toxicology Abstracts 2018.

Scutts, Joanna. The Depression Era’s Magic Bullet for Weight Loss. New Republic. May 27th, 2016.