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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prerequisites to Proposals: Look Before You Leap 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Victorian Marrying Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popping the Question and The Many Types of “No”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

Cupid (1891)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tit-Bits Magazine (1893)

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

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

Images

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

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

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

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

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

As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in 1776:

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

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

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

Don’t Send a Man to Do a Woman’s Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Un Ménage à deux – ou trois

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

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

A Gilded Cage

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

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

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

de Beauvoir at five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousin Jacques

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

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

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

Gratuitous Acts

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

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

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

Further reading

Simone de Beauvoir. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Son’ka shackled on Sakhalin Island in the 1890s

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

Dr. Mark Vincent

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

 

Notes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Nellie Bly Takes the Gold Cure

Journalist and Traveler Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly in 1900

When Nellie Bly died in 1922, at least one obituary described her as “the best reporter in America.” She was certainly an impressive investigative journalist. As an advocacy journalist, she wasn’t shy about putting her opinions in her stories, and she could even be seen as a precursor for the later New Journalism, where the writer is part of the story.

She also was a feminist pioneer, and ran her husband’s iron works company after his death, patenting or co-patenting a better metal oil drum. She was a celebrity in her own right. Her name appeared in the headlines of many of her stories, and board games and playing cards were designed with her image. She was a phenomenon.

Bly is best remembered for her 1887 career-making series Ten Days in a Mad-house and for besting Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg’s time—and that of a rival journalist—by traveling around the world in seventy-two days in 1889. Both are still readily available online and in book form.

The Keeley Institute and the Gold Cure

Bly’s articles about the treatment of madness were written in New York near the start of her career. Near the end, Bly investigated a so-called “alcoholism cure” for the well-to-do in White Plains. In a way, this lesser-known chapter is a thematic bookend to her life as a reporter.

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The Keeley Institute in White Plains, NY

While Mad-house dealt with life-and-death issues—the need for mental illness treatment reform among the mostly poor, foreign-born women on Blackwell’s Island—her 1894 story Nellie Bly Takes the Keeley Cure was less serious and ran in a single installment. It was as concerned with Bly’s preparations to pass herself off as a high-functioning absinthe drinker as the cure itself. It exposed The Keeley Institute, a fraudulent alcoholism cure clinic. While the mental asylum was making people worse, Keeley’s clinic may have been helping alcoholics, even though its “cure” was hokum.

Founded by Leslie Keeley in 1879 in Illinois and expanding to branches throughout the United States and Europe, the Keeley Institute’s slogan was “Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” It also claimed to work for “opium inebriates” and “morphine fiends.” They treated people with Keeley’s proprietary “gold cure” for alcoholism, not available anywhere else.

Gold_CureThe gold cure was a potion that included something Keeley called “double chloride of gold.” Independent analyses found that the gold cure was a witches’ brew of varying ingredients—gold salts, alcohol, morphine, cannabis, and other substances—in colored water.

Despite the toxic and/or addictive nature of many of these ingredients—and remember, morphine was then legal and even heroin was sold over the counter in the United States until 1924—there were few if any claims of negative side effects or new addictions associated with the cure other than vomiting or dizziness.*

It was snake oil, but enough people reported that it worked—Keeley claimed a 95% success rate—that Bly’s antennae were out. Her stepfather had been an alcoholic, and she didn’t believe in easy cures. The cost was a hundred dollars paid in advance. Bly managed to negotiate a one-week stay for twenty-five, though she was told that was normally not allowed.

The cure was administered by syringe four times a day for four weeks, with tonics given at two-hour intervals. Bly rightly noted with horror that the male patients were all injected with the same needle, which was not cleaned between injections. Female patients, of which there were few at the time of Bly’s visit, were administered privately in their rooms.

1891-1892-CD-Keeley-Institute-300x184Each patient was also given a bottle of whiskey by the institute so they could taper off their drinking on their own. Bly said she “gave it to an expert, who pronounced it the worst rot-gut he had ever tasted.” As a purported absinthe drinker, Bly had to buy her own bottle from a local shop.

Some of the staff had taken the cure themselves. Bly noted approvingly that the attending medic Dr. Millspaugh had a red nose, assuming it revealed a past love of drink.

“It is as it should be, thought I, to have for a doctor one who has tasted the bitter and sweet of loving cups . . . For who could better doctor a man with snakes than one who killed many a one of his own? And who could better tell the condition of a head the next morning than one who had drank all the others under the table?”

Later, when he told her he was not and never had been a drinker, Bly wrote, “How can a doctor who doesn’t know the symptoms of drink doctor one for the complaint?”

Nelly Bly (Absinthe Fiend) Investigates

Bly was less impressed when she discovered that rather than one-and-done, some patients had taken the cure multiple times. The wife of one patient said she had no faith in the cure lasting, though her husband had stopped drinking after a week:

“They give the same tonic, the same injection to each and every man. What will cure the boy of twenty cannot surely cure my husband, who has drank so many more years. And they treat them the same number of times and the same number of weeks.”

Still, she told Bly, “So long as my husband believes it is all I ask. If he can be cured for even a few months, it is well worth the expense and time.” Their doctors had warned that he would be dead in a month if nothing was done.

Mr. J.J. Brown, the manager, explained to Bly why patients sometimes came back. “It puts people back where they were before they began to drink, (but) there must be a desire on the part of the patient not to drink. We can’t make it impossible to drink if they feel so inclined.”

Bly was unconvinced. She wrote: “I would not for the world cast discredit upon anything that would turn people from drink for even four weeks. But it is my honest opinion that the cure is no cure in itself.”

She declared that being “away from temptation, (with) plain, wholesome food, pure, bracing air (and) plenty of rest” make the patient “feel better. He credits it to the cure, and his faith grows stronger . . . He believes he is cured. That is the great thing. So long as he believes that and does not taste, he is all right, but woe to the Keeley patient who tries a drink!”

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Advertisement for the Keeley Institute in Greensboro, NC (Blandwood Mansion)

Bly was mostly correct in her analysis, but she was missing one thing. The reason the Keeley Institute worked as well as it apparently did was that it wasn’t just a vehicle to sell snake oil—though it undoubtedly was that—but it offered something else: dignity. The alcoholic was treated not as a lowlife, weak, or evil, but as someone with a disease.

In Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, William L. White explains: “The atmosphere was informal and friendly at the clinics, with a marked absence of the bars and restraints that were typical in most inebriate asylums of the period.” Also dissimilar to later programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Keeley didn’t include religion as a component. The institute didn’t include addiction counselors, though most of the doctors were former alcoholics themselves. According to White, “There were enough doctors on staff to go around.”

Apart from the dubious gold cure, modern addiction treatment does follow many of Keeley’s tenets, including the way alcoholism is viewed. The US Surgeon General’s 2016 Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health clearly states that “Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic but treatable brain disease that requires medical intervention, not moral judgment.”

The institute promoted “mutual sharing and alternative diversions” as part of the therapy, much like the peer support groups recommended today. Bly credited much of the institute’s success to the healthy food, exercise, and fresh air, and these are often components of modern addiction rehab treatment too. It is now recognized that relapse is not uncommon among addicts, and that rehabilitation rarely works unless the patients want to get better.

nellie bly keeley institute white plains

Nellie Bly tries the “gold cure” at White Plains Keeley Institute

What makes the Keeley story an almost perfect bookend to Bly’s career is that alcohol and drug addiction often co-occur with mental health issues. They are related problems, also known as dual diagnoses—alcohol or drugs may be used to self-medicate for a mental health problem, or drug and alcohol use may exacerbate mental health problems.

Keeley was a conman, but he seems to have helped others in spite of himself, inadvertently using his bogus “cure” as a spoonful of sugar to help the real medicine go down. Call addicts irredeemable, and they’ll stay away. Pretend you have a cure, then distract them with healthy food and exercise, and maybe they will get better.

Nellie Bly knew that Keeley promised more than he could deliver and acted accordingly. A claim of a 95% success rate is crazy, and maybe that put her on her mettle. A better story would have been to find out how many people the Keeley Institute actually helped and why, or to compare its success rate to more traditional inebriate asylums.

Nellie Bly threw herself into her stories, tilted at windmills, slew dragons, suffered defeats, and left behind a record of achievement of which anyone would be proud.

Stephen Bitsoli writes about history, science, addiction, and related topics for several blogs. A former journalist and lifelong reader, he enjoys learning and sharing what he’s learned.

Sources

  1. Arlen, Michael. “Notes on the New Journalism.” The Atlantic, May 1972. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1972/05/notes-on-the-new-journalism/376276/
  2. “Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum.” American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.aoghs.org/transportation/nellie-bly-oil-drum/
  3. Conliffe, Ciaran. “Terrible People from History: Elizabeth “Nellie Bly” Cochrane Seaman, Intrepid Journalist.” Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.headstuff.org/culture/history/terrible-people-from-history/elizabeth-nellie-bly-cochrane-seaman-journalist/
  4. “5 May – Nellie Bly.” Widow’s Weeds. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thewidowsweeds.blogspot.com/2012/05/5-may-nellie-bly.html
  5. Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. Ian L. Munro, Publisher, 1887. Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist, A Resource Website. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting
  6. Himmelfarb, Ben. “Local History: Addicts & Addiction Pt. 1: The Keeley Institute.” October 30, 2017. White Plains Public Library. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.whiteplainslibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1984-6-10-NYWorld-Bly-1.jpg
  7. Hanson, Dirk. “The Strange and Secret Keeley Cure for Addiction.” September 11, 2011. Addiction Inbox. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.addiction-dirkh.blogspot.com/2011/09/strange-and-secret-keeley-cure-for.html
  8. “The Keeley Cure.” Digger Odell Publications, 2009. Bottlebooks.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.bottlebooks.com/Keeley/keeley_cure.htm
  9. Detwiler, Jacqueline. “History’s Scariest Addiction Treatments.” The Fix, August 23, 2012.Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thefix.com/content/grisly-addiction-treatments-history90510
  10. “Alcoholism is a Disease and I Can Cure It”: Dr. Leslie Keeley and the Keeley Institutes. Alcohol Problems & Solutions. Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcoholism-is-a-disease-and-i-can-cure-it-dr-leslie-keeley-and-the-keeley-institutes/
  11. Nickell, Joe. “Historic ‘Gold Cure’ For Addiction.” Center for Inquiry, March 18, 2016.Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/historic_gold_cure_for_addiction/

*There have been some vague and undocumented claims of deaths, but if there were actual deaths, it’s hard to imagine Bly or other journalists ignoring them or making light of the Keeley cure thereafter.

Sex and the Asylum: Imprisoning Inconvenient Women

f95ddecebd8d712ca785b34b065d7231Nymphomania, masturbation, sexual derangement: just some of the reasons a nineteenth century—and indeed twentieth century—woman could find herself locked away in a lunatic asylum. In fact, many of the reasons women were incarcerated were related to their sex or sexuality. Around one third of female patients were diagnosed with nymphomania. Some had born illegitimate children, been engaged in prostitution, or been raped or sexually assaulted.

For others, being deemed promiscuous or flirtatious was enough to seal their fate. In both Great Britain and the United States, it was perfectly legal for a husband or father to have their wives or daughters committed to an asylum without any right of appeal. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, induced vomiting, leeches, straitjackets, and, in some cases clitorectomies.

In 1867, seventeen-year-old Alice Christina Abbot was accused of poisoning her stepfather after he threatened to send her to a reform school. At her trial, Abbot claimed that her stepfather had put her through years of sexual abuse, and that she had told other people, but they had mostly considered her mentally deranged. The court rejected her allegations as singular, and in August of that year she was committed to Taunton Insane Asylum, where she seems to have vanished into the dark realms of history. Whether or not Abbot really was a murderer, or whether she saw poisoning as the only way of freeing herself from her stepfather, we shall never know. The fact remains that she was treated neither as a victim of sexual abuse, nor a sane woman who had committed murder. Instead, she was labelled as insane, and her identity was effectively erased.

Edna Martin was fifteen when her grandfather saw her going to the pictures with a sixty-two-year-old married man. He called the police, and Edna was taken to juvenile court. The judge asked her whether they’d had intercourse, but she had no idea what that meant. Her grandfather said he never wanted to see her again, so she was taken to Parkside Approved School, where she was diagnosed as an imbecile, mentally defective, and feeble-minded, and transferred to Calderstones Asylum. Edna described twenty years of hell moving between various asylums:

They kicked the chamber pots into you . . . they also kicked in your food on a tin plate and you had to eat it off the floor. They used enemas for punishment . . . they thought nothing of giving you a cold-water bath, or they’d get a wet bath towel, put it under a cold tap, twist it, and hit you with it.

In the wider community, asylums were used as tools to control large numbers of women who were considered a threat to the status quo. Prostitution was seen as a social disease, and those fallen women associated with it needed to be shut away for the greater good, until such time as they were fixed. Correcting women who had taken the wrong path was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and lock hospitals.

Magdalen-asylum

A Magdalene Asylum in Ireland, early 20th century

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for sex workers, as well as other women who had deviated from sexual norms, for the sake of penitence and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

In London, any sex worker found to have a venereal disease could be forcibly put in a lock hospital for up to a year, while benevolent societies gave the women huge amounts of religious instruction, and then retained them as seamstresses and servants.

Many lesbian women were also labelled as mentally ill, with doctors claiming that life without continued male interaction could cause anemia, irritability, and tiredness. Women who had chosen alternative lifestyles and defied accepted gender norms were considered a threat to the patriarchal society. In asylums—supposedly places of safety— they could face sexual abuse under the care of doctors, who believed that repeated sexual activity with men could cure them.

This put women in an incredibly vulnerable position: those who refused to obey their husbands or fathers, behaved in a manner which was deemed immodest or unwomanly, or refused to submit to their husbands’ demands faced being torn away from their children and families, and were often subjected to the most brutal conditions.

Asylums became a convenient place to put society’s inconvenient women. These stories are more than just reminders that we’re lucky not to have been born two hundred years ago—they are also reminders of how much people in the past were entrenched in ideas of feminine norms, and the lengths they would go to in order to preserve patriarchal dominance.

e70af166925101afcb722a622b94505d (1) 1

Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham—a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son. Emma left school at sixteen and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, will be published in 2018, also by Crooked Cat Books. It was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.

Follow Emma Rose Millar on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads. Her new book, Delirium, is out now.

Voice, Votes, and Vibrators: Women’s Suffrage in England and the United States

Suffrage_pageant_Washington_1913

Women’s suffrage parade, March 3rd, 1913. Washington D.C. Actress Hedwiga Reicher is dressed as Columbia. During the pageant, Columbia summoned Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope to review the new crusade of women.

The Origins of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The idea of “waves” in feminism was first coined by Martha Weinman Lear in her March 1968 article for The New York Times Magazine, titled “The Second Feminist Wave.” In that article, she identified the first as well as the second wave: the first wave is the fight for legal enfranchisement—suffrage—and the second, concurrent with the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960s, is the fight for social equality. Lear’s coinage has become the standard taxonomy of feminism, and we are arguably regarded to be experiencing the fourth wave now. Each wave builds on the progress of, and in some cases challenges the tenets of, the previous waves.

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Christine de Pizan lecturing men, 1413

The suffragettes (in England) and suffragists (in the United States) of the mid 19th and early 20th century are the vanguard of the first wave—but, of course, women were crying out for their rights from the first moment they were denied them, and writing manifestos against misogyny from the moment they could put quill to paper. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and poet, argued for women’s rights in the pre-Enlightenment 17th century. Christine de Pizan challenged misogyny even earlier, in the medieval era. Identified by Simone de Beauvoir in her important work The Second Sex as the first woman to write about women’s issues, Pizan’s work is now widely considered the origin point of the fight for women’s equality.

But Pizan is not considered the grandmother of feminism’s first wave. That would be Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, eventually catalyzed hundreds of years of women’s thought and struggle into a coherent movement for voting rights in both England and the United States. In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft takes Enlightenment ideas and expands them to include women, asserting a place for women in legal and social discourse.

491px-Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft. John Opie, 1797

Her work was, not surprisingly, enormously controversial and even scandalous in its time, and Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life (she openly had sexual relationships, and a child, outside of marriage) was used as fodder for widespread disapprobation of her writing. And yet the Vindication lives on, and the women who followed her carried her message into their fight, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Margaret Fuller, a noted American Transcendentalist thinker, and a woman who also lived an unconventional life, acknowledged Wollstonecraft’s influence on her own manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). And certainly Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, were channeling Wollstonecraft’s rethinking of Rousseau’s ideas when they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, an intentionally obvious revision of the Declaration of Independence to include women in that seminal document of the country’s formation. The Declaration of Sentiments is generally considered the inciting document of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Supported by centuries of argument by brave women shouting into the void, the real fight for women’s suffrage, in both England and America, began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Suffrage was not won, however, in either country, until the end of the second decade of the twentieth.

Madwomen in the Attic: The His-story of Hysteria

We need to pause here in our discussion of the movement for women’s suffrage and focus on how very brave the women who resisted convention truly were, and what they truly risked to speak out against the patriarchy in a world in which women were denied autonomy, let alone representation. Women had virtually no rights that were not mediated through the men in their lives, not even the most basic rights to their own bodies.

Speaking out in such a world—openly, publicly, challenging the status quo—was more than an invitation to scandal and judgment. A woman without a man supporting her endeavors—a man who, in his social and legal responsibility for her, could serve as a shield—risked her freedom and her very sanity. A woman who claimed a voice of her own and demanded it be heard could, for no other reason than her resistance, be declared mentally ill and treated for such against her will—including commitment for insanity (Pouba and Tianen). In such a case, a woman’s body became the battlefield itself.

The hysteria diagnosis is as old as the medical profession, and deeply rooted in women’s sexuality and men’s appropriation of it. In fact, the “treatment” of hysteria is even coded into Greek mythology. When the virgins of Argos fled, Melampus, a healer, “cured” their “madness” by directing them to have sex with virile men. And thus was orgasm deemed the cure for hysteria, and a woman’s assertion of her autonomy was linked for many centuries to insanity and the need for (heterosexual/heteronormative) sex.

In the intervening millennia, women, with virtually no recognized rights, could be, and often were, diagnosed, by men, with mental illness and committed to asylums for nothing more than not conforming strictly to the narrow space of behaviors deemed permissible. And when they were diagnosed with hysteria, a catch-all term that in effect meant nothing more than “not behaving properly,” one of the accepted treatments, since the Greeks, was so-called “pelvic manipulation”—i.e., forced orgasm.

vibrator attachmentsComes the Vibrator: The Problematic Origin of B.O.B.

These days, the vibrator, in its vast array of interesting shapes and sizes, is a wonderful tool for sexual autonomy, play, and power, and modern discourse is full of memes and playful rhetoric about our “Battery Operated Boyfriends.” But its origin is not so full of pink sparkles.

Joseph_Mortimer_Granville

Doctor J. Mortimer Granville

The first vibrator was invented in 1880s England by Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, not for the pleasure of women but for his own ease. Manual pelvic manipulation was tiring for the doctor, and Granville was performing the “procedure” so often that it caused him chronic fatigue and pain in his hand and arm. He invented the device to save his time, strength, and energy.

Pelvic manipulation was frequently prescribed for women with a wide range of so-called maladies, and it’s true that the procedure was popular among many women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, for whom sexual pleasure was supposed to be beneath their interest. And so, we have developed a lighthearted attitude about this element of women’s history. There are myriad examples in media and literature that find comedy in the idea of doctors’ waiting rooms crowded with women avidly awaiting their chance for “treatment.”

But that droll nostalgia doesn’t take into account the women who were diagnosed against their will, and forcibly “treated” with mechanical rape. In fact, the procedure’s apparent popularity became conflated with the idea of its success as a treatment, which strengthened the concept both of hysteria as a valid diagnosis and of “pelvic manipulation” as a valid medical treatment.

The end of the 19th century, as women’s dissatisfaction with their lot in the world crystallized into protest and resistance, was the high mark of hysteria diagnoses and its “treatments.” The women who banded together and fought most fiercely for their enfranchisement, who gave over polite rhetorical argument and did battle instead, understood what they risked—not only incarceration but commitment. Not only the constraint of their bodies but the forcible penetration of them.

That was their bravery—to risk their lives and bodies and minds in the fight for their voice.

As a sympathetic psychiatrist pointed out at the commitment hearing for Alice Paul, a hero of the American suffrage movement, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

Nasty Women: The Final Front in the Suffrage Fight: 1905-1920.

Emmeline_Pankhurst,_seated_(1913)

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

In Manchester, England, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst changed the face of the fight for women’s suffrage. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the cause, she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, with the express purpose to radicalize the movement. The days of asking to be heard were over; it was time to demand the floor. Pankhurst shaped the WSPU with an overtly militaristic strategy. Though women had individually engaged in civil disobedience in support of suffrage for years, on both sides of the Atlantic—Susan B. Anthony was famously arrested for voting illegally in the United States—Pankhurst’s WSPU was the first time a significant organization promoted an explicit strategy of disruption and disobedience. They chained themselves to fences, lobbed bricks and rocks through windows, and even stormed Parliament to demand their rightful place.

The women of the WSPU began being arrested for their small acts of civil disobedience in 1905, and in response, they adopted the militaristic tactics of exiles from oppressive regimes. They learned how to conduct and survive a hunger strike from Russian exiles from tsarism (Grant), and they learned jiu-jitsu from one of their own, Edith Garrud, using it to protect themselves from police brutality during protests. Marion Wallace Dunlop engaged in the first hunger strike, in 1909. Following her example, it quickly became standard for imprisoned suffragettes to hunger strike immediately upon arrest—and to be force-fed in response.

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, were both active in the movement, and all three experienced imprisonment, hunger striking, and force-feeding. Sylvia described in clear detail the torture of feeding, making it clear that it, too, is a form of rape, a forcible, violent penetration of a woman’s body.

This was the world in which suffragettes fought, where they were treated with less humanity than murderers, because they were women, considered less than, refused any autonomy, and entirely subject to the will and demands of men.

And yet, upon release from Holloway Prison, suffragettes turned right around and picked up the banner again, volunteering for another turn on the cycle, knowing they risked imprisonment yet again, knowing they risked their lives and even their children. Imprisoned suffragettes were awarded medals by their sisters upon their first release, with new bands to place on them with every subsequent incarceration. It wasn’t unusual for a suffragette to earn four or more bands commemorating different incarcerations and hunger strikes.

Emily Davison, a particularly passionate suffragette, so militant that even the WPSU eventually set her aside, was force-fed 49 times before she died in 1913, when she jumped onto the track on Derby Day and was run down by the King’s racehorse. She held a suffrage banner in her hands.

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Part of Emily Davison’s funeral procession. June 15th, 1913

A young American graduate student studying in England during the rise of the WPSU, Alice Paul was inspired to bring Pankhurst’s tactics to her own country. She faced resistance from the leaders of the American movement, women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who saw the events occurring in England, decided that militarism was doing more harm than good for the cause, and continued the strategy of diplomacy in the U.S.

But Paul had been on the ground in London and had seen the passion of the suffragettes there. She’d heard Pankhurst’s arguments for civil disobedience and militarism, she’d protested and been imprisoned there, and she argued that it was time for the same at home as well. Admiring Catt and the others who’d led the American movement for years, Paul tried to work within the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Catt tried to accommodate the younger woman’s zeal, finding new ways for her to work within the organization. Finally, though, their visions were simply not compatible, and Paul broke with NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party.

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Program for the Women’s Suffrage Parade, 1913

The schism between the diplomatic and disobedient arms of the American suffrage movement began in earnest in March 1913, and the Woman’s Suffrage Parade that took place in Washington, D.C., on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration (see photo, top). Suffragists from around the globe participated in the spectacular event, thousands of women and men marching in support of the enfranchisement of women. Its significance transcended the spectacle, however. A crush of spectators, comprised mostly of men, reacted violently against the march, and it marked the first event of wide-scale violence in the American movement.

The shocking images of marchers being beaten, and police largely standing by and letting it happen, began to turn the tide of public opinion. And certainly, it turned the tide of suffragist strategy. After the Women’s Parade, Alice Paul and her like-minded sisters adopted Pankhurst’s strategies of disruption and disobedience. They began by simply standing outside the White House, on the sidewalk, wearing their sashes and holding banners calling out President Wilson. And they were arrested—for blocking the road.

American institutions of power reacted as the British had. American suffragists were imprisoned, beaten, tortured, force-fed, and threatened with commitment to asylums—and sometimes actually committed.

Fay Hubbard

Fay Hubbard. New York, 1910

However, word of their plight, described in heart-wrenching detail in illicit letters written from prison and sneaked out past those walls, worked on public sentiment the way the images and story of the Women’s Parade did. In both England and America, the notion of women beaten and abused conflicted with the patriarchal, patronizing image of, and sense of responsibility for, the “fairer sex,” and the public finally began to be shocked for the women, not at them. The women’s courage and passion found a new light, and the public opinion about their cause began to shift in their favor.

Conclusion: The Victory of Voice, for Voice

As is always the case, this kind of change comes slowly, and even faced with the horrors of the suffrage fight, public opinion didn’t shift dramatically all at once. The fight waged in all its horrors for years before true victory was achieved. In England, women aged 30 and over gained the right to an equal vote in 1918 (they have just recently celebrated the centennial). Women aged 21 did not gain their voice for another ten years. In America, a vaster, more various country, and a federal republic, the change came gradually at first, with states and territories giving women the right to vote individually, starting with Wyoming (as a territory, women had the right to vote in Wyoming from 1869, and as a state from 1890). The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in August 1920, giving women aged 21 and older the right to an equal vote across all the United States.

If not for the brave, mighty warriors, the “iron jawed angels” who laid their bodies on the gears of the patriarchy, who risked their lives, their families, and their sanity, women might yet be silenced.

The right to vote should never be ignored or taken for granted, and should always be exercised with the weighty sense of all that was sacrificed for the chance to make our mark.

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“WSPU hunger strike force feeding medal.” A History of the World. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/SDveJgRgQy-U_MhY8bBlpA nothing on earth cover

Susan Fanetti is an English professor at California State University, Sacramento, and an independent author. Her novel Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven takes on the story of the fight for women’s suffrage in both England and the United States.

 

 

Resurrection, Corpse Art, and How the Father of Modern Surgery Stole the Irish Giant

Ressurectionists by Phiz (HK Browne) Chronicles of Crime 1841

Resurrectionists by Phiz (H.K. Browne). Chronicles of Crime, 1841.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, medical science in Britain was rapidly evolving. Surgeons had split from the Worshipful Company of Barbers as a professional guild in 1745, forming the Company of Surgeons. This was the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons, which was created by Royal Charter in 1800, and the reason we don’t call hospital consultants ‘Doctor’ – barber-surgeons held no medical degree.

As the profession established itself as an Enlightenment science based upon empirical research and experiment, two figures came to dominate its development: the Scottish anatomist and physician William Hunter (1718 – 1783), and his younger brother John (1728 – 1793), who went on to be known as the ‘Father of Modern Surgery.’

William had studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He moved to London in 1741, studying anatomy at St George’s Hospital. He quickly established himself as an able physician, also running a private anatomy school in London offering supplementary tuition to hospital school students. He taught the ‘Parisian’ method, whereby each trainee surgeon could work on an individual corpse rather than the more usual practice of watching an instructor dissect or lecture using models in a great Theatrum Anatomica.

William was joined there by his brother John, who acted as his assistant, which in practice almost certainly meant illegally procuring bodies for dissection, before becoming a teacher himself. John went on to study at Chelsea Hospital and St. Bartholomew’s, and was commissioned as an army surgeon in 1760, further refining his skills during the Seven Year’s War.

Smugglerius sketched by William Linnell 1840

Smugglerius. Sketched by William Linnel, 1840.

William, meanwhile, became physician to Queen Charlotte in 1764, and by the end of the decade he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy, where he once posed the body of an executed smuggler so that it would stiffen into the attitude of the Roman statue the ‘Dying Gaul,’ before flaying it and having the Italian artist Agostino Carlini cast it in plaster. (The ‘Smugglerius’ can still be seen at the Royal Academy.) (See above.)

On returning to England on half-pay, John became a surgeon at St George’s Hospital in 1768, after a brief stint as a dentist during which he experimentally transplanted human teeth. In 1776, he was appointed surgeon to George III, rising to the position of Surgeon General in 1790.

In addition to the importance of their collective research, which remains relevant to this day, these distinguished brothers were innovative teachers. The Hunters taught some of the most influential blades of the next generation, such as Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768 – 1841), whose passion for anatomical study was such that he once dissected an elephant obtained from the Royal Menagerie in his front garden, the carcass being too big to get inside. They stressed the importance of hands-on pathological and physiological knowledge, which could only be gained through the regular dissection of animals and human beings, enhancing diagnostic accuracy, and the refinement of surgical technique. Books and lectures, they believed, were not enough, while no published medical ‘fact’ should be accepted without rigorous empirical testing.

Despite such advances, Georgian surgery was not pretty. There was no real understanding of infection, and no anaesthetic. Operating tables were made of wood, an ideal surface for bacteria to flourish, with a channel for blood to run off into sawdust-filled buckets. John Hunter called his patients ‘victims,’ and they were tied down and held as necessary, conscious and screaming throughout the procedure, which was often conducted in front of a large class of medical students. The mortality rate was high, but your chances of survival were greatly enhanced if your surgeon was knowledgeable, precise, and above all quick with the blade and the suture. That said, many of the patients who were strong enough to survive the operation subsequently died from infection.

For surgeons, the only way was to learn by doing. The problem was that there simply weren’t enough human corpses legally available to anatomists. Bodies for dissection were supplied under the provision of the 1752 Murder Act, as an additional deterrent to what politicians believed was a troubling rise in capital crime.

Even the Bloody Code could not meet the ever-growing demand for specimens in the burgeoning and lucrative world of the private anatomy schools. The surgeon Robert Knox, for example, who was supplied by Burke and Hare, had 400 students under him at the height of his success, while his school was only one of half a dozen in Edinburgh at the time. Thus, as is well-known, came the resurrection men, organised criminal gangs who exhumed bodies from graveyards which they sold to the surgeons, who were well aware of where their ‘subjects’ were coming from. This wasn’t a new trade, but by the end of the century it was becoming a ghoulish epidemic. As James Blake Bailey wrote in The Diary of a Resurrectionist (1896), ‘The complaint as to the scarcity of bodies for dissection is as old as the history of anatomy itself.’

Even though, as surgeons were quick to argue, the general population could only benefit from advances in surgical knowledge and well-trained doctors, the thought of body-snatching was appalling to ordinary folk. Dissection carried the stigma of criminal punishment, while in a god-fearing culture, people believed that if their mortal remains were defiled, they would not rise on the Day of Judgement. To medical men, however, all this was a necessary evil, in which the good far outweighed the bad. Surgeons viewed themselves as scientists; human corpses were no different to any other dead animal, merely specimens to study and, indeed, collect.

John Hunter was a case in point. Hunter was an active learner, who eschewed what he saw as outdated and inadequate academic study in favour of dissecting hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies provided by a network of resurrection men. He was particularly interested in abnormal specimens, and his professionally detached, unemotional eye saw no harm in his obsessive pursuit of the mortal remains of the ‘Modern Colossus’ or ‘Irish Giant,’ Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), despite the public protestations to the contrary by the fatally ill young man.

The Surprising Irish Giant by Thomas Rowlandson 1782

The Surprising Irish Giant. Thomas Rowlandson, 1782.

The 7’ 7” Byrne was a popular celebrity in England, conquering London in 1782, but his great height was a symptom of the then unknown and unnamed disorder Acromegaly, and by the age of twenty-two his health was failing rapidly, and Hunter wanted him. Terrified, the boy from County Tyrone gave an undertaker his life savings and arranged with friends that his body be constantly watched until it was sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea.

Hunter’s fears were more practical in nature. Concerned that another surgeon might beat him to it, Hunter paid a man to watch Byrne’s lodgings for news of his demise, while the men charged with protecting the body were paid £500 to look the other way. Byrne died in June 1783, but when his huge coffin set sail from Margate and was duly committed to the deep he was not in it, having been conveyed to Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and boiled down to his bones.

John Hunter by John Jackson (after Sir Joshua Reynolds) 1813

John Hunter by John Jackson (after Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Four years later, after public interest in the Irish Giant had died down, Byrne’s articulated skeleton went on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. It stands there to this day, despite calls from the British Medical Journal in 2011 and the Mayor of Derry in 2015 to end its unethical display and bury it in accordance with Byrne’s final wishes. The curious brown discolouration of the skeleton is the result of Hunter’s indecent haste during the rendering process, which locked fat into the bones.

To Hunter, who died of a heart attack ten years after Byrne, this was all done in the interests of science, and his reputation suffered no damage as a result. He’s still getting away with it. His marble bust (one of many public memorials), is mounted proudly above the glass case in which Byrne forever stands, the centrepiece of the museum. In his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, the Irish Carver, 19th C Underworld (P&S)Giant’s skeletal feet are clearly visible in the background (see above right).

Dr. Stephen Carver teaches creative writing at The Unthank School of Writing. His latest book, The 19th Century Underworld, will be published by Pen & Sword next year. You can find more of his writing here

Sources

Bailey, James Blake. (1896). The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812, to which are added an account of the resurrection men in London & a short history of the passing of the anatomy act. London: S. Sonnenschien & co.

Cooper, Bransby Blake. (1843). The Life of Sir Astley Cooper. 2 vols. London: John W. Parker.

Cubbage, Eric. (2011). ‘The Tragic Story of Charles Byrne “The Irish Giant”.’ Available at: http://www.thetallestman.com/ (Accessed November 26, 2017).

Garrison, Fielding H. (1914). An Introduction to The History of Medicine. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Low, Donald A. (1999). The Regency Underworld. London: Sutton.

Muinzer, Thomas (2013). ‘A Grave Situation: An Examination of the Legal Issues raised by the Life and Death of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant”.’ International Journal of Cultural Property. 20 (1), February.

Moore, Wendy. (2005).  The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery. New York: Broadway.

Richardson, Ruth. (1988). Death, Dissection and the Destitute. London: Penguin.

The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp