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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ancient coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed

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

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

Upside-down arse, indeed!

Jessica Cale


Bellows, Alan. The Birth Control of Yesteryear.

Catullus, Poem 7.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories.

[An earlier version of this appeared on] 

The Age of Agony: Surgery in the 19th Century

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

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

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

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

Amputation of the Thigh. Sir Charles Bell, 1820.

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

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

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

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

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

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

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

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American Resurrection: The Doctors’ Riot of 1788

CityOfNewYork 1788

New York City, 1788

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

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

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

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


Ressurectionists. Hablot Knight Browne, 1847.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Columbia College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New York Hospital

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Baley

Dr. Richard Bayley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An officer who made the trek wrote a contemporary report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

mercury preparation for syphilis

Depiction of mercury treatments for syphilis.

The “French Disease”

In 1494, France was at war with Naples when the French camp was struck by a terrible disease.
It began with genital sores, spread to a general rash, then caused abscesses and scabs all over the body. Boils as big as acorns, they said, that burst leaving rotting flesh and a disgusting odour. Sufferers also had fever, headaches, sore throats, and painful joints and bones. The disease was disabling, ugly, and terrifying. And people noticed almost from the first that it (usually) started on the genitals, and appeared to be spread by sexual congress.

The Italian kingdoms joined forces and threw out the French, who took the disease home with them, and from there it spread to plague the world until this day.

Where did it come from?

Syphilis. The French Disease. The Pox. The Great Imitator (because it looks like many other illnesses and is hard to diagnose). The French call it the Neopolitan Disease. It is caused by a bacterium that is closely related to the tropical diseases yaws and bejel.

Scientists theorise that somewhere in the late 15th Century, perhaps right there in the French camp outside of Naples, a few slightly daring yaws bacteria found the conditions just right to change their method of transmission. No longer merely skin-to-skin contact, but a very specific type of contact: from sores to mucus membranes in the genitals, anus, or mouth.

They’ve found a couple of possible sources.

One was the pre-Columbian New World, where yaws was widespread. Did one of Columbus’s sailors carry it back? It would have had to have been the first or second voyage to be outside of Naples in 1494.

The other is zoonotic. Six out of every ten human infectious diseases started in animals. Was syphilis one of them? Monkeys in Africa suffer from closely related diseases, at least one of which is sexually transmitted.

Gerard de Lairesse

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. Rembrandt, 1665. Gerard de Lairesse was an artist who suffered from congenital syphilis.

Mild is a relative term

At first, syphilis killed sufferers within a few months, but killing the host immediately is a bad strategy when you’re a bacterium. Especially when you’re a frail little bacterium that can’t live outside of warm, moist mucus membranes.

So, syphilis adapted. Soon, few people died immediately. The first sore (or chancre) appears between ten days to three months after contact. About ten weeks after it heals, the rash appears, and the other symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms last for several weeks and tend to disappear without treatment, but reoccur several times over the next two years.

For more than half of sufferers, that’s it. The disease has run its course. But it is a sneaky little thing. It is still lurking, and a third or more of those who contract the disease will develop late complications up to thirty years after the original chancre. These are the ones to fear. During the latent phase, the disease is cheerfully eating away at the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body.

The sufferer can look forward to years, even decades, of mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, or heart disease, and eventually the blessed relief of death.

How was it treated?

Until the invention of antibiotics, the treatment was as bad as the cure. Physicians and apothecaries prescribed mercury in ointments, steam baths, pills, and other forms. Mercury is a poison, and can
cause hair loss, ulcers, nerve damage, madness, and death. (see image above)

Syphilis was the impetus for the adoption of condoms, their birth control effect noticed later and little regarded (since conception was a woman’s problem). The first clear description is of linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. Animal intestines and bladder, and fine leather condoms also appear in the literature.

They were sold in pubs, apothecaries, open-air markets, and at the theatre, and undoubtedly every wise prostitute kept a stock.

Not having sex—or at least not having sex with multiple partners—would have been a more effective solution, but it appears few of society’s finest took notice of that!

Syphilis in romantic fiction

Those of us who write rakes would do well to remember how easy it was to catch the pox. Indeed, in some circles it was a rite of passage!

“I’ve got the pox!” crowed the novelist de Maupassant in his 20s. “At last! The real thing!” He did his part as a carrier by having sex with six prostitutes in quick succession while friends watched on. (Perrottet)

The mind boggles.

We can, I am sure, have fun with the symptoms and the treatment, though we’d do well to remember that it was not an immediate death sentence, and suicide might be considered an overreaction to the first active stage, when most people got better and were never troubled again.

Scattered across a few of the books I’m writing, I have my own syphilitic character in the final stage, suffering from slow deterioration of his mental facilities and occasional bouts of madness, though his condition is a secret from all but his wife, his doctor, and his heir.

Watch this space!

Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes with the sense to appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe.

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Cohen, Ann and Perlin, David. Syphilis: A Sexual Scourge with a Long History. Infoplease.

Harper, Kristen, Zuckerman, Molly, and Armelagos, George. Syphilis: Then and Now. The Scientist. 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Syphilis. 

Mroczkowski, Tomasz F. History, Sex and Syphilis: Famous Syphilitics and Their Private Lives.

Perrottet, Tony. When Syphilis Was Tres Chic. The Smart Set. 

Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and The Sickness of Naples

Syphilis. Woodcut series, 1496. The Virgin Mary
and Christ child bless the afflicted.

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been looking forward to this post. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very interested in sex and contraception in history, so the history of venereal diseases is kind of where I live. Syphilis is my favorite. 

Okay, so if you were on the fence, now you’ve probably decided that I’m completely mental. How can someone have a favorite venereal disease? Stick with me here! Syphilis helped to shape the modern world through the measures taken to prevent it (such as the development condoms), and the effects it had on the mental health of influential people, both good and bad. No other venereal disease, as far as I’m aware, has ever been accused (with some justification) of creating genius

So let’s take a look. 


The first known case of syphilis was documented by Dr. Pintor in 1493 in Rome. He called it the Morbus Gallicus (The French Disease), and assumed that it had been carried to Italy by the French Army. When the French began to notice it, they called it mal de Naples (the sickness of Naples). Emperor Maximilian officially referred to it as malum franciscum in 1495, (1,3) but soon it was known by an altogether simpler name: 

The Pox. 

It was called this because of the noticeable effects the disease had on the skin of the afflicted, leaving lesions and decaying soft tissues that were sometimes mistaken for leprosy. The name syphilis comes from a Greek legend about a peasant Apollo had punished with poor health and lesions all over his body: the peasant’s name was Syphilus, and he could only be cured (rather chillingly) by Mercury. (1)

Syphilis. Durer, 1496.

The Disease

The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores during the second. The afflicted would experience pain with erection, swelling of the lymph glands, splitting headaches, and other pains throughout the body. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. (3) Lesions and tumors could consume the nasal bones and the tissues of the face until the flesh was literally falling from the bones, sometimes even leaving the brain exposed to open air. (1,3)

If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If one was lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, they could look forward to madness and paralysis. 

It was seen as primarily a male problem, but no one was safe from it. It was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. (2) Often asymptomatic, it could go unnoticed for years, and could be passed on without any sexual contact at all; from parents to children, and from wet nurses to infants. It could even be transmitted through kissing or sharing cups. (1)

It was incredibly contagious and impossible to cure, and some historians estimate that as many as a fifth of the population may have been infected at any one time. (1)


Syphilis was treated at the second stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pills to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was somewhat successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. Less common treatments included confining the afflicted to a sweat room to breathe guaiac vapor, “excising the sores and cauterizing the wounds,” and celibacy aided by the placement of nettles in one’s codpiece. (1)

Syphilis. Woodcut Series, 1496.

Where did it come from?

It is generally believed that Columbus had brought the disease back with him from the Americas. It existed in the Americas before Columbus arrived, and the timing certainly was convenient. Some Renaissance thinkers suspected it had something to do with astrology (see right and above left), while others thought it was derived from leprosy. Francis Bacon believed that it was a result of cannibalism. (1)

Outbursts of Genius and Madness

The tertiary stage of syphilis is well known to cause mental issues including creative genius and paranoid madness. Many of history’s greatest personalities had the disease, such as Cesare Borgia, Casanova, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Beau Brummell, but so did larger-than-life figures such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible, and maybe even Hitler. The jury’s out on how much influence the disease has on the creative process, but the manic bursts of divine inspiration it is known to have caused certainly must have had some effect on Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Keats, Manet, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and possibly Oscar Wilde. (2)

Was syphilis at least partially responsible for some of history’s greatest works of art? Maybe. Whichever side we choose in that particular debate, we can at least appreciate the prevalence of syphilis led to the development and popularization of condoms, and that’s no small achievement. 

Syphilis is actually a subject that comes up a couple of times in The Southwark Saga. Sally’s (fictional) friend, Bettie, has it in Tyburn, and so does his crush, the very non-fictional Earl of Rochester. In Virtue’s Lady, Lord Lewes, Jane’s betrothed, has it, and has buried multiple wives and children because of it. No wonder she wants to run away! It’s by no means a huge part of either book, but with one in five people in London being afflicted by it at any one point in time, it would be weird not to mention it.

For a really fantastic article on this subject, be sure to read Sarah Dunant’s piece, Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world in the Guardian. 

You can also read Gabriello Fallopio’s 1564 treatise against syphilis, De Morbo Gallico (translation: About the French disease) online here.


1. Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London. 
2. Deborah Hayden, The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
3. Liza Picard, Restoration London.

Wrath of God or a Cosmic Fart? The Great Plague of 1665-1666

London in the year of the plague, 1665

The last epidemic of the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, killing at least 100,000 people, or a quarter of the city’s total population. 

Though it hasn’t really been seen since in Britain, the plague did not come out of nowhere. There had been four other outbreaks between 1560 and 1660, the most recent being in the 1620s. People read the weekly Bills of Mortality to count the deaths, the rich to decide whether it was wise to leave the city for the country to avoid it, and the tradesmen to see if they were likely to have any work. (1)

There were two types of plague, pneumonic and bubonic, and both came from the Yersenia pestis bacterium, which was carried by fleas. The pneumonic plague set in when the disease went straight to the lungs, and the afflicted would die within three days. With the bubonic plague, most common in 1665, it went to the lymph glands. After ten days of incubation, the lymph glands swelled into “buboes”, and usually killed the victim within five days, although there was about a thirty percent chance of survival. (1)

The Court left before they were in any real danger, withdrawing to the safety of Oxford, while the rest of London waited. 

“The face of London was now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected … sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” (3)

The Bills of Mortality reported 68,596 deaths from the plague, but Pepys put the number closer to 100,000. A contemporary doctor thought the true number was closer to 200,000. (1)

A plague doctor. This one is Roman,
but the costume would have been
much the same. The “beaks” were filled
with fragrant herbs.

With the staggering number of deaths caused by the plague, human and animal (it was ordered that all cats and dogs in the city be put down), finding a place to bury the bodies became an issue. Most of the dead were still buried in churchyards, and the churchyards tried to accommodate them for as long as they could, stacking bodies on top of each other with or without coffins until every churchyard in London was filled with rotting, infected flesh. The smell must have been horrific. Soon the dead were put into enormous plague pits throughout the city. They’re still finding these today, so it’s impossible to say how many more remain below the city. 

Almanacs blamed the plague on “a cosmic fart”: “The pestilence generally derives its natural origin from a Crisis of the Earth whereby it purges itself by expiring those Arsenical Fumes that have been retained so long in her bowels.” (2)

Many people thought it was the wrath of God. Still others had claimed to see it coming in the bad omen of two comets that had appeared over the city in 1664:

“A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after another, a little before the fire. The old women and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex, whom I could almost call old women too, remarked (especially afterward, though not till both those judgements were over) that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery as the conflagration.” (3)

The Great Fire of 1666 did much to eradicate the plague from the city. So much of London was incinerated, fleas included. Stone houses replaced the wooden ones, and rats had a much harder time trying to get into these. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 ordered widened streets and banned open sewers, wooden houses, and overhanging upper levels, aiding sanitation and making the city less vulnerable to the spread of fire and disease. The overflowing churchyards proved the necessity for larger cemeteries further from the bulk of the population, and led to the establishment of the first formal cemeteries on the outskirts of town. 

For some truly terrifying reading, check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis is a wonderful history of death in London throughout the ages and the chapter on the plague might just give you nightmares (I would have used it here, but I loaned my copy to someone and they don’t want to give it back!). There’s also an interactive guide to London’s many plague pits on here


1. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
2. R. Saunders. The English Apollo. London, 1666.
3. Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. 

The King’s Evil: Touch Me, Your Majesty

Here’s the King, curing some Evil.

Disease was very common during the Restoration. In spite of the medical advances of the seventeenth century, there was much about the human body and disease in particular that remained mysterious. Magic was still believed to cure any number of ailments, and people often relied on superstition to treat illnesses. Executioners made most of their money by selling off pieces of dead convicts: their clothes, the noose, and even body parts were sold to Quacks for the making of charms thought to cure everything from headaches to bad luck. 

One of the most mysterious of these illnesses was the King’s Evil. I know how it sounds, but it’s not chlamydia. The King’s Evil, or scrofula, is tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was called the King’s Evil because it was believed that only the touch of a King could cure it. 

The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Kings had been touching people afflicted with scrofula as far back as Edward the Confessor. Robert Herrick even wrote a poem about it:

O! lay that hand on me,
Adored Caesar! and my faith is such,
I shall be heal’d, if that my KING but touch.
The Evill is not yours: my sorrow sings,
Mine is the Evill, but the cure, the KINGS.

-Robert Herrick, “To the King, the cure the Evil.”

While he waited in exile, touching those afflicted with the King’s Evil was one of the few royal duties Charles II could perform. As soon as he was back on the throne, people flocked to him to cure it, and he touched 1,700 of them within his first two months back.

Charles took his duty very seriously. Before long, a system was worked out whereby the afflicted would visit the King’s chirurgeon on Bridges Street in Covent Garden for what we would think of as a referral, and the King would see the afflicted personally on Wednesdays and Fridays, often in the Banqueting Hall. Once the system was up and working, he began to see up to 4,000 people per year, seeing more than 90,000 total between 1660 and 1682. 

Louis XIV touched those afflicted with the King’s Evil in France, but there were those who believed that he lacked the divine gift so generously demonstrated by Charles II:

All lawful monarchs, God’s viceregents are
And by his Princely Patent govern here; 
But all have not an equal grant from Heaven. 
The Cure o’ th’ Evil to Britain’s Monarch’s given! 
Whose royal touch hath healed our leprous land, 
‘Tis therefore TREASON not t’obey’s command.

-John Gadbury’s Almanac, 1666.

There you have it. If you are unlucky enough to be afflicted with scrofula, you’d better make sure the monarch touching you is British. 

In other news, Virtue’s Lady is out today. If wondering what happened to Mark and Jane has been driving you crazy, now you can find out! The buy links are below. 

My blog tour is well and truly under way, and today you can find me talking about different aspects of the book all over the place. I’ll be stopping by Nicole Hurley-Moore’s blog with a post about the plot and why I wrote it the way I did, and I’ll be visiting Susan Hughes with a post about seventeenth century marriage. I also made it to Tara Quan’s blog with a writing tip, and The lovely Christa Maurice has a fun excerpt for us today as well, so be sure to stop by and tell us all what you think. 

Without further ado, I’m going to go throw some confetti around and find something bubbly to drink. It’s Release Day! Woohoo!

Contraception in History IV: Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

One of the earliest mentions of condoms as we know them dates back to 150 CE to Antoninus Liberalis’ telling of the legend of Minos and Pasiphae. 

Pasiphae and the Minotaur
Minos was the mythological king of Knossos and the son of Zeus and Europa. He is probably best known for the labyrinth he used to feed children to the Minotaur, the lovechild (lovebeast?) his wife had with a particularly good-looking bull. Every nine years he would put fourteen Athenian children into the labyrinth to get lost and eventually eaten by this giant bull-creature until the Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus with the help of Minos’ human daughter, Ariadne. 

His wife, Pasiphae, was the immortal daughter of Helios. As the daughter of the sun god, she had magical powers, and used these to cast a spell on Minos when she discovered he had been unfaithful to her. Instead of just turning him into a frog or a better-looking bull, she cursed him to have serpents and scorpions in his semen. 

(This was in no way an explanation for something nasty he picked up from one of his many, many lovers.**)

The idea was that the serpents and scorpions would kill his other lovers (and they did), but that Pasiphae would be protected because she was immortal. 

She also had a condom made out of a goat’s bladder. 

The goat’s bladder was used as female condom because it was put inside Pasiphae to protect her from the killer scorpions, as opposed to protecting Minos from her. It was used to prevent the spread of infection rather than pregnancy, and condoms would continue to be used mainly to protect men from contracting diseases for centuries.

Pasiphae managed to conceive while using the goat’s bladder as a sort of scorpion-filter, though why anyone would want to have kids with that guy is beyond me. King of Crete or not, he cheated on her, imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus as a thank you for building him a labyrinth, and kept her half-beast son in a weird basement where he fed him live children.

All things considered, I can see why that bull might have seemed like a good idea at the time. 

**That’s exactly what this was.

Contraception in History Part I: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

There’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that contraception didn’t exist in any real capacity before the twentieth century. Previous generations were able to control themselves, were not as sex-mad as we are today, and only ever engaged in the act after (heterosexual!) marriage and for the sake of procreation.


I have always believed that people haven’t changed at all over the course of human history, and the more I study, the more I believe this to be true. Sure, the way people make sense of their world changes, as does the way they write about it, but people don’t change. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. Our very existence is proof that every generation since the dawn of man has been powerless against it. More than just a biological urge, it’s a desire and an obsession. As long as mankind has understood that sex can lead to pregnancy, we have sought ways to prevent conception.

This is nothing new. You want proof?


This twelve-thousand year old cave painting from the Grotte des Combarelles in France is believed to be the first depiction of condom use.

Take that, 1960s!

Being a life-long fan of historical romance, I have always been curious about contraception. Assuming the woman didn’t die having her first or second child, how did she avoid having twenty more? Do they all have syphilis? If not, why not? What does syphilis look like?

Assuming I’m not the only person who has ever wondered this (and I might be…), I’m going to write a series of posts of contraception throughout history. If there’s a particular time, place, or aspect that you’re interested in, please let me know.

For now we’ll start in the Ancient World.

Obviously women are all-powerful, but Hippocrates was among the first to believe that women could prevent conception by banishing sperm on command, as he explains in The Sperm, fifth century BCE: “When a woman has intercourse, if she is not going to conceive, then it is her practice to expel the sperm produced by both partners whenever she wishes to do so.”

You read that right, the sperm produced by both partners. While Aristotle and Plato argued that men’s sperm was responsible for producing embryos and that women were little more than a receptacle for it, Hippocrates understood that conception was a complex process involving both partners. Although he might not have been quite right about conception (or lack thereof) at will, he reasoned that both parties had to be involved because children could look like either parent. So far so logical.

Diseases of Women, a Hippocratic treatise, goes on to recommend a sure fire way of dealing with unintended pregnancies: “Shake her by the armpits and give her to drink…the roots of sweet earth almond.”

There is no evidence that the sweet earth almond, also known as the Cyperus esculenthus is anything other than a tasty, tasty nut. It’s a good source of protein, healthy fats, and Vitamins E and C, so it’ll make your skin look great, but it has no known contraceptive or abortive properties.

If that didn’t work (and all signs point to no), he also advised women to jump up and down repeatedly with her heels touching her butt. It’s worth a shot.

While Aristotle underestimated the woman’s contribution to conception, his contraceptive recommendations sound a little more effective. He advised women to: “anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil.”

Ah, yes. Lead.

Lead is one explanation for the shockingly low birthrates in Ancient Rome. The aqueducts were made of lead, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the population was suffering from a degree of lead poisoning (more on that here). Lead poisoning causes infertility in men and women, yes, along with behavioral changes, irritability, convulsions, and permanent damage to the central nervous system.

Sound familiar?

Throughout history, lead has been used in a number of common products from paint to eyeliner and has been a well-documented cause of infertility and madness.

So there you have it. If you can’t find someone to vigorously shake you by the armpits, try lead.*

Tune in next Thursday for more on contraception in history. If you can’t wait, read Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom: A History for a fun introduction.

*Do not, for the LOVE OF GOD try lead.