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

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

People wanted to see skulls.

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

1671_kircheri_-_ars_magna_lucis_et_umbrae_-_769

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

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

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Man at the Crossroads…

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

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

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

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

…with a Death Ray

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

They ignored him.

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

image

Robertson’s Phantasmagoria

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

One attendee described the performance:

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

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

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

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

Fantasmagorie_de_Robertson.tif

Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtle, he was not. 

The audiences loved it.

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

robertsongrave

Just as he would have wanted.

Jessica Cale  

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires

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

Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

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

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

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

Lisztomania

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

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

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

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

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

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

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

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

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

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

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

La Dame aux Camélias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

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

Trans and Non-binary Identities from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome: Inanna, Cybele, and the Gallai

Ishtar. Lewis Spence (1916)

How many times have you heard that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing? With more people becoming aware of differing gender identities and many feeling empowered to share their own, the subject has become a staple of lazy comedy at best and an excuse for horrific violence and harmful legislation at worst. While arguments for the repression of these identities vary, one theme seems to repeat—the idea that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing that manifested spontaneously in the modern world.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To talk about trans and non-binary identities in history, I’m not going to start with Dr. James Barry. I’m not going to talk about William Dorsey Swann, the Chevalier d’Eon, or even the Molly houses of Georgian London. We’ll get there—don’t worry—but today, we’re taking it all the way back to the beginning.

Mesopotamia

For those of you just joining us, Mesopotamia was home to the first known civilization in human history. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq is now, the area was populated by the Sumerians and Akkadians from the earliest days of recorded history, around 3100 BCE.

Mesopotamia was polytheistic, and one of the many gods worshiped was Inanna. Also known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, violence, and justice. Although she was the goddess of sex, it’s interesting to note that she was not a goddess of procreation or indeed a mother herself. She was usually portrayed as promiscuous, but this wasn’t a negative thing—as far as Inanna was concerned, sex was a sacred rite to be enjoyed as an expression of love and not exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Sex wasn’t something shameful yet. An all-powerful goddess with a devoted cult, she is often portrayed with lions. Surviving artifacts from later periods, when she evolved into or was combined with Ishtar, even show her riding a chariot being pulled by lions.

If love, beauty, war, and justice aren’t enough for one goddess to handle, Inanna also had another very important ability.

She could change men into women and women into men.

That’s not just awkward phrasing there—that’s a quote. Around 2280 BCE, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the Akkadian High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, wrote a number of poems and hymns for Inanna, including “The Great-Hearted Mistress,” “The Exaltation of Inanna,” an “Goddess of the Fearsome Power.” She describes some of this power here:

Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

This isn’t a metaphor, and it isn’t the only source that mentions this.

In the Epic of Erra, a Babylonian poem, there are references to kurgarra and assinnu, classes of servants of the goddess, “whose maleness Ishtar turned to female, for the awe of the people.” The British Museum has a fragment of a five-thousand-year-old statue with a still clear inscription that translates to: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

But these are only references to the goddess’s ability to transform gender. The most compelling evidence for trans and non-binary identities among her worshipers is the existence of her priests, known as the Gala.

The Gala were a class of priests sacred to Inanna. It was said they were initially created by the god Enki to sing “heart-soothing laments,” for the goddess, and they certainly did that. To begin with, one of their primary roles was to sing hymns and laments to the goddess in eme-sal, a Sumerian dialect spoken primarily by women that was used to render the speech of female gods. They presided over religious rites, healed the sick, predicted the future, made music, raised money for the poor, and “dissolved evil” during lunar eclipses. Akkadian omen texts said that having sex with them was lucky. They were well-known and respected members of their communities, and many of them were what we would think of now as transgender.

While it can be problematic to apply modern terminology to five-thousand-year-old gender identities, I’ll tell you what we know of them. Whether called in a dream, given a vision of the goddess, or driven by devotion, biological males entered into the service of the goddess and became female for all intents and purposes, taking on feminine pronouns and dressing and living as women. While various sources argue that ritual castration was involved, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that this early, and in any case, surgery is still not necessary to validate gender identity today. As they saw it, Inanna had made them women, and though they didn’t have the same verbiage for it, their society accepted that identity.* After all, this change was a gift of the goddess.

Swapping genders and pronouns wasn’t a comment on their sexuality, as it could be in later years. I shouldn’t have to tell you that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: gender identity is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you love. We cannot make blanket assumptions about the sexual orientation of the Gala, but we do know that they had relationships as diverse as people do today—many served as sacred sex workers within Inanna’s temples, but others did not. Some were married (to men or women) and had families, often adopting children together. Queer families certainly existed, and homosexuality was not a crime. It wasn’t shameful or a hot-button issue—it was a normal aspect of everyday life, not even mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which provided the basis for law in the region for more than a thousand years.

Looking at the Gala in isolation, you might think their existence was an anomaly of the ancient world. Those cults got up to some strange things; that could hardly be common!

Except it was.

Inanna was a very popular goddess, and her worship spread and evolved throughout the ancient world. While her name changed to Ishtar, Rhea, Cybele, Bahucharā Mātā, and Astarte, one thing remained the same: her priests.

Cybele on a cart drawn by lions. Bronze, 2nd century AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art

All Roads Lead to Rome 

When Phrygian goddess Cybele became a part of the official state religion of Rome in 204 BCE, her Gallai came with her. At this point, genderqueer priests had served Cybele, Inanna, and other interpretations of the goddess for nearly three thousand years. They were a common sight in the ancient world, but Rome wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

Concerned with inheritance and property law, Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Gallai because of the ban on castration. Whether or not they actually practiced this is debatable, but as far as Rome was concerned, anyone who could not procreate for any reason—including disinterest, infertility, homosexuality, celibacy, or impotence—was neither truly male nor female. Castrated or not, the Gallai’s non-binary status meant they could not inherit property.

To the Romans, gender not only depended more on one’s ability to procreate than anything else, but it was subject to change. Greek and Roman medical texts from the time describe gender not as fixed, but fluid depending on humors like heat and moisture in the body. According to them, these factors could determine an infant’s sex during pregnancy, and they could also change one’s gender after birth. While the terminology was not there in the same way it is today, all of this points to the existence and tacit acceptance of a third gender in Ancient Rome, even if they did not have the same citizenship or property rights as their cisgender (and procreating) neighbors.

In spite of this, some Romans gave up their citizenship to become Gallai. Others had been slaves or had come from other parts of Asia. While it’s unclear how many Gallai were castrated or at what point in their service this happened, there is more documentation to support this happening at this point. Pliny does not go into detail but describes the process as relatively safe, and it was said to take place on Dies Sanguinis, “the Day of Blood,” on March 24th.

Still, castration alone does not change gender. Castrated or not, Gallai throughout the Roman Empire dressed, worshiped, and lived as women. They were noted for their saffron gowns, long hair, heavy makeup, and extravagant jewelry. They existed in every part of the Greco-Roman world at every level of society and were mentioned by Ovid, Seneca, Persius, Martial, and Statius as a common sight in the first century. Apuleius even described them in The Golden Ass:

“The following day they went out, wearing various colored undergarments with turbans and saffron robes and linen garments thrown over them, and every one hideously made up, their faces crazy with muddy paints and their eyes artfully lined.”

Statue of a priest of Cybele

If nothing else, the Gallai knew how to make an entrance. One of the ways in which they practiced healing was through a sort of music therapy that involved parading through town while singing and playing chaotic music to induce a sort of transcendental, joyful mania in the crowd. Others told fortunes—along with service to the goddess, castration was believed to give one the ability to see the future—or begged or danced for money on behalf of the poor. They were hard to miss, wonders in their own time. Diodorus called them terata—“marvels, monsters, prodigies, signs.” As historian Will Roscoe so beautifully put it, they were “the sacred breaking through to the level of the mundane.”

Early Christians weren’t as fond of the Gallai. They preached spiritual androgyny, but physical androgyny was complicated; although trans and non-binary identities had existed throughout the ancient world for more than three thousand years, they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. At this point, they may have been such a common part of society that they would have been more or less taken for granted.

Still, early Christian apologists describe the Gallai in less flattering but suspiciously familiar-sounding terms:

“They wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?” – Fermicus Maternus

“Even till yesterday, with dripping hair and painted faces, with flowing limbs and feminine walk, they passed through the streets and alleys of Carthage, exacting from merchants that by which they might shamefully live.” – St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 7.26

Ugh! Buying groceries. How dare she?

It wasn’t only toxic masculinity and transphobia that fueled this distaste; the cult of Cybele was hugely influential throughout the ancient world and was one of early Christianity’s biggest rivals. In some places, Christians and followers of Cybele had street fights when their religious festivals overlapped in the spring, and the Gallai came to represent to some what they didn’t like about pagan culture.**

Nevertheless, Cybele continued to be worshiped until the fall of Rome, with the religion’s last known rites being celebrated in 394 CE.

So far, so Mediterranean. What about the rest of the world?

But Wait, There’s More 

In India, the Hijra are intersex and transgender people with history dating back to antiquity. Like Cybele’s devotees, they are connected to music. They are considered the third gender there, and they were even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Beyond India, trans and non-binary priests have been documented throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Like the Gala and Gallai, all of these roles involved the worship of a goddess, gender transgression, elements of healing, and actual or symbolic castration. In their capacity as religious figures focused on sacred rites and community care, they were all important and respected members of their various communities.

In the Americas, the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 to describe the non-binary people who had existed within Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Although written historical records on this are limited, historical references can still be found.

When Don Pedro Fages wrote his account of the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition of what is now California, he reported meeting two-spirit people within the local tribes:

“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession. (…) They are called joyas (jewels) and are held in great esteem.”

Earlier, Bacqueville de la Potherie described a third, non-binary gender identity among the Iroquois in his Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale (1722).

Trans and non-binary gender identities have existed in many cultures since antiquity, and the fact that they developed independently of each other strongly suggests that they are natural rather than learned. Not only are these identities older than 1960, but they predate Christianity by some three thousand years. So the next time someone tells you they want to “return to traditional values,” you be sure to ask them, “How far back do you want to go?”

Jessica Cale

*Note: worth mentioning that this presumably also happened for trans men, although there is unfortunately less documentation of them from this period.
**Like music, makeup, and having fun.

Sources

Berkowitz, Eric. Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

Fages, P.; Priestley, H. I.; Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.

Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between myth and history: king, priest, and God; Volume 149 of Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. BRILL. pp. 96–97.

Morgan, Cheryl. Evidence for Trans Lives in Sumer. Notches: http://notchesblog.com/2017/05/02/evidence-for-trans-lives-in-sumer/

Roscoe, Will. “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion.” History of Religions 35, no. 3 (1996): 195-230. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062813.

 

 

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

In Love and Dirt: The Unconventional Romance of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby

When Arthur Munby died in 1910 at the age of 82, he made headlines not for his death, but for how he had lived his life. He had been a friend and colleague of John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and other influential artists and writers in the circles surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Munby himself was an accomplished author and photographer fascinated by the lives of working-class women. His favorite subject was one working-class woman in particular: his long-time lover and later secret wife, Hannah Cullwick.

How they managed to keep their relationship secret for fifty-four years was anyone’s guess. Munby was a gentleman, and Cullwick was a maid-of-all-work from Shropshire. Most of what we know about Cullwick comes from her diaries, which she kept throughout her life. Extensive, detailed, and unflinchingly honest, Cullwick’s diaries offer an unparalleled insight into not only her own life, but the lives of working-class women of this period, who were otherwise routinely ignored.

Hannah_Cullwick_portrait_in_man

Hannah Cullwick in men’s wear in 1860, giving precisely zero fucks

Cullwick was not a woman who could easily be ignored. Born in Shifnal to a housemaid and saddler in 1833, she trained in domestic service and worked full-time from the age of eight. Cullwick met Munby in London in 1854, and she took a job there to be closer to him in 1856. She distinguished herself as a particularly tireless worker, and though she had served as a cook, housemaid, and housekeeper, she preferred to work as a lower servant because she saw the position as a way to escape the confines of traditional femininity and service.

What we would now think of as a thoroughly “modern” woman, Cullwick took pride in her position, strength, and ability to take care of herself. No shrinking violet, she was 5’8” and 161 pounds of muscle, with thirteen-and-a-half-inch biceps and large, coarse hands. She usually worked sixteen-hour days doing exhausting manual labor, but she wasn’t the only one; while about half of all working-class women were in service, Cullwick’s generation was the last where large numbers of women were employed to do heavy manual labor. Until the mid-nineteenth century, women frequently did what was later regarded as “men’s work”: working fields, pulling trucks, digging roads, fishing, and working in coal mines. Outside of her job, she came and went as she pleased, visiting friends and roaming London alone without incident like many other women in her position did. She was self-assured, knew her own mind, and was more than capable of handling herself.

While Munby appreciated working-class women, his view of them was as condescending as one might expect for a man of his class in this period. Cullwick stood out to him for her intelligence and love of poetry, and Munby attempted to instruct her in the redemptive power of hard work.

Although Cullwick took his “instruction” to heart, she didn’t need it. She had taken pride in her work long before she’d met Munby, and his attraction to women in service complimented her unwavering dedication to her work, as difficult and ugly as it could get. Cullwick was assertive and even prideful in public, but in private, she became Munby’s willing submissive in what we would now recognize as a consensual Dom/sub relationship.

Munby was not Cullwick’s employer, and though she worked for a friend of his during their courtship, Munby was never in a position to threaten her job. She knew her worth and could have found other employment easily if it came down to it, and their relationship had started before she took the job to be closer to him. Though their relationship involved more than a little power play, they entered into it on as equal footing as anyone from such different classes could.

hannah-cullwick-1864

Cullwick with boots, 1864

Cullwick loved to meet Munby “in her dirt,” as she described her physical state after spending a long day cleaning filth without washing afterward. She submitted to his requests, served him, and even referred to him as “Massa,” their idea of how a black servant might say it. Though slavery had ended in Britain in 1833, they played with the concept in private, Cullwick darkening her skin with lead or soot. Less about race for her and more about subverting the Victorian ideal of femininity, Cullwick found submitting in this way liberating; outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, Cullwick was free to be herself, even if what she wanted was unconventional.

Her relationship with Munby certainly defied convention. For years, Cullwick wore a short chain around her neck joined with a padlock only Munby had the key to. She took particular pleasure in cleaning boots, and she would sometimes clean Munby’s boots with her tongue. In her diary, she claimed she could tell where he had been by how his boots tasted.

Though their differences made them an odd couple, it’s hard to imaging Munby and Cullwick finding the same happiness with anyone else. From Cullwick’s breathless diary entries about sneaking time with Munby or the delicious secret knowledge that he had passed the house and watched her scrubbing the steps, her feelings about him are more than clear. Though they lived apart during their first two decades together, she found ways to express her feelings. She wrote to him, sent him valentines, and even went to the excruciating lengths of polishing brass with her bare hands because she knew he liked them hard, rough, and red.

Given Munby’s position and love of working women, it has been suggested that his instruction of Cullwick in the virtues of service was enough to convince her to devote herself to it, but Cullwick knew her own mind and never needed convincing. In spite of the submissive role she played with Munby in private, she was not afraid to assert herself or make her wishes clear. Her diary hints that her love of being dirty outweighed his interest in seeing her that way; on more than one occasion, she would arrive intentionally filthy and he would ask her to bathe.

Even when she was on her own, Cullwick reveled in dirt, describing it with a sensuality bordering on the erotic. In this diary entry from October of 1863, she details the pleasure she took in cleaning a chimney:

“I work’d till eight o’clock & then had supper. Clean’d away & then to bed at ten o’clock. I’d a capital chance to go up the chimney, so I lock’d up & waited until ½ past ten till the grate was cool enough & then I took the carpets up & got the tub o’ water ready to wash me in. Moved the fender & swept ashes up. Stripp’d myself quite naked & put a pair of old boots on & tied an old duster over my hair & then I got up into the chimney with a brush. There was a lot o’ soot & it was soft & warm. Before I swept I pull’d the duster over my eyes & mouth, & I sat on the beam that goes across the middle & cross’d my legs along it & I was quite safe & comfortable & out o’ sight. I swept lots o’ soot down & it come all over me & I sat there for ten minutes or more, & when I’d swept all round & as far as I could reach I come down, & I lay on the hearth in the soot a minute or two thinking, & I wish’d rather that Massa could see me. I black’d my face over & then got the looking glass & look’d at myself & I was certainly a fright & hideous all over, at least I should o’ seem’d so to anybody but Massa. I set on & wash’d myself after, & I’d hard work to get the black off & was obliged to leave my shoulders for Massa to finish. I got the tub emptied & to bed before twelve.”

After twenty years as lovers, Munby and Cullwick married in secret in 1873. Cullwick was forty, and Munby was forty-five. Having spent thirty-two years as a full-time servant, Cullwick finally had the opportunity to move up in the world, but she didn’t want it. While Munby encouraged Cullwick to explore her new role as his wife, she refused and insisted on remaining his servant. This was not because she felt unworthy of it, but because she had no patience for the societal restrictions that came with the change in status and preferred to keep the freedom she’d had in service. Keeping her own last name, she lived with him as his servant until 1877, when she left to return to service in Shropshire. Their relationship wasn’t over, though—Munby visited her regularly until her death in 1909.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant. Liz Stanley, Ed.

Deadly Euphoria: A Short History of Erotic Asphyxiation in England

1 CRIMINAL CONVERSATION BON TON 1791

Bon-Ton Magazine, 1791

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

cafefankoni

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)

sonka

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.

sonkasakhalin

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

Untitled design

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.

The Courtesan and the Abolitionist: The Real-Life Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox

 

honorable mrs fox by joshua reynolds

The Honourable Mrs. Fox. Joshua Reynolds, 1784-9. Note that they were officially married in 1795, and the marriage was not made public until 1802.

Of all the great love stories in history that ought to be made into movies, Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox must be near the top of the list.

Elizabeth was born in Greenwich in 1750. By the age of twenty-one, she was working at a high-class brothel in Soho run by the infamous Mrs. Mitchell. Her first known patron was the Viscount of Bolingbroke, known to his friends as “Bully,” and it was through him that she met her future husband, Charles James Fox.

Though only a year older than Elizabeth, Charles had had a very different upbringing. His father was Henry Fox, Baron Holland, and his mother, Caroline, was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he got an early start in politics when his father bought him a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long before he made waves. Critical of George III, Charles opposed the American War of Independence and even showed his support for the colonists by wearing the colors of Washington’s army to Parliament. By the time he met Elizabeth, he had already developed a reputation of his own.

Elizabeth and Charles moved in the same circles and became fast friends. They remained close as their respective careers progressed. Elizabeth became an actress, and her considerable success as a courtesan was noted in Town and Country in 1776, when they reported that she had made conquests of two dukes, a marquis, four earls, and a viscount.

The truth was a bit more impressive. Elizabeth was indeed popular among the nobility, and her patrons over the next few years included the Duke of Dorset, the Earl of Derby, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She was known for her good nature and intelligence as much as her beauty–she was tall and statuesque, with a strong physique and large bust. She had a sharp wit and a talent for languages that gentlemen found as fascinating as the rest of her.

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. By the time she was thirty, she had a fortune of her own that included at least one residence, carriages, and several servants. Never one to be taken advantage of, she moved from patron to patron as effortlessly as she lived, and she never fell in love.

Unless, of course, she’d been in love all along. In the early 1780s, Elizabeth and Charles became lovers after a decade of friendship. It’s unknown whether it was out of the blue or if they’d had feelings for each other from the start, but they quickly became inseparable. Charles was a rake known for drinking, gambling, and womanizing–he had even been involved with Elizabeth’s rival, actress Mary Robinson–but he soon realized Elizabeth was the only woman for him. He treated her as an equal, encouraging her interest in politics by writing to her about his position and concerns as well as pledging his undying love on a regular basis.

The feeling was mutual. Elizabeth wouldn’t see anyone other than Charles and quickly fell into debt because of it. Their relationship meant the end of her career and may have posed a threat to his. She tried to call it off, but Charles made it clear he was serious about her. In one of his many letters to her, he wrote:

“You shall not go without me, wherever you go. I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I cannot bear.”

In spite of his status, Charles was no longer wealthy. He had gambled away most of his money, and he refused to use his political office for profit. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She sold the properties given to her by her former lovers and bought a house in St. Ann’s Hill, where they lived together happily for years. Still unmarried, Charles was considered quite a catch. When Charles was offered the chance at an advantageous marriage with the daughter of wealthy banker Thomas Coutts in 1795, Elizabeth knew it would be better for Charles. She offered to leave, but Charles refused. He wrote:

“I cannot figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you, and being sure of this, is it possible that I can think of any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life?”

Not only would Charles not consider it, but he married Elizabeth instead. Marrying her was considered more of a scandal than living openly with her as his mistress, so Charles reluctantly agreed to keep the marriage secret for a time. Elizabeth knew that it would hurt his career, but Charles–a radical politician accustomed to doing and saying exactly what he wanted–was less concerned. He made their marriage public in 1802, and although it caused a bit of scandal, Elizabeth was ultimately accepted by society due to her kindness and charm.

When Charles passed away of liver disease in 1806, his last word was her name. He was fifty-seven, and he and Elizabeth had been together for twenty-five years. After his death, Elizabeth remained close with their friends and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works. Though they never had children of their own, Elizabeth supported a school in the nearby parish of Chertsey. By the time Elizabeth passed away in 1842 at the age of ninety-one, her background as a sex worker had been conveniently forgotten. Her funeral was attended by scores of people from all classes who remembered her for her kindness and good works.

charles-james-fox-gs

Charles James Fox memorial. © 2019 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument is one of the most impressive there, which is no small feat. Completed by sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822, it shows Charles being mourned by a slave–he was a fervent abolitionist–and another figure representing Peace. He is held in the arms of Liberty, who looks just a little bit like Elizabeth.

Jessica Cale

Further reading

Davis, I.M. The Harlot and the Statesman. The Kendall Press, 1986.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. Harper Collins, 2003.

Les Scandaleuses: Histoire d’alcôve. Elizabeth Armistead, Mrs Fox (1750-1842). June 29th, 2013.

Rendell, Mike. In Bed With the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword, 2016.

Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies. Tempus Publishing, 2005.

Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Chevalier_de_Saint-Georges

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Mather Brown, 1787.

While you’re celebrating the holiday next week, have a drink for the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Christmas Day, 1745.

Not only was he gorgeous enough to pull off that wig, he was also a champion fencer by the time he was twenty, a classical composer who inspired Mozart, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, an active abolitionist, and (there’s an and!) he was the colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe.

So how did he achieve all of this? Well, it wasn’t easy. As a black man in eighteenth-century France, the odds were stacked against him. He was born Joseph Bologne in Guadaloupe to George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne Nanon, his sixteen-year-old Senegalese slave. George was married, but he loved Joseph and his mother, and he broke convention not only by acknowledging them, but providing for them. When Joseph was seven, George took him to France to be educated, and he brought Anne to France two years later. In France, Anne was free, and George set them up in an apartment in Saint-Germain.

As a teenager, Joseph drew attention for his extraordinary skill at fencing. While he was a popular student, not everyone was happy to see him succeed. He was mocked by Alexandre Picard, a fencing master from Rouen, which led to a public match between the two while Joseph was still a student. It drew a huge crowd as it was viewed as being about more than just the sport. The public was divided between people who were in favor of slavery and those vehemently against it. Never mind that it was a match between an adult professional and a child, it was held up as almost a demonstration about the validity of slavery.

Though he had significantly less experience, Joseph handily defeated Picard. It was quite an achievement, and it helped to push public opinion a little further in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so proud of his victory, he gave him a horse and buggy. Not long after, Joseph graduated from the fencing academy, becoming a chevalier. He took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In addition to his considerable skill with a sword, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. In 1769, he played violin in Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. He became a concert master within two years, and played his first solos by 1772. His performance was much remarked upon, especially among the ladies of Paris, who were particularly fond of the handsome chevalier. He was fond of them too; he had at least one serious romantic relationship, but French law prohibited interracial marriage, so Saint-Georges remained unmarried until his death.

When Gossec took a position at another orchestra in 1773, Saint-Georges took over as director, and under his leadership, Le Concert des Amateurs became one of the best in Europe. He was such a success that when his father died in 1774, Saint-Georges was able to support himself and his mother from his earnings, eventually tutoring and performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

By the mid-1780s, Philippe, duc d’Orléans became Saint-Georges’s patron, giving him an apartment in the Palais-Royal. It was with Philippe that Saint-Georges became involved with the abolitionist movement in France and England. When Philippe sent Saint-Georges—by then a celebrity—to England to secure the Prince of Wales’s support, his chief of staff, Brissot, privately asked Saint-Georges to meet with eminent abolitionists in England to ask for their advice on how to advance the movement in France.

Saint-Georges quickly became a court favorite in England, and the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (above), which everyone agreed was an excellent likeness. While there, he met with abolitionists William Wilberforce, John Wilkes, and Reverend Thomas Clarkson. He spent the next two years between the two countries, continuing his work with the movement and having British abolitionist literature translated into French for the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), a group he co-founded with Brissot.

St Georges_from_London_Morning_PostIn 1789, the Morning Post published this cartoon, titled “St. George and the Dragon,” (right) with the dragon symbolizing the slave trade. Note the woman boxing in the background—that’s his friend, the Chevalière d’Eon, a French spy, diplomat, and transgender woman.

We’ll get there.

When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas. Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.

While he was imprisoned, his mother passed away at the age of sixty. During the Terror, she had taken the name Citizen Anne Danneveau in an attempt to help Saint-Georges by concealing her own African origins. She had lived out her life as a free woman in Paris, and left all of her belongings to her son, who had remained close with her until the end.

Though it was nowhere near the end of the struggle for emancipation in France, Saint-Georges was able to see some progress before the end of his life. Slavery was abolished in French colonies by the National Convention on February 4th, 1794.

By the time he passed away of a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of fifty-three, Saint-Georges was a legend. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He had tutored a queen, founded a regiment, and furthered the abolitionist cause in England and France. In 2001, the Paris City Council named a street in his honor, the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. He left behind an impressive body of classical composition that can still be heard today. Listen to it this week and remember the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

Banat, Gabriel. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. (2006)

Bardin, Pierre. Joseph de Saint-George, Le Chevalier Noir. (2006)

Duchen, Jessica. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Man Who Got Under Mozart’s Skin. The Independent, February 7th, 2016.

Garnier-Panafieu, Michelle. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. AfriClassical.com, January 1st, 2016.