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. 

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.

Fanny Burney and Her Mastectomy

280px-Frances_d'Arblay_('Fanny_Burney')_by_Edward_Francisco_Burney-wiki

Fanny Burney

In 1811, before anesthesia was invented, Frances Burney d’Arblay had a mastectomy aided by nothing more than a wine cordial. She wrote such a gripping narrative about her illness and operation afterwards readers today still find it riveting and informative.

Fanny came from a large family and was the third child of six. From an early age, she began composing letters and stories, and she became a phenomenal diarist, novelist, and playwright in adulthood. Certainly, her skillful writing was a primary reason her mastectomy narrative had such appeal.

In her narrative, Fanny provides “psychological and anatomical consequences of cancer … [and] while its wealth of detail makes it a significant document in the history of surgical techniques, its intimate confessions and elaborately fictive staging, persona-building, and framing make it likewise a powerful and courageous work of literature in which the imagination confronts and translates the body.” Prior to her surgery, she had written similar works about “physical and mental pain to satirize the cruelty of social behavioral strictures, especially for women.”

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds-wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Fanny grew up in England and had been embraced by the best of London society. She had served in George III and Queen Charlotte’s court as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes. Moreover, she was admired by such literary figures as Hester Thrale, David Garrick, and Edmund Burke. Fanny also befriended Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer who made significant contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. In fact, some of Fanny’s best revelations are about Johnson, how he teased her, and the fondness that he held for her.

In 1793, Fanny married Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay and became Madame d’Arblay. D’Arblay was an artillery officer who served as adjutant-general to the famous hero of the American Revolution, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. D’Arblay had fled France for England during the Revolution just as had many other Frenchmen. However, in 1801, d’Arblay was offered a position in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government. He and Fanny relocated to France in 1802 and moved to Passy (the same spot where Benjamin Franklin and the princesse de Lamballe had lived), and they remained in France for about ten years.

Larrey and Dubois-x300

Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (left) and Antoine Dubois (right)

While living in France, Fanny suffered breast inflammation in her right breast in 1804 and 1806. She initially dismissed the problem but then in 1811 the pain became severe enough that it affected her ability to use her right arm. Her husband became concerned and arranged for her to visit Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard, as well as the leading French obstetrician, surgeon, and anatomist, Antoine Dubois.

The French doctors treated Fanny palliatively but as there was no response to the treatment, it was determined surgery was necessary. Fanny’s surgery occurred on 11 September 1811. At the time, surgery was still in its infancy and anesthesia unavailable. Cocaine was later isolated, determined to be an effective local anesthetic, and used for the first time in 1859 by Karl Koller. So, it must have been horrific for Fanny to experience the pain of a mastectomy with nothing more than a wine cordial that may have contained some laudanum. Fanny was traumatized by the surgery and it took months before she wrote about the surgery details to her sister Esther exclaiming:

“I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing convinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could alone save from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead – & M. Dubois placed upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, & made their examination – Oh what a horrible suspension! … The pause, at length, was broken by Dr. Larry [sic], who in a voice of solemn melancholy, said ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein?”

Fanny went on to describe “torturing pain” and her inability to restrain her cries as the doctors cut “though veins – arteries – flesh – nerves.” Moreover, she noted:

“I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. … I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, and so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into my Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – and worse than ever … I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture. “

Despite the excruciating pain, Fanny lived through the operation, and her surgery was deemed a success. Larrey produced a medical report about his brave patient stating that he removed her right breast at 3:45pm and that Fanny showed “un Grand courage.” Courageous as she was, there was no way for doctors to determine if Fanny’s tumor was malignant or if she suffered from mastopathy.

Burney_tombstone-x300

Fanny’s Commemorate Plaque. Courtesy of Bath-heritage.co.uk

Fanny’s healing took a long time, and while still recuperating, she and husband returned to England in 1812. Six years later, in 1818, her husband died from cancer, and she died twenty-two years later, at the age of eighty-seven, on 6 January 1840 in Lower Grosvenor-street in London. As Fanny had requested, a private funeral was held in Bath, England, and attended by a few relatives and some close friends. She was laid to rest in Walcot Cemetery, next to her beloved husband and her only son Alexander, who had died three years earlier. Their bodies were then moved during redevelopment of the Walcot Cemetery to the Haycombe Cemetery in Bath and are buried beneath the Rockery Garden.

References

DeMaria, Jr., Robert, British Literature 1640-1789, 2016
“Died,” in Northampton Mercury, 18 January 1840
Epstein, Julia L., “Writing the Unspeakable: Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy and the Fictive Body,” in Representations, No. 16 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 131-166
Madame D’Arblay, in Evening Mail, 20 January 1840
Madame D’Arblay’s Diary, in Evening Mail, 18 May 1842
“The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay), Volume VI, France 1803-1812,” in Cambridge Journals 

61yLoQ9ugKL._SX345_BO1204203200_-347x381Geri Walton has long been interested in history and fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website, geriwalton.com which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, discusses the French Revolution and looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe.
FacebookTwitter | Google+ | Instagram | Pinterest

Beggar’s Benison: Masturbation and Free Love in 18th Century Scotland

testing platter

The Test Platter of The Beggar’s Benison. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the University of St. Andrews).

Men are gross. I should know – I am one.

But don’t take it from me. Take, for example, the eighteenth-century Scottish men’s club, “The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of Beggar’s Benison and Merryland,” or Beggar’s Benison for short. Formed in 1732 in the small town of Anstruther in Fife, this club comprised men of all ages, and of ranks ranging from tradesmen and merchants to government officials, eventually even including royalty. Its members came together – yes, in that sense of the term – to celebrate male sexuality and the idea of free love. The effluvia of their activity was collected on a “test plate” bearing an engraving of vulva and penis and the motto “The Way of a Man with a Maid.”

This pastime resulted in some interesting meeting minutes: “18 assembled, and Frigged upon the Test Platter. The origin and performance were discussed. The Platter was filled with Semen, each Knight at an average did not ‘benevolent’ [donate] quite a horn spoonful.”(1)

Masturbation was also key to initiating new members, who had to prove their manhood. In the initiation ritual, the novice would lay his erect penis on the test platter, then “The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.”(2)

As homo-erotic as this undoubtedly is, the Benison wasn’t a proto-gay club. Those already existed and were known derogatorily as “molly houses.” In these establishments, men seeking sex with men could meet each other with somewhat less fear of discovery than in other venues, at a time when the punishment for sodomy was transportation or execution. The Beggar’s Benison wanted to distance itself from any such suspicions, either out of homophobia or fear of prosecution (probably both). While its Code promoted “fair trade and legal entry” in sexual matters, it also sought to prevent “a preposterous and Contraband Trade too frequently practiced.”

prick glass

The Wig Club’s prick glass (often misattributed to the Beggar’s Benison). Anyone attempting to drink from it was likely to get a good dowsing, so it was probably used only to initiate new members to the Wig Club.

But the grossness doesn’t stop with semen-filled platters. Other relics of the club included a wig supposedly made of the pubic hair of King Charles II’s mistresses (and have you ever noticed the size of Restoration-era wigs?). Eighteenth-century dandies sometimes adorned their hats with tufts of pubic hair as trophies of their conquests, and this wig was just a much larger version. It would later be transferred to the elite Edinburgh Wig Club (an offshoot of the Benison), and became that club’s icon. Allegedly, the loss of the wig to the Benison’s rival inspired King George IV to donate his own mistresses’ pubic hairs to the club, of which he was already an honorary member. (Unfortunately, the wig disappeared in the early 1900s, but we still have the Wig Cub’s prick glass, right)

The childish jokes almost write themselves. But does the Beggar’s Benison only merit either a derisive laugh or a disgusted “ewww!”?

In his 2001 book on the club, David Stevenson argues that behind what seems a particularly gross frat-boy bawdiness lay an Enlightenment sex-positivity. In contrast to the Puritan view that allowed sex, even within marriage, only for procreation, the Benison aligned itself with other Enlightenment thinkers in viewing sex as pleasurable in itself. This was also a time of rabid anti-masturbation sentiment, which began in 1715 with the publication of Onania, a pamphlet warning that self-pleasure led to “stunted growth, disorders of the penis and testes, gonorrhea, epilepsy, hysteria, consumption, and barrenness.”(3)Stevenson cover

The club can be seen as a reaction to such hysteria: a bold statement of the rights of man to fap when he pleases.

But what of women? As usual with Enlightenment thinking, liberty and equality only went so far. Like the other libertines of the time (and some today), the club viewed women both with veneration and as little more than objects. The Merryland in the club’s name refers to the body of Woman, to be explored and possessed (see the above-mentioned pubic hairs). At best, the club promoted “fair trade” or “free trade” between the sexes, but the emphasis was always on male freedom to pursue “commerce” with “Merryland.” Sexual freedom for the wives and daughters of these worthy family men? Lol.

And I doubt these men wanted their own daughters to participate in a service some village girls performed for the club. The Benison employed “posture girls” (eighteenth-century strippers), although, oddly, it kept its masturbatorial and viewing activities separate. Speaking to or touching the girls was forbidden, and the girls (literally girls, as they ranged in age from 15 to 17) were allowed to wear masks while posing nude. Then every Knight “passed in turn and surveyed the Secrets of Nature.”(4) Ironically, “free love” becomes sex (or titillation) for cash.

The sex-for-cash theme goes back to the club’s founding myth, in which the Stuart King James V, traveling in commoner’s disguise, comes to Dreel Burn, a stream dividing the two neighborhoods of Anstruther. Not wanting to get his feet wet (how noble!), he employs the services of a “beggar lass” to carry him on her back across the water. He gives her a gold coin for the service, and she gives him a blessing or “benison” in return: “May your purse naer be toom [empty], and your horn aye in bloom.” From this verse of double entendres sprang the club’s salutation: “May prick nor purse never fail you.”(5)

Edinburgh Beggar's seal

The Seal of the Edinburgh branch of the Beggar’s Benison, bearing the image of the prick and purse. The anchor has nothing to do with the navy, but is a sexual metaphor (a man “dropping anchor” in a woman’s “harbor”).

So the Beggar’s Benison wasn’t just a sex club, but wove Jacobite and free-trade themes into its codes and mythology. The trade metaphors may be even more important than the sexual aspect. The merchants of the club, like most dutiful Scots, engaged in smuggling to circumvent onerous English taxes. Think of them as early Libertarians. Stevenson even suggests that the bawdy activities of the club might have been a mere cover to allow smugglers and corrupt customs officials to meet. And who would want to check up on the club, considering the type of activities one might find at its meetings?

In the end, the Beggar’s Benison may have been little more nor less than the equivalent of a bunch of guys visiting a strip club, with all the sexism that implies. Stevenson makes the case that they kept to themselves and harmed no one, apart from some of the posture girls’ reputations. They also hosted lectures on what amounted to sex education, encouraging the use of condoms: “the sexual embrace should be independent of the dread of a conception which blasts the prospects of the female.”(6)

As Stevenson points out, far worse can be said of other, better-remembered Scots, such as Robert Burns, whose affairs led to illegitimate children and untimely ends for the mothers, or James Boswell, whose seventeen bouts of gonorrhea no doubt contributed to the spread of venereal disease among the many, many prostitutes he frequented. Compared to these and other eighteenth-century rakes (the denizens of the far more notorious Hellfire Clubs, for instance), the men of the Beggar’s Benison merely seem like spunky schoolboys.

Sources

(1) Stevenson, David. The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and their Rituals. Tuckwell Press, 2001. p. 38

(2) Stevenson, p. 39

(3) Allen, Peter L. The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 87

(4) Stevenson, p. 38

(5) Stevenson, p. 12

(6) Stevenson, p. 36

Further Reading

Black, Annetta. Objects of Intrigue: Beggar’s Benison Prick Glass. Atlas Obscura. (Unfortunately, this article misattributes the intriguing prick glass as belonging to the Beggar’s Benison. According to Stevenson, it belonged to the later Wig Club.)

Perrottet, Tony. Hellfire Holidays. Slate.

Roderick, Danielle. Masturbation Clubs of the 1700s. The Hairpin.
http://www.slate.com/

HogueFinal A_macLarry Hogue’s writing is all over the place and all over time. He started out in nonfiction/nature writing with a personal narrative/environmental history of the Anza-Borrego Desert called All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. After moving to Michigan, he switched to writing fiction. He’s a fan of folk music, and got the idea for Daring and Decorum while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s outstanding adaptation of Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. When not speaking a word for nature or for forgotten LGBT people of history, he spends his white-knighting, gender-betraying energies on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes on the streets of Lansing, MI, and Washington DC. His new historical romance, Daring and Decorum, is due out August 1 from Supposed Crimes. As might be expected from this article, the novel can be described as “Regency Romance, minus the hunky, shirtless lords.”
Website | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest | Instagram

Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here.