Civil War Hospitals Were Enough to Make You Sick


A nurse and the wounded outside a hospital in Fredericksburg

When people find out that I wrote the non-fiction companion to Mercy Street, the PBS series set in a Union hospital during the American Civil War, they almost always ask me whether the show gets the historical details right. Particularly whether the medicine is accurate. I tell them that the series does a great job with historical accuracy with one exception: the television version of Mansion House Hospital isn’t dirty enough.

Today we think of hospitals as bastions of sanitation. But in the mid-19th century hospitals were dangerous, dirty, smelly places that many people rightly regarded as death traps. Add in the chaos of war and you had breeding grounds for contagious diseases, including smallpox, measles, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, typhoid and yellow fever.

At the beginning of the war, the Union Army had a few hospitals attached to forts in the west, but none along the eastern seaboard. In order to cope with the crisis of illness and injury that began before the first battle was fought, the Army’s Medical Bureau requisitioned buildings for use as general hospitals throughout Washington DC and surrounding towns, primarily hotels and schools. Many of them were run down and most suffered from inadequate ventilation and poorly designed toilet facilities, which aggravated the problems of disease.

The largest of the Washington hospitals was the Union Hotel, where Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for a little over a month. The hospital opened on May 25, 1861, and was soon infamous for its poor condition and worse smells. A report on its condition, made shortly after the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, stated that

…the building is old, out of repair, and cut up into a number of small rooms, with windows too small and few in number to afford good ventilation. Its halls and passages are narrow, tortuous and abrupt…There are no provisions for bathing, the water-closets and sinks are insufficient and defective and there is no dead-house [a room or structure where dead bodies could be stored before burial or transportation—a grim necessity in a Civil War hospital.] The wards are many of them overcrowded and destitute of arrangements for artificial ventilation. The cellars…are damp and undrained and much of the wood is actively decaying. (1)

Alcott was more blunt. In a letter home, she complained “a more perfect, pestilence-box than this house I never saw,–cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables.”

Nurses, supported by convalescent soldiers, occasional chambermaids, and an army of laundresses, fought to keep hospitals clean in the face of a seemingly endless stream of mud, blood, and diarrhea—a common element of Civil War military life seldom mentioned in letters and memoirs of the period. (An average of 78 percent of the Union Army suffered from what they called the “Tennessee quick-step” at some point each year.) It was a monumental task, even by standards of cleanliness that required patients’ undergarments to be changed once a week and saw nothing wrong with reusing lightly soiled bandages.

Keeping a supply of clean shirts, clean underwear, clean sheets, and clean bandages required a heroic effort—especially when a given patient might require three clean bandages and a fresh shirt daily, all of which would need to be thrown away because they were so stained with blood and pus. The newly constructed general hospital at Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island, reported boasted a new-fangled steam washing machine that could wash and mangle four thousand pieces of laundry a day. It was an innovation that hospitals improvised from hotels and schools could only dream of with envy. Most hospitals had to make do with wooden washtubs, soap-sized kettle for heating water, and elbow grease. Washable clothing, bed linens, bandages and rags were washed in hot water using soft soap and a scrub board, boiled to kill lice and insects, rinsed several times in hot water, allowed to cool, and then rinsed again in cool water. Water had to be carried by hand from water sources that varied in degree of inconvenience. Once acquired, water was heated in large kettles on wood- or coal-burning stoves and carried from kitchen to washtub. It was not unusual for a general hospital laundry to process two or three thousand pieces of laundry in one day.

Even the best efforts to keep hospitals clean did not deal with the root causes of contagion. A bacterial theory of disease was some decades in the future. The prevailing medical theory of the period focused on clean air rather than clean water because doctors believed that diseases were spread through the poisoned atmosphere of “miasmas.” Doctors interested in hospital sanitation were concerned with eradicating foul smells. New hospitals were built with an eye toward providing fresh air. Hospital designers would have been well advised to focus on handling human waste instead.

The sanitary arrangements in Civil War hospitals made it easy for diseases linked to contaminated water, like typhoid and dysentery, to spread. Many latrines and indoor water closets had to be flushed by hand, carried by hand from a water source some distance away. As a result, they were not flushed out as frequently as required to keep them sanitary. Worse, in some hospitals, latrines were located too close to the kitchens. Even when there was an adequate distance between the two, flies carried bacteria on their feet as they flew between latrines, kitchens and patients’ dinner trays.

It’s no wonder that disease was responsible for two-thirds of all Civil War deaths.

(1) Quoted in Hannah Ropes. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes, ed. John R. Brumgardt. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980) p. 40.

(2) Quoted in Ropes, p. 40

Further Reading

Humphreys, Margaret. Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2013

Rutkow, Ira. M. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York: Random House. 2005.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill and toler_heroinesofmercystreetLondon: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently writing a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors. She blogs about history, writing, and writing about history at History in the Margins.


Theresa Berkley: Queen of the Flagellants


Flagellation. An 18th Century engraving presented to the Royal Society in hopes they could explain the appeal.

No dirty, sexy history would be complete without the story of the extraordinary Theresa Berkley, who as a brothel madam and splendid businesswoman to boot, amassed a fortune and compiled a list of London’s finest and their sexual predilections during her long career which spanned both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

She began her business life as a brothel mistress in the late eighteenth century when she opened the first of her premises to patrons who wished to be flogged or birched or do the same, if they preferred a more active role, to the establishment’s willing ladies. It was a time of licentiousness and debauchery which flourished beneath a veneer of high morality and ideals. The service she supplied was not a unique one; flagellation or le vice anglais had played a fairly prominent role in English sex work from about 1700 onwards. She was simply clever and intuitive in how she reacted to and serviced her clientele.


The White House, now known as Manor House, has become an office building. 

Theresa’s career spanned 49 years, ending only upon her death in 1836. She began in 1787 by turning the White House, a mansion in Soho Square, into a haven of sadomasochism by installing various instruments of torture. These included whip-thongs, cats-o’-nine-tails studded with needle points, supple switches, thin leather straps, curry combs, ox hide straps studded with nails and green nettles. She opened another establishment in 1828 at 28 Charlotte Street (now 84-94 Hallam Street) Fitzrovia which housed a contraption devised for flogging gentlemen known as ‘the Horse’ and where George IV was reputedly a regular visitor (see below).

Berkley brought her collection of instruments of torture with her to Charlotte Street and according to Mary Wilson, another madam, “were more numerous than those of any other governess. Her supply of birch was extensive, and kept in water so it was always green and pliant. There were holly brushes, furze brushes and prickly evergreen called butcher’s brush.” Clients could be “birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half hung, holly brushed, furze brushed, butcher brushed, stinging nettled, curry combed, phlebotomised and tortured.” She had a ready supply of mistresses in the form of Miss Ring, Hannah Jones, Sally Taylor, One-eyed Peg, Bauld-cunted Poll and a black girl called Ebony Bet, who both administered and received floggings and flagellation.

Theresa herself, possessed of a pleasant disposition and whose countenance was pleasing to the eye, occasionally allowed herself, if the price was right, to be whipped by her clients, although she preferred to be the one to administer her flagellations. Political and public figures, together with the wealthy constituted her clientele and she maintained absolute privacy, although the calibre of her clients incited little fear of imprisonment or transportation as had befallen other brothel keepers of the time. Certainly her establishments were never raided by the constabulary.


The Berkley Horse (1830)

Berkley was also a devout Christian, her occupation notwithstanding. An insight into her extraordinary professional success is recorded by her erstwhile colleague Mary Wilson, who in the Foreword to The Venus School-Mistress in 1810 wrote that Theresa possessed:

“(That) first grand requisite of a courtesan, viz. lewdness: for without a woman is positively lecherous, she cannot keep up long the affection of it, and will be soon perceived that she only moves her hands or her buttocks to the tune of pounds, shillings and pence. She could assume great urbanity and good humour; she would study every lech, whim, caprice and desire of the customer, and had she the disposition to gratify them, her avarice was rewarded in return.”

Thus Theresa displayed a genuine open-mindedness; an attitude of libertinism which she exploited for financial gain. Her ‘governessing,’ as it was known during the period, brought her wealth, which when she died, was inherited by her brother. He arrived from Australia, where he had been a missionary for 30 years, to find she had left him a large estate. Appalled upon finding how it had been amassed, he immediately renounced all claim as her heir and departed again for the Antipodes.

Henry Ashbee, businessman and erotic author, makes mention of Theresa after her death in his series of Curious and Uncommon Books, published in 1877. He details that Dr. Vance, her medical practitioner and executor “came into possession of her correspondence, several boxes full, which, I am assured by one who examined it, was of the most extraordinary character, containing letters from the highest personages, male and female, in the land.” But he records, “The whole was eventually destroyed” as upon her brother’s renunciation, her estate had devolved to Dr. Vance who similarly wanted nothing to do with it. Thus, the Berkley Whipping Horse, now owned by the Royal Society of Arts in London, together with the rest of the estate became the property of the Crown.


Another Berkley Horse (1828)

Dr. Vance died while Ashbee was writing his Bibliography of Forbidden Books and Ashbee expressed the hope that perhaps now Theresa’s memoirs, reputedly ready for publication, and which contained “Anecdotes of many of the present Nobility and others, devoted to erotic pleasures and Plates” could be published.

It appears not. Either Dr. Vance or his executors felt this manuscript was too incriminating or too unworthy for public release and it too was destroyed. Such reticence in matters of sex, or prurience, was emblematic of the Victorian age – respectability was the order of the day and the absolutes of godliness, goodness and virtue were what Victorians aspired to achieve, at least outwardly. Concentration on these matters inevitably led to the submersion of the baser instincts and enterprising women like Theresa Berkley, willing to supply services of a sexual and masochistic nature, were able to continue to ply their trade to a willing and receptive clientele.

Not surprising, really, in an era when women were not allowed to own property and could not vote. The sense of power afforded when a woman was able to use a whip on a man for payment would be one difficult to pass up if you were so restricted in life and in achieving an acceptable standard of living. Theresa Berkley was in fact a very dangerous woman; she held the power to blackmail or expose those of high political status and influence, but chose to keep their identities secret during her long career, all the while diarising their proclivities for future reference. One can only conclude she was also a very shrewd woman – one who turned her lewd capabilities into a viable business, one who knew how to survive and prosper in an era when few women were able to do so without inherited wealth and status – and write her memoirs for publication only after her death.* A pity her trustees were not so brave as she in this regard; the truth as she proposed to tell it was thus lost together with a valuable insight into the psyche of the upper class English of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

*Debate persists over whether Theresa Berkeley wrote and perhaps funded the publication of the 1830 pornographic novel Exhibition of Female Flagellants.


Linnane, Fergus. Madams: Bawds & Brothel Keepers of London. The History Press, 24 October 2011.

Mudge, Bradford Keyes. The Whore’s Story: Women, Pornography & the British Novel, 1684 – 1830. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nomis, Anne O. The History & Arts of the Dominatrix. Anna Nomis Ltd. 2013.

Reyes, Heather (Ed). London. Oxygen Books, 2011.

Teardrop, Destiny. Femdom Pioneer Theresa Berkley. Femdom Magazine, Issue 15, 25 April 2011.

Wilson, Mary (Forward). Venus School-Mistress or Birchen Sports, 1810. (first published 1777, reprinted regularly and expanded throughout the nineteenth century)

Manor House, Photo. Nancy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

082-2Leigh Denton studied English Literature and Fine Art before becoming a litigation lawyer in Sydney. She maintains an interest in Victorian and Edwardian history, blogs on this subject at and is presently at work on a novel set in the nineteenth century.

She has previously written on the legal and social reformer Josephine Butler for the Dangerous Women Project, an initiative of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and regularly tweets snippets of interest on Twitter as @DownstairsCook.



Bloody, Sexy Murder: Sexual Magic, Missing Evidence, and Jack the Ripper


Whitechapel, 1888

Theories still abound about the identity of Jack the Ripper, a nineteenth-century serial killer who was never caught. Experts debate endlessly over the victim toll and the actual start/stop dates of the gory murder spree in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood (Odell, 2006). Officially, two prostitutes were murdered on August 31 and September 8, 1888, before two more were “ripped” in the “double event” on September 30. A fifth murder occurred during the early hours of November 9. Some victims were gutted, all had their throats slashed, and some body parts were taken. The spree drew international coverage and a massive police effort.

newsarticleDuring this period, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer (Evans & Skinner, 2001). One nasty note offered the grim moniker, “Jack the Ripper,” although there’s no proof that Red Jack sent any letter. If he (or she or they) did send one, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” letter as the best candidate.

This mysterious missive arrived shortly after the double event to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, enclosed with half of a preserved human kidney that had the appearance of a disorder from which victim #4, Catherine Eddowes, had suffered (and her kidney was missing). The note’s author claimed he’d consumed the rest before taunting, “Catch me when you can” (Evans & Skinner, 2001). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow (2004) discovered that the original note had gone missing from police files, and some experts think it ended up with a private collector.

This note’s potential provenance became the starting point for my fictional murder mystery. I linked it with a Ripper suspect whose background offers plenty of spooky detail.


The “From Hell” letter

A circle of occult practitioners believed that their crony, Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson, was the Whitechapel killer (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987-8; Odell, 2006; O’Donnell, 1928). He was a former military surgeon who knew his way around knives and who’d studied magical practices in France and Africa. His wife had gone missing in 1887, possibly murdered, and he claimed to have killed a female shaman in Africa. He was unmoved by brutality. D’Onston associated with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical group, adding to his obsession with the occult. Some members said that they never saw him eat and whenever he appeared, he made no sound.

Despite being highly secretive, D’Onston openly shared his ideas about the identity and modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. He named a medical colleague. D’Onston was himself arrested but not detained. He sought out a sponsor to fund a private investigation, but D’Onston’s associates remained convinced that he was the killer. One of them reportedly discovered a box under his bed that held books on magic, along with several stained black ties. D’Onston’s friends thought the ties had been worn during the murders to hide body parts carried away, as blood would not show up on black material.


The fourth victim

On December 1, 1888, D’Onston published a detailed article about the murders in the Pall Mall Gazette, offering a black magic angle (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987). He suggested that the killer had walked around Whitechapel to select specific locations for six murders that would mirror Christian symbolism, in order to pervert it. Sexual energy, released with “sacrifice” of a “harlot,” would tap into psychic energy for demonic ceremonies. Female body parts, he said, were essential, along with such items as strips of skin from a suicide, nails from a gallows, and the head of a black cat fed on human flesh for forty days.

“Yet, though the price is awful, horrible, unutterable,” he wrote, “the power is real!”

Intrigued with D’Onston’s description, surveyor Ivor Edwards (2003) measured the distances between murder sites and found them strikingly consistent. He mapped out two equilateral triangles and added an elliptical arc to form the Vesica Piscis, the almond-shaped intersection of two circles, a vaginal symbol. This aligned with D’Onston’s notions about erotic energy and his belief that triangles had supernatural power.


Whitechapel’s London Hospital

In addition, throughout the spree, D’Onston had been a self-committed patient in Whitechapel’s London Hospital for a fatigue disorder (easily malingered). What a perfect hiding place! He could easily have eluded police after each murder. Although most Ripperologists dismiss D’Onston as a viable suspect (Dimolianis, 2001), Odell admits that “Edwards’ idea of murder by measurement produced some intriguing symmetry.”

I agree, and from such mysteries can one effectively form fiction.

theripperlettercoverKatherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has published 58 books and hundreds of articles, mostly nonfiction devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. Lately, she has added paranormal murder mysteries with The Ripper Letter and it’s sequel, Track the Ripper, published by Riverdale Avenue Books. There’s romance, sure, and sex, but she has wrapped it all in Ripper lore, along with other figures from history that nicely fit. She doesn’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but she knows enough from extensive research (including trips to London and Paris) to realize that all of the theorists make assumptions and take some leaps to make their ideas work. Within the gaps and ambiguities she has found room to develop fictional plots that still retain historical accuracy.


Dimolianis, S. (2001) Jack the Ripper and Black Magic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Edwards, I. (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals. London: John Blake.

Harris, M. (1987). Jack the Ripper: The Bloody Truth. London: Columbus Books.

Odell, R. (2006). Ripperology. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.

O’Donnell, E. (1928). Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Rumbelow, D. (1975, 2004). The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: W. H. Allen.

Evans, S. P., & Skinner, K. (2001). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Stroud: Sutton.


Guy Fawkes Night: 400 Years of Fire and Madness


The conspirators. Crispijn van de Passe

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

“Remember, remember the fifth of November” is more than just a line from V for Vendetta. Also known as Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) is a holiday celebrated every year on the fifth of November in the UK. Bigger and more widely celebrated than Halloween, people get together after dark to drink mulled wine and watch massive displays of fireworks. But what is it, where did it come from, and what did Guy Fawkes do that was so great?

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy planned by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant James I and to replace him with a Catholic leader. On November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives that had been stashed beneath the House of Lords for this very purpose. Fawkes was tortured into a confession and was sentenced to a traitor’s execution of hanging, drawing, and quartering, but managed to end his own life by throwing himself from the scaffold to avoid suffering the rest.


The Execution of Guy Fawkes. Claes Jansz Visscher.

Why would we celebrate that?!

The tradition started that very week when people around London lit bonfires to celebrate that King James had survived the plot. In 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act actually enforced annual celebration on this day. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and was celebrated on command every November.

Three Hundred Years of Madness

If it’s not weird enough for you to be ordered to celebrate, you just can’t have that much fire and booze without attracting a certain amount of madness. Gunpowder Treason Day became the focus of a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment, with effigies of the pope being burned alongside other hate figures. This only got worse when Charles I married the Catholic Henrietta Maria in 1625. During the Interregnum, Parliamentarians feared further Catholic plots, and fueled the paranoia of the public by suggesting that Catholics were plotting to blow them up, too.


“The Guy Fawkes of 1850, Preparing to Blow Up All of England!”Anti-Catholic cartoon in Punch, November 1850.

The Restoration of Charles II brought new life to the holiday. It became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne” and was taken over by London’s apprentices as a sort of fire festival “attacking sobriety and good order.” The fires got bigger and the celebrations madder and more violent until fireworks and bonfires were banned by the London militia in 1682.

The damage had already been done, however, and celebrations continued in various forms over the years, all incorporating the element of fire. Frequent violence between the classes in the nineteenth century only added to the festivities, and the Observance of 5th November Act was finally repealed in 1859 (but the violence continued into the twentieth century).

Guy Fawkes Today

Sometime during the late 18th century, children began to drag effigies of Guy Fawkes around while begging for pennies “for the Guy.” This became a tradition, and Gunpowder Treason Day gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day (also Guy Fawkes Night and Bonfire Night). Today it’s a pretty harmless and family-friendly holiday celebrated with fireworks, music, and if you’re unlucky, laser shows. In most places in Britain, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an effigy of anybody, let alone an open flame. People may not be cooking potatoes on sticks over bonfires anymore, but food trucks aren’t usually far away.

For those of you who have read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta or seen the movie but missed the context, the Gunpowder Plot is a pretty central theme and is repeated through the use of one of the traditional rhymes, V’s plan, and his Guy Fawkes mask.

Here’s one of the better known (and actually least unsettling) Guy Fawkes Day rhymes:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?

Burn him!

The Tourist Trade Was Murder in Victorian England


The Burial of William Weare, from “The Fatal Effects of Gambling Exemplified in the Murder of Wm. Weare.” T. Kelly, 1824.

Today we have CSI: Every City in America and then Some. Patricia Cornwell makes a killing with her Scarpetta series. People binge watch Making of a Murderer. But in Victorian England, citizens had no such luxurious entertainments. When murder didn’t come to them, they went to the murder.

The murder tourism trade was rampant during the Victorian era in England as the time saw a powerful focus on death and dying. Victorians took on many rituals surrounding death, developing traditions during periods of mourning, and maintaining keepsake notions like clipping a lock of hair from a dead person and keeping it in a locket, and even death photos in which the dead were photographed. This delight with death sparked a surge in entertainments focused on murder.

Murder tours were all the rage. The Radlett murder in 1823 sparked a wealth of murder entertainment. The Radlett murder involved three men mired in the vices of gambling and boxing who killed a fourth man, William Weare. The three murderers were led by John Thurtell, a sports promoter. He believed Weare had cheated him out of money and murdered him on October 24, 1823. Tourists would visit the location of the murder, a cottage in Radlett, Hertfordshire, England to survey the scene of the crime. Even Sir Walter Scott would visit the cottage a few years after the crime.

Tourists flocking to murder scenes was so common, a trade built up around it. Sightseeing tours to murder locations became quite common. In relation to the Radlett murder, the tour would take visitors not only to the cottage where the murder took place but to the local churchyard and the pond where the murderers hid. Finally the tour would stop at the Artichoke Inn, the place where the corpse was carried during the execution of the murder, and the proprietor of the inn, a Mr. Field, would be required to answer questions of the visitors.

L0036393 Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Photograph 19th Century Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative

So popular were these tours, that tradesmen began to capitalize on them by creating souvenirs for tour-goers. In the case of the Radlett murder, at the end of the tour you could acquire a bit of the sack that was used to carry the corpse of William Weare or a book and a map of the murdered body’s journey. Staffrodshire pottery was even developed around the murder. But tourists took it even further.

When news of a murder got out, murder-hungry tourists would race to the location in the hopes of a public auction. Fanatics would buy up any materials that were auctioned off in the hopes of getting something from the murder scene. When that wasn’t enough, they would flock to the executions to see the murderers hanged. In the case of John Thurtell, an estimated 40,000 people attended. But it wasn’t just the crime scenes and mementos that pulled in the tourists. Murder spawned entertainment of a much more creative nature as well.

Murder plays and poetry abounded from sensational murders. Poetry accompanied action illustrations in broadsheets published during murder trials at the height of public frenzy. In the case of the Radlett murder, Thurtell once again was the focus with –

From bad to worse he did proceed,
‘mid scenes of guilt and vice,
Until he learn’d the cursed art,
To play with cards and dice.

Spectators would buy up these broadsheets, especially if they couldn’t afford newspapers. These publications would feed their yearning for more sensation as the trial went on. But even more so did plays move to stoke the public’s interest.

The Gamblers, or, The Murderers at the Desolate Cottage opened at the Surrey on November 17, 1823, not one month after the murder. The Gamblers would reappear on stage immediately following Thurtell’s execution. So hungry for murder plays was the public that it was not uncommon for plays based on real-life murders to play over and over again to packed houses.

While it may seem uncouth or perhaps disrespectful to the dead for people to carry on so, I bring you back to the present where the recent adaptation for television of the O.J. Simpson trial won an Emmy for outstanding limited series. Perhaps we’re not all that different from Victorians. Perhaps it’s just that advancements in technology has changed how people revel in the forbidden of murder. Getting safely close to the danger of murder through entertainments like shows and books. Perhaps now murder simply comes to us.

Jessie Clever


Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011, pp. 20-41.

About Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeadebutante_800In the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Her most recent release is To Be a Debutante: A Spy Series Short Story. Find out more at

Child Trafficking in the Nineteenth Century


Child workers in Newton, NC. Lewis Hine.

News organizations and documentary producers have made us all too aware of the horrors of trafficking children. The fate of women and girls of any age coerced and trapped as sex workers horrifies. Boys are not immune. This evil isn’t new, and may in fact be as ancient as the oldest profession. This article will concentrate on the nineteenth century, one in which it has been estimated that over half the prostitutes in Paris were minors, and London brothels notoriously traded in virgin girls.

In our day we generally assume that trafficked women, girls, and, yes, boys have been kidnapped, or are runaways who wandered into the clutches of their keepers unaware. Occasionally, we hear something even worse: the story of parents who’ve sold a child as a sex slave. Child selling was much more common two hundred years ago.

It is helpful to look at laws surrounding custody as a background. In Europe, and in England in particular, children were regarded as the property of their father to do with as he chose. English Common Law regarded wives as having no property rights partially on the theory (with biblical echoes) that a married couple became one person. That person, of course, was the husband. Because they had no property rights, women had no “ownership” of their children. Custom assumed that a man would cherish his wife and children and manage their lives wisely and benignly, but of course that wasn’t always the case.


A Virgin. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1892.

The property rights of the father were absolute up to the passage of The Custody of Children Act of 1839, which provided non-adulterous mothers with rights to custody of children under seven and access to older ones. It is considered the first feminist law. Testimony during the debate includes heart-rending examples of fathers using children for financial leverage or to cow their wives into submission in various ways. The case of Caroline Norton, who was brutally beaten throughout her marriage, found innocent of adultery after she left her husband, but denied access to her children (one of which died in the place his father had hidden him), rallied public support. A step forward, yes, but one that largely impacted the upper classes. In the grinding poverty of the industrial revolution era, poor families had no recourse but to view their children as an asset.

The most lurid form of child selling refers to sale to brothel keepers, pimps, and individuals. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”

In the early 1800s press-gangs, state sponsored thugs charged with forcing young men into naval service were active. They weren’t above paying a bribe. They were legally entitled to impress boys as young as 15, it is easy to imagine some bending of that to meet quotas, particularly because ships of that era used very young boys as powder monkeys and servants. The navy encouraged this as a way of training up future seaman. Eleven or twelve were the commonly expected ages for boys to go to sea (Lord Nelson was ten) and boys were supposed to be at least 4’3″ tall. Research indicates many of them were orphans and/or had been in trouble with the law. Some of them undoubtedly went involuntarily and some were younger than expected. It is difficult—but not impossible—to imagine the impressment of a boy as young as seven. Could a father sell his son to a merchant ship? It seems likely if the man was hateful enough and the ship disreputable enough.

While prostitutes and powder monkeys make lurid and dramatic images, by far the most common form of child selling in the nineteenth century was for labor. Desperately poor parents often needed children to work as soon as they could be hired, relying on pitiful wages. They might also sell them as “pauper apprentices” to masters who could work them fourteen hours a day/seven days a week and beat them at will. The phrase “work them to death” is not unrealistic. If a family or orphaned children were placed in a workhouse, the house could and often did force the children to work or could sell them outright as pauper apprentices. The most notorious of these were children trapped as miners and those sold as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. The latter had to be quite young because climbers were forced to climb chimneys as narrow as eighteen inches. Stories of children killed or maimed in the mines, dying of lung disease, or mutilated in factory injuries are legion.

I began with the question, could a father sell his son in 1832. The answer, appallingly, is a resounding yes.

14551082_10154467181880833_776311429_o-2Caroline Warfield has degrees in history and library science. She has been at various times been an army brat, a librarian, a poet, a raiser of children, a nun, a bird watcher, an Internet and Web services manager, a conference speaker, an indexer, a tech writer, a genealogist, and, of course, a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she is now a writer of historical romance, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens, who sits in an office surrounded by windows and lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. You can find her at

A vile abusive father attempts to sell his son in Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife, out now.

Selected resources
Cossins, Anne. Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Feb 16, 2000, pp. 6-7. (Accessed via Google Books September 30, 2016)

“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” UK Parliament: Living Heritage. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

Pietsch, Roland. “Ships Boys and Youth Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” The Northern Mariner: Online Edition, Canadian Nautical Research Society. (Accessed October 1, 2016)

Venning, Annabel. “Britain’s Child Slaves,” The Daily Mail, 17 September 2010. (Accessed September 30, 2016)


Attempted Mass Murder at Sea: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson


Map of route through the Bahamas. Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853). Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

When 208 passengers boarded the William & Mary in March 1853, they had no idea of the drama that would ensue after the ship set sail from Liverpool for New Orleans, or that violence and murder were in their future. Captained by the relatively inexperienced Timothy Stinson, it soon became clear to the emigrants that they were in a very vulnerable position, not least because the crew refused to give them enough food. Fourteen died as they crossed the Atlantic, a relatively high mortality rate, due in part to Captain Stinson’s failure to engage a ship surgeon for the voyage. Instead, when people were confined to their berths with fever, he consulted a pamphlet he carried in his breast pocket and prescribed them bacon, which did precious little to help those suffering with measles and typhus below deck.

Many captains skimped on surgeons and provisions, and got away with it, but it was when the ship reached the Bahamas that Stinson’s true character – or lack of it – was revealed. He chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, an area notorious for its hazards and shipwrecks, and the William & Mary was soon impaled on a rock. The ship was washed onto another rock nearby then an enormous wave freed her, allowing the water to pour in through the hole in the hull. They were sinking.


Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853)

Stinson strode about the crowded deck in his slippers, threatening the emigrants with his own desertion, and lying about the depth of water in the hold, doubling it and panicking the passengers. The exhausted emigrants pumped through the night while the crew devised a plan of escape and quietly removed provisions (and themselves) to the least leaky lifeboat. The distress flag was taken down from the mast and hidden, ensuring that any passing sailors would assume all was in hand, and while the passengers were distracted, Stinson changed his slippers for boots and abandoned ship. Some of the unlucky emigrants attempted to follow, swimming for the lifeboat, only to be hacked at with hatchets and murdered before their families’ eyes. The captain stood, raised his hat, and called “Friends, may you fare well” as his crew rowed him to safety.

Stinson’s lifeboat was soon picked up by a ship on its way to New York. He reported the William & Mary as lost before his eyes, then disappeared when journalists pressed for details. The New York Times of 18 May 1853 smelled a rat:

“…the cause [of this wreck] is traceable to culpable negligence and carelessness. Had the officers in charge kept a bright watch for dangers, there is nothing to indicate that the reef might not have been avoided; had the Captain taken more effective measures for the preservation of his passengers and his papers, the loss would have been less serious. And, finally, the silence and speedy exodus of Captain STINSON argues that there is little to be offered in extenuation. That a sea-captain should coldly report that his vessel had ‘gone down’ and ‘it is supposed that all on board perished,’ is altogether too systematic and provokes disagreeable emotions. It was at least due to the public that a statement duly authenticated by the survivors, should have been prepared and published by the Master, before he found it convenient to leave New-York for his home in Bowdoinham. If there is a reason for this silence, or an explanation for this seeming carelessness, the public will be glad to hear it.”

Newspapers gave brutal assessments of his character, and the Irish newspaper the Freeman’s Journal of 31 May 1853 referred to the incident as “convincing proof of the cowardice or insensibility of Captain Stinson”.

Why, in a time of chivalry and strict salvage laws, would this captain and crew have done such a thing? It is impossible to tell for sure after over 160 years have passed, but it appears as if Captain Stinson, whose father-in-law was part-owner of the ship, was attempting to bury all evidence of his mistakes – and save the owners money while he was at it. If the passengers died, little or no compensation would have to be paid out, and by leaving the people in his charge on a sinking ship with no provisions Stinson could be reasonably sure that only his version of events would survive.

He must have been shocked to the core to find his attempt at mass murder had failed.

“No news item of the month has been so worthy of rejoicing over, as the intelligence of the rescue and safety of the emigrant passengers of the ship William and Mary, wrecked amongst the Bahamas on its way from Liverpool to New Orleans. About one hundred and seventy human beings, given up to the waves and monsters of the deep, rescued by wreckers, it seems, while their sinking coffin was tumbling about among rocks and breakers and just ready to make the fatal plunge, are thus happily saved.” (Spirit of the Times, 7 June 1853)

Thanks to the courage of a crew of wreckers who saw the sinking ship two days after the hull was holed, and the perseverance and sheer will to survive of those on board the William & Mary, the majority of the emigrants were saved. The cowardice of Captain Stinson did not kill them, and the story of what happened on this ordinary emigrant ship full of extraordinary people is lost no longer.

The Lost Story of the William&Mary - Gill Hoffs - hi res image.jpgGill Hoffs is the author of Wild: A Collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.