Tuesday 16 August 2016

Guest Post: Tessa Harris on the medical misadventure of 18th century England

TITLE: Secrets in the Stones
AUTHOR: Tessa Harris
PUBLISHER: Constable

PUBLICATION DATE: August 11, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

Newly released from the notorious asylum known as Bedlam, Lady Lydia Farrell finds herself in an equally terrifying position - as a murder suspect - when she stumbles upon the mutilated body of Sir Montagu Malthus in his study at Boughton Hall.

Meanwhile Dr. Thomas Silkstone has been injured in a duel with a man who may or may not have committed the grisly deed of which Lydia is accused. Despite his injury, Thomas hopes to clear his beloved's good name by conducting a postmortem on the victim. With a bit of detective work, he learns that Montagu's throat was slit by no ordinary blade, but a ceremonial Sikh dagger from India - a clue that may be connected to the fabled lost mines of Golconda.

From the mysterious disappearance of a cursed diamond buried with Lydia's dead husband, to the undying legend of a hidden treasure map, Thomas must follow a trail of foreign dignitaries, royal agents - and even more victims - to unveil the sinister and shocking secrets in the stones...

Tessa Harris takes us from cradle to grave on a journey of medical misadventure in 18th century England

If I were to tell you that a woman in Godalming claimed to have given birth to rabbits and that she was believed by the top physicians in the land, you’d probably tell me to go and lie down in a darkened room. But I kid you not. Mary Toft, aka The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, is just one in a gallery of rogues, mountebanks and quacks to populate the history of this extraordinarily colourful and outlandish period of English history. And that’s precisely why I set my series of medical mysteries in this period. It was a time of enormous change. Superstition was still rife among the populace, but old beliefs were finally being challenged by enlightened men of science. The hero of my murder mystery series is one such. Dr Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist, comes to London to find the Establishment needs shaking up a little. He eschews the past in favour of new and pioneering scientific methods and in so doing makes enemies among the rich and privileged classes, exposing injustices and deceptions all the way.

Promises of superior ecstasy

There are many more examples of quackery, flummery and all scams in between in the medical mayhem that existed in the 18th century. Take, for example, James Graham, the enterprising ‘doctor’ behind the infamous Temple of Health and Hymen in London’s Pall Mall. Giant porters dressed in chain mail greeted those who paid good money to hear the Scottish charlatan urge his listeners to “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth.” Wires were attached to the underside of ‘students’’ chairs and small electric shocks were administered. The lecture climaxed in the appearance, through a trap door in the floor – of “Hebe Vestina, the Rosy Goddess of Health and Hymen” to distribute bottles of Dr. Graham’s ‘ethereal’ balm. At one time this ritual was conducted by none other than Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, who was, in her former life, a prostitute. But the highlight of the temple had to be the massive ‘Celestial Bed’ draped in blue satin. At the slightest movement from those positioned on it, the springs would oscillate to the music that was being played by unseen musicians, promising ‘superior ecstasy’ to its occupants, as well as healthy children. And the price for this privilege? A mere one hundred guineas per couple, with breakfast thrown in. That’s around £8,000 in today’s money.

Other extraordinary delights concocted for the entertainment of a gullible public at the time included the chance of seeing insects through a solar microscope or watching a Mr. Breslaw commanding “a fresh egg to dance upon a stick in the middle of the Room, by itself.” All this paled by comparison, however, with the showing of giants in London. During the latter half of the 18th century England couldn’t get enough of ‘tall men’, most of whom came from Ireland. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most tragic, of these was Charles Byrne. Measuring, according to some accounts, eight feet and two inches, Byrne was feted by royalty and become very famous. However, he also attracted unwanted attention from anatomists eager to dissect his corpse on his death. His premature death from tuberculosis led to a scramble for his corpse. His huge skeleton is ignominiously displayed in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to this very day.

The man responsible for the giant’s dissection was John Hunter, the man hailed by many as the father of modern surgery. It’s true he was a genius and a pioneer, but some of his methods certainly offend our modern-day sensibilities. In his pursuit of a cure for the scourge of the rampant venereal disease that plagued so many, he injected himself with pus from a diseased corpse. He kept a detailed diary of his own symptoms, but unfortunately did not see fit to inform his wife. Only two of their four children survived infancy, possibly because they were infected.

Grave robbing galore

In order to continue his research Hunter and many other of his fellow anatomists relied heavily on the supply of corpses. Such was the demand for bodies that there was no guarantee that when a cadaver was laid to rest it would remain that way. Grave robbing was a lucrative trade. Anatomists would be charged ‘by the foot’ for a corpse – an adult male in good condition fetching at least four guineas - and many criminals became rich. Such practices did not, however, endear anatomists to the wider public. When the renowned surgeon Joshua Brookes refused to pay some resurrectionists, as they were known, for their nefarious services, a rotting corpse was dumped on his front doorstep. So outraged were his neighbours that Brookes barely escaped with his life.

There were a few, however, who would prefer their loved ones to be embalmed rather than buried. On the death of his wife, a dentist called Martin Van Butchell asked our friend John Hunter to embalm her body. Hunter injected her corpse with preservatives, replaced her eyes with glass ones and had her dressed in a lace gown. The corpse was then put on display in a glass-topped coffin. Those who wished to view it were, of course, charged a fee by her grieving husband.

But, for me, the ultimate medical mishap has to be the case of William Duell, a sixteen year-old hanged for rape and murder. He lost consciousness on the gallows and was taken for dead. A few hours later whilst being prepared for dissection, he came round. The authorities took pity on him and reduced his sentence to one exile to North America. Duell could consider himself very fortunate. A German criminal, hanged at around the same time, and found to be breathing on the dissection table, was not afforded such treatment. The chief surgeon exhorted his colleagues to proceed in view of the fact that the criminal may commit more heinous crimes if allowed to live. The hapless villain was dispatched forthwith.

Secrets in the Stones, the sixth book in Tessa Harris’s Dr. Thomas Silkstone mystery series, published by Constable, is out now.

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