Category Archives: 18th century

1725: Cure dysentery with turds from a bone-eating dog

Noel Chomel’s suggested cure for a toothache – stick a red-hot knitting needle in your ear

Noel Chomel (1633-1712) was an estate manager and parish priest from central France. In 1709, three years before his death, Chomel published his lifelong collection of handy hints, recipes and medical receipts. The Dictionnaire Oeconomique, as it was titled, became one of the most popular household almanacs of the 18th century. Over the next 70 years it was reprinted numerous times in several languages, including French, German and Dutch.

The first English edition was translated and updated by Cambridge botany professor Richard Bradley and published in London in 1725. This edition contained advice on everything from cooking to card games, from making soap to managing livestock. Many of its medical remedies called for the use of dead animals and excrement. For example, for “those who piss a bed”:

“Take some rat or mouse turd, reduce it into powder and putting about an ounce of it in some broth, take it for three days together. It is an excellent remedy for this imperfection. There’s [also] nothing better for persons who piss in their sleep… than to eat the lungs of a roasted kid [or] to drink in some wine a powder made of the brain or testicles of a hair…”

For an anal fistula, a “hollowy oozy ulcer in the posteriors”:

“Take a live toad, put it into an earthen pot that can bear the fire, cover it so that it cannot get out, surround it with a wheel fire and reduce it into powder… Lay this powder upon the fistula, after you have first washed it with warm wine or the urine of a male child.”

Lastly, for severe or bloody dysentery:

“Take the powder of a hare, dried and reduced into powder, or the powder of a human bone, and drink it in some red wine. Gather the turd of a dog that for the space of three days has gnawed nothing else but bones, dry it and reduce it into powder, and let the patient drink it twice a day with milk.”

Source: Noel Chomel & Richard Bradley, Dictionnaire Oeconomique, 1725 ed. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1763: Bengali tax defaulters forced to wear cat pants

Mir Jafar, India’s own Benedict Arnold, sells out to the British in 1757.

Mir Jafar (1691-1765) was the nawab of Bengal from 1757 until his death in 1765. Mir Jafar was a long-serving and effective Bengali military leader, rising to become commander in chief under the popular nawab Siraj ul-Daulah. But by the 1750s, Jafar had become paranoid, inconsistent and power hungry, possibly a by-product of his worsening opium addiction.

In 1757, Siraj ul-Daulah was threatened and besieged by British East India Company troops. Mir Jafar double-crossed the nawab by holding back his own army and signing a secret agreement with Robert Clive. Siraj ul-Daulah was defeated, captured and executed and Mir Jafar was installed as nawab. But Mir Jafar soon learned that Clive’s backing came with a heavy price.

Faced with constant demands of money from the British, Mir Jafar sought to extract it from the local population. By 1760, tax collection in Bengal could be a brutal affair, both for officials and civilians. Non-payers were starved, denied water, stripped naked and flogged. Tax collectors who failed to fill quotas were strung up by the ankles, to have the soles of their feet rubbed raw with a brick.

One of Mir Jafar’s advisors developed his own particularly nasty methods, described in a 1763 Persian account:

“The dewan [bureaucrat] Syed Rezee Khan, whom Jafar appointed to collect government revenues, exceeded his master in cruelty. He ordered a pit to be dug about the height of a man, which was filled with human excrement, in such a state of putrefaction as to be full of worms. The stench was so offensive that it almost suffocated whoever came near it… Syed Rezee Khan, in contempt of the Hindus, called this infernal pit Bickoont [Hindu for ‘paradise’]… Those who failed in their payments, after undergoing the severities before described, were ducked in this pit.

And if that wasn’t bad enough…

“He also obliged them to wear long leather drawers filled with live cats. He would force them to drink buffalo’s milk mixed with salt, till it brought them to death’s door by a diarrhoea. By these means he used to collect the revenues…”

Unsurprisingly, Mir Jafar is still a despised figure on the subcontinent. Most consider him the man who sold out Bengal and opened up the rest of India for British colonisation. The word “mirjafar” is a Bengali insult meaning ‘traitor’. The fate of Mir Jafar’s inventive tax collector, Syed Rezee Khan, is unrecorded.

Source: Francis Gladwin (transl.), A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal &c., London, 1788. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1758: Man dies from Spanish fly and “furious lust”

spanish fly
The Spanish fly – not really a fly and not specifically Spanish either

In the days before Viagra, medieval and early modern Europeans relied on a number of natural sexual stimulants. One of the most effective – but also most notorious – was ‘Spanish fly’, a substance produced by crushing green blister beetles into a powder.

The active chemical compound in ‘Spanish fly’ is cantharidin, which is produced by the beetles as a defence mechanism. If ingested by humans it causes itching and irritation around the body but particularly in the genitalia and urinary tract of men.

Scores of European doctors prescribed cantharidin for sexual dysfunction and a range of health issues, without fully understanding its workings or dangers. There are several historical cases of cantharide medicines producing satyriasis (excessive sexual lust) or priapism (permanent erection). One case from the mid 18th century apparently proved fatal:

“A doctor in Orange named Chauvel was called to Caderousse, a small town near his home, in 1758. There he saw a man suffering from a similar disease. At the doorway of the house, he found the sick man’s wife, who complained to him about the furious lust of her husband, who had ridden her 40 times in one night, and whose private parts were always swollen.”

Dr Chauvel’s investigations subsequently revealed that the overly excited man from Caderousse was dosed up on a cantharide potion:

“The husband’s evil lusts came from a beverage similar to one given him by a woman at the hospital, to cure the intense fever that had afflicted him. But he fell into such a frenzy that others had to tie him up, as if he were possessed by the Devil… While Dr Chauvel was still present a local priest came to exorcise him, while the patient begged to be left to die. The women wrapped him in a sheet damp with water and vinegar until the following day…”

On their return the following day the patient’s “furious lust” had abated – but only because he was dead. From Chauvel’s description it is unclear whether he was murdered, mutilated after death – or perhaps died during a bizarre act of auto-fellatio:

“…He was dead, as stiff as a corpse. In his gaping mouth, with teeth bared, they found his gangrenous penis.”

Source: Pabrol, Observations Anatomiques, 1762. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1799: Polish glutton dines on dogs, cats, candles

An engraving of early modern gluttons at work

In 1799 Doctor Thomas Cochrane, a prison surgeon in Liverpool, reported on the unusual eating habits of a man in his care.

Charles Domery was a Polish-born prisoner-of-war, captured off the coast of Ireland while serving with French republican forces. According to Cochrane’s description, Domery was in good health and physically unremarkable aside from his above average height (six foot three inches). He had pale skin, long brown hair and a “pleasant and good-tempered” demeanour.

Domery’s appetite, however, was something else. His preferred diet was several pounds of meat, cooked or raw, followed by several large tallow candles:

“The eagerness with which he attacks his beef when his stomach is not gorged resembles the voracity of a hungry wolf tearing off and swallowing pieces with canine greediness. When his throat is dry from continued exercise he lubricates it by stripping the grease off candles between his teeth, which he generally finishes in three mouthfuls. [He then] wraps the wick like a ball, string and all, and sends it after in a swallow.”

According to testimony from Domery, corroborated by his fellow prisoners-of-war, he had previously supplemented his meagre military rations by eating whatever else he could find:

“When in the camp, if bread and meat were scarce, he made up the deficiency by eating four or five pounds of grass daily. In one year he devoured 174 cats (but not their skins), dead or alive. He says he had several conflicts in the act of destroying them, by feeling the effects of their torments on his face and hands. Sometimes he killed them before eating but when very hungry he did not wait to perform this humane office.”

Domery also reported eating several dead dogs and live rats, as well as discarded offal from cattle and sheep. He claimed to have once nibbled on the amputated leg of a fellow sailor.

While detained in Liverpool his daily ration included raw meat, liver and candles. On a single day Dr Cochrane watched Domery consume ten pounds of raw beef, four pounds of raw cow’s udder and two pounds of candles. Domery was released from detention in 1800 but his fate is not known.

Source: Letter from Thomas Cochrane, September 9th 1799; published in The New England Quarterly, vol. 2, 1802. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1746: Hanged man found alive, “pissing in the chimney”

Unless carried out by a skilled executioner, hanging can be an unreliable method of capital punishment. History abounds with stories of hanged persons who survived the ordeal.

In a text on the mechanics of drowning, 18th century physician Rowland Jackson described several documented cases of failed hangings. In Aremberg in the Rhineland, a local merchant named Landthaler was hanged from a tree and swung “for a whole hour” before being cut down. He was discovered to be alive and complained of nothing other than sore eyes and toe-tips.

In Cologne, a hanged robber was brought back to life by a passing servant – and then repaid the favour by trying to steal the servant’s horse. A similar tale occurred near Abbeville, Picardie, where a miller took a hanged thief home and nursed him back to life – only for the thief to burgle his house.

In all three of these cases the victims were returned to the gallows and hanged again, this time successfully. More fortunate was a hanged man described by Mr Falconet, a “gentleman of strict probity and candour”. According to Falconet his family had a “foolhardy coachman” who:

“…falling into a quarrel at Lyon, killed a man, and being apprehended on the spot was forthwith condemned to be hanged, which sentence was accordingly put into execution. The surgeons of the town, having obtained his body in order to make a skeleton, brought it into a surgery where they left it upon a table. But when they came next day to dissect it, they were surprised to find the man not only alive, but in good health, and pissing in the chimney – for the want, as he said, of a chamberpot. This man had stood in no need of remedies… the circulation of the blood had not been so long suppressed that it could of its own accord restore itself.”

Source: Rowland Jackson, A Physical Dissertation on Drowning, &c., London, 1746. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1738: Vaucanson’s mechanical crapping duck

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) was French polymath and inventor. Born to a poor family in Isere, Vaucanson was educated by the church and demonstrated an aptitude for mechanics.

Vaucanson set up a business in Lyon where he also dabbled in his hobby: constructing clockwork gadgets and amusements. As a teenager he planned to build a functioning robotic waiter but abandoned this idea, constructing a clockwork drummer instead. He later constructed a mechanical flautist and exhibited it at Versailles and the salons of Paris.

But Vaucanson’s most famous invention was the canard digérateur, or ‘digesting duck’, finished sometime in 1738. The Vaucanson duck was life-sized, made of gilded copper and reportedly contained hundreds of moving parts. It sat atop a large plinth, though like an iceberg, much of the duck’s workings were located in the plinth rather than the duck itself.

The metal quacker performed several animatronic tricks like waddling, flapping its wings, drinking water and making duck noises. But the duck’s pièce de résistance, as explained by Vaucanson himself, was its ability to eat, digest and ‘defecate’:

“The duck stretches out its neck to take corn out of your hand. It swallows it, digests it and discharges it digested by the usual passage. You see all the actions of a duck that swallows greedily and doubles the swiftness in the motion of its neck and throat, to drive the food into its stomach, copied from nature… The matter digested in the stomach is conducted by pipes quite to the anus, where there is a sphincter that lets it out.”

Vaucanson’s claim that the duck digested its food was little more than showmanship: the duck droppings were, in fact, soggy breadcrumbs dyed olive green, stored in a separate container and expelled at the appropriate time. Nevertheless the effect was convincing, and in an age devoid of iPads and Playstations, Vaucanson’s “shitting duck” (as it was dubbed in England) remained enormously popular.

The duck somehow survived its creator’s death and the French Revolution, remaining in private collections and then a museum until it was destroyed by fire in 1879.

Source: M. Vauconson’s letter to the Abbe de Fontaine, 1738. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1740: Test a corpse by stuffing garlic up its nose

Jean-Jacques Winslow was a French-born English physician of the early 18th century. Little is known of Winslow’s medical career, however, his main hobby horse was death, especially the prevention of premature burial.

According to Winslow, his interest in this subject was personal: he had been a sickly child who was twice declared dead and once prematurely entombed. In 1740 Doctor Winslow published a lengthy treatise titled The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments. In it he suggested that the only truly reliable sign of death was the onset of putrefaction. He also urged physicians and undertakers to complete a rigorous series of checks on ‘corpses’, to ensure they were truly dead:

“Irritate his nostrils by instructing into them peppers, snuffs, salts, stimulating liquors, the juice of onions, garlic and horseradish, or the feathered end of a quill, or the point of a pencil. We must also rub his gums frequently and strongly with the same substances… Spirituous liquors ought also to be poured into his mouth, where these cannot be had it is customary to pour warm urine into it… Stimulate his organs of touch with whips and nettles. Irritate his intestines by means of clysters [enemas] of air and smoke. Agitate his limbs by violent extensions… and if possible, shock his ears with hideous shrieks and excessive noises.”

Winslow’s book went on to describe several survivors of premature burial, such as the case of Anne Greene, as well as some victims with less happy endings. No information is available about the date, cause or veracity of Winslow’s own death. But thanks to Winslow’s writings – not to mention some creative input from Edgar Allan Poe and others – the issue of premature burial remained a popular if somewhat macabre fascination, well into the 19th century.

Source: Jean-Jacques Winslow, The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments, London, 1740. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1716: Earl of Nithsdale cross dresses to freedom

William Maxwell (1676-1744) was a Scottish-born nobleman and a supporter of the exiled Stuart king James II. Raised a Catholic, Maxwell became the 5th Earl of Nithsdale in 1696. Shortly after this he met Winifred Herbert, the daughter of a Welsh baron, when both were visiting France. They were married in 1699.

When the Jacobites rebelled in 1715 and attempted to restore the Stuarts, Maxwell equivocated for a time before eventually joining the uprising. He was captured by government troops during the Battle of Preston (November 1715) and sentenced to death for treason.

Like most aristocrats on death row, Maxwell was given conformable lodgings in the Tower of London, complete with servants and visitation rights. On February 22nd 1716, the day before Maxwell’s execution, he escaped from the Tower, thanks to a daring plot from his wife. Using items smuggled into the Tower on previous visits, the Countess had her husband disguise himself as a woman – not an easy feat, given that the Earl had a long dark beard:

“Her [Mrs Mills’] eyebrows were rather inclined to be sandy and my lord’s were very dark and very thick; however I had prepared some paint of the colour of hers to disguise his with. I also brought an artificial head dress [wig] of the same coloured hair as hers, and I painted his face with white and his cheeks with rouge, to hide his long beard which he had not time to shave.”

By Winifred’s own admission the chance of this escape plan succeeding was “very improbable”. Nevertheless the Countess managed to smuggle her husband out of the Tower, noting that “the poor guards… were not so strictly on the watch as they usually had been”.

Once outside the gates she passed the incognito Earl to another accomplice, before returning to his room inside the Tower; there Winifred sat for an hour, buying time by holding an imaginary conversation with her non-existent husband.

The Earl, meanwhile, was being ferried to a hiding place in London. After several days underground he was secreted out of England, disguised as a Venetian coachman. Both the Earl and Countess of Nithsdale spent the rest of their days living in exile in Rome.

Source: Letter from the Countess of Nithsdale to her sister, Lucy Herbert, February 1716. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1782: Farmer has genitals torn off, preserves them in wine

In August 1782, a Westphalian farmer, aged 36, was treated for serious injuries obtained in a carriage accident near his home. According to an account published by Gottingen medical professor August Richter, the farmer’s apron had become entangled in the wheels of his carriage, dragging his lower body into the spokes.

Though he reported suffering no “violent pain or loss of recollection”, the farmer’s injuries were nevertheless quite extensive:

“His genital organs were entirely torn off… The urethra was torn off, as was the penis, as far as the neck of the bladder. There remained no vestige of the scrotum or the right testicle. The left testicle remained but only attached via the spermatic cord… The prostate, contused and torn, was adhered by a few fibres and hung externally from the wound.”

Despite losing a good portion of his reproductive system, the farmer was able to stand and walk about 200 yards to his house, where he “preserved the parts that were torn off in spirit of wine”. He was later attended by doctors, who replaced what they could, dressed the wound, bled the patient and gave him a draught. With further medical attention the patient’s wounds healed and he was able to return to a relatively normal life, albeit without external genitals.

Source: August Gottlieb Richter, Chirurgische Bibliothek, vol. 7, 1794. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1735: Treat snakebite by attaching a pigeon’s anus

John Moore was an English apothecary and pigeon fancier of the early 18th century. In 1735, two years before his death, Moore self-published a book titled Columbarium, or the Pigeon-House, probably the first English book focused entirely on pigeons. Columbarium became something of a rarity, with only six copies believed to exist at one point – though numerous forgeries and reprints later appeared.

Moore’s book became the ‘go to’ resource for pigeon fanciers; it contained information and advice on all aspects of pigeons. Moore described different breeds and colourations, including carrier pigeons, roller pigeons, the ‘Horseman’, the ‘Dutch Cropper’ and the ‘English Powter’. He offered tips on feeding, breeding, rearing and veterinary care.

Moore even listed the medicinal virtues of pigeon parts and by-products. Pigeon dung, for example, is “worth ten loads of other dung” when used for fertilising, tanning or in plasters and poultices. Young pigeon, when roasted, is not only delicious, it “provokes urine” and “expels the gross matters” that stick in the bladder and urethra. Pigeon feathers, burnt and mixed with other ingredients, stops bleeding. Warm pigeon blood can be dropped into the eyes to alleviate pain and blurred vision. Migraines or headaches are eased by applying a live pigeon to the soles of the feet.

In a similar vein, Moore suggested an usual treatment for snakebite:

“The anus of a live pigeon, applied to the biting of a serpent, viper or rattlesnake, draws away the poison and cures the sick, [who will be] renewed as the pigeon dies.”

Source: John Moore, Columbarium, or the Pigeon-House, London, 1735. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.