Category Archives: 19th century

1861: Abraham Lincoln’s hate mail


Barely literate internet trolls may seem a recent phenomenon but only the medium is new. Ask Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States.

As can be imagined, Abe was less than popular with his constituents in the southern states. An expression of the president’s unpopularity can be found in this barely legible item of hate mail, sent to Lincoln by a Mr A G Frick in February 1861. Frick’s spelling, grammar and punctuation appear exactly as written:

Mr Abe Lincoln

if you don’t Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you you god or mighty god dam sunnde of a bith go to hell and buss my Ass suck my prick and call my Bolics your uncle Dick god dam a fool and goddam Abe Lincoln who would like you goddam you excuse me for using such hard words with you but you need it you are nothing but a goddam Black nigger

Yours, &c.
Mr A. G. Frick

[PS] Tennessee Missouri Kentucky Virginia N. Carolina and Arkansas is going to secede Glory be to god on high”

Source: Letter dated February 14th 1861, cited in Dear Mr Lincoln: Letters to the President, Harold Holzer (ed.), 1993. 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.

1895: Long Island teachers are banned from bicycles

cycling woman 1895

In June 1895, the Long Island Board of Education issued a stern directive to its female teachers: stop riding bicycles. A member of the board, William Sutter JP, explained this to the press:

“We as the trustees are responsible to the public for the conduct of the schools [and] the morals of the pupils. I consider that for our boys and girls to see their women teachers ride up to the school door every day and dismount from a bicycle is conducive to the creation of immoral thoughts…”

Another board member, Dr A. Reymer, added his support. Reymer suggested that if they continued to ride bicycles, women would eventually end up “wearing men’s trousers”. Long Island’s female teachers, many of whom relied on bicycles to get to and from school, were said to be “very indignant” about the order.

Source: The Sun (New York), June 15th 1895. 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.

1857: Soft chairs lead to self abuse and idiocy, says doc

Dr Gregory’s humble grave marker in Boston

Samuel Gregory (1813-1872) was an American physician who specialised in several areas, including obstetrics and women’s health. Born and raised in Vermont, Gregory obtained a medical degree at Yale, graduating in 1840. Eight years later he founded the New England Female Medical College, the first medical school for women in the United States, if not the world.

Despite these achievements, Gregory was no champion of gender equality or women’s rights. In short, he was a prude who considered it highly inappropriate for male doctors to be at the pointy end during childbirth. The business of delivering children and inspecting lady parts, Gregory argued, should be left to suitably trained women.

Like other wowsers of his day, Gregory was also obsessed with sex and masturbation. In 1857, he published a short but pointed diatribe titled Facts and Important Information for Young Women on the Self Indulgence of the Sexual Appetite. Gregory’s tract drew heavily on other anti-masturbation hysterics like Tissot.

The first half of Gregory’s book contained case studies of young women who, after becoming addicted to self pleasure, either wasted away or ended up “masturbating their way to a state of idiocy”. He followed this with his list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for avoiding temptation – and it was a long list. Foods that “stimulate the animal propensities” should be avoided, including tea, coffee, candies, meat, chocolate, spices and alcoholic drinks.

Certain behaviours in young girls also needed curtailing:

“Young persons should not be permitted to lie on [feather down] beds, nor to sit on soft chairs, to which rush or wooden-bottomed ones are greatly preferable. Neither should they be allowed to remain in bed longer than requisite, or to lie down needlessly on couches.”

Doctor Gregory also blamed literature and the creative arts, which had the capacity to stimulate unhealthy desires in young women:

“All books depicting exaggerated sentiments must be withheld… Even the study of the fine arts may render the imagination too active… Music, being the language of passion, is the most dangerous, especially music of the more impassioned and voluptuous nature… Fashionable music, especially the verses set to it, being mostly love sick songs, [are] all directly calculated to awaken these feelings.”

Source: Dr Samuel Gregory, Facts and Important Information for Young Women on the Self Indulgence of the Sexual Appetite, Boston: 1857. 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.

1852: Drunk zookeeper dies from cobra bite to the nose

In October 1852, Edward Horatio Girling, an employee at London Zoo, died after being bitten by a five-foot cobra. A post mortem on Girling’s corpse showed the cobra had bitten him five times on the nose. One of these bites had penetrated to the nasal bone and bled profusely.

After the bite, Girling was rushed to hospital by cab, a journey that took 20 minutes. While in the cab his head swelled to “an enormous size” and his face turned black. Once at hospital, Girling was given artificial respiration and electrical shocks. Neither was successful and he died 35 minutes after arrival.

A report on the inquest into Barling’s slithery demise
After ascertaining how Girling died, an inquest investigated how he had come to be bitten in the first place. Early press reports put it down to a homicidal serpent. One suggested the cobra had bitten its victim him with “murderous intent”, another had it lunging from the shadows while Girling was delivering food to the enclosure.

It did not take long for the inquest to discover that Girling was responsible for his own demise. One of Girling’s work colleagues, Edward Stewart the hummingbird keeper, testified at the inquest. He claimed to be passing by the snake enclosure with a basket of larks when he saw Girling inside. Apparently showing off, Girling picked up the ‘Bocco’, a mildly venomous colubrid snake, by its neck. According to Stewart:

“…Girling then said ‘Now for the cobra!’ Deceased took the cobra out of the case and put it inside his waistcoat, it crawled round from the right side and came out at the left side… Girling drew it out and was holding the cobra between the head and middle of the body when it made a dart at his face.”

Stewart and other witnesses also testified that Girling was drinking ample quantities of gin at breakfast time. A zookeeper named Baker told the inquest “he believed that the deceased was intoxicated”. It was also noted that Girling had little if any experience with venomous snakes; he had only recently started working at the zoo after employment with the railways. Unsurprisingly the coroner found that Girling had died as a “result of his own rashness whilst in a state of intoxication”.

Source: The Daily News, London, October 23rd 1852. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. This content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1822: Man has ingrown curtain ring removed from penis

Robert Liston, about to hack off a leg

Robert Liston (1794-1847) was a Scottish surgeon, known for his anatomical knowledge, skill and fast hands. Liston was famous – and to some extent notorious – for the speed of his amputations. It was said he could remove a leg in well under a minute, an astonishing feat at a time when amputations involved a lot of laborious hacking and sawing.

Liston’s speed often came at a cost, however. According to legend, he once accidentally slashed the fingers of an assistant – and both the patient and the assistant later died of gangrene. Liston was also said to have accidentally sliced off a man’s testicles while amputating his leg at the thigh.

Between 1818 and 1840, when he relocated to London, Liston worked in private practice in his native Edinburgh. Other physicians loathed him for his short temper and sharp tongue. Liston’s willingness to treat the poor made him more popular with ordinary Scots, though he had a reputation for impatience and carelessness.

In 1822 Liston, then a young man in his late 20s, provided a local medical journal with an account of a recent case. He was approached by a man in his late 50s who complained of difficulty urinating – however the patient refused to let the doctor make “any examination of the parts” and promptly left. Several months later the man returned, his complaint now considerably worse. This time he told Liston the whole story:

“About the age of nine or ten [the patient] had incontinence of urine and was frequently chastised by his parents on account of this occurrence during the night [bedwetting]. In order to save himself from a flogging, before going to bed he passed a brass curtain ring over the penis, as far as he could. This expedient had the desired effect, but in the morning swelling had come on [and prevented] his removing it. Notwithstanding all his suffering from pain and difficulty in passing his urine, he made no complaint.”

The curtain ring remained lodged at the base of his penis for 47 years. Eventually it sank into the skin which, according to Liston, “adhered over the foreign body, and there it remained”. Strangely, the foreign body gave the patient no significant trouble, a fact evidenced by him becoming “the father of a fine family”.

Seeking to resolve the man’s continence issues, Liston examined him and found a “broad hard substance” around the base of his member. Not one to mess around, the doctor set to work incising and separating skin from the lower penis. After much work Liston managed to extract the brass ring, which after almost five decades had become encrusted with calculus (hard growth formed by salt and urea deposits). The operation brought some improvement to the man’s urinary issues but he died of lung disease shortly after.

Source: Robert Liston, “Account of a calculus in the urethra, formed upon a brass ring” in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. 19, 1823. 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.

1895: Voting turns women into barbarians, says Dr Weir

James Weir Jr. (1856-1906) was an American physician, naturalist and author. Born into a prominent Kentucky family, Weir obtained a medical degree before setting up a practice in his native Owensboro. The wider medical community came to know Weir through his prolific writings.

A student of Charles Darwin, Dr Weir wrote extensively about the distinctions between human beings and animals. He was particularly fascinated by regressive and animalistic behaviours in humans. Among the works published by Weir were Pygmies in the United States, Religion and Lust and Dawn of Reason, or Mental Traits in the Lower Animals. In an essay called “A Little Excursion into Savagery”, Weir confesses to taking a week off every June so he can romp around the Kentucky forest “living like a savage”, dwelling in a cave and eating roasted squirrel.

Weir was also willing to use his pseudo-scientific theories as a political device. In 1894 he penned an essay asserting that striking and rioting workers were “evidence of [evolutionary] degeneration”. The following year Weir went even further, claiming that female suffrage would create to generations of degenerate women with unhealthy masculine features. He cited historical examples of oversexed and overly masculine female leaders, including Messalina, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (“she was more man than woman”) and Catherine the Great (“a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality”).

If women were given the vote and access to political power, Weir claimed, over time they become “viragints”:

“Viraginity has many phases… The tom boy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances… The loud talking, long stepping, slang using young woman… The square shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android…”

According to Weir, those who promote female suffrage and equal rights – suffragettes and campaigners like Susan B. Anthony – are already viragints, “individuals who plainly show that they are physically abnormal”. Extending suffrage to women would cause a slow but inevitable and widespread shift toward viraginity:

“The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger. The danger comes afterward, probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her atavistic tendencies, hurries ever backward toward the state of her barbarian ancestors. I see in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors…”

Weir died in agony of ‘abdominal dropsy’ while holidaying in Virginia Beach. He was 50 years old. Just 14 years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.

Source: James Weir Jr. MD, “The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity” in The American Naturalist, vol.29, September 1895. 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.

1879: Music lessons cause “menstrual mischief”

Dr Robert Lawson Tait

Robert Lawson Tait (1845-1899) was a Scottish physician, famous for his pioneering research and treatments in gynecology and abdominal surgery. Educated in his native Edinburgh, Tait moved south after graduation and set up practice in Birmingham.

Tait became interested in reproductive medicine after watching helplessly as two patients suffered agonising deaths from ectopic pregnancies. He began to research, develop and undertake surgical interventions for conditions with high mortality rates. In his three-decade career, Tait conducted and refined several groundbreaking operations, including excision of the ovaries, ruptured Fallopian tubes, appendectomies and gallbladder removal.

For all his surgical brilliance, however, Tait was prone to antiquated views, particularly about the causes of ovarian and reproductive disease. Like less esteemed doctors, Tait rejected viral and bacterial causes and instead put a good deal of blame on social factors.

Tait was particularly opposed to girls and young women being subjected to music lessons. He argued that music was “a strong excitant of the emotions” that “agitated ovarian activity” and disturbed the developing female reproductive organs. In the case of a teenage girl who was bedridden by hyperaemia and anaemia during her monthly period, Tait’s first step was to cancel her piano lessons:

“My first advice was that the patient should be removed from school and that for six months, all instruction, especially in music, should cease. I notice music especially, for I am quite certain that instruction in that art, as carried out in boarding schools, has to answer for a great deal of menstrual mischief. To keep a young girl during her first efforts of sexual development, seated upright on a music still with her back unsupported, drumming vigorously at a piano for several hours, can only be detrimental.

In life, Tait was a charismatic but unusual figure. Short and rotund, he waddled like a penguin and was occasionally given to eccentric dress. He was also a big drinker and notorious womaniser, who apparently enjoyed using the female reproductive organs as well as treating them. In his final years, Tait was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with one of his nurses, a scandal that brought him some public discredit.

Tait’s premature death in 1899 was ascribed to renal failure, though some believe it was brought on by venereal disease.

Source: Robert Lawson Tait, Diseases of Women, 1879. 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.

1821: Hot iron and straightjacket cures self pollution

self pollution
One word: “Ouch”.

In 1826, the British medical journal Lancet reported on a case of “idiocy accompanied with nymphomania” successfully treated by a Dr Graefe of Berlin.

The unnamed patient was born in 1807 and remained apparently healthy until 14 months of age, at which point she was struck down by a severe fever and bedridden for almost two years. This illness took a toll on the girl’s mental faculties. According to her childhood physician she was unable to talk and “exhibited unequivocal marks of idiocy”.

The patient’s deterioration continued until 1821, shortly after her 14th birthday, when Dr Graefe was first called to attend:

“He soon perceived that the girl had an insatiable propensity for self-pollution, which she performed either by rubbing her extremities on a chair or by the reciprocal fright of her thighs. From this time there could be no doubt [about] the treatment of the case.”

Dr Graefe ordered a three-step treatment for “self-pollution”:

“A bandage was applied, capable of preventing friction in the sitting position… A straight waistcoat was put on her at bedtime, and counter-irritation by the application of a hot iron to the neighbourhood of the part affected.”

In June 1822 Dr Graefe, deciding that insufficient progress had been made, carried out an “excision of the clitoris”. After the wound had healed the patient made a slow but steady recovery, to the point where she can “talk, read, reckon accounts, execute several kinds of needlework and play a few easy pieces on the pianoforte.”

Source: Revue Medicale, Oct. 1826, cited in The Lancet, vol. 9, 1826. 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.

1823: Beware shirkers with garlic in their rear end

John Ayrton Paris

John Ayrton Paris (1785-1856) was a British physician and medical researcher. The scion of a medical family, Paris was privately tutored before attending Cambridge, where he earned degrees in science and medicine.

After practicing in London, Paris returned to Cambridge to combine lecturing with research in several areas. Among Paris’ research findings were correlations between workplace conditions and various forms of cancer. He also developed the thaumatrope, a two-sided picture disc spun on a thread which proved the theory that images are briefly retained on the retina.

Paris later became a Fellow of the Royal Society and president of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1823, he collaborated with lawyer Jacques Fonblanque on a three-volume guide to legal issues affecting doctors. The first volume included chapters on forensic medicine, malpractice, public health legislation and the legal status of the physically and mentally ill.

One chapter deals exclusively with individuals who “feign or simulate” disease to:

“..obtain military exemptions and discharges… certain civil disqualifications… derive parochial relief or pecuniary assistance… for procuring release from confinement or exemption from punishment… or the comfortable shelter and retreat of a hospital.”

Paris goes on to offer advice for spotting these fakers. The “feigned maniac never willingly looks his examiner in the face”. Pretend catatonics can be roused to movement by unveiling a cauterising iron. Faux epileptics often present with frothing at the mouth “by chewing soap”. Some have presented with jaundice after colouring their skin yellow with dye.

One woman “swallowed a quantity of bullock’s blood” then “vomited it up in the presence of a physician”. Another vomited up urine, even though “the event is physiologically impossible”. Similarly inventive methods were used to fake a severe fever, including:

“..[presenting] after a night’s debauch… by smoking cumin seeds… whitening the tongue with chalk… and we have heard that a paroxysm of fever may be excited and kept up by the introduction of a clove of garlic into the rectum.”

Source: J. Paris & J. Fonblanque, Medical Jurisprudence, Vol. 1, London, 1823. 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.

1804: Med student tests theory by drinking black vomit

Stubborns Ffirth

Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820) was an American doctor, best known for his bizarre self-experimentation while a medical student.

Born and raised in Salem, New Jersey, Ffirth commenced studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1801. In his third year, Ffirth began to investigate the causes and communicability of yellow fever. This virus was a deadly constant in tropical areas but occasionally appeared in colder cities – a 1793 outbreak in Philadelphia had killed several thousand people.

The causes of yellow fever were then unknown. The most popular theory, propagated by prominent physician Benjamin Rush, suggested that it was spread by miasma or ‘bad air’. The young Stubbins Ffirth, however, came to the conclusion that the fever was transmitted in body fluids and excrements, particularly vomit.

In 1804 he undertook a series of experiments, summarising his findings in a brief manuscript. His first trials involved feeding or injecting animals with black vomit, harvested from the bedsides of dying yellow fever patients – but they failed to prove Ffirth’s theory:

“Experiment One: A small sized dog was confined in a room and fed upon bread soaked in the black vomit. At the expiration of three days he became so fond of it that he would eat the ejected matter without bread; it was therefore discontinued…”

Ffirth also tried other methods of infecting dogs and cats, again without definitive results. One dog died ten minutes after having an ounce of vomit injected into its jugular vein, while others remained healthy. After five inconclusive experiments Ffirth stopped working with animals and began to experiment on himself:

“On October 4th 1802, I made an incision in my left arm, mid way between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit… a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily.

Undaunted, Ffirth continued filling himself with the vomit of dying yellow fever patients, injecting it into veins, under his cuticles and into his eye. For his tenth experiment, he fried up three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaled the steam. Next, he constructed his own ‘vomit sauna’, sitting at length in a small closet with six ounces of steaming vomit.

Ffirth eventually cut to the chase and decided to take his black vomit directly:

“After repeating the two last experiments several times, and with precisely the same results, I took half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient, and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it. The taste was very slightly acid… It neither produced nausea or pain… My pulse, which was beating 76 in a minute, moderately strong and full, was not altered either in force or frequency… No more effect was produced than if I had taken water alone.”

Despite these adventures, Ffirth remained in perfect health. Still, he was not one to give up. He decided to repeat the experiments “a great number of times”, eventually drinking several doses of vomit, “half an once to two ounces without dilution”. But even this had no effect, leaving Ffirth to concede that yellow fever was not carried in human vomit.

The transmission of yellow fever – in human blood plasma carried by mosquitos – was eventually discovered by US Army physician Major Walter Reed in 1901.

Source: Stubborns Ffirth, A Treatise on Malignant Fever, with an attempt to prove its non-contagious nature, Philadelphia, 1804. 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.