William Thomson was a late 18th century Scottish writer and theologian. The son of a Lothian carpenter, Thomson was an excellent student and received scholarships to study at St Andrew’s and Edinburgh universities.
After a brief stint in the clergy, Thomson moved to London and wrote extensively on military matters, history, law and poetry. He also travelled widely and published accounts of his experiences abroad. Writing in 1782 Thomson described a visit to Praslin, the second largest island of the Seychelles. Praslin was small and remote but according to Thomson had arable land with excellent soil and a good amount of tall timber.
Even better, it produced a type of coconut that looked and smelled like a human backside:
“These islands are remarkable for producing a tree which yields a kind of cocoa-nut, representing in the most striking manner the figure of a human breech [buttocks], thighs, etc. [and] having a fetid smell from an aperture of the fundament, like that of human excrement. The Indians, struck with this resemblance, set an enormous value upon these nuts…”
While ancient writers scarcely understood the process of menstruation, they were hysterically afraid of its product. Most considered menstrual blood a deadly poison, potent enough to exterminate or retard most forms of plant and animal life.
According to Pliny the Elder, the mere presence of a menstruating woman could turn wine sour, drive away bees and spoil fruit. Farmers could rid their crops of grubs, wrote Pliny, by having a menstruating woman walk around their fields, naked from the waist down. Menstruation was not only dangerous to others, it also heightened the fertility of a woman’s entire body.
One common claim, attributed to Albertus Magnus and cited in a 1647 text, is that a menstruating woman’s pubic hair could be used to grow a snake:
“Albertus does say that if the [pubic] hair of a woman in the time of her flowers [menstruation] be put into dung, a venomous serpent is engendered of it.”
Writing in a colo-rectal guidebook in 1881, Dr William H. Van Buren described several instances of patients placing foreign objects into their own bowel or rectum. In most cases the patients claimed to be seeking relief from severe constipation. It goes without saying that while many objects entered readily, not all were so willing to depart.
In 1878, a 35-year-old valet:
“…inserted a glass bottle into his rectum with the object of stopping an urgent diarrhoea, and was brought to the hospital the next day with much pain of belly, vomiting and exhaustion.”
The bottle was eventually recovered – after a lengthy procedure involving scalpels, forceps and cat gut. Another case, cited by Van Buren from 1849, is notable for its motive rather than its method:
“A gardener, to economise in food, plugged his rectum with a piece of wood, which had carefully carved with barbs to prevent its slipping out. Nine days afterward he was brought to the hospital in great agony. The mass had mounted beyond the reach of the finger… in consequence of the barbs described by the patient, Dr Reali made no effort to extract it from below but proceeded at once to open the abdomen and thus safely delivered his patient, who made a good recovery.”
In 1747, the noted physician and obstetrician Thomas Dawkes reported a rare case of advanced ageing in Cambridgeshire. The subject, Thomas Hall, was born in Willingham in October 1741. At nine months of age Thomas was already beginning to show signs of puberty. Dawkes first examined Thomas in 1744, a few weeks before his third birthday, and found that he had pubic hair:
“…as long, as thick and as crisp as that of an adult person. The glans of his penis was quite uncovered [and] he could throw, with much facility, a hammer of 17 pounds weight… He had as much understanding as a boy of five or six.”
By Thomas’ third birthday he stood almost four feet in height. According to Dawkes, he could lift a large Cheshire cheese and balance it on his head, and drink a two-gallon cask of ale without difficulty. By the age of four, Thomas walked and talked like an adult. He had also started to grow a beard.
Sensing an opportunity for profit, Thomas’ father turned him into a public spectacle. The boy spent more than a year ‘performing’ in local taverns, where “he was often debauched with wines and other inebriating liquors”.
Dawkes examined Thomas again just after his fifth birthday. At this point he stood four feet six inches tall, weighed 85 pounds and had a penis six inches long and three inches in circumference. But Thomas’ rapid growth was also taking a toll on his health, which deteriorated rapidly through 1747. Dawkes visited Thomas in late August, a week before his death, and found him:
“…a piteous and shocking spectacle [with] several bald spaces in his head, and his visage and gesture gave the lively idea of a decrepit old man, worn out with age.”
Thomas Hall died in September 1747, shortly before his sixth birthday. He was buried in the churchyard at Willingham. On the evidence, it appears that Thomas suffered from progeria or a similar genetic disorder.
Simion Grahame (1570-1614) was a Scottish-born writer and courtier to James VI. Little is known about Grahame’s life. He was a good scholar who soldiered for a time, after which he traveled widely in Europe, possibly while in exile. In the early 1600s, Grahame returned to Scotland and turned his hand to writing, earning the patronage of James VI. He later moved to the Italian states and spent his final years as a Franciscan friar.
One of Grahame’s better known works was his 1609 Anatomie of Humors. Much of this manuscript dwells on human emotions, particularly melancholy or depression, something Grahame himself seemed familiar with. But it is also interspersed with advice about conduct, manners and how to forge and maintain good relationships with others.
In one chapter, Grahame urged gentlemen to keep their beards and moustaches clean, well trimmed and tightly curled:
“…A man is to be commended if he be [clean] in his linings, his hair well dressed, his beard well brushed and always his upper lip well curled… For if he chance to kiss a gentlewoman, some rebellious hairs may happen to startle in her nose and make her sneeze…”
Those who did not attend to their facial hair, wrote Grahame, were slobs, not fit to socialise with:
“[These] snotty nosed gentlemen, with their drooping moustaches covering their mouth and becoming a harbour for meldrops [mucus]… He will drink with anybody whatsoever, and after he hath washed his filthy beard in the cup… he will suck the hair so heartily with his under lip.”
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian eclectic who made some significant contributions to natural history. He was also not averse to using electricity to experiment on himself.
Humboldt was born in Berlin to an affluent military family. As a child he spent most of his spare time collecting and categorising different animal and plant species. By his early 20s, Humboldt had completed courses in finance, business, Spanish, anatomy and geology.
In 1792, Humboldt set up a residence and laboratory in Vienna, where he carried out thousands of experiments using electricity and drawing on earlier research by Luigi Galvani and Franz Karl Achard. Humboldt was particularly interested in the relationship between electricity and living tissue. Most of his experiments involved applying mild charges to live animals of different species, from worms and other invertebrates to amphibians, fish and large mammals.
Humboldt once attempted to revive a dead finch by inserting a silver electrode into its rectum and another into its beak, then sending through a current:
“To my amazement, at the moment of contact the bird opened its eyes and raised itself on its feet by flapping its wings. It breathed anew for seven or eight minutes and then expired quietly.”
Humboldt was also given to using his own body for experimentation. On one occasion, he electrified his own skin to see if frogs placed on his back would hop. During another test, Humboldt replicated the finch experiment by placing a zinc-tipped electrode into his mouth and a silver electrode “approximately four inches” into his rectum. The outcome of this was not pleasant:
“The introduction of a charge into the armatures produced nauseating cramps and discomforting stomach contractions, then abdominal pain of a severe magnitude… followed by involuntary evacuation of the bladder… What struck me more… is that by inserting the silver more deeply into the rectum, a bright light appears before both eyes.”
Humboldt survived these torturous self-experiments to fulfil his dreams of becoming a scientific explorer. In 1799, he joined a Spanish expedition to Cuba and South America. During this trip Humboldt researched everything from volcanoes to bird droppings. While travelling on the Orinoco River Humboldt was delighted to capture some electric eels, which he used to deliberately administer shocks to himself and an assistant. Fortunately for the eel, Humboldt’s rectum played no part in this self experiment.
Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773) was an English Whig politician and, from his father’s death in 1726, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield.
Stanhope was born in Westminster and educated by tutors before studying at Cambridge. After completing a grand tour of Europe he returned to London and, in 1715, won a seat in the House of Commons. Stanhope’s maiden speech was a fiery attack on the Tories; according to an apocryphal legend they responded by threatening to fine him £500 for speaking in the Commons before his 21st birthday, which was still six weeks away.
Stanhope survived this early hiccup to serve more than 50 years as a parliamentarian. He also spent several years on the continent as a diplomat and ambassador. Stanhope’s best known literacy legacy was a collection of letters he wrote to his son, also named Philip, during the 1740s and 1750s.
Most of Stanhope’s letters are informative, educational and advisory, an attempt to prepare his son for the earldom but he occasionally lapsed into whimsy. In October 1753, Stanhope penned a long missive to Philip Junior that explored Jewish culture, Turkish history and how to conduct oneself around women. Stanhope interrupted this lecture to tell his son he had purchased a new dog:
“I have had a barbet [water dog] brought me from France, so exactly like [your dog] Sultan that he has been mistaken for him several times, only his snout is shorter and his ears longer than Sultan’s. [I] have acquired him the name of Loyola… My Loyola, I pretend, is superior to your Sultan… I must not omit too that when he breaks wind, he smells exactly like Sultan.”
George Stoneman was a Union general during the United States Civil War and later, a governor of California. Stoneman was born in the far western corner of New York state, the eldest of ten children. As a teenager he was shipped off to study at West Point, where he shared a room with the better known Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Stoneman graduated in 1846 and spent the next 15 years as a cavalry officer in California and the Midwest.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861 Stoneman was quickly promoted to flag rank and given commands of both cavalry and infantry divisions. He was captured by Confederates in 1864 and for a few months was their highest ranking prisoner-of-war. Stoneman was released in mid-1864 as part of a prisoner exchange, returning to active service and commanding a division that swept through the South in the final months of the war.
When the Civil War ended in May 1865 Stoneman had spent most of it in the saddle, participating in some long and arduous campaigns. The effect this had on his backside was later revealed in a post-war legal tussle. Retired and pensioned at the rank of colonel, rather than his brevet rank of major-general, Stoneman petitioned the Army for a better pension, citing agonising medical problems he had incurred in the service of the Union:
“The disability he now labours under was occasioned by a continuous series of contused wounds from jolting in the saddle during his raids in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia… At the commencement of his campaigns he was suffering severely from piles, and under this hard service occurred an extreme falling of the rectum, amounting to an extreme protrusion of the bowel, which yet with great difficulty [was] returned and kept in place… Death itself is preferable to the injuries he sustained.”
Stoneman continued this fight until the early 1880s but alas, it was unsuccessful. In 1881, the US Attorney General ruled that Stoneman’s injuries were “not wounds received in battle” but were the result of “the disease from which he was suffering”. Much aggrieved, Stoneman went into politics, serving one term as the governor of California. He later returned to his native New York, where he died shortly after his 72nd birthday.
In 1929, an Eastbourne doctor, J. Gordon Wilson, reported treating a patient who for more than two years had:
“…suffered from difficulty in nasal breathing, deafness, slight vertigo, and headache. For the past few weeks, however, one nostril seemed to be definitely obstructed, and tightness and irritation in his nose caused insomnia and sneezing. Involuntary nasal whistling occurred, from which he sought relief by breathing through the mouth.
The patient endured these symptoms for two years, until the problem resolved itself:
“One morning, when he was trying to clear his nose, a large and very active centipede was ejected through one of the nares [nostrils]. With some difficulty he captured the centipede alive and brought it to me in a box. Since that morning his nose has felt altogether more comfortable; the difficulty in nasal breathing and the local irritation have practically ceased… The patient does no gardening and has no recollection of smelling flowers at any time in the past two months.”
An image of the centipede, submitted with the doctor’s report, suggests it was around three inches long. An examination of sneezed-out arthropod and its former home appeared to verify the patient’s story. Dr Wilson found the inside of the patient’s nose to be distended and slightly inflamed, but otherwise undamaged.
Priscilla ‘Priss’ Fotheringham was one of 17th century London’s more colourful prostitutes and brothel madams. Born in Scotland around 1615, the young Priss was reportedly a “cat-eyed gypsy, pleasing to the eye”. By her early 30s, however, Priss’ looks had faded, thanks to a bout of smallpox and years of swilling gin.
In 1652, Priss made the first of several court appearances when she was charged with running a house of ill repute, after being discovered:
“…sitting between two Dutchmen with her breasts naked to the waist and without stockings, drinking and singing in a very uncivil manner.”
She did a stint in Newgate for this and other offences but was back on the streets before 1656. Sometime around then she met her future husband, Edmund Fotheringham, himself the son of a bawd (his mother Anne ran a busy but seedy brothel on Cow Lane, Finsbury).
In the late 1650s, Priss took up residence in a tavern on the corner of Whitecross and Old Street. Now in her 40s, her youthful looks all but gone, Priss searched for another method of luring customers.
Her solution was a long-forgotten novelty act known as “chucking”. Supported by two male volunteers, Priss would balance on her head, stark naked with her legs akimbo, while patrons took turns inserting half-crown coins into her “commodity”. The act was described in The Wand’ring Whore, a 1661 guide to London’s prostitutes:
“Whereupon the sight thereof [of] French dollars, Spanish pistols, English half-crowns are plentifully poured in… as she was showing tricks upon her head with naked buttocks and spread legs in a round ring, like those at wrestling…”
According to legend, Priss Fotheringham’s “commodity” could fit 16 half-crowns, the princely sum of 40 shillings. Reports suggest that she performed this act several times daily, making it quite an earner. “Priss Fotheringham’s Chuck Shop” became one of the most popular haunts in London, making Priss enough cash to set up and staff her own brothel.
Fotheringham’s husband died in 1663 and Priss followed him five years later, both most likely from advanced syphilis.