In 1691, Joseph de Arostegui of Calahorra from northern Spain petitioned for divorce from his wife, Antonia Garrido, based on her alleged impotence. According to his testimony, there had been no consummation of their four-year marriage because his wife “does not have her parts like other women”.
Antonia contested her husband’s claim for divorce, her lawyer asserting that Antonia’s genitals were fully functional but had been affected by “evil spells and witchcraft”.
As was usual in early modern trials where impotence was alleged, Antonia was ordered to submit to at least two examinations by doctors and midwives. At the second of these examinations:
“…the [surgeon] Francisco Velez inserted into the said parts of the said Antonia Garrido a stem of cabbage in a shape similar to a virile member… and seeing that it entered with liberty…”
The examiners, content that penetration had been achieved, ruled that Antonia was capable of intercourse, and the church court turned down Joseph’s petition for divorce. The fate of their marriage after this is unknown.
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.”
Francois Chopart (1743-1795) was a French physician and surgeon. Born and trained in Paris, Chopart became professor of surgery at the Ecole Pratique before his 30th birthday. During his medical career, Chopart developed several new procedures, including facial surgery, skin grafts and partial amputations of the foot.
Chopart was best known, however, for his pioneering research into urology and urological disorders. Writing in his 1791 book Traité des Maladies des Voies Urinaires, Chopart described the strange case of a French shepherd, whose masturbatory habits led him to cleave his penis into two:
“A shepherd from Languedoc named Gabriel Gallien engaged in acts of onanism [masturbation] from the age of 15, sometimes as many as eight times each day. In time he would persevere for an hour without emission, sometimes only passing blood… He employed his hand for 11 years [but] by his 27th year could only induce a state of constant erection, which he attempted to resolve by introducing a piece of wood, six inches in length, into the urethra…”
Gallien found that inserting and gently pistoning this foreign object in his urethra enabled him to reach orgasm. He maintained this method for another six years until, according to Chopart, the inside of his urethra became “hard, insensitive and calloused”. Gallien was again reduced to a state of constant erection. Being “of total repugnance to women, which is often the case with masturbators” the frustrated shepherd had no means of sexual relief. It was then he took drastic measures:
“In utter despair he took a pocket knife and made an incision in the glans of the penis. This was accompanied by minimal pain but was followed by an agreeable sensation and orgasm and copious emission… Once again able to satisfy his venereal desires, he frequently performed the same operation, with the same result. After carrying out this shocking mutilation perhaps a thousand times, he at length failed. He then divided the penis, by a lengthways incision, into two equal halves, from the opening of the urethra to the symphysis pubis [base of the penis].”
Such a development might have concerned others but Gallien simply tied a ligature around his now two-pronged member. He also kept masturbating, “introducing a thin piece of wood into what remained of the urethra, titillating the seminal ducts and producing an ejaculation”.
He persisted with this method for another ten years until the wood ended up lodged in his bladder, triggering an infection and requiring a hospital visit. Doctors found Gallien’s penis in two halves, both capable of erection. It was then that Gallien was questioned and recounted his tale of self-mutilation in search of self-pleasure.
The dual-pronged shepherd from Languedoc died three months later from a chest abscess. Though probably unconnected, doctors attributed this abscess to almost 40 years of masturbation. Francois Chopart himself died of cholera in 1795.
In the summer of 1934, future United States president John F Kennedy was in his junior year at the prestigious Choate School in Connecticut. He was also plagued by ill health. Kennedy was unwell through much of his childhood, beginning with a near-deadly case of scarlet fever before his third birthday.
While at Choate, a good deal of his time was spent in its sick bay. Though active and seemingly fit, 17-year-old Kennedy struggled with a number of ailments including fatigue, dizziness, fainting spells, joint soreness, back pain and dangerous weight loss. Baffled doctors suggested everything from influenza to an ulcer to leukaemia.
In June 1934, his frustrated parents booked Kennedy into the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was subjected to a battery of tests. Doctors at Mayo pricked and probed the future president for two weeks, trying to find a reason for his general illness and fatigue. Some of these tests were painful and humiliating, leading Kennedy to describe Mayo as the “god-damnest hole I’ve ever seen”.
Kennedy went into more detail in letters to a high school friend, Lem Billings:
“I’ve got something wrong with my intestines. In other words, I shit blood… Yesterday I went through the most harassing experience of my life… [A doctor] stuck an iron tube, 12 inches long and one inch in diameter, up my ass… My poor bedraggled rectum is looking at me very reproachfully these days…”
Kennedy’s notes to Billings were also filled with banter about girls and sex. The two boys had lost their virginity earlier in the year, Kennedy to a white prostitute in Harlem, and sex was very much on his mind:
“I’m still eating peas and corn for food, [but] I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde. That is the height of cheap thrills…”
“The nurses here are the dirtiest bunch of females I’ve ever seen. One of them wanted to know if I would give her a work-out last night… I said yes, but she was put off duty early…”
“I have not [experienced] orgasm for six days, so feel kind of horny, which has been increased by reading one of the dirtiest books I’ve ever seen…”
Kennedy was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and placed on a bland diet of rice, potatoes and milk. This did not improve his health – and as later history suggests, it did nothing to alleviate his sexual appetite either.
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.
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.”
In the late 18th century, a Danish physician, C. M. Mangor, delivered a curious report to Copenhagen’s Royal Society. It concerned a series of “fiendish murders” carried out by an unnamed farmer living near the capital.
According to Mangor, the farmer had gone through three young wives in the space of a few years. Each wife had been in good health but died within a day or two of contracting similar symptoms. The farmer’s own behaviour also aroused local suspicions. Six weeks after the death of his first wife he married a servant girl – but she lasted but a few years before falling victim to the mystery ailment, allowing the farmer to marry yet another maidservant.
Eventually, in 1786, wife number three died from the same malady:
“About three in the afternoon, while enjoying good health, she was suddenly seized with shivering and heat in the vagina… Means were resorted to for saving her life but in vain: she was attacked with acute pain in the stomach and incessant vomiting, then became delirious, and died in 21 hours.”
At this point Dr Mangor, then serving as Copenhagen’s medical inspector, arrived to investigate. He discovered the farmer had been poisoning his wives by “introducing a mixture of arsenic and flour on the point of his finger into the vagina” after sexual intercourse, a theory supported by Mangor’s postmortem examination:
“Grains of arsenic were found in the vagina, although frequent lotions had been used in the treatment. The labia were swollen and red, the vagina gaping and flaccid, the os uteri gangrenous, the duodenum inflamed, the stomach natural.”
The farmer was arrested and placed on trial. To prepare for his testimony Dr Mangor conducted a number of experiments on cows. “The results clearly showed that when applied to the vagina of these animals”, he wrote, “it produces violent local inflammation and fatal constitutional derangement”.
The farmer, as might be expected, was found guilty. His punishment is unrecorded but it seems likely he was executed. The number of cows to die in the name of vaginal-arsenic justice is also not recorded.
William Salmon (1644-1713) was an English apothecary, quack physician and author. Salmon was born in London but little is known of his upbringing. In his late teens, Salmon set up a medical practice in Smithfield, treating all manner of illnesses and injuries for a low fee. He had no formal education but was a busy autodidact, accumulating and digesting a large collection of medical texts.
In time, Salmon became part-physician, part-showman and part-salesman, flogging his own brand of cure-all pills and draughts. In 1671 the self-declared ‘Professor of Physic’ published his first medical book, Synopsis Medicinae. It was the first of more 25 books published by Salmon during his lifetime, almost all of which were copies, translations or adaptations of earlier works.
In 1696 Salmon released The Family Dictionary, a simple medical guide for household use. One instalment provides a cure for ‘trembling members’:
“If the members tremble and shake, that you cannot at certain times hold them still… anoint the parts where you find the trepidation with powers of lavender and drink two drams of water made with man’s or swine’s blood, brought to putrefaction… This must be frequently repeated for a month’s time.”
For gout, Salmon suggests a poultice of hot kite’s dung, camphor and soap. Freckles can be removed by mixing blackbird droppings with lemon juice and smearing on the affected areas. One of Salmon’s more interesting ‘cures’ is his recipe for anti-nymphomaniac lemonade:
“Lemonade: Scrape lemon peel, as much as you think fit, into water and sugar, and add a few drops of the oil of sulphur, with some slices of lemon, observing always to put half a pound of sugar to a pint of water. This is very wholesome for the stomach, creates appetite and good digestion… And in the case of the distemper called furor uterinus [‘uterine fury’ or nymphomania] take the feathers of a partridge, burn them for a considerable time under the party’s nose, so that the fume may ascend the nostrils, and drink a quarter of a pint of this lemonade after it.”
In 1814, the Boston Manufacturing Company dammed the Charles River at Waltham, around 10 miles west of Boston. The construction of the Waltham dam created a scenic network of waterways, popular with holidaymakers and day trippers.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Charles River lakes had become Boston’s own ‘Lover’s Lane’. Hundreds of young couples caught trains or streetcars to the riverside area of Newton, where they could hire canoes from numerous boathouses. Once on the water, it was not difficult to find seclusion in the many creeks, coves and wooded inlets.
Most used this solitude to court without the glaring oversight of parents. The more daring couples used their canoe time as an opportunity to sit close, kiss, pet and whatever else took their fancy.
As might be expected, the interest in canoeing exploded, particularly among young middle-class Bostonians. A state report from January 1903 said the number of canoes on the Charles had increased from 700 to 3,500 in just two years. On warm moonlight nights, there could be as many as 100 canoes still on the water, hours after dark.
What went on in these canoes became public knowledge back in Boston, where locals responded with a combination of humour and moral outrage. Wowsers condemned “canoe mania” as yet another example of the disintegration of moral values. Residents living along the river registered numerous complaints about what they had seen taking place in canoes.
According to the Boston Post, a local Baptist minister told his flock not to allow their children onto the lakes, warning that “if these canoes could speak, what awful tales they would tell!”. One park ranger told the press:
“It is not a very nice spectacle to see a couple of opposite sexes lying in the bottom of a boat with a blanket thrown over them.”
In August 1903, the state’s Metropolitan Parks Commission (MPC) moved to crack down on canoe canoodling. New regulations prohibited “any obscene or indecent act” in the confines of the Charles River reserve. In practice, this meant that couples of the opposite sex could not kiss, embrace, lay down in their canoe or conceal themselves or their actions.
Park rangers flooded the area in the summer of 1903 and a local man became the first to fall foul of the MPC’s prophylactic regulations:
“No longer will the young man with the white ducks and canvas shoes be permitted to hold the paddle with one hand and the waist of his best girl with the other… Recently the park commissioners decided that an arm around the waist, a kiss stolen on the sly or a parasol so held that those nearby could not see the faces of the occupants constituted an offence punishable by a fine… In the quiet shade of a giant tree, as their canoe skated slowly in the water, Matthew Petersen of Dorchester improved the occasion to plant a kiss upon the lips of Miss Flora Smith of New York, the couple was arrested.”
Mr Petersen was fined $20 and a handful of others were also arrested. These events sparked a month of protest by Charles River canoeists, who defied the “sit up straight” regulations by laying down in their boats whenever they spotted a park ranger. Despite these protests, the MPC’s crackdown on canoe fornication continued the following season. There were eight arrests for indecency in 1904 and seven in 1905, before arrests declined in subsequent years.