Let’s discuss the suffrage TERF in the room

As The Daily Mail launches a new era of ‘suffragettes’ campaigning to repress trans rights, what can we in the history community do?

Yesterday the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail announced ‘the most significant female movement since the suffragettes’; The unification of groups, Women Uniting, Sex Matters and Women’s Rights Network, to create political campaign – ‘respect my sex, if you want my x’. The self-described ethos behind the campaign is this: ‘Just over 100 years ago, women got the vote. Our hard-fought rights are now being turned against us. Every rule and policy that says something is for women, is being changed, so that it’s now for people who ‘self-identify’ as women, whatever their sex.’ Campaigners are urged to call on their local MPs to join their fight in disallowing trans women from accessing the same rights and services offered to those gendered biologically female at birth – for those MPs that don’t, campaigners have pledged to boycott them in local elections. All of this is wrapped up in suffrage paraphernalia, from the colours used to the messaging – this is history in action. The legacies of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. Of course, this use of suffrage is nothing new. Today suffrage has gone beyond the history books and become an easily accessible marketing ploy. Want to peddle female empowerment without any danger or copyright issues – stick a suffragette in it. Who can forgot Meryl Streep sporting the tone deaf ‘I’d rather be a rebel than slave’ tee to promote 2015 film, Suffragette or the plethora of ‘girl boss’ infused suffrage merch that littered stores to mark the centenary of some women getting the vote in 2018. This kind of tactic isn’t even new for anti-trans feminism, who frequently flourish their tweets and instas with three distinctly coloured little hearts 💜💚🤍

This is the unknowing legacy of the WSPU, beyond their militancy it’s their savvy use of self-image that’s stood the test of time to the extent that there’s almost a whole sub section of suffrage academia dedicated to their masterful marketing of a movement. From colour usage to easily accessible self-branding and even a political board game – Don Draper could never. And it’s these same slogans, posters and buttons that keep being picked up across the generations to serve different feminist campaigns or clothing brands looking to make a quick buck. Suffrage sells universally. There’s a reason that in 2018 so many brands jumped aboard the ‘celebrate the centenary’ express. It wasn’t because everyone just really wanted to celebrate the vote. Suffrage offers an incredible market share – female empowerment for any age. Which is probably why, not many historians batted an eye when we saw the ‘Respect my sex’ Daily Mail backed campaign launch. This isn’t new. Admittedly the use of suffrage as a Trojan horse for anti-trans hate is abhorrent if for no other moral reason than for the simple fact that the suffrage campaign had its roots in the 1864 campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, which fought for bodily autonomy and against forcible genital examination – irony, thy name is TERF. Yet, this latest step by campaigners goes beyond annoyance and historic factual fallacies. Using the front page of a national newspaper to announce an anti-trans campaign as modern-day suffrage is a big deal. Even if that newspaper is ironically the same one that popularised the term suffragette, as its own anti-suffrage campaign.

Politically these ‘modern day suffragettes’ are powerful. The same day as their campaign launched, Boris Johnson announced a U-turn in the banning of conversion therapy; banning it for gay people, but not for trans people. This move comes off the back of systematic pressure put onto MPs by campaigners, a pressure which looks set to only intensify in the coming weeks as we approach May’s local elections. In fact, the lighter side of this pressure was splashed across the Daily Mail to support the campaign launch – ‘look how many MPs look silly when they try to say if it’s possible for a woman to have a penis’; it’s conceivably childish, until you see the clear threat. More important than MPs giving in to fear is the government’s sudden change of heart in banning conversion therapy. In a US paper used by the government in their own public findings on UK conversion therapy, it’s cited that those that undergo conversion therapy are 88% more likely to attempt suicide, with multiple other research papers showing that these figures are frequently higher for trans youths. This goes beyond hiding behind a suffrage facade – lives will be lost. That is not a likelihood, but a fact.

In addition to standing alongside charities like Stonewall, there is something else that we as a history community can do. History stands as a bastion of information, that can help dispel the falsehoods of these campaigners. We can’t stop them using the Pankhurst’s as puppets, but we can share our knowledge. There are hundreds of years – thousands really – of trans history. It’s our job to tell those stories. No matter what area of history you work in, you’ve almost certainly come across a historic person who was likely trans. Their lives are vital in dispelling the myths being spread; that this is new, that it’s men stealing rights or angling to commit assaults. The historic evidence stands against that – this is not scary or dangerous – this is human. Trans lives are part of all of our shared history, its people being people; who they were born to be. It’s up to us to share that knowledge, not as a one off, but as part of our overall history work and research. Inclusion is everything. No matter how big or small you think your voice is, whether its in a book or a lecture hall, a letter to your MP or a tweet and WhatsApp message to your mate; as long as we’re talking. Because silence is no longer an option.

The Mystery of Walter Sholto Douglas

Two historians, forty years apart, trying to find answers to a mystery 200 years in the making. Was Walter Sholto Douglas a patriarchy smashing woman or a trans man?

Long read – 20 minutes

In 1980, historian and Mary Shelley expert, Betty T Bennett, was putting the finishing touches to part one of her soon to be released compilation of Shelley’s letters. Bennett had spent years dissecting the personal writings of Mary Shelley, she understood the nicknames, code words and in jokes that litter Shelley’s letters, in a way that few, perhaps bar Shelley herself, ever did. And yet, as she filed the final draft for her publisher something niggled at her. Within the mountains of letters that Bennett had sifted through, three of Shelley’s correspondents stood out; Walter Sholto Douglas, David Lyndsay and Mary Diana Dods. For all intents and purposes these three should have been little but footnotes; Walter was the husband of one of Shelley’s friends, David was a writer whose work had all but disappeared into literary history and Mary had been one of Shelley’s friends for a time. None had left enough of a lasting impact to justify research into their lives – but Bennett was sure that within those letters lay a secret she hadn’t been able to crack.

40 years later, I stumbled across this same mystery. I was doing initial research for an exhibition and combing through forums into Scottish family legacies, when I noticed a pattern; two separate people were frequently flagged as ‘ruining’ a family history. These being Mary Diana Dods and Walter Sholto Douglas. Two familial black sheep causing the same scandal to the same family at the same time – how could that be? It took me all of two minutes to unravel this mystery, thanks to the internet existing and also Betty T Bennett spending the decade following her discovery of the three separate letter writers uncovering the truth. Mary Diana Dods, David Lyndsay and Walter Sholto Douglas were in fact the same person. A person who was born Mary Diana Dods, worked as David Lyndsay and died as Walter Sholto Douglas. In 1991 Bennett published her research in the book, Mary Diana Dods, a Gentleman and a Scholar. According to Bennett, Mary Diana Dods was the illegitimate daughter to a Scottish Earl and a budding writer, Dods worked relentlessly to create a name for herself. Landing a place in literary circles, getting her work published under a male pseudonym (David Lyndsay) and even becoming a close friend of Mary Shelley. Still, the life that Dods wanted was one, that at the time, only a man could achieve, so she donned a beard and whiskers, got herself a fake wife and travelled to Paris to make a new name for herself, as Walter Sholto Douglas. An unsung crossing dressing pioneering feminist hero with a blockbuster worthy story? Of course I took the bait; after all who wouldn’t want to include such an amazing story in an exhibition? Plus, unlike most of my other work for the exhibition, the research here was pretty much done – easy win! So, for the next few days I sifted through Bennett’s research, fact checking and reading the few other academic articles that mention Dods.

What I found was not the easy win that I was hoping for. Though for the most part Bennett’s research was impeccable, something kept on niggling at me. Bennetts’s conclusion of this disguised heroine just didn’t fit in with the evidence on display. Was the reason that Mary Diana Dods started a new life and died as Walter Sholto Douglas not because of a grand plan to take on the patriarchy, but because of something far more simple but less easy to pin down – that Walter Sholto Douglas was a trans man? Dozens of articles online backed this theory up, but none showed their full evidence behind this. And if GCSE maths taught me nothing else it’s that you have to show your working. And so, that initial week I’d put aside to fact check, turned into a month’s long hunt, methodically going through every scrap of archival evidence that Bennett used, along with a few others that had become available since the 1980’s. Two historians, forty years apart, both looking at the same set of archival papers and research and coming out with two wildly different understandings.

‘An Alias for Mr’

Mary Diana Dods was born around 1790, gendered female at birth, they were the illegitimate child of George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton; one of Scotland’s most prominent noble men. In a bid to avoid scandal, the Earl quickly sent Mary and his other illegitimate child, Georgiana, to London, where they were to be raised away from any suspicious eyes. Despite this duplicity, Mary was still expected to become the ideal noble man’s daughter; educated, pious and quiet enough to not cause a fuss, until they could be swiftly married off. Sadly, Mary was never going to fit that mould. From the minute they were old enough to join society, it became clear that Mary stood out. Socialite and author, Eliza Rennie, wrote of Mary that ‘Nature in any of its wild vagaries never fashioned anything more grotesque looking than was this, Miss Dods.’ Although Mary did suffer from long term illness (including what was likely a chronic pain condition), it wasn’t some kind of deformity that disgusted Eliza Rennie the most, it was how Mary dressed; ‘you almost fancied, on first looking at her, that someone of the masculine gender had indulged in the masquerade freak of feminine habiliments and that ‘Miss Dods’ was an alias for Mr.’ Mary wore traditionally male clothes and held themselves in a way that was typified as masculine. This was far from the norm but Mary never changed their attire or mannerisms, despite being labelled a freak of nature by the Eliza Rennie’s of the world. Yet, it wasn’t Mary’s outward appearance that should have caused the societal stir – it was her mind.

Mary was brilliant in a way that few people are. They were driven and passionate, determined to become a writer. In their early twenties, Mary started to write fiction under the pseudonym, David Lyndsay. Not much of Lyndsay’s work has survived, but what we do have includes some of their earliest work, which allows us a peek at a debut author who was extremely talented in a way in they hadn’t yet learnt to control. Reading Lyndsay’s stories is at times exhausting and yet always exhilarating, with dramatic tales that verge on the extravagant. Exploring life and death and love through a lens that plays with both gothic and classical literature. Lyndsay’s work was primarily published in Blackwoods Magazine, a literary paper that was known for having work by some of the day’s best writers in its pages. It was a natural home for Mary to write as David Lyndsay, with the publication regularly printing works by female writers working under male pseudonyms; George Eliot would later become one of Blackwood’s most well-known contributors. And yet, nobody at Blackwoods knew that David Lyndsay was a pseudonym. Mary took the unusual step of creating an entire alter ego that the editors of Blackwoods truly believed was real. Mary even tested their editor’s belief in David Lyndsay, by writing letters as Lyndsay to enquire whether Blackwoods knew which writers used pseudonyms (they did, and were happy to gossip to Lyndsay about it). Lyndsay’s façade was so successful that following the 1821 release of their epic serialisation, Dramas of the Ancient World, Blackwood’s publisher, William Blackwood, was impressed enough that he started trying to meet the enigmatic writer, enquiring to colleagues and friends on if they’d met the young man.

David Lyndsay was fantasy, but not total fiction. In their letters to Blackwoods editors, Lyndsay was open about his personal life, speaking of an oppressive hard to please father and his troubles securing a steady income – these weren’t lies made up by Mary Diana Dods, but a reflection of their own life. Similarly, when Lyndsay boasted that he was a member of London’s uppermost literary circles, this was also true. Most of the early accounts we have of Mary come from such soirees; they aren’t the centre of things, but they are on the fringes. It’s through these Lyndsay letters that a person who’d later become a major player in the Walter Sholto Douglas mystery emerges – Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and literary wunderkind.

Mary Shelley and Mary Diana Dods ran in the same literary circles, both often cited at the same parties in varying letters and accounts. By the mid 1820’s the pair appear to have become friends and this in itself accidentally created a long mystery for historians. Sometime between 1824 and 1827 Mary Shelley started to receive letters from M.D Dods. The language used made some historians initially believe the letters came from a man, as did the seemingly flirtatious tone. Betty T Bennett actually fell into this camp, spending months trying to work out if Dods was theological writer, Reverend Marcus Dods and if he and Mary Shelley were lovers. The truth eventually came out thanks to Bennett’s later analysis of these letters alongside David Lyndsay’s Blackwood’s letters. The D’s used in the signatures are a perfect match, same flowing cursive and hand writing style; both letters coming from the same person – Mary Diana Dods.

There’s no evidence to back up the theory that Mary and Shelley were lovers as first suspected. But the pair were close friends to the extent that Mary let Shelley in on her secret alter ego – David Lyndsay. Mary Shelley became a key player in Lyndsay’s letters around 1824-1825. He describes her as his first ‘literary friend’, a person who reads his works and urges him to press his pieces for publication. By the late 1820’s Shelley even starts sending out Lyndsay manuscripts herself. And although Mary Shelley was somewhat of a gossip, in none of her letters to friends does she ever reveal the identity of David Lyndsay. She praises his work, but never links Mary Diana Dods to him. In Shelley, Mary appears to have found a true friend. Somebody that understood them and allowed them to be themselves. But away from this safe haven Mary had to continue keeping much of their life a secret. In an 1822 letter to their father Mary lies about the writing work they are doing. At this point David Lyndsay was cementing a name for himself in the literary world, but instead of telling their father outright about Lyndsay, Mary appears to test the waters, saying that they have written a few literary criticisms under a false name, before backing away from the subject entirely. It’s likely that Mary was worried about the financial repercussions of their father discovering the true extent of their writing work. George Douglas sent Mary a small line of income, but despite Douglas’s wealth, it was a fractional sum of money that Mary had to top up through their writing work. However, if this steady cash flow was cut, then it would have placed Mary in financial straits. Mary wasn’t living up to the expectations that had been laid down for them at birth – Mary’s masculine attire and mannerisms had caused a stir and they actively avoided the marriage market. Thanks to their choice to stick to the fringes of polite society they weren’t a total social pariah, but they were still thought of as, in Eliza Rennie’s words, ‘a masquerade freak’. Mary Diana Dods wasn’t the daughter their father wanted but he tolerated them, however if the boat was rocked any further then the roof holding up Mary’s life could very well fall in.

Which is perhaps why the best idea we get of Mary’s personality comes from David Lyndsay’s letters to his Blackwoods editors. Beyond a focus on their physical appearance, not much is said about who Mary was in accounts of London’s social scene; they are an intelligent wallflower who is friends with Mary Shelley. But in Lyndsay’s letters we come to know an erudite deeply passionate person with a wicked humour and take no bullshit attitude. This also comes across in M.D Dods letters to Mary Shelley and it seems that Mary Diana Dods could only be themselves when they were in the safe company of their closest friends or hidden behind the literary enigma of David Lyndsay. Through Lyndsay Mary had created a space where they weren’t the ridicule of ideal gossip, but valued for their work, opinions and personality. That’s why it’s surprising that in 1826, Mary creates a second pseudonym. Douglas Sholto has two back-to-back pieces published in Blackwoods in July and August of 1826. Once again, when you place the letters to Blackwood’s from Sholto alongside Lyndsay’s, those all-important fluid ‘D’s’ are a perfect match to Mary Diana Dods handwriting. But it’s what happens next that makes this second pen name so interesting – during the publishing period for Douglas Sholto’s work, the Blackwoods submission pile recieved an unexpected letter from a young aspiring writer called Isabella Sholto, who casually mentions that the editor may know her husband; Douglas Sholto.

Isabella Sholto wasn’t another pseudonym, but a real person. Born Isabella Robinson sometime around 1810, Isabella was a well to do girl about town and a friend of Mary Shelley. Lauded for her beauty as much as she was cautioned for her flirtatious manner and willingness to ‘tell stories.’  In early 1826 rumours were rampant that the teenage Isabella had gotten pregnant out of wedlock and that the father of her child had fled the scene. A few months later the Blackwoods letter from Isabella Sholto appears. So, what happened? The trail goes cold for almost a year, until in a series of letters starting on 28 July 1827, Mary Shelley sheds some much needed light on the situation.

Shelley is staying with Isabella, who now goes by Isabella Douglas, is married and has recently given birth to a baby girl (Adeline). On 28 July, Shelley tells her friend, Jane Hogg, that Isabella is well but ‘anxious about D, from whom, we had a most melancholy letter this morning.’. The ‘D’  Shelley is referring to must be Mary Diana Dods, who Shelley refers to in other letters as ‘D’ alongside M.D Dods and Doddy. On 10 August Isabella is still feeling low, however Shelley hopes that she may soon perk up as ‘within a few weeks her husband is coming, they are leaving for Paris…’ the identity of Isabella’s husband is revealed in another letter to Jane Hogg on 17 September. ‘Doddy’ is set to join Isabella and Shelley in a few days, after being away at their father’s funeral and will reading. However, Shelley is concerned that Isabella is still unwell and hopes she will recover enough to ‘be a little in good looks for the Sposo’. Sposo being, the Italian word for husband.

Between our last glimpse of Mary Diana Dodds in 1826 and their arrival to Shelley and Isabella in late 1827, three major things have happened. Mary has changed their name to Walter Sholto Douglas. He is also now living openly as a man and is married to Isabella.

Finding Walter

Frustratingly we know very little about what happened to Walter between the late spring and summer of 1826 and his arrival to Mary Shelley and Isabella Douglas in September 1827. His father had died, leaving him some, but not much money. He was married to Isabella, if not legally, then publicly and the pair were planning to move to Paris with Isabella’s daughter. However we do get one nugget of information, courtesy once again of Mary Shelley. And it’s from this small piece of infomation that Betty T Bennett starts to form her case for Walter Sholto Douglas being a disguise for Mary Diana Dods. In a letter to her friend Jane Hogg on 28 August 1827, Shelley mentions that prior to the move to Paris, the Douglas’s are putting thought into Walter’s wardrobe and that she is ‘glad for pretty Isabella’s sake, that D now seriously thinks of ‘les culottes’’. For Betty T Bennett this is a crucial piece of evidence; highlighting Mary Diana Dods plan, to travel to France to with a fake wife and disguised as a man, in a bid to sieze oppurtunies that a woman could not. So when Mary Shelley says she is pleased ‘that D now seriously thinks of ‘les culottes’’ she is saying that she is pleased Dods has agreed to the plan of cross dressing as a man. However, there is another more logical reason for Shelley’s fixation of ‘les culottes’. Beyond the fact that we know that Mary Diana Dods was already known for dressing in typically male attire (not to mention that in the 1820’s breeches or culottes were slowly falling out of fashion) Shelley’s specific use of the French term for breeches suggests something else entirely. A term that took off in early 1790’s France, Sans-Culottes was an identifier for common people and those that had an actively militant role in the French Revolution. Technically it refers to working class men who wore trousers or pantaloons as opposed to the breeches (or culottes) favoured by aristocracy. However, it soon became a bit of an all-encompassing term; wearing a Phrygian cap or revolutionary colours and emblems, or just being heavily involved as a revolutionary. Post 1794, ‘San-Culottes’ were villainised in international media, seen as being perpetrators of the reign of terror and emblematic of violent working-class poor. Although the Douglas’s were moving to France in 1827, the stink around sans-culottes remained and so it’s very likely that when Shelley says she is glad ‘that D now seriously thinks of ‘les culottes’’ she doesn’t mean she is glad Dods is agreeing to wear male clothes, but that Walter is putting thought into if he wears pantaloons or breeches, because Isabella is concerned about accidentally causing a fashion faux pas.

Aside from avoiding social missteps, with Walter and Isabella reunited they wanted one additional thing before they could start their lives in Paris – brand new documentation. Mary Shelley immediately got on the case, creating quite the illegal and dangerous plan. In late September 1827, Shelley wrote to her friend and actor, John Howard Payne and asked him if he would help acquire new documents for the Douglas’s. The only way to legally do this, would have been to have the individuals in question apply for the documents in person themselves. However, to have Walter do that would have been risky, after all, in London he was still known as Mary Diana Dods. Instead, Payne dressed as Walter (using a description given to him by Shelley) and roped in a young woman to pretend to be Isabella. The actors then applied for new documents, signing with signatures that Walter and Isabella had posted to them in advance. The scheme worked and by 1 October 1827 Mary Shelley was profusely thanking Payne for his work.

By November 1827 the Douglas’s were settled in Paris. Things appeared to be going well for them. We can trace their early lives in Paris thanks to letters sent by Harriet Garnett to Julia Garnett Pertz (these form part of a larger collection of letters mostly housed in Harvard’s archives) Harriet discusses visiting Walter and Isabella’s home, being charmed by Isabella and praising Walter as a clever and warm husband. As the months progress, Garnett happily reports on how well the Douglas’s are settling into elite Parisian society; attending salons and soirees and even becoming friendly enough with General Lafyette that they later introduced him to Mary Shelley when she visited the city in the spring of 1828. It’s the perfect picture of a charmed existence, but underneath the surface, cracks were starting to form.

In Britain Walter had been financially struggling. His monetary straits a regular topic of conversation in David Lyndsay’s letters to his Blackwoods editors. And although his father had died, he wasn’t left a great fortune; just enough to help set up his and Isabella’s new life in Paris. So how on earth were the couple getting enough money to start climbing Paris’s social ladder? According to Betty T Bennett, the whole point of Mary Diana Dods donning a male disguise and moving to Frances, was to seize wealth and opportunity that only men could have achieved then. Bennett frequently citing that Dods planned on becoming a diplomat. If that was the case, then what was Walter doing? Certainly, not being a diplomat. In fact, these diplomatic dreams are only mentioned once, in an 1827 letter from Harriett Garnett, in which she says that at a party Walter said it was something he might be interested in doing. Other than that, Walter doesn’t seem to have pursued any job opportunities. His writing certainly wasn’t supporting the couple financially, Walter appears to have only had two pieces of work published following his move to Paris both published under ‘David Lyndsay’, one in 1827’s Forget Me Not, a compendium of work by leading writers and another in an 1828 collection of work. It’s possible that Walter was now writing under a different, unknown, pen name, but based on the steam he had built under Lyndsay, this seems unlikely.

Instead, it appears that Walter became very sick with Garnett noting his sudden ill health in the last days of 1827. He appeared visually weak and in constant pain. We know from Eliza Rennie’s account of meeting a younger Walter (then known as Mary Diana Dods), that he had some kind of long-term illness, Rennie describing ‘that worn and suffering look in her face which so often and so truly – as it did poor thing, in hers – tell of habitual pain and confirm ill health. Her figure was short and instead of being in proportion was entirely out of proportion – the existence of some organic disease aiding this materially.’ So, it seems probable that Walter’s pre-existing condition was getting worse and he may have been unable to work. Meaning that the Douglas’s almost certainly funded their lifestyle through loans and credit. With Walter ill, what was Isabella doing? Having an affair.

We don’t know if Walter and Isabella were together for love or for convenience. The latter would seem the most likely. In London, Isabella was a fallen woman, now with a young baby she birthed out of wedlock. So, did she and Walter move to Paris in part to regain her societal status? Both would have gained something from the arrangement; provided with a fresh start. It’s possible, but it’s also worth remembering that the couple didn’t make their move to Paris until late 1827, a year after not only Isabella’s pregnancy, but the first known instance of her citing herself as Walter’s wife. And we know that although Isabella told the editors of Blackwoods she was married to Walter, this was not public knowledge. Walter didn’t live openly as a man until the autumn of 1827. So there appears to be little logic for Isabella living in a secret marriage for a year when the goal of entering that same marriage would be to save her reputation. Which leaves the other option – that Isabella and Walter did in fact have feelings for each other. We know through Mary Shelley’s letters that the pair were close and that they clearly cared deeply for one another – but does that constitute love? Without any evidence that comes direct from either Walter or Isabella, we may never know.

Still, whatever the Douglas’s true feelings for each other, by 1828 Isabella was playing away. In February that year Harriet Garnett writes of how scandalised she was to see Isabella openly flirting with a man that was not her husband. The man in question was one Mr Hallam and within weeks the pair were engaged in a full-fledged affair. Outraged, Harriet Garnett cut off her friendship with Isabella, which frustratingly means that for the next few months of 1828, we are without a clear source to tell us about the Douglas’s lives. However, Harriet does still occasionally mention Isabella, which is how we know that in the early summer of 1828, she was engaged in another affair, this time with the philosopher, Claude Charles Fauriel. This liaison was more dangerous as Isabella wasn’t Fauriel’s only lover. He was also engaged in a relationship with British born starlet of the Paris social scene, Mary Clarke. Unsurprisingly, Clarke was not a big fan of Isabella, writing to Fauriel in August 1828 that she would never deign to speak to Isabella’s name to him as Isabella meant nothing…. but that Fauriel should break up with Isabella immediately. He, of course, didn’t. So a few months later, in November 1828, Clarke resolved to take down her rival through the most 19th century weapon possible – gossip. In a series of letters, we see Clarke embark on a campaign to smear Isabella’s reputation. As Isabella’s affairs with Hallam and Fauriel were already publicly known, Clarke focuses on suggesting that these aren’t the only affairs, painting Isabella as a scandalous jezebel. The Paris rumour mill started to spin with tales of the pretty young wife who took lovers whilst her husband sat in the next room. Just like that, the Douglas’s reputations were ablaze.

Despite this, Fauriel and Isabella continued their affair. But what about Walter? Not much thought seems to have been given to him either by Clarke in creating her plan, or in its aftermath. Once more, Mary Shelley fills in the blanks. Prior to the Clarke debacle of winter 1828 and after Shelley’s spring trip to Paris to see the Douglas’s, in June 1828, Mary Shelley is back in England and recovering from Smallpox. Somehow despite being in France, Isabella has once again become the subject of London gossip, though surprisingly not for her Parisian affairs. In a flurry of letters beginning in early June, we find that Shelley’s friend, Jane Hogg, is determined to seek revenge on Isabella after discovering that Isabella told Shelley that she was gossiping about Shelley behind her back…which she was, but didn’t think it was Isabella’s place to tell. Shelley tried to placate her friend, by writing that Isabella is going through suffering that ‘transcends all that imagination can convey.’

Finally in a letter dated 28-29 June, we hear about Walter and it is not good news. Once more Shelley is trying to stop Jane Hogg from targeting Isabella; ‘she shrinks like a wounded person from every pang and you must excuse her on the score of her matchless sufferings. What D. now is, I will not describe in a letter, one only trusts that the diseased body acts on the diseased and that both mind and body will be at rest ere long.’ Betty T Bennett see’s this as a crucial indication that Walter is now a monster; abusive and cruel, writing in her 1991 book, ‘It appears that the fair Isabella suffers from mistreatment from a husband sick in body and mind…he was obviously no longer ‘dear doddy’ to Mary Shelley or his wife.’ On the surface, this makes sense, however there are some key flaws here. Shelley is referring to Walter as he was when she last saw him a few months prior, however just days before writing this letter, on 22 June, Shelley is not only forwarding David Lyndsay’s work to publishers but singing his praises as she does. Would she do this if Walter was abusing his wife and her friend, Isabella? Walter is also not mentioned in any of Shelley’s previous June 1828 letters to Jane Hogg, where in describing Isabella’s suffering she doesn’t mention Isabella’s husband at all, more likely referring to the multiple scandals surrounding Isabella’s affairs and her recent loss of friends such as Harriet Garnett due to this. We also know that during Shelley’s visit to the Douglas’s in spring 1828, she was accompanied by Isabella’s father and sister, neither of whom raise any concerns over the Douglas marriage. Again, we can’t know what goes on inside a marriage, but aside from this one sentence, there are no other mentions of Walter ever being abusive, violent or controlling.

What we do know is that the diseased body Shelley is referring to is certainly the same condition that Harriet Garnett mentioned at the end of 1827. It’s clear that Walter’s already ailing health was now at a critical point. We also know from Eliza Rennie’s earlier account that aside from chronic pain, Walter’s condition manifested itself physically, which could explain why Shelley won’t describe what ‘D now is’. It’s just as likely then that when talking of Isabella’s suffering, Walter’s rapidly deteriorating health was a part of this. When it come to the ‘diseased mind’, it’s probably unsurprising that there are multiple indicators that alongside his body, Walter’s mental health may also have been suffering. The accounts of the bright and erudite man fade away, as Walter remains at home. Though Isabella is frequently spotted out and about, Walter is not and on the few occasions where he is noted to be at a party, he remains quiet and to the side. His health was failing, his writing career stalled, he was drowning in debt and publicly framed as a cuckhold. In the aftermath of Mary Clarke’s plan to destroy the Douglas reputation in November 1828, he drops out of our historic lens, likely at home, isolated, in pain and slowly dying.

The end of the trail

The next we hear of Walter comes a year later on 24 November 1829, through a letter from Mary Clarke to Claude Charles Fauriel. Clarke has some news for Fauriel; Walter is in debtors’ prison, not only that but he has asked a mutual friend to bring him a fake moustache and whiskers. Clarke finds this hilarious, for her Walter’s tragedy is just anouther throwaway funny anecdote.

This is the last we hear of Walter Sholto Douglas. The trail runs cold, with Walter alone in a debtor’s prison far from home, where he died sometime in late 1829 or early 1830.

Walter’s last known request, for a moustache and whiskers has been poured over, not only by Betty T Bennett, but as a frequent citation in academia into the history of facial hair (yes, that is a real thing). Bennett reads the request as final proof of the monster that Mary Diana Dods had become, totally uncaring of the situation they had found themselves in or of the circumstances of those around them. On top of that, Bennet writes; ‘Dods had all but lost her mind. And having lost her mind, perhaps no longer knowing whether she was a man or a woman, why not adorn ‘himself’’. It creates a gothic picture, worthy of one of David Lyndsay’s own stories. An ambitious woman who gambled everything to create a fake life as a man, only to become lost in their own illusion, transforming into a cruel uncaring monster who died alone believing in the very web of lies that they created. It’s an amazing story from history that has Oscar bait written all over it – but it only works if you totally overlook fact.

Time and time again in her research Betty T Bennett doesn’t acknowledge simple facts that would disprove her theory, despite almost all of these being included in her own research. Long term illnesses are conveniently forgotten, vast ambitions of becoming a diplomat fuel a person, even though they were mentioned once. Patterns of behaviour of masculine dress and mannerisms are tossed aside to bolster the idea of a woman who suddenly chooses to ‘dress as a man’. So much work is being done to force a narrative that simply does not hold up. If the plan was to chase success, then why would Dods choose the name Walter Sholto Douglas to start a new life instead of the existing David Lyndsay? Why does Walter insist on getting entirely new documentation to travel to Paris, despite the risk in doing so when they would have been able to legally go to France without these? And when their sickness became worse and their plan to beat the patriarchy failed, why did they not simply return back to the safety of their friends in Britain? When you take into account every facet of archival evidence and look at the picture as a whole, the answer is simple – because Walter Sholto Douglas was very likely a trans man. He doesn’t take the name David Lyndsay, because it’s not his true identity, he fights for new documentation so he can hold proof of who he now is, he stays in Paris because to go back home, would mean reverting back to Mary Diana Dods.

Betty T Bennett not coming to this conclusion is understandable. She did her research in the 1980’s when historical research into queer culture was few and far between and a prevalent historical school of thought was that queer history didn’t exist before the LGBTQ+ rights movement; that no person in history could have been trans before this. After all, there was no language for it, it wasn’t a medical or social concept and how could a person possibly be transgender without having the medical technology that would allow for gender reassignment surgery? This is, of course, a school of thought that is incredibly outdated not to mention patently incorrect. Today the general consensus within science and medicine is that identifying as trans is something inherent in a person, part of the structure of their brain. It’s not something a person can choose to be, it’s something you are. Similarly, multiple bodies and charities, such as Stonewall, make it clear that you do not need to have gender reassignment surgery to be trans. This means that we can be certain that history is littered with people who would today identify as trans.

And yet, the debate over gender within history remains a hot button issue, perhaps most notably in the case of Dr James Barry. Born a few years after Walter Sholto Douglas, in 1789, Barry was gendered female at birth, however he lived his adult life as a man. He was a pioneering surgeon in the British army where, among other achievements, he improved medical conditions in army hospitals. It wasn’t until his body was autopsied following his death in 1865, that Barry was ‘found to be female’. Despite identifying as a man in life, in death, Barry become everything but. He has been called intersex and a feminist hero, but it is a rarity for Barry to be called a trans man, or simply, a man. In 2019 the release of a new book on Barry, The Cape Doctor by E.J Levy, fired up the debate all over again. Levy described Barry as a heroine and in response to criticism she replied that ‘There’s no evidence Barry considered herself trans; she dressed as [a] man as needed to be [a] soldier, doctor … Shifting readings of her body are what my novel wrestles with; it’s been taken into account; I use she/her as her biographers do.’. Same argument, different decade. But, in a way, Levy is absolutely correct here – prior to 1910 when Dr Magnus Hirschfeld published Die Transvestiten, there wasn’t any real language or exact terminology to explain understandings in gender non conformity or difference. So of course, it is incredibly unlikely that as a researcher you’ll find a figure from history prior to this who outwardly says ‘I am trans.’ This is very much the case for Dr James Barry and for Walter Sholto Douglas. We can’t say for certain that they were trans, because they never said it themselves, but we can assess if it is a possibility.

It’s no wonder that Betty T Bennett didn’t look into this possibility in the 1980’s – there were so many factors in play against that. But that isn’t the case today. Because with new knowledge and research comes a better understanding of not only who we are now but who we were. That’s what makes history so exciting, it’s ever changing. Truly nothing is set in stone. A lost diary can be stumbled upon, a hidden secret can be found buried deep in the dirt and medical and scientific advancements can led to truly game changing discoveries. And that’s what Walter Sholto Douglas’s story could be, game changing.

Walter’s story is unique in that because so many of his friends have been folded into the historic canon, we can catch glimpses of his life through multiple archives. And just judging from my own research, I’m fairly certain there is more out there; perhaps we’ll find it by combing through more of the Parisian social sets letters, or we’ll find even more ‘lost letters’ of Mary Shelley or maybe we’ll discover Walter’s own diaries. Whether it’s in the next year or centuries down the line, I truly believe that with more work and research one day we will hear Walters’ full story. And in the meantime, I hope that we can put whatever societal agendas we might have aside to look at the research and respect Walter. He was very likely a trans man. Above all, he was a person, a talented brilliant person, who faced illness and adversity and yet never stopped trying to build the life that he wanted to live. That will always be worth celebration.

*I have used several different pro-nouns to address Walter during this piece. I did this for ease of understanding as Walter went by several different names during his life. I have used ‘they’ for Mary Diana Dods (apart from when citing Bennett’s work) and ‘he’ for Walter once he started living openly as a man, as well as for David Lyndsay.

The lost dead of WW2

When we think about The Second World War we don’t think about mental health. Of those who upon hearing of the impeding war couldn’t see a way to carry on. They are the forgotten victims of WW2. But their stories are finally being heard and might just provide the key to our modern-day mass mental health crisis.

Trigger warning – this article contains discussion of suicide.

In 15th April 1939’s weekend edition of the Essex Newsman, you’ll an incredibly tragic story. It’s not front-page news, but beyond Winston Churchills promise to aid Greece and Romania against Nazi invasion, there is a none the less important story; that of Edith Hann. A 43-year-old mother of two who on Good Friday had curled up with her husband on the sofa to listen to that evenings BBC News wireless transmission. As she heard of the ever-growing threat of Nazi invasion and that Britain must become more involved in this international crisis, she turned to her husband and said ‘That means war’. The next morning Edith was dead.

Edith had been scared of what war would mean for her family. What it would mean for her sons, then 9 and 16. She’d lived through World War One, she knew that a second war could mean her oldest son being conscripted; that he might never come home. That the threat of bombing might mean he wouldn’t even have a home to come back to – or parents to help him get through. Edith was terrified. She couldn’t face another war. So, she took her life. At her inquest, the coroner, one Dr P.B Skeels, underlined the effect the wireless news had on Edith. Saying ‘The news is not always happily expressed on the wireless. Of course, we want to know the facts, but people with a nervous disposition are likely to be tremendously effected.’ This was backed up by a Daily Mail on 13th April 1939. Edith was one of three people whose suicides were directly linked back to that same BBC news broadcast on Good Friday 1939.

When we think of the outbreak of The Second World War, we don’t think suicide. Maybe that’s because suicide was illegal in the UK until 1961. Maybe it’s because these people’s stories have just got lost in the melee of ‘THERE’S A WAR!’. Or maybe, it’s because, until quite recently, we didn’t feel comfortable talking about mental health. The answer is probably a mix of all of these reasons, but almost certainly thanks to a pretty heavy dollop of the latter. Still between 1938’s Munich crisis and the official outbreak of war in Britain in 1939, there were many instances of people, just like Edith, committing suicide due to the threat of war. They are the lost dead. The casualties of war we just don’t want to think about.

Essex Newsman, 15 April 1939

The First World War changed Britain -obviously. Pretty much every city, town and village now had a war memorial. A great wave of death had swept the nation and nobody was left unmarked. This was made even worse by the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which claimed at least 200,000 lives in Britain, an estimated 45% of which were under 35. Between 1914-1918 it was not a good time to be a young person – the odds of your survival weren’t exactly stellar. Which is why today we know this generation as ‘the lost generation.’

If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve loved than you’ll know how tough it is to recover. To rebuild your life and find a way to smile again. Now imagine that personal pain and spread it throughout the country – one big shared unimaginable loss. That was the aftermath of the First World War. Sadly, there just weren’t enough resources, or knowledge in mental health to help everyone. So, veterans were put as first priority (although admittedly the help they got was beyond poor-buts that’s a story for another day) For everyone else – the shattered and traumatised civilian’s – well for the most part, you just had to carry on. It’s perhaps why we see a post war spike in spiritualism, religion and even ‘pilgrimages’ to visit First World War battle sites. It’s also why in the 1930’s there’s a boom in ‘emotional control’ with women’s newspaper columns and magazines in particular advising their readers on how to ‘manage’ their feelings.

But beyond all this feeling management and hope in spiritualism, there was another thing to hold on to. The best kind of silver lining. Because, at the time this wasn’t called ‘The First World War’; it was ‘The Great War’. A war so great and tragic that it could never happen again. So of course, the trauma you experienced during The Great War wasn’t likely to repeat itself. Right? Right?!?

Enter Hitler!

This fucking guy

After the absolute failure of 30th September 1938’s Munich Pact, it became apparent that Britain joining another international war was a definite possibility. This wasn’t a new fact for the people of Britain – who earlier in the year had already been advised to be fitted with gas masks. Not only was another war on the cards, but an attack was thought so likely that everyone was now issued with a gas mask. It’s a terrifying thought, even more so if you’re already traumatised by the horrors of war.

This is where we start to see the first forgotten casualties of Britain’s involvement in The Second World War. The University of Sheffield’s Dr Julie Gottlieb is carrying out an ongoing research project on suicides related to The Munich Crisis, as part of a wider project researching suicides during times of crisis. In 2018 at the time of the research’s publishing, Dr Gottlieb told the New Statesman that she had uncovered at least 110 suicides directly relating to The Munich Crisis.

These include Roger ‘Tom’ Northcutt, a 36-year horticultural whizz who’d been assembling gas masks when he suddenly told his fellow volunteers he was quickly nipping home. Expect he never made it home and shortly afterwards a search party found his body. Then there’s, William Neatham Rumbell a 27-year-old sales clerk, who immediately went to pick up his gas mask after hearing Hitlers speech on 26th September 1938, where the Nazi leader threatened war with Czechoslovakia. Shortly after William returned home with his mask, he reportedly uttered the same last words as Edith Hann: ‘That means war’ – his body was later discovered in his room.

Roger ‘Tom’ Northcutt

In the grand scheme of things 110 suicides might seem like a drop in the ocean. But these deaths are just scratching the surface. They are the deaths where there is a clear and direct link back to the impending outbreak of war. That’s just one aspect that makes broader research into this is tricky. In addition many deaths that were probably suicides, were recorded as ‘accidental deaths’ and/or just weren’t reported on. This adds another fun spanner in the works, because newspaper archives are one of the primary sources for tracking this – although some coroner inquest reports still exist, not all of them do, because coroners are only required to keep records from this era for so long. However, despite all of these added hurdles, there is clear anecdotal evidence that there may have been an impact to overall mental health in the run up to Britain entering The Second World War.

For an example let’s go back to where this article began and focus in on those reported in the local confines of The Essex Newsman. Looking at the last two weeks in September 1938 – when fears of Britain entering the war were at a high – The Newsman reports on seven suicides within the Essex area – a far greater number than usual. This is in addition to one woman being charged with attempted suicide and an inquest ruling accidental death in the case of one man, although the coroner’s verdict includes that the deceased stepped in front of a train and upon hearing the trains whistle, he deliberately ‘jumped forward’ towards the oncoming train.

Again, this is of course incredibly anecdotal evidence on my part. And of course it’s important to understand that a sudden impending war wasn’t likely to be the sole cause that led to a suicide or a suicide attempt – rather a contributing factor. The straw that broke the camels back if you will. But this glimpse into just two weeks in one county in England really illustrates what we’re looking at as a far wider reaching trend; and it’s one that is still being analysed and studied. Now unfortunately although amazing research is being done in this area, it’s not yet fully formed. However, when it is – this area of historic research could be a complete game changer. The study of these deaths won’t just provide us with a window into the lives of people history likes to forget, but it will help us better understand mental health.

Think about it. We know that looming economic, political and social crisis’s see an uptick in people attempting to take their lives. We’re currently living in an epidemic that has seen this exact effect. And although understanding of mass mental health is better than it ever was, it’s still not 100% there. By studying these past incidences, we can get a far better understanding of their cause, symptoms and ultimately, what can be done to help. Now I’m not going to lie, as a suicide survivor and a researcher of mental health history, I totally have skin in this game (so please do expect me to bang on about this in the coming weeks and months!) This has been a really basic overview of the issue at hand, but I hope one that makes you want to read more into this (and if that is the case, reading list is at the bottom). These stories are never fun to read about, but they are important and expanding our knowledge of this area of the past can only make the future we build even better.

If you’re currently experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact your GP – they really will help you. You can also call the Samaritans for 24/7 free one to one support, on 116 123.

Further reading

*Just for clarity – I’ve chosen to omit mention of methods of suicide from this article as much as possible. If you want to find them for each individual then you can (most are cited in the newspaper sources above).

Jack the Ripper Museum – RIP?

I have tragic news for you all – 5 years after opening, London’s Jack The Ripper Museum has declared insolvency – so what happens now?

The museum that opened in 2015 to a cacophony of protests, petitions and national outrage has run out of money. News of the insolvency spread like wild fire online (although thanks to Dr Louise Raw discovering this fact, not because the museum itself announced it.) And understandably, thinking the museum was out of money and, again, with no word from The Jack the Ripper Museum, people assumed it was about to shut its doors.

Apparently not – a spokesperson for the museum told me:

‘I am confirming we are not closed; we have closed for a few days due to Covid 19 and lack of tourists in London.  You can check our website for updates and there is a notice in our window.’

I did ask for a statement regarding the insolvency and financial future of the museum, none has been given at the time of writing. So according to the museum, they are not closed (admitedly, they didn’t say they wouldnt be permantly closing, despite being asked…but benefit of the doubt). Which is good news for the museum’s staff, because hey, during covid the museum sector has already seen far to many redunacies. BUT that being said, it’s not all good news, because having declared themselves insolvent, The Jack the Ripper Museum is on pretty shaky ground.

So, what went wrong and can the museum ever be turned around? Let’s look at the issues:

Issue one – Lack of Trust

It would not be unfair to say that The Jack the Ripper Museum was founded on lies. The community who live around the museum were told that it was going to be a women’s history museum. It wasn’t until the signage came up that anyone knew otherwise.

And it wasn’t just the local community. The museums architect, Andrew Waugh, publicly came out and said he was ‘duped’ into working on the museum, after being told it was a women’s history museum. Saying:

“The local community was duped, we were duped. They came to us and said they had no money but that this is a real heartfelt project. It is incredibly important to celebrate women in politics in the East End. We really ran with it. We did it at a bargain-basement fee, at cost price because we thought it was a great thing to do.”

To make amends, the museum announced that they would be partnering with a women’s domestic violence charity – which again, turned out to be wholly untrue. The charity had never been contacted by the museum and later asked to be taken off their website.

Then came the museums claim that the name of the museum was never actually, The Jack the Ripper Museum. In a 2015 interview with The Londonist, museum founder, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe explained:

The full name of the museum is ‘The Jack the Ripper and the History of Women in East London’. The frontage is not finished and still in the planning stage.’

Yet the name remains the same, as did the frontage until the local community demanded it was taken down in 2017.

Issue Two – No comment

In light of all of this, The Jack the Ripper Museum choosing to disengage from social media and press seemed understandable, if a little petulant. Faced with this utter shit storm immediately upon opening, museum management could either apologise, shutter and makes amends, or just dig their heels in and weather it out. And of course, they chose the latter option.

But the issue here is that this phase of battening down the hatches has never stopped. The museum regularly either refuse or ignore requests for statements (even getting that tiny quote at the top of this article was like pulling teeth). And of course, they have set an unparalleled precedent for social media account blocking. Whenever there is even a hint of online criticism or discontent, that block button is quickly pressed.

Having worked in museum communications I can tell you that I’ve never seen a museum do this before. And that’s not because The Jack the Ripper Museum are ground-breaking communication mavericks. No – it’s because this strategy of refusing to engage and burying their heads in the sand is, frankly, insane.

For one thing by doing this the museum alienate themselves from journalists, the history community and you know, general visitors. Which has massively reduced the amount of press and social engagement they are able to generate after that initial wave of negative publicity when they opened. When was the last time you saw them in a museum Twitter chat or an article on them that wasn’t wholly negative and from 2015-2017?

But arguably the biggest example of why this communications strategy is so catastrophically bad is that when the internet found out The Jack the Ripper Museum had declared insolvency and could be shuttering its doors – the museum seemed to have had no idea. When I asked them about this claims, they said they had never seen or heard anything about them. If true, that’s almost certainly because they’d blocked everyone who was sharing the news from their social media (with the vast majority of these people being female historians)

This meant that for several days The Jack the Ripper Museum management were seemingly totally unaware that news that their museum was closing was being spread around social media. And to really emphasis what a monumental clusterfuck that is, let us remember this: the news of the museums insolvency and probable closure was readily accepted – without a statement from the museum needed. That’s a pretty damning indictment of how The Jack the Ripper Museum chooses to engage with the public,

Issue Three – the actual experience

Ok, lets hit pause on talking about the topics and contents inside the museum (don’t worry I’ll get to that momentarily). What about the actual visitor experience? Is it any good?

Well for £10 general admission (£8 for kids) you get access to the small museum, which lies over six floors with roughly one room per floor. These rooms are a mix of walk-in scenes with little to no interpretation (for example the ‘Mitre Square murder scene’) and walk in scenes with light interpretation (e.g the ‘morgue’ and ‘one of the Ripper victims rooms’)

It’s clearly designed to be immersive, as you flit from streets to ‘Jack’s living room’, with each room having its own soundscape, which runs the gamut from a women’s screams and cries of ‘murder!’, to light folky singing. Effort has been made; there just seemingly wasn’t the budget for it to be well executed. Many areas are very sparsely dressed and most of the rooms are inhabited with some kind of dodgy waxwork with an equally dodgy wig.

The Mitre Square ‘scene’

Then there’s the total lack of quality historic content. It’s all very vague; ‘here’s a Victorian bonnet, maybe a victim wore one like it.’ With short and non-descript panels on the walls and staircases to provide light information. It all feels very last minute presentation and you can see why some visitors have compared it to a live version of the Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page.

On the whole, you can see the entire museum in an hour, but when I’ve visited I’ve seen people in and out within ten minutes – shuffle around, take a selfie with a murdered woman’s waxwork and you’re done. There’s no revisit value. Even the most hardened Ripperologist would struggle on finding a reason to return. Once you’ve gotten past the end of the pier house of horrors ‘I can’t believe this exists’ cheap thrill – there is nothing there.

And that can in no small way have contributed to The Jack the Ripper Museums money troubles. After all, no small museum can finically survive on a diet that consists solely of one off ‘well I was going to the Tower of London, might as well pop in’ visits.

Issue four – It shouldn’t exist

At least not like this. Of course, there’s the argument that a museum that claimed to be a women’s history museum and then turned out to be a Jack the Ripper museum shouldn’t exist in the first place. But it does. And (at least according to their management) it will continue to exist.

But it shouldn’t as it is now. Way back in 2015 we were living in a world that was pre-Hallie Rubenhold’s, The Five. When people could say to The Jack the Ripper Museum, please don’t just shove up pictures of the victims dead bodies in a make shift morgue and say that’s their whole story. And they could shrug, because it would be hard to find out more information on every victim and they were such a small team that they just didn’t have capacity…

Well, welcome to 2020, when Hallie Rubenhold has published a bestselling book on the lives of each victim. It’s been out for a year, proving that:

  1. Yes, the information does exist and you have easy access to it
  2. People are clearly interested in knowing more about these women and their lives.

So now is the time to change The Jack the Ripper Museum. Take down the morgue, the murder scene and ‘Jack’s sitting room’ and replace it with new content that has substance, isn’t wholly degrading and might just draw people into your museum.

Because, let’s be real here Jack the Ripper Museum – after your insolvency and the last five years of hate being blasted your way – what do you have to lose? Clearly, you can’t go on like you currently are. Something has to change for you to survive. So maybe that something doesn’t have to be sticking in another mutilated waxwork.

Maybe it could be having several rooms dedicated to telling the lives of the five known victims. Maybe you could have more space explaining what life was like in the East End at that time. How 1 in 5 women were sex workers. How the 1885 Law Amendment closed brothels and put many of these women in danger. How in fact there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of those five victims were sex workers, but what would it matter if they were?

We will never know who Jack the Ripper was, but we should use that mystery to uncover a troubling but fascinating past. And yes, that will still be interesting, there’s now hard data to show people are interested. Yes, you can still have selfie moments in foggy London streets and things for people to play with (e.g try out a penny bed!). You just don’t need to capitalise on the violent deaths of women to make money.

Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly

The Jack the Ripper Museum is never going to be the museum we were promised and wanted it to be (luckily, The East End Women’s museum is opening soon, so we now have that space) However, if The Jack The Ripper Museum really is going to stay open, that it doesn’t just need to change – it has to.

The Tuskegee Experiment

In 1932 a group of physicians started a study on syphilis in black men, which became one of the most heinous tragedies in medical history and impacted the lives of black Americans across the country – This is what happened

The Tuskegee Institution was founded in 1881, based in the Alabama it was a part of an effort to expand education for the black community in places that had previously been confederate run. In 1906, the institutions Principal, Booker T Washington, celebrated the schools 25th anniversary; praising the institute as a place where students could ‘engage with education and upbuilding of their race.’ Going on to say that the school’s upmost goal would always be,

‘to do something that would reach and improve the situation of the negro population in the south.’

This was the foundation that Tuskegee Institution was built on and yet, less than thirty years later, a team of scientists and doctors at Tuskegee would do the exact opposite. Working with the US government on an experiment that betrayed the very community they were built to serve and in doing so, they committed one of the most heinous acts in American medical history.

But before we get to what went down at Tuskegee in 1932, it’s important to know why it happened in the first place. So, lets quickly chat everyone’s favourite topics – syphilis and its impact on racist medical ideals! (don’t say I don’t spoil you)

A brief breakdown of syphilis

Syphilis is one of those STI’s that seems to have always been a thing. Seriously, it’s been knocking about for centuries, actually getting the name ‘syphilis’ thanks to a 1530 poem by Girolamo Fracastoro, in which a shepherd called Syphilus gets the STI (then called ‘The French Disease’ though the French called it ‘The Italian Disease’ because xenophobia knows no bounds) that’s right syphilis was such a big deal that people wrote poetry about it!

1936/1937 New York syphilis poster, via Library of Congress
Ok not quite that old, historians can’t quite agree how old it is, but many reckon it first appeared in the late 1400’s. – 1936/1937 syphilis PSA poster, via Library of Congress

Although its presence remains a constant throughout history, throughout the ages we see waves of syphilis outbreaks, one of these waves happened in America, where by the 1930’s it was estimated that at least 1 in 10 people suffered from syphilis. This is obviously very bad, but it’s worse when you factor in that if left untreated, syphilis has some pretty gnarly side effects, including blindness, paralysis, organ failure and something called Neurosyphilis.

Now Neurosyphilis normally develops after many years and it impacts the bodies nervous system, in particular the brain and spinal chord. There are different types of neurosyphilis (don’t worry I won’t go into all of them now!), but one of the major signs of neurosyphilis in a patient is psychiatric problems, such as depression, psychosis, dementia and mania. It’s now estimated that in the 1930’s roughly 20% of America’s asylum inmates were suffering from neurosyphilis. This was a very big problem and so of course, doctors wanted to know more about it.

Cut back to Tuskegee in 1932. The US Government were keen to look at how neurosyphilis impacted the brains of black men. Their hypothesis was that although black men were more likely to have syphillis, they were less likely to get neurosyphilis than white men.

That is quite the racist sentiment to take in, so let’s break it down. On the ‘more likely to have syphilis’ part, this was an idea that had been thrown around since the 1800’s. With many medical professionals taking the approach that black people were genetically inferior to white people and therefore were more likely to succumb to disease. Now this was backed up by figures…but that was actually because a black patient was less likely to receive an early diagnosis, get good treatment or have a quality of life that meant they were physically fit enough to fight off a horrifying disease. This was something a handful of reformers pointed out; however, massive racial prejudice was very much the order of the day – so, screw clear social economic factors. This was Darwinism and yet another sign black people were inferior to whites.

But why did they think black men were less likely to have neurosyphilis? Well this is summed up best in 1911 by one Dr E.M Hummell, who suggested that white patients got neurosyphilis as their brains were more developed, but a black person’s brain was less developed, thanks to their ‘childlike euphoria of a carefree life’ which was because:

‘(they) have not progressed very far from the primitive habits of their antecedents in the rude huts of a mid-african village’

Obviously not everyone was just going along with this argument. In 1929 a group of mostly black physicians at Tuskegee Institution (yes that same Tuskegee Institution), underwent a study on black patients with syphilis, and released a series of papers with their findings in the Journal of the Medical Association.

electron micrograph of syphilis
electron micrograph of the bacteria that causes syphilis

However, they chose to omit any mention of a hierarchal race system being a contributing factor. Something that was incredibly admirable (not to mention factually correct), but meant that predominately white physicians could say ‘Gee whizz! This is very interesting…but of course, being black still means you’re more likely to get syphilis but less likely to get neurosyphilis.’

Which was further cemented just a year later by a 1930 paper by one Dr Thomas B. Turner, which used data from 10,000 patients to claim that there was ‘sufficient proof of a profound biological difference in the races and sexes’ And of course, that black men were less likely to get neurosyphilis, because of the now beloved adage, that their brains were not as developed thanks to:

‘the lazy carefree life of a negro in contrast to the strain of civilisation.’

The experiment

And so, with all this in mind in 1932 the US Public Health Service (PHS) launched a study into latent syphilis and neurosyphilis in black men. Where did they go for this study? Tuskegee Institution of course! Not only did the school have a history of studying syphilis, but Macon Country, where the school was based, was seeing a rise of syphilis, making it as senior PHS officer, Dr. Taliaferro Clark, put it ‘an unusual opportunity’.

The plan was this – to study 400 men with syphilis (along with a control group of 200 men who didn’t have syphilis) and just see what happened if they weren’t treated.

The Surgeon General, Hush S Cummings, sold it to Tuskegee Institution by saying, ‘The presence of an unusually high rate in this county and, what is more remarkable, the fact that 99 per cent of this group was entirely without previous treatment. This combination, together with the expected cooperation of your hospital, offers an unparalleled opportunity for carrying on this piece of scientific research which probably cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world.’ This was an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity to study the effects of syphilis! So of course, Tuskegee Institution jumped on board.

But you may have noticed a small issue here. Remember the bit about just seeing how syphilis impacted the lives of 400 men if left untreated? Well, that goes against everything every medical textbook at the time (and now!) says you should do. If someone has syphilis, you need to treat it. Not leave it for an unspecified amount of time and just see how things plays out.

However the PHS weren’t stressed about this. You see they figured two things:

1. Much of the local community who had syphillis already weren’t being treated, so was it really that ethically bad of them to not treat these men as well?

2. Once a subject was diagnosed with syphilis, they just wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis! After all, they couldn’t ask for treatment for a disease they didn’t know they had.

And so with that monstrosity of a plan in place, the team set to work getting subjects. Things didn’t get off to a good start. Before being admitted onto the programme, potential subjects had to undergo a physical and spinal tap to check that they had syphilis and the signs of neurosyphilis. However, the local black community were worried that these mysterious physicals were actually a crafty way of making young black men have a draft physical and forcing them to join the army.

particpants being tested 2
A subject is tested

So, the team came up with a new pitch, instead of calling it an experiment or programme, they’d sell it as a way for men who had syphilis to get free health care and treatments. This led to an influx of men who either knew they had syphilis (or bad blood as it was locally called) and couldn’t afford to treat it, or thought they had it but couldn’t afford to be properly diagnosed.

The final hurdle in securing all the participants was the spinal tap to check for neurosyphilis. This was an incredibly painful procedure and the team were worried that once subjects told each other how bad it was, nobody would get it. So, they doubled down on the promise of free treatment, writing to the men:

‘Some time ago you were given a thorough examination and since that time we hope you have gotten a great deal of treatment for bad blood. You will now be given your last chance to get a second examination. This examination is a very special one and after it is finished you will be given a special treatment if it is believed you are in a condition to stand it….

And yes, they did use all caps on that last bit… And no, they were never actually treating these men with anything but placebos.

As the study went on, things kept getting worse. Obviously, the men who had syphilis weren’t getting treatment, but kept getting sick. Yet that wasn’t the major issue (at least for the team). In 1933 the team behind the experiment got more funding to continue the programme. However, by now they’d decided that they’d need to run the programme indefinitely, or at least until the subjects started to die. Because as one of the leaders of the programme Dr Oliver C Wagner put it:

‘We have no further interest in these patients until they die.’

So then why did the Tuskegee Institution carry on working with the Public Health Service, when they knew the end result would be the death of 400 men?

There is no clear-cut reason, but there are potential contributing factors. One would be that Tuskegee Institution was reliant on donations and beneficiaries – so pissing off the US government was a quick way to stop that income coming in. Another was that Dr Eugene Dibble, the head of the school’s hospital, saw the programme as a good way to showcase Tuskegee Institution as a major player in medical research. Then there’s the argument that the school may not have known just how bad the programme was going to get – that these men would never receive treatment and that just a year in, the PHS would be actively waiting for subjects to die.

dr eugene dibble
Dr Eugene Dibble

Many historians argue that Tuskegee Institution, as well as it’s staff, including the likes of Dr Eugene Dibble and Nurse Eunice Rivers, who worked throughout the programme, were as much victims as the men whose trust the Tuskegee experiment abused. Those at the top of the programme were powerful white men and the repercussions for the Institution and staffers like Dibble and Rivers would have been severe.

In fact Eunice Rivers later claimed she only kept working on the programme so she could provide as much care as she could to the men. She said that each year the programme went on those at the top reminded her ‘you belong to us’. Eunice was adamant that she was a good nurse, who had the Nightingale Pledge hanging in her house, and that she was just doing the best she could to tend to her patients in what was a horrifying situation.

nurse Euinice Rivers
Nurse Euinice Rivers

It may be true that Tuskegee staff members like Eunice felt trapped and that they had no choice but to follow orders. But they still didn’t blow the whistle on what was going on. They carried on and we’re very much the face of the study. The men participating weren’t interacting with those at the top. In fact, Eunice admitted that many of the men called it ‘Miss Rivers Study.’

The plan to keep the men on the programme until they could be autopsied went ahead. With the programme’s leadership believing they could gain more from examining the men’s bodies once deceased than they could when they were alive. Which posed the next problem – how did they hide the fact the men were dying and they were planning on autopsying them, from the local black community. It was a tough one, as Dr Oliver Wegner bluntly put it:

‘There is one danger in the latter plan and that is if the coloured population become aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darkey will leave Macon County…’

So, in 1933 the team asked the government to appoint Tuskegee Institution’s, Dr Eugene Dibble, to the PHS. They hoped that seeing a black doctor on the team given a title with such clout would mean the local community would trust them more. They combined this with increasing the work of Eunice Rivers, who now offered car rides to patients on their ‘treatment’ days, gave out hot meals and even told families that in the unlikely case the worst happened, the programme would cover funeral expenses. It was a masterclass in spin; putting a trustworthy face on the programme, all in the hopes the families would sign over their loved ones bodies.

And it worked. The patients and their loved ones trusted the team. For so many years these people had no help, no choice but to take their chances on if the disease would ravage them. Not only was the Tuskegee programme offering a lifeline to its patients, but they were helping thousands more mothers, fathers, wives and children, who’d otherwise have to watch their loved ones suffer. So of course, they signed the forms allowing autopsies. Not only because the programme had helped them so much already, but because the men were having treatment, they wouldn’t die. The autopsies wouldn’t happen. That was what they were told.

a doctor takes blood from a tuskegee suibject, via US National Archives
A doctor takes blood from a Tuskegee suibject, via US National Archives

In 1941, many of the men who were part of the programme were conscripted into the US Army. The army asked these recruits to start taking anti-syphilis drugs. So of course, the Tuskegee programmes panel asked the army to withhold treatment to the 256 new recruits that were also part of the experiment. The army complied.

By the mid 1940’s pencillin had become the go to option to treat syphilis. All medical profiessionals were advised to use the medication – of course, this new medication could have massively helped all the men involved in the experiment… and of course, the PHS and the experiment panel refused to give them it. Instead doling out even more placebos.

This is around the time things started to fall apart. By the 1950’s, these men had spent almost twenty years being told they were getting medical treatment and yet most were getting continually worse. Seeing how penicillin was working on other syphilis patients, some of the men covertly went to get second opinions and were quickly given penicillin.

The Tuskegee experiment team were far from happy about this. After all, they were just starting to see the men die off! In 1950 Dr Wegner eagerly reported:

“We now know, where we could only surmise before, that we have contributed to their ailments and shortened their lives.”

dr oliver c wengle
Dr Oliver C Wengle

By 1955 30% of deceased subjects who were autopsied had been found to have died due to neurosyphilis or due to syphilis contributing to cardiovascular lesions and other issues. Of the subjects that were still alive, the team felt confident that the majority were likely to die of syphilis directly or syphilis related conditions. But that couldn’t happen if all the subjects kept secretly running off to other doctors and getting penicillin.

So, they did the unthinkable. They contacted physicians around Macon County and told them the names of men they were to not offer syphilis treatment too. They then double downed and visited black doctors and told them to do the same.

This meant that the Tuskegee experiment managed to run for forty years.

In 1972 the experiment was ended. Whistleblowers had finally stood up. By the time the study shut up shop, it is believed 28 men had died of syphillis, 100 more of related complications and multiple partners of the men had unknowingly contracted syphilis, which in turn resulted in at least 19 children being born with the diesease at birth.

What at first started as rumbling in the press, went nuclear when the Associated Press ran a report on the experiment. A panel, piffly dubbed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Ad Hoc Advisory Panel, was quickly formed in August that year. In 1973 they released a report that stated that it was wrong for the experiment to have denied subjects penicillin treatment but that although the men did not give informed consent for what happened to them, they did volunteer to be part of the experiment. Despite the clear evidence that the men hadn’t known this was an experiment – they thought they were signing up for free treatment, not potentially signing their own death warrants.

In 1972 survivors sued in a class action lawsuit and were awarded $9 million dollars which was to be split to them and 6000 descendants of all the 600 subjects (in 2017 some descedants were still calling for the remains of the this money, so they could build a memorial garden and pay for college fee’s) 

ernest hendon
Ernest Hendon, the last survivor of the study

It wasn’t until 1997, twenty five years after the study ended that President Bill Clinton offered a formal apology on behalf on the US government, to the studies subjects. The apology was watched via a live feed by all six of the surviving subjects.

And that was that, the end of the Tuskegee experiment.

We may never know exactly how many men died as a result of being denied treatment during the Tuskegee experiment. Nor how many people outside the subject pool were infected.

The last surviving subject of the Tuskegee experiment, Ernest Hendon, who was part of the control group, died aged 96 in January 2004. But the troubled legacy of Tuskegee didn’t end with him. A 2016 research paper shows that The Tuskegee experiment led to mass mistrust of medical professionals and the Public Health Service. This in turn is estimated to have lowered the life expectancy of black American men by up to 1.5 years, in the immediate years following the exposure of the experiment.

Though the shadow cast by the Tuskegee experiment is growing fainter each year, it lives on. In the life expectancy rate for black men. In the lasting mistrust of a failed system that refused to do anything until it was far to late. And in the families who are still living with the devastation and everyday ramifications that came from those that promised to care for them.

This was interesting, where can I find out more?

There are some AMAZING resources on this. I got a lot of information on the below (all able to access online for free btw)

How to get that museum job (despite the world being on fire)

A beginners guide for finding that first job in museum and heritage in a Covid world.

So right now the world is, how shall I put this nicely – a fucking garbage fire of despair and uncertainty. And if you’ve just graduated and/or are looking for a new career in museums and heritage – mate, I’m so sorry. After all, this was already a tough sector to get a foot hold in and Covid has not helped that.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, the reality is this; pretty much every museum and heritage organisation is making changes to their staffing. Redundancies, hire freezes, pay cuts. The whole shebang. This includes small museums, medium ones and many of the major players. And yes, for the most part the directors of those big players will be retaining their same three figure salaries, thank you very much. However, in the immortal words of Whitney Houston, ‘it’s not right (in fact it’s utter bullshit). But it’s okay. I’m gonna make it anyway.’

Okay I may have paraphrased a tiny bit there. But the point stands, you’re dreams of working in history and heritage are not over. And to help you get to that dream, I’ve made this little guide to help you.

So, first things first, on a scale of 1-10 how fucked are you?

Surprisingly, not as fucked as you might think (hooray!) Though there are redundancies, there are still jobs. Which is fantastic news! BUT (and it’s a big but) it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I spoke to Fair Museum Jobs for their thoughts and they came back with two major things you need to keep in mind when looking at museum and heritage jobs in this Covid landscape:

1.Prepare for competition. 

As Fair Museum Jobs told me ‘We’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive.’

Shit is about to get fierce. You’re not just going to be going against other graduates or career transfers for those entry level jobs, but people who already work in the sector and have been made redundant. So, polish that CV and for the love of god, don’t knock yourself out in the first round by doing a copy paste CV and cover letter for every application. You’re going up against dozens if not hundreds of people – tailor it!

2.The sector will try and take advantage of you. 

Fair Museum jobs underlines that museums are likely to take use this staturated job market to save some coin, ‘We worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff.’

This will affect all types of roles, but chances are the roles that are inevitably going to be hit hardest by this lack of pay are in curatorial. This is because historically they always have been. Now employers can’t make a person redundant and then immediately rehire someone to do the same job (just at a lesser salary). Which is why we’re expecting to see museums get around this by making lower level and entry level positions redundant and then magically creating a ‘voluntary’ role which covers the same tasks, but has a slightly different name.

Go into this with your eyes wide open. Look out for jobs that are taking advantage of you and also make sure you remember how fierce your competition is and tailor you application for everything you go for (it’s a ball ache and takes time, but it’s worth it)

So with that all said…lets actually get on to how you can get a foot in the door when your dream job isn’t available (becuase be real, it probably isn’t right now)

Option 1 – volunteering

What a surprise! As we’ve just covered, these are going to be the most popular types of ‘job’ advertised. Now as an entry point, this is very elite. You really can only do this one if you can afford to. If you can’t afford to, then don’t worry. Skip this whole section, because there’s stuff for you later.

But if you are going to apply for a voluntary role, then it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

  • This will still be a full time or part time job. You just won’t get paid for it. So don’t expect people to be flexible with your hours.
  • You’ll almost certainly still have to interview for the role and have things like a relevant degree, MA and occasionally (kind of hilariously given the role) previous voluntary experience.

And know that there is no guaranteed job at the end of this. Of course some people have gotten a paid gig off the back of volunteering, but it’s far from guaranteed. The odds are not ever in your favour on this one. And athough how good you are does factor in to turning volunteering into paid work, it’s almost all down to luck. It’s basically the Hunger Games and chances are you’re not Katniss Everdeen.

However, if you do still want to apply and see this as your only option, then do. Just know your rights going into it. Make sure you have your hours set in stone and don’t work for free longer than you have to.

Option 2 – other avenues in

So, you can’t afford to work for free. Don’t worry, most people can’t. But you can still apply for jobs. There are jobs going in every area of museums and heritage, just much much fewer than normal.

One thing to consider is if there are jobs in other departments in the museum/heritage organisations you’re looking at. Retail, front of house and marketing are far more likely to be looking than curatorial, education, conservation etc. So this is a good time to work out if you want to be a conservator or a curator, or if you just want to work in museums and heritage. There’s no shame if it’s the latter. That’s why most people get into the sector, to be surrounded by amazing history every day.

So, if you think you might fall into the ‘I just love museums and want that to be my job’ category, then apply to other departments. Having worked across the board in museums and heritage, I can tell you that you still get that amazing experience. Also some of those departments are actually better paid (and you get more transferable skills, should you ever want to leave the sector one day!)

And if you do feel like it’s ‘curator or death!’ then other avenues in are still worth considering. I know many curators, conservators and historians who got their start in a museum shop, as a guide or greeter. It’s a foot in the door. A way to pay your rent, get to know what visitors want and become one of the team. Plus, it never hurts to be an internal applicant.

Option 3 -the waiting game

This is probably the option you don’t want to hear about. But honestly, it’s not that bad and I say that having done it myself. Sometimes no matter how many applications you send in, that entry level job doesn’t happen. It’s not anything on you, it’s just a limited number of jobs and a crazy number of applicants.

I’ve been there. I landed my first job as a paid intern and then after my contract ran out there was nadda. I went for jobs and didn’t get them and it was a couple of months until I landed my next role in the sector. During that time I didn’t have the option of sitting on my hands; after all my landlord still wanted rent and I was very much team I’d like to have enough money to eat please.

So I worked in a shop and then as an admin assistant in an office. I’ve also been a call centre worker (selling double glazing natch), a children’s party host and (arguably) the worlds perkiest leafleteer. None of those things were what I wanted to do, but it got me by until I could do what I wanted.

Between you and me, I actually count those times as some of the most valuable in my career. I got my word per minute speed up, became a boss at spreadsheets and learnt to manage difficult customers (seriously, working in a call centre makes you a boss at dealing with tricky people) It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s the stuff that meant when I was in an interview and they asked me ‘how would you organise X’ or ‘how would you manage this tricky interpersonal situation’ I had some solid answers tucked up my sleeve. And now, having been on the other side of the desk during assistant interviews, I can tell you that not many candidates have those.

So don’t just apply for those history and heritage jobs, spread your net. And if you strike out and don’t land the dream job, it’s ok. The experiences you get in other jobs whilst you wait will still count.

So what happens now?

Well you apply. And apply and then apply again. And the probably apply some more. Chances are, this is going to take at least a couple of months. And whilst you wait, you can boost your CV, take online courses (there are a ton of free ones I’ll link at the bottom). Join the history and heritage community on social; it’s a great place to find opportunities, but also just to meet some amazing people.

And remember to know your rights. Check out the Museum’s Association pay salary guidelines. Flag up BS job specs to places like Fair Museum Jobs. Check out unions (seriously every museum worker should join a union!) and go to places like GlassDoor to find if the place you want to work at has any major red flags.

Most importantly, don’t give up. This might be a long road, but you will get there.

Handy free online course links:

Future Learn has a ton of amazing online courses you can do for free (their history ones are great) but they also have them in things like interpersonal office skills, safeguarding (handy if you plan to work in education in the future) and presenting your work.

Reed offers several free acredited courses in improving your IT skills and HR basics.

Open Universityhas a ton of free courses (including one on the value of coffee, which I actually now want to do…) stand outs for padding out your experience and CV include project planning, leadership skills and finance basics.

Check out Fair Museum Jobs full statement and advice

‘Given Covid, it’s inevitable that organisation are going to suffer financially. We have already seen that Tate and National Trust Scotland among others are consulting on staff redundancies. This is doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs being advertised, indeed we’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive. Don’t let organisations get away with using Covid as an excuse to treat you badly: make sure to check the salary and working hours – can you reasonably live on this? Check the job requirements – are they proportionate to the person specification, and the salary? It’s also worth doing some research about the organisation – How have they treated their staff during covid? What are they doing in reaction to Black Lives Matter? Allow yourself to feel empowered to make ethical choices in your job applications.
We also worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff. At Fair Museum Jobs we would say, don’t apply for these jobs, and challenge them when you see them. It will never be acceptable for any organisation to use their financial situation to treat other people poorly, no matter their charitable status.’

We Need To Talk About The 93 Penises On The Bayeux Tapestry

We’ve all been there. Maybe it was on the Internet or maybe you were lucky enough to be there in person. I’m talking about viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, probably the most recognisable and iconic piece of medieval art. But as serious as the Tapestry is, every now and then, she throws us a massive curveball. This is what I’m talking about:

Bayeux tapestry penis example
presenting exhibt A

And here’s another:

The Bayeux Tapestry penis example
and exhibit B

In fact, if you were to count them –and somebody has– there are 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry. That person is George Garnett, Professor of History at Oxford University. Of the 93 penises, 88 belong to horses and the remaining 5 to men. Historians agree that the presence of so many penises has a deeper meaning, and I’m inclined to agree. The story of the Norman Conquest has as much violence, intrigue and scandal as any other story in history. Excuse the pun, but the Norman Conquest doesn’t need sexing up. So if they’re not there for aesthetic, or even erotic, purposes, why are they there at all?

Well, Garnett argues that the penis is the ultimate symbol of power and virility, associated with particular figures in the Tapestry. For example, the scene below shows a groom presenting a horse to Duke William. This horse has the largest penis of all animals depicted on the Tapestry, and it’s no coincidence that such an animal should be presented to William, the warrior who conquered the English:

The Bayeux Tapestry, penis example, William the Conquerer
Big horse balls for a big boy king

In some instances, nudity functions as an illusion to contemporary fables; fables which would have resonated with the Tapestry’s audiences. The example below is believed to represent a well-known fable in which a father raped one of his own daughters. While sexual assault is not a theme in the Tapestry or the Norman Conquest, the notions of treachery and predation are. The placement of this image is deliberate: it sits below Harold Godwinson, the man accused of breaking his sacred oath to Duke William.

The Bayeux Tapestry penis 2

What I find really interesting about Garnett’s analysis is how he uses it to make wider claims about the people responsible for creating the Tapestry, Before looking at those in more depth, it’s worth remembering that there remains significantly controversy over who commissioned the Tapestry.

Was it William’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, to celebrate and commemorate the Norman victory? Or, as Carolina Hicks has argued more recently, was it the brainchild of Edith of Wessex, Harold Godwinson’s sister, who found herself in an awkward spot after Hastings and wanted acceptance from the new regime? Similarly, the debate still rages over who stitched this beautiful tapestry, which, interestingly, isn’t a tapestry at all; it’s an embroidery. Was it stitched by English nuns, either in one place or across the country, or was it put together by professionals?

Either way, the point is that Garnett uses these 93 penises to make some rather bold claims about who commissioned the Tapestry and who actually stitched it. Firstly, he argues that it must have been a man because the number of penises is indicative of a “male adolescent mentality”. Secondly, he contends that the Tapestry must have been stitched by men because medieval women, nuns particularly, could not have been so well acquainted with and comfortable around male genitalia.  In asserting both of these claims, he acknowledges that he makes some pretty sweeping generalisations about the “male and female psyche” in the last century, but he remains convinced by his conclusions.

I have no doubts that Garnett’s views about gender and sexuality are influenced by his own life experiences. His recollections of life in a boys’ school, for instance, have clearly moulded a particular view. In contrast, being a woman, being educated at a state school and at a non-Oxbridge University, being of a different generation; all of these factors lead me down a very different path of analysis when I think about Garnett’s arguments and the assumptions on which they are based.

With this in mind, it’s important to critically examine the generalisations that Garnett makes about the male and female psyche if we are to make any further progress in this debate:

  1. Is it fair and accurate to say that Anglo-Saxon women, nuns included, were ‘prudish?’ Did they lack the awareness and/or confidence to stitch 93 penises? Conversely, is it fair and accurate to suggest that male members of the Norman aristocracy, like Odo of Bayeux, possessed this “adolescent mentality?”
  2. Is it possible that there were other motives at play during the creation of the Tapestry, like revenge for English humiliation?

Frankly, you could write a book on this – and I’m sure somebody probably will. However, on the first point, we know that there are multiple examples of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman nuns who broke their vow of chastity. As for a widespread prudishness, there is evidence that the Saxons literature shied away from overtly sexual tendencies. But it’s worth remembering that the surviving literature was created in a monastic context; a context that sought to safeguard sexual morality.

As for the “adolescent mentality” of men, like Odo of Bayeux, we are left to make inferences about their character. We know Odo wasn’t your typical clergyman: he was once described as a man of “uncontrollable lust” and was tried for defraud the crown in 1076.

On the second point, nothing quite says revenge like stitching 93 penises all over someone’s moment of glory. I don’t mean to lower the tone here, but we could argue that those who stitched the Tapestry – be they male or female – wanted to momentarily regain some of the control they had just relinquished to the Normans. Maybe the feelings of treachery and predation that were expressed through the naked man and woman were English feelings towards the death of Harold Godwinson, not those of the Normans.

These are questions that might never be answered; assertions that might never be validated (or disproved, for that matter). In the meantime, let’s keep talking about the Bayeux Tapestry and its plethora of penises because, if nothing else, we could all do with a laugh in the current pandemic.

Kaye Jones is a freelance writer, specialising in history. You can view her recent work here.  

How do you solve a problem like David Starkey?

“Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there?”

David Starkey CBE is one of the country’s most prominent historians. He has been awarded the Medlicott Medal for Service to History by the Historical Association. His books are best sellers, on shelves in shops, libraries and schools up and down the country. He speaks at panels, history groups, as well as colleges and universities. If you are new to history and want to find out more about say, Tudors, Stuarts or the history of the monarchy, one of his books or TV shows would probably be one of the first things you find.

And today, David Starkey said this:

“Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there?”

For many years now, a large chunk of the history community has been calling Starkey out as someone who is unapologetically racist and very vocal about it. This isn’t the first time he has said something in this vein. For example, back in 2011 he waded into the London Riot’s, saying ‘‘The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together.’ Then there was the time he voiced his opinions on a Rochdale sex trafficking ring (which he did at a conference for headteachers; no I don’t know how the hell he got to sex trafficking either) saying ‘what happens when [a country like Britain] has no sense of common identity”…Nobody ever explained [to these men] that the history of women in Britain was once rather similar to that in Pakistan and it had changed,” going on to urge headteachers to ensure their history curriculum focused on teaching minority students English history, so they grow up to be “first and foremost English citizens and English men.”.

It’s simply wrong to argue that this is how David Starkey interprets the historic research in front of him.

The unavoidable truth, is that, particularly in recent years, Starkey is merging his own racist views with history, presenting them as fact and in turn arguing this is how history should be taught and consumed. That’s not just morally wrong for a historian to do, but dangerous.

There have been efforts to try and quell this. Back in 2015, students and staff at Cambridge University successfully campaigned to have a video of Starkey promoting the institution taken down. Stating that it was inherently wrong to have a man representing the college who ‘publicly dismissed a female Cambridge colleague as ‘immigrant who was trying to push a multicultural agenda in education’, arguing, again publicly, that Britain was a ‘white mono-culture’, something, he said, this colleague failed to accept.’.

Yet, successes like this haven’t made a dent. Starkey is still consistently hired. Both by academic institutions and by TV and radio. I get it, he is a name, he comes with clout and in the case of his role as a talking head – he makes good TV, after all, at this point he is guaranteed to say something controversial.

But a line needs to be drawn.

The current argument over slave trader statues has underlined the importance that the history put in front of people impacts how they translate the world around them. Which is why we can’t just sit back and let Starkey continue on his merry way. This isn’t about ‘cancelling’ someone. This is about letting one-man skew history education towards something that his own personal agenda and not factual. It’s wrong. It’s dangerous. It shouldn’t be allowed to go on.

So, I suggest we do something that isn’t just shaking our fists in the air. One of the biggest barriers when it comes to fighting back against Starkey’s most recent work is that as a Medlicott medal holder, it (at least appears) he is backed by The Historical Association. Meaning the ‘voice of history’ in the UK, is continuing to give him a prominent platform to speak out from.

It’s still incredibly hard for history professionals from minority backgrounds to get a break (e.g. 96.1% of all university history professors are white) and increasing diversity in history has never been more important. If the Historical Association really does want history to be open to everyone, they can’t keep allowing David Starkey their platform.

We need them to speak out on this. Wherever that’s stripping Starkey of his award or making it clear, his current statements have no place in history education.

So, lets talk to the Historic Association. It’s incredibly easy. You can email them or message them on social media. I’ve put all the options below for you.

Email:Rebecca Sullivan, CEO: rebecca.sullivan@history.org.uk / enquiries@history.org.uk

Tweet: @histassoc

It takes 5 minutes, but it will help lessen the massive platform David Starkey has. Making it harder for him to continue using history to spread a personal agenda.

UPDATE – the Historical Association have today (3 July) announced that they are no longer working with Starkey and have stripped him of his Medlicott Medal. This is a huge step in making it clear to historic societies, schools and colleges, that the history David Starkey is peddling them in the form of seminars or lectures, is damaging and not grounded in factual research.

If you took the time to email the HA, then a huge thanks. You in no small way helped enact this much needed change.

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