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 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)

The true story of Anna May Wong

Meet the pioneering actress, Hollywood deemed ‘Too Chinese to play Chinese’

If (like me) you’ve been binging Netflix’s new show, Hollywood, then you’ll have met Anna May Wong. The show introduces us to her as the ‘great ghost’. An early victim of ‘yellow face’ she lives alone in her lush complex, waiting for a studio call that will never come. But, Hollywood is an alternative look at history. So without to many spoilers, there is a happy ending for this Anna.

But real Anna? She didn’t get a cut print sunny ending and her story that Hollywood shows – well it’s not even half of it.  Because although Hollywood does an amazing job of giving the broad strokes of who Anna May Wong was, it also takes away a lot of her autonomy and grit. This is a woman who wasn’t only a glamorous film icon turned walking lesson in racisim, but a hero whose story should be shouted about.

So, lets chat the real Anna May Wong.   

Anna May Wong gif
Oh and prepare to become OBSSESED

Born Wong Liu Tsong (黄柳霜) in January 1905, in LA. She had the pretty standard ‘early life’ narrative for a budding starlet. One of seven kids to a pair of hardworking parents, the family lived above her dad’s laundry business, where she and her siblings were all expected to work when they weren’t at school. But a life of laundry wasn’t what she dreamed of.

As a kid she’d fallen in love with movies and decided she wanted to be an actress. By 11 she’d picked out a stage name, Anna May Wong, and was cutting class to either hang out on location shoots in China Town or spend her lunch money on Nickelodeon Movie Theatres.  Going home afterwards to practice the scenes she’d just seen in the mirror for hours on end.

So far, so standard. Anna had even started to make a name for herself. After all, she was constantly hanging around film sets and begging the crews to let her take part – that’s going to get you noticed! Soon enough film crew’s soon dubbing her ‘Curious Chinese Child’. And that there is where Anna’s story becomes markedly different from every other starry-eyed starlet wannabe – she was Chinese. And in early 1900’s Hollywood that was a big deal.

This wasn’t a great time to be Chinese and living in America. Even if, like Anna May Wong, you were born into a second-generation Chinese American family. Racism was prevalent and Anna knew this all too well. At school Anna was called a ‘chink’, a classmate regularly stuck her with needles and she was jeered at in the street.

But racism doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. To understand why this was happening to Anna, we need to do a little bit of background digging.

Back in 1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law. This law aimed to stopped Chinese people from immigrating to the US and was the first (but not the last!) time America put a significant ban on people of certain ethnicities immigrated to the country. Many (mainly white) Americans believed that Chinese workers were taking their jobs, even though these workers made up just 00.2% of the population (Sorry Greg, I think you might be the problem here.)

Still, when people decide on a scape goat for their problems, they tend to stick with it, no matter the obvious facts. And when this happens, things escalate in the worst possible ways.

In 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, rioted against Chinese miners, who they believed had not only taken their jobs, but under the new Chinese Exclusion Act, had no right to be in America. What happened next was a massacre – at least 28 Chinese miners were murdered and over 70 homes burnt down. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Two years later in Oregon, the Hell Canyons Massacre took place. Thirty-four Chinese goldminers were murdered.

It wasn’t just out and out murder either. Around the time Anna May Wong was born, San Francisco’s China Town was in the midst of a bubonic plague outbreak. That’s right…a plague outbreak in America in the early 1900’s. Obviously the San Francisco government did everything they could to stop this…nah of course not! They denied it was happening, before eventually quarantining the neighbourhood.

Rock springs massacre
Depiction of The Rock Springs Massacre

All of this gives us a picture of the world Anna May Wong was born into. But it also explains why she had such an uphill battle ahead of her when it came to being a film star.

Racism was rampant and people were not going to accept a Chinese woman as a leading lady. AND YET there was a demand for ‘oriental’ films. Despite the inherent racism of The Chinese Exclusion Act, throughout the 1800’s America had developed a love for the ‘oriental’; an overly exoticized fantasy of Asian culture. These stories turned women into sex objects and played up stereotypes of opium addicts and gangsters. It was a weird juxtaposition of

‘we don’t want you here but we would like to bastardize your culture for entertainment’.

It was these ‘oriental’ films that Anna May Wong watched on location in LA’s China Town. Understandably, when she told her parents she was trying to get a gig as an extra in one of these films, they weren’t thrilled. But she was determined and when she was determined to do something…she’d do it.

At 14, Anna landed her first job, as an extra in 1919’s The Red Lantern. Her dad knew he couldn’t stop her, so instead he made sure there were male extra’s around to keep an eye on his daughter.Anna stood out in the sea of lantern holding extra’s, soon landing more work and by 1921 she was having roles written for her, with her first credited debut in Bit’s of Life.

Then at just 17 she scored a leading role, in 1922’s The Toll Of The Sea. It was a loose retelling of Madame Butterfly (but set in China) and Anna played Lotus Flower, who falls in love with an America man. The pair marry and he promises to take her to America -he doesn’t- he leaves and she gives birth to their son. Like any good fuck boy, he returns to Lotus Flower, but with his new wholesome American wife in tow. She decides to give her son to this new woman, so he can have a ‘better’ life in America and the film ends with Lotus Flower walking into the sea.

It was a typical ‘oriental’ fantasy film, but Anna stood out and was praised for her acting. She got the kind of rave reviews that normally launched a starlet to a full-fledged leading lady. But, of course, this didn’t happen for Anna.

Anna May Wong as Lotus Flower in 1922's The Toll oF The Sea
Anna May Wong in 1922’s Toll of the Sea. Note the American wife actually doing a full on ‘give me your baby’ gesture – subtlety I do not know thee.

Her next major role was as a stereotypical ‘Dragon Lady’ in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad. Once more, Anna shone in a hit film, but again she was playing up to these oriental fantasy types. She’d now played both the naïve victim who understands that they are beneath the western ideal and the vamped up ‘exotic’ villain.

Nobody knew what to do with her next. She was a great actress and audiences liked her, but no studio was going to put her in a film that wasn’t ‘oriental’. Plus, Californian law meant that she would never be able to kiss a western actor on screen. Which effectively nixed any chances she might have had at scoring a ground-breaking lead – after all what’s a big blockbuster without that final happy ending kiss? All of this meant that for the next few years, Anna was doomed to ping back and forth between the victim and villain roles.

And it wasn’t only the studios that didn’t know what to do with Anna, the press didn’t either. Anna was now a certified name, so fan magazines and newspapers needed to write about her. But they had no idea how. Anna was a paradox – both American and Chinese at the same time, a fact that flummoxed the press. So much so that it was almost always what they ended up leading with in their articles on her.

Anna May Wong, New Movie Magazine 1932
Anna May Wong in a 1932 edition of New Movie Magazine

The write ups weren’t much better. For example, one fan magazine wrote:

‘Anna May Wong symbolizes the eternal paradox of her ancient race…she reminds us of cruel and intricate intrigues, and, at the same time, of crooned Chinese lullabies. She brings to the screen the rare comprehension and the mysterious colors of her ivory-skinned race.”

Here’s another:

‘Anna May Wong has never even been to China, and you might just as well know it right now. Moreover, she has seen NY’s Chinatown only from a taxi-cab, and she doesn’t wear a mandarin coat … her English is faultless. Her conversation consists of scintillating chatter that any flapper might envy. Her sense of humor is thoroughly American. She didn’t eat rice when she and I lunched together, and she distinctly impressed it upon the waiter to bring her coffee, not tea.’

Anna May Wong side eye
Why yes Anna, that BS does deserve some serious side eye

Anna’s ethnicity was always the main talking point, never her acting; despite her being arguably one of the strongest actors of her day. And Anna didn’t let this slide. She regularly spoke out about how shitty casting was, saying

“Rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

But she wasn’t going to just complain. In 1924, Anna started her own production company. She planned to cash in on the public’s interest in her ethnicity, by creating films about Chinese culture and traditional myths. However, by making these films herself, she hoped she could break some of those ‘oriental fantasy’ stereotypes. It was a canny plan and it could have been truly pioneering…if Anna’s business partner hadn’t turned out to be corrupt. Her company was sunk before it had even begun.

Anna was officially over Hollywood. In 1926 she’d had to watch on at the opening of Graumans Chinese Theatre (ironic name right there) where she’d been invited to help put in the buildings first rivet, but was barred from putting her hands and feet in the theatre’s famous walk. It didn’t matter how hard she worked or how good she was, she’d never get a fair shake in Hollywood. She was firmly pigeon holed as the ‘exotic other’ and as she put it, the actress who:

‘Died a thousand times’

Because interesting though Hollywood found her characters, the ‘exotic other’ was never allowed to live to see the end credits.

Anna wanted more. So in 1928 she packed up and set off for Europe.

Anna May Wong in 1929's Picadilly
Anna May Wong in 1929’s British film, Picadilly. She played a supporting role, but famously stole the entire film

European cinema was much more open to casting Anna as more than just a villain. She could get meatier roles and finally show off her acting to its true poteintial. Yes, many of her parts were at least somewhat rooted in Anna’s ethnicity, but that wasn’t all they were. In one 1933 interview, she highlighted why she felt her move away from Hollywood was so important:

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.’

Anna didn’t just want better acting roles; she didn’t want to personify racist stereotypes anymore. By doing that, she was only feeding the narrative and making it more toxic. So she went somewhere where she could make movies that would help change people’s perceptions. It’s a ballsy move and one that’s often overlooked. And Anna did the work to ensure these films were widely viewed.

In her first talkie (1930’s, The Flame of Love), she recorded her lines in fluent French, German and English. Anna also took to the stage, appearing opposite Laurence Olivier in The Circle of Chalk, and once more showed off her German skills when she sang the title role in operetta, Tschun Tsch.

Things were going great for Anna. She might not have had the Hollywood dream she’d once hoped for, but she was making incredible work and helping break barriers whilst doing so.

It kind of makes sense then, when in 1930 Paramount called Anna, she didn’t tell them to stick it.

Paramount promised Anna that if she returned to Hollywood, they would finally give her leading roles. And, considering her success in Europe, you can see why she said yes. After all, Hollywood would have noticed how well Anna’s new pictures had performed at the box office, so maybe they were starting to rethink the kind of roles they could offer a Chinese American actress.

They were not.

Anna arrived back in Hollywood to find nothing had changed. Her first film role back was in ‘The Dragons Daughter’ where she played ‘The Dragon Lady’ type again. She co-starred with one of the only other high-profile Asian actors in Hollywood, Sessue Hayakawa. Sessue was also coming back to the studio system after a break (where like Anna he’d worked in other fields of acting so he could play less stereotypical roles) and despite being the films leads, both Sessue and Anna were paid substantially less than their white co-star, Warner Oland who appears for just over 25 minutes and is in yellow face the whole time (btw, Warner Oland basically made his entire career off of doing yellow face, so the latter isn’t really a surpirse) 

duaghter of the dragon 1931
Poster for The Daughter of The Dragon, complete with Warner Oland in full yellow face standing next to Anna…apprently this wasn’t in any way awkward for him,

What made Anna’s return even worse, was that now she was being passed over for roles, which demanded a Chinese actress, because she was

‘Too Chinese to play Chinese’

Just let that sit with you.

Can you even imagine?! Not only that, but because (apparently) all Chinese actresses were to Chinese to portray Chinese people, these roles went to white actresses who were given yellow face. To top it all, magazines like Photoplay even ran features praising the actresses and the make up artists for pulling off the look:

helen hayes, movie play
Examples from Movie Play Magazine. Helen Hayes (piece to the left) actually was cast over Anna, for this role in The Son-Daughter.

But there was hope on the horizon. In 1935 It was announced that MGM would be making a film of best selling book, The Good Earth. The book is based in northern china and tells the story of a young farmer, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-Lan. The couple are living on the brink of famine, on land that they only have through O-Lan’s hard work and smarts. Yet things keep getting worse. Their older daughter is disabled thanks to poor nutrition and O-Lan kills their newborn daughter, unable to feed another mouth. And that’s just the first act! It’s an incredibly tragic drama and any adaptation would need the best actress possible to play the multifaceted O-Lan.

Anna knew this was her part. She’d been publicly campaigning for the role since the book came out in 1931 and not only was she the most prominent Chinese actress working in Hollywood, but she’d shown time and time again that she had the acting chops to pull this off.

So obviously MGM cast white German actress, Luise Rainer. Instead offering Anna the role of Lotus, a courtesan who breaks up the marriage of O-Lan and Wang Lung. Disgusted, Anna refused the part, which instead went to white Austrian actress, Tilly Losch. Luise won the 1937 best actress Oscar for her role as O-Lan and Anna was left with the words ‘Too Chinese’ swirling round and round her head.

Louise Rainer in makeup for The Good Eart, Talking Pictures magazine
Luise Rainer in make up for the Good Earth, from Talking Pictures Magazine

In 1936 Anna decided to go on a tour of China. For years she’d been called ‘too chinese’ but she’d never actually been to the country. Now she wanted to change that.

It’s often reported that Anna’s trip to China was a rousing success. It wasn’t. The Chinese press had never been kind to Anna’s acting in overly exoticized pictures and taking parts that emphasised western stereotypes of Chinese women as sex objects. Headlining pieces:

‘Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China’

And going on to say, ‘Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race’. It was another blow, but this is Anna May Wong we’re talking about. She didn’t give up. Whilst in China she arranged newsrell footage of her travels, putting them together in a documentary, My China. This was both a way to showcase what China was actually like and a middle finger up at MGM and The Good Earth.

Still, Anna was under contract with Paramount, so she had to go back to Hollywood. There she made her way through a succession of B Movies, playing the same characters she always had. Though the films didn’t get good reviews, Anna consistently did. However, of course, that didn’t mean she’d ever get any better roles offered to her.

Yet again, Anna was stuck doing the same stereotypical BS. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t use her voice.

During the Second World War Anna spoke out and asked for America to do more to help China. She took part in two Anti Japense propaganda films (donating her salaries to the United China war relief effort) before retiring from films in 1942, so she could dedicate herself full time to raising money and support.

She’d run Chinese war bond rallies, sign autographs in return for donations and auctioned off her enviable wardrobe. In 1943, The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed (to an extent) a move which many credited Anna for helping with. Time magazine writing:

‘Her speaking was so effective in US congress that some credit her with the repeal of Chinese exclusion laws’

Anna eventually went back to acting, though to a lesser extent. There were less jobs for her now, although in 1951 she became the first Asian-American actor to lead a TV show, with detective drama, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

After the show wrapped, Anna’s health started to fail. She still worked, but was getting progressively sicker. In 1961 Anna died in her sleep of a heart attack, aged just 56.

Anna May Wong 1

Over the years Our understanding of Anna May Wong has changed, in the past she was often dubbed a puppet of the Hollywood system who demeaned her heritage, she is now seen as a pioneer (ironically, the opposite has happened to actors like Hattie McDaniel…)

Still though, the most frequent way Anna’s story is told, is as a cautionary tale. With ‘Yellow Face’ still way to prevalent (in the past few years Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have both taken on parts originally written as characters of Asian heritage). And although the message of – dear white actors, stop being dicks- is important, it shouldn’t be the only thing we remember her for.

Anna May Wong was an incredible woman, who worked within an abhorrently shitty system. Yet, she still came up with ways to do what she loved – act. All while breaking down barriers and opening doors for those that came after her. Now that’s a true Hollywood legend.

The brilliant and ballsy life of Ireland’s favourite courtesan, Peg Plunkett

How a ‘fallen woman’ became not only Ireland’s most prolific courtesan but one of histories ballsiest bitches

‘Chastity I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one?’ 

This is one of the opening lines of Peg Plunkett’s 1795 memoir. An archetypal good girl, who became a fallen women and then rose to become Ireland’s premier courtesan, Peg built much of her adult life on challenging what society expected of her.

The story of her life is jam packed with scandal, sex and good times, it’s a proud middle finger up to gendered morality. But I have to tell you right now, this won’t just be a rollicking romp through Dublin’s red light district. Peg’s life was littered with tragedy, she was a victim of abuse and experienced a terrifying level of violence. But each time she somehow managed to come back, more brilliant and ballsy than before.

Peg Plunkett was one of histories greatest survivors and I cannot wait for you to meet her

Quick trigger warning this article contains mention of domestic violence, violence against women and miscarriage.

Peg Plunkett
portrait of Peg Plunkett, artist unknown

Peg was born in Killough sometime between 1727 (gaged from her last memoir) and 1742 (from modern historian findings.) If you’re thinking ‘dear god this is a ridiculous piss take of a lady never revealing her age’ then you’re right!

Peg was deliberately vague about when she was born. And not only that. A lot of what we know about Peg (especially in her early days) comes from her memoirs. However like most of us do when recounting a story, she totally omits anything she finds boring. So sure she might regale us with anecdotes of her incredible life, but she’ll do it leaving out dates, times and locations. Which works in the context of telling a great tale, but is really bloody annoying when it comes to studying her life. However, there are some facts about her childhood that we do know.

Pegs dad and mum were first cousins and had a whopping 22 children, although only eight survived. Three boys and five girls, with Peg falling somewhere in the middle.

With a family of eight in rural 18th century Ireland around the time of a mass famine, statistics wise, Peg should have grown up on the breadline, but she was one of the lucky ones.

Her dad was a wealthy landowner so could shield his family from the harsh realities that waited just outside their door. Behind the gated walls of the families country house, Peg enjoyed warmth, music, dancing and got a solid education.

She was expected to became a respectable woman, to marry well, perhaps a business man like two of her sisters already had. She’d pop out some babies, make a nice home and be a good wife. The end. Not exactly the most exciting life, but solid and dependable. Her future was set.

But then everything came crashing down when fever swept the family. Peg was quickly sent away, to live with an uncle. By the time she returned home her mother was dead, her older brother was dead and her father was broken. Unable to cope he handed over the running of the family to Pegs elder brother, Christopher.

Just like that all hopes for Pegs future were set ablaze.

Christopher was an out and out dick and as such relished his role as head of the household, ruling with an iron fist. He spent wildly, bullied those around him and basked in the endless power he now had over his sisters. He was in charge of the money that would be used to help secure them good marriages and so of course it was that of money that he spent with such gay abandon.

To get away with this finical delinquency, he decided to refuse any proposals that came his sisters way. By doing this he could carry on splashing the cash and his sisters would remain stuck at home, free for him to bully them as he pleased. A true win for Christopher, or so he thought.

You see after a while one of Pegs older sisters decided she done with this BS, packed up and moved to Dublin (Peg doesn’t give her sisters name, which isn’t super annoying at all…)

Soon the sister met a man who was happy to marry her without all the bells and whistles. And so they did. But not before she came back to publicly call out Christopher for being a total and utter ass hat. Declaring she would rather become a woman of her own making than Christopher’s servant.

Oh and as an extra middle finger to Christopher, the sister took 15 year old Peg to Dublin too.

f you
A modern depiction of Peg leaving home for Dublin (probably)

Peg fell in love with Dublin. She roamed the city, taking in all it had to offer and in return flirted up a storm with every eligible man she met. Here she flourished, her bright wit and beauty making her the centre of attention. She discovered a love for entertainment, dizzying nights out in foggy rooms and of course, the company of smart, handsome men.

By the time Christopher demanded her return home, Peg had a flock of suitors and proposals. It was a get out of jail free card that Christopher wasn’t going to bend to. He’d let one sister get away and it wasn’t going to happen again. He not only refused Peg’s dowry and rejected proposals, he actively worked to scare men away from her.

With Peg and her younger sister now successfully trapped at home, Christopher turned all his attention to extinguishing Peg’s new light (he didn’t want her getting ideas after all!). 

That’s when the beatings started. Christopher would whip Peg until her body was covered in bruises and welts. He wanted her weak. A crumpled wreck on the floor. 

Peg managed to escape for a short period to one of her married sisters houses. Here she went all in on her plan to get out from under Christopher’s thumb for good. She needed to find a husband, one who’d treat her well and wouldn’t back down to Christopher’s threats.

This was a tall order and sadly the only eligible guy who’d take her was the elderly grocer. Peg was desperate but not that desperate, so even though the grocer asked for her hand in marriage, she was for once happy knowing Christopher would scare him away.

Nope! This was the one time her dad stepped in and so Peg was now that unhappily counting down the days to her wedding. But then she met another man. An already engaged man (red flag!) who proposed to Peg and promised her a new life far away from all her troubles. Of course Peg jumped at the chance and the pair ran away to elope.

But like so much in Peg’s life, it wasn’t to be. Whilst staying in an inn one night, Peg was awakened by her brother in law bursting into her bedroom waving a pistol. He was quickly followed by two mates, also armed, who pointed their guns straight at the pair. In a matter of seconds Peg’s lover escaped through the window and she was dragged back home to Christopher.

I’m sorry to say it’s about to go more downhill

Life got worse for Peg. She tried to escape to Dublin a few more times but was always dragged back home. Christopher’s beatings got worse, to the point that she’d be left unable to leave her bed for days afterwards.

Pegs’ younger sister was also struggling. Trapped in her gilded cage, she’d watched Peg’s attempts at freedom and felt any escape from Christopher and captivity was impossible. She stopped eating, and retreating inside, a shadow of her former self. Peg tried to care for her sister, but there was only so much she could do. Condemned to watch on as her sister slipped away. Taking to her bed one day and never leaving. She died shortly afterwards.

Not long after her sisters death, Christopher whipped Peg until she was on her knees. Brutally beating her as she vomited blood and eventually lay unmoving on the cold floor.

Peg was bed bound for three months. Lying in bed, in constant pain she realised she had to get out. For good this time.

As soon as she could get up, she convinced her dad to give her enough cash to get to Dublin. Called a carriage and left.

map of Dublin from 1780s
Map of Dublin a few years after Peg first arrived for good

Once more Pegs sisters took her in. Slowly she shook off the shackles that had weighed her down and returned to the bright thing about town she’d been before.

Peg didn’t know what lay ahead if her but the city around her was growing more wonderful every day and she hoped she would to.

Her brother in law introduced her to one Mr Dardis. Being relatively poor he was by no means presented as a suitor for Peg, but ever the romantic, she had other ideas. The pair furtive arranged to meet after dark, away from her families prying eyes. On those breathless nighttime rendezvous Peg fell in love.

Dardis secretly proposed and just like that, Peg was not twenty and yet somehow onto engagement number 3. 

But this wouldn’t be like her other engagements because she chose to have sex with Dardis. This might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, but in the 18th century this was a huge and potential life changing decision. To have sex with a man outside marriage could mark a woman as ‘ruined’. If the marriage didn’t go ahead, her future would be in tatters. But Peg was young and in love, so she went with her heart.

Then Peg realised she was pregnant.

To make matters she couldn’t let her family know, for fear it would ruin her. Worse still, Dardis decided that actually, he didn’t want to marry her now. Which definitely did threaten to ruin her. Terrified of the repercussions she ran away.

She was alone, penniless and pregnant, But then Dardis came to her rescue. Well sort of. He found her somewhere to live – a brothel, before moving Peg to the country to quietly have the baby. After which Peg and her new born daughter moved back to Dublin to live with Dardis.

This wasn’t a happy ending though.

Peg was spiralling down. She constantly beat herself up for yet again falling in love with the wrong guy. She was struggling for money, selling off her possessions for food. She couldn’t count on her family in Dublin, who had found out that she not only had a child out of wedlock but she’d lived in a brothel and as such they didn’t want this harlot in their lives. And then there was the baby, who she saw as nothing more than another sign of her failings.

Peg didn’t know what to do, but she thought she knew would she deserved.

Peg arrived alone at her family house. Crying she begged Christopher to take her back. But he refused. Even her abuser didn’t want her now.

She went back to Dublin to beg her sisters for help. They too turned her away saying

‘If a morsel of bread would save me from death and destruction, I would refuse it to you’

Peg was now truly alone in the world. Left to count pennies for a tiny room and survive on watered down broth. Gone was the sparkling beauty who’d once taken Dublin by storm. In her place a fallen women hidden behind tattered clothes.

Whilst working out what to do next, Peg met one Thomas Caulfield in a Dublin tea house. A wealthy wine seller, he took a shine to Peg. Walking her home that night he dropped two guineas into her cleavage and promised that if she would go home with him he would take care of her.

Peg took this illicit invitation incredibly well. She didn’t bulk or run, instead she saw it as a sort of come to Jesus moment. Peg later said it helped her she see a new future for herself

‘Then all was distress, doubt and uncertainty. Now my mind was tranquil and I looked forward in hope’

And just like that, she decided to become a courtesan. As you do. 

whats his type
Because Peg can make it work

Caulfield put Peg up in her own place and showered her with gifts. She received a steady income and was back on her feet. Then Peg fell pregnant again. But this time she knew the position she was in. She arranged for Caulfield to continue giving her and their new son enough money to live off, even after he left her to marry another woman.

With her new cash and freedom Peg spent her days and nights out in Dublin’s music halls and taverns. She made friends with other women, whose tarnished reputations had taken them down more alternative career routes. She was in her early twenties and loved it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the moment.

But then once more, tragedy. Peg’s son died. Devastated, the situation was made worse when Caulfield used their child’s death as an excuse to cut her off.

But Peg bounced back. After all, being a courtesan was her job now, so she went off to find a new man. This cycle continued until she met one Mr Leeson (Peg never gives us his true name, but it’s likely he was Jospeh Leeson, the son of an English Earl who became a member of Irish Parliament)

Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown by Pompeo Batoni in 1751
Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown (fancy!) pictured in 1751

Lesson moved Peg in with him and she happily basked in the riches that came with her new role. She still loved to party and also have the odd affair but tried to play this down a least a little for her new gig.

Eventually Leeson and Peg moved to his country pile in Kildare. There she lived the life she was once promised, the lady of a country estate. It was fine enough, but soon the call of city was to much. Though for safety, Leeson moved Peg to the outskirts of Dublin, in the hopes it would stop her from having affairs and living it up with her old friends.

It didn’t work.

The thing was, to Peg, this was a business relationship. She didn’t love Leeson, he paid her to be his mistress. So she believed she should be allowed to have sex with other people. To go out with her friends and to live the life she wanted. She’d been constrained and punished in the name of gendered morality for so long and she was over it. After all, if a man was in her position, wouldn’t he do the same?

Leeson demanded that Peg be monogamous to him. She claimed he actually proposed to her, but she wouldn’t accept, later saying:

‘I looked upon marriage merely as a human institution, calculated chiefly to fix the legitimisation of children and oblige parents to bring them up and provide for them. To ascertain the decent of property and also to bind two persons together, even if they might be disgusted and heartily tired of one another.’

That my friends is what we call a HOT 18th century take.

Peg was by no means a woman of her time. She was a fallen woman who had gone against the morality that once beat her down and was now becoming her own person. She would not abide by what was expected if her anymore.

Modern adaptation of Peg leaving Leeson (I mean…she’s called Peggy so lets say this loosely works OK)

And so a newly empowered Peg took up with another rich gentleman, Buck Lawless (great name, sadly *spoiler alert* not a great guy). Together they had several children, though none would survive childhood.

And yet, despite this tragedy and the fact this was initially a business transaction, the pair fell in love.

To say it was a surprise for Peg would be an understatement. She hadn’t intended to fall in love again, but it had happened. And this time she wanted it to work, hell, she even managed to stay monogamous!

At first the relationship was bliss. All loving looks and halcyon days. But then jealousy set in. Lawless struggled with the fact that Peg was a known courtesan. If she smiled at another man, it would provoke a massive argument. Then he’d flirt with other women to make Peg jealous and then once more, the pair would be in a shouting match.

Then their arguments started to turn physical. During one fight, Lawless pinned a pregnant Peg down in the bed, beating her so badly a doctor had to be called. Peg would lose the baby.

Once more Peg was living with an abuser. But like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself and chose to stay with Lawless.

However, in what would prove ultimately lucky for Peg, Lawless was running out of cash. He’d heard about people striking it rich in America and decided to try his luck there. This would of course mean leaving Peg, who by the way, was once again pregnant!

Peg was devastated at the idea of her lover leaving her, but Lawless promised it wouldn’t be for long and in the meantime he’d send money back for her and the baby….

Why are you like this Buck? WHY?!?

Peg gave birth to their daughter and waited to hear from Lawless. They weren’t married, but they were in love. They had a baby together, that had to mean something, right?

For months, Peg faithfully waited. She turned down offers for courtesan work and read up on American affairs, hoping to get glimpse of what Lawless might be up to. But he never appeared. He never wrote to her and he never sent back money.

Peg realised that she’d not only been dumped. but ghosted, 18th century style. 

She allowed herself to be devastated for a bit, but then then picked herself back up. Peg was resolute that she would not depend on a man to build her life, but instead use them as a means to create her own.

And so Peg set herself back up as a courtesan. Her first serious client was a clergyman (of course it was…), the pair had a child before she was back to the cycle of one man in, one man out. But courtesan work only paid so much and then there was the penniless periods between gigs.

Peg decided she wanted something more stable so in the mid 1770’s she joined forces with her friend Sally Hayes and set up a brothel.

Situated in an upscale area of Dublin, Peg wanted her brothel to be as swanky as possible. Each sex worker was hand picked by her, dressed in sophisticated fashions and were able to hold their own in political conversations. Champagne flowed, entertainment was dazzling and soon Peg and Sally were the talk of Dublin.

Of course her new found fame was of the infamous kind, but Peg didn’t really care. When someone shouted at her:

‘Oy Peg! Who slept with you last night, Peg?’

She just rolled her eyes and called back

‘Manners you dogs!’

Things were going great and the money Peg was earning wasn’t bad either. So what else do you do when you’re newly flush with cash? Hire a musician to follow you around constantly of course!

Ok, well maybe that’s not what most people would do, but it’s what Peg did. She wasn’t exactly the best at making good finical decisions (something which as we know by now, constantly bit her on the arse). She was of the mindset that while she had cash she’d spend the hell out of it! And oh boy did she. Out out every night in more glamorous frocks than the last, popping bottles and generally painting the town red with her business partner and best friend, Sally.

But you know how it goes when you’re living your best life. Someone has to try and ruin it. And 9 times out of 10 that someone is your ex.

That’s right! Buck Lawless is back!

eye roll
This fucker. The literal turd that will not flush

After going MIA for several years he popped up out of the blue to tell Peg he was back in Ireland and asked her to come visit him in Cork. Peg wasn’t keen, but Sally knew that her friend was still hung up on Lawless and so convinced Peg to go see him.

The two women rocked up to Cork determined to:

  • A) party
  • B) do it all on Lawless dime

And they did. For a month! Unfortunately it wasn’t just drinking and dancing. Peg and Lawless started a relationship again. By the time Peg and Sally went back to their Dublin brothel, Peg was pregnant (it’s her ninth for those counting). Unfortunately Buck Lawless and his love child weren’t the only things Peg had to worry about.

In November 1779 tragedy turned Peg’s world on its head once more. A gang with the frankly terrible name, the Pinking Dindies, broke into her house. They smashed up the place and then beat Peg until she was unconscious. Peg’s two year old daughter watched on as the young men beat her unresponsive pregnant mother. Peg would lose her baby and her daughter also died (Peg claimed of shock)

Furious and unbowed, Peg wanted retribution.

But unlike her attackers, she took the high road. She filed a suit against seven of the youths, who were all Trinity College students. The case was not in Pegs favour. After all, she was a ‘whore’ and unlikely to be taken seriously in court. Not to mention that her attackers threatened to kill her if she didn’t drop the case. But she stood tall, casually mentioning that she carried a pistol she was all to happy to use should the men come near her again.

Peg won the day in court. She received finical compensation and ensured her attackers left Dublin for good.

However the loss of her children left Peg bereft. Of her nine children, eight of whom she’d actually raised, those were the only ones who’d survived and now they too were gone.

Depressed and still in constant pain from her injuries, Peg longed for a change.

You know whose coming back to fuck this horrible situation up further don’t you? That’s right! Buck Lawless! Although he’d now moved to London, he pleaded that with Peg to come live with him. He wrote her sweet love letters and promised her a fresh start in London. Peg figured at this point she had nothing to lose. So she sold up and moved to London.

hello darkness
No good can come of this…

Aaaaand of course it turned out that Buck Lawless, being Buck Lawless, was shacked up with another woman. This time Peg was done. Refusing to see him and rejecting his oh so remorseful advances.

Peg tried to make a new life for herself in London, but she just couldn’t get along with the city. Though she managed to stay long enough to insult the Prince Regent not once but twice (that’s our girl) first by ordering the same waistcoats as him for her shoemaker and then by riding down the road next to him.

With ridiculous royal protocol well and truly smashed, Peg made her way back to Dublin.

On arriving she was greeted by her best girl Sally Hayes and another friend Moll Hall. Together the trio made it a point to go out on the town whenever they could.

And then they were banned from doing so.

The celebrated musician Signor Carnavalli was the hottest ticket in town, however he expressly forbidden, as Peg put it, ‘every lady of my description’ from attending. Of course Peg totally ignored this and rocked up anyway. However as the most famous courtesan in Dublin, she was quickly spotted and chucked out. Told in no uncertain terms that her kind of woman was not wanted here.

Peg was not having this. She returned to the theatre the next day with a warrant against Signor Carnavalli, for throwing her out despite her having paid for a ticket.

Peg was accompanied by four hulking bailiffs who proceeded to haul the musician off to prison. Dusting herself off, Peg then matched into the theatre and apologised to the waiting audience, explaining that Mr Carnavalli was no in prison thanks to his conduct towards her.

Peg’s defiance made headlines. All of Dublin knew Peg Plunkett was back in business and this time she wasn’t letting anyone’s bullshit slide.

Business boomed with Pegs clients including some of Ireland’s most prolific men of the day. Her wealth and notoriety  soared for the next few years. Peg using this as a platform to cement her place in society by throwing huge parties and masquerades (despite them being banned).

Is she blowing all her money once again? Yes. But at least she is doing it in style

Throughout the 1780’s Peg discovered she had somewhat of a soft spot for a man in military uniform. With thousands of soldiers stationed in Ireland, both serving and waiting to hear if they were to shipped out to fight in the British Empires colonies, soldiers were staple in Peg’s brothel clientele.

Of course it wasn’t long before Peg was starting affairs of the books. Sally Hayes and Peg started a string of relationships. They burnt hot and fierce, but as soon as the soldier in question was posted abroad, things quickly cooled off.

Though Peg describes falling in love a few times with some of these men, things never got serious. She wouldn’t let them. When one Captain Cunynghame begged Peg to go with him, she declined as:

‘…though he was a fine showy fellow, I had much rather remain in Dublin, where I knew every wish could be gratified’

After all, why would she leave the empire she built? By now Peg was known as ‘the reigning vice queen’. She set up another high end brothel and was enjoying life as an unlikely member of Dublin’s high society. No longer were people ashamed to be seen with Peg, she was an established part of the elite.

She started an affair with Ireland’s Lieutenant, The Duke of Rutland that made the cities front pages. This created a media whirlwind around her. Even simple trip to the theatre became a point of gossip and scandal. Soon every move Peg made was discussed and poured over.

And then Peg did something truly shocking – she got married

…well only after she made it clear to her new spouse that she didn’t love him, actually she hated him and was in it purely because he was getting a title.

Her intended was Barry Yelverton, son to a baron and by all acccounts, the worst. But, Peg loved the idea of being an infamous courtesan with the title ‘the right honourable.’ Oh also, his family were really rich, which Peg was also a fan of.

The pair were married by a former minister and almost immediately broke up. When Yelverton’s Dad offered Peg a ton of money to dissolve the marriage she happily accepted and ditched her husband.

Peg wasn’t proud of what she’d done. After all it wasn’t like she needed the money or the title. She’d just done it because she could. It was cruel and unnecessary but it was also an F you to how the morality of marriage had screwed her over in the past. No longer was she the girl who was thrown out like rubbish when men’s feelings changed. She was Peg Plunkett, Queen of Vice, she could turn the tables and make men disposable. She was untouchable.

Peg and sally
Peg and Sally out to take men for everything they can get

Then after thirty plus years in the courtesan business, Peg decided she was done. She’d worked hard and now she could just bask in the spoils of her success.

After doing some maths, Peg calculated that once all her clients paid in their I.O.U’s she’d have enough to retire on. Feeling safe in the knowledge that all good gentlemen paid their debts, Peg didn’t wait for the men to actually pay, instead buying a house in Blackrock, a town just outside of Dublin..

The bliss of retirement didn’t last long. Peg being Peg and crap with money she hadn’t done her sums rights. Her bank accounts were haemorrhaging money and if she didn’t do something fast, it wouldn’t be her new home in Blackrock she’d be living in, but debtors prison.

Peg called on those I.O.U’s she was counting. But surprise surprise, the men weren’t planning on ever paying up. 

Once more, it looked like Peg was screwed. But she was determined that although she might be down, she wasn’t out.

Fine, her clients weren’t going to pay up. That was ok. Because she knew another way to get them to pay and earn a tidy sum at the same time. She’d write her memoirs. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy the juicy story of Ireland’s leading courtesan. Obviously she’d have to name names, including those of her most high profile clients…unless they paid up.

In 1795 Peg released her first memoir. It was a hit and closely followed by a second. 

She penned a third, however by the time it was released in 1797, Peg had died. 

She was remembered for her role as the nations leading courtesan, but also for her unwillingness to bend to what was expected of her. Still at the very end of life, refusing to let the cards life dealt her keep her down.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more?

Well you can read Pegs memoirs (for free!!) here I’d also suggest checking out Julie Peakman’s book, Peg Plunkett, Memoirs of a Whore, which is currently a steal on kindle for a little over £3.

The Spanish Flu – Your Great Granddad’s Coronavirus

Think Coronavirus is bad? Well it ain’t got shit on the 1918 flu outbreak…

Assuming you haven’t been living in a hole, you’ve definitely heard of Coronavirus. The big bad that might turn out to just be a pretty gnarly flu outbreak or could wipe out millions. Yeah, it’s a pretty scary either or situation.

Whilst the world waits to see which side of the coin Coronavirus lands on, global media are passing the time by unearthing the ghost of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic and excitedly shining a spotlight on it, shouting ‘Look, this will happen again! We’re all going to die! Boogety boo!’

It’s being repeated again and again from country to country: this virus is as infectious and deadly as the 1918 flu strand.

But what exactly caused was the 1918 flu outbreak? Why did so many people die and with the knowledge of time is there anything we can do to stop this happening again?

Basically – are we totally fucked? Let’s find out!

What was the Spanish flu?

Fun fact, The Spanish flu didn’t originate in Spain, it’s just got a confusing name. Sadly we can’t pin point the exact geographic location this flu strain started, however we do know that the first officially recorded cases were in a military base in Kansas.

Between that first recorded case in March 1918, to the last known case, two years later in March 1920, an estimated 50 million people world wide would die from ‘the Spanish flu’ (though it’s now thought this was estimate could be as high as 100 million, roughly 5% of the worlds population.)

The flu hit in three waves. First in Spring 1918, then autumn 1918 and finally through winter 1918 to spring 1919. With the second outbreak being the deadliest.

Soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas being treated for Spanish Flu at Camp Funston
US soldiers being treated during the Spanish Flu pandemic. A Pandemic is when a medical epidemic spreads across multiple countries.

The initial Spanish Flu symptoms were similar to that of most flu’s. Including a fever, headaches, feeling weak and joint pain. However it was what happened after these initial symptoms that was what made Spanish Flu so deadly.

In September 1918, Dr Roy Grist, described what happened to the men he treated at Camp Devens in Massachusetts:

‘…They very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheekbones and a few hours later you start to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours until death comes. It is horrible.’

The majority of people died not from the flu itself, but from complications that came with it.

What really made the flu stand out was those that it killed. Generally people who die from flu tend to be old or very young, often with pre-existing health conditions.

However, the big killer of ‘the Spanish flu’ was young adults.

This is even crueller when you consider that just as the flu hit the The First World War was starting to come to an end. So now the millions of soldiers that had survived the traumatic trenches got a congratulations prize of another thing that might kill them. In fact more US servicemen died from the flu than in combat.

Spanish Flu patients being treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington
Spanish Flu patients being treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington

How did the flu spread?

There is never just one route that a pandemic uses to spread (they’re tricksy like that) however in this instance, The First World War was a key factor in the spread.

The Spanish flu was highly infectious. Take for example that first case in Kansas. Within hours of the soldier being taken to the infirmary, over one hundred other men at his base were also reporting symptoms.

Thousands of men all gathered together in cramped quarters, it’s the perfect brewing ground for infection.

But this was war and war doesn’t stop because some soldiers are feeling a bit peaky. Men with symptoms were still deployed, which resulted in people on all sides catching Spanish Flu.

Just to make this worse, The First World War was the era of trench warfare. Already living shoulder to shoulder in unhygienic holes in the ground, surrounded by death, the soldiers were given something unbeatable to contend with.

Then there were those soldiers that were in the most dangerous stages of the flu, who were sent to field hospitals. To get there they were often transported along with hundreds of other people, military and civilian. So the virus easily hopped from the infected person to dozens of others, with those people then heading off to unknowingly continue the spread.

With infected troops travelling all over the world, it’s no surprise that the flu spread so quickly.

But don’t worry. It gets worse.

Clipping from Oct 17 1918's edition of Santa Ana Daily Record and Register
Clipping from Oct 17 1918’s edition of Santa Ana Daily Record and Register – Let’s not let a silly thing like a deadly pandemic stop this great war we have on!

Because the world was at war, public morale was key. Those countries at war, didn’t want to expose their people to just how lethal this pandemic was. So they didn’t.

Newspapers in America, Britain and countries across Europe were censored so they didn’t reveal the true magnitude of the pandemic. Spain was one of the few countries that was covering the spread in its early days and their wide coverage of the pandemic led to the flu being named ‘The Spanish Flu’ (they were unsurprisingly not happy about this)

The impact of media not telling people how bad the pandemic was shouldn’t be underestimated. When people are aware of a public health crisis, they tend to be cautious. If you know there’s something going around, you’ll naturally do things like washing your hands more, be less likely to go to crowded areas and generally take more precautions.

That’s not to mention the other ways many countries chose to put propaganda above public health.

For example in America several cities held mass morale boosting events, despite knowing that large gatherings were a breeding ground for Spanish Flu. Don’t see why that could end badly? Let’s talk Philadelphia.

In late September 1918, the city had planned a huge parade to boost morale and raise money for the war effort. Doctors urged the city to cancel the event. There had already been local cases of the Spanish flu and a massive crowded event was sure to make the situation worse. But the city needed to cheer up its citizens and raise cash, so the parade went ahead.

Over 200,000 people watched the parade on 28 September. Music filled the streets, Boy Scouts marched along with uniformed soldiers. There was dancing, heaps of patriotism and tons of Liberty loans sold. The parade organisers patted themselves of the back for a job well done.

72 hours later and every bed in the cities hospitals were full. Within weeks, thousands were dead.

By 3 October Philadelphia was shut down. Morgues struggling to manage the influx, with bodies stacked up and families struggling to find somewhere to bury their loved ones.

Members of the Lit Liberty Loan Brothers Loan Comittee of Parade and the Philadelphia Parade, 1918
Members of the Lit Liberty Loan Brothers Loan Comittee of Parade at the ill-fated Philadelphia Parade

How was Spanish Flu prevented?

Hypothetically it was a good thing that the Spanish Flu hit when it did. For centuries people had believed epidemics were an act of god. However with the emergence of ever improving medical science, people were starting to put their faith into medical science. Recent epidemics, like the ‘Russian Flu’, had been studied to find a root cause.

With an arsenal of medical research, combined with peoples believe in science, the chances of beating this thing looked pretty darn good!

Sadly it didn’t work out like that.

In 1892 German bacteriologist thought he’d discovered the cause of the Russian flu, a bacterium he called, Bacillus influenzae (or Pfeiffer’s bacillus). The idea that deadly bacteria could be behind 1918’s pandemic made perfect sense, after all bacteria causes things like cholera and plague (and the 1918 pandemics symptoms had a lot of similarities with the plague!). So scientists across the world went all in on locating Pfeiffer’s bacillus in sick patients.

HOWEVER, influenza is a virus. It’s not caused by bacteria. So although loads of research was being done to stop the 1918 pandemic, they were looking at the wrong thing.

Those depending on religion to save them, we’re often also out of luck.

In the Spanish city of Zamora, a bishop went against all governmental guidelines and called the cities people together to pray for protection against the flu. The result of the gathering? Roughly 10% of Zamora’s people died from Spanish Flu.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. from National Museum of Health and Medicine
Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. from National Museum of Health and Medicine

What was the aftermath?

Around 1% of the European population died and that figure rises as you go across the world. It’s though that in India around eighteen million died. We will never truly know just how many lives the Spanish Flu claimed, but globally estimates vary between 50-100 million people.

It didn’t matter if you lived in a city or a village, the flu could impact you. In fact small communities who lay outside of the local mass populace were often utterly devastated if the flu reached them. For example in some parts of the Gambian countryside it was reported that

‘whole villages of 300 to 400 families (were) completely wiped out, the houses having fallen in on the unburied dead, and the jungle having crept in within two months, obliterating whole settlements.’

You were also far more likely to die if you came from a poor background. The working class, minorities and immigrants were far more likely to be living in cramped conditions without good access to decent sanitation, which meant the Spanish Flu exploded in these areas.

So will Coronavirus be Spanish Flu 2.0?

Well…it’s unlikely.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why so many media outlets are saying it will be – hey we all love click bait! However, in this instance history repeating itself just isn’t a super tangible outcome.

So many of the key factors that led to the spread of the 1918 flu are not even vaguely comparable to today’s landscape.

To be blunt. There’s not a world war on. That makes a difference. We don’t have hundreds of thousands of men crammed into tight often unhygienic environments that act as a perfect virus breeding ground. Those infected men are not then flitting all over the world, sprinkling the virus everywhere they go.

Yes, today we’re travelling the world more than before. But borders have already started to close, checks are being made and even when the virus slips past that, those are small numbers of isolated cases. It’s not remotely the same as the speedy global spread the First World War created.

Then there’s the science. Unlike 1918, medical science has far more of a clear handle on what makes up a virus like Coronavirus. In addition thanks to new fangled inventions like the internet, scientists worldwide are able to be a lot more open with their research. Meaning teams across the globe are able to be up to the minute on the latest findings. With clinical trials up and running, massive amounts of data and round the clock work being done by countless teams, we’re so far ahead cure wise than 1918, it’s not even comparable.

So whilst we may be in an international public health emergency, we’re in a far better place than we were 100 hundred years ago.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t learn from the lessons of the 1918 pandemic, but by no means should we be treating it like a crystal ball!

That was interesting where can I find out more? Definitely check out Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney, along with these papers, Influenza – exposing the the true killer by Heather L Van Epps and Spanish Flu Part II, the second and third wave by Milorid Radusin.

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Life after beheading

A delve into history’s mad science of working out if there truly is life after beheading

For as long as there has been beheadings there have been stories of decapitated heads showing life after they were separated from their bodies. From Anne Boleyn attempting to speak to Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots lips quivering, trying to speak as her life left her.

These morbid tales are scattered throughout history, but accounts of this most gruesome phenomena ramped up once the guillotine was introduced.

The guillotine (as we know it today; there were several similar types of instruments dating all the way back to the middle ages) was invented by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a man who was ironically anti-execution. He created his machine as a way to convince the French government that if they had to execute people, then they should at least try and do it humanely.

The guillotine was designed to make beheading quicker, simpler and cleaner. Gone would be the days of an executioner taking several whacks before getting the job done, now with one pull of a lever a sharpened blade would pop that head straight off (is it just me or did that sound like a weird infomercial?) 

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and his guillotine
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and his guillotine.

Guillotin’s machine was put to the test in 1792 and with it’s first condemned man smoothly dispatched, it was soon adopted as France’s go to exception method.

With the French Revolutions Reign of Terror about to get into full swing, such a humane method of execution couldn’t have come soon enough! Hey, if you were one of the thousands of people unlucky enough to be condemned to death during The Reign of Terror, at least you got to go out quickly and pain free. Right?

Of course not! 

Yeah turns out beheading might not be as ‘humane’ as dear old Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin hoped.

In 1793,Charlotte Corday was guillotined for assassinating politician and leader, Jean-Paul Marat. She was sentenced to death after sneaking into Marat’s home and murdering him while he was soaking in the bath, with a knife she had hidden in her corset! Such a scandalous murder meant that Charlotte’s execution was Paris’s hot ticket.

So imagine the shock of the crowd when after the blade fell, Charlotte’s decapitated head appeared to express a look of ‘indignation’ at her fate, especially when the executioner slapped her (to be fair, I’d be pretty pissed at that too). Eye witnesses even said they saw Charlotte blink and her cheeks flush for several seconds after her death.

But it wasn’t just Charlotte, the guillotine’s introduction led to more accounts than ever before of heads living for up to a minute after being torn from their bodies

Now admittedly some of these tales were a little tall (like the one where two rival politicians were beheaded and upon examining the basket where their heads dropped, the executioner found one of the pairs severed head biting the others ear) but the idea of this potentially tortuous brief life after beheading caused major concern.

It became clear that urgent work was needed to conclude if these moments of life after death were: 

  • A) Simply muscle spasms that are natural occurrences following death. 

  • B) A horrifying period of time when a person was fully conscious. 


science the shit out of this
Admittedly I have no evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure this was the battle cry for all 18th century scientists

Many doctors took up the mantle to discover the truth. One Dr Séguret eagerly exposed severed heads to sunlight, to see if there was a reaction. Reporting back that if the eyes were forcibly opened, then they would close of their own accord with:

‘an aliveness that was abrupt and startling. The entire face then assumed a face of intense suffering.’ 

Nightmare inducing? Yes. But correct? Well others begged to differ.

In 1803 it was reported that two students in Mainz, Germany, stood under a guillotine scaffold waiting for heads to fall (all in the name of science, natch). As soon as a head fell, they would hustle up to it and shout ‘Do you hear me!?’. They discovered no reaction or evident consciousness in the victims.

If you thought the Mainz experiment was weird, then hold you horses for one Dr Lelut.

In 1836 the good doctor made a deal with murderer, Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, that after his execution Lacenaire would leave one eye shut and one eye open. Despite avidly observing Lacenaire’s decapitated head after his death, Dr Lelut saw no eye movement from the deceased.

This (lets be real, kinda sketchy science) was further backed up by Georges Martin, a Parisian executioners assistant who’d seen over 100 beheadings. He could recall no occasion when the condemned’s head showed any sign of life.

All in all, despite doctors and scientists all over Europe looking for an answer, nobody could agree on if the victims lived for a few moments after their death. And yet, with beheading still common practice in many places, an answer was needed (ASAP preferably).

Studying a guillotined head, Mainz 1803
A depiction of the study of guillotined heads in Mainz, from 1803

Finally in 1879 we start to see the beginnings of experiments that were taken a lot more seriously by the scientific and medical community as a whole.

The British Medical Journal reported on three doctors, who had obtained the head of convicted murderer Theotime Prunier. A few minutes after the blade dropped on Prunier, the men began a series of experiments to determine if his was still conscious. They:

  • Shouted in his ear
  • Waved a candle in front of his eyes
  • pinched his cheeks 
  • stuck a needle in his eye 

Bar a look of shock (which TBH might just have been his face when he was executed) Prunier didn’t show signs of any cognitive movement or consciousness.

BUT this was far from a clear conclusion. After all, as any good science nerd knows, more investigation and experimentation is needed. It’s not just one and done, you need to have a whole bounty of evidence to form any scientific conclusion.

Step forward Dr. Dassy de Lignières

In 1890 a year after the first ‘official’ guillotine test, Dr. Dassy de Lignières was given access to the head of child rapist and murderer, Louis Menesclou. Three hours after the execution, de Lignières was given the head and hot footed it back to his lab where he conducted some truly Frankenstein-esque experiments.

He pumped the head with dogs blood (don’t worry, the dog was living and was fine after). The idea being to ascertain whether brain death occurred due to blood loss or the blade blow.

As the transfusion went through the dead man’s veins, de Lignières observed that the head not only regained colour, it’s lips trembled, features sharpened and for two seconds the man’s eyes opened in a look of shock.

This was enough in de Lignières mind to confirm that people did live for several seconds after decapitation and that death by beheading was nothing short of ‘torture’. He even advised executioners to vigorously shake the heads of the convicted immediately after death, in the hopes it would promote speedy blood loss and shave a few seconds off their suffering.

Finally in 1905 Dr Gabriel Beaurieux gave us the most frequently cited piece of evidence. He attended the execution of murderer Henri Languille, and after hanging around at the base of the guillotine, he was met with the severed head of Languille.

Immediately he carried out several tests to see if the deceased was conscious. Beaurieux recalled:

“The eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …

“I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

“Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

“It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.”

The whole thing lasted for 25-30 seconds. Beaurieux concluded that although he believed there was brain function in subjects of beheading after death, it could not be known for sure whether this was in the lower half of the brain alone (where your reflexes come from) or whether the brain as a whole was active, meaning victims could potentially think and feel fear.

shocked gif
Yup, thinking and feeling after losing your head isn’t it.

Ok, so if there was even a tiny chance that beheading a condemned person might result in even a minuscule amount of life after death, surely people stopped. After all, the death penalty itself is ridiculously unethical, so added torture on top is barbaric at best! Anyone can see that, right? Right?!?!

Well… no. It was cheap, efficient and there wasn’t concrete science to back up the idea of life after decapitation. So countries across the world merrily beheaded away for decades.

France continued using the guillotine right up to 1981 (when the death penalty was revoked). It was also used by The Nazi’s, The Stasi and at one point in the 1990’s the US even toyed with the idea of replacing the electric chair with the guillotine.

Eventually beheading fell out of favour and as many countries continue to drop the the death penalty entirely, it is rarely used in an official state capacity.

But that doesn’t answer the question, is there life after beheading? 

Short answer, Possibly

Unlike those 18th and 19th century doctors, today we have an incredibly in depth understanding of how the human body works, but we also can’t know for sure. After all, if we’ve learned anything today it’s that we can’t ask a decapitated person to tell whats going on.

So here’s what modern science tells us might happen. When a head is cut from the body, it’s also cut off from the heart and any oxygen supply, meaning that the brain immediately goes into a coma and starts to die. Note the word, starts.

A 2011 study suggests that consciousness fades within four to seventeen seconds. However, as your brain function in that time isn’t even close to normal, it’s unlikely you’d be aware of what was happening. The lights might be on, but nobody would be home.

So next time your in the pub and someone mentions the myth of Anne Boleyn speaking after her beheading (unlikely, but you never know) you can spend the next 45 minutes boring everyone with the mad science behind one of execution histories most gruesome legends. You’re welcome.

the more you know

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Why do we still love Little Women?

150 years after it first came out, why are we still so in love with Little Women? the reasons may surprise you

There are perhaps only two books that have a seemingly universal effect on the women that read them; Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. Which could be considered odd in the case of Little Women, as Louisa May Alcott never actually wanted to write a book about girls. In her words, she:

never liked girls or knew many except my sisters’

But Louisa had to pay her bills and so she agreed to take the gig writing a book for girls. And it’s probably thanks to that unwillingness that Little Women is so good. There are none of the usual trappings we see in stories designed for a female audience. No overly long descriptions of lush surroundings. No plot pause for a fashion show, and certainly no hastily forced in moments of ‘sisterhood’.

Instead it’s an honest tale of four sisters growing up. It’s extrodianry in its ordinariness. Every girl can relate to the March Sisters. They love each other deeply but when they attack each other they are ruthless, going straight for the jugular (how could you burn Jo’s beloved book Amy!?!?). Mistakes are learnt from, ambitions changed and childish trappings dropped. It’s a true tale of growing up, where the obstacles we face us girls may seem small but are huge in defining who we become as women.

But having an amazing plot isn’t the reason that Little Women has endured for over 150 years. The truth behind Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy’s ever growing legacy is a lot more fascinating. So lets get straight into this!

*Just as an FYI, I’m going to be talking about Little Women and Good Wives together. As both have been bundled into the same book since 1880.

Bonus Laurie for the road

Part 1 – ‘You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind

At the time of its release the character of Jo immediately proved to be an inspiration to thousands of young girls. Ok, yes, that’s not a huge shocker, after all to this day Jo remains the majority of peoples favourite sister. However, in the 19th century, Jo’s impact was revolutionary.

Girls were starting to realise they could have aspirations beyond those of their mothers. That if they wanted, they could do so much more than any generation of women before them. The fight for equal rights was ready, jobs beyond the home were opening up, culture was welcoming female writers and visionaries. It was the dawn of an incredibly exciting age! But also a really bloody scary one.

After all, being one of the first to step into a brave new world is daunting. And that’s where Jo came in.

Jo was the model of the woman of the future. Bright, intelligent, unafraid to break boundaries, she continuously bucks the norm. Turning down Laurie’s marriage offer (despite the fact he is rich AF and that the amount of eligible young men post American civil war wasn’t exactly stellar) she becomes not just a writer, but one unafraid to follow her own path. She decides she would be happy to stay single and only changes her mind after meeting someone that she knows she will be an equal to. Even when Jo eventually has a child, she’s not the era’s traditional mother. Instead she pins up her skirt and joins her children to run wild.

This fearlessness not only gave girls an example of the women they were free to be, but also equipped them with the tools to do so!

Almost immediately after the book came out, girls were inspired to follow in Jo’s footsteps. The Luken sisters from Pennsylvania, started their own version of the Pickworth Papers (the newsletter the March sister’s write) and ended up with subscribers from all over the US. The young Martha Carey Thomas fell in love with the books, even pretending to be Jo at times. When she turned 15 it was this that helped her decide to peruse further education and this move led to her growing up to become a pioneer of womens rights and education.

Then there are those that came in the decades after. With Jo’s direct impact on their work being cited by the likes of JK Rowling, Caitlin Moran, Simone de Beuvoir, Gloria Steinham and Patti Smith. It’s undeniable that a huge reason for our enduring cultural love towards Little Women, is Jo.

I mean who can’t love a girl that does an amazing act of charity and then doesn’t punch anyone after when they call her out for selling her ‘one beauty’

Part 2 – “It’s so dreadful to be poor!”

When Little Women first came out it was almost entirely bought and read by white middle class girls.

Throughout the book class, poverty and the social impact of them appear again and again (seriously, the book has 47 chapters, and this theme is only withheld from 4 them of them!) and yet, the girls themselves aren’t exactly in poverty.

Ok, yes, Meg and Jo both have to work, Meg can’t afford fashionable clothes, Amy struggles for limes and Beth can’t get the piano of her dreams. But that’s not exactly being poor, especially when you look at The Hummels. The family who live close to the March Sisters and live in abject poverty, to the point that by the end of the book almost the whole Hummel clan have been wiped out by disease.

Though the March Sisters struggle at times, there is always a clear light at the end of the tunnel. They will always be able to move upwards and towards their dreams.

This is a very white middleclass look at class and the barriers it imposes. And understandably that didn’t really resonate with young women from poorer backgrounds or minority communities.

A very middle class kinda poor

But then a few decades later the tide started to turn. The book was used by Russian Jewish immigrants as a way to connect themselves with their new home. Librarians and teachers encouraged the women to read what they felt was the best introduction to American womanhood. And although this was a very (I’m being nice) left field idea, it went against all the odds and worked, because these women could see themselves in the March Sisters.

In her book, My Mother and I, Elizabeth G Stern remembers coming to America as a young girl, an immigrant in a very foreign land. Living in an urban ghetto, she came across a tattered copy of Little Women in a rag shop and the March sisters helped her open up to the new world around her:

“Reading of them made my aspirations beautiful. My books were doors that gave me entrance to another world. Often I’d think I did not grow up in the ghetto, but in the books I read as a child.”

As time progressed, social welfare and rights improved, Little Women started to became a more universal book, a classic in it’s own right. It was translated into multiple languages, became one of Moscow libraries most borrowed books and was a bonafide international success.

Then came the adaptations. In 1912 Little Women debuted on the stage and was an immediate hit. As soon as the actress playing Jo uttered the opening line ‘Christmas just won’t be Christmas without presents’ the house went wild! Two silent films followed hot on the plays heels and by 1920 book sales of Little Women were second only to the bible (a crying shame, the former is a far better read)

And then things went stagnant. Book sales were still strong, but suddenly nobody wanted to adapt Little Women. After all, it was the roaring twenties and now the March Sisters seemed kind of hum drum.

This was a big problem. The adaptations were what was keeping the story fresh, essential in a time when what it meant to be a young girl was continuously changing.

But in the 1930’s Little Women’s luck changed. The economy crashed and though it was terrible for 99% of people, it was a god send for the March Sisters.

Quick girls look! The banks are on fire! Hooray!!!!

Part 3 – “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!”

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 and completely upturned the everyday lives of countless people. Gone was any certainty for the future and everyone was desperate for something to take their mind of the economic hellscape they were living it. Step in the March sisters.

Little Women was the equivalent of putting on a cosy blanket (even if the world was on fire just outside your window), it was familiar, but also offered a gentle dose of fighting spirit and hope for tomorrow.

The book boomed once more, becoming England’s top seller, but more than that, the adaptations not only restarted; they became an unstoppable juggernaut! Across the US community theatres staged low cost productions, the play went back to Broadway and then came the big one. Hollywood got it’s hands on Little Women.

1933’s Little Women starred some of the eras biggest names, Frances Dee as Meg, Katherine Hepburn as Jo, Jean Parker as Beth and Joan Bennett as an incredibly mature for a 12 year old, Amy

Joan… girl, nobody is buying this. Not only are you 23 playing 12, but you are legit pregnant

Audiences lapped up the 1933 adaptation. Partly because it was the Great Depression and everyone was down for anything that wasn’t utter bleakness, but also because this adaptation really bought the March sisters story into the now. Like so many of the audience, the March’s were having financial struggles. The longing for a new dress or a delicious dinner were things that pretty much everyone watching totally got.

The film also did something major – it tweaked the March Sisters traits and personalities to fit in with the young women of the 1930’s.

Jo is so much more athletic in this film than she is in any other adaptation. She slides down banisters, hurdles fences and climbs trees (as well as down from a second story window at one point, which frankly just seems dangerous.) This makes perfect sense. The 1930’s were an era in which women’s sport was on the rise, along with the notion that women could be active without it being a major gender issue. So of course in the 1930’s Jo is boundary breaking not only in her wit and ambition, but also in her physicality. Because that’s the version of Jo that would most hit home to this audience.

Similarly, 1933’s adaption is perhaps the last time we see Meg’s decision to become solely a wife and mother treated with respect, rather than as a throw away ‘oh yes, I guess Meg does this now’ plot line. By the 1930’s, women were of course able to have a career and go down the Jo route of chasing work ambitions, but it was still a very real societal expectation that most women would eventually settle down and become a homemaker. So Meg’s story, resonated just as much as any of the other sisters.

Then in 1949, following another huge chapter of societal upheaval (AKA two world wars) came MGM’s adaptation of Little Women. Created to once more cash in on peoples want for something comforting yet hopeful.

MGMs adaptation pretty much followed the same script as the 1933 film. This too has a ton of A list actors (Elizabeth Taylor as Amy for example) and they even had a much older pregnant actress as one of the sisters (with 31 year June Allyson as Jo). Bar that, it’s essentially the same film…but in technicolor.

Ooooo just look at all that brown in glorious Technicolor!!

Then almost five decades later came 1994’s Little Women. Perhaps the best show of how this story constantly adapts to it’s audience.

Since 1949 a lot had changed. First wave feminism had hit and bought with it massive changes. Women were now firmly in the workforce, able to raise a family and chase a career. Which all meant BIG changes for the March Sisters.

The biggest changes are arguably to Meg and Jo. If you compare the 1933 and 1994 versions of Jo, they are totally different. Gone is the OTT Katherine Hepburn athleticism, instead replaced by a more fitting 90’s theatre kid take on the charterer. She is also the only on screen Jo that we actually see write. All previous Jo’s talk a lot about it, but never visually do it, whereas in this version it’s a constant.

This is because this adaptation focuses on Jo’s ambition to be a writer, more than her lack of marriage. The biggest indicator of this is that the film strays from the books ending. In the book, Jo gets married and puts writing to the side, instead focusing on raising her family and opening a school where she plays surrogate mother to her pupils. But in this version, when Jo says yes to marriage, it’s clear she will also continue her journey to become a professional writer – she’s the epitome of the new ideal; a woman who has it all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Meg, whose basically now a back seat passenger to the story. Gone is the 1930’s respect for her decision to be a homemaker. Compared to Jo’s broad strides forward, the filmmakers clearly feared it would be seen as outdated. In this version Meg is just there to be occasionally bossy and portray a prissy form of femininity to play contrast to Jo.

Overall feminism plays a much bigger role in this adaption. Marmie, is a much stronger character and there is a clear shift from the Girls being called their fathers ‘Little Women’ to choosing to be ‘Little Women’ for their mother and then themselves.

This brings us to the 2019 adaptation, which takes the ball of modern femisim and runs with it.

Amy is given an overhaul and more character development. She is far more aware of her world and an equal to Laurie. She starts life as girl who cares more about dresses than the world outside and ends up a smart capable woman in a difficult era to be that. She has an interest in suffrage but also knows she lives in a time when who she marries is just as much a business deal as a love match.

And for the first time in any of the adaptation, Beth actually gets a fully fledged narrative (it only took 150 years…) This Beth isn’t just ‘nice’ but incredibly strong. The 2019 adaptation beautifully picking up the parts of her character that are so often dropped or underplayed. Including that Beth knows she is going to die, has made peace with it and works to strengthen those around her to continue on in her absence.

On a side note, this does look like Sex and the City 1869, right?

Every generation gets it’s own Little Women. With Louisa May Aclott’s work becoming far more than a book, but a vital chapter in millions of young lives.

From the first print which inspired girls to step forth into a brave new world, to the fresh off the boat immigrants who discovered a whole new take on an old story. The girls of the depression who found hope and solace in these four sisters and the ever rolling change of adaption that keeps this story alive today.

Be you a Meg, a Jo, a Beth or an Amy, it looks like the story of our Little Women is set to live a long life for generations to come.

If you liked this, here are some amazing Little Women deep dives to sink your teeth into:

Why won’t museums pay their staff fairly?

With museum staff all over the country going on strike, we ask – why exactly do museums keep refusing to pay their workers fairly.

This week staff at Museums across the UK have gone on strike. Everyone from curators, explainers, archivists and front of house staff are calling to not just be fairly paid, but to be a paid a reasonable wage to live on.

Since 2011 Science Museum staff have seen a real terms pay cut of 10% since 2011. It’s estimated that 25% of staff earn less than the real living wage, which is frankly disgusting.

For those who don’t the national living wage is the bare minimum you can legally pay someone over 25. Currently this is £8.21 (or if you are under 25, it’s £7.70). HOWEVER, when you actually factor in silly little things like rising rent costs, inflation on food, transportation and general goods and services, the national living wage doesn’t cut it.

Instead it’s advised that companies pay the real living wage (which for you economics lovers out there, is £9 or £10.55 for those in London, because everything is more expensive in London!). But the key word here is ‘advised’. You don’t actually have to pay the real living wage and you best believe many museums are choosing not to pay it.

So what’s the big deal?

It’s not a matter of pounds but pennies right? And yet, those pennies make a difference. It’s knowing you have enough money for the bus to work at the end of the month, It’s having enough food on the table and putting the heating on when it’s cold. It’s the teetering point, between a good quality of life for you and family, or scraping by perilously close to the poverty line.

That’s an incredibly hard position to financially be in. And it’s made worse when you realise that whilst a quarter of staff are counting the coins to get by, The Science Museum Groups director is on over £100k.

As Prospect negotiator Sharon Brown said:

“It is clear from the accounts that SMG (Science Museum Group) can afford to pay a reasonable way. It’s time for management to sort this out so our members can get on with the jobs they love”.

And the Science Museum staff are far from alone. Also striking are staff at the Museum of London, who have seen a 6% real terms pay cut since 2013, but also watched on as the number of those in higher up positions earning over 100k has doubled. Oh and despite being in a period where the museum is undergoing a location move costing hundreds of millions and they apparently can’t afford to pay all their staff fairly – the museum Director took home a 5% raise.

Science Museum strike, Courtesy of Prospect
Because although this is THE WORST – museum staff know how to break it down. Courtesy of Prospect

Having worked at one of these museums in the last few years, I can categorically tell you that there is a startling disparity between how those at the top are paid and those at the ‘bottom’ are paid.

To give full disclosure, until Nov 2018 I worked as a press officer in one of the striking museums and I was paid around 31k. I didn’t negotiate for that, that’s just the set level. To put that into context at the same museum (according to glass door for an average as this fluctuates!) an archaeologist might be on something between £19-22k.

So why was my pay so much higher? Well to be blunt, because my role exists outside of the sector. If you work in something like museum PR, marketing, or events, having knowledge of history, collections and how the sector works is of course a bonus, but it isn’t necessary. You’re expected to know your area and because all these roles exist outside of museums, your generally paid the going rate that most companies would pay a PR, marketing officer or events organiser.

But that fair pay all goes to shit when it comes to the people who are the very glue of a museum. The people who look after the collections, put together exhibitions, care for archives and are the boots on the ground, making people fall in love with a museum.

The reason for this low pay is simple but bleak.

According to Fair Museums Jobs

‘why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level? 

Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect
Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect

What makes this worse are that The Museum Association guidelines for pay are kind of screwing people over. For those becoming a curatorial or conservation assistant, with a post graduate degree (or decent experience working in collections, which they probably had to do for free FYI) The Museums Association advises they are paid a just 17-22k. Break that down to an hourly rate and its £8.17. Which you guessed it, is below the real living wage!

Whilst museums can get away with paying people a pittance, they will. Which is why strikes like this are so needed. As Fair Museums Jobs put it:

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!”

Change is a coming, but it is happening slowly. 

The Science Museum Group have now agreed to pay their lowest paid staff the living wage (and London living wage for those based in their flagship museum) they won’t actually do this until April 2020. Which means months more of a quarter of their staff having to just about scrape by.

In addition, The Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108, which is fantastic! Recognising all the years of work and training these people do. BUT, it’s just a suggestion, museums don’t actually have to do it. And lets be real, until they are made to, they won’t.

strike, from Prospect twitter
Striker, courtesy of Prospect

So what happens now?

Well it looks like industrial action will have to continue. And we can expect to see more museum workers unionising and going on strike in the coming months. At least until museums realise these three key things:

  1. ‘What I did for love’ is not a decent hiring strategy – This is not A Chorus Line. Do museum workers love what they do? Yes. Can you keep on depending on being able to retain amazing staff based off of the love of museums rather than actual pay? No. Sadly you can’t feed a family on passion.
  2. You can’t diversify museums with low pay like this in place – It’s a fact that museums are facing a diversity crisis, especially in areas like curatorial and conservation. A huge reason for this is that the extraordinary low pay for entry level roles in these departments simply prices out many candidates from low income and minority backgrounds.
  3. People outside the sector are realising how shady this is – These strikes are drawing attention, not just at the museum sites but in the national press. The longer this is drawn out, the less people will want to come and drop their cash at a place that doesn’t care about it’s staff.


Fair Museum Jobs kindly gave as the below statement on this issue. It’s definitely worth a read: 

“The Science Museum Group and Museum of London strikes highlight the fundamental issue that many jobs in museums and heritage just do not pay enough to live on. In such a highly qualified sector, where expensive post-grad qualifications are constantly deemed essential; that many organisations pay 25% of their staff less than their directors annual bonus is ridiculous.

“So why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level?

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!

“Some organisations are leading the charge for this: Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108 – recognising the training conservators go through before their first job. 

“In short, if you want highly qualified, accredited, candidates, you must be willing to pay for them.

“More work could also be done by the Museums Association; their salary guidelines are a good starting point and we would welcome some robust implementation of these across the sector. Funding bodies should also take a look at their policies and requirements: for example, we would love to see National Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and Arts Council England add salary and recruitment requirements for project posts.

“Nobody goes into this sector to become a millionaire, but all of us deserve to be fairly recompensed for our time, skills, knowledge and qualifications.
Fair Museum Jobs campaigns on fair and transparent recruitment, pay and jobs in museums and heritage. Find out more about our manifesto here: “



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