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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A is for Arsenic

A peek into the devilishly deadly world of Victorians and arsenic

When you think of Victorians and arsenic you probably think of black widows bumping off their latest husband, embittered servants taking revenge on brutish masters and in general, murder most foul. It’s gorgeously Gothic and macabre… but sadly it’s only like 10% of the truth.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Victorians loved them some arsenic and it did tend to be the murderer about towns choice of poison BUT it wasn’t deliberate poisoning that made up the vast amount of arsenic deaths. It was accidental poisoning.

And most of these accidents were thanks to a little something called Scheele’s Green.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Carl Wilhelm Scheele – this guy…

In 1775 Carl Wilhelm Scheele made history, when he created a brand new shade of green. Vibrant and bold, it verged between emerald and the kind of effervescent green that you only see in the freshest flowers. Quite simply it was stunning and it soon became an international obsession.

And we know what happens when a colour suddenly pops off, its EVERYWHERE. Much like Millennial Pink in 2016, in the mid Victorian era you couldn’t move for Scheele’s Green. It was on clothing, accessories, furniture and even in sweets! But the makeup of Scheele’s Green made it very different (in an exceptionally deadly way) from your average fad colour.

Grab your goggles because here comes the sciencey bit.

You see, Scheele’s Green wasn’t made by water soluble agents like most other dyes. Instead it was a chemical compound made by combining sodium carbonate, arsenic and copper. It was this unique mix of arsenic and copper that really made Scheele’s green pop and gave it its unparalleled bright hue. However there was a downside to this formula – it made Scheele’s Green lethal.

But with little to no regulations on arsenic in products, Scheele’s Green was flying off the shelves. And it wasn’t long until the bodies started racking up.

Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!
Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!

Living with death

In 1862 children in London’s Limehouse area started to die. At first the deaths were put down to diphtheria, but pretty soon the doctors were arguing over whether this disease truly was the culprit.

You see each of the children had sore throats and breathing issues prior to their deaths, but bar that had shown none of the other major signs of the disease. There had been no thick coating of the throat, no mass swelling or ulcers, basically none of the things that normally accompany diphtheria. Not to mention that this disease was known to wipe out areas on mass for a reason and yet, after four children died there were no more fatalities.

Public health officer and chemist, Henry Letheny was bought in to play the role of Sherlock Holmes. He quickly discovered the cause – the wallpaper.

The children’s room had recently been redecorated with (you guessed it!) brand new Scheele’s Green wallpaper which after examination was shown to hold a whopping 3 grams of arsenic per square foot.

In case you’re wondering, it can take just 0.148 grams of arsenic to kill an adult. Oh but, don’t worry it gets worse…

The lethal Limehouse wallpaper actually held a relatively tiny amount of arsenic compared to others on the market. With some wallpapers later reported to have held on average 20 grams of arsenic per square foot and 70 grams in extreme cases.

And this wallpaper was everywhere. By 1858 it was estimated a million miles of deadly arsenic wallpaper had been produced and were now hanging in homes all around England.

William Morris
‘Darling this wallpaper is so stunning my heart appears to be bursting in sheer excitement!’ – example of William Morris Scheele’s Green wallpaper

It was a true epidemic, but (perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on how optimistic you are) the people churning out this death printed paper didn’t care.

The most notorious of these is perhaps celebrated designer:

William Morris.

William designed some of the most popular interiors, prints and textiles of the age. He was also a notorious socialist idealist, pushing for his industry to not only respect the environment but to ensure workers were looked after. And he did a sterling job looking after the environment, his workers and consumers by popping arsenic into his products.

Coincidentally William’s Dad owned mining company, Devon Great Consols, which was the worlds largest arsenic producer. Funny that…

In fact, it was with the money from the family arsenic mining business that William set up his design company. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that in 1885 William when asked about the (now proven) dangerous health ramifications of arsenic, he said:

‘As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.’

Sadly it wasn’t witch fever, but arsenic poising. The workers at Devon Great Consols frequently died from it. And yet William happily exposed his own workers to the stuff.

And they were far from alone. All over the country workers making arsenic laced furnishings were being exposed to highly dangerous levels of the poison. Every. Single. Day.

And then there were the poor souls whose health was being torn apart everyday all in the name of couture.

The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863
OK fine…maybe it;s deadly but it’s so fabulous! – The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863

Fashionably dead

Of course, the highly fashionable hue was all over the most fabulously dressed. At the time it was estimated that one ball gown made using Scheele’s Green would carry an estimated 900 grams of arsenic.

Naturally, those modelling a Scheele’s Green look saw some pretty horrid side effects! After a night out you might peel off your gown to find a rash or maybe an oozing sore. Not great, and yet it still wasn’t enough to make people stop buying Scheele’s Green.

You see these women had the dress lining not to mention layers of petticoats and crinolines separating their skin from the real damage arsenic can rage. So although there were physical side effects, these were very much the equivalent of a modern day bra welt or blisters from breaking in new heels – just the price of looking good, right?

But what about the women who were making these looks?

One of the things that made making Scheele’s Green clothes and accessories so dangerous was the techniques often used.

Say you were making something small, like a flower crown (yes Victorian ladies loved this look too, sorry Coachella!) then you’d literally press the pigment into the fabric. That’s a ton of arsenic getting right up into all those crevices in your hands (which you’ll then use for everything from eating, peeing and picking at your face) that’s not to mention all those arsenic particles you’re unknowingly breathing in.

Imagine churning out countless crowns just like this.

In 1861, a 19 year old flower maker called Matilda Scheurer started convulsing and vomiting green liquid. The whites of her eyes turned green and so did her fingernails. She had arsenic poisoning.

Matilda went on to die a slow and very painful death. She wasn’t the only one. French physician, Ange-Gabriel-Maxime Vernois, wrote that after visiting a fake flower factory in Paris (similar to the one Matilda worked in) that the daily contact with arsenic wrought havoc on the bodies of the workers, with the arsenic literally eating away at their flesh.

1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection
I mean it’s a strong look – 1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection

So with all this deadly buffoonery going on, why wasn’t arsenic just straight up outlawed?

Well there were two key  reasons:

1. Not everyone was dying – remember arsenic products were everywhere! And yet, the entire country weren’t just dropping like flies. So it was easy for those selling the arsenic laced goods to put the cases where people did die to already existing ill health.

2. The science wasn’t concrete – although it was understood how ingesting arsenic was deadly (why murderers used it!) It wasn’t crystal clear how arsenic being used in manufacturing was lethal. Yes, there were the physical symptoms exhibited by workers and extremely strong indicators of deaths caused by arsenic products, but there was no clear scientific explanation as to why! In fact it wasn’t until 1933 scientists came up with a theory for the deaths (gosio gas created by the arsenic in damp conditions) and even this theory is pretty patchy!

So In 1870 people were working to ban products they reckoned might have fatal consequences. And let’s be real, whilst these products were bringing in that sweet cash, ‘reckoning’ was pretty useless (just look at America’s vaping crisis for an example)

But there would be an end to arsenic’s hay day! Not from the government, but through the people.

With word spreading that these products were dangerous, many newspapers started taking a stand against them. Then in 1879, Queen Victoria made headlines when she stripped Buckingham Palace of arsenic products after a visiting dignitary complained of feeling sick when near them.

If it wasn’t good enough for old Vic, it wasn’t good enough for anyone!

The people had spoken with their wallets and arsenic manufacturing soon fell out of favour.

We won’t ever know the true body count caused by Scheele’s Green (though myth says Napoleon was among the number!) but it’s doubtless countless people fell victim. Either paying with their health or lives.

Remember, it’s not easy bring green. Because it will literally kill you.

Blood thirsty revenge, pirates and traitors: the batshit story of Jeanne De Clisson

Strap in for the tale of Jeanne de Clisson, the gentile noble lady turned warrior pirate and traitor – Game of Thrones Cersai has nothing on this vengeful woman!

Ok, I hope you guys are ready, because today we’re embarking on one of my favourite bat-shit stories in history! We’ll be travelling to 14th century France to meet a lady who took the term ‘woman scorned‘ and ran way past the line with it. Going from a rich noble-born, to making a name for herself as both Frances’ number one enemy and a fearless swashbuckling pirate! Ready? Let’s get to it then:

Born in Brittany, France, in 1300 to wealthy titled parents, Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and Létice de Parthenay, the story of Jeanne De Clisson starts off as that of your average 14th century noble born woman. And by that I of course mean that Jeanne was married off at 12 (wasn’t the past great!?).

She lived her life how a well behaved noble lady was expected to. Popping out babies and re-marrying other rich influential men when her husbands died. So far so standard.

By the time Jeanne reached her thirties she was onto marriage number three, to noble, Oliver De Clission. But Jeanne and Oliver’s marriage was actually incredibly unique for this era. You see, they actually loved each other!

Unsurprisingly with people being married off purely based on how it would help build up a families wealth and titles, true ‘love matches’ were few and far between. Luckily, Jeanne and Oliver were the exception to that rule.

Together, they lived together in a blissful bubble. Having five children and flitting between their family castle and manor, with little to no drama’s occurring. Life was perfect.

That is, until war tore their world apart

War! What is it good for? NOTHING SERIOUSLY NOTHING – War of Breton Succesion, Battle of Auray from Froissants Chronciles

In 1337 France and England were at each others throats, fighting for the right to rule over France. You see, ten years earlier, French king, Charles VI had died without leaving a clear heir, meaning the crown was anyone’s to grab (if you could come up with a decent claim for it!). To make things even worse, this wasn’t your usual battle for power. Oh no. This went on so long that it became known as the ‘hundred year war’.

And you know what makes any already confusing and convoluted war even better? That’s right, another mini war to take place in the already existing war!

Enter, The War of Breton Succession

In 1341, John ‘the good’ of Brittany, who ruled over the homeland of Jeanne and her brood, died childless. This meant that he left no clear cut heir to take his place (apparently France loves a theme) thus two rival factions made a claim to Brittany. John Montfort, who was backed by the English and Charles of Blois, who was both married to John ‘the goods’ niece and had the French nobility’s support.

As battle over their Brittany home sped up, Oliver and Jeanne opted to give their support to noble fave, Charles of Blois. With Oliver stepping into the role of one of Charles military commanders.

This would prove to be a bad choice. In 1341 Oliver was sent to defend the town of Vanne, against English invaders. Sadly, Vanne fell and Oliver and several others were captured and ransomed.

Left alone with five kids, her beloved husband locked up and her home at war, this was far and away one of the darkest times in Jeanne’s life.

But suddenly there was a light! Oliver’s ransom was set incredibly low and he was released. Not only that, but England and France had signed a truce. To celebrate this incredible turn in events , Oliver was invited to take place in a tournament.

The family back together, a lovely day out and relative peace? Surely for our lovebirds Jeanne and Oliver, the future was looking bright?

Nope. It was all a rouse.

It turned out that Charles of Blois suspected that Oliver’s ransom had been set so low because he was actually working with the English to assist their seize of Vennes. So he had lured Oliver to the tournament to arrest him.

Oliver was detained and sent to Paris for trial. There, under the blessing of French king, Phillip the Fortunate, he was sentenced to death. Despite no clear proof of guilt being found against him.

And so Oliver was executed as a traitor. Essentially because his boss reckoned he might have been one.

Where’s HR when you need them!?! –
1400s depiction Execution of Oliver De Clisson, Lidet Loyset,

Something had shattered inside Jeanne and what replaced it was cold steel.

To further her pain, Oliver’s body was desecrated. His body strung up by the armpits and his head sent to be placed on a spike in Nantes as a warning to others.

Emotionally broken, Jeanne actually took her sons to see their fathers head in Nantes. And after that minor child trauma was over, she decided to pack up her stuff, sell the families lands, raise a small army of fighters and set out to avenge her husband.

Newly armed and incredibly dangerous, she was determined to reek bloody revenge on Charles of Bois, King Phillip the Fortunate and France itself.

Can someone check with George R R Martin, because the comparisons here are startling.

Jeanne’s first stop was to the castle owned by Galois de la Heuse, a friend of Charles of Bois. She turned up, kids in tow and asked to be let in. And of course they let her in! I mean, sure she was the wife of a traitor, but how much of a threat could one woman be? Right….

By morning everyone in the castle had been killed.

All except for a few wide eyed survivors who Jeanne let flee so they could spread word of her murders.

Live footage of Jeanne leaving Galous de la Heuse’s house

In 1343 Jeanne had been declared a traitor and with the French fuzz catching up to her, she decided to take her fight to the sea and become a pirate (as you do).

She bought three ships with the money she had from selling all her lands and goods. She then ordered them to be painted black and their sails dyed crimson. With her incredibly dramatic ships set, she set sail across the channel.

Now if you thought that seeing the pirate skull cross bones set fear into the hearts of sailors, well that had nothing on Jeanne and her merry band of murderers.

French crews who saw those crimson sails emerging from the fog, knew it meant one thing. They were about to die.

Jeanne and her crew set their sights on any and all French ships. Capturing them and slaying the entire crew. And unlike many other pirates, noble borns weren’t kept for ransom. Instead it’s believed that Jeanne would behead them herself.

Yet it wasn’t all stabby stabby kill time. As she had before, Jeanne left a few survivors. Not because she was being nice, but so word would spread back to King Phillip of the horror she was wreaking across the seas.

Burn it all! – Interpretation of Jeanne de Clisson by Rejected Princeses

Now Jeanne wasn’t just about indiscriminate murder. She was also one smart woman. Which is why she joined forces with England in her quest to take down France.

You see, by this point France and England had fallen out once more, with their truce only lasting two years (1343-1345) and the battle for the French throne was back on (it was called the hundred year war for a reason!)

With his country at war, things were already bad, but things started to look very unfortunate (get it) for King Philip after he discovered that Jeanne was not only brutally murdering his ships crews, but also using her fleet to provide supplies to English troops in France.

Much of this particular time in Jeanne’s life has been turned into legend. Meaning it is really hard to sift through and tell fact from fiction. There are tales of her plundering french fishing villages and towns, joining English ships as they invaded France and beheading more people than Henry VIII on a really bad day,

You might think that King Phillip dying in 1350 would have satisfied Jeanne’s blood lust and stopped her quest for vengeance. But it didn’t.

It looked like only death could stop Jeanne. And it came for her around 1353, when her flagship sunk. Leaving Jeanne and her two sons, Guillaume and Oliver adrift in the middle of the sea.

Like, I’m scared for her and yet also scared for the sea…

Huddled together in a small boat, mother and sons looked like they stood no chance against the elements.

Guillaume soon died from exposure and time was fast running out for Jeanne and Oliver.

But a little shipwreck wasn’t going to stop Jeanne. She didn’t stop rowing. Even after her son died, she wouldn’t stop. This lasted for five days, until both her and Oliver were picked up by Montfort forces. Their survival was nothing short of miraculous and yet, considering Jeanne, not surprising.

Seriously, she’s like the 14th century terminator! Interpretation of Jeanne de Clisson by Elsa Millet.

Following this, Jeanne and her surviving son sought exile in England. And from here, Jeanne’s story takes a very unexpected turn.

Jeanne found love once more.

She met English Knight, Sir Walter Bentley, during her exile, and for the first time in years, she must have felt a joy that she thought had been lost forever. The pair married in 1356. With Jeanne choosing to leave her pirating days behind her, in favour of returning to the quiet married life she’d left behind over a decade ago.

With her new husband by her side, Jeanne actually moved back to Brittany (all be it a part of Brittany now looked after by English forces!) Living happily in Honnebont Castle until she died peacefully in 1359.

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Vinegar Valentines: hate those you love

In the mid nineteenth Valentines Day started to undergo a disturbing transformation. Sure, the syrupy sonnets proclaiming love were still there, along with the de rigueur over priced gifts and cards, but just under that rose tinted surface something terrible was rising up: a wave of hate disguised as love.

Dubbed Vinegar Valentines, these cards took the guise of traditional valentines, but replaced sentiment with twisted vitriol and cutesy pictures with cruel caricatures.

The only man who smiles on you, via Museum of London
The only man who smiles on you, via Museum of London

So, I hear you ask, what started this mean spirited valentines revolution?

Changes to the postal service.

Sexy, I know….

In the early Victorian era postage was really expensive, but letter writing was the only way to talk to anyone not in walking distance. Lovers, business contacts, family, friends – all needed to be corresponded to through letters, which cost a bomb.

Many tried to save money by doing things like cross writing. Where you first wrote vertically and then when you ran out of room, turned the page horizontally (at a right angle) and wrote over the letters first part. It may have saved on paper but to our eyes it looks way more like a cipher than any discernible letter (it was a rough time to be dyslexic)

As the era progressed and the number of people able to read and write rose, the fact that much of Britain was priced out of communication became a huge issue. A massive national campaign for affordable post was sparked and by 1840 the battle was won – the penny post was born.

Once postage prices plummeted, Britain went card crazy. The country went from sending 200,000 cards in 1820 to a staggering 1,500,000 by the 1870s.

Valentines cards saw a spike, especially since the amends to the post also meant you could now send cards anonymously. Thus there was a boom in embossed, frilly cards. With some men purportedly saving a months salary so they could send OTT embellished card making confections to their paramours.

Embossed Valentines, 1860s-1880s, via Museum of London
Embossed Valentines, 1860s-1880s, via Museum of London – the workmanship that went into this, you just can’t bin come 16th Feb

But not everyone wanted to spend a months rent on a fancy card, nor did they necessarily want to spread the love.

Printed on cheap paper, crudely coloured and sold for a penny, Vinegar Valentines, were the answer.

Many of these cards were bought as a joke gift to send to a mate, poking fun at something they were self conscious about (e.g their weight, lack of hair or low paying job) which still seems like kind of a dick move, but let’s be generous and file this one away under ‘banter’.

Still, for as many people that used the cards for a fun joke amongst friends, there were others who were excitedly using the fact they could send the cards anonymously to target someone they loathed.

Just have to tell an ex they’re going to die alone? There’s a vinegar Valentine for that. Co-worker you want to knock down a peg? Yep, vinegar valentine for that too. Woman turned you down and now you need to point out all her flaws? Of course, there was a vinegar Valentine for that!

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Though there are archives containing Vinegar Valentines, not a great deal survive. Not that surprising, after all whose going to hang onto something designed for personal insult? Much like we hit the delete key today, Victorians threw these vitriolic messages in the bin.

But there’s still so much that we can learn from the surviving cards! And kind of horrifyingly, we can see that not a lot as changed in well over 100 years!

Lesson 1: The majority of the cards were targeted at women.

Drawing from the archives, we can see that there was a mix of genders, but there is a roughly 60:40 split, with women being the focus of the majority. Interesting when you consider that…

Lesson 2: The cards insults drew from people stepping outside of societal norms

Be it physical or lifestyle based, the cards took a shot at it. From being slightly bigger, single at 40 or in a job deemed outside of gender norms.

Lesson 3: Those deemed ‘lower class’ were blamed for the cards.                         Vinegar Valentines were condemned as morally reprehensible, ripping the fabric of mannered society. So of course, it was those in ‘lower social standing’ who were pointed at as the perpetrators, suggesting that this huge group of people may have fought for the right to communicate but had then used that power to create a harder, harsher world to live in.

And just like with trolling today, Vinegar Valentines had fatalities. In London in 1885 it was reported that a husband shot and killed his wife, after receiving a card that he believed could only have been from her. There were also suicides, with deaths happening shortly after the recipient got the card in the post.

So what happened? Why don’t we still have Vinegar Valentines? 

Well… Vinegar Valentines died out. 

By the end of the Victorian era they just were not as popular. That’s not to say they disappeared completely, sticking around right up to the early and mid 20th century:

show off, later Vinegar Valentine
‘You claim you’re good at anything! so come on show some proof. And let me see how good you are at jumping off the roof!!’

There are a couple of reasons for these cards dying out. The social demonization of the cards didn’t help, especially as many people at the time aspired to one day escape the working classes. Later when the First World War hit, people understandably didn’t really love the idea of using their precious letters to loved ones to send hate.

And of course there is the really schmaltzy reason – given the choice, most people would rather send out love than hate.

  • Oh, that and people evolved into finding new and better ways of telling people they hated them.
Yeah sorry to end that on such a downer. Ok. Bye

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? Brighton Unviersity has a great paper on Vinegar Valentines, by Annabella Pollen, which you can download for free here

More great stuff likes this:

The women who transformed modern tattooing

The tradition of tattooing dates back thousands of years all across the globe, from Ötzi the 12,000 year old ice mummy found in the Alps whose skin shows the oldest tattoos on a specimen, to Ancient Egyptians using tattooing to heal various ailments.

Tattooing is steeped in tradition and has an incredibly rich and diverse history. And there is just way too much of it to fit into one article, so today we’re going to focus on the women who transformed the art-form at the start of the 20th century.

1.Maud Wagner – The First Female Tattoo Artist

Maud was born on February 12th 1877, in Lyon County, Kansas. From a dirt poor family, there were little opportunities for her future. So when Maud was a teen, she ran away to join the circus.

By the time Maud met her future husband, Gus Wagner, in 1904, she was a famed contortionist and aerialist. He was a sailor who was covered in tattoos he’d picked up during his travels, and Maud was utterly entranced by his artwork. Gus also had a reputation as quite the tattoo artist.

Gus, Maud and their baby, Lovetta ❤️

Smitten, Gus asked Maud out and of course, she said yes… on the condition he teach her how to tattoo!

Instead of dates, they had lessons. Maud learned a traditional hand poked tattoo method. This is where a single needle is dipped in ink then pushed under the skin by hand over and over to create a pattern. It quickly became her preferred method (in fact, Maud would never use a tattoo machine!)

Maud quickly grew one of hell of a collection of tattoos on herself, thanks to Gus and his lessons, so she became a tattooed lady attraction.

But after Maud and Gus tied the knot, they left the circus to tattoo full time, travelling around around with Vaudeville shows, county fairs, circuses and curiosity exhibits.

Not long after they were married Maud and Gus had a daughter, Sarah, born in 1908. Sadly, just one month after her birth, Sarah died. It crushed Maud, so understandably when the couple had another daughter, Lovetta (born two years later in 1910), Maud was a very overprotective mum.

Maud actually banned Gus from ever tattooing their daughter. And though Lovetta grew up to become a tattoo artist just like her parents, she never had any tattoo’s. When Gus passed away in 1941 Lotteva said she’d never get tattooed, because if it wasn’t her Dad’s then what was the point (and also, because there was still no way in hell that her mum, Maud, would tattoo her baby girl!)

Lotteva holding a famous pic of her Mum, Maud

As time went on, Maud found fame as America’s first known female tattoo artist. This kept her in demand all over the country, and she worked right up until her death in 1983.

Her last tattoo was a traditional rose she tattooed on fellow artist Don Ed Hardy.

The Wagner family helped bring tattooing inland, popularising it not just in the coastal and Naval towns in America.

Maud is still celebrated as the first known female tattooist in the USA and she influenced so many other artists who came after her. Including…

2.Millie Hull -The Mother of Modern Tattoo

Mildred Hull, known to her friends as Millie, was a marvel of the tattoo world. In the 1930’s she was the only woman tattooing as part of the legendary Bowery tattoo group. The group that would become known as the originators of modern tattooing.

Born in 1947, she lived in the rougher (putting it mildly) areas of New York City. A school dropout aged 13, Millie soon joined the circus (you can see a pattern emerging here) and started working as an exotic dancer.

Millie with her tattoo gun

A sideshow spotter told Millie she’d make way more money as a tattooed lady, earning up to $80 a week.

So she met with famed tattooist Charles Wagner and began the very painful process of covering her body in tattoos in just a matter of WEEKS! (if you’ve ever had a sleeve done, then you can imagine the pain of covering your whole body in a few weeks!!)

Millie talked through the process in an interview in the late 30’s and she clearly comments on how she felt forced into getting tattooed so she could make more money, but she also had a wicked sense of humour about it.

“I had a few weak spells as a result of the tattooing, but mainly I suffered anemia of the bankroll”

So, Millie ditched the sideshow, learned the tattoo trade and opened her own tattoo parlour, The Tattoo Emporium, in Bowery at the back of a barber shop (most of the tattoo shops down Bowrey were in tiny spaces at the back of other businesses)

Millie tattooing a customer at her Bowery shop

The fact that Millie had her own business was an unbelievable achievement. At the time, tattooing was totally dominated by men. And with Bowery being a really rough area to live and work in – EVERYTHING was against her.

Millie didn’t care. She held her own and grew The Tattoo Emporium into a successful business.

She sat at the heart of an ongoing tattoo revolution. With the Bowrey tattoo artists creating the traditional bright and bold styles that are still used today.

More than this, Millie gained a kind of mainstream fame. Just to give you a flavour of her success, In 1936 Millie appeared on the cover of Family Circle, a famed women’s home and life magazine that gave tips on interior design and the best recipes for meatloaf. Stars on the cover tended to be wholesome Hollywood stars, and there was Millie front and centre – tattoos on show!

Sadly, Mille had a tragic ending. She suffered with depression throughout her life and in 1947 she committed suicide. Consuming poison while sitting in a restaurant in Bowery. She left behind a huge legacy, firmly cemented as the founding mother of modern tattooing.

3. Jessie Knight

Jessie is a slightly more well documented figure in tattooing. She was famed for being the first documented British female tattoo artist! Born in 1904 in Croydon, London Jessie was part of a large family, with seven other siblings. Her Dad was a Captain in the Navy, a tattoo artist and sharpshooter, while her Mum was a poet and Illustrator.

Jessie tattooing a servicewoman in 1952… Ouch

Jessie was another circus gal! Her whole family was in the game. She worked as a human target and a sharp shooter. In 1933 she appeared on the BBC with her sister and brother in a knife throwing act, one of the first circus acts ever televised! Her career in the big striped tents came to a premature end though when she was shot in the shoulder during a terrible accident.

She then decided to follow in her tattooist father’s footsteps and took up a tattoo gun of her own swapping it out for her rifle. She started tattooing with her Dad in 1921 in Barry, South Wales. By the time Jessie was 18 she already had quite a large client base at her Dad’s tattoo shop and was well liked in her local community in Wales.

Jessie’s style of tattooing was bold and colourful. She worked freehand, meaning she drew her designs straight onto her clients skin, she didn’t use stencils (a method of pre drawing and outlining a tattoo design). This made her even more of a novelty in the tattoo world!

Her tattoos were getting a stellar reputation, and in 1955 Jessie won second place in the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England for her tattoo of a highland fling. This was a monumental achievment for Jessie. Female tattoo artists were totally unheard of, so this award generated huge buzz around Jessie’s work.

Jessie’s Award winning Highland Fling

After this success Jessie went on to open her own tattoo shops, first in harbour town Portsmouth and then later one in Aldershot. Again, her achievements with this are utterly incredible. She had the means and the popularity to own her own business and tattoo her way. Tattooing still wasn’t in the mainstream, so not many artists could do this.

It wasn’t easy though. Other tattoo artists would spread rumours about her being unsanitary, called her a whore and vandalised her shops. She was robbed and had her designs stolen, so much so that at one point she had a bodyguard help her take her shop money to the bank to deposit it.

In another dark chapter Jessie was married when she turned 27, but he was an abusive nightmare, after 8 years things came to a head and Jessie shot and injured her husband with a gun she’d exchanged with a client for one of her tattoos. Her husband had kicked her dog down the stairs… I would have shot him too.

This didn’t stop Jessie, she loved tattooing and in 1968 Jessie moved back to her beloved Barry, Wales (Apparently with her 30 something year old lover!) and though she’d officially retired from tattooing in 1963, she kept on doing what she loved. Most of her clients were now women! Attitudes were changing and shifting. Jessie was at the forefront of that and is remembered fondly by everyone who knew her.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history. J

Death Omens: A magical mystery tour through weird British history

Britain is a very superstitious little island. Every single country and county has different superstitious beliefs passed down from families, sometimes for generations.

My Nan would tell me that seeing a solitary magpie would mean bad luck was coming. There is even a weirdly jolly if somewhat morbid rhyme for it:

“One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold

Seven for a secret,

never to be told.”

So, if I see one lone magpie I have to follow it until I find another one, or I am convinced I’ll have bad luck (seriously, I once spent an hour hunting for a second magpie. The fear is real) In some parts of the UK, instead of following the magpie, you salute it (which tbh  feels like the laziest form of meaningless superstition).

So whats the deal with magpies? Well, the magpie has long been associated with death and bad luck in the UK as far back as the 16th century, with some version of the rhyme being almost as old.

Historically speaking, death was a much more common occurrence before the age of medicine and more understanding around the mechanics of our own biology, so people looked to nature for ways of foreshadowing coming troubles. Which gave birth to many of the superstitions we still have today.

This continued to be backed up through the centuries, particularly when we hit the Victorian era, thanks to the their obsession with the occult. In fact almost everywhere you go in the UK, you’ll find a new or slightly different centuries old death superstition.

So lets embark together on a magical mystery tour of Britain’s fascination (and fear) of death and the symbols that may just herald its arrival…. starting with: 

1. Birds

There’s so many ways death can announce itself but none more so than birds!

the birds gif.gif

Once more, the good old magpie crops up here, with the belief that if a magpie taps on your window that’s a sure sign death is on the way. The bird is trying to warn you.

And much like my Nan, the Victorians were particularly superstitious about magpies, with the belief that seeing one solitary magpie is a very bad omen, gaining a lot of traction in this era.

There’s also the belief that hearing an owl screech three times or landing on your bedpost meant death was going to pay a visit.

And of course, crows have long been known as a deathly omen, linked to witchcraft and satanism since the Medieval age.

In fact both owls and crows are closely associated with death in Celtic folklore often being ambassadors for the gods of death and the underworld.

owl and crow
So if you see this….RUN

And it’s not just live birds that will get you. One old wives tales, which came about during the 16th century’s outbreak of witch trials, warned that if a bird happens to fly into your window/wall and die, then thats a very good indication that you can expect a  fatality within the week.

2. Animals

Ah, man’s best friend. Because of dogs supposedly close connection to humans, it was thought that they could sense trouble coming for their owners. With one belief citing that if a dog continued to howl by your bedroom window at night you could expect to die pretty immanently.

But not all dogs are friendly in folklore though (well, if you count friendly as predicting your death…)

In Wales there’s the legend that if you see Cwn Annwn, a white dog with glowing red eyes the size of a calf, then you’re predicted to die within a matter of days. These dogs are said to belong to Gwyn ap Nud, Lord of the Underworld. You can hear their bark before you see them, and terrifyingly they get quieter the closer they get to you.

Meanwhile, over in Scotland, they aren’t fond of black sheep or any kind of black animal. The colour black has been associated with Satan by them since the 15th century. The birth of a black lamb would foretell misfortune and bereavements, and if two lambs with black faces were born then you’d be said to lose your flock by the end of lambing season.

Black cats are good or bad luck depending on which part of the UK you’re in. Obviously, Scotland believed a black cat crossing your path was a sure sign death was coming to someone in your family. And, black cats were associated with witchcraft, so were seen as a very bad omen.

This kind of superstition is sadly still prevalent today, with black cats actually being the least likely to be adopted from rescue shelters.

salem gif.gif
Which makes no sense, because Salem taught us that black cats are the best

3. Household Items

During the medieval era, it was a tradition that brooms shouldn’t be used during the month of May. Because if you did use a broom, then you were inviting death into your home. Similarly, if your broom fell over of its own accord, then that meant death announced itself to your household. So basically don’t clean.

Umbrellas were also frowned upon. With the Victorians believing that umbrellas being opened inside the house meant a member of the culprit’s family would be murdered! This is an interesting one in that it spread across the western world and to this day, its commonly seen as a sign of bad luck to open a brolly indoors (even if most people don’t know why/how its bad luck)

And if you thought that you could escape death omens when sleeping..think again.

freddy gif.gif
To be fair, sleep hasn’t been safe for a while

4.Dreams and Doubles

Dreams were seen as a precursor and warning of impending bad luck or a bereavement. If, in your dream you saw your doppelgänger, the devil or a solitary crow this meant death was coming for you. They made it personal.

The double as a death omen has been around for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth I was rumoured to have seen her doppelgänger reclining in her bed looking pale and lifeless a few days before her own passing!

In Celtic folklore there’s a legend of a fairy creature known as a ‘Changeling’ who should steal children and replaced them with doubles who became sickly and died within days. This explanation meant parents could hold on to the belief their children were alive with the fairies somewhere.

Dante Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, 1864
Dante Rosetti’s doppelganger masterpiece, How They Met Themselves, 1864

5. Funeral Processions

As you’ve probably noticed, the Victorians feature heavily in the world of folklore and death omens. They had a curiosity around death and the supernatural. With one popular and very much believed death omen was around funeral processions.

If you saw a real life funeral procession going on you should not cross paths in front of it or you risked inviting death into your family.

There was also the belief that if you saw a ghostly funeral procession this foreshadowed the end of your life. So, to keep yourself safe you had to turn and walk away from the procession, disrespect be damned!

There was also the legend of Corpse Candles, flickering lights that seemed to hover. These were seen by folks from their window or out walking. They were said to lead the souls of the dead to their resting place. With corpse candles, heralding an oncoming bereavement. And if you were very unlucky, the corpse candles would come towards your house, foreshadowing a death in the household.

An example of the Corpse Candle.

It’s funny to think of how we dismiss these old omens nowadays. This has come with more of an understanding of how our bodies work and fighting back against many diseases that today we don’t even register but used to kill in great numbers.

There’s still a few that are held onto which have been passed down in families, inexplicably followed almost automatically. We don’t want to give up on these small beliefs and our desire to understand the unknown… and why should we?

This was interesting, where can I find out more? I thoroughly recommend the book A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey, there’s a chapter around folklore in Death & Burial, but the entire thing is a fascinating read.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The History of the Modern Vampire

The myth of life sucking demons has been putting the fright into ordinary folks for fucking ages (or centuries as you might call it)

Through varying incarnations and guises, these iconic undead killers have remained the stuff of nightmares. Pennywises and Freddy Kruegers come and go, but vampires are forever.

What lippie is that babes? Via Giphy

So without further ado, lets take a look at the history of our favourite monster!

The First Vampire: Ekimmu

Arguably the earliest incarnation of vampires is the Ekimmu or Eddimu from ancient Babylonia (we’re talking from like 4,000 years B.C here)

The Ekimmu was a restless spirit of the dead who drained the blood and life-force of the living. They were said to be created from souls who met a violent end or who weren’t buried properly.

It’s dinner tiiiiime! Via giphy

And if you thought that after 1000s of years these suckers has flown off, you’d be mistaken! It’s said that The Ekimmu still live in big cities amongst the homeless spreading death and disease…

The Lady is a Vamp: Estries

Estries are another ancient vampire from Jewish Folklore;  female vampires they feed on the blood of the living and have the ability to shapeshift into animals, usually preferring the form of cats.

It’s basically reverse Sailormoon…but with murder and no dick in a top hat!!

Killing an Estrie meant decapitating and burning the corpse. This form of vampire extermination apparently works…because today decapitation and a good vamp bonfire are also referred to as effective ways to kill our more modern vamps.

Vampires of Eastern Europe 

Now Vampires in one form or another have been around in European folklore for hundreds of years, such as the Shtriga from Albanian folklore.

The Shtriga was a delightful vampire witch that sucked up the blood of babies and infants at night (nice!)

Mmmmmm babies. Via Giphy

Shtriga would then turn themselves into a flying insect (think moth, wasp etc) and fly the feck outta there post meal without even leaving a tip.

Another vamp favourites from this corner of Europe is the Strigoi (which sounds like it should be a delicious pastry).

These vampires hailed from Romanian culture and have fed heavily into our modern vampire mythos; the spirits of the dead they drained the blood from living creatures and had the ability to transform into different animals, not only that but the jammy buggers could also turn invisible.

And for my next trick… Via Giphy

The best way to kill one was to cut the head off a suspected Strigoi corpse and to stab it in the chest with steel (because the Romanians are nothing if not thorough). The vampire slayer would then leave the vamp’s head between the knees or behind the bum. Which just seems rude.

The Best Selling Vampire 

We can thank short story, The Vampyre by John William Polder, for our modern day vampires.

Published in 1819 it tells the story of charming aristocratic vamp Lord Ruthven who is a total shit to his mate Aubrey (probably because he is a 19th century aristocrat). Ruthven kills the girl Aubrey fancies and then goes after his sister. It ends with a blood drained corpse and a missing Ruthven.

Next up came Carmilla in 1872, An amazing short story from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, WHICH BTW GAVE BIRTH TO QUEER LADY VAMPIRES!

Carmilla trying to cop a feel… Via Wikipedia

Carmilla is a super sexy lady vamp who prefers to chomp down on and suck the life out of innocent young ladies. Sadly though Carmilla is a trailblazer and future queer icon… it doesn’t end well for her, she gets a stake through the heart, then they cut her head off and burn her body… finally they chuck the ashes in a river. Overkill much?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, was heavily influenced by The Vampyre and Carmilla.

Phwooooooooooor Drac. Via Giphy

Stoker elevated the modern vampire by taking the already established vampire mythos and building on it in a way that cemented it into the public’s consciousness.

  • Blood lust – check
  • Not keen on garlic – check
  • Hates crosses – check
  • Some kind of toff aristocrat as the main vamp – check
  • Fuck loads of bats – check.

When Dracula was released it wasn’t an immediate hit, in fact it wasn’t until silent nightmare vamp flick Nosferatu was made in 1922 that Dracula became more well-known.

Creepy as fuck mate. Via Giphy

The producers of Nosferatu wanted to do a faithful version of Stoker’s Dracula, but they weren’t allowed. Stoker’s widow was having none of it.

To get round the fact they couldn’t use Drac producers basically changed some names and tweaked the ending from the book having their count vamp die in a sunlight related accident instead of getting staked.

Thanks to this, we now we know vamps hate sunlight! We also have the word ‘Nosferatu’ as a word to describe vamps thanks to this film too! Knowledge is power! 

pub quiz.gif
F Yeah History, helping people win pub quizzes since 2017

Post Dracula

Thanks to Dracula’s cinematic success, everyone wanted a piece of the undead action.

Universal had a punt at making the Dracula legend with Bela Lugosi giving Drac that sassy European accent, Hammer Horror upped the sexy factor in their vamp films thanks to Christopher Lee feeding on big busted wenches and also used Carmilla as an influence for some light lesbian vampire action.

Dead but delicious. Via Giphy

Then you have Buffy, Blade, Anne Rice novels, True Blood and our personal fave the Underworld series (anything that puts Kate Beckinsale in PVC is a winner) plus a million other vamp inspired shows and books that all take lore and influence from Dracula & co.

Our worldwide vampire obsession continues to this day. Everyone loves a new vampire iteration… unless you decide to make them sparkly, creepy and abusive bum nuggets… also BTW no way would anyone in their right mind choose Pattinson over Lautner.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

7 Best Hangover Cures In History

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Hangovers are as old as history itself. As soon as people worked out how to create and drink alcohol (at least 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Neolithic period) they were also working out how to cope with the morning after.

From Ancient Egypt and Greece, to the Middle Ages, and even the courts of Kings and Queens, every era has its own hair of the dog, and all of them are infinitely more interesting than the Iron Bru and bacon sandwich that your mate swears by.

1.A Human Skull

Starting strong- our first hangover cure comes from my favourite lover of drunken debauchery, King Charles ll; and it’s a doozy.It isn’t exactly surprising that Charles needed a solid hangover cure (this is the man that drunkenly yelled ‘encouragement’ at the foot of his little brother, James l, bed, whilst the aforementioned was losing his virginity) but the method that Charles used to help abate his headache and woozy stomach was a little, er, un-orthodox.


Respected 17th Century physician, Dr Jonathan Goddard suggested ‘Goddard Drops’ for the King, which was an elixir consisting of dried viper, ammonia, and the skull of a recently hanged person. Dr Goddard sounds like a delight.

We don’t know how effective Charles found Goddard Drops, I’m going to suggest it probably wasn’t that good- though the ammonia may have helped him to throw up. So if that’s your thing…


The good people of The Middle Ages were partial to a drink. This was in no small part due to the water being so unclean that it was a much safer option to drink alcohol instead.

Brewing beer had long been popular, but it becomes almost an art form during this period, it’s like craft brewing now, but with less irony. Soldiers returning from the Crusades bought back new knowledge of spices, herbs and mass murder- two of which really helped in creating a new beer boom.


So what did these new beer aficionados’ do to beat the morning after the night before? They ate eels. Now this actually sort of makes sense, eels are jam packed full of good stuff, including protein, calcium, and tons of vitamins!

Unfortunately, that wasn’t why they were eaten. Doctors (a term I loosely use…) of the period believed that once consumed, the eels would become alive when in the stomach, and drink up all the alcohol left inside- a really nice visual image there

3. Soot

‘Mother’s Ruin’(Gin) had started to wain in popularity in Victorian England; as the temperance movement promoted controlled drinking – but you can’t keep a good binge drinker down, and the cocktail soon arrived on British soil which Charles Dickins gleefully wrote about in his American Notes for General Circulation. 


To combat a night of too many Gin-Slings and Timber Doodles (actual Victorian cocktail) people would warm up some milk and then mix in a spoonful of soot; this would be consumed to help with any shakiness and sickness. Though not recommended by me (or anyone) – the charcoal present in soot does actually help to balance acid and alkaline in the stomach, so it might have helped.


It also seems like a much nicer option than another Victorian hangover remedy suggested in The Medical Advisor, which involves pouring vinegar down a person’s throat, and then rubbing it into their temples, which seems less like a hangover remedy and more a really dicky form of water torture.

4. Owls Eggs

The Romans have a reputation for being big drinkers, but for much of the period, that really wasn’t the case. Wine tended to be diluted with water, 1 part wine, 4 parts water, and alcohol was only really consumed during meals. However, feasting could sometimes go on and on, and on and on, and…on; a lot of over indulging on wine and food inevitably leads to a very nasty hangover (think post Christmas…)


Pliny the Elder (above), had just the solution, 2 owls eggs, raw of course. The Great Great Great Grandfather of downing a glass of raw eggs. This would actually help replenish amino acids, so if you can get your hands on owls eggs, then this would actually be pretty useful- good work Pliny!

5. Fried Canary

I spoke to soon. Pliny The Elder wasn’t done. Along with being an esteemed Roman author, naturalist, philosopher and Army commander, Pliny knew that his true calling was developing hangover cures, and that’s how he came up with possibly the greatest idea of his life, defeating a hangover by eating a fried canary.


Pliny was pretty exact on what you needed to do to an unfortunate canary to truly get it’s full benefits and flavour. First one must behead the bird, before fully de-feathering it, then fry it, and add salt to taste before serving.

There aren’t really any benefits to this, its basically a really grim fry up, but it would make a good talking point- should you want to traumatise someone by kidnapping, beheading and then eating their pet. I know what Pliny would do.


Until 1906 Coca Cola contained a pretty hefty dose of cocaine, which made it a very popular hangover cure, because well, that’s going to perk you right up. The cocaine came from coca leaf, which was also prominent in several other products, including Halls Coca Wine, which was was marketed as a ‘great restorative’ (Halls wine is now banned and non-existent, because you know, cocaine…)


Once cocaine became the sort of thing you weren’t allowed to put into your ‘restorative’ products, something else needed to be done to sell them as hangover friendly. Adolphe Jeantet, The Ritz Carlton’s Head Banquet Man (actual job title), had just the thing, and in 1938 his hangover cure took New York City by storm, a chilled bottle of Coca Cola, shaken, and then mixed into a glass of ice cold milk. Delicious? Jeantet’s press agent at the time described the effects of the drink; you drink it ‘take a little nap, and after that you feel wonderful’ –that actually sounds really nice.

7. Crying

Now chances are, depending on the severity of the hangover, you already want to do this, so just let it all out. Kingsley Amis (great name), author of On Drink, suggests that crying is the best hangover cure. Now this particular tip isn’t incredibly historical, On Drink was written in 1972, but I do think it is pretty brilliant.


Kingsley argues that to tackle the physical hangover symptoms, one needs to tackle the emotional symptoms (can you tell this book was written in the 70’s?), he calls this ‘The Metaphysical Hangover’ (yup definitely written in the 1970’s), and the only way to defeat it is by embracing all your feelings, and just having a good cry.

So thats the best that history has to offer your hangover- I hope that it helps, but if not:

I say we listen to Snape

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