‘People in the 19th century made many things from human skin.’
If you are unhappy with the standard of medical care at present, it’s still a million miles away from the dark days of the Victorian era. While the most significant breakthroughs in medicine have come from experimentation, it was more often than not, a torturous and unsuccessful affair in the 19th century.
A prime example was ‘trepanning,’ the procedure of boring holes in a person’s skull. Still used today, trepanning is performed specifically for brain swelling and skull fractures. It also involves a hi-tech apparatus. In the 19th century, they prescribed trepanning for general health reasons and the drills, and the doctors weren’t always perfect. It is also important to realise that few surgical tools were clean, antibiotics didn’t exist, and painkillers were few and far between, and nowhere near as good as today’s versions.
In the 19th century, it didn’t matter how crazy your idea was, if you could convince people it was a viable treatment or cure, you could do whatever you wanted. The practice of bloodletting was extensively used in the 19th century. Doctors thought the body comprised of blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm and presumed an abundance of one caused illnesses. The notion was eliminating blood from the body would result in a cure. Though physicians often recommended the bloodletting, it was carried out by barbers. The red-and-white-striped pole of the barbershop, still in use today, is derived from this practice: the red shows blood while the white shows the bandages. They used bloodletting to ‘treat’ a wide range of diseases, becoming a standard treatment for almost every ailment. To cap things off, they performed surgery without the aid of aesthetic or antibiotics. One option was to use chloroform, but doctors seldom bothered. Morphine was available towards the end of the century, but they rarely used it.
What you may not be aware of is the fact that people in the 19th century made all sorts of things from the skin of humans. No one was murdered, but if people died and stayed unidentified, their skin could be used. One of the most common objects to be covered in human skin were books. There is a book in the Bristol Record Office made from the skin of a man who was hung in the local jail. The tale becomes more macabre when you analyse the case. The book contains the details of the crime committed by 18-year-old John Horwood, convicted of the murder of Eliza Balsum in 1821. Horwood stalked Eliza after becoming infatuated with her, and he then beat her to death with a rock. Surgeon Richard Smith dissected Horwood’s body and used his skin to cover his collection of notes on the case.
Waste management was a constant problem in London during the 19th century. Cities became overcrowded, and the powers that be had no idea what to do about the waste. In cities like London, gutters were filled with litter, and streets were covered in animal and human excrement. Human waste was also thrown directly into the sewers and ended up in nearby rivers. While they brought in legislation to combat the problem, they left the poor exposed to many diseases.
In the 1880s, an extreme amount of horse manure was clogging up the streets. There were anywhere up to 200,000 horses living in the city, and each one was capable of producing an average of 22 pounds of waste a day.
London also had a problem with animal carcasses. Sometimes, these large carcasses were left to rot until they disintegrated.
One of the major reasons for the low life expectancy in the 19th century was the number of child deaths. For a male in 1850, life expectancy was just over 38 at birth, but if he reached the age of 20, he could live to his fifties or sixties.
The waste problem resulted in a massive increase in cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis. The epidemics were especially lethal for children. In England, the infant mortality rate was 150 deaths per 1,000 births in 1890. The ensuing fatalist attitude of working-class families meant they had large families to ensure that some kids would survive. This only added to the problem of overpopulation. Still, the epidemics persisted. About 50,000 people died from smallpox in Britain and Ireland in 1870. Typhoid fever remained an enormous problem in London till the end of the 19th century.
Many of us have worked for an unpleasant manager in a crappy job. Yet even this combination is nothing compared to what the average 19th-century worker had to contend with. No matter how much you hate your job, it’s likely the risk of mutilation or death is relatively low. Alas, this was not the case back then, especially as industrial Britain grew.
Working conditions in factories were horrendous. Mass production involved the use of semi-skilled labour using enormous, poorly maintained machines. Companies could get away with it because of a lack of regulation. If a company could prove any kind of employee negligence in an accident, they got away with it.
Although the growth of factories meant more employment available, demand always outstripped supply by a large margin. As a result, there were long lines of men, women, and children desperate for work. Unscrupulous employers realised they had hit a goldmine. They could hire as many people as they liked, force them to work extremely long hours, and pay them a pittance. It was common for women to receive half a man’s pay and children earned even less. Some children worked such long hours in dusty, dark conditions that they developed physical deformity.
The typical diet of a working-class person also makes for grim reading. Breakfast consisted of plain bread with tea if they could afford it. Lunch might be a small piece of bread with some vegetables and ale occasionally. Dinner typically consisted of a thin vegetable broth, perhaps with a tiny portion of meat. Overall, the standard diet was cheap carbohydrates and little protein. Those who had no employment struggled to stay alive, and it was normal to go days without eating.
The crime of infanticide was rampant in the 19th century, although few people were ever caught and tried. For example, in London’s Old Bailey, there were only 203 trials where the defendant was accused of infanticide. Most of these unfortunate victims were ‘bastard’ children born out of wedlock and abandoned by the father. The desperate mother would then drown the child in a river, cut its throat, or beat it to death.
As keen as these people were to get rid of their unwanted babies, they took a risk because infanticide was punishable by death. They executed 19 women between 1800 and 1834; the last was Mary Smith. The Infanticide Act of 1922 removed the deed from the list of capital crimes.
Crime was rampant in London during the 19th century. The enormous population growth meant more criminals and more opportunities to commit a crime. Many new criminals were uneducated and unskilled people who moved from rural areas, although poor immigrants also stole to make ends meet. If you didn’t have a job, your primary income source had to be through crime; otherwise, you would starve.
The standard of justice wasn’t much better. The lack of sophisticated policing and investigation methods meant that not only did criminals escape, but innocent people were also often punished. Overall, we have a lot to be grateful for in the 21st century because life in the 19th century for many people sucked.
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