Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.

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Kindred Spirit

07 10 robert chambersToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Chambers who was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders in 1802. He and his brother William founded W & R Chambers Publishing, who eventually produced Chambers Dictionary. That’s my favourite dictionary, but that’s not why I wanted to tell you about him. I discovered Robert a year ago when I was writing on Tumblr and he has been with me almost every day since. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Both Robert and his brother were born with six fingers and six toes. Both had undergone surgery to remove the extra digits but one of Robert’s operations had left him lame. So he was not an active child, but became instead a great devourer of knowledge. When he found a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in his father’s attic, it kept him entertained for years. His brother later said of him: “the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments.” I have learned so many interesting things whilst researching this blog that I’m inclined to agree.

The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813 and when Robert was sixteen he began to run a second hand book stall on Leith Walk. When his brother William bought a printing press, they began to publish magazines together, with Robert providing the content. In 1832 they began to produce a weekly magazine called ‘The Edinburgh Journal’. It cost one penny and included articles about history, religion, language, and science.

In 1844 he produced a book called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’. It began by explaining the formation of the solar system, continued with the geology of the earth and followed the pattern of increasingly complex lifeforms right the way up to humans. He talked about how one species of creature may have arisen from another. He would have referred to it as the transmutation of species, we would now call it evolution. This was all very controversial and ungodly at the time and Robert went to great lengths to conceal his authorship. He dictated it to his wife, so the manuscript would be in her handwriting and then sent it to a different publisher. It brings together a lot of ideas that were around at the time regarding how our world came to be as it is. Some of the experiments he cites are questionable, such as one which suggests insects can be made to arise spontaneously from electricity. But his examination of fossil records, which points out that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older rocks, is good.

Vestiges quickly became a bestseller. The first edition sold out in only a few days. Over ten years, it sold over 20,000 copies. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln was also impressed by it. Others were not so keen. Such a theory rather cut God out of the equation, which was a pretty shocking claim. Roberts book received a lot of scathing reviews. At least one of his critics thought it was such awful nonsense that it must have been written by a woman. Some of the theories in the book were similar to those being pursued by Charles Darwin. Darwin found some of his explanations a little clunky. He didn’t feel that the, then anonymous, author of Vestiges had really described the environments that caused animals such as a woodpecker to develop in the way it had. But for many years, Vestiges was the only book available in English the explained the theory of evolution. Its reception by its critics may also have been what put Darwin off publishing his ‘Origin of Species’, which appeared fifteen years later. Robert’s authorship of Vestiges was not revealed until 1884, thirteen years after his death.

07 10 chambers book of days Robert Chambers’ last work was ‘Chambers Book of Days’ published in 1864. It was subtitled: ‘A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’. It’s a massive work that runs to two volumes each with more than 840 pages. It contains, for each day of the year, a list of the births and deaths of notable people and a list of the saints associated with that day. Then underneath are a number of short essays about the some of the people, or the events that happened on that date. When I discovered Robert, I was happy to have found a kindred spirit. His undertaking was much larger than my meagre effort. He wrote around two thousand essays for his ‘Book of Days’ and he didn’t even have the internet to help him. It seems his family all thought the huge amount of work he put into his book contributed to his early death in 1871. Despite this warning from history, I have pressed on with my project and now have only twelve days to go.

Robert has helped me out of many a hole in this last year. When Wikipedia failed me, I turned to him. Sometimes, I’ve felt he was up against the same problems as me when seeking something interesting to say about a particular date. But he has also introduced me to some wonderful characters. Without him, I would not know so much about mountebanks, eighteenth century bets and weird burials. You can find Chambers Book of Days, in a searchable format here. If you want to know what he has to say about today, I recommend you scroll to the bottom and read ‘Child Suckled by Goat.’

Water of Life

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday, I get to mention James IV of Scotland again, which is lovely because he’s one of my favourite kings. Amongst his revenues and expenses is a small entry for June 1st 1495. It is written in Latin, but translates as:

“To brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bols of malt.”

This might not sound very significant, but it is cited as the first ever historical mention of Scotch Whisky. ‘Aqua vitae’ is a Latin translation of the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ and both mean water of life. It is easy to see how the word ‘uisge’ has become ‘whisky’.

There is relatively little to know about Friar John. He was a monk at a monastery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. We know that in 1488 the king had given him fourteen shillings on Christmas day and that at Christmas in 1495, he was given black cloth to make livery clothes as he was a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary.

06 01When I tried to find out how much a boll weighed, the answer seemed rather vague. A boll was a dry weight measure. You could measure in chalders, bolls, firlots, pecks and lippies. How much it was depended on what you were measuring, but most reckon a boll of malt was around 140 lbs. So that’s quite a lot. The amount of whisky today’s distillers could make from eight bolls of malt is anything up to 1500 bottles. So we can conclude firstly that, to use such a large quantity, the monks knew what they were about and had already been making it for quite some time. Secondly, we can conclude that James IV really needed a lot of it.

Of course he probably didn’t drink it all himself. It could have been used to disinfect wounds. James had an interesting sideline as an amateur dentist, so perhaps he gave his patients a swig before he pulled out their teeth for them. It may even have been used as embalming fluid. But another thing we know about James IV was that he was very keen on alchemy. Alchemists were extremely fond of distilling. In their quest to get at the essence of things, they distilled pretty much everything they could get their hands on. Aside from turning lead into gold, one of the their most important goals was the secret of prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely. Distilled alcohol was great for preserving herbs, fruit and meat, so maybe it could do the same thing for the living tissue of the human body. It was a magical fluid. A cold substance that made you warm. It seemed to combine the two elements of fire and water and it definitely had a seemingly magical effect on both the body and the mind.

We don’t know what happened to Friar John, but in 1505 King James granted the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh a monopoly on the production of Whisky. As a drink for humans it was thought to be medicinal and useful against all sorts of things from colic to smallpox.

Incidentally, the first mention of whiskey in Ireland is earlier, in 1405. It involves a chieftain named Richard Magrannell who died one Christmas after he drank too much of it. So clearly, the water of life wasn’t for everyone. Aqua Vitae turns up in some alchemical recipes as one of the main ingredients for making a ‘quintessence’, the fifth element that would cure all ills and make us immortal. And we definitely know that King James and his unusual friend John Damien were working on that between 1501 and 1508. The other key addition seems to have been horse dung, so I think maybe I won’t bother.

The Madness of Crowds

03 27 charles mackayToday is the birthday of Charles Mackay who was born in 1814 in Perth, Scotland. He was a poet, journalist, novelist and songwriter, but what I really want to tell you about today is the book that he published in 1841. It is called: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, which is an excellent title. It is about the odd things that people suddenly become obsessed with in their thousands. From get rich quick schemes to miracle cures. From the hunting down of witches to the admiration of audacious criminals. Even the peculiar little sayings that come from nowhere and are suddenly on everyone’s lips.

I was also pretty excited to find out about Charles because, in his massive two volume work, he has covered so many of the topics that I have come across, and found fascinating, whilst writing this blog. He has a great deal to say about alchemy and the people who practised it. People, he says, are generally troubled by three things: their mortality, a lack of wealth and worrying what the future holds. Alchemists have at least two of these covered with their Elixir of Life and their Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold. They believed that in Antediluvian times (before the Flood) people possessed the knowledge to extend their lives for hundreds of years. They also believed that all metals were made from metallic earth and a red inflammable material they called sulphur. Gold, they thought was made from just these two things, but other metals contained impurities. Find out how to remove the impurities, and you have gold.

There are some great potted biographies of alchemists, including Edward Kelley, who I mentioned elsewhere and a man called Artephius. He was born some time in the twelfth century but managed to convince everyone that he was over a thousand years old. He claimed to possess the Philosopher’s Stone. In his search for it, he had descended into hell 03 27 albertus magnusand seen the Devil sitting on a golden throne. Then there was Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Both were later made saints and both were keen alchemists. They didn’t succeed in finding either the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, but they did manage to bring to life a bronze statue which they also gave the gift of speech. Apparently it used to act as their servant. Unfortunately it wouldn’t shut up and Thomas wound up smashing it to bits with a massive hammer. So, there you are. Be careful what you wish for.

In his section on predictions, he mentions the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, who I wrote about last week. There is also a section on cures which speaks at length about the Weapon Salve which I came across whilst writing about Jan Baptist van Helmont back in December. It was a rather peculiar belief that wounds could be cured at a distance by applying an ointment to the weapon that caused it. After that, people started to believe they could cure a wound by magnetising the weapon. This led to another strange idea, that people would be able to communicate with each other over vast distances in the following way: Cut a piece of skin from the arm of each person and ‘mutually transplant them while still warm and bleeding’. When the patch of skin grew into its new arm, it would still remember the body it came from. It would sense if any harm was done to that body. Therefore, if you tattooed, on each piece of skin, the letters of the alphabet, you could use a magnetised needle to prick out your message. Even if its original body was thousands of miles away, it’s new owner would be able to sense the pricks and read out the message on his own tattoo.

Actually, Charles Mackay has a lot to say about magnetic cures. It has a long history and hasn’t really gone away, even today. He has a great deal say about Mesmer, who I will, no doubt, get round to mentioning in May. There is also a lovely story about an American called Benjamin Perkins who, in 1798, brought to England a magnetic cure that he claimed would relieve gout and rheumatism. It consisted of two heavily magnetised metal plates which he moved over the afflicted area. He called them ‘metal tractors’. His patients experienced much relief and Perkins became a wealthy man. But then a physician at Bath, a Dr Haygarth, began to wonder about the cure. He tried the same thing with blocks of wood, painted to look like metal. He found the results were the same. This led him to write a book which also has a wonderful title, it is called: ‘Of the Imagination, of the Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.’

Charles Mackay seems to be largely remembered now for his analysis of financial disasters, economic bubbles and the way that humans, no matter how intelligent they are, fail to see the inevitable consequence of investing in something that has no intrinsic value. He mentions tulipomania, which I have also covered elsewhere. Really, you just have to look at the dot com boom, property investment and the selling of debts that will never be repaid to see that we have learned nothing, and probably never will.

But there is a lot more to Charles than that. There’s a whole other volume that I haven’t touched on which talks about the religious fervour and hope of economic and political gain that fuelled the Crusades. He also talks about the obsession people once had with witches. 03 27 matthew hopkinsWitch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, liked to tie his victim, generally an old lady, to a chair and then wait. If any insects came and settled on her, he declared them her familiars. One poor lady was declared a witch after being visited by four flies called Ilemezar, Peck-in-the-Crown, Grizel-Greedigut and Pye-Wacket. I can’t help thinking this says more about Matthew Hopkins than it does about his poor victim. Matthew himself died as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Someone got a bit fed up of it all and declared that he had got his list of witches from the Devil.

There is also a chapter about the way people have come to love daring criminals like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Perhaps, he says, it is because people love an adventurer. Or perhaps it is that they love a story where the undeservedly rich are cheated of their wealth. Clearly I have fallen victim to this particular madness myself, as my post about Jack Sheppard is probably the longest I’ve ever written. If you want to know more about what he has to say about ghosts, about fortune tellers, about holy relics, seek out his work at internet archive. It’s a little ponderous but quite readable.

I’ll finish up for today by telling you about a couple of popular phrases that have captured peoples imaginations and then disappeared into obscurity. He calls them ‘the harmless follies and whimsies of the poor’. In London, there was once a time when you could answer any question or finish any argument with the simple word ‘Quoz’, and everyone thought it was hilarious. Why did this happen? ‘Quoz’. Why did I suddenly decide to start writing a huge essay every day on a subject I previously knew nothing about? ‘Quoz’. See? It still works. This was replaced by: ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ Anyone wearing a hat that was just a little bit worn would face a chorus of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ as they passed by. It became easier to buy a new hat, even if you couldn’t really afford one. If you appeared annoyed by the taunt, people would remove your hat, drop it in the mud, lift it out with a stick and pronounce again ‘What a shocking bad hat!’. Probably my favourite though, was addressed to adolescent boys who hang around on street corners imagining themselves all grown up and alpha-male. It is: ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ It made them absolutely furious and also rather humiliated.

Bury Me

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday is the birthday of King James IV of Scotland. I like James IV, he dabbled in surgery and employed a flying alchemist who he made Bishop of Tongland. He was also killed in battle and, like Richard III, his body was subsequently lost. Unlike Richard, it will probably never be found.

James was born, possibly at Stirling Castle, in 1473. His father, James III, wasn’t a great king and people didn’t like him very much. There were two rebellions during his reign. He was killed in battle during the last one in 1488. James, who was then just fifteen, had been set up as leader of the second rebellion. He was afterwards crowned King. When he realised the part he had unwittingly played in his father’s death, he chose to wear an iron chain around his waist, as an act of penance during Lent, for the rest of his life. Every year he had the chain made a few ounces heavier.

James, was a Renaissance Man. He was a keen patron of both science and the arts. His interest in medicine seems particularly unusual for a king. We know he tried his hand at blood letting and knew how to treat and dress ulcers. He was also interested in dentistry. There are least two occasions when he actually pulled teeth for his subjects. He took out two teeth for one of his own barber-surgeons. Records show that the King paid the man fourteen shillings for the privilege: “To Kynnard the barbour for twa teith drawn furth of his hed by the king, 14s”. His enthusiasm was such that he granted the Incorporation of the Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh which would later become the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.

03 17 holyrood palaceJames had Great Halls built his castles in Stirling and Edinburgh and filled his palaces with tapestries. In 1503, he married Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VII of England and built for her, a new palace at Holyrood. He employed poets, one of whom was the first to translate Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ anywhere in northern Europe. James spoke many languages. As well as Latin, French, Flemish, German, Spanish and Italian he also spoke Scottish Gaelic and is the last Scottish King known to have done so. When he heard of a pair of conjoined twins who were born in the Scottish Borders, he had them brought to his court, where they were raised and educated. They also learned to speak many languages and were particularly good at music. They played instruments and sang songs in two parts, treble and tenor.

King James also had some, by modern standards, other peculiar interests which reflect his general curiosity. In 1493 he conducted a language experiment. He wanted to know what was the natural language of mankind. He sent two children to be raised by a mute woman on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth. He imagined that if they heard no other language, the words they would use when they became old enough to speak would be the original language. The language of God. We don’t really know what happened, but common sense suggests they did not speak at all. Some insisted though, that the children spoke perfect Hebrew. Probably those people did not know what Hebrew sounded like.

03 17 an alchemists laboratoryFrom about 1501, James employed an alchemist called John Damian who had come from France but was possibly originally from Italy. He had alchemical laboratories at Stirling Castle and at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Damian was hoping to produce quinta essentia, the fifth element, from which he could make the Elixir of Life. James was pretty excited about it, but not everyone was. One of the poets at court, William Dunbar, didn’t like him at all. He referred to him as ‘the French Leech’. I’m not sure if this was because he was some kind of doctor or because his projects drained so much of the King’s money.

03 17 stirling castleIn 1507, John Damian came up with a new project. He would build himself some wings and fly. On September 27th he strapped on his wings and launched himself from the top of Stirling Castle, hoping to fly to France. He didn’t of course. He plummeted straight to the ground and landed in a dung heap. Surprisingly, he lived. Although he did break his thigh bone. Damian blamed his lack of success on the feathers he had been sent. He had asked for eagle feathers, but some of them had been the feathers of a hen. Whilst he would have been able to soar with eagle feathers, the hen feathers were naturally attracted to the ground and had propelled him straight to the dung heap.

The poet, William Dunbar must have been delighted by the incident because he wrote a rude poem about it called ‘The Fenyeit Freir of Tungland’ (The False Friar of Tongland). It has the flying alchemist attacked by birds and buried up to his eyes in filth. I don’t know how true this story is, because the people who wrote about it didn’t like him very much, but there is a seventeenth century carpenter’s bill from Stirling Castle which refers to the place where ‘the Devil flew out.’ If John Damian really did put on wings and jump from the top of the castle, it may be the first recorded attempt at human powered flight. James was not put off by his alchemist’s lack of success, he was still employed at the court when the King died in 1513.

James was killed in a battle against the English at Flodden. England was, at the time, at war with France and James was in a difficult position as he was an ally of both sides. He was excommunicated for his decision. His body was taken to England and given to King Henry VIII. As he had been excommunicated by the Pope, there was no question of burying him in consecrated ground. So he was left embalmed but uninterred in a shed at Sheen Priory at Richmond upon Thames. Even when the King did receive permission from the Pope to bury his enemy, somehow he didn’t bother. The body was lost when the Priory was dissolved in 1539. It seems, in the intervening time, his head may have become detatched and then used as a football. It may then have been stolen by Queen Elizabeth I’s master glazier and eventually thrown away in a charnel pit at a church in Cripplegate in the City of London.

Alternatively, it may not have been James’ body that was taken from the battlefield in the first place. There are many legendary resting places of James IV. Some claimed that the king had taken off his distinctive surcoat before the battle, so that he could fight with his army as an equal. They also said that the body that was taken to London had no iron chain about the waist. In the eighteenth century a well was being cleared at Hume Castle in Berwickshire. They found a body in it that did have a chain around the waist. Unfortunately they lost that too. The same story is told of Roxburgh Castle in the Borders, about a body found in the seventeenth century. In 1570, a convicted criminal offered to show the Duke of Albany where the King was really buried, but he declined.

Risk Assessment Fail

11 04 james young simpsonToday I want to tell you a bit about Dr James Young Simpson who on this day in 1847, along with a couple of friends, discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. He was searching for an alternative to ether, which had some unpleasant side-effects. Although ultimately chloroform proved to be more dangerous than ether, for a while it was quite revolutionary and he was the first doctor to be knighted for services to medicine. The way he went about seeking a new chemical anaesthetic seems utterly reckless and involved a great deal of personal risk. The history of science is peppered with people who have experimented on themselves in ways that seem insane now.

Dr. Simpson’s practice was in Edinburgh and he had a particular interest in obstetrics. He was also quite fond of archaeology and studying hermaphroditism, but let’s not get sidetracked. Surgery was a terrible thing in the early nineteenth century. Simpson had been greatly upset when he witnessed a woman having a breast removed without the aid of anaesthesia and he dedicated himself to trying to find a solution. Early experiments with mesmerism produced some success but he eventually abandoned the idea. Then he heard about ether.

The anaesthetic properties of ether had first been demonstrated in October 1846 and Simpson was the first to use it to aid childbirth in January 1847. However he found it wanting in some respects. It caused nausea, headaches and was also quite flammable. Not great if you rely on gas lighting. He began to devote his evenings to trying to find something better. He did this by testing every chemical he could get hold of on himself. Either alone or with his assistants, Dr Keith and Dr Duncan, Simpson inhaled substance after substance, much to the alarm of his household, noting their effects. He asked chemists to let him try anything odd that they might have lying around. He had a lucky escape when he visited his friend Lyon Playfair. Playfair had something new and Simpson begged to try it immediately, but Playfair insisted they tested it on two rabbits first. It seemed to work fine, but when Simpson returned the following day to try it for himself, they discovered that both the rabbits had died.

On the evening of November 4th, Drs Simpson, Keith and Duncan had already tried several substances with no result. Then they unearthed from under a heap of waste paper, a small bottle that they had previously dismissed as unlikely. It was chloroform. What happened next is beautifully described by Simpson’s friend and neighbour Professor Miller, so we’ll let him do it:

 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

photo credit: Wellcome Library

“…with each tumbler newly charged, the inhalers resumed their vocation. Immediately an unwonted hilarity seized the party – they became brighteyed, very happy, and very loquacious – expatiating on the delicious aroma of the new fluid. The conversation was of unusual intelligence, and quite charmed the listeners… But suddenly, there was talk of sounds being heard like those of a cotton mill louder and louder; a moment more and then all was quiet – and then crash!”

All three of them collapsed. When Simpson came to, his first thought was that this was something far better than ether. His second thought was: I seem to be lying on the floor. He looked about for his friends. Dr Duncan was underneath a chair, eyes wide open but snoring loudly. Dr Keith seemed to be trying to kick over the supper table. They were so excited about their discovery that they tried it all over again, and many times until the chloroform was quite used up. Simpson’s niece, who was dining with them that night, was persuaded to try it too. She fell asleep crying “I’m an angel! Oh I’m an angel!”

Almost immediately he began to try it on his patients. He was very happy with the results and proud to think of the amount of pain that he had alleviated. By November 15th , he had used chloroform on about fifty of his patients. Not everyone thought it was a good idea though. He faced a good deal of opposition because many thought that it was wrong and against nature to provide pain relief in childbirth. They thought that the pain was a punishment for original sin. They quoted the bible at him: “…in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” He reminded them of another biblical quote about how God created Eve: “…and the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.” He also said that if people were so against what was unnatural, they probably shouldn’t wear shoes or ride about on horses. When an Irish lady voiced her feelings: “How unnatural for you doctors in Edinburgh to take away the pain of your patients.” He replied “How unnatural it is for you to have swam over from Ireland to Scotland against wind and tide in a steamboat.”

As you see, Simpson stood his ground and eventually won people over. Especially after Queen Victoria used it during childbirth. If he hadn’t been blessed with a pioneering spirit and a certain amount of reckless abandon, he would not have achieved as much as he did. There was one occasion when the bottle of precious chloroform was spilled part way through an operation. As it was often necessary to give more than one dose during the procedure, no one was quite sure how they could continue. Simpson got down on his hands and knees, cut a square out of the carpet where the anaesthetic was spilled and clapped it over the patients face to keep him unconscious. Now that’s thinking on your feet.

Having said all this, if anyone offers you chloroform, just say no. It’s really dangerous. But if you’re offered pain relief during childbirth, take it. It really hurts.

Getting Away With Murder

Today’s post is about an unusual court case, and it starts with a murder that happened on this day in 1749 in Braemar, a remote area of Aberdeenshire. The victim was an English sergeant called Arthur Davis. This happened less than ten years after the Jacobite uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson to the deposed king, James II, had tried and failed to regain the throne from the Hanoverians for the Scottish royal house of Stuart. So it was understandable that a single English soldier, lost and separated from his regiment, might meet with some animosity from the highlanders.

No one knew what had become of Davis for almost five years, but in 1754, two men; Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain MacDonald were put on trial for his murder. It was known that Davis had on his person a fowling piece (a shotgun) and some rings which the two men were known to have among their possessions. It seemed that robbery was a likely motive for the murder.

But then the court heard evidence from Alexander MacPherson, a young farm labourer. MacPherson spoke no other language but Gaelic and needed an interpreter. His account of the murder had come from an unusual source, the ghost of the murdered man. He had been in bed in his cottage, when a figure appeared and asked MacPherson to follow him out of doors. Thinking it was his neighbour, a man named Farquharson, he did as he was asked. But once outside, the apparition explained that he was the ghost of Arthur Davis and asked him to go and find his mortal remains and bury them. He would find them, the ghost said, hidden in a place called the Hill of Christie, and he must take his friend Farquharson to help him.

The next day he had gone to investigate and found the bones of a human body with much of the flesh decayed, but he did not bury it. A few days later the ghost came to trouble him again. He was angry with MacPherson for breaking his promise. The witness asked the ghost who had killed him and he replied with the names of the prisoners at the bar. After that he had asked his friend to help him bury the body. When Farquharson was called to give evidence, he told the same story.

MacPherson’s story of the ghost was further corroborated by a woman called Isabel Machardie whose bed was in the same room. She had woken to see a naked figure come into the room. It had been stooped over and moved in such a frightening way that she had pulled the covers over her head. Unfortunately, even though there was other evidence against the accused, the appearance of a ghost in the testimonies cast an air of doubt over the proceedings. The defence questioned MacPherson on which language the ghost had used to communicate his information. He replied that he had spoken in perfect Gaelic. The council for the defence then pointed out that that was pretty good considering he was the ghost of an English sergeant. The jury found in favour of the defendants and they were set free.

It is possible that MacPherson was using the excuse of a ghost to impart information without seeming to personally incriminate his fellow countrymen. But that does not explain the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie, or the fact that the events referred to had happened three years before two men were formally accused in court.