The Vile and Villainous Victorians
The Victorians gave us quite a lot when it came to innovations and scientific advances. They lived at an interesting time in history, where science was taking precedence over tradition in terms of the way that people lived, and every year, it must have seemed to them as if there was one more fascinating device to change the way that they did things. The truth of the matter is that in some ways, the world was changing a little fast for them.
Victorian sensibilities were often at war with each other, and some of the things that they needed to deal with resulted in traditions that we would find downright bizarre. Check out these creepy Victorian traditions and think about how it might have felt to be in the middle of them!
Mourning photography was one way to make sure that people who passed on could stay with you forever. In those days, bodies were cared for at private homes and local funeral parlors, and photography was all the rage. Because of this, people would pose with the corpses of their loved ones, and though it was bad enough when the person was obviously dead, it got a little more eerie when they tried to make them look as if they were alive. Photographers carried along props and stands to make sure that the dead could even stand up if they needed to.
If having a picture of your loved one taken post-mortem isn’t quite good enough for you, think about having a little bit of them to keep with you forever! The Victorians certainly weren’t the first to keep mementos from the dead, but they raised it to a high art form, using braided hair to form intricate designs that could be worn.
The Victorians were all about the practice of medicine. They proudly stated that they had the most impressive medical knowledge in the entire world, and though this was far from true, their techniques are what we base our modern medicine on more than a century later. However, Victorian surgery was more of a nightmare than a lifesaver. After all, this was a time when anesthetic was only variously used, as this writing from the period clearly shows:
Liston clamps his left hand across the patient’s thigh, picks up his favorite knife and in one rapid movement makes his incision. A dresser immediately tightens a tourniquet to stem the blood. As the patient screams with pain, Liston puts the knife away and grabs the saw.
With an assistant exposing the bone, Liston begins to cut. Suddenly, the nervous student who has been volunteered to steady the injured leg realizes he is supporting its full weight. With a shudder he drops the severed limb into a waiting box of sawdust.
Under the guise of science (we’re noticing a trend here), the Victorians had a serious fascination with people beyond the standard norm. At the time, there was a remnant of the medieval idea that beauty and health were a sign of blessing, and that deformity of any sort was a sign of God’s disfavor. People who were considered freaks often lived lives of abuse and terror, subject to the whims of the people who were supposedly taking care of them. One of the most famous ‘freaks’ was Joseph Carey Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man.
During the Victorian era, bodies for dissection were in short supply. It’s pretty hard to be a doctor if you haven’t gotten up close and personal with a human body, but when the only people you’re allowed to dissect are people executed for horrible crimes, things get a little dicey. That’s where resurrectionists come in. These men dug up the graves of the freshly-dead and handed them over to medical students who would pay top dollar. Two of the most notorious resurrectionists were Burke and Hare, who decided that digging up bodies was too much work, and wound up killing people to meet their quota.