Tales of the medical macabre
A Halloween collection of spooky stories from the world of Victorian medicine.
As this week’s Halloween atmosphere descends upon us, it's the perfect time to delve into some morbid medical-themed stories of the past. Doctors, even when armed with a keen sense of observation and scepticism, have sometimes found themselves confronting the supernatural – whether in the form of spectral patients, rattling bones or creaking cadavers. These ghostly stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries should be taken with a dose of salt…
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A dissecting room scare
Two young medical students were the only ones left in the gas lit dissecting room of Edinburgh Infirmary one night in December 1878. As they silently picked at the muscles and tendons in front of them, occasionally pausing to turn the pages of their dissection manuals, they heard a strange creaking sound from the adjoining room, which was inhabited only by cadavers. In daylight, they would have thought nothing of it, but in this cold place on the boundary between death and life, they looked at each other uneasily. They could not ignore the sound, for they would have to walk through that room in order to leave the building. The only thing to do was to investigate, and as they peered round the doorway, a horrifying sight met their eyes. A corpse, 7 feet tall, stood next to its prone companions.
‘…the consternation, fear and horror of the students, at seeing the dead body stand upright, and of greater stature than ordinary, may be imagine but not described.’ (Edinburgh Evening Courier, 10 January 1879.)
The students discovered that although there were five cadavers, there were only four tables, so one had been placed covering the gap between two others. Being rigid as a plank of wood, it had gradually tipped forward until it stood, balancing between the tables and towering over ordinary mortals. After hiding in the other room in horror for a while, the students plucked up the courage to rush to the door and make their escape!
This narrative appears to be heavily influenced by B Montgomerie Ranking’s ‘A Night in a Dissecting Room,’ which appeared in the Belgravia Christmas Annual for 1878.
A ghost tale of New York
A sad story, said to have happened in New York, did the rounds of British local newspapers in October 1906. An unnamed consultant physician was relaxing at home one evening when his servant told him a little girl needed his help, as her mother was very ill. Reluctant to go, he told the servant to give her the name of another doctor, but she insisted on seeing him and he at last agreed to accompany her to the patient. He ordered his carriage and he and the child drove to one of the poorest areas of New York, where she pointed out the squalid apartment she called home. The girl did not follow him into the room where her mother lay on a pallet in the corner. The doctor discovered that the woman had diphtheria and needed to go to hospital immediately.
‘Think of the danger your daughter is running,’ he said. But the distraught woman told him she no longer had a daughter – her little girl had died of diphtheria the day before and was lying in the next room. The physician opened the door, ‘…and there, to his astonishment, found the dead body of the girl who had brought him to the house.’ (Croydon’s Weekly Standard, 13 October 1906.)
The spirit who assembled his own skeleton
Victorian medical students had a reputation – whether deserved or not – for drunkenness, rowdy behaviour and irreverence for the dead. In 1908, writer S G Hobson related a story told to him by an Irish doctor who had studied at King’s College, London, some decades before (The Tatler, 10 June 1908).
He and his chums had got hold of a cadaver ‘by some subterranean means’ and spent several nights dissecting it. One of their number, Billy Stephens, had the bones bleached and took them home. It was at this young gentleman’s lodgings that sinister happenings shook the students’ worldly outlook.
Due to over-consumption of ‘whiskey and soda, rum punch, and other deleterious and distinctly unmedical lotions,’ the gang began to muck about and play practical jokes, which ended up with various bits of the skeleton hidden around the rooms, including the skull in Billy’s bed. The lads eventually crashed out, but were woken by someone shouting ‘Hie! You chaps, look!’
The skeleton’s bones were floating back together by the agency of some unseen force. Lastly, the door opened and ‘the skull was seen to advance slowly to the corner of the room where the rest of the skeleton stood.’ It rose to the level of the neck and once more sat atop the structure that just ‘six weeks before was clothed in the majesty of manhood.’
The students sat in silence for some time, then grabbed their coats and hats and made for their own lodgings. Poor Billy’s life was changed forever. He had ‘got such a sickener that he gave up medicine and took to the Church.’
A rattling skull
In 1901, Dr R M Ball of St Joseph, Missouri, was pleased to get hold of a prehistoric human skull, which he displayed on the table in his office. One quiet afternoon, while musing on the life of the person who had once inhabited it, he began to doze, but was woken by a slight movement of the cranium. An unsuperstitious fellow, he nevertheless found it creepy that the skull would wobble when he remained still, and stop when he moved towards it. Then:
‘As dusk settled about the corners of the office it seemed that the demoniac twinkle of a brilliant eye could be seen through the sockets so many thousands of years unused.’
Dr Ball went to grab it, but the skull leapt off the table and rolled on the floor. A huge rat struggled free and scampered away – and with that, as the St Joseph Gazette (18 June 1901) put it: ‘…the doctor’s ghost story was ruined.’
Grimacing like a demon
Country doctors regularly encountered village folklore and tales of the supernatural. As someone frequently called to be out alone at night, the rural general practitioner was a prime candidate for witnessing otherworldly shenanigans. If he was anything like Robert Pairman, practising in Biggar, Lanarkshire, in the 1840s, he would approach such events with healthy scepticism. One night as Pairman was saddling his horse, Ginger, he glanced at the stable door and saw something 'grimacing like a demon', with a 'cadaverous semi-translucent countenance.' Aware that numerous ghost sightings had recently been reported, Pairman kept calm, finished saddling Ginger then blew out his lantern and grabbed a hay fork.
'Whether you are in the body or in the spirit I intend to lead out my horse by that door,' he said. 'In front of me I hold a deadly weapon which I will not hesitate to use if need be. If you are a spirit two stabs will not hurt you. If you have a body, then God help you.' (A Scottish Country Doctor, 1818-1873: Robert Pairman of Biggar, ed. Evelyn Wright, 2003).
The ghost decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made itself scarce.
DISABILITY HISTORY🦻🏾Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History Dr Jaipreet Virdi presents the Zverina Lecture at the Allen Memorial Medical Library, Cleveland, OH. Focusing on the late 19th-century marketing of deafness cures, she will unravel the many ways deaf people sought to restore or gain hearing. This history provides broad context for understanding the lived experiences of deaf people and how cultural pressures of normalcy significantly stigmatised deafness. 2 November 2023, 1pm EDT, online or in person. Free but register if going in person.
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SYPHILIS LECTURE 👨🏽⚕️ How much syphilis is too much? The Melbourne experiment of 1910. The Melbourne Experiment in 1910 was claimed to be the ﬁrst community-based syphilis data collection worldwide. In this online talk, which won ‘Best Test Lecture’ in the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ Diploma in the History of Medicine, Dr Meredith Temple-Smith outlines the practical challenges and outcomes of the experiment. 7 November 2023, 12pm GMT, 9pm Melbourne. £10.