Oscar de Muriel found the Victorian clash between science and superstition an irresistible background for his Frey and McGray spooky Scottish whodunits, he tells Historia.
A man sets up a box amidst a busy market, jumps on top of it cradling a boxful of tiny glass vials, and begins his chant. His new miraculous tonic can heal gout, weakness, hangover, venereal ailments, bellyache, baldness, liver disease, monthly discomforts, both drowsiness and insomnia, and of course, whichever malady the gathering crowd enquires after. Pretty much like Brexit (oops, did I say that out loud?).
The job was rather easy. And lucrative. Fill your vials with anything that gives off a funny chemical smell (and I mean anything: formaldehyde, methanol, diluted sulphuric acid), give it a Dickensian name and a flashy label, and off you go. Some of those ‘cure-alls’ have been analysed in more recent times and turned out to be nothing but strong laxatives, sometimes with a touch of opium. You’d definitely notice a rapid change in your body.
Though it can be a bit of a joke now, the desperate search for cures was perfectly understandable. The vast majority of people could not afford proper treatments or medical care. You could really die of a cold or a bad bout of diarrhoea, and the best analgesic available to all classes was gin – and not the nice, spiced varieties so in vogue right now; I mean nasty, poorly distilled concoctions from someone’s bathtub, infused with juniper just to disguise the foul taste.
On the other hand, even if you could afford the crippling fees of a trained doctor, you might not be much better off. Most medicines contained laudanum, opiates, arsenic or mercury (the latter deemed most effective for syphilis). Merck’s first Manual of the Materia Medica (and yes, I am speaking of the chemicals manufacturer that still supplied me during my PhD) recommended sulphur fumes for asthma, electric discharges for anaemia, arsenic for constipation and bloodletting for nausea and earaches – leeches, in fact, were still advised. This was in 1899!
Advertisement was not regulated, so the early pharmaceutical companies could make whichever claim they wished on their products, no matter how ludicrous or how bold their lies were (pretty much like presidential elections). Women were also bombarded with advertisements telling them they were weaker and more prone to disease and hysterics, and inviting them to use liberally their smelling salts, their laudanum and their opiate pills. No wonder ladies fainted all the time.
I must say, not all was doom and gloom. Serious medical advances were made during this period. Chloroform, for instance, became available. Queen Victoria initially condemned it (like she did most things), but Her Maj dramatically changed her mind after chloroform was administered to her when she gave birth to Prince Leopold. One is not so tough after all…
Another field which saw significant advances during the Victorian period was the treatment of mental health. Before then madness was mostly regarded as akin to wickedness, linked to a bad lineage and even demonic possessions. Less severe but still painful mental ailments, like depression or anxiety, were simply branded as hysterics and, as mentioned above, treated only with opiates if you could afford them (if not, again, gin).
Edinburgh’s Royal Asylum, today the Faculty of Psychiatry – which features throughout my Frey and McGray series – was one of the first institutions where this approach changed. Mental illness was properly studied for the first time, and actual purpose of research was to help people get better. Daily routines, proper nutrition, and distractions such as reading, music and even regular dancing parties, became the new norm.
When I needed to pick a time period for my series of spooky whodunits, the Victorian era soon became the clear candidate. Folklore and superstition still stared at science in the face, both sides of the argument equally strong in people’s psyche. I wanted to have two detectives with diametrically opposed views on the matter of the supernatural, so setting them in the late nineteenth century meant their voices would represent not only their personal views, but their society as a whole.
And perhaps The Darker Arts, my latest book, shows those contrasts better than any other instalment in the series. It starts with a wealthy family resorting to a gypsy clairvoyant to host a séance (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is perhaps the most famous Victorian patron of such services). The following morning they all appear dead – all except their gypsy medium, who remains in perfect health and at once becomes a prime suspect.
It is then that science kicks in. My two detectives need to find a rational explanation as to what happened that night (even if my stubborn Nine-Nails McGray does believe it was dark spirits that murdered the family), if they want to save the jolly Madame Katerina from the gallows.
For this they resort to the ‘state-of-the-art’ forensic techniques. An invaluable source of information was Legal Chemistry by A Naquet, first published in English in 1884. That book should be in every historical crime writer’s shelf, as it tells in detail the methods for detecting suspect poisons. Most common back then were arsenic and mercury, since you could easily find them in rat poison or many of the aforementioned ‘medicines’. I still enjoy leafing through its pages and picturing the vials, the crucibles and the bubbling test tubes – the inner chemical engineer I still cannot shed.
For the supernatural side of the mystery I needed to look at more imaginative sources. Reference material on séances and the spirit world, as you can imagine, tends to be scarcer and – let’s face it – plain quackery, but you do come across the odd jewel. I had a few good laughs when reading The Physicians of Myddfai, a compendium of remedies written originally in Welsh, sometime in the fourteenth century.
Some of the treatments did work, like willow juice, which is in fact a precursor to aspirin (salicylic acid, named after the salix genus), or potions prepared with mouldy bread, which of course were unintended courses of penicillin. Others, however, are downright hilarious, like one intended to “silence a cock” by rubbing oil on his crest (I do wonder how crucial it was to silence a cock, if you had to include this in your medicine book), or touching a hanged man’s hand to cure tumours. Still, my all-time favourite is snail juice (quite literally, juice squeezed from a snail), which was used for eye drops.
I hope you were not reading this on your lunch break…
Doctor Bossy, an itinerant medicine vendor by W Birch, 1792, after A van Assen: Wellcome Collection
Advertisement for Glyco-Heroin: Wikimedia
A physician administers leeches to a patient by F-S Delpech after L Boilly, 1827: Wellcome Collection
Equipment used to detect strychnine in beer, from Legal Chemistry by A Naquet: Project Gutenberg