Messed up things you never knew happened in the Victorian era

For everything that's changed in the decades since the rule of Queen Victoria, there's one thing that definitely hasn't changed: people are still seriously messed up, just in different sorts of ways. Here are some of the weirdest, strangest practices from the Victorian Era that you never knew about.

Death photography

The Victorians were a little bit obsessed with death. And it makes sense when you consider the smorgasbord of diseases that stalked Victorians — measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, rubella, typhus, and cholera. It was a sort of gauntlet of death that children and adults alike ran through every day. Those very real threats and sense of loss led to people keeping memento mori (Latin for "remember you must die") trinkets, like locks of hair and photos of the dead.

Remember that photographs were still a fairly technology, and they were only starting to become affordable in the mid-1800s. As such, it was often only when something tragic happened that people would think to immortalize their loved ones in photographs. That gave rise to the seriously creepy trend of death photography. 

The bodies were often kept at home for the mourning period, and photographs were staged with not just the deceased, but their parents or siblings, sometimes posing as if everyone was still alive. Children sat with their dead parent, parents held their dead children… you get the idea. Some photos even show faces with open eyes that were painted right on the photo. They're eerie, creepy, and incredibly heartbreaking, especially when you consider these photos capture the one and only chance that many grieving families had to get a photo of their loved ones.

Child emigrations

If you've ever seen any Victorian period piece, you've seen the adorable but filthy children that live in the streets, picking pockets and causing a general sort of trouble. The plight of orphan children was very real, and according to writer and historian Sarah Wise (via Spitalfields Life), estimates suggest that there were around 30,000 children were living on the London streets in 1869.

Wealthy philanthropists took up the cause, including Miss Annie Macpherson. Macpherson set up some schools to teach the kids useful skills, but the problem soon became overwhelming. So she changed gears and became a champion of the disturbing practice of emigration: kids as young as five years old were pulled off the streets and out of workhouses to be shipped overseas to British colonies. Many ended up laboring as farm help or working as domestic servants, and by 1904 Macpherson alone had sent 12,000 children to Canada.

The Maritime Archives & Library of the National Museums Liverpool says children were also sent to Australia and New Zealand, and between 1870 and 1914, 80,000 kids were sent just to Canada. The practice was hugely controversial even at the time, as the agencies rarely followed up on the kids they placed overseas and investigations showed that contrary to the lofty goals emigration societies had, their lives rarely actually got better.

The reasons you could be committed to an insane asylum were, well, insane

According to Cornwall's Bodmin Hospital, the population of the country's insane asylums skyrocketed through the 19th century. Apparently most of the patients fell under three labels: the manic, the melancholic, and those with dementia. The symptoms of those diagnosed with the Big Three varied, and they weren't the only reasons you could be committed — nor was England the only place that went a little crazy with all the crazy.

West Virginia's Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum's list of reasons patients were admitted between 1864 and 1889 reads like either a college student's to-do list or a really good Friday night. On their list were offenses like laziness, novel reading, superstition, an immoral life, and intemperance, along with every single kind of masturbation you can imagine. If you were a fan of "deranged masturbation" or "suppressed masturbation" you could find yourself committed, possibly alongside those who had syphilis and still masturbated, had been masturbating for 30 years, or used tobacco… and masturbated. 

Women weren't left out, either, and there are some equally bizarre reasons they could be admitted to an insane asylum. Those include things like "imaginary female trouble" and "hysteria," along with "rumor of husband murder" and "fits and desertion of husband." Yikes.

You could make a living as a grave robber

We can all agree it's better that medical students learn on dead bodies before they start poking around inside living ones, but Victorian-era schools were faced with a problem. Historic UK says that the only bodies they could legally dissect were those that had belonged to someone who had been sentenced to death for a crime, and in 1823, Britain passed a law that made fewer crimes end in the death penalty. Doctors-in-training still needed to learn, and that meant they needed to get their bodies somewhere else.

That somewhere else was the cemetery, and if you want some seriously grim reading you can find it in The Diary of a Resurrectionist. Written by James Blake Bailey of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, he gives a great insight into the everyday life of a resurrectionist — the label given to the people who dug bodies out of their graves. Not only did they get a price for each body, but they were also given a fee to be kept on retainer and a fee once the body was delivered. There was a massive market in selling teeth, too, and those usually went to dentists.

The fresher the body, the more in demand it was. So when cemeteries started installing watchtowers and guards, body snatchers had to get creative. Some — like William Burke and William Hare, the most famous of the era's body snatchers — just turned to murder to get the freshest bodies possible…with no digging required.

A beauty routine included things like ammonia, arsenic, and lead

Standards of beauty might change from generation to generation. But Victorian beauty routines read like something out of a chemistry textbook — specifically the part near the back where they list all the stuff that'll kill you.

Harper's Bazaar ran a column called "The Ugly Girl Papers: Or, Hints for the Toilet" (via Atlas Obscura). It offered practical beauty advice, but today we'd recognize it as being insanely dangerous. White skin was all the rage, and women achieved that by washing their faces with ammonia, then covering them with lead-based paint. And don't think you could get away with going bare-faced at night, either, because in order to keep that fresh-faced look, the column suggested rubbing some opium on before bed. For those who were really committed, Sears & Roebuck sold a product called Dr. Rose's Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Yes, it was arsenic, and yes, women were instructed to eat them.

If you were unlucky enough to have thin eyebrows and eyelashes, a nightly smear of mercury could help with that. And speaking of eyes, watery eyes were all the rage, too…for some reason. To achieve that look, women could use lemon juice, perfume, or belladonna as eyedrops. The latter did, of course, cause blindness, but people have been suffering for beauty for ages.

Divorce wasn't a thing, so men sold unwanted wives

Divorce wasn't allowed in England until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but people have been having marital difficulties for as long as they've been getting married. Since you couldn't just sign some papers and be on your merry way, people needed to find another way out. As a result, wife-selling became a completely legitimate way to get out of a marriage, and it continued well through the 19th century, particularly in rural Britain.

According to research done by Lauren Padgett from Leeds Trinity University, wife sales could happen in public or in private. But the public sales were quite the spectacle. The husband typically put some kind of lead rope on his unwanted wife, took her to a public square, and asked for offers. Sort of like eBay, but with your wife instead of an old smartphone. 

Records suggest that the wife had veto power over the sale, and sometimes it was for cash, and sometimes the price included goods. Prices varied: one wife was sold in Selby in 1862 for a pint of beer, while others seem to have gone for a decent amount of cash.

And according to economist Peter Leeson (via Motherboard), it wasn't necessarily a bad deal for the wives. Not only did it give them a way out of a bad situation, but they could also trade up into a marriage where they were valued — one that could possibly be with a rich older man who wasn't a part of the traditional marriage pool. So…yay wife-selling? Kind of?

The Abode of Love was a crazy sex cult

The Victorians have a bit of a reputation as being at least slightly repressed, so you can only imagine what most people must have thought when a crazy sex cult popped up in 1846. It was founded by Henry Prince, a one-time clergyman who started recruiting followers — mostly rich, unmarried women — by convincing them to "donate" all their cash to him so that he could build what he called "The Abode of Love." According to The Telegraph, that abode was a group of cottages protected by a 12-foot wall. The community was officially called Agapemone, and was built mostly on the inheritance of five spinster sisters who Prince arranged to have marry some of his followers. Prince himself moved into a 16-bedroom house, and while he insisted on chastity and abstinence from his followers, he was busy getting busy with at least one of the community's virgins in a very public ceremony he claimed were completely necessary.

In spite of his insistence that he was immortal, Prince died in 1889. John Hugh Smyth-Piggot took over as cult leader, left the community's compound to declare that he was the Second Coming of Christ, and was almost immediately run out of town and back to the safety of the community. He lived there as a "heavenly bridegroom" among his "soul brides" until he, too, proved not as immortal as he claimed when he died in 1927. The cult hung on a bit longer, and didn't disappear until 1956.

Corpse medicine was still a thing

"Corpse medicine" is exactly what it sounds like, and for hundreds of years people believed that consuming certain parts of the human body was a miracle cure for whatever ailed them. A popular prescribed cure-all was human skull, and — when mixed with chocolate — it was believed to treat apoplexy.

Corpse medicine was at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Smithsonian says that it persisted well into the Victorian era. Medical texts specify what body parts are good for what ailments, and there were recipe books that explained how to prepare the pieces, too. One text from 1847 prescribes a bit of skull (specifically, the skull of a young woman) mixed with treacle as a treatment for epilepsy. (It didn't work.) There was also a belief that something called a thieves' candle could cause paralysis, if you were into that sort of thing. They were made with human fat, and there's records of them being made into the 1880s.

Executioners were often linked to corpse medicine, and it wasn't uncommon for them to do double duty as bringer-of-death and healer-of-the-poor, selling pints of warm blood from the recently dead. The last instance of someone trying to drink the blood of an executed criminal happened in 1908 in Germany. And hey, look on the bright side — you might hate your doctor, but at least he'll send you to a pharmacist instead of a hanging to get your medicine.  

Mummies were used for all kinds of disturbing things

The whole 19th century was defined by a British obsession with all things Egyptian, and you can still see the traces of Egypt-o-mania reflected in the era's architecture. Mummies were front and center when it came to the Victorians' weird fetish, and it wasn't enough to do something normal like put them in a museum. According to The Journal of Art in Society, paint-makers used ground-up mummies as one of the ingredients in brown paint aptly named Mummy Brown. It was hugely popular throughout the Victorian era, even though some people thought turning mummies into paint was wrong while others said it made for poor quality paint, because priorities.

There were other weird things mummies were used for, too. In 2007, a forensic scientist tested the contents of a jar found in a Victorian-era Paris pharmacy (via the BBC). The label identified the contents as the remains of Joan of Arc, and while that seemed unlikely, the test results found something even more unlikely: it was made of mummy, dating back to some time between the third and seventh centuries BC. It was likely "prepared" not long before it was "found."

They were also used as advertising draws. In 1886, a mummy proclaimed to be the very same Pharaoh's daughter that had saved the life of baby Moses was put on display in a candy store in Chicago, because there's nothing quite like a mummy watching you as you pick out your bonbons and lollies.