A rotten trick

Here’s a cracking ‘news in brief’ item from an 1851 edition of The Lancet:

A few days back a curious case occurred at a roadside inn, known by the name of the “Rummer”, a few miles from Norwich.

Stoke Cross, to be precise. The Rummer Inn was a venerable watering hole which finally closed in 1957. If it helps you picture the scene, you’ll find an old photo of the Rummer here.

The servant girl, aged 18, had been detected purloining her sick mistress’s clothing, and soon afterwards was seized apparently with a fit. Her eyes became closed, her jaws firmly locked, her limbs perfectly rigid, and all consciousness seemed to leave her. Violent spasms occasionally supervened, requiring four or five persons to hold her down.

Two doctors were sent for, and resorted to the Victorian medical panacea: bleeding.

…but this was of no avail, and she remained in the same state for twenty-four hours; when Dr. Webber, who was in attendance on her mistress, arrived, and was requested to see her. After examining the eyes and feeling her pulse, he informed the other medical men it was his opinion the girl was conscious, and that she was merely shamming.

The wretch!

He therefore suggested a plan to awake her. They returned to the girl’s bedside, when Mr. Webber said very gravely to the bystanders that it would be necessary to put the poor creature up to her chin in boiling water, and that her chest must be cut open for the purpose of turning the heart, which had evidently got wrong, and that the operation should be immediately performed.

What a wonderful idea. Cutting open the chest to gain access to the thoracic organs in this way was not in fact attempted until the 1890s when a British surgeon in Egypt, Herbert Milton, first proposed median sternotomy, an incision down the middle of the breastbone. Alas, Dr Webber narrowly missed anticipating this surgical first.

Mr. Webber all the time closely watched the features of the girl. Seeing her lips quiver, he took that opportunity to put a drop of tincture of opium into her eye, which forced a scream and a convulsion of the body. But she soon relapsed into her old state. Mr. Webber then described to the other surgeons, by the tracing of his fingers on the chest and throat, the size of the incision to be made, and at this juncture a policeman arrived, and announced that the boiling water was ready. She was so dismayed at this that she immediately jumped up, and begged hard for quarter.

I think most of us would have been begging for mercy at this stage. The ruse worked like a treat:

She was desired to dress herself, and was brought before the magistrates, who committed her to the Wyndandham Bridewell.

The Wymondham Bridewell was a nearby women’s prison.  According to Wikipedia the former servant would have spent her time there ‘washing, ironing, mat-making, knitting, needle-work and cleaning the prison’ – probably not dissimilar to what she was doing already.

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