Inexpressibly loathsome and sickening

Worms after deathUnlikely tales were often swallowed unquestioningly by the editors of medical journals in the nineteenth century, so it was a welcome corrective to find this preface to a case report published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1854:

An esteemed correspondent has sent us an account of “a most extraordinary case,” which he says he “clipped from a newspaper printed at Willimantic, Conn.” We should have preferred that our friend had investigated the circumstances of the case before he sent it to us. These snake, lizard and worm stories, connected with human life, disease and death, have been quite common for many years, and when they have been fully investigated by scientific men, have generally turned out to be but “two cats, ours and another one,” or else nothing of the kind ever happened.

Happily for the contemporary curiosities-of-medicine blogger, however, it seems the editor’s scepticism only went so far.

But this case appears to be of a different character, and we therefore publish it as reported. 

Hurrah!

The deceased was a maiden woman, some 55 years of age, named Nancy Chaffee. She was not of the sharpest intellect.

A beautiful piece of medical euphemism.

Her health had been poor for about a year, yet she had all the while a remarkably voracious appetite. She would eat more than two hearty men, and still she was exceedingly thin, and appeared to be wasting gradually away. She was able to keep about the house usually. Saturday, the day before her death, she felt a little worse than usual, and ate little. Sunday morning she arose much as commonly, and ate her breakfast. Soon after she felt faint, and had assistance to lay her on the bed, where, in an hour, she died.

Worried that this is going to be a boring one? Fear not.

In two hours after her death worms crawled out of her mouth and nose upon her face, to the number of a dozen; and before the body was put into the coffin, which was about sundown the same day, 23 had come from it through the same avenues. Life had scarcely departed before an insufferable stench proceeded from the corpse; and when the body was about to be prepared for the coffin, alvine secretion was discovered oozing through the skin of the abdomen, and overflowing the mouth.

‘Alvine’ is an archaic term meaning ‘pertaining to the gut’. Alvine secretions are therefore fluids from the stomach or intestines. 

The sight and smell were so inexpressibly loathsome and sickening, that the persons engaged in these last duties to the dead, were obliged to fly the room. The most that could be done was to roll the corpse up in the clothes the deceased had on when she died, and put it in the coffin as it was. It is evident the poor woman was literally eaten up with worms. The intestines had been eaten through, and the contents, in a fluid state from a cathartic which had been administered a short time before death, had discharged into the trunk. 

Well, it all sounds lovely. Neither the unnamed correspondent nor the journal’s editor felt compelled to offer any possible explanation of what had occurred. Probably because it never happened.

One thought on “Inexpressibly loathsome and sickening”

  1. No, this one might have happened! Roundworms are known to evacuate through the nose, mouth and anus after the death of their host, and they aren’t an uncommon parasite to have in the U.S. – in fact, raccoon roundworms are both common and incredibly dangerous here, and have been found in people’s brains and eyes. You can get them from digging through dirt and not washing your hands thoroughly enough afterwards, so that the eggs are transferred into your mouth and gut when you eat. So, while Nancy Chaffee might have been a spurious case, this kind of thing can and does happen.

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