10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century

Patrick Lynch - January 29, 2018

It seems as every generation gets to the stage where they lament the existing world and long for the ‘good ol’ days’ where men were men, women were ladies, and there was a decent shot of dying of tuberculosis. Whatever we may think of the Internet age where trolls hide behind keyboards and launch insults from the basement in their grandmother’s house, the standard of living is significantly better than in generations gone by.

When you go back as far as the 19th century, you’re really at a time where life was short and times were often tough. Sure, they didn’t have to put up with Justin Bieber, but people of that era were exposed to some awful things nonetheless. In this article, I look at 10 things that ensured life back then was a constant struggle.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Bloodletting – Sharon Lathan

1 – An Era of Awful Experiments

If you are displeased at the standard of medical care in your country at present, it is still a million miles away from the dark days of the Victorian era. While the greatest discoveries in science and medicine have come from the process of experimentation, it was more often than not a torturous and unsuccessful affair in the 19th century.

A prime example was ‘trepanning,’ the process of drilling holes in the skull. While it is still used today, trepanning is performed specifically for brain swelling and skull fractures. It also involves hi-tech equipment. In the 19th century, trepanning was prescribed for general health reasons and the drills, and medical practitioners weren’t always accurate. It is also important to realize that few surgical tools were sterilized, antibiotics didn’t exist, and painkillers were few and far between, and nowhere near as potent as today’s versions.

If physicians today attempt to ‘experiment,’ everything they do is carefully watched. In the 19th century, it didn’t matter how crazy your idea was, if you could convince people that it was a viable treatment or cure, you could do whatever you wanted. A French doctor took advantage of this fact in the 1890s when trying to help a woman who had a tumor in her frontal bone. He removed the part of her skull bone and replaced it with the skull bone of a dog. To be fair, he was only copying the actions of 17th-century Dutch surgeon, Job Janszoon van Meekeren who once used a dog’s skull bone to reconstruct the face of Duke Butterlijn.

The process of bloodletting, also known as phlebotomy, was widely used in the 19th century. Doctors believed the body was comprised of blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm and assumed an abundance of one was the cause of illnesses. The assumption was that removing blood from the body would result in a cure. As disturbing as the practice was, it was made even worse by the fact that barbers offered it as a service along with shaves and haircuts.

To cap things off for 19th-century patients, surgery was performed without the aid of anesthetic (unless you count drinking gin or whiskey) or antibiotics. One option was to use chloroform, but doctors seldom bothered. Morphine was also available near the end of the century, but it was relatively rare. The U.S. Civil War was famed for surgeons performing amputations near battlefields in a procedure that must have been excruciating for the patient. They usually had no choice because a failure to amputate typically meant death.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Clothes that look like they are made from human skin – Geek Tyrant

2 – Human Skin Clothes

Ed Gein was one of the most twisted serial killers of the 20th century and the alleged inspiration for Silence of the Lambs. He used to make masks, lampshades, belts, and vests made from the skin of his victims. What you may not be aware of is the fact that people in the 19th century created clothes from human skins more often than we are comfortable admitting. Unlike Gein’s spree, no one was murdered, but if poor people died and remained unidentified, their skin could be used to create clothes.

One of the most common objects to be covered in human skin were books. A Doctor Ludovic Bouland was apparently the man who covered a book recently found at Harvard University. He received the book as a gift in 1880 and covered it in skin, a process also known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. In the UK, there is a book in the Bristol Record Office made from the skin of a man who was hanged in the local jail.

The tale becomes even more macabre when you continue analyzing the case. The book contains the details of the crime committed by John Horwood, an 18-year old man convicted of the murder of Eliza Balsum in 1821. He apparently stalked the young lady after becoming infatuated with her and one day; he beat her to death with a large rock. Surgeon Richard Smith dissected Horwood’s corpse and used his skin to cover a collection of notes on the case.

Over in Australia in the 1880s, a New South Wales doctor used to make his shoes from skin, but with a caveat: The skin had to come from an African because he believed their skin made the best leather. Although he wasn’t from the United States, the physician fought in the U.S. Civil War on the Union side. He claimed that he would use a white man’s skin if it were sufficiently thick.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Clothes that look like they are made from human skin – Geek Tyrant

3 – Poison Beer

If you’ve ever tasted a bottle of beer that tasted like stale piss, just know that you would be deemed lucky in certain places in the 19th century. We know that strychnine is fatal in anything above a minute dose but in the 1800s, people were rolling the dice without even realizing it. Strychnine was considered a tonic and beer companies added it to their products for a little extra kick.

Predictably, things went horribly wrong on more than one occasion. You were at greatest risk if you lived in Australia by the looks of things. Two men walked into a bar in Victoria, asked for ale and proceeded to drink it. However, it was far too bitter to consume, so they stop; just in time as it happened because the beer contained too much strychnine. Had they gulped their drink down in one, death was certain.

In the same year, Thomas Lester was not so fortunate as he died from the effects of drinking beer with excessive strychnine. A fellow crewman by the name of Walter White also fell seriously ill but survived. Lester died within an hour of consuming the beer, and his death was a ghastly sight. Both men suffered violent spasms after their ship arrived at the Queenscliff Pier. A solicitor at the scene advised giving the men water and mustard but to no avail.

12 years later in the state of Queensland, Catherine Waddell also suffered the ‘death by beer’ fate. She panicked after drinking a small quantity of ale that tasted bitter and immediately became convinced she had been poisoned. Initially, the post-mortem concluded that Waddell had worried herself to death. Eventually, the police collected the offending bottle and found that it contained 24 times the lethal dose; poor Waddell didn’t stand a chance.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Filth in London – Salon for the City

4 – Living in Your Own Filth

Waste management was a constant problem during the 19th century. The age of industrialization helped invent many new things, but it also led to mass urbanization. Cities became overcrowded rapidly and the powers that be had no idea what to do about the waste that was accumulating at warp speed.

In cities like London during the Victorian Era, gutters were filled with litter, and streets were covered in animal and human excrement. Human waste was also thrown directly into the sewers and ended up in nearby rivers. On at least one occasion, the Parliament in London had to stop working because the smell of waste was so overpowering. While legislation was brought in to try and combat the problem, the poor were left exposed to all manner of diseases.

New York City had a unique problem in the 1880s: An excessive amount of horse manure that was clogging up the streets. At that time, there were anywhere up to 200,000 horses living in the city, and each one was capable of producing an average of 22 pounds of waste a day. One article from the New York Times in 1880 outlines the case of a large horse manure pile remaining uncollected on East 52nd Street for a year. The problem continued into the 20th century when it was alleged that 20,000 New Yorkers died from airborne diseases, typically generated by horse manure.

The city also had a serious problem with animal carcasses. Approximately 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets in 1880 and in some cases, these large carcasses were left to rot until they disintegrated. There were so many dead animal carcasses tossed in the Hudson River that they started to wash up on the shore and make residents ill. Even when the carcasses were dumped outside the city, the water would often bring them back in.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Overcrowding – Mental Floss

5 – Severe Overcrowding in Cities

The rise of industrial America really took hold towards the end of the 19th century. In the 20-year period between 1880 and 1900, the population of American cities combined increased by an incredible 15 million. While immigrants made up a sizeable proportion of this growth, there was a significant upheaval within the country as rural people moved to the large urban centers.

In the city of London, England, growth occurred much earlier in the century. The population of the city grew from one million in 1801 to 2.25 million in 1850. Once again, it was a case of rural people moving to a giant industrial center to find work. In many cases, rural individuals had been forced to move because the enclosure of farms resulted in them being kicked off their land. In the case of both cities, the rate of expansion was far larger than either could cope with and overcrowding became the norm amongst what was a predominantly poor population.

In London, one in every three flats designed for four people was overcrowded regardless of class. As you can imagine, the figure was much higher for people who were squeezed together in tenements where they lived in wretched conditions. The city attempted to remedy the problem through the 1866 Sanitary Act, but it did little to resolve the issue. After a hard day at work, a man could expect to come home and live with his wife and six children in a space fit for four people at most.

New York City was the place to be for overcrowding. In 1801, the city contained 96,000 residents; this figure had increased to 3.43 million by 1900. Lower Manhattan’s Five Points was one of the most notorious overcrowding hotspots while the Lower East side of the city contained a large majority of immigrants who lived in squalid conditions. The combination of terrible living conditions and living in close proximity spelled disaster for many people in the 19th century.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Cholera Notice – Slideshare

6 – Lots of Diseases & Low Life Expectancy

One of the main reasons for the low life expectancy in the 19th century was the number of child deaths. For a white male in 1850, his life expectancy was just over 38 at birth, but if he reached the age of 20, he could live to his fifties or sixties. In the second half of the 19th century, New York was the most diverse city in the United States but also the most overcrowded and disease riddled. The city only had a primitive sewage system at this time, and if you wanted to use the bathroom, you had to rely on a privy or an outhouse.

The waste management problem resulted in a significant increase in diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, smallpox, and tuberculosis. In cities around the world, mass outbreaks of these infectious diseases were common. The cholera epidemic of 1849 killed an estimated 5,000 people while a typhoid epidemic in 1860 also killed thousands. The epidemics were especially lethal when it came to children.

Over in England and Wales, the infant mortality rate was 150 deaths per 1,000 births in 1890. No matter where you lived, even if you made it past the first few years of life, there was no guarantee of living a long time. In New York between 1840 and 1870, approximately 25% of 20-year olds did not see their 30th birthday. It must have been a terrible thing for urban families to know that at least one of their children would not see their 5th birthday. The ensuing fatalist attitude of working-class families meant they had large families to ensure that at least some of the kids would survive. This of course only contributed to the problem of overpopulation.

Still, the epidemics persisted. An estimated 50,000 people died from smallpox in Britain and Ireland in 1871. Typhoid fever remained a huge problem in urban areas in the UK and U.S. at the end of the 19th century. Even though water treatment facilities were built in America, the disease continued, and no one knew why. New York was the site of the infamous Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook called Mary Fallon. It turned out she was carrying the disease and infecting the families she worked for. This was proof that even the wealthy were not safe from the rampant diseases of the era.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Victorian London Factory – Pinterest

7 – Appalling Working Conditions

Many of us have worked for an overbearing and unpleasant manager in a crappy job with irritating colleagues. Yet even this combination is nothing compared to what the average 19th-century worker had to contend with. No matter how much you hate your job, it’s likely the risk of mutilation or death is fairly low. Alas, this was not the case back then, especially as industrial America grew.

In the United States, working conditions in factories were much worse than in Europe. The American System of Manufactures was developed, and this method of mass production involved the use of a semi-skilled labor force using gigantic, poorly maintained machines. Companies were allowed to get away with it because of a lack of regulation; health and safety wasn’t a big thing in industrial age America. Moreover, if a company could prove any kind of employee negligence in an accident, they got away scot free.

To be fair, several groups of workers were not prepared to take it lying down. A famous strike was organized by the Lowell Mill Girls, a group of women who worked in a textiles factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. They demanded better working conditions and went on strike in 1834 and 1836. While they gained concessions the second time, conditions worsened the following year.

Before the Industrial Revolution, work was often seasonal and limited to daylight hours. When factory owners realized they could keep their companies running for longer, they forced staff to work crazy long hours. In the 19th century, it was normal for a factory worker to spend up to 16 hours a day at their machine, 6 days a week. When working so many hours, tiredness is normal, but one mistake could have been fatal. It was not unusual for an employee at a factory to get his clothing caught on machinery and get mangled to death.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Passengers Waiting For Bank Holiday Weekend vacation – BBC

8 – Low Wages & Bad Food

Although the growth of factories meant that there was more employment available, demand always outstripped supply by a large margin. As a result, there were long lines of men, women, and children desperate for work. Unscrupulous employers realized that they had hit a goldmine. They could hire as many people as they liked, force them to work extremely long hours, and pay them a pittance.

Despite working anywhere from 80-100 hours a week, unskilled laborers would be fortunate to receive $8-10. This worked out at around $0.10 an hour, and while skilled workers got more, they didn’t receive a substantially higher wage. It was common for women to receive half a man’s pay and children earned even less. Some children worked such long hours in dusty, dark conditions that they developed physical deformities. Labor Unions were ultimately formed to try and ensure workers, especially children, were no longer being exploited.

It wasn’t as if workers were well nourished either. The typical diet of a working-class person makes for grim reading. Breakfast consisted of plain bread with tea or coffee if they could afford it. Lunch might be a small piece of bread with some vegetables and ale on occasion. Dinner typically consisted of a thin vegetable broth, perhaps with a tiny portion of meat. In the UK, workers might have oatcake for breakfast and supper, with potato pie and bacon for dinner. Tea and butter were extremely rare delicacies. Overall, the standard diet was cheap carbohydrates and little protein.

Wealth flowed amongst a tiny percentage of the American population during the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s. However, practically nothing trickled down to the working class as they were forced to graft, beg, and steal to get enough money to eat and afford rent. Those who had no employment had to panhandle to stay alive, and it was normal to go a couple of days without eating. While it is true that there are plenty of working-class people struggling today, it doesn’t compare to the terrible standards of yesteryear.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Distraught woman commits suicide after committing infanticide – The Guardian

9 – The Murder of Innocents

The crime of infanticide was rampant in the 18th and 19th centuries although few people were ever caught and tried. In London’s Old Bailey, for example, there were only 203 trials where the defendant was accused of infanticide. The majority of these unfortunate victims were ‘bastard’ children born out of wedlock and abandoned by the father. The desperate mother would then drown the child in a river, cut its throat or beat it to death.

As keen as these people were to get rid of their unwanted babies, they were taking a major risk because infanticide was punishable by death, notably in the UK. A total of 19 women were executed between 1800 and 1834; the last was Mary Smith. Although women were still accused of the crime, it was difficult to prove it, so every woman convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death from the 1840s onward were reprieved in Britain. The Infanticide Act of 1922 removed the deed from the list of capital crimes.

It was seemingly a problem in most countries around the world. There was an influx of ‘baby farms’ in countries such as Britain, America, and Russia during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While it often wasn’t a case of deliberate infanticide, these baby farms accounted for the deaths of tens of thousands of babies. These ‘farms’ were care services designed to look after unwanted babies, but the owners of these facilities seldom had the resources to provide decent care. Poor ventilation, filth, and neglect were among the main reasons for the deaths of these children.

For example, London had hundreds of baby farms during the Victorian Era, but only three of them were registered as businesses. When working mothers and those who hid away the babies of mistresses gave their children to these farms, they had no idea what would happen next. These farms would get away with murder unless a mother reported her suspicions to the police. However, unless she was well respected, nothing was done.

10 Stomach Turning Reasons We Should Be Glad We Didn’t Live In The 19th Century
Victorian child pickpockets – Prisoners of Eternity

10 – Crime & Punishment (Or Lack Of)

Crime was rampant in urban areas during the 19th century. The enormous growth in population meant more criminals and more opportunities to commit a crime. A lot of the new criminals were uneducated and unskilled people who moved from rural areas although poor immigrants also stole to make ends meet. If you didn’t have a job, your main source of income had to be through crime; otherwise, you would starve.

Drunkenness was a major factor in violent crime during the Industrial Revolution. It was normal for lower-class citizens to get drunk on very cheap booze on a daily basis. As a result, arguments quickly got out of hand which led to violent quarrels that occasionally turned deadly. Also, by spending so much money on booze, these individuals struggled to pay for food and rent, so crime was one of the few options left on the table.

It is also a fact that getting away with a criminal offense was a lot easier than today. For instance, the first fingerprint identification wasn’t made until 1892. In fact, there was no real police force in the UK until the creation of the Metropolitan Police by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. Even then, the standard of officer was poor, and only 600 of the original 2,800 kept their jobs. In the United States, the police were more inclined to victimize the working class than serve and protect. This approach led to riots in Chicago on four occasions from 1867 to 1894.

The standard of justice wasn’t much better. The lack of sophisticated policing and investigation methods meant that not only did criminals escape, but innocent people were also often punished. Overall, we have a lot to be grateful for in the 21st century because life in the 19th century sucked; and this is a fact even before you take slavery into account.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Advances in Calcium Phosphate Biomaterialsedited by Besim Ben-Nissan

Ranker: 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practised in the 19th century – Amanda Sedlak-Hevener

The macabre world of books bound in human skin – BBC

Mount Alexander Mail – January 19, 1880

Geelong Advertiser – February 23, 1892

The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser – April 6, 1888

New York Times: When Horses Posed a Public Health Hazard – Jennifer 8. Lee

Life & Death in the 19th Century – Geoff’s Genealogy

U.S. History Scene: Immigrants, Cities, and Disease – Ted Brackemyre

Working Conditions in Factories – Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History

The Industrial Revolution Working and Living Conditions – Ankur Poddar on Weebly

Infanticide and the Murder of Bastard Children – Capital Punishment UK.org

Old Police Cells Museum – Policing 19th Century England

In These Times: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People, Not ‘Serve and Protect’ – Sam Mitrani