A Short History of the Corset

In the dogged pursuit of an hourglass figure, people have subjected themselves to many extreme undergarments.


Though the waist-cinching garment known as the corset is now primarily associated with the Victorian era, its roots actually go much further back in history. For as long as humans have worn clothing, it seems, they have sought to manipulate their figures in myriad ways to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. Whether a smooth silhouette or a tiny wasp waist was desired, the corset has long been the undergarment of choice, undergirding a dazzling variety of clothing styles.

Corsets in the Ancient World

Ancient Greek, Cretan, Theban and Minoan societies all display evidence that corsets were worn by both men and women; the Minoans in particular wore them, possibly as support for the waist and back while they participated in various sports. Figurines of goddesses in ancient Crete wear corsets as outer garments.

Greek corsets were evidently made of leather, while those of Thebes may have been constructed primarily of metal. There are even mentions of corsets in the literature of the early Middle Ages, and some gowns from the period show a sort of corset construction beneath the bodice. But it wasn’t until around 1400 that corsets really began coming into their own.

Corsets in Spain and Italy

The powerful Spanish were highly influential on European fashion in the 15th century. Both men and women wore corsets in order to achieve a smooth torso and an upright, dignified posture. During the next century the Italians took corsets a step further, adding a busk beneath the lacing of the corset for a smoother look, then adding a hinged metal cage for extra rigidity. Later in the 16th century, Catherine de’ Medici popularized a corset with a more flexible frame made of steel, which retained the chest-flattening and waist-cinching properties of the garment while lessening the discomfort somewhat.

Corsets in France

In the middle of the 17th century, the French took the concept of the corset and ran with it; soon corsets were worn by almost everyone, including children just learning to walk. The French, rather than seeking to flatten the chest as the Spanish and Italian fashion had dictated, instead used the corset to force the bosom upward, resulting in a pleasing décolletage. The material of the corset was made stiffer with paste, and the busk was refined, becoming a removable slat usually made of ivory, silver, wood or whalebone.

The popularity of corsets in France was only interrupted by the French Revolution, whose ideal of liberty also extended to freeing people from their corsets. For a time French ladies favored flowing, high-waisted gowns reminiscent of the draped robes of classical Greece and Rome. However, by the 19th century the French were tightening their laces once again, getting back into line with the rest of Europe and the United States, where corsets had never gone out of fashion.

Corsets in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Even as clothing styles waxed and waned, corsets remained, underpinning changing fashions. Corsets for men began to fade, though in the early 1800s dandies wore suits tailored to give their bodies an hourglass shape without the hassle of a corset underneath.

For women, though, liberation from lacing was still a long way off. Corsets were worn routinely throught the Victorian period (1837-1901). By the end of the century, despite the abandonment of the “wasp-waisted” look prevalent in earlier times, women still wore newer corsets manufactured to give them a sleek, long-waisted silhouette beneath the more straight-line and Gibson Girl fashions of the 1990s. A smaller waist was always a goal, however, and women laced their corsets tighter and tighter, sometimes to the detriment of their health, trying to achieve and maintain waist sizes well below twenty inches.

After World War I, the 1920s saw a change in fashion, with young women abandoning the corset in favour of simple panties, bras and underslips. In 1930 the panty girdle was introduced, a garment consisting of a corset and bra all in one.

With the New Look of the late 1940s came the waist cincher, and both it and the girdle remained the foundation of women’s clothing styles until the feminist movements of the 1960s finally freed women from the supposed prisons of their clothing. Though bras are still de rigueur beneath the more casual styles of today, corsets in the modern era are generally only worn by enthusiasts in the goth and fetish subcultures.

Additional Source:

  • Steele, Valerie (2003). The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. ISBN: 0300099539.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein & the Summer of 1816

A strange gathering of intellectual luminaries during one “haunted summer” produced one of literature’s most enduring creations.


Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most ubiquitous characters in popular culture, appearing everywhere from movies and novels to children’s toys and cereal boxes. Though the image we have of the lumbering creature today—greenish skin, square head, beetling brow, ropy scars and neck bolts—has been largely formed by Boris Karloff’s stunning portrayal in the Universal horror films of the 1930s, in the beginning, the monster was literally dreamed into existence under rather eerie circumstances by an eighteen-year-old girl.

Summer in Switzerland

It was May 14, 1816. Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his “wife” Mary (the couple only married later that year, though Mary already used his last name) had been invited by friend and fellow poet Lord Byron to visit him at a rented chateau, Villa Deodati, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Also joining the festivities were Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairemont—who was pregnant with Byron’s child and was trying to get back into his good graces—and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori.

The gathering apparently started out quite idyllic—the friends spent long hours writing, discussing weighty ideas, and boating in the lake. But a short time after the group arrived, the weather took a bizarre turn, and it seemed the streaks of lightning and the torrents of rain would never cease. Mary and the others were confined to the house for many days.

Ghost Stories

More reading and discussion ensued. Particular topics of conversation included the early evolution theories of Erasmus Darwin, as well as the new science of galvanism. Also contributing to the entertainment of the group was a book of German ghost stories called Fantasmagoria, which the friends took turns reading aloud.

The combination of the macabre tales and the isolating weather seemed to have strange effects on everyone present; Percy Shelley, at one point, succumbed to visions that sent him screaming from the room. Later, Shelley claimed that Byron’s reading of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Cristabel” had brought to mind the image of a woman with eyes instead of nipples, which horrified him.

Setting to Work

Some time after this incident, the group decided that they would each try to write their own ghost story. Most set to work immediately and produced tales of varying quality. Byron wrote a story fragment titled “The Burial,” which was later published as a postscript to his narrative poem Mazeppa. Shelley wrote a tale called “The Assassins,” which apparently never saw the light of day (though his poem Mont Blanc, written around the same time, was published later that year). Dr. Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” later expanded to novel length, which was the first vampire story published in English and which some speculate might have been an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written 78 years later.

The Monster Is Born

Mary Shelley, however, couldn’t think of an idea for a story, and had to respond with a frustrated “No” when asked by the others if she had begun work on it. But then, one night, she had a terrible nightmare. She woke violently amid the sounds of the storm howling outside. The dream had been so vivid that she had a difficult time believing it hadn’t been real. Since she was too shaken to sleep, she began writing down her dream, in which “a pale student of the unhallowed arts” used bits of corpses to create a man. “By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light,” she wrote, “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Mary’s terrifying dream was described verbatim in the story she presented to the others. Though the first draft was only about 100 pages long, Percy loved the story and encouraged Mary to flesh it out. She did, and two years after the strange events at Lake Geneva, the story was published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, thus introducing one of literature’s most frightening figures to the world at large.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Don’t Fear the Ripper

I thank the universe pretty much every day that I was born at the time I was. My formative years corresponded almost exactly with the explosion of punk and post-punk, the birth of MTV, the home video boom, and the expansion of cable television into more and more homes. Yes, despite my dewy youthfulness, I am, as the kids say, “an old.” And this almost goes without saying, but get off my lawn.

Cable TV, for all you whippersnappers out there, wasn’t really a thing until about the late 70s. I spent most of my very young childhood planted in front of one of those giant faux-wooden-cabinet televisions with a dial that you turned to change the channels, of which there were three (four if you count PBS). Later on we got another channel, Fox (which was channel 35 on the dial in my area), which back in the day showed pretty much nothing but “Sanford and Sons” reruns and Hanna Barbera cartoons.

But then, when I was about nine years old, my dad began working for our local cable company, and one of the perks of his job was that he got all the cable channels for free, including the new pay movie channels, like HBO and Cinemax. Gone was the dial; now there was a large beige box that sat on top of the TV and lit up (oooooooh!). It had a slider that you used to change the channel, and I remember being so excited that there were SO MANY NUMBERS on the slider. SO MANY.



I really only went into this brief history lesson to say that a great deal of the memorable movie experiences of my youth came about because of those magical, commercial-free movie channels we were lucky enough to have. Since HBO and Cinemax were fairly new and untested at that point, they tended to show older, B-grade, or forgotten films, often in rotation several times a day (which explains how I managed to see the wincingly terrible Kristy McNichol musical The Pirate Movie roughly four-hundred times before I hit puberty).

But they showed a heap of great movies too, and one of those is our discussion film for today. It’s not technically a horror film, though I’m not sure what you’d classify it as. A science-fiction thriller, perhaps? Regardless, it was and is a perennial favorite of mine, and true to the spirit of this blog series, it did have a few creepy scenes that stuck with me over the years. Onward.



1979’s Time After Time, directed by Nicholas Meyer, had an absolutely genius premise: writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), not content with simply scribbling about time machines, has actually built one that works, though of course he is pooh-poohed by the stuffy upper-class twits he has invited over to demonstrate it to. In the middle of the little snark party, a police constable shows up and tells them that Jack the Ripper has killed again, and clues have led right back to Wells’s home. After a search of the premises, it turns out that one of Wells’s guests and close friends, John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) has left behind a medical bag containing bloody gloves. Police search for him everywhere in the house, but if you know anything about movies, you know where that slippery serial killer has gone. That’s right, he’s hopped right into Wells’s time machine and boogied right into the future to escape justice. The only mistake he made was failing to snag Wells’s “non-return” key, so that after Jack the Ripper ends up in 1979, the machine automatically travels back to 1893, allowing Wells to follow the killer into the future to try to bring him back.

Much to his confusion, Wells ends up in San Francisco in 1979, not in London as he was expecting. Turns out that in 1979, the machine is part of a San Francisco museum installation about his life. After climbing out of the roped-off machine with as much poise as he can muster, clad in full late-19th-century regalia, he sets off in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. There are some amusing scenes as Wells tries to figure out what the hell is the deal with the mind-bogglingly disco-saturated twentieth century, but these are thankfully not as zany as they could have been, as McDowell brings such grace and dignity to the role that you mostly just kind of sympathize with him, even as you chuckle at his cluelessness.

He eventually finds Jack, all right, but along the way he also finds love. Wells, being no slouch, realizes that the Ripper will need to exchange his (very old) money for modern American currency, so he starts asking at the currency desks of all the nearby banks to see if another old-fashioned lookin’ dude with Victorian-lookin’ money has been in the joint. As luck would have it, the woman managing the desk where Jack changed his coinage is the gorgeous and delightfully forthright Amy Robbins (played by Mary Steenburgen, who actually married Malcolm McDowell the year after this movie came out, though they sadly divorced in 1989). Amy is allllll about Wells’s kick-ass vintage duds, his foxy upper-crust accent, and his gentlemanly manners, and so, being a liberated woman, straight-up asks him out. Wells, taken aback but pleasantly so (he had been an early advocate of women’s rights, after all), handles the situation with remarkable aplomb, and the two become entangled.

Wells tells Amy that the man he’s looking for is a murderer, but obviously does not tell her that they have both come from the past. However, as the story goes on, Amy becomes a target of the Ripper, and Wells is forced to spill the truth in order to save her life. Though she doesn’t believe him at first (who would?), a quick trip three days into the future and a newspaper with Amy’s murder on the front page is enough to convince her. There are a lot of tense moments, many women fall under the Ripper’s knife, but in the end Wells sends the Ripper into oblivion by essentially dissolving his atoms in the machine, and the thoroughly modern Amy has decided that she loves Wells so much that she wants to go back to 1893 with him.



All that aside, let’s get to the scene. I’m going to have to recap it entirely from memory, as I can’t find it on YouTube and don’t have the full movie available to me at the moment, so forgive me if some of the details are incorrect.* As I mentioned earlier, Wells and Amy know the day and approximate time of Amy’s impending murder, since they traveled a few days into the future and saw it in the newspaper. They plan for Amy to simply be absent from her apartment when the Ripper turns up to kill her, but several things conspire to prevent this from happening. For example, the clock in Amy’s apartment has stopped (I think I’m remembering that right), so it is actually much later than she thinks it is. Also, she has been waiting for Wells to arrive so that they can leave together, but he has mysteriously failed to show. Finally, when she realizes that her clock isn’t working and that the time of her demise is nigh, she throws some clothes in a bag and readies herself to get the fuck out of Dodge on her own. As she’s heading for her front door, she sees the doorknob turning. Panicked, she drops her shit on the floor and hides in a closet just as Jack busts into her apartment, big as life and knives a-gleaming.

Unbeknownst to Amy (no cell phones in 1979, yo), Wells has been picked up by the police and is in the process of being interrogated for the killings. See, turns out police find it a little suspicious when you appear out of nowhere – wearing strange clothes, bearing no ID, and calling yourself Sherlock Holmes thinking no one in the future will get the reference – and claim to know where the killer that’s suddenly plaguing the city is going to strike next. Wells tries pretty much everything he can think of to get the police to listen to him, growing sweatier and more desperate with every glance at the clock that shows that Amy’s murder is growing ever nearer. If I remember correctly, Wells first tries to convince the police that he is simply psychic, but after a while he gives them the whole story about traveling from the past to track down the Ripper. The investigator doesn’t buy this for a second, naturally, and keeps hammering poor Wells to admit that he’s the killer. Wells sticks to his guns, repeating over and over that he is from the past, and that Jack the Ripper is in San Francisco, and that a woman is going to be murdered at Amy’s address and WOULD THEY PLEASE JUST SEND A CAR OVER THERE TO CHECK, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?!? At one point he even confesses to the murders (“I killed them! I KILLED THEM ALL!”) to try to get them off his back. He begs, he pleads, he freaks out, but nothing he does seems to convince them. At last, he looks at the clock and sees that the time of Amy’s murder has passed. He slumps down in his chair, his eyes full of tears. “Please just send a car,” he weeps, defeated, and tells them her address again. “Send a car and I’ll sign anything you like.”

The interrogating officer, apparently moved by Wells’s sincerity and perhaps hoping to get a confession, finally agrees to send two officers over to Amy’s place to see what’s what. The officers arrive and find her door ajar. They peer inside, then one of them turns his head to vomit. For the inside of the apartment is completely painted with splattered blood; it’s just covering everything. And there, lying on the carpet amid the signs of an epic struggle, is a woman’s severed hand.

In the next shot, a somber (and slightly sheepish) police inspector is informing Wells that the murder has indeed gone down as predicted. “Please believe me, I am truly, truly sorry,” says the inspector, while Wells just stares blankly ahead. “You’re free to go.”

Wells, completely grief-stricken, begins wandering the dark, empty back streets of San Francisco. He walks through a park, an absolutely heartbreaking expression on his face. The only sound is the echo of his footsteps.

Then, another sound: the eerie chime of the Ripper’s pocket watch. And then, Amy’s ghostly voice, calling Wells’s name. Wells spins around and sees Amy standing by a wall, looking every inch a spirit or a figment of his tortured imagination.

But no, Amy is somehow alive. “He killed Carol, my friend from work,” she says. “I forgot I invited her over for dinner to meet you.” And then the viewer remembers that indeed, she had asked her co-worker over on Friday night, much earlier the film. We had forgotten all about that, but the screenwriter hadn’t.

Then, there’s a closeup of Amy’s white, terrified face. “The newspaper was wrong,” she intones, in a flat, echoey voice that always creeped me the fuck out. Jack appears from behind the wall, holds a knife to Amy’s throat, and threatens to kill her unless Wells gives him the non-return key. And from there the story builds to its final climax.



I can’t tell you how much I adore this film. It played approximately five times a day on one or another of the movie channels, and every time I happened to stumble across it, I would watch it again. I have to mention that the chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen is absolutely electric, and it was no surprise to me that they married shortly after the film’s release, as it almost seemed as though the actors were falling in love for real as their characters were falling in love on screen. In addition to that, I just loved the overall story, the gore, the fish-out-of-water element of prissy Wells harrumphing around 1979. David Warner also made a great Ripper: cold, calculating and ruthless, yet still somehow alluring. “Ninety years ago I was a freak,” he says to Wells at one point, as he’s flipping through TV channels showing various violent crimes and war atrocities. “Now, I’m an amateur.”

I wonder if the real Jack the Ripper, were he somehow transported to the modern day, would say the same. Goddess out.

*ETA: A few hours after I wrote this recap, the God of Hellfire was obligingly able to find the entire movie online, and we watched the whole thing through. My memory of the described scene was fairly accurate, but there were a couple of things I got wrong. For example, the actual reason that Amy was still in her apartment when the Ripper came calling didn’t have anything to do with her clock stopping. Rather, she and Wells had been up the entire night before, trying (and failing) to prevent the murder that took place before Amy’s. The following morning, Friday, it is 10:30am when Wells announces that he needs to leave the apartment briefly (he is going against his pacifist principles and going to a pawn shop to buy a gun to defend Amy, though he doesn’t tell her this), but tells her that if he isn’t back in an hour, she should register at the Huntington Hotel and he will meet her there. The freaked-out Amy (who saw the Ripper’s fourth victim being dredged from a canal the night before) unwisely takes a sedative and a few sips from Wells’s flask, thinking Wells will be back in plenty of time to wake her up. But as he is returning to the apartment, he is picked up by the cops, who find the gun he just purchased in his pocket. They haul him away as he is screaming up at Amy’s window. The zonked-out Amy doesn’t hear him, and doesn’t awaken until an hour before her murder was predicted.

I also misremembered Wells trying to tell the police he was psychic. I remembered it that way because earlier in the film, when Wells goes to the police to give them the Ripper’s description, the police ask him if he’s a psychic and he says no. When Wells himself is dragged into the interrogation room and accused of the murders, he tells them the truth right away, and keeps telling it to them until it’s clear that they won’t send a car to Amy’s place unless he agrees to confess. He doesn’t call Amy to check on her, because he has used his one phone call to contact the Huntington Hotel to make sure she checked in (which she didn’t, hence his panic).

Another thing I had mostly forgotten was the splendid chess-like pitting of the overly idealistic and morally upright Wells against the brutally realistic Ripper, who understands all too well that the utopia Wells thought he would find in the future was never going to be anything but a pipe dream. This gave the film a bit of added depth and edge; even though Wells “won” in the end by defeating the Ripper and saving his love, he also had his illusions of human progress shattered, as he realized that the Ripper had been damnably right about humankind all along. “Every age is the same,” Wells tells Amy at the end. “It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.” Truer words, Wells. Truer words. Goddess out, again.

The Goddess Picks Her Top Five Books and Stories That Desperately Need Film Adaptations

As we all know, the book is almost always a thousand times better than the movie, but sometimes that doesn’t stop me from seeing a movie in my head as I read and desperately wishing I had unlimited funds and some measure of directing talent so I could bring my vision of these stories to the masses. My choices may be a bit idiosyncratic, but if any Hollywood execs are reading this, you’d have at least one ticket sale right here, so think about it, won’t you? For the Goddess. Oh, and by the way, if any of you aforementioned execs want to option any of MY wonderful books or stories for film, give me a shout. We’ll have a cappuccino and a chat and then maybe you can fork me over a largish check. The movie can even suck, I don’t care, so no pressure on you from my end. Thank you, and on with the list:


5. And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave

Nick Cave is like the mad genius of all media. He’s a singer/songwriter, film score composer, screenwriter, novelist, actor, and lecturer, and miraculously, he is ridiculously brilliant at all these endeavors. It’s really not fair to the rest of us, as infinitely less awesome mortals, but I content myself with believing that Nick is actually Satan himself and has chosen to capture human souls through the sheer dark force of the splendid entertainment he produces. Nick’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, is a whacked-out, Faulkneresque brew of Old Testament fury and Southern Gothic excess, and any adaptation would of course have to be scripted and scored by the man himself. I’m seeing it done in sepia tones, perhaps with a hand-cranked camera to give it that otherworldly feel; bonus points if it’s also done as a silent film (since main character Euchrid Euchrow is a mute). In theaters, it should be preceded by a short film: a sinister, stop-motion animation adaptation of Nick’s 1986 song, “The Carny.”


4. Strapless by Deborah Davis

Perhaps an unusual choice, as it’s non-fiction, but I have long been enchanted with the story of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the haughty society woman who posed for John Singer Sargent’s most famous painting, Madame X. (I even wrote an article about her on this very blog.) It could be a fascinating study of vanity and how pride goeth before a fall, and the set design and costumes would be FANTASTIC. In fact, I wanted to see this on film so badly that I actually wrote a (not very good) screenplay a couple of years ago that interwove Virginie’s biography with a modern tale of an unstable woman participating in an art heist, but screenwriting isn’t really my strong suit, so if anyone out there would care to take the reins, I swear I won’t be mad.


3. Drood by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’s gigantic novel, a Victorian medley of supernatural horror, drug abuse, and fictionalized biography, sees Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins on the trail of the mysterious man-creature known as Edwin Drood (who was, in real life, the main character of Dickens’s final unfinished novel). This would be a fabulously spooky cobblestone-streets-and-top-hats film in the line of From Hell or The Prestige. Missed opportunity alert: back in 2009, Universal Pictures hinted at a Drood adaptation that would possibly be directed by Guillermo del Toro (TAKE ALL MY MONEY. ALL OF IT), but sadly, that project seems to have gone nowhere.


2. “The Triumph of Death” by H. Russell Wakefield

Early 20th century author Herbert Russell Wakefield is considered one of Britain’s finest writers of supernatural horror. His 1949 short story “The Triumph of Death” is one of my favorite stories of all time, and although it was adapted once for British television in 1968 as part of an anthology series called “Late Night Horror,” I really feel that its themes of cruelty, madness and revenge could be expanded to a feature-length movie. The story isn’t really set in a specific time or place, but I’d like to see the action unfold maybe around the 1920s, in either an English village or a small colonial-style enclave in Massachusetts or somewhere like that. It should be understated, but the flashes of Gilles de Rais-style torture shouldn’t be overlooked. The vile Miss Pendleham should be played like the high-collared stepmother from Disney’s Cinderella, but in human form, perhaps by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. This is another story that I’ve actually been itching to write a screenplay for, and I even went so far as to try to contact various people about obtaining the adaptation rights, but I seem to have hit a dead end in that regard. More’s the pity.


1. The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

With the unbelievable explosion in popularity of films based on YA literature that occurred in the wake of Harry Potter, I must say that I am absolutely flabbergasted that no one has thought to adapt this as a film. This and The Westing Game were absolutely my favorite books growing up, and I read them again and again. They both hold up amazingly well even when read as an adult. There should probably also be a good, big-budget adaptation of The Westing Game, now that I think of it, but The House With a Clock in its Walls is such a wonderfully creepy and fun story, and it could be done super dark or a tad more lighthearted, either as live action or perhaps as Tim Burton-esque stop-motion. It would actually be great if a filmmaker could capture the eerie look of Edward Gorey’s delightful illustrations, which for me added so much to the magic of the book. I feel that it should be set in a sort of mythical 1950s, and that the main character of Lewis should be a straight-laced but likable boy whose chubby awkwardness makes him at once pitiable and relatable. Uncle Jonathan should be his affably wizardly self, and witch neighbor Florence should be like a cool grandmother type. I’m seeing the resurrection scene, when Lewis accidentally raises evil wizards Isaac and Selenna Izard from the dead, as super, super scary, like maybe with a Sleepy Hollow kind of vibe. Also, the house itself should be a rambling, creepy, Victorian pile (perhaps they could even shoot the film in the real-life house the story was based on, Cronin House in Michigan), and the interiors should be suitably gothic. The sound design would of course have to include the constant ticking of that terrible doomsday clock. It would make a terrific film for kids and adults, and it’s even the first book in a series (cha-ching, Hollywood execs), though the rest of the books didn’t grab me the way this one did. Amazingly, the only filmed adaptation of this book that I know of was as one lame, cheesy third of a Vincent Price-hosted 1979 TV anthology, “Once Upon a Midnight Scary.” YOU GUYS, THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Gather up all of your money and diamonds and cookies and gold bars and Red Lobster gift cards and send them to whoever can greenlight this. DO IT NOW. Thank you, and Goddess out.

The Murder at Road Hill House

The grisly murder of a three-year-old boy in 19th-century England caused a national sensation and inspired many early crime writers. The original article I wrote can be found here.


A country house situated near the town of Frome in Somerset, Road Hill House was the residence of Samuel Kent, who worked as a factory sub-inspector, and his second wife Mary Kent, along with their three children Mary Amelia, Saville, and Eveline. Also in residence were four children from Samuel Kent’s first marriage – Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Constance, and William – as well as three servants: Nursemaid Elizabeth Gough, housemaid Sarah Cox, and cook Sarah Kerslake.

Saville Kent Goes Missing

Elizabeth Gough, sleeping in the same room as Saville and Eveline, first noticed that the little boy was not in his bed. At first she was unconcerned, thinking the boy’s mother Mary Kent had taken the boy to sleep in the Kents’ bed. But it wasn’t long before it was discovered that Saville was missing, and that one of the tall windows in the drawing room was open. Patriarch Samuel Kent organized family members and servants for a search of the house and grounds, sent his son William to fetch the parish constable, then took his own carriage to Trowbridge to summon the police superintendent.

The Discovery of Saville Kent’s Murder

William Nutt and Thomas Benger, both of whom lived in the nearby village and had joined in the search, were the first to come across the gruesome remains of the three-year-old. Saville’s throat had been cut so deeply that the head was almost severed; he had been stabbed in the chest and bore dark bruises around his mouth. The tiny corpse had been stuffed into the privy located near the gate to the stable yard. Apparently the murderer had wished for Saville’s body to be hidden in the mounds of excrement in the cistern beneath the privy, but a recently installed splashguard prevented the corpse from falling.

Suspicions Among the Kent Family

From the start, it was presumed someone in the house had murdered the boy. Although the open drawing room window seemed to point to a break-in, police determined that the shutters could only have been opened from the inside. There were also several clues that hinted at dark doings within the family. Nurse Elizabeth Gough claimed not to have heard anything, though she slept near Saville’s cot; in addition, she also called the boy a “tell-tale” and was heard to categorize the murder as “revenge.” There was also the matter of an allegedly bloodstained nightgown belonging to 15-year-old Constance Kent, which later turned up missing. A piece of newspaper that was found near the privy looked as though it had been used to wipe a bloody knife; the paper was The Times, to which Samuel Kent subscribed. And when the cistern beneath the privy was drained, a piece of flannel was discovered, of the type women wore over their breasts to prevent their corsets from chafing. This flannel was found to perfectly fit Elizabeth Gough.

By far the most popular theory circulated by the press was that Samuel Kent and Elizabeth Gough had murdered the child after he had witnessed them in bed together; they feared that Saville would tell his mother what he had seen. But Jonathan Whicher, the investigator sent from Scotland Yard two weeks after the murder, pointed the finger at Constance Kent, whose strangely detached demeanor, coupled with the confusion about her missing nightdress, made her a prime suspect. Whicher discovered that several years earlier, Constance and her brother William had run away from home; Constance had cut off her long hair in order to pass as a boy, and had discarded the hair in the same privy where Saville’s body was found.

A Suspect Arrested

Whicher had Constance brought into custody. But there was a public outcry, as most people – including Charles Dickens, who used aspects of the case in his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood – believed that Samuel Kent and Elizabeth Gough were the killers. Whicher was reviled as a lower-class snoop who took salacious delight in airing a proper Victorian family’s dirty laundry, and who enjoyed bullying an innocent teenage girl. Constance was released, and later went to a convent home, St. Mary’s. The rest of the family still suffered under a cloud of suspicion; Samuel Kent’s job was constantly in jeopardy and he was reassigned many times, and other family members were taunted and spat at in the streets. The theme of an upright family harboring terrible secrets in its midst was fictionalized in Wilkie Collins’s hugely successful novel The Moonstone, a locked room mystery and the first English detective novel. The book’s detective, Sgt. Cuff, was based directly on Whicher.

A Suspect Confesses

In 1865, Constance Kent entered Bow Street magistrates’ court in London and confessed to killing her half-brother Saville, using a razor she had stolen from her father’s bag. She claimed she had acted alone, and had killed the boy in order to punish her stepmother. Despite her confession, she received an enormous amount of public sympathy, with many people suspecting that she was insane or had been coerced into confessing. But Constance was duly convicted of murder, though she was spared the death penalty. She made many petitions for early release, but ended up serving her entire 22-year sentence. After her release, she went to Australia to stay with her brother William, who had become a well-regarded naturalist. Constance herself trained as a nurse and spent many years caring for patients with leprosy. It later came to light that Constance and William may have conspired together to murder Saville, but that Constance took the entire blame to protect William. Constance Kent died in 1944, at the age of 100.


Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. Walker Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 0802715354.

Victorian Spirit Photography

To a public entranced by the seeming magic of photography, capturing ghosts on film was par for the course. The original article I wrote is here.



It seems hard to imagine in this modern era of ubiquitous digital photography and cheap photo manipulation software, when creating a picture of a ghost (or anything else) is as simple as clicking a mouse; but to the Victorians, the realism of the photographic image seemed incredible and, somewhat ironically, rather mystical. The art of photography was to them a way to miraculously stop time, to forever embed memory in concrete form. Given this perception, it was probably inevitable that people of the era would initiate not only a demand for photographs of corpses, but also a brisk trade in supposed pictures of the spirits of the dead.


Louis Daguerre and Early Photography

Photography as a medium grew out of scientific experimentation in optics and chemistry. The earliest photographic images were made by placing objects (such as plants or fossils) onto light sensitive paper and then exposing the paper to the sun. William Henry Fox Talbot produced the first examples of these, and later Louis J.M. Daguerre experimented with similar images before going on to develop the “daguerreotype,” the forerunner of the modern photograph.

Because of the nature of early photography — passive camera operators, long exposure times — it was widely felt that a photographic image was a completely objective record, untainted by human bias. Additionally, Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographic series of a galloping horse demonstrated that the flat, uninvolved gaze of the camera could capture things the human eye could not see; in the case of the horse, this proved to be the fact that all four of the horse’s hooves were off the ground simultaneously at some point during the gallop. These two aspects of the new technology — both its supposed scientific inviolability and its ability to freeze images invisible to the human eye — contributed to its use in the sciences as well as among adherents of the new religion of Spiritualism.

Spiritualism, Seances, and Photographing Ghosts

The rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century coincided with the waning of traditional religious belief and the flowering of the Enlightenment, when people began to realize that science could be used as a tool to solve problems that had vexed humanity for millennia. Spiritualists, even while they attempted to speak to the dead at seances and shrouded themselves in paranormal trappings, saw themselves in a decidedly scientific light. They reasoned that since science had uncovered and explained invisible “forces” animating the universe — electricity, magnetism — science would also soon explain “life forces” that survived the body after death. Photography played a large part in their supposed “experiments” aiming to prove the existence of ghosts.

Early photographers were of course aware of the faint ghostly images produced when the subject of the photograph moved while the plate was being exposed. It isn’t clear who was the first photographer to use this quirk as a means to make spirit photographs, but one of the most famous was William Mumler, who in 1861 began producing spirit photographs in his Boston studio. Likely using double exposures and various other tricks, Mumler made quite a comfortable living taking pictures of grieving sitters with ethereal friends and relatives hovering nearby. He even took the infamous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln in which the supposed spirit of her assassinated husband stands behind her with his hands resting on her shoulders.

Mumler’s fame was so widespread that he soon came under scrutiny from authorities, who eventually charged him with fraud — not because his pictures were not really of ghosts, which of course they weren’t, but because the blurred images of the “spirits” in the photographs were not usually recognizable as the friend or relative of the living sitter.

Photographic Fakes and the Culture of Mourning

While the Victorians were quick to accept the reality of the spirits in the photographs, believing as they did that photography was resistant to human manipulation, the truth is that the pictures were fakes, in most cases rather clumsy fakes. Like that other Spiritualist trope, the seance, which was performed through cunning trickery and hidden accomplices, spirit photography stood as a testament to creative fraud, an attempt to bolster people’s deeply held beliefs through managing their perceptions of reality. The culture of death and mourning prevalent in the Victorian era combined with a new attachment to the objectivity of the scientific method produced a strange hybrid of materialism and metaphysics whose reverberations can still be felt to the present day.


Firenze, Paul. “Spirit Photography: How Early Spiritualists Tried to Save Religion by Using Science.” Skeptic. Vol 11 No 2. 2004: 70-78.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Murder of Mary Rogers


This is an article I wrote a while back about the real case that Poe used as an inspiration for his story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The original article appeared here.


Tragic American scribe Edgar Allan Poe, while most popular today for his gruesome horror stories, in fact wrote successfully in many genres and is generally credited with pioneering the modern detective story through the invention of his fictional sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin.

Several of Poe’s stories were partly based on true events, but one of the most intriguing examples was the detective story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” inspired by the brutal 1841 rape and murder of a pretty twenty-year-old woman in New York City. There has been rampant speculation as to what happened to Mary Cecilia Rogers, the “real” Marie Rogêt, but even now, almost 170 years after her death, her killer remains unidentified.

The Disappearance of Mary Rogers

It was on the morning of Sunday, July 25, 1841 that twenty-year-old Mary Cecilia Rogers told her fiancé Daniel Payne that she was going uptown to visit her aunt. Mary, by all accounts a stunningly beautiful young woman, was clad in a white dress with a black shawl and a blue silk scarf, her black hair tucked under a flowered hat. Daniel Payne agreed to meet Mary at the omnibus station when she returned from her aunt’s house later that evening. But Mary Rogers would never be coming back.

Payne, alarmed when Mary had not returned by Monday, placed a missing persons ad that ran in Tuesday’s New York Sun. Upon hearing of Mary’s disappearance, a former sweetheart named Alfred Crommelin also joined the search. It was Crommelin who, on Wednesday the 28th, saw the commotion around the Hudson river, where a woman’s body had been pulled from the water. Crommelin initially identified Mary by the presence of a birthmark on her arm — the face was too battered for easy recognition — and Mary’s mother later identified the clothing the girl had been wearing when she’d last been seen alive.

An Unlikely Drowning and a Range of Suspects

In the early stages of the investigation, it was thought that Mary Rogers had simply drowned, but even a peremptory examination of the body demonstrated that Mary had obviously been dead before going into the water, which of course pointed to murder. Payne and Crommelin were naturally questioned, though both had unimpeachable alibis, as did Mary’s former employer, tobacconist John Anderson, and all of her other friends and fellow residents at the boarding house where she lived. In the absence of a clear suspect, rumors began to circulate almost immediately.

A Clandestine Abortion

One of the most insidious of these was that Mary had died either during or shortly after a botched abortion, and had been disposed of to cover it up. This tenacious rumor was based on the alleged confession of a tavern keeper who had supposedly seen Mary in the presence of a physician and knew that the abortion had been performed in his tavern. The “confession” turned out to be completely fabricated, but the abortion story not only turned up in a later revision of Poe’s fictional account of the crime, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” but continued to be repeated as truth in several books about the murder, right up into the modern day. It was also apparently a factor in abortion becoming criminalized in New York State in 1845.

The Suicide of Daniel Payne

Though Payne was quickly dismissed as a suspect, new stories began swirling about his involvement after he took his own life in October of 1841, by taking an overdose of laudanum. A cryptic suicide note was found in his pocket that some interpreted as a confession, but the note could also be read as simply a statement of grief, an unwillingness to go on living after Mary’s death. Indeed, Payne’s friends claimed he had been inconsolable after the murder, and were not terribly surprised that he would take such drastic action.

Who Really Killed Mary Rogers?

It was clear that someone had murdered the girl, but the mystery of who had done it was becoming murkier. In Poe’s story, the killer is thought to be a naval officer, perhaps the fictional counterpart to Mary’s real-life fellow boarder, sailor William Kiekuck, who was questioned about the crime but had a solid alibi. There was also speculation that Mary had been set upon by a gang; initial autopsy reports stated that Mary had been “violated by more than two or three persons,” though later investigation suggested otherwise.

In a recent article in Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell analyzed the many books and articles written about the unsolved murder, and also went back to revisit contemporary news stories and police reports. His conclusion, also reached by other scholars, was that Mary was likely raped and killed by a single assailant, an unidentified “swarthy” man who a few witnesses saw walking with her shortly before her disappearance.

She was raped and then strangled with a piece of lace trim; her unknown murderer then tore a strip from her petticoat and used it to fashion a sort of sling which he used to drag the body to the river (this fact alone casts doubt on the gang-rape theory, as a group of men could have easily carried the body). Whoever he was, the man who killed Mary Rogers evidently got away with his crime. Mary herself lives on in the pages of Poe’s masterful fiction.


Nickell, Joe. “Historical Whodunit: Spiritualists, Poe, and the Real ‘Marie Rogêt'”. Skeptical Inquirer July/August 2010: 45-49.