Gin causes women to spontaneously combust. Or, at least, that was the theory. There are two documented cases of British ladies downing gin and going up in smoke, and a few more of European women doing the same with brandy. The matter was taken seriously enough to be discussed by the Royal Society in 1745.
We don’t take stories of spontaneous human combustion that seriously any more (for reasons I’ll get back to), but for a historian, the stories are fascinating because they’re part of the great Gin Panic. This was the moralising and serious counterpart to the great Gin Craze that swept London and much of England in the first half of the 18th century and produced (aside from the ignited ladies) mass public nudity, burning babies, and a mechanical gin-selling cat.
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Alcoholic spirits were a pretty new commodity in 18th-century society, though they had actually been around for a long time. They started as a chemical curiosity in about the 10th century AD. They were being drunk by the very, very rich for pleasure by about 1500, as shown when James IV of Scotland bought several barrels of whisky. But even a hundred years later, in 1600, there was only one recorded bar in England that sold spirits to the curious (just outside London, towards Barking).
Then in about 1700, spirits hit. The reasons are complicated and involve taxation of grain and the relations with the Dutch, but the important thing is that gin suddenly became widely available to Londoners, which was a good thing for the gin-sellers as Londoners needed a drink. The turn of the 18th century was a great period of urbanisation, when the poor of England flocked to London in search of streets paved with gold and Bubbles from South Sea [the South Sea Bubble was a speculation boom in the early 1710s], only to find that the streets were paved with mud and there was no work to be had. London’s population was around 600,000. There were only two other towns in England with populations of 20,000. London was the first grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either, with a parish that would support its native poor, or the family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.
A craze among the poor
It’s very hard to say which was bigger – the craze for drinking gin that swept the lower classes, or the moral panic at the sight of so many gin drinkers that engulfed the ruling classes. Anonymous hordes of poor, often homeless people wandered the city drinking away their sorrows, and often their clothes, as they readily exchanged their garments for the spirit.
Before the industrial revolution and the rash of cotton mills that would fill the north of England a century later, cloth was very expensive. Beggars really did dress in rags, if at all, and the obvious thing to sell if you really needed money fast was, literally, the shirt on your back. The descriptions left to us by the ‘Gin Panickers’ would be funny – if they weren’t so tragic.
Indeed, the most notorious single incident of the gin craze was the case of Judith Defour, a young woman with a daughter and no obvious husband. The daughter, Mary, had been taken into care by the parish workhouse and provided with a nice new set of clothes. One Sunday, in January 1734, Judith Defour came to take Mary out for the day and didn’t return her. Instead, she strangled her own child and sold the new clothes to buy gin.
Judith Defour was probably mentally unwell anyway, but her case became a public sensation, because it summed up everything that people thought about the new craze for drinking gin: she was poor; she was a woman and she was a mother. Judith was selling clothes for alcohol and as the clothes had been provided by the workhouse, she was therefore taking advantage of the rudimentary social security system, combining benefits fraud with infanticide.
The arrival of gin
Before gin had come on the scene, Englishmen had drunk beer. English women had drunk it too – up to a point – but beer and the alehouses where it was served had always been seen as basically male domains. Gin, which was new and exotic and metropolitan, didn’t have any of these old associations. There were no rules around gin. There were no social norms about who could drink it, or when you could drink it, or how much of it you could drink. A lot of places served it in pints because, well… that’s what you drank. A country boy newly arrived in the city wasn’t going to drink a thimbleful of something.
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This was, quite literally, put to the test in 1741, when a group of Londoners offered a farm labourer a shilling for each pint of gin he could sink. He managed three, and then dropped down dead. It’s amazing he got that far, as gin, in those days, was about twice as strong as it is now and contained some interesting flavourings. Some distillers used to add sulphuric acid, just to give it some bite.
And so the efforts to ban drinking among the lower classes began. And they didn’t work very well. When authorities decided to ban the sale of gin, there were fully fledged riots. The poor didn’t want their drug of choice taken away. They loved ‘Madam Geneva’, as they called the spirit.
In any case, the government decided to tax the living daylights out of it. But people simply didn’t pay the tax, so government tried to pay informants to hand in unlicensed gin-sellers. This attempt turned ugly as a number of mobs formed to attack even suspected informants, and several people were beaten to death. Not that the informants were necessarily that nice; they could, and some did, run the whole thing as a protection racket – “pay me or I’ll claim the reward from the government”. And into this chaos it’s almost unsurprising that a mechanical cat should make an entry.
The Puss-and-Mew machine
The contraption known as the ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ was simple. The gin-seller found a window in alleyway that was nowhere near the building’s front door. The window was covered boarded over with a wooden cat. The gin-buyer would approach and say to the cat: “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin,” and then place the coins in the cat’s mouth. These would slide inwards to the gin-seller who would pour the gin down a lead pipe that emerged under the cat’s paw. The crowds loved it and the inventor, Dudley Bradstreet, made three or four pounds a day, which was a lot of money. As nobody witnessed both sides of the transaction, no charges could be brought.
The Gin Craze was a classic example of a drug without social norms. Every society on earth has had its narcotics (and almost every society has chosen alcohol). But those narcotics have come with social rules about when, where, how and why you ‘get blasted’. Every age and every society is different. Today, young adults tend to get drunk on a Friday evening, while in medieval England, the preferred time was Sunday morning. In ancient Egypt, it was the Festival of Hathor and in ancient China, it was during the rites that honoured the family dead.
Nowadays, gin is just another spirit, but in the 18th century, gin had no norms, no rules, no mythology and no associations. It was anyone’s, and that was its danger: a danger that in the popular imagination was easily transmuted into spontaneous female combustion.
A final note on these combustible ladies: they were all reasonably old and reasonably well off. The strange thing about spontaneous human combustion is that in all cases the body is reduced to a small pile of ashes, whilst nearby objects – however burnable – are not even singed. A human body actually burns at around 1,200 degrees Celsius. A burning house rarely gets above about 800 degrees. So, while the stories don’t stand up scientifically, a society that believes such stories is very good for those who stand to inherit the victim’s fortune.
Mark Forsyth is the author of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present (Viking, November 2017). He also appeared in a recent episode of the History Extra podcast, listen here.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in December 2017