Victorian Strangeness: A gruesome end to an argument
- 14 June 2014
Author Jeremy Clay tells the story of the woman who cut off her leg to spite her husband.
He wouldn't take no for an answer, that much was clear. The man had turned up unannounced at the London home of The Lancet with a mysterious package under his arm and an urgent look in his eyes. It was late. It was emitting a faint but disagreeable smell. But he demanded to be heard, and wasn't going to budge.
And so he was led to the editor's office, where events immediately took an unexpected turn. The visitor dumped the bundle on a desk and yanked out a human leg. "There!" he cried, brandishing the limb with the triumphant air of someone who had just proved a conclusive point in an ongoing row. "Is there anything the matter with that?"
The assembled staff of the medical journal gazed upon it. No, they were forced to conclude, drawing deep from their accumulated specialist knowledge, there was nothing outwardly wrong with it at all, save for the fact it was no longer attached to a body.
"Did you ever see a handsomer one?" challenged the visitor. Perhaps they had, perhaps they hadn't, but it was certainly an attention-grabber. "A very fair symmetrical lower extremity," the Shields Daily Gazette noted in November 1862, "which had evidently belonged to a woman."
The interrogator wasn't yet done. "What ought to be done with the man who cut it off?" he yelped.
At this stage, his audience decided a few more background facts were required before this grisly display of show-and-tell went any further. The man began to tell his story. And a particularly outlandish one it was too.
Until relatively recently, he said, the leg was where he liked it best - on his wife. He was a great admirer of both the leg and the accompanying foot, he told them. She knew that all too well. But they'd had a fierce quarrel a few days before, and she'd stormed out of the house, vowing "she would be revenged upon him, and that he should never see the objects of his admiration again".
The next thing he heard, she was a patient in hospital, and her leg had been amputated.
"She had declared to the surgeons that she suffered intolerable pain in the knee, and had begged to have the limb removed," said the Gazette, "a petition the surgeon complied with, and thus became the instrument of her absurd and self-torturing revenge upon her husband."
Even by the wild standards of the Victorian press, this seems like a preposterous tale. But there's one line in the report which lends the whole affair a dash of credibility. "The editor of The Lancet vouches for the truth of this statement," it says at the outset.
As it turns out, the article in the Gazette was pinched virtually word for word from The Lancet itself. "We could, if we pleased, name the hospital involved," said the original piece, rather airily.
They didn't, though. Make of that what you will.
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