The Lost Art of Sin-Eating

In 19th-century Britain, it was customary during a funeral to provide biscuits for mourners. They were often wrapped and sealed in black wax. Below, you see an example of a funeral biscuit wrapper from 1828 which is now on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

This strange tradition likely derived from an earlier practice of “sin-eating,” whereby the sins of the deceased were transferred to a person who, for a small fee, consumed food and drink handed to him over the coffin. Mourners would pay the village sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all the sins they had accumulated during their lives, thus allowing the dead to enter Heaven unburdened. One early account describes the lost act of sin-eating: “The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.”

Originally, sin-eating was performed for those who had died unexpectedly, since these people would have had no time to confess their sins before dying. Over time, however, the ritual was performed for anyone who died. This was done not only to expedite the dead’s passage to Heaven, but also to prevent the dearly departed from wandering the countryside after death and haunting those they left behind.

The sin-eater was often shunned within his own community. Villagers feared the type of man who was willing to “pawn his own soul” for very little worldly gain. People believed that the sin-eater would become more and more corrupt with each ritual he performed since he willfully carried the sins of the deceased for the rest of his mortal life.

The ritual soon became associated with dark magic as it bestowed human powers over spiritual matters. For this reason, sin-eaters were seen to be operating outside the bounds of Christianity, and were often condemned by the Church. The Scottish novelist Catherine Sinclair wrote in 1838 that the men “who undertook so daring an imposture must all have been infidels, willing, apparently, like Esau, to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The last recorded sin-eater was a man named Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 in Ratlinghope, Shropshire. Unlike many of his predecessors who took on the role of sin-eater out of economic desperation, Munslow came from a relatively wealthy family. He resurrected the practice of sin-eating after three of his children died of whooping cough, and some speculate he did it as a form of grieving. Over time, however, he offered to absorb the sins of the recently departed purely out of kindness and love for his fellow villagers.

In 2010, the citizens of Ratlinghope raised over a thousand pounds to restore Munslow’s grave, which had fallen into disrepair over the last century. It was a final act of kindness for a man who had given so much of himself to his fellow man.

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By |2019-09-13T17:54:38+00:00September 13th, 2019|BLOG, Casebooks|3 Comments

Ten Medical Procedures From The Past

For anyone who has ever uttered the words “the good old days,” this blog post is for you. Here are 10 MEDICAL PROCEDURES FROM THE PAST that will make you happy to be alive in 2019.

By |2019-09-01T19:41:41+00:00September 1st, 2019|BLOG, Casebooks|9 Comments

My New Book Deal

I’m so excited to announce that the subject of MY NEXT BOOK will be on the birth of plastic surgery told through the incredible story of Harold Gillies, the pioneering and eccentric surgeon who first united art and medicine to address the horrific injures that resulted from World War I.

From the moment that the “Dhak! Dhak! Dhak! Dhak!” of the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: mankind’s military technology at the start of WWI wildly outpaced its medical capabilities. Bullets whizzed through the air at incredible speeds, discharging as much as 7,200 horsepower of energy in a single shot. Shells and mortar bombs exploded with a force that flung men around the battlefield like rag dolls. And a deadly new threat in the form of hot chunks of shrapnel—coated in the filth and bacteria of the battlefield—wrought terrible injuries on its victims. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of one man, these soldiers would have also been condemned to a lifetime of isolation.

My book will follow the story of Harold Gillies [pictured right, copyright: Dr. Andrew Bamji] who was presented with the seemingly impossible task of reconstructing entire faces with no textbooks to guide him, and no mentors to consult for advice. Working closely with a team of artists, Gillies did not just strive to restore function to his patients, many of whom could not breathe, swallow, or eat efficiently because of the damage to their faces. He was determined to give them back their identities as well. Here, you see an incredible example of reconstructive work from this era.

I can’t wait to share this inspiring story with the world.

As with all good news, there is a bittersweet side to this announcement. I’m thrilled to be working with my wonderful publisher FSG again, but sadly my editor Amanda Moon will be leaving next month to begin her own consulting business. She will be sorely missed, though I’m looking forward to working with the brilliant Colin Dickerman on this second project.

By |2018-03-07T14:36:30+00:00February 21st, 2018|BLOG, Casebooks|39 Comments

The Butchering Art – BOOK TRAILER!

With just one week left until the launch of my debut book, it’s my great pleasure to unveil the trailer for The Butchering Art.

A great deal of love, thought and care has gone into the many weeks of its production. As someone who relishes the visual elements of the past, I wanted to see how the sights and sounds of grimy, grisly Victorian surgery would translate onto screen. So, I set out with filmmaker Alex Anstey of Light Arcade Productions to create a short film that thrusts the viewer straight into the brutal action of the era’s operating theaters, in which survival depended as much upon chance as upon the skills of the butcher wielding the blade.

Alex is truly a craftsman of story in film form and has a painter’s eye for detail and light. He used three locations—a small film studio, the Old Operating Theatre in the heart of London, and a Westminster street in the dead of night—to help bring to life a bloody amputation of the era.

We hope you enjoy the trailer, and that it will give you all a feel of what I have tried to achieve on the page. Please share it widely on social media! And don’t forget you can pre-order the book ahead of its launch on October 17th.

By |2017-10-16T18:00:18+00:00October 10th, 2017|BLOG, Casebooks|8 Comments

Carved Skull – GIVEAWAY

Untitled collage

GIVEAWAY ALERT! Win this amazing skull carved by Zane Wylie in honor of the publication of my first book, The Butchering Art. To enter:

1) Pre-order The Butchering Art (click HERE)
2) Share this post on social media
3) Leave your name in the comment section

The Butchering Art follows the surgeon Joseph Lister on his quest to transform the brutal and bloody world of Victorian medicine through antisepsis. The winner will be announced on October 17th, the day the book is released. Thanks for your continued support, and good luck with the contest!

*Note: if you’ve already pre-ordered the book, simply share this post and leave your name in the comment section below to enter. Only applicable to US orders.

By |2017-09-29T20:23:04+00:00September 29th, 2017|Casebooks|34 Comments