harrisPeople think I’m obsessed with syphilis, and maybe I am. But it’s only because of my recent indoctrination into 18th-century history by aficionados of the period, such as Lucy Inglis, Adrian Teal and Rob Lucas.  I can’t read 10 pages of a medical casebook without coming across a reference to lues venerea. By the end of the century, London was literally crawling with the pox.

And it’s no surprise. Sexual promiscuity was as much a part of Georgian England as were powdered wigs and opium. For a few pennies, a gentleman could pick up Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar—a pocket guide to London’s prostitutes published annually starting in 1771—and peruse it as he might do a fine wine list.

For three guineas, a man could partake in the pleasures provided by Miss L—st—r at No. 6 Union Street, whose ‘neighbouring hills [are] full ripe for manual pressure, firm, and elastic, and heave at every touch.’ [1] If three guineas were too much, one could always spend a third of that for a night with Miss H—ll—nd at No. 2 York Street, who, ‘tho’ only seventeen and short, is very fat and corpulent…a luscious treat to the voluptuary.’ [2]  And for those who fancied a woman ‘rather above the common height’, they could visit Miss S—ms at No. 82 Queen Ann’s Street East, who frequently attracted lovers of a ‘diminutive size’ who loved ‘surmounting such a fine, tall woman.’ [3]

L0033923 A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroomThe guidebook wasn’t all slap and tickle, though. Hidden within these pages were warnings about the dangers of sleeping with diseased prostitutes.  Military men were cautioned against Matilda Johnson, since ‘it is thought by some experienced officers, that her citadel is in danger, on account of a quantity of fiery combustible matter which is lodged in the covered way.’ Some warnings were not so subtle (or hilarious). The guidebook alerts its readers to Miss Young, who had ‘very lately had the folly and wickedness to leave a certain hospital, before the cure for a certain distemper which she had was completed.’ The book ominously adds that she has ‘thrown her contaminated carcass on the town again.’ [4]

Yes, syphilis was ubiquitous in 18th-century London. Aside from abstaining or entering into a monogamous relationship with a healthy partner, there was very little one could do to protect oneself from the pox. Condoms, though available during this period, were rarely employed. When used, they were frequently reused multiple times, defeating their purpose as safeguards against contamination.

SyphilisThat said, the telltale signs of the disease could often be seen on those suffering from the pox, allowing the astute observer to steer clear of infected persons. In this wax moulage (left) by the talented artist, Nicole Antebi, you can see the effects of the disease on the face and mouth. Blemishes such as these came to be associated with prostitution. Georgian women went to great lengths to cover these marks with ‘beauty spots’ made of fine black velvet, or mouse skin.

Those who suffered from the pox often turned to surgeons for help. Before the discovery of penicillin, syphilis was an incurable (and ultimately fatal) disease. The longer it went on, the worse the symptoms became. In addition to unsightly skin ulcers like the ones mentioned above, sufferers could experience paralysis, blindness, dementia and ‘saddle nose‘, a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

L0034508 A patient suffering from the adverse effects of mercury treatMany treatments involved the use of mercury, which could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself (see illustration, right, of patient suffering from over-exposure to mercury). Many patients who underwent such treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from mercury poisoning. Indeed, it’s hard to fault Miss Young for throwing her ‘contaminated carcass on the town again’ after refusing to continue treatment that most likely included mercury.

Prostitutes bore the brunt of it when it came to syphilis in Georgian London. Yet despite the dangers, women entered into the profession at an astonishing rate. An estimated 1 in 5 women were ‘Ladies of the Night’ during this period. Some entered the sex trade as young as 12 years of age; and many could expect to make as much as £400 per year. [5]

Still, the financial advantages of prostitution meant little if one contracted the deadly disease. The two syphilitic women mentioned above did not appear in later editions of Harris’s List. Their fates were sealed once their secrets had been exposed. No doubt countless other women suffered the same future after they became infected, losing not only their livelihoods, but also their lives to this dreadful epidemic.

Am I obsessed with syphilis? Yes. But for good reason!

1. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for the Year (1788), p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 36
4. These two examples come from Harris’s List (1779); however, I originally found them in Wendy Moore’s excellent book, The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and The Birth of Modern Science (2005), p. 127.
5. These facts and figures can be found in Dan Cruickshank’s book, The Secret History of Georgian London (2010).