While researching “monstrous” births from the early 1800s, I came across the following reprint of Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters. The story recounts a child “covered with long hair” and “grovel[ing] upon the ground” is fastened to a post like a dog. Described as “wild and ferocious,” the story resembles those of the dog children—but the narrative has been embellished with the tone and phrasing now made famous by the Gothic narratives from Udolpho onwards. (Read more…) The “gentleman” who reports the scene says “he never say so wild and wretched a spot as the situation of the poor hut where they reside” and that “A most horrible mystery seems to hang over the whole.”[i] The landscape, a repeated trope of wretched wildness, is imbued with mysterious overtones that have, mainly, to do with paternity. Though not an orphan, this “creature [with] very little human in his appearance” is “owned” by the mother but essentially fatherless. The mother herself, a laboring single woman, “refuses to give any account” of the father and insists that “no one has a right to question her.” [ii] As with the maternal-mystery narratives described from medieval writers like Abrose Pare, these are often considered “monsters of God,” abominations, and the mystery is reserved for suspicious lineage, not for the inhumane treatment of the child. But in these later accounts, we also see the addition of romantic and gothic underpinnings–and surely a hint of the werewolf mythos.
Other narratives of children locked away or kept at home in potentially inhumane circumstances include one of a young girl suffering a type of palsy. She is not chained and, in fact, he parents seem to take what care they can of her, but her treatment is violent in the extreme. The child, whose jaw had locked, reportedly ate next to nothing for above ten years. When she did, it was through brute force, her parents prying open the jaw with sticks and forcing down liquid that she choked upon and vomited up. The famished invalid spent her time creeping about by the wall of her parents’ home, not unlike the character of Yellow Wallpaper. Of most interest in this case, however, is the narrated description of the girl’s body. Starving and dehydrated she must be, yet “her cheeks [are] full, red, and blooming. […]she slept a great deal and soundly, perspired sometimes, and now and then emitted pretty large quantities of blood at her mouth.”[iii] The account dates from 1775, but recollects the notes of vampire commissioners during the scare of 1730—and presages the more lurid narratives of Polidori’s Vampyre or Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Her countenance is clear and pretty fresh; her features not disfigured nor sunk; […] and, to my astonishment, when I came to examine her body, for I expected to feel a skeleton, I found her breasts round and prominent, like those of a healthy young woman; her legs, arms, and thighs, not at all emaciated.”[iv] This description, which sexualized the paralytic invalid, focuses once again on the organs of reproduction—not the clitoris and vagina of the deformed infant, but on the more titillating full breasts and thighs of the adult woman. In the tradition of Mathew Lewis—but also of female writers like Charlotte Dacre—the scene of monstrosity is also a scene of sexuality and potential violence and forced “openings.”
It is worth remembering that these philosophical treatises, many of which devalued or discounted the supernatural, were neither widespread nor well-accepted even among the educated classes. In fact, only seventeen years earlier, Europe witnessed a vampire scare resulting in the appointment of vampire commissioners, autopsy inquests and the occasional mutilation of corpses–the position and condition of skeletons unearthed in ?eský Krumlov (and dated to 1732) suggest that vampire-killing rituals had been performed. Though by 1755, Gerhard van Swieten, personal physician of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, concluded his own investigation by saying that “vampires only appear were ignorance still reigns,” banishing the hunt for monsters did little to curb their appearance in print.
Just for fun, I looked for further documentation on ?eský Krumlov, and found a fascinating documentary called The Vampire Princess, about links between the outbreak and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You can reach the full video here, or the Smithsonian Channel’s page.
[i] Kirby, R.S. Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters, Vol 4. (London: 1820), , 242.
[ii] Ibid., 242.
[iii] Ibid., 350
[iv] Ibid., 351