That Girl is on Fire!

Recently, we read a bit about women, drinking, gin, and the odd outbreak of spontaneous combustion that seemed to strike women in the early modern era. The topic of spontaneous combustion was of particular interest to the class. These stories spread via newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the cases we read about in Jessica Warner’s Craze, there were other cases, like this one reported in the The New-York Weekly Journal, March 7, 1736. In this account, titled, “Extract of a Letter from Verona,” a 62 year-old woman, who “had been used to wash and rub herself every Day with Spirits of Camphire, as a proper Means to prevent Colds and Coughs…” met a harrowing end on March 14, 1731. The extract reads:

“On the 14th of March 1731, in the Evening, she went up, according to Custom, to her Room, without any unusual Token or Symtom, but only that she seem’s somewhat sad or melancholy. There was not the least Fire or Light in her Room, and the Air was clear and serene the whole Night. In the Morning this Woman was found near her bed burnt to Ashes, all but the Shinbones and Feet, and three Fingers of one Hand : The Ashes were damp and clammy, and stunk intolerably. The Walls of the Room, together with the Bed and the other Furniture, were covered with a fine but moist Dust, which had even penetrated into the Chamber that lay above it. The Ceiling was almost cover’d with a Sort of Moisture of a dark, yellow Colour, which gave a very offensive Smell. Those Parts of the Body that remained unconsum’d were of a blackish Hue; nothing of whatever else was in the Room was consum’d; only the Tallow of two Candles was quite melted, but the Wick was not burnt : The blackish Hue of the Remains of the Body, the Consumption of the other Parts, and their Reduction to Ashes, were evident Proofs of a Fire…”

What was to blame for this woman’s violent end? Why, the spirituous liquors the woman used to prevent colds, of course.


These cases of spontaneous combustion are curious, to say the least, but such stories served as enduring cautionary tales warning against the ill effects of liquor on a woman’s body.

For anyone interested in reading further about women, the 18th c. “Gin Craze,” and spontaneous combustion, see the following article by Siobhan Phillips, “Intoxicating Women: Travels in Gin and Gender.”

Women as Pirates?

Our very own Lindsay Guimbellot recently posted about the “Top 10 Women Pirates” on Odyssey Online. In this post, she discusses several female pirates, many whom we will discuss in class. Thanks to Lindsay for providing the perfect segue into the next topic of the class, which we will pick up after the break!

Here is an excerpt of Lindsay’s post, with a link to the full article below.

10. Rachael Wall636171116242963289-1341058479_desktop-1413341703

Wall was the only known American pirate. She married George Wall and tried to settle in Boston. The two were always poor so when she procured a small boat she saw oportunity. She used the boat to go out after storms pretending to be ravaged. After boarding the unwitting ship they would murder and steal. This ended when a storm passed through and destroyed her boat and killed her husband. She continued to steal on land and was arrested. She wrote a confession of her sins trying to sway the authorities. It didn’t work and soon she became the last woman hanged in Massachusetts.

Read Lindsay’s full post here: Top 10 Women Pirates, on The Odyssey Online.

Women and Early Modern Medicine (Physick)

In class this week, we briefly discussed the ways women engaged in early modern healthcare by concocting their own homemade cures. Within their own home, or even within a broader community, many early modern women unofficially filled the role of apothecary and physician. As we saw in Karlsen’s, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, this on occasion led to charges of witchcraft.

Luckily for us, The Wellcome Library in London has preserved and digitized many of these manuscript physick books. Looking at these books, in which women recorded recipes for their preferred medicinal cures, it can be easy to see how early modern healthcare could conjure perceptions of witches boiling potions in a cauldron.

Ms. 4051, Receipt-Book, 17th century. The Wellcome Library, London. The full digitized book is available online via The Wellcome Library.

One example from an anonymous recipe book (or, “receipt book”) from the seventeenth century shows us recipes for a purgative and for children suffering from a cough:

A Common Purging Potion to be given to Elder Persons upon any Occasion where Purging is Requisite

Take halfe an Ounce of Tamaraids 2 Drachms of Senea, one Drachm and halfe of Rubarb, boile them in a Sufficent quantity of Watter to 4 oues, then drain them and add Manna Syrrup of Purgeing Apples of Each one Ounce

For Coughs in Children that Can not Spitt

Take oyle of Sweet Almonds 2 ounces Syrrup of Maiden Hair and Violets of Each one Ounce Suger Candy in Pouder halfe an Ounce, let the Child Lick thane of with a Licorish Stick when the Cough comes upon it in Elder persons if the flegm Coms up with Dificulty and is thick give the same Mixture a Spoon full at a time 4 or 5 times in a day, if the Rume be thin Add to the a bone mixture Syrrup of whit Popys 2 ounces and give one Spoon full every 4 hours to an Elder Person

Such recipes offer two examples of the many homemade remedies women created to help cure ill family members, in addition to others. For more on The Wellcome Library’s collection of physick books from the 16-19th centuries, see their website that links to several online manuscripts.

If you are interested in reading more about early modern medicine, see this post by Dr. Alun Withey, “Concocting Recipes: The Early Modern Medical Home.”

Also, for a book on the subject, see: Elaine G. Breslaw, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America (New York University Press, 2012).

“Jane” of Jamestown


The first chops, to the forehead, did not go through the bone and are perhaps evidence of hesitancy about the task. The next set, after the body was rolled over, was more effective. One cut split the skull all the way to the base.

Meet “Jane,” the teenage girl believed to be a victim of cannibalism during “The Starving Time” in Jamestown colony.

The full story via The Washington Post is available here.

Witchcraft, Civil War, and Sex with Demons

See the following post by Scott Eaton published on the NOTCHES Blog (a blog on the history of sexuality) that relates to our class:

Witchcraft Confessions and Sexual Fantasies during the English Civil War

Read an excerpt below:

Ulrich Molitor, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (Constance, 1489). This woodcut depicts a woman being seduced by the Devil. (Wikimedia Commons)
Ulrich Molitor, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (Constance, 1489). This woodcut depicts a woman being seduced by the Devil. (Wikimedia Commons)

The witch-hunt began in the small village of Manningtree, Essex. Hopkins and Stearne collaborated with locals to identify and prosecute individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft. Alleged witches were detained, interrogated, sleep deprived and tortured until they offered a satisfactory confession. To uncover physical proof of witchcraft, female suspects were stripped naked, possibly shaved, and searched by a group of women for the witch’s mark, a supernumerary nipple from which demons fed. Once the witch-finders collected sufficient information against a witch, locals and Justices of the Peace (JPs) composed official legal documents to be used as evidence at the Assize courts.

Systematic witch-hunting of such intensity was new to England, but the intellectual tradition underpinning the witch-finders’ actions was not. Many demonologists believed women to be the weaker sex, ruled by their carnal desires and more prone to the Devil’s temptations than men. The Malleus Maleficarum (1487) is perhaps the most famous witchcraft text propounding these ideas. Authors Kramer and Sprenger presented women as being predisposed to Satan’s advances. They were thought vulnerable because, in a woman, ‘Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them… for this reason they even cavort with demons to satisfy their lust.’ Similarly, in Daemonologie (1597), King James VI and I commented about women, ‘that sexe is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in these grosse snares of the Devil.’ By the 1640s, Hopkins and Sterne had internalized such ideas: Hopkins explicitly referenced Daemonologie and his partner asserted that women were ‘fit instruments for the Devil’.

Click here to read the full post on NOTCHES Blog.

A Place to Expand the Classroom

This is the post excerpt.

Because time simply does not allow the full coverage of all topics related to this class, you can find articles, images, or other additional material that connects to topics or themes featured in HIST 475 here.

I will post material as I find it, but if you run across something you would like to share, please let me know!

In the meantime…


Don’t let your familiars get you down.