Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker

A wonderful photo of boffins at work in the (level 1) Ops Room at Kelvedon Hatch circa 1962
THE UNITED KINGDOM DURING THE COLD WAR, 1945-1991 (D 106284) United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation. Metropolitan Sector Operations Centre. Operations Room – Scientists at Work. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

For those still following this page, my apologies for another lengthy drought. I’ve just been too busy unfortunately. However, I have been working on a few things, the first of which follows…

This spring I finally got around to visiting one of the best preserved Cold War nuclear bunkers in the UK – Kelvedon Hatch in Essex. First, given the implication of me commenting on anything historical here, let me say that I absolutely loved this place. We owe the owner and manager, Mr Parrish, a massive debt for rescuing it for the nation rather than being vandalised or destroyed entirely. That said, it is not without its issues from an historical standpoint. Parrish claimed in 1996 that “Everything is original — except the John Major figure…It is exactly as the Government left it”. The Facebook page today likewise proclaims “Everything is as it was left by the Government, when the bunker was decommissioned in the early 90’s.” This is not the case. 

Praise for the bunker is (rightly) almost universal, but at the same time it’s attracted very little scholarly attention. I did find criticism in David Lowe and Tony Joel’s ‘Remembering the Cold War: Global Contest and National Stories’ (2014, p.59) where they remark that Kelvedon Hatch’s “…testimony to the Cold War is somewhat compromised by its private ownership. The organization and upkeep of displays is very tired and occasionally misplaced (a dummy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for instance, sits next to communications equipment dating from the 1960s), and the bunker jostles with youth-focused outside activities…”. Digging out Imperial War Museum and Historic England photos from 1992 and 1997 respectively, it isn’t just the interpretation that could be described as “tired”, sadly. The general condition of the place has gone from absolutely pristine to, shall we say, looking its age. Flooring and painted surfaces are worn (but not peeling), plant machinery is looking rough (albeit not visibly corroded), and there are worrying cracks in a couple of walls. I feel terrible pointing this out because if you’re going to privately run an underground three-storey office block formerly maintained at great taxpayer’s expense, maintenance is an enormous and inevitable problem. I certainly have no issue with the adjacent outdoor activities – how else are they going to fund this place? Mr Parrish’s recorded audioguide tour, whilst engaging, informative, and funny, doesn’t give the full story, but then how could it? Even Lowe and Joel blame the private status of the site rather than the owner himself. However, the whole place is in a sort of three-way limbo between an attempt at reconstructing actual wartime occupation of the final RGHQ phase, attempts to evoke its earlier days, and a sort of ad hoc Cold War history museum. It’s great for most visitors, but for those of us wanting more, I decided to try to disentangle this confusion using the available information, plans, photos, and film footage of the site’s different eras. 

Contrary to just about all of the information out there, there were actually three operational phases as follows:

Phase 1 – ROTOR bunker

1951 – 1953: Construction 

1953 – 1957: RAF ROTOR (R4 type) Metropolitan Sector Operational Control (MSOC) 

1957 – 1962: United Kingdom Warning & Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO)/Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Metropolitan Sector HQ co-located with the ‘rump’ RAF SOC following closure of the ROTOR programme.

Plans: via Historic England

Variant plans via the RAF Barnton Quarry restoration project (you can right-click and open image in a new tab to view a larger version)

Film: Kelvedon Hatch features prominently in the 1962 film ‘The Hole in the Ground’ (note this copy misses out a short introduction set outside the bungalow). By this time the RAF have handed over operations to the UKWMO, but the fabric of the building has yet to change. In the opening scene we see UKWMO team members running into the above ground guardhouse, then proceeding down the long access tunnel and into the main bunker, the blast doors slamming shut behind them. Visible in the background is some sort of equipment stowage or coat rack (!) located where the Home Office Radio Room would later be established. We then see the Chief Sector Warning Officer and his team of scientists emerge from the doorway at top left on the above-linked plan and immediately turn right, walking under the now-defunct tote board (its red-painted support posts and frame are visible). At this point we get a great view of almost the whole Ops Room. At the opposite side of the room the bottom of the now disused RAF Sector Ops glazed-in ‘cabins’ are visible (these appear more clearly later on as well). They then walk behind desks manned by (as explained in the film) Post Office telephonists who have volunteered under UKWMO. The team then turns right again, disappearing behind a large black pinboard (with two large maps on this side of it) that effectively bisects the room into admin/comms and scientific analysis. We pick up with the scientific team later as they perusing maps and charts. We get a reverse shot later on that shows the tote support structure again, in front of the group, complete with a colour-coded ‘sector’ type clock (as used in RAF ops rooms in the Second World War). Toward the end of the film we see the bottom right corner of the room with red double doors (these were visible in the distance in the establishing shot of the room). Pleasingly, these original 1950s doors are still in situ today (along with a lot of others!), repainted light green and with an additional 1985 vintage inner door in front of them. 

The whole setup is remarkably ad hoc – simple black cloth-covered pin-boards, ordinary tables with switchboard-style phones, individual message trays and pigeonholes made of unpainted wood. 

Photos: There are two known images, one of which is shown in photocopied form on the tour – the middle two rows of cabins with the top row just in shot – and the two plotting tables on Level 1 below the cabins. I was also very pleased to discover (I believe for the first time) IWM photo D 106284 showing a civilian UKWMO scientist plotting nuclear bursts on a map using a radiac slide rule. If anyone recognises the communications kit to the right of his drawing board, comment below. This shot is a perfect match for the scenes in the film.

Description: Kelvedon Hatch differed from all other R4 bunkers in having a tunnel that emerged into Level 1 rather than Level 3. Note that the cage opposite the main blast doors, today filled with random weapons as though an armoury, actually housed the 1950s electrical transformer for the site (plans are labelled as such and photos of other ROTOR bunkers still show the plant in place). Much is made of the ‘disguised’ above-ground bungalow, but this was a real, functioning military-style guardroom like any other, with toilets, offices, and an armoury (there’s a plan here that also appears in McCamley’s book). The armoury later became a decontamination room (this room’s door, behind the outer blast door, is still so labelled). All ROTOR bunkers throughout their various phases of use had a perimeter chain-link fence patrolled by armed guards and the actual radar stations were effectively military barracks with massive rotating radar dishes. The above-ground structures may have been intended to be low-profile, and certainly were at Kelvedon Hatch more so than elsewhere (since KH never had radar arrays and had the advantage of some tree cover) but were certainly not disguised. 

As a command centre for a short-lived RAF radar network, the site was focused around a central Operations Room ‘well’ three floors deep, with plotting boards at the bottom, a tall ‘tote’ mission control board at the front, and glazed, angled control ‘cabins’ wrapped around the back. The central room on Level 1 housed the two large plotting tables and the support posts for the tote. The remainder of the floor comprised two large rooms – ‘Apparatus’ at left and the main plant room at right. The two plant rooms remained much the same throughout all three phases. 

Moving up to level 2 we again find the glazed ops ‘well’ in the middle, surrounded by a corridor with office spaces either side and beyond this a maze of partition walls defining the toilet blocks (the women’s toilet being larger than the men’s) and a number of offices/rooms of varying size. By far the largest is an open plan space at top left. The plans (nor any other source) don’t reveal what the purpose of any of these might have been, unfortunately. We have a bit more information on the top floor (level 3) which again has the ops well but without the corridor around it. Instead there is a ring of self-contained offices. At left we have two large unidentified rooms with a thin partition wall and on the other side of a more substantial wall running from the stairwell to the bottom wall, a row of squarish offices with a corridor running past them. At right we have some labels, denoting the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) rest room 

Phase 2 – Sub-Regional Headquarters/Sub-Regional Control

1963 – 1966: SRHQ for Region 4, ‘East’

1966 – 1985: S-RC 4.2 (Region 4, Control 2)

NB UKWMO/ROC Sector HQ retained until 1971 only

Plans: displayed (until they eventually fall apart) in the access tunnel, via Alamy stock images. Undated but believed to be ca.1965. Sadly I didn’t take my own photo so a lot of the room numbers and labels are not legible on the image we have. 

Photos/Film: None, however see ‘The Hole in the Ground’ above – the room may have changed a lot ca.1965 but the operations carried out, the kit, and the personnel involved would have been much the same.


The first phase intended for ‘continuity of government’ in the event of a Third World War. The most significant change for this phase was that the ROTOR Operations ‘well’ was floored over. Rooms were also reconfigured throughout in keeping with the bunker’s new role. The men’s lavatory was expanded and a corridor created along the back of the toilets with partitioned offices along it (those labelled with a purpose are ‘Tape Room’ and ‘PBX’, a type of telephone exchange). New rooms were built on the left side of the floor telephone exchange Offices on Level 2 were knocked through to create a large Conference Room. Others were more significant. Notably, sleeping accommodation was installed; one dedicated 20 bunk dormitory on Level 3 and another 20 or so bunk beds in other areas, including a full row of beds along the access tunnel (so accommodation for around 80 people). Next door to the dorm was an equivalently sized room labelled ‘DEPTS’; the first dedicated working space for representatives of different government departments. The former RAF and WRAF rest rooms were converted into a single large unisex ‘Canteen Rest Room’ with adjoining kitchen capable of providing hot meals. The centre of Level 1 (rooms 101 and 103) remained in use as ‘Sector’ (presumably an operations room), but around 1/3rd of the room (101) was walled off as a sleeping area with bunks along the back wall. Another four small rooms on Level 2 were also designated ‘Sector’, with other rooms allocated to ‘Military’ and ‘Fire’ (one large room), Scientists, and Civil Defence Operations. The BBC studio was installed in its current location (albeit a different configuration) next to the GPO (General Post Office) ‘frame room’. The plant rooms (the main room being 102) remained unchanged. All told, Level 1 was already close to its Phase 3 incarnation in terms of usage and layout, if not in detail, but 2 and 3 remained quite different.

Phase 3 – RGHQ

1985 – 1992: Regional Government Headquarters, Metropolitan Region (RGHQ 5.1)

Plans: Only Level 1 has been reproduced online. To see this final layout (albeit in Phase 4 ‘trim’) you can also check out various tours on YouTube (including this short official one), and the complete plans were published in Judy Cowan’s 1994 pamphlet ‘Kelvedon Hatch Secret Bunker’. Better yet, visit the bunker yourself if you can; this article is primarily intended for people like me who visited but didn’t get a full picture of the site.

Photos: A whole series of Imperial War Museum record shots taken on decommissioning in 1992. These show how very sparse the place was, contrary to modern claims that the site is as the government left it. All we see are tables, chairs and telephones. 


Internal walls were again rebuilt, this time in handily identifiable blockwork construction. Basically, if you see breeze-blocks, you’re looking at a 1980s alteration. The entrance to the access tunnel was redesigned to incorporate a new generator room into the near end of the tunnel (the exhaust stacks for the diesel engines are still visible to the left of the bungalow and have changed in design since the 1962 film). The complete row of bunks was replaced by a few fold-down bed frames attached to the wall (presumably for a guardroom ‘watch’, since there was now space for everyone on Level 3). The area at the far end of the access tunnel was enlarged and fitted with sliding blast doors on tracks to create a ‘Home Office Radio Room’. New generator cabinets and a siren point were installed just inside the main blast doors (it’s not clear whether the transformer outside them remained in place). The UKWMO Sector HQ relocated to the newly expanded Group HQ building at Horsham, and ‘Sector’ became office/operational space for “Uniformed Services” (outfitted with tables, chairs, lockers and desk phones), but the Communications Centre or COMCEN (also on Level 1) remained part of the wider Emergency Communication Network (CEN) with access to UKWMO/ROC data. The entrance used by the team three years earlier in ‘The Hole in the Ground’ and the door opposite it were walled off to create a corridor bypassing the new smaller main room (visitors now enter the room in the middle through a door marked ‘no entry’) and a small admin room (now one of several small cinemas for visitors). The science team were moved from Level 2 down to Level 1 next to a much smaller BBC studio. On Level 2 the formerly closed-in offices across the middle third of the room were knocked through to create one large central open-plan office. Note that the various wooden painted signs around the walls in this room are not original, as shown by the 1992 photos of the space and, in the 1997 shots, their initial suspension from the walls on string loops. Later they were (regrettably) screwed into the walls. These seem too specific in terms of content and style to be made up, but if they came from another site I don’t know which one or what era. 

Closed offices remained around the perimeter of the floor but were also reconfigured. Where there had been only one office/bedroom for a government official, a new corridor (down which the modern tour proceeds) accommodated three such spaces; 203 for the Regional Commissioner, 204 for the Principal Officer, and 205 for the Prime Minister (although it’s far from clear that the PM would ever have used this room). The row of offices that visitors see when they emerge from said corridor are wholly new for this phase – their predecessors having been ripped out. The first office at left is the ‘Secretariat’ (206), with a small room within this (207) housing a typing pool (previously located on Level 3). The adjoining rooms (208 and 209) were a truncated version of the Conference Room and, in the corner (now an event room) the Information Room.

Up on Level 3 the existing dormitory space was doubled, taking up the former government department space (there now being much more space for them on Level 2). This was divided by sex, men in the right hand room (302 – now an off-limits meetings/event space) with a small room next door for ‘Drivers’ (likely now a store for the giftshop), and women in the two rooms next door (301 and 308). Another two (also adjoining) male dorm rooms (309 and 311) were established on the other side of the toilets and Sick Bay (310 – seen here before stripping out and dummying-up). This area is partly correct today but 309 is, with some artistic licence, dressed as an emergency operating theatre. In reality this room would be fitted out with bunks and lockers in anticipation of use. We know this because we have a photo taken from 309 looking into 311. As cramped as the recreated dorms in the bunker are today, they are nothing compared to the reality, and the beds and lockers there today are not the same as they originally were.

Phase 4 – Visitor Attraction

1994: Sold back to the landowning family.

1995 – Present: Opened to the public.

Plans: represented by the fire evacuation map located in the bunker. Identical to Phase 3 but with two additions – a new metal staircase in the upper right corner of Level 2 allowing access from the open plan office straight up to the room outside the canteen on Level 3 (marked ‘Common Room’ on the Phase 3 plan). Although not included on the 1985 plan, it is clearly original to the RGHQ phase. The other change is the exit tunnel sadly bored through the wall of the Common Room to comply with fire regulations.

Photos: Another series from Historic England who documented the site as a new visitor attraction in 1997, by which time a lot of the present embellishments had been made but without the additional clutter and the ravages of time that we see today.

Description: As part of the decommissioning process, all of the original furniture and communications equipment (other than some of the telephone exchange) was removed. The original 1950s transformer room was also stripped out, but the rest of the plant remained. By 1997 the bunker was increasingly ‘dressed’ with surplus Cold War-era furniture, equipment, artefacts (most of the phones are marked up with the station crest of RAF St Athan) and some basic museum-style diorama displays ranging from individual dummies in wigs to an attempt at a ‘Threads’-style post-apocalypse household. A recent addition is a large-scale Spitfire model that has for some reason been suspended over the plotting table in the former Operations Room. 

Note that some of the room door labels (which slide into universal holders affixed to the doors – the actual room numbers are permanent) seem to have been moved over the years. The label for room 202, ‘Government Departments’ is currently fitted to the door for room 201, which per the plans should be ‘Common Services’ (and is loosely interpreted as such today with racks of stationery). Male and female dorm rooms 302 and 301 have had their labels swapped for some reason.


What you see at Kelvedon Hatch bunker today is therefore mostly a very…busy take on the final operational (RGHQ) phase. I will say again; this is an incredible place, it just needs some analysis to make full sense of. The current attraction conveys the general sense of what all three phases were about, it’s just not clear how these fit within chronology and the fabric of the building itself. If it were up to me (clearly it isn’t) I would thin out the accumulated clutter and remove all of the shop dummy diorama displays. Remember – none of the furniture or props there now are original to the site. I’d choose to depict Phase 3 throughout, and choose one room to clearly demarcate and curate as a museum to interpret the first two Phases, with an introductory display on Civil Defence.  


The bunker is mentioned in a number of published works and websites, nearly all of them are superficial in their treatment of the site or outright wrong. I recommend:

Clarke, Bob. 2005. ‘Four Minute Warning: Britain’s Cold War’. The History Press.

Cowan, Judy. 1994. ‘The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Bunker’. 

McCamley, Nick, 2002. ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: The Passive Defence of the Western World During the Cold War’. Pen & Sword.


Tomb of Dracula 2: The Revenge

Snagov monastery (Wikimedia Commons)

Some years ago I debunked (as well as others) a ridiculous claim about a supposed tomb of the infamous medieval prince and nominal fictional vampire, Vlad III. In that post I commented that part of the reason Vlad couldn’t be buried in Naples was because he was known to be buried elsewhere; probably Snagov monastery. Well, it doesn’t change my prior conclusion that the Naples claim was total BS, but I was definitely off-base regarding Snagov. Atlas Obscura tells us that;

This solitary monastery may hold the remains of Vlad the Impaler (but probably not).”

I’d go one further; Vlad definitely isn’t at Snagov. This 2002 article (in Vol. 4 of the Journal of Dracula Studies), written by Constantin Rezachevici of the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History, explains that this claim is completely fabricated. The short version is that it is a totally invented tradition starting with a 17th century claim that Vlad founded the monastery – he didn’t – on top of which was layered an assumption that he must therefore have been buried there. The famous 1933 excavations that failed to find evidence of Vlad were carried out on the second church built on the site, well after his death. Rezachevici points to the various executed 16th and 17th century boyars buried at Snagov (which seems to have functioned as something of a mini Tower of London) as a likely reason why people started to speculate on a Vlad association, as well as a general tendency for monks to seek famous historical figures to associate their monasteries with in order to garner kudos and, perhaps, money for the upkeep of their ageing sites. It’s not so different to somewhere like Roslin Chapel, albeit the Church of Scotland definitely didn’t court the spurious associations that now bring thousands to the site who would not otherwise have brought their tourist money.

Now, the Rezachevici article also outlines the case for Vlad’s grave being at Comana, itself quite speculative but a stronger claim than Snagov, as there is good evidence for Vlad having that monastery built. However, no tomb or grave has been located there either. Rezachevici reports a grave “set in the proper place for a founder” that could be the one. He does not mention any details of the human remains or any efforts to search for Vlad or his grave, either in the original 1970s excavations or later on. All I could find online was a Facebook post by one of the authors of the book ‘Corpus Draculianum’, who have investigated the ’70s excavation reports and corresponded with the archaeologist responsible, and identified no likely candidates. Notably, no decapitation burials were allegedly found. I found the published report online here, and ran most of it through Google Translate. It details the many burials, which were mainly of monks and members of the local community. Considerable effort was made to identify individuals, and needless to say, Vlad was not one of them. No named individuals could be identified prior to the 17th century, meaning that he could in theory be there, however by the same token there is no sign of any higher status burials of Vlad’s era (whereas there are voivodes of later centuries) and no skeletons were found to be missing a head (see below). Nor is any skeletal trauma described (although perhaps detailed analysis was not carried out). Of course, when this work was carried out there was no over claim that Vlad III’s remains might be there, but the possibility must have occurred, and in any case, as noted, the archaeologist involved has since been asked about this and has confirmed a lack of any evidence. The Comana claim seems to be Rezachevici’s (pet?) theory in particular, with only circumstantial evidence to support it.

Now, I mentioned the fact that Dracula had been decapitated; this is worth digging into in itself; the more bits he ended up in, the more resting places he might have, and the lower the chances of there even being a grave for him; there is certainly no extant tomb. According to Cazacu (2017, p. 180), Vlad’s body was ‘cut to pieces’, which some have taken to mean literally dismembered, so I decided to try to verify which bits he’s actually missing. I couldn’t get hold of the primary source here (Leonardo Botta), but even if he did say ‘cut to pieces’, this is frequently used in the figurative sense. Defeated enemies of nobles might be quartered and their bits sent to different cities (like William Wallace, famously) but here the evidence for dismemberment is lacking. On the other hand the decapitation is attested by more than one source. M.J. Trow’s English translation from Jakob Unrest’s 1499 Austrian Chronicle says;

“Dracula was killed with great cunning, because the Turks wished to avenge the enmity which he had borne against them for so long and also the great damages inflicted upon them. They hired a Turk as one of his servants with the mission of killing him while he served him. The Turk was apparently instructed to attack Dracula from the back. He was then to cut off his head and bring it back on horseback to the sultan.”
-M.J. Trow, ‘A Brief History of Vampires’ (digital edition)

Antonius Bonfinius, (Italian) Hungarian court historian for Matthias Corvinus, in his ‘Rerum Ungaricarum Decades‘, compiled between one and two decades of Vlad’s death, reports;

“In Turcico demum bello cesus, caput ad Maumethem dono missum.”
“Beaten in war with the Turkish, [Dracula’s] head was sent to Mehmet.”

We will likely never know what happened to Dracula’s remains, but he’s not in Naples, he’s not at Snagov, and he probably isn’t at Comana either. Wherever Dracula is, he’s likely still in two bits; his head somewhere in Turkey and the rest somewhere in Romania.

Plague Doctors – the Last Word

Disappointingly, this is probably what most plague doctors actually looked like.
Ivory figurine, circa 1700 (DMMI object no. AB / 0315)

To finish up what’s become a series of articles on this subject, I wanted to get back to the nub of things; what did plague doctors really wear, for the most part? How common was the beak mask really? It almost certainly did exist, but what was the typical plague doctor’s outfit, and by ‘typical’, I mean the outfit that was commonly used. If, as seems to be the case, the birdlike beak was the exception rather than the rule, the rest of the outfit is actually really common. So common, in fact, that it was worn by anyone that could afford it who found themselves dealing with the plague, not just the doctors (more on this later). Now, for all we know, the form of the waxed cloth robe for use by clergy may have differed from that worn by medical staff, but it’s the same idea. This is because the waxed coat or robe as protection from disease was pretty much received wisdom by the early 18th century, and had been around for at least a century, as we’ve seen in my previous witterings.

We’ve seen Muratori’s advice on waxed linen clothing in my last article – see also my first article for the advice of Delorme (c.1620) and Chicoyneau (1721) in France, and the wording of the Italian engraving (1656). I’ve since found more evidence for the clothing. Waxed canvas and smooth leather are the top recommendations pretty much across the board. Carlo M. Cipolla’s book ‘Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-century Italy’ does a great job of showing how widespread the advice around clothing was in the Italian states. Intriguingly the waxed robe seems to have been an invention of Florence, and around the same time as the French were using smooth leather. Cipolla does rather conflate the beak mask version of the outfit with the more common waxed linen robe; I’ve chased down his various sources and none clearly detail the beak mask. He implies (p. 11) that the classic plague doctor costume was worn in Bologna, Verona, Lucca, Florence, and ‘minor Tuscan communities such as Montecarlo, Pescia, and Poppia.’ His quoted source for Verona (Pona, Il Gran Contagio, p. 30) states “During this bad epidemic, following the practice of the French physicians, the town of Lucca made a provision that the plague-doctors ought to wear a long robe of thin, waxed cloth. The robe had to be hooded and the doctors had to visit the patients with the head covered and wearing spectacles.” There’s no mention of a beak or even a mask here; just a hood and spectacles. Likewise, his source for Florence actually states; ‘…surgeons, and apothecaries wore a robe made of waxed cloth and garnished with a red color; this sort of apparel is useful and protects from contagion and for this reason is also worn by the clergymen when they administer the sacraments to the sick” (Catellacci, ed., “Curiosi ricordi,” p. 38). Cipolla also references Rondinelli, Relazione del contagio, p. 54, but this doesn’t seem to address protective clothing at all, as far as I can tell, and is part of a section discussing quarantine. If anyone can find anything relevant in this source, please comment below. Page 89 does mention a waxed canvas habit for clergymen visiting the sick, but again, no details of a beaked mask or hood. Cipolla (p.11 again) explains that in 1631 the ‘health board’ at Florence was supplying waxed robes to doctors in other communities that could not obtain suitable robes otherwise. He also mentions one of the approved alternatives; silk “or other material with little or no hair,’ from a Piedmontese ordinance of 1630. This is also the source for barbers wearing these robes, not just physicians and surgeons.

I’ve found more to add to his cited sources too. ‘Trattato della peste’ by Giovanni Francesco Fiochetto (1631) specifies ‘…che si facino sopravesta di tela incerata ben allistciata…’ that those at risk wear an overcoat of waxed canvas. ‘Ricordi di Fabritio Ardizzone fisico intorno al preservarsi, e curarsi della Peste’ (1656, p. 36) also recommends waxed robes, but gives another option; taffeta:

‘…oltre che può anco rimediarsi con rener sempre sopra i vestimenti una cappa di coio bagnata d’aceto, è vero di taffettà, è tela incerata.’

Accounting for archaic spelling, this translates as;

‘…it can also be remedied by always wearing over the clothes a leather cloak covered with vinegar, or taffeta or waxed canvas.’

This isn’t the only source that I found specifying soaking in vinegar, presumably following the same ‘strong smells’ logic as the herbs in the plague mask’s beak, or simply recognising the (actual) cleansing potential of dilute acetic acid. Finally, travelling antiquarian, Domenico Sestini, also reported advice on dealing with the plague, in this case that of Constantinople in 1778, in ‘Della Peste di Constantinopoli del MDCCLXXVIII’ (1779):

‘Assistendo infermi, o associando cadaveri, dovrebbero essere obbligati a lavarsi frequemente.

E converrebbe per quanto soffe possibile, che usaffero abiti di materie meno suscettibili. Nell’atto poi, che soffero in attuale assistenza di malate peste, converrebbe che soffero coperti di una cappa d’incerato.’

‘When assisting the sick, or associating with corpses, they should be forced to wash frequently.

And it would be worthwhile, as far as possible, that they should wear clothes of less susceptible materials. In the event that they must assist victims of the current plague, it would be worthwhile that they would be covered with a waxed canvas cloak.’

This advice goes way back. ‘Informatione del pestifero, et contagioso morbo’ by Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia was published in 1576 (p. 203), stating;

‘La terza cautela farà quanto ai loro vestiti, cioè che si facciano una coverta sopra i suoi vestiti di tela incerata, molto ben allisciata, di modo che maneggiando le robe, non si piglino quei seminari principi; da quelle infettate, è li còmunichino poi alle altre non infette, come farebbono con vestiti di lana, o altri pelosi, Inoltre si lauino, & nettino spesso, che non stieno sozzi, come è le solito, che in questo modo essi mantenerebbono la peste.’

My terrible machine-assisted translation being;

‘The third caution will take as far as their clothes are concerned, that is, that they cover themselves over their very well-smoothed waxed canvas clothes, so that when handled in seminaries the infection is not passed to other uninfected people, as would occur with woollen or other ‘hairy’ clothes, moreover they wash and clean often, so as to not be filthy, as is usually the case, that in this way they maintain the plague.’

There are also two other depictions of plague doctors – or others rendering aid to plague victims wearing presumably this waxed canvas gear, this time with a hood-style mask, albeit without the iconic beak (or for that matter, the Bautta & Larva). Significantly, these hoods feature the same long bib at the front as two of the recorded Italian beaked examples that I’ve covered previously; but they lack the beak and are floppy cloth, not stiff leather (or whatever those photographed and sketched beak masks were actually made of). These depictions are both French and both from the Deutsche Medizin Museum – an ivory statuette (see top of this article) dated circa 1700 (DMMI object no. AB / 0315), and an 1826 watercolour painting depicting a doctor (or other medical person?) of the Marseille plague of 1819 (DMMI, Hyg 354 1826-2 Europe). Both are published in Marion Ruisinger’s recent chapter ‘Fact or Fiction: Ein kritischer Blick auf den »Schnabeldoktor«’ (part of this German-language book, but there is a series of blog posts available on the museum’s website, including a summary of her very sceptical take on the museum’s own plague doctor’s mask here). 

Plague clothing from the Marseille plague of 1819
(DMMI, Hyg 354 1826-2 Europe), 1826. Note the clogs – 18th century crocs?

These guys look a little KKK for modern sensibilities, but the idea is a cheaper, easier version of the plague doctor outfit. There’s no hat, and no glass eye lenses. The old rod or cane is replaced by a stick with a burning end, used to burn plague bruises (!), or by a long wooden handle with a basket of smouldering material to essentially fumigate indoor spaces against miasma. As a quick aside, Muratori mentions this as well (1710 edition, p. 103);

‘Entrino colà portando avanti a se vasi di fuoco, che faccia fumo. Entrati aprano le finestre, e gli uscì, ritirandosi, finchè l’Aria abbia fatto un poco di ventolamento, e dispersi que’ maligni vapori.’

‘They go in there, carrying pots of fire ahead, making smoke. Once inside they open the windows, and retire until the air has made a little ventilation, and the evil vapors are dispersed.’

The sleeves on this get-up are tight to the wrist like modern protective gear, which fits the admonition above to not wear fancy sleeves (Ruisinger questions the 1656 engraving on this basis; the man has voluminous sleeves and may not even be wearing gloves. To this I would suggest that views on miasma were a matter of opinion, not science). The most interesting aspect for me is that the hood has a long bib at the front; a feature shared with two of the Italian beaked masks that I featured in my other article. Perhaps those were the ‘Gucci’ option, or just an alternative view on what would work best? There is an interesting parallel for the simple simple with eyeholes a century later in China, by which time miasma theory was obsolete and so the doctors are wearing buttoned-up white coats and gloves, and the workers (because again, this get-up was not just for doctors) have overalls. 

Whilst writing this follow-up I realised that I hadn’t addressed the rod, staff, or cane of the plague doctor. Muratori gives us an indirect confirmation that this was, in fact, a form of ‘social distancing’;

‘…gli espurgatori abbiano manopole, legni lunghi, graffi di ferro, mollette, forchette ed altri ordigni per maneggiare il men che potranno con le mani le robe.’

‘…the expurgators have gauntlets, long wooden sticks, pitchforks, clothespins, forks and other devices to handle things as little as possible.’

Ruisinger also provides a further source for plague clothing in Marseille in 1720-21; Swiss doctor Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who described the clothing worn in the Marseille plague based upon letters he had received from colleagues;

“Der Kleideren halb hat man sich zu hüten vor allem, was auß Tuch, oder Baumwolle gemachet wird, weilen das Gifft sich leicht an dergleichen Sachen henket. Besser sind die leinernen, seidenen, tafteten Kleider, oder von Cameel-Haaren, noch besser, sonderlich vor die, so um die Kranken seyn müssen, dicht lederne, oder gar von Wachs- und Harz-Tuch, welche von denen Marsilianischen Doctoribus sollen gebraucht worden seyn. Alle Kleider aber sollen reinlich gehalten, offt abgeänderet, zuweilen beräucheret, und in freye Lufft gehenket werden.”

“You have to be careful of clothes that are mostly made out of cloth or cotton, because the poison is easily attached to such things. Better are clothes of linen, silk, or taffeta, of camel-hair, or even better in front of those who are sick, thick leather, or even wax and resin cloth, which are used by the Marsilian doctors. But all clothes should be kept clean, often changed, sometimes smoked, and aired out.”

Again we see the same materials and extensive coverage recommended, the idea being not just that bad smells caused disease, but that particles from rotting tissue were carried into the air. Smooth clothing and cleanliness, as well as a mask to stop you breathing the particles in, would help prevent the spread of disease. This isn’t so far removed from modern science as all that, and the full get-up would have done much toward preventing infection from other people with the pneumonic form of plague, and along with scrupulous hygiene and cleaning of clothes (which these slick fabrics aided in) would have helped against fleas passing on the primary, bubonic form. This was certainly believed at the time, as this line from ‘Li lazaretti della citta’, e riuiere di Genoua del 1657’ by Father Antero Maria di S. Bonaventura (1658, p. 518) shows; 

‘…apertamente li dissi, se voi entrate nell’Infermarie, siate certi di restar uccisi, ò feriti, perché la tonica incerata in un Lazaretto, non hà altro buon effetto, solo che le pulici non si facilmente vi s’annidano, e la spongia [spugna impregnata di aceto] al naso, non serve ad altro, che a mitigar il fetore.

Se parlassimo di quelli, che pratticano solamente per la Città, e che alla sfugita passano ne’ luoghi infetti, non negarei, che qualche cosa valessero li preservativi, e contraveleni, ma in un Lazaretto bisogna mettere la mente in pace, che niente vagliono.’

‘… openly I told them, if you enter the Infirmary, be sure of being killed, or injured, because in a Lazaretto the waxed tunic does nothing other than prevent fleas from lurking in it, and the spongia [sponge impregnated with vinegar] to the nose serves no other purpose than to mitigate the stench.

If we talked about those, who practice only for the city, and who pass through the infected places in passing, I would not deny that sheaths were worth anything, but in a Lazaretto you have to put your mind in peace, that nothing will help.’

In his 1744 follow-up book ‘Lazzeretti della citta, e riviere di Genova del 1656’, Father Antero confirms that he was made to wear ‘una sopraveste di tela incerata’ or a waxed canvas overcoat (1744, p. 190). Clergy wearing anti-plague clothing seems to have been somewhat common. Here’s more evidence from the source that I referenced in my previous piece, ‘Del Governo della Peste’ by Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1721, p. 245);

‘Nel portare il Viatico ai malati, usino i Sacerdoti Veste corta con Cotta e Stola, lasciando stare il Piviale, in cui vece terranno sopra la Cotta una veste di tela incerata.’

‘In bringing Communion to the sick, the priests should wear a short robe with surplice and stole, over which they should wear a waxed cloth robe instead of a cope [priest’s mantle or cloak].’

‘A Doctor of Marseille’

A third variation of plague costume depicted as in use during the Marseille plague is the bulbous-nosed ‘quack’ doctor shown in this engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli (1677 – 1736). I included this last time because Wadd’s 1827 impression of a plague doctor was partially based upon it (plus Manget’s 1721 version). Füssli’s version was popularised by Robert Fletcher’s much later (1898) ‘A tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630’ (available here). Füssli’s work is another piece of German satire, but rather than copying an original like the Italian-derived ‘Doctor Schnabel’, this piece is an original; a grotesque depiction of a French doctor in his prescribed leather clothing including, perhaps coincidentally as this is France and not Italy, a version of a bautta with the integral buff-like cover for the lower face. Rather than a proper facemask, he has just the nose portion, enlarged and filled with smouldering plant material. The caption translates as ‘Sketch of a doctor of Marseilles clad in Cordovan leather and equipped with a nose-case packed with plague-repelling smoking material. The wand is to feel the patient’s pulse.’ The latter claim is obviously made in jest, implying that the doctor is literally out of touch with his patients. Despite leveraging a fair bit of artistic licence, this is still something of a key source for the existence of masked plague doctors; the impression of the artist at least is that this is something that French doctors – plural – were doing. Unless, perhaps, this is a direct dig at Chicoyneau, but he was stated to wear Morrocan leather aka goatskin, not Cordovan leather, which is a type of horse leather. in which case it may not speak to multiple doctors so dressed. But then again we have the Italian source above suggesting that multiples of doctors there really were wearing masks with snouts. In any case, it certainly reinforces the prescribed dress of the plague doctors across several centuries and numerous countries; enveloping clothing made of a smooth, pliant fabric – and adds another approved option; horse leather. It’s important to note that waxed cloth wasn’t restricted to Italy; Salzmann’s “Masques Portés par les Médecins en Temps de Peste” (Aesculape, vol. 22, no. 1, 1932, pp. 5-14) explains that other doctors wore robes made of ‘toile-cirée’; the waxed linen cloth so common in Italian states.  

L0025226 Plague doctor as a quack Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Quackery: a plague doctor as a quack, anon., n.d. Aesculape Published: 1932 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Taken together, all of this evidence supports Ruisinger’s position that the beaked mask was less common than either the hood (with or without glasses) or no head protection at all; just the robe. The hat (which I’ve yet to find mentioned or depicted outside of the iconic engravings) and the rod or staff were optional, although as previously noted, gentlemen typically carried these anyway. Even the hood and glasses were not universally worn, and despite my discovery that Venetian doctors used larva masks – these too would not have been common outside of Venice (where they were conveniently available). Only those with the money, personal preference, and belief in the prophylactic power of plant material would have donned a pointy-faced mask. At this point, it’s even possible that only one idiosyncratic doctor in Rome wore the avian-style beak mask, and thanks to artistic licence, we don’t even know that this is a true representation. The French masks, described with respect to Delorme and Chicoyneau, may well have more closely resembled the surviving examples; hoods with conical ‘beaks’. And of course there are the Larva masks in Venice, which sort of fit the bill (ha, ‘bill’) but didn’t contain any herbs. There’s no evidence of such masks outside of those two regions of Europe, and there’s no real evidence even of the leather or wax-cotton/oilcloth robes beyond these regions either – nothing from the British Isles, for example (I’m sure Pepys would have informed us otherwise if England had had its own variant).

It’s fair to say that robes with KKK-esque hoods don’t really fit the modern gothic image of the plague doctor, and there is much more evidence for robes without masks (either with built-in hoods or no head covering at all) than for outfits with masks of any kind. And of course plenty of doctors would have attended plague victims without even the robes. Still, I’m comfortable in saying that many doctors operating c. 1620 – 1820 wore the leather or waxed cloth robes, some also wore a beaked mask (even if most of these weren’t styled after a bird per se) with glasses, and many would have affected a hat and/or staff too. The full outfit just wasn’t as ubiquitous, as standardised, or as bird-like as popular culture would have us believe.

Rifle musket or rifled musket?

A Rifled musket. Also a rifle musket. And a rifle.

Tl;dr – 

‘Rifle’ = short for ‘rifled gun’

‘Rifled gun’ = any firearm with rifling

‘Rifled musket’ OR ‘rifle musket’ = any musket with rifling

‘Musket’ = any shoulder-fired enlisted infantry firearm

*i.e. not an artillery or cavalry carbine, or an NCO or officer’s fusil or pistol.

Having seen the Smithsonian TV channel’s YouTube channel describe an India Pattern ‘Brown Bess’ musket as a ‘musket rifle’ – which is a nonsense term – I thought it was time to roll out my research on the term ‘rifle musket’ – which is an actual historical thing. Firstly, I should point out that their ‘test’ of the musket vs the Dreyse needle gun is typically flawed and superficial modern TV stuff, as Brandon F. details. Brandon corrects ‘musket rifle’ to ‘rifled musket’, with a ‘d’ but in fact both forms – ‘rifled musket’ and ‘rifle musket’ were used interchangeably in the period in question. Said period is from c.1850, when the technology of spiral grooves in the barrel or rifling, known for more than 300 years by this point, was first applied to standard issue infantry firearms. 

The most important thing to say is that the use of ‘rifle’ or ‘rifled’ is just a matter of preference around verb inflection, like ‘race car’ in American English (a car for use in a race) and ‘racing car’ in British English (a car for racing in). This linguistic difference was less pronounced in the 19th century (although did exist as we’ll see), and so ‘rifle musket’ and ‘rifled musket’ were genuinely interchangeable. More on this later, but the main thing I want to address – and the ‘BS history’ here – is that they don’t mean different things. Some (including the former Pattern Room Custodian Herbert J. Woodend in his British Rifles book) have suggested that the term ‘rifled’ denoted a conversion – a ‘musket’ that had been ‘rifled’ – whereas a ‘rifle musket’ is a musket-like rifle that was designed and made that way. Although logical enough, there is literally no evidence for this, no consistency in the actual use of the two variant terms, and plenty of evidence to suggest that they are just linguistic differences. 

A quick word on the word ‘rifled’ or ‘to rifle’ – as this period dictionary shows, this originally meant to raid, loot, ransack or, and this is where the grooves cut into a barrel come in – ‘to disturb’. Gunmakers running a sharp tool on a rod in and out of a gun’s bore were indeed disturbing the otherwise smooth surface of the metal. Incidentally, the term ‘screwed gun’ is a synonym for ‘rifle(d) gun’ as this 1678 source shows. The etymology is pretty clear, but had apparently been forgotten by the end of the 18th century, when ‘to rifle’ either meant just ransacking or looting, or to cut spiral grooves in a gun. At any rate, this was in use from at least 1700, and was short for ‘rifled gun’ or ‘rifle gun’. Inventor of the Baker rifle, Ezekiel Baker, refers to the generic rifle as ‘the rifled gun’ in his own 1806 book, so this long form term was still in current use at that time, but was already commonly abbreviated. Almost from the off therefore, ‘rifled gun’, ‘rifle gun’ and ‘rifle’ were all used to refer to any shoulder-fired firearm with rifling, whereas ‘rifled musket’, ‘rifle musket’ or ‘rifle-musket’ referred specifically to a military weapon with rifling. Military rifles in the age of linear tactics had to serve as both gun and half-pike, so that infantry could fight without shooting, and especially engage with cavalry. There was little need for the precision offered by the rifle, a lack of training to allow soldiers to exploit it, and in any case they were much more labour-intensive and therefore costly to make. Rifles were also slower to load, and it was more effective for the majority of troops to be drilled in musketry using quick-loading and cost-effective smoothbore muskets than to provide them with rifles. The typical rifle was designed for hunting or target shooting. Of course, during the 18th century they were adapted for limited use in war by specialist troops, and light infantry tactics developed for them, but the standard soldier’s weapon remained the musket, and until the 1840s was invariably a smoothbore musket and not a ‘rifled musket’.

Although we are used to thinking of a musket as a clunky, inaccurate, short-ranged and smoothbore weapon therefore, the actual distinguishing characteristics of the musket were really only twofold. First, it had to have a long barrel to allow for more complete powder burn and therefore sufficient velocity (especially important with the lack of gas seal at the breech) as well as enough reach to engage in bayonet fighting (especially against cavalry) and secondly, a bayonet. This is why the Baker rifle could be called a ‘rifle musket’ – and its users fought as line infantry as well as light infantry – and also why the famous Winchester company marketed a long-barrelled, bayonet-capable version of its lever-action rifle as a musket. By the end of the 19th century the smoothbore musket had fallen out of use, and so there was no longer a need to differentiate between ‘(smoothbore) musket’ and ‘rifled musket’. Of course, we could have just called rifles ‘muskets’, but ‘rifle’ was already in common usage, and the word ‘musket’ had become associated with the smoothbore musket amidst the hype of the superiority of the rifle musket. ‘Rifle’ or ‘Rifled’ was the key part of the name, so once again the standard infantry weapon was abbreviated to just ‘rifle’ – which was in any case used throughout this whole period. The P’53 Enfield was always a ‘rifle’, a ‘rifled musket’, and technically, a ‘rifled gun’ as well.

All of this would tend to suggest that ‘rifled musket’ only came in with general issue percussion rifles like the Enfield and the Springfield, but in fact early military rifles like the famous British Baker were also ‘muskets’. Rifled muskets. The 1816 ‘Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature’, Volume 18 (p. 383);

‘A telescope with cross-hairs, fitted to a common rifled musket, and adjusted to the direction of the shot, will make any person, with very little practice, hit an object with more precision than the most experienced marksman.’

De Witt Bailey’s ‘British Military Flintlock Longarms’ shows that the Baker itself was in fact sometimes called a ‘Rifled musquet’, and not just in its rare ‘musket bore’ variant either. It was a musket because it was a military long gun with a bayonet. It was a rifle gun, rifle musket, or just plain ‘rifle’, because it was rifled! By this stage however the shorthand ‘rifle’ was not only in common use, but was part of the formal designation of the weapon (the ‘Infantry Rifle’). It also helped to further differentiate the specialist weapon from the common musket. However, the term ‘musket’ did survive for a long time afterward in the context of ‘musketry’ – military marksmanship. The British ‘School of Musketry’ was only formed in 1854, when rifles were already standard issue – in fact that’s primarily why it was formed; soldiers now had to learn how to hit their mark at distance. My mention of ‘musket bore’ raises a third differentiating aspect that I ignored earlier; because it becomes irrelevant in the 19th century, which is a larger, heavier bullet than the typical rifle, carbine, or ‘fusil’. This held broadly true from the inception of the musket in the 1530s to the 19th century when (rifle!) musket bores reduced as velocities went up. However, even in this earlier period, a carbine could be of ‘musket bore’, just as it could also mount a bayonet. Terminology is a thorny problem that is just as often driven by the armed force that’s doing the naming as it is by logic; but here I’m just concerned with sorting out the ‘rifle(d) musket’ issue. 

The official British term for an infantry rifle intended for use by ‘line infantry’ (i.e. not light infantry or specialist riflemen) during the period of the Pattern 1853 rifle was ‘rifled musket’, in keeping with the modern British English grammatical preference. As noted though, this was less set in stone in the mid-19th century and ‘rifle musket’ was also used, notably by Henry Jervis-White-Jervis in his 1854 ‘The Rifle-musket: A Practical Treatise on the Enfield-Pritchett Rifle’. ‘The Rifle: And how to Use It’ by Hans Busk (1861) uses both terms, leading with ‘rifled musket’, and is referring to the Pattern 1853 rifle, so again, there’s no question of ‘rifled’ meaning a conversion of a smoothbore musket. In the U.S. also, both terms were used. Peter Smithurst in his Osprey book on the P’53 refers to the records of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers of Springfield (July 1861);

‘….Friday morning the regiment marched to the U.S. Armory and returned the muskets loaned them for the purpose of drill, and in the afternoon we received our full supply of the Enfield rifled musket.’

Yet the ‘Catalogue of the Surgical Section of the United States Army Medical Museum’ by Alfred A. Woodhull (1866, p. 583) lists various weapons, using ‘rifle musket’ for the U.S. Springfield, but ‘rifled musket’ for foreign types including the P’53. Once again, interchangeable terms for the same thing. 

There you go – call them ‘rifle muskets’, ‘rifled muskets’, ‘rifle guns’ or just plain ‘rifles’ – all are correct and all refer to the same thing – a military rifle. The only reason we don’t call an M16 a ‘musket’ is fashion, basically.

Mask of the Plague Doctor

Promo image from the recent Ghost tour. Not entirely fanciful as it turns out.

tl;dr – although not in use until the Enlightenment era (sorry, the plague doctor is not a medieval or renaissance figure) the beak doctor outfit really was an historical reality of the early 17th – early 19th centuries, but was likely rare; especially in its iconic form with corvid-like mask and separate hood.

Update: my original intent was to write something up for the lovely people at Fortean Times, who very kindly allowed me to do so, but after I’d posted this initial debunking of the claim that they didn’t exist. As I’d already written it, and the angle is somewhat different, I’ve left this up. But if you get the chance, do grab a copy of Issue 393, because they did a cracking job with the much revised and enhanced text that I gave them and the illustrations look great; including a never-before published original of the Zwinger painting. Anyway, read on…

Given the current rash of people dressing as plague doctors in weird defiance of the novel Coronavirus that we find ourselves beset by, as well as their recent use by the ‘12 Monkeys’ TV show and one of my favourite bands, Ghost, I felt I had to tackle the iconic plague doctor mask; the one with the long, curved snout with impressed (or stitched) line down the side mimicking a bird’s beak (sometimes a full-on replica beak with nostril openings). I’ve been sceptical about this for a while now, mostly due to Kathleen Crowther’s blog article ‘Did Plague Doctors Wear Those Masks?’ (2013), available here. Crowther states that the bird’s beak was parody, not reality – that these physicians in their early versions of HAZMAT suits were derided and compared to scavenging ravens (post-medieval Europe hated corvids, unfortunately), and this is where our modern misconception of the plague doctor’s costume comes from. This conclusion does make a lot of sense, but as it turns out, I don’t agree. The plague doctor’s outfit and mask are genuine. Yes, the costume was probably the exception, and the really birdlike masks that fascinate us today even more rare than that, but there’s plenty of evidence that both did in fact exist from about 1619 for perhaps two centuries in one form or another.

OK, time for the deep dive…

The Evidence for An Historical ‘Dr Beak’

The earliest extant plague doctor depiction. Unknown artist (published by Sebastiano Zecchini), 1656. (British Museum archive document 1880,0710.522, AN186495001, from

There is actually a reasonable amount of evidence for the iconic form of the plague doctor’s costume. What isn’t clear is how old this form actually is. Medical practitioners have probably been protecting themselves from infectious diseases (in this case forms of plague) for centuries, but the first version of the iconic outfit dates to the French plague of 1615-21 (which reached Paris in 1618). This clothing is attributed by Michel abbé de Saint-Martin to royal physician Charles Delorme. The full description of Delorme’s costume that appears on Wikipedia (taken from here and in turn from this 1896 article) is in fact a weird mashup of sources, fancifully (irresponsibly?) rewritten as one long interview between Michel and Delorme by N.M. Bernardin, an historian of French literature (not social or medical history). Despite this, it’s close to being accurate. It is mainly based upon ‘Remarques critiques sur le dictionnaire de Bayle’ (1748). Although written a long time after the fact, this does credit its information to Michel and may have been taken from a different source (possibly the 1683 second edition of ‘Moyens’, which I can’t find a copy of online):

‘Il se fit faire, dit-il, un habit de maroquin, que le mauvais air pénètre très difficilement : il mit en sa bouche de l’ail et de la rue ; il se mit de l’encens dans le nez et dans les oreilles, couvrit ses yeux de bésicles, et en cet équipage assista les malades, et il en guérit presque autant qu’il donna de remèdes.’

‘He had himself made, he says, a leather suit, which bad air penetrates with great difficulty: he put garlic and rue [a type of plant] in his mouth; he put incense in his nose and ears, covered his eyes with spectacles, and in this equipment assisted the sick, and he healed almost as much as he gave remedies.’

This has been combined with the only actual information on Delorme’s outfit that does appear in Michel’s ‘Moyens faciles et éprouvés dont M. de l’Orme, médecin, s’est servi pour vivre près de cent ans’ of 1682, which is a mention of his coat and mask (pages 424-425):

‘Il n’oublioit jamais fon habit de marroquin dont il étoit l’autheur, il l’habilloit depuis les pieds jusques à la tefte en forme de pantalon , avec un masque du méme marroquiņ où il avoit fait attacher un nez long de demy pied afin de detourner la malignité de l’air…’

‘He was never without his own design of (goatskin) leather coat, and dressed from head to toe with pantaloons and a mask of the same leather to which he attached a long nose half a foot in length in order to keep out the bad air.’ 

This certainly sounds like the plague doctor we know and love, but at this point there is no mention of a birdlike beak, eyeglasses, gloves (although they are implied by ‘head to toe’), rod or hat (although no gentlemen would set foot outside without some sort of walking stick or hat). Michel goes on to say that Delorme gave another coat and mask to the daughter of Monsier Renaud, chief chirurgeon to King Louis XIII, so there were at least two of these outfits in existence at this time.

However birdlike or otherwise Delorme’s outfit may or may not have been, and whether or not others took the idea from him or came up with it independently, the first certain visual depiction of a plague doctor and also the first to feature a naturalistic bird-face mask is not French but Italian, dating to 1656. [edit – as an aside, after I published this article I spotted this intriguing claim by Francesca Falk that there are in fact two beak-masked plague doctors incorporated into the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This seems impossible to prove, and there is no prior (or subsequent) English depiction or mention that would help to verify it, but I think Falk makes a good case.] One original copy of this 1656 Italian engraving resides in the British Museum’s collection (reproduced at the top of this article – see a later sketched copy here). It was produced in Rome and Perugia by an unknown artist, pubilshed by Sebastiano Zecchini;

‘L’habito con il quale vanno i Medici per Roma a Medicare per difesa del mal Contagioso è di tela incerata, il Volto ordinario, congli Occhiali di Christallo, & il Naso pieno di Profumi contro l’infettione. Portano una Verga in mano perdare a vedere, è dimostrare le loro operationi.’

In Roma, & in Perugia, Per Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.  

This (hopefully!) translates as;

‘The outfit in which the doctors in Rome go to medicate in defence of the infectious disease is of waxed canvas, the face with eyeglasses, & the nose full of perfumes against the infection. They hold a staff because of their reduced vision and to demonstrate their operations.’

In Rome, & in Perugia. For Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.

Pretty similar; and the type of cloth or leather used to make the clothing isn’t specified. I have to wonder how much ‘later’ Delorme had the idea of the perfume-filled beaked mask. Did he or the doctors in Rome come up with it first? Or did the two hit upon the idea independently? We have no way of knowing unfortunately, but it’s clear that the basic outfit was in use in both French and Italian regions. 

The German Piss-Take Versions

One of two German derivatives of the Italian original, this one by Gerhart Altzenbach and titled ‘Kleidung widder den Todt’ or ‘Death’s Clothing’ (Wikimedia commons –,_Kleidung_widder_den_Todt_Anno_1656.png)

Paul Fürst’s ‘Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom’ or ‘Dr Beak of Rome’ (Wikimedia Commons –,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holl%C3%A4nder_version).png)

The German states were clearly fascinated by the sensational appearance of the Italian plague doctor(s?) and copied the artwork to produce two later engravings (presumably made within a few years of the original), both with the extensive additional satirical commentary that Crowther points to in her article, poking fun at the odd-looking birdlike man and his ineffectiveness in actually helping the afflicted. One of these satirical ‘broadsides’ is by Gerhart Altzenbach (there is a very brief 1965 academic note on this here, JSTOR account required), the other by Paulus Fürst. Due to the identical date it’s hard to say which of the German ones came first (pun not originally intended) but Fürst’s added memento mori winged hourglass on the tip of the doctor’s staff and the closer resemblance to the Altzenbach version suggests that it followed the latter. Fürst also makes the gloved fingers even more pointed and sinister-looking. This version of the design also suggests that the original artist for the doctor figure was an ‘I. Columbina’, hinting at another Italian version pre-dating all of the known examples. However, the BM points out that Columbina was a character in the commedia dell’Arte, the implication (given that this attribution does *not* appear on the Italian version and that no other reference to an artist of that name has ever been found) being that this was a joke; i.e. this bizarre person was sketched by a fellow weirdo – Columbina… That in itself is pretty speculative though.

As Crowther notes, Altzenbach’s broadside is where we get the satirical comparison to the raven:

“Cadavera sucht er zu fristen

Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten”


“He seeks cadavers to eke out a living

Just like the raven on the dung heap”

I kind of want to see a Rammstein version of the full thing, but I digress. With all due respect to Kathleen Crowther (and in fairness she does not discount the idea but simply states that she has not seen the evidence), this does not in fact debunk the plague doctor’s beaked mask, or even the more overtly birdlike version of it. The birdface mask cannot be purely satirical; not only because of the other period evidence for similar costumes in France, but because the mocking German ‘Doctor Schnabel’ artwork is very clearly copied directly from an Italian original that is played entirely ‘straight’ with no smirking commentary, criticism or embellishment.

As it turns out, there’s even more evidence to support this. If the three depictions we’ve seen so far are all based on the same original, there is an absolute corker of an original artwork from almost half a century later. That is, the coat of arms of Swiss doctor Theodor Zwinger III (1658 – 1724). There are at least two versions of this; the below is an oil painting on a wooden panel, dated to c.1700 by the Wellcome Collection but likely a close copy (whether period or later it’s hard to say) of the more detailed original in the in Historisches Museum Basel, which is painted on copper plate (I have a copy of this but won’t post it online; it appears in my Fortean Times article (Issue 393, 2020). It shows a very gothic-looking black robed figure with very birdlike, curved beak, complete with dividing line between upper and lower:

This is my favourite. – Theodore Zwinger in and out of plague doctor costume (From

That’s definitely Zwinger III on the right, and although his dress seems decidedly old-fashioned for the late 17th century, portraits of him show a large ruff and voluminous shoulders on his doublet. Of course, this artwork is essentially fantasy, and does not necessarily mean that Zwinger ever wore this clothing or even that it was still in use at the end of the century. It could in fact mean the opposite – representing the unenlightened past on the left (based on what those silly Italians used to wear) and the modern physician on the right, acknowledging the debt owed to past beliefs whilst distancing the subject from them. It might even be a direct reference to ‘Doctor Schnabel’ as a figure of fun. Even so, it’s another piece of evidence that this outfit was at least a meme of sorts, and very likely a real costume at one time.

Later Forms

The next version appears in 1721 in a much cruder form (below) as the frontispiece to (Genovese) Jean-Jacques Manget’s ‘Traité de la peste‘. Produced by an unidentified artist, is in fact considerably later than the Zecchini original and presumably the German derivatives. This is apparent from this source (note also the much less birdlike depiction over the page in the same book) and indeed from the clear debt owed, down to the specific pose of the doctor, to the design used in the three earlier engravings. This doctor also has an updated style of hat and gloves.

Manget’s 1721 version of the plague doctor (Wikimedia Commons –,_Trait%C3%A9_de_la_peste_(1721);_WHO_version.png)

The accompanying description (the annotation on the drawing covers the eyeglasses) offers more detail than the earlier ones in terms of clothing and is the first to comment on the resemblance of the ‘beak’ to, er, a beak;

‘Le nez en forme de bec est rempli de parfums et oint intérieurement de matières balsamiques … sous le manteau, on porte ordinairement des bottines, des culottes de peau attachées audites bottines et une chemise de peau unie dont on referme le bas dans les culottes, le chapeau et les gants sont aussi de même peau de maroquin du levant.’

‘The beak-shaped nose is filled with perfumes and anointed internally with balsamic materials… under the coat, one usually wears ankle boots, skin breeches attached to said ankle boots and a plain skin shirt whose bottom is closed in the breeches, the hat and the gloves are also of the same goatskin leather.’

Interestingly, Manget and other sources of this period (including this version of the Manget engraving, that specifically namechecks Chicoyneau) explain that the costume was brought back by physician François Chicoyneau, 100 years after the previous plague (no mention of Delorme as either inventor or plague doctor, interestingly), to help tackle a new outbreak of plague in Marseille. Interestingly (and eerily, because as I write this my country has just gone into COVID-19 lockdown), this was probably because Chicoyneau was utterly convinced by miasma theory and did not hold with the idea of a cordon sanitaire to prevent the spread of disease. Of course, the medical treatments of the day were unlikely to help anyone near as much as a cordon, although the plague doctor costume might protect the physicians to some extent. By implication at least, there were now multiple classical ‘plague doctors’ mooching about in this get-up. So far, so birdy. This early 18th century revival provides some important continuity with respect to my next section…

What Plague Doctor Masks Exist?

As far as I can determine, there are between five and seven (two may be recreations) documented ‘beaked’ plague masks (see below). Two to four of them (including both of the possible recreations) seem to have been lost or destroyed. One of these was originally collected for the Museum of Hygiene in Rome from the lazaretto or plague hospital in Venice. It now exists only in a photograph held by the Wellcome Collection in the UK. Even then it was in a sorry condition, missing its lenses. A very similar style of mask was photographed on the island of Poveglia (also in the province of Venice). Both appear below. The interesting thing about this is that Poveglia wasn’t made a lazaretto until the end of the 18th century, so any plague mask collected there is likely not contemporary with the 17th century depictions. It stands to reason that the basic design of mask/hood would remain in use, as the miasma theory of disease was not abandoned for another hundred years.

The Wellcome’s photograph of the Italian mask (from;_an_oil_cloth_ma_Wellcome_V0029672.jpg)

The Poveglia mask.

The two questionable ones were apparently once part of the Wellcome Collection itself. The Collection has photos of one of them including one in situ in the Wellcome Library (mid-C20th). They were clearly both on open display and by the time of this photograph were in a state of disrepair (one being held together with tape!). I am as sure as I can be that both are actually Victorian recreations, produced mid-late 19th century as teaching aids, handled to death, then binned. The one on the left is made of either plaster or papier mache. The right hand one is made of the same worn fabric (wax cotton, oilskin?) as the robes, and there’s no way that set of robes has survived the 150+ years to the mid-20th century. The biggest point against is probably that the Wellcome called one of them a ‘model’ and didn’t keep either of them. If they were genuine, they likely would have saved at least one. 

The three still-extant were also collected by German museums; the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim, and the Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum in Ingolstadt. All appear (as we might expect from items collected by bona fide museums) to be genuine, although they are only loosely dated to some time during the 17th century and in reality could be recreations closer in date to Manget’s 1721 depiction. The Reiss-Engelhorn example has a distinct flat goggle section but is otherwise substantially the same as the others. The DHM hood (AK 2006/51) is the only one that I could find provenance information on – it’s a recent acquisition, purchased at auction in April 2006 from a private art dealer based in Vienna. It’s not clear whether this or the other German examples reflect any actual period German/Austrian/non-Italian use of the masks or (more likely) collection as medical/scientific curiosities by German visitors to one or more of the Italian states. 

The DMM (left) and DHM (right) masks (from the useful thread on the Taleworlds forum;

The Reiss-Engelhorn version (from,S,E&fields_0=all&fields_1=all&imagesonly=1&orientation=both&words_0=all&words_1=all)

Typologically, these masks seem to represent a further evolution from the Manget type, being bulkier, bulbous full hood designs with integrated eye lenses instead of separate spectacles and without the beak line or nostrils. Almost like early C19th diving helmets with beaks. I believe that all are late 18th or early 19th century in date. Frankly it would be remarkable if any of the early type masks had survived for 350-odd years. There is one very classical-looking but also highly dubious example currently included in the Wikipedia articles on plague doctors and their costume. Judging by its condition alone, this must be a modern recreation, and I cannot find any museum in Jena (to which the image is attributed) that would be likely to have anything like this. There is a museum of optics there, which would explain a diorama recreation of a plague doctor, which is what I believe this image to represent. 

These examples are more similar to the artistic depictions than they may appear. As well as a general form resembling the Manget version, and the obvious beak-like snout, if we look closely at the artistic depictions, these too were likely all full, over-the-head affairs, more like hoods than facemasks (the German museums call the later forms ‘pesthaube’ in fact). This which would make them more effective protection against actual diseases as well as imaginary miasma/bad air. All have more conical than realistic-looking ‘beaks’ (two leather, one bronze or more likely copper), not as birdlike as those shown in the period artwork, although in fairness, they are all very old and in a bit of a state; they may have looked more classically plague doctory in their day. Interestingly, the only real change in the 1721 Manget depiction from earlier versions was to depict the doctor’s mask as a full-head hooded affair, albeit still with a more birdlike snout. In fact though, the main difference is that the Manget version doesn’t have the robe wrapped up and over the mask itself. What look like separate facemasks akin to the modern Venetian carnival/commedia dell’arte il Medico della Peste‘ mask are also actually depicting a hood – just one sitting underneath an enveloping robe. In this respect a lot of the modern depictions are actually off-base, showing a balaclava-style hood with a facemask slipped over the top, or sometimes just the mask. Incidentally, ‘il Medico’ himself seems to be a recent phenomenon; a variation/play on the vague similarity of the plague mask to the long-nosed masks worn by the Zanni characters and the modern-day popularity of the plague doctor. There is actually no historical commedia character based on the plague doctor (although there is historically a very different doctor character). 


Whether styled closely after a bird’s face or just resembling one by coincidence (most likely both at different times, in different places and depending upon the individual doctor’s preference), the look of these masks was secondary to their intended function. The main goal here, then as now, was to protect themselves as best they knew how against unseen agents of infection. The masks (especially the simpler forms) are not too different to the early gas masks or ‘gas hoods’ of the First World War. The ‘beak’ is a direct analogue to the later mask filter, albeit full of items thought to combat ‘miasma’ rather than anything medically effective. 

To wrap this up; yes, the full-face bird-like ‘beaked’ mask/hood with glasses, the robes, the gloves, the funky hat, the point-ed stick, thin leather or waxed cloth; all of it was a real thing. Many masks/hoods probably had a conical ‘beak’ that only vaguely resembled a bird’s bill; others probably leaned into the look more like the earliest depictions and our modern conception. Of course, as we’ve seen, the ‘look’ sort of backfired; almost immediately critics were comparing them to that infamous bird of death, the raven – complete in the Fürst version (bottom left of frame) with several terrified prospective patients running away from the doctor, who is waving his winged hourglass of death at them and presumably wondering why no-one wants to be ‘treated’. Even Zwinger’s coat of arms seems to paint (literally) his plague doctor self as an ominous harbinger of disease and death. This, of course, is how we see the plague doctor to this day; a relic of scientific ignorance and a symbol of an elitist, distant, uncaring medical profession. We should probably recognise though that these people were trying to help the infected, not terrify them – just as our (thankfully much more capable) healthcare professionals are trying to do as I type this. Their methods may have been questionable (even by the 1720s) but in terms of protective equipment, they were thinking along the right lines in terms of overlapping fully enveloping clothing that might prevent the ingress of…whatever was causing the infection. They thought it was ‘bad’ air, we know that it’s microscopic organisms (in the case of bubonic plague, passed on by flea bites).

Thankfully, in the current pandemic, we don’t need to experiment with protective clothing for medical practitioners; we know what works and we just have to do our bit and help prevent the spread. If people find the iconic plague doctor interesting, amusing or even comforting rather than scary, that’s a great use for this fascinating piece of (not BS!) history.

The Mummies of St Michan’s – the ‘Crusader’, the ‘Nun’ and the ‘Thief’…

1 - C19th 1888
The vault in 1888…

2 - C20th
…in the early 20th century…?

3 - 21st
…and in the present day.


Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100

Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!


I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?


Peter Somerville-Large pegged the ‘crusader’ as a ‘seventeenth century Dubliner’ in ‘Dublin, the Fair City’ (1996) and I am convinced that he was right. The bodies in the vault are at most 400 years old, but after only a century or so, local people thought that they must be much older. Sir Arthur Vicars had this figured this out 1888 in his ‘An account of the antiseptic vaults beneath S. Michan’s Church, Dublin, : read at the annual meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Leamington’ (1888, p.79-82):


‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’


Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:


‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not

including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.


-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)


This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.


The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;


‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’

-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).


This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:


‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’


That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse before relocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.


In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;


‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’


Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.


‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:

‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’


Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.


‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.


Finally, on the ‘crusader’:

‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.


Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.


The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.


I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.


In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).

Spanish Civil War Bollocks

No, not this Spanish Civil War bollocks. Although this is very likely also bollocks…


I recently came across an odd claim in the comments section for a YouTube video (yes, yes, I know) on the subject of the Second World War. Having investigated, the commenter was referring to this story as reported in a 2012 thesis entitled ‘Desertion, Control and Collective Action in Civil Wars’ (p.165-6);


When asked to explain to an American journalist how he had blown up a tank, another militiaman replied, “echando cojones al asunto”—applying courage (literally testicles) to the matter, according to the Left Republican leader Régulo Martínez who set up their interview. Martínez relates, “A week later, I was shown a copy of an American paper in which I read that Madrid militiamen had invented a new anti-tank device called ‘echando cojones al asunto.’”


The furthest back that I could trace this was a 1979 oral history book by Ronald Fraser, which relates the story in the original Spanish (i.e….un periódico americano en el que se decía que los milicianos de Madrid habían inventado un nuevo dispositivo antitanques llamado “echando cojones al asunto”…).


So this may well be a period claim and not something concocted later, although oral history is often unreliable due to the passage of time. However, as the claim relates to an actual US print newspaper, if it’s true then we should be able to locate something in online newspaper archives. Disappointingly (I did rather want this one to be true!) yet unsurprisingly, none of the available archives yielded any result. In fact I couldn’t find a single English language reference. When you think about it though, the very claim itself strains credulity. Why would a foreign journalist who did not speak Spanish simply repeat a phrase in that language for his readers without asking what it meant? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spanish knows what ‘cojones’ means, and the US was at that time not without its connections to Spain and the Spanish language. It’s also a rather convenient meme/informal propaganda piece that says to fellow Spaniards that ‘the outside world knows nothing of our troubles and isn’t helping’. Bottom line – there’s no evidence for this one and it’s likely to be a piece of Spanish wartime lore. Shame really!

Kiss of the ‘Vampire’?

Surprisingly, I had never heard of Hungarian serial killer and alleged ‘vampire’ Béla Kiss until I watched a recent episode of ‘The Great War’ on YouTube. It’ s fantastic series, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, I was immediately sceptical of the suggestion that Kiss had ‘drained’ his victims of blood and was a ‘vampire’. This is frequently claimed by vampire universalists; people who like to lump absolutely everything they can under the vampire umbrella, regardless of cultural or historical context. The connection between vampires and serial killers is often made, but is entirely spurious other than in handful of cases where killers actually do drink the blood of their victims. Even this doesn’t make them ‘vampires’ per se. More ‘wannabes’ really. Anyway, back to Kiss. I had a good dig about, and the claim of blood-draining/drinking seems to originate with Monaco and Burt’s ‘The Dracula Syndrome’ (1993). Kiss appears on page 156;

‘…what intrigued investigators more were a series of sharp wounds on the necks of each victim — each of whom had been drained of her blood. Other, more fortunate women began to come forward to identify Kiss as their evil, vampire attacker.’

Unless readers can find any earlier claim, I’m calling this one BS – a cheap attempt to make Kiss seem more, well, ‘evil’ and ‘vampire’ than just a plain old nasty murdering f*ck-head. In fact, the whole book appears to be part of the ‘true crime’ movement to romanticise serial killers as somehow other-worldly beings. Which is not to say that the story of a First World War killer that disappeared isn’t interesting; you should definitely check out ‘The Great War’ video on Kiss and the rest of the channel for that matter.


Helsinki Syndrome

The redoubtable Harvey Johnson. I miss satire in my action movies.


Every year at Christmas I enjoy a viewing of Die Hard (1988), usually as the wife decorates the tree, but this year we had a staff screening at work. Such a good film. Anyway, every time I see it I notice another detail, and this time it was the odd phrase ‘Helsinki syndrome’. Everyone knows that the psychological phenomenon of hostages identifying with and even sympathising with their captors is called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘ after a specific bank robbery that took place in that Swedish city in 1973. I naturally wondered whether ‘Helsinki syndrome’ was a silly mistake, a continuation of an existing mistake (as in, the movie reflecting popular misconception), or part of the movie’s poking fun at the media (the news anchor shows his ignorance by immediately trying to clarify for the audience that Helsinki is in Sweden, only to be corrected by the expert guest). I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an existing misconception that the writers were referencing, unlike the infamous ceramic ‘Glock 7’ of Die Hard 2 (which was based on an existing media scare; one for another post). The movie seems to have started a meme of sorts, to the point where some people today actually think that ‘Helsinki syndrome’ is a real thing. There is no mention that I can find of it prior to the film. ‘Helsinki’ was definitely in the original script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. As to why the writers didn’t just call it Stockholm syndrome and have the presenter mistakenly say that Stockholm was in Finland, I can’t be sure. It may just have been deliberately changed to distance the movie from real-life events, just as Hans Gruber’s ‘Volksfrei movement’ never really existed but had parallels in groups like the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Gang. Viewers in the know would realise what was being referenced and would find the ensuing gag extra funny. For those not familiar with the real-life syndrome, the movie explains it and we can all laugh at the daft anchorman together. However, there may be a more specific origin. I did find one reference to Helsinki syndrome as a political comment in The Nation magazine (vol.241, 1985, p.8) made in reference to this hijacking;

‘Most feared of all Scandinavian disorders is Helsinki Syndrome, in which positively charged particles of information afflict the victim’s central ideological system, causing him to question America’s absolute moral superiority in the cold war. Specialists in the field refer to victims of the syndrome as being “‘Finlandized,” thus beyond recuperation.’

It seems plausible, given the amount of satire present in Die Hard, that the writers were referencing this wry comment, which is using its suggestion that Helsinki Syndrome is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome to satirise US foreign policy and, I believe, Allyn B. Conwell. This incident produced two radically opposed views from the hostages; Conwell, who responded with hatred for his captors, and Peter W. Hill, who defended them in the press. Hence whereas sympathy for terrorists would be medicalised as effectively a mental illness (which is the popular understanding of Stockholm Syndrome, implying that the sufferer’s aberrant views can be disregarded), the magazine is suggesting that such people might label any critic of the US government as having a case of ‘Helsinki Syndrome’. It does fit, although I have no direct evidence for this one. I did once manage to get in touch with de Souza about another piece of Die Hard trivia, so perhaps I could find out if anyone is sufficiently interested. Anyway, just in case there is any doubt, there is no such thing as Helsinki Syndrome.

On African ‘Vampires’

The only ‘African vampire’ that I know of…


Trying to get back in the habit of posting, and I’m a bit slow on this one, but you probably saw the news around halloween this year that ‘vampires’ were causing problems in Malawi. In fact, it’s still happening. I was interested to read Anthony Mtuta’s take on the phenomenon in the latter account. Mtuta is a lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi, and believes the vampire mania to reflect the deep divide between rich and poor. He’s clearly onto something. I was not aware of any indigenous African vampire tradition, and wondered if we might be seeing some influence from western pop culture (hence my image choice above). I can’t rule this out as a factor, but have found no evidence of it. The reality is much more interesting.


Partway into my research I discovered that Vice News had actually done my job for me with a very well researched article. This confirmed what I had suspected; these aren’t really ‘vampires’ as we know them, except perhaps in the super-inclusive sense of there being a meme of the ‘universal vampire’. There are no stories (ancient or otherwise) of dead people taking vitality from the living in Malawi. In fact, there is no history of bloodsucking revenant belief anywhere in Africa as far as I know (though I could be wrong). What’s being acted upon in Malawi seemed to me a very recent belief with the hallmarks of a modern conspiracy theory or urban myth, with no traditional folklore to back it up. They’re not talking about walking corpses or even ghosts, but living people using needles to steal blood. Vampires of a sort perhaps, but nothing whatever to do with the European revenant tradition and especially not the ‘true’ Slavic vampire.


I wanted to nail down just how old these beliefs are, as the Vice article only pushes things back to ‘the 1930s’ with a quote from leading researcher in the field Luise White. I only have access to the Google Books preview of her definitive book, but it looks as though the first written account dates to 1923 (for mumiani – see page 39 of White’s book). White’s interviewees, some of whom were born in the 1890s, claimed that the practice ‘…started after World War I in Kenya and in the 1920s in Northern Rhodesia and Uganda’. A variety of names were used in different countries and languages, including mumiani and banyama which seem to be analogous to ‘vampire’ in the literal sense of an entity that draws blood, and chinja-chinja / kachinja, which White lumps together but may in fact represent a distinct belief (which reads to me like a straightforward mythologising of the ‘western’ serial killer – perhaps the belief has changed over time?). How the current Malawian term anamapopa relates to all this, I don’t know. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. In any case, Mumiani is especially interesting because it seems (p.11) to be connected to the practice of foreigners making spurious medicines from the dead bodies of Africans (ancient Egyptians, to be precise). White doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea (perhaps because she believes her interviewees), but the 1930s-vintage definition of mumiani makes the origin quite clear I think;


‘THE STANDARD Swahili-English Dictionary describes “Mumiani” as “a dark-coloured gum-like substance used by some Arabs, Indians and Swahili as a medicine for cramp, ague, broken bones, etc.”, and further states : “It- is used as an outward application, also when melted in ghee for drinking as a medicine”. It is said to be brought from Persia but many natives firmly believe that it is dried or coagulated human blood taken from victims murdered for the purpose and when a rumour is started that Mumiani is being sought for, the natives in a town are filled with terror and seldom go outside their houses after sunset (Pers. “Mumiyai”, a medicine, with which mummies are preserved).

E.C. Baker in ‘Tanzania Notes and Records’, December 1944, p.108)


Variants of the word ‘mummy’ have long referred to folk-medicine preparations made from ancient corpses which, of course, white people had also indulged in as late as perhaps a century prior to this explanation. Interestingly, there was an Indian version of the blood-theft myth current in the late C19th which may be the origin of all of these African variants (White, p.10). In the mid-C19th this was seen as an Indian practice, and the myth was that Abyssinian boys were being killed to produce it. The connection between actual corpse medicine traditions and latter-day myths of blood theft for medical purposes seems clear. White suggests (p.28) that colonial banning of traditional ‘poison ordeal’ rituals in the 19th century might have created a gap in traditional practice that was filled by these stories. This would all fit together as an hypothesis; local tradition is interfered with by foreigners, who then become the butt of a new tradition, itself imported from abroad.


In any case, it’s fair to say that the current violence in Malawi is part of an older traditional belief in bloodsuckers, but is nothing to do with the older European vampire (or the even older revenant). It’s just a shame that a practice that seems to have served as a victimless scapegoat in other parts of the world (the dead bodies ‘killed’ as vampires didn’t feel a thing) is mirrored here by one that involves persecuting and harming real, living people.