A time when smoking could result in sudden death

Between 1671 and 1730 at least seventeen Londoners died as a result of smoking. This may not seem particularly surprising to modern eyes but at that time the consumption of tobacco was enjoyed by smoking it in clay pipes rather than cigarettes (or their e-version), and it was the pipe rather than the nicotine that presented an immediate hazard. Such pipes were manufactured in fire-hardened clay and comprised a relatively small bowl with a very long narrow stem. Contemporary images, together with osteo-archaeological evidence indicating long-term dental abrasion, make it clear that people from a wide range of backgrounds enjoyed smoking such pipes. But with a tobacco pipe firmly clamped in the mouth any unexpected fall or stumble could easily cause injury or even death.

In October 1702, for example, a woman in Westminster died after her ‘tobacco pipe struck accidentally into her brain’. The following year during the month of March a man in the parish of St Peter Paul’s Wharf died after his tobacco pipe ‘accidentally struck [him] in the throat’. The fact that falls were most frequently associated with this form of death is given weight by the Bill of Mortality for 17 November 1730 which reports quite unequivocally that a ‘man [was] accidentally killed by a tobacco pipe after a fall’ in St Dunstan Stepney. Violent behaviour can sometimes be linked to a tobacco pipe death. To give a pretty disturbing example, in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate in May 1719 ‘Hannah Harris[on], spinster, [was] killed with a tobacco pipe’. Her death was the result of being accidentally stabbed just below her left eye with the stem of her father’s pipe during an argument over money.

So, while smoking tobacco may not have been recognised as a health concern in its own right during the eighteenth century (even though many perceived it as a social annoyance) being stabbed in the head with a tobacco pipe was clearly something it was best to avoid.

Smokers and drinkers in tavern. One has fallen to the floor, has spilled his beer and broken the stem of his pipe.

This engraving shows a group of men enjoying beer and tobacco around 1790. The fallen man has luckily broken his tobacco pipe on the ground rather than driving it into his brains! (Wellcome Collection CC BY – Etching by J. Barlow, 1790, after S. Collins)

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