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A time when smoking could result in sudden death

Posted in Accident with tags , , on 13/11/2019 by Craig Spence

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)

This week in 1672

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality with tags , , , on 22/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London Bills of Mortality for the week of 23rd January 1672:

2 killed; one at St Martinin the Fields, one at St Margaret Westminster;
1 by excessive drinking at St Olave Southwark;
1 broken leg;
A women burnt being drunk in St Paul Shadwell;
1 by a fall from a scaffold in St Giles without Cripplegate;
1 burnt at St Paul Covent Garden.

This account of sudden death from London’s teeming streets in 1672 is actually fairly typical. The use of the term ‘killed’ within the Bills of Mortality is not particularly helpful in describing the actual cause of death but a wider reading of the records suggest the use of this phrase was most often associated with those accidentally killed during casual violence; in other words various forms of manslaughter.

As for the role of alcohol as an agent of death the specific noting of those who died by ‘excessive drinking’ clearly had moralising overtones. Noting the drunken state of the woman who (in all probability) fell into the fire in the riverside parish of Shadwell perhaps represents a more direct attempt to evoke a salutary lesson while warning of the evils of drink.

 

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