Blood in Medical Folklore: Why it Made Public Executions So Popular

As the executioner’s sword lobbed the man’s head off in an arching crimson spray, the crowd lunged forward. It wasn’t the sensationalism of a violent death that drew all the people clutching their white handkerchiefs. It was the blood. Bubbling from the criminal’s torso in two scarlet fountains, that blood promised healing power in medical folklore, and the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the magical red fluid.            The roots of this medical folklore run deep – through two millennia and various cultures. And its impact on public executions lasted well into the 19th century.

Medical folklore about blood dates back to Homer's Odyssey.

Henry Fuseli, Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the sacrificing (1780-1785) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Belief in the healing power of blood dates back to the ancient world. In 11th book of Homer’s Odyssey, the dead, starting with the Thebian Tirsesias, drank the blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice of sheep and it revitalized them. Human blood came into play in the Egyptian medical folklore described by Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia in the 1st century. It was dangerous for the common folk when an Egyptian king caught leprosy, wrote Pliny, because the royalty bathed in warm human blood to treat the disease. Both Pliny and a 1st c. AD colleague, Aretaeus of  Cappadocia also recommended consumption of fresh blood from slaughtered gladiators or executed criminals as a cure for epilepsy.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia

Aretaeus of Cappadocia; By Cesaree01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

The German physician Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer wrote a recent doctoral dissertation on the public treatment of the executed corpse in the 19th century. Medical folklore was one of the reasons why public executions were so popular, she writes. People thought both human blood and other body parts had the power to heal diseases, but it wasn’t any old blood that would do the trick. It worked best when it came from a healthy person killed suddenly. That drew the ill and infirm to public beheadings. Medical folklore turned the executioner’s block into a public pharmacy; in fact, people viewed the executioner as a healer. And few drops of blood apparently did the trick. People brought handkerchiefs to executions to absorb blood and saved them under their cupboards for good luck.

The practice had theological underpinnings. A 1699 German pharmaceutical handbook pointed out that because man was made in God’s image, his body parts offered healing value.

Handkerschief in Othello

Igor Bulgarin / Shutterstock, Inc. Members of the Dnepropetrovsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre perform ” Othello ” on May 14, 2011 in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine

Germany wasn’t the only country whose folklore valued the blood dripping from the executioner’s block. Shakespeare worked the medical folklore about human blood into Othello: Desdemona treats the pain on Othello’s forehead with a handkerchief stained with the blood of virgins. Werringloer also reports the similar medical folklore in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Sweden: Even up until 1940, many people in these countries considered human blood a cure for epilepsy.

As odd as the practice seems today, it’s not all so different from some aspects of modern medicine. It’s not all so different from blood transfusions, points out medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. The period medical folklore casts a different light on the crowds that gathered to watch public executions. They were all there out of curiosity and sensationalism. The were the sick and dying, looking for another shot at life, they were parents seeking a cure for their epileptic children, they were trying to treat their diseases the best way they knew how.

What medical folklore cures have you heard about?

 Literature on point:

Lindsey Fitzharris, “Drinking Blood and Eating Flesh: Corpse Medicine in Early Modern England,” The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (Feb. 25, 2011).

Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Springer, 2011).

Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer, Vom Umgang mit der Leiche im 19. Jahrhundert: Der Fall der Giftmörderin Christiane Ruthardt und die Tübinger Anatomie (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2013).

 

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10 Comments

  1. Brian
    Feb 21, 2017

    Welcome Back

    A modern version of this is the abortion industry. Various companies are eager to get the blood, stem cells, and body parts of the fetus – presumably to develop life-saving new treatments.

    • Ann Marie
      Feb 22, 2017

      Thanks, Brian! I’m glad to be back. I was ill for awhile and haven’t been able to post.

      Stem cells from a fetus is a great modern example I never thought of. Human body parts continue to play a role in medical treatment, although they might be more controversial today than they were a couple hundred years ago.

  2. Jill Swenson
    Feb 21, 2017

    Interesting to read this long history of blood as a source of healing given the more recent history of blood as a source of contamination.

    • Ann Marie
      Feb 22, 2017

      Interesting thought, Jill. Contamination was probably also a problem in early times when blood was used to treat epilepsy, but the people didn’t realize what was happening. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Micki Suzanne
    Feb 23, 2017

    Great topic.

    I was raised Jehovah’s Witness and there was (is?) an obsession with blood. We were trained to explain that the Bible says ‘the life is in the blood.’ So it was therefore sacred and transfusions are against God’s will.

    I knew people who were willing to let their children die; only court orders saved them. I also know some who died because the court orders didn’t come in time.

    My epiphany came during the C-section delivery of my son; the doctor said ‘She has Rh-negative blood.’ I was young and cult-raised, but I knew in that moment that the belief was ludicrous. If the life is in the blood, why would using it to prolong life be against God’s will?

    • Ann Marie
      Feb 23, 2017

      Thanks for sharing that interesting slice of your life, Micki. The various beliefs floating around today about the use of blood in medicine show that we should not be too judgmental with people of centuries gone by who viewed a public execution as sort of a pharmacy. To them, the blood they gathered at a beheading was every bit as life-saving as we view transfusions today.

  4. Catherine Epps
    Feb 23, 2017

    Hey there sweet lady! I’d wondered where you’d been. Sorry to hear you’ve been ill. Glad to see you are recovered and conversing on interesting topics again. You’ve been missed.

    As for historical blood topics, what comes to mind is the way doctors used to have gory lab coats. Apparently they didn’t think blood could contaminate blood, and so having more and more of it on themselves just denoted how “experienced” they were with surgery.

    • Ann Marie
      Feb 23, 2017

      Catherine, you just made my day today by telling me I’ve been missed. Thanks!

      It’s interesting to see the historical contrast with how doctors view contamination in blood today.

  5. Jan Ostrom
    Feb 24, 2017

    Very interesting reading in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot on blood cells

    • Ann Marie
      Feb 24, 2017

      Another interesting case in point, Jan. Henrietta Lacks’ blood cells were used for medical research….

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