Scenes from the Secret History of Blood

By Richard Sugg

A patient is receiving treatment. The date is some time around 25AD; the site is the Roman colosseum. A gladiator lies crumpled on the sand at the side of the arena. Behind him a dark trail leads back to the spot from which he has just been dragged. Looking closer, we notice something slightly odd about the figure crouching over the wounded man. His posture does not suggest a doctor attempting to staunch bleeding, or even to check heartbeat or pulse. Look a little closer still, and you may be inclined to suddenly reel back or to close your eyes. The man sprawled at such an odd angle beside the injured fighter has his face pressed against a gaping tear in the gladiator’s throat. He is drinking blood fresh from the wound. Why? As you may now realise, it is in fact he who is the patient. He suffers from epilepsy, and is using a widely-known cure for his mysterious affliction. He and other sufferers, we are told, were wont to drink from gladiators’ bodies ‘as though from living cups’.1

    Across 2,000 years, stories of blood as medicine have a rich and surprising history. Tracking their crimson footprints, we move from the realm of alchemy to that of proto-scientific chemistry, and finally into the cold light of 21st century clinics. Many episodes mingle magic with religion, and at times leave us unable to divide myth from reality. Almost the whole span involves the drinking of blood, in an age before effective transfusions of blood or plasma. Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that medicinal blood drinking was licensed and promoted by emphatically Christian beliefs, from the Middle Ages through to the dawn of Enlightenment.

The Middle Ages

Chill stone floors; hooded figures gliding wraithlike beneath high vaulting; faint bubbling murmur of red liquid, distilling through tubes and vessels amidst handwritten parchments… Here in medieval and Catholic Europe, no less a figure than St Albertus Magnus (c.1206-1280), seen by some as the greatest scientist of his day, was said to have refined ‘a most precious water’. Distilled from ‘the blood of a healthful man’, this was believed to cure ‘all inward diseases’ if drunk; to restore strength; and to ‘preserve the body from all sickness’.2 Was this vampiric elixir of life really distilled by St Magnus himself? Though it may merely have been associated with him by those keen to boost its status, versions of it clearly did exist. Over in Oxford, the British scientist and sometime Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1294) refers to ‘certain wise men’ who have hinted at a medicine drawn from man’s body. ‘They affirm that in it there is a force and virtue, which restores and increases the natural heat’ – a force, indeed, said to be ‘like youth it self’.3

    Around the same time, the Spanish physician, Arnold of Villanova (c.1238-c.1310) had allegedly explained how to alchemise the ‘fire of human blood’. Given to one ‘in the hour of death’, this would ‘cause the person to revive again … and quickneth so all the parts, that it moveth the patient and very weak person, as it were within an hour to speak, and to dispose and utter his will’. This elixir had temporarily brought ‘the noble Earl and deputy of Paris’ out of a coma; and Arnold stresses that, ‘if old men also use of this fire every day, in a little quantity, it maketh old age lusty, and to continue in like estate a long time … And for that cause this fire, is named the elixir vitae’.4

    Elixir vitae, or elixir of life… What are we to make of all this? Closely associated with monks, saints, and esteemed medieval scientists, these elixirs had an emphatically Catholic status. And this, surely, was no accident. Here was a religious group which openly, habitually celebrated its eating and drinking of the body and blood of their god, under the domes and spires of Cologne, Paris, Oxford, Rome and Madrid. For all their gorgeous robes, their Latin, their ethereal choirs, they were already cannibals and vampires. The very essence, the purest distillation of their beliefs, raised to the light in the holy of holies, was vampirism.

The Vampire Pope

In July 1492 Pope Innocent VIII lay dying. One of the alleged cures attempted at Innocent’s deathbed is particularly memorable. Three healthy youths were bribed by the pope’s physician, with the promise of a ducat apiece. The youths were then cut and bled. All three presently bled to death. The pope drank their blood, still fresh and hot, in an attempt to revive his failing powers. The attempt was not successful. Innocent himself also died soon after, on 25 July.

    So runs the account of the pope’s contemporary, Stefano Infessura. Infessura was a lawyer and a fierce critic of Innocent VIII. Can his claims be trusted? In ethical terms, this kind of thing was pretty mild behaviour for the papacy. Taken as a whole, the Renaissance popes were some of the most corrupt, worldly, scheming and violent men who ever lived. Fourteen years before Innocent’s death, Pope Sixtus IV was the most eminent participant in the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478. In April of this year, the Pazzi family attempted to murdertwo members of Florence’s powerful Medici clan, Giuliano and Lorenzo. If the Pazzi were successful, control of the city would then pass to the pope’s ‘nephew’, Girolamo Riario. (In this period ‘nephew’ was very frequently a coded label for one of the pope’s many illegitimate sons.) The Pazzi’s murderous attempt was partially successful. Giuliano was killed. The blows were struck on Sunday in the Duomo cathedral, just as the Medici brothers were kneeling to receive the sacrament.5

    We should not judge Innocent VIII too harshly if he did not quite manage to live down to the standards of Sixtus, or of Alexander VI (a man supposed to have committed his first murder at the age of twelve). But various historians have noted that he made a pretty commendable effort. Perhaps most famously, by giving a stamp of papal authority to the witch-hunting obsessions of Henrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Innocent not only helped to catalyse the German witch-persecutions of the late-fifteenth century, but also contributed to many later ones, given the enduring status of Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum as a witch-hunter’s bible.6 Like other Catholics, Innocent was also a notable family man, fathering sixteen illegitimate children during his celibate career.

    So much, then, for any ethical problems. Medical ideas of the day also seem to have been favourable to our Vampire Pope. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), for example, was one of the most highly-respected figures of Renaissance Europe. And he too believed that the aged could rejuvenate themselves if they would ‘suck the blood of an adolescent’ who was ‘clean, happy, temperate, and whose blood is excellent but perhaps a little excessive’. Ficino, whose own father had been a medical doctor, makes it quite clear that blood was indeed used as a medicine by ‘good doctors’ at just this time.7

    Other evidence shows that Ficino’s views would not have been considered wildly eccentric. As Piero Camporesi points out, the Paduan physician, Giovanni Michele Savonarola (d.1464?), had stated that ‘”the quintessence of human blood” was often utilised “against hopeless diseases”’.8 Well into the sixteenth century the barber-surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-1588) was making yet greater claims for this ‘”fifth essence of human blood, with which, rectified and spun, I have as good as raised the dead, giving it as a drink to persons who had all but given up the ghost”‘.9 From Britain to Germany, from Spain to Italy, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, we find again and again these pious attempts to isolate an elixir vitae or quintessence (literally ‘fifth essence’) which can all but raise the dead. Fantastic as this may now seem to modern ears, it had a robust logic, and one shared by millions of devout Christians for hundreds of years.

    No less pious was the following recipe for making jam. First, you should ‘let it dry into a sticky mass’. Then:

Place it upon a flat, smooth table of soft wood, and cut it into thin little slices, allowing its watery part to drip away. When it is no longer dripping, place it on a stove on the same table, and stir it to a batter with a knife … When it is absolutely dry, place it immediately in a very warm bronze mortar, and pound it, forcing it through a sieve of finest silk. When it has all been sieved, seal it in a glass jar. Renew it in the spring of every year.

    Although this formula is rather old – dating from 1679 – it should be reliable, as it was given by a Franciscan apothecary. Admittedly, the fruit involved is somewhat exotic. Our apothecary advises us to ‘”draw blood … from persons of warm, moist temperament, such as those of a blotchy, red complexion and rather plump of build. Their blood will be perfect, even if they have not red hair … Let it dry…”‘. As Camporesi points out, we have here a kind of blood jam or marmalade.10 Almost a hundred years after the alleged transfusion described by Infessura, we find that human blood has a status which for some may blur into the most homely steams and aromas of a well-stocked kitchen.

Seventeenth Century Britain

One thing we are never taught about the first three Stuart kings is this. James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine. And this last case, taking place within seconds of the beheading of Charles on 30 January 1649, involved blood.   

    One moment Charles, mistaking a gesture of the headsman for a too hasty swing of the axe, was imperiously commanding his killer to wait while he fully composed himself. The next the executioner was selling tiny scraps of the king’s hair, along with parcels of the blood-soaked sand strewn upon the chopping-block. From demi-god to commodity in a bare few seconds… Later, one of Charles’s royalist hagiographers claimed that some bystanders ‘washed their hands in the royal blood’, while others ‘dipped their staves in it; and … they sold the chips of the block, and the sands that were discoloured with his blood, and exposed his very hairs to sale’. Some of these bystanders hoped that these ‘would be as means of cure for that disease which our English kings … by their touch did usually heal: and it was reported that these relics experienced failed not of the effect’.11 In the same year the artist John Weesop showed bystanders mopping up the royal blood in his painting ‘An Eyewitness Representation of the Execution of King Charles I’.

    For those royalists buying or plundering the king’s blood, he may have had a certain Christ-like status. They may also have wished to preserve his blood as a quasi-Catholic relic. But we are told that some of those mopping up blood with handkerchieves were actually Parliamentarians or Republicans, and therefore Charles’s sworn enemies. In this case we are looking at medical utility rather than any kind of reverence for the martyred king. Traditionally, the neck swellings known as scrofula, goitre, or ‘the King’s evil’ had been treated by the touch of the royal hand. As so often in popular culture, the king’s body was not so much sacred, as simply powerful and useful. Were people actually drinking Charles’s blood? Accounts of blood medicine from Europe do sometimes advise patients to leach blood out of a cloth into brandy – and this may well have been a method followed by some Britons in 1649. At German executions blood-soaked sand was routinely sold, and its use after the regicide could also have been medical.

Vampire Chemistry: The Lamp of Life

‘I have made the quintessence of man’s blood, rectified and circulated, with the which I have done most wonderful cures, for if you give thereof one dram it will restore those that lie at the point of death’. So said the journalist and sometime Paracelsian physician Daniel Border, writing around 1651 – also adding that, ‘if you put a little of it into an hogshead of wine it will purify it, and preserve it a long time more than any other thing whatsoever’.12

    But something yet stranger was being done with human blood during this turbulent decade. Had we chanced into the night-time laboratory of the sometime royal surgeon Christopher Irvine (c.1620-1693) in the 1650s, we might have seen his face enamelled in a curious reddish-gold light. The wick yielding this vampiric glow runs down into a glass vessel thick with crimson cream… ‘The Lamp of Life’, Irvine explains, ‘burneth so long as he liveth of whose blood it is made, and expireth with him. If it burn clearly and quietly, it sheweth his condition to be such; if sparkling, dim, and cloudy, it sheweth his griefs and languishings’.13

    The Lamp of Life was closely associated with the chemist and Paracelsian John Ernest Burgravius, who described it in 1611.14 Did Irvine or anyone else ever actually light this fabled lamp? Here, as with so many other improbable medical questions, I am indebted to Steve Schlozman of Harvard medical school. Having wondered vaguely if one might just drop a wick into a tube of human blood (not unlike the oil lamp I have in my sitting room) I was cruelly thwarted by the blunt facts of biochemistry. Blood, I was told, is composed mainly of water. Still… it is just possible that Irvine’s lamp offers us an origin for the enduring phrase ‘snuffed it’.

    The history of medicine and science looks rather different once we scrape the whitewash from the now forgotten figure of Christopher Irvine – a man who was not only a partial contemporary of Boyle and Willis, but brother to a baronet and a royal surgeon during the Civil War, and later under Charles II. Also now little known were the many experiments made with human blood by Robert Boyle and his associate John Locke, who was both philosopher and physician. Boyle gave distilled blood medicines to many genteel patients, and cited a lady previously bedridden, who had afterwards been able to travel abroad.15

    For all the seemingly bizarre chemistry displayed in Irvine’s recipes, he in fact hands us vital clues to the enduring power of blood as medicine. To fully grasp these we need briefly to consider one of his recipes for corpse medicine – the broader medical use of flesh, fat, bone and organs within which medicinal vampirism occurred. Medicinal flesh was often termed ‘mummy’, due in part to the early use of Egyptian mummies as medicine in Europe. Irvine explains that, if you wish to use mummy (which for him is the dried flesh of a man, slain by a violent death) you should, if possible, ‘take it … from a body living, or next to life’. You should then dice it into small pieces, ‘set it to dry in the shade’ and try to heighten its spirit powers by adding warm blood to it. Lest we should be in any doubt, Irvine makes the point again: ‘if thou canst not have it from a living, or from a warm body, it either must be often anointed with warm blood, or steeped in it, and left there for a time, and cautiously dried; for so itis fortified with the spirits, drawn from the blood’.16

    For Irvine the most potent corpse medicine is that drawn from living or warm bodies… At one point in these recipes he claims to detest the ‘horror or cruelty’ of using living bodies for medicine. But he clearly flirts with the idea – and given that he was present as a surgeon at the epic Civil War Battle of Worcester in 1651, he would have had ready access to the living wounded or very recently dead. In ordinary life warm blood was often more easily obtainable than milk at this time, given the number of people routinely paying to have their blood let.

    And it is at this point that one of the most seemingly universal fluids of life slips from our fingers and becomes almost unrecognisable. For Irvine, like countless other chemists, doctors or blood-drinking patients of the era, believes that it is possible to feed on the powers of the human soul. As he explains elsewhere, ‘the Scriptures say, and teach us, that blood is the principal chariot of the spirits, by placing the soul in the blood’. Therefore, ‘if the spirit is the bond, by which the soul is tied to the body, then where the spirit most resideth, there shall the soul most powerfully work’.17

    Although now almost entirely forgotten, the spirits of human blood were for hundreds of years as pervasive and essential to medicine and physiology as modern cell theory or DNA. And they were not vague or ethereal. They were the hottest, finest part of the blood, processed through an actual Organ of the Soul at the base of the brain – hence my book title, The Smoke of the Soul. If you had cut yourself on a cold day in the time of Shakespeare or Milton, you would have seen not steam rising from the wound, but spirits. It had even been rumoured that Andreas Vesalius, father of modern anatomy, had vivisected condemned criminals so that he could watch the spirits fleeting off their bodies.

    Technically, the spirits linked the body to the soul. But Irvine clearly hints at the belief that the soul’s powers could be tapped and harvested for medicine. And in this he was not alone. Other educated and privileged men of his day clearly sought to do the same, just as the Pope’s physician may have done in 1492. Once we shift to the vast masses of ordinary uneducated people using blood as a cure, the underlying logic is often the same – though the scenes we witness are some of the rawest and most visceral ever seen outside of murder or warfare.


Germanic Countries

Touring Vienna in the winter of 1668-9, the English traveller Edward Browne witnessed more than one execution. He first ‘saw a woman beheaded sitting in a chair, the executioner striking off her head with a foreblow’, and then a man ‘executed after the same manner … As soon as his head fell to the ground, while the body was in the chair’, and even as the corpse was shooting jets of blood and steam into the frosty Viennese air, a man ran ‘speedily with a pot in his hand, and filling it with the blood, yet spouting out of his neck, he presently drank it off, and ran away’. This he did, Browne adds, ‘as a remedy against the falling-sickness’.18

    What does this tell us? First: it seems that a woman’s blood was not considered suitable medicine. Second: the man drank the blood and then ran. Surprisingly, this was probably not due to shame, fear of capture, or even a desire to avoid paying the executioner. The payment had almost certainly been arranged beforehand, and in running away after he had gulped down the hot blood, the patient was following a standard medical prescription.

    On 6 June 1755 in Dresden a man named Johann Geord Wiedemann took the blood cure and then ‘”ran away”‘.19 In 1812 in Hanover, one Louis Stromeyer (aged eight, we might note) ‘was taken by the family servant to see a beheading, and observed how women dipped handkerchiefs in the decapitated malefactor’s blood to use as a cure for epilepsy. The epileptics then ran off through the crowd … and were supposed to keep running until they dropped’. Meanwhile, after a beheading in the Baltic coastal town of Stralsund in 1814, ‘”two riders … led a poor sick man, probably an epileptic, and filled a moderately large jug to the brim with the executed person’s blood. After the invalid had drained the ghastly contents right to the bottom, he was bound fast between the horses with strong reins and pulled away at a breakneck gallop”‘.20

    Comparing these accounts with Browne’s, the basic logic of the blood-cure becomes clearer. After drinking the blood, the patient must be made physically exhausted, and as quickly as possible. Why? Blood – as Steve Schlozman kindly informs me – can cause iron toxicity when drunk, and iron toxicity can in turn ‘cause muscle spasms, seizures, confusion, and death’.

    One eminent German chemist, Johann Schroeder, had evidently seen this himself. Noting the general belief that blood, ‘fresh and drunk hot is said to avail against the epilepsy’, he adds that ‘the drinking of the blood requires great caution, because it not only brings a truculency’ but also (ironically) ‘the epilepsy’.21 This alleged ‘truculency’ is interesting: it would seem to correspond to the heightened degree of aggression that one might expect from a dose of concentrated chemical energy – even if this energy is metabolised, rather than directly taken into the veins. It may also imply the ‘confusion’ cited by Schlozman. As for epilepsy: this of course involves seizures, or convulsions. Having realised that patients could become extremely aggressive, agitated, or even convulsive after swallowing such a concentrated shot of iron-rich energy, Schroeder too advised that those epileptics taking the blood cure should afterwards vigorously exercise until ‘there is a free perspiration’.

    Yet this was probably not the only reason behind the sudden breakneck dash of the epileptic vampire. Richard J. Evans, the scholar who has given us many valuable accounts from Germany, also shrewdly notes that, for many people from the Middle Ages on, epilepsy was at least partly attributed to the malfunction or temporary absence of the human soul. As the soul at this time was the core of vitality and energy, epileptics sought to consume the vitality of executed criminals by drinking the blood in which the soul resided. Accordingly, the life force that had just been imbibed needed to be circulated around the body as briskly and thoroughly as possible. Hence a state of maximum physiological agitation was required.

    The vampirism of the scaffold went back some way. Kathy Stuart details a scene from ‘an early sixteenth-century execution in Swabia’, where ‘a vagrant grabbed the beheaded body “before it had fallen, and drank the blood from him, and they say he was cured of the falling sickness from it”‘.22 Evans tells of how, at Nuremburg in 1674, ‘the blood of executed criminals was caught in a cup as it spurted from the severed neck’. There, as in Dresden in 1731 and 1755, Evans rightly infers that the blood was sold by the executioner, confirming this when he finds that, in Mainz in 1802, eyewitnesses saw ‘the executioner’s servants’ catching ‘the blood in a beaker’ before ‘some of the onlookers drank it as a cure for epilepsy’.23

    No less surprising than these scenes is how long blood drinking persisted in northern Europe. Come 1861 workhouse governors in Hanau ‘gave an epileptic inmate permission to attend a nearby execution, advising her to drink three mouthfuls of warm blood from the dead malefactor’s corpse’. In Berlin in 1864 the executioner’s assistants were allegedly selling blood-soaked handkerchiefs, whilst actual drinking was recorded at a Marburg execution of 1865.24

    There is some evidence that Germans and Austrians were relatively hardened to such spectacles. For perhaps the most vivid depiction comes from the American writer and artist, John Ross Browne, who in 1861 took up temporary residence in Germany with his family. One Friday morning in that year, Browne saw an execution at Hanau.

Standing near the scaffold, in close proximity to the criminal, within the guard of soldiers, were six or eight men … said to be afflicted with epilepsy. The moment the head was off these men rushed to the body with tumblers in their hands, caught the blood as it spouted smoking warm from the trunk, and drank it down with frantic eagerness! Their hands, faces, and breasts were covered with the crimson flood that ebbed from the heaving corpse. One man, too late to catch the blood as it spurted from the neck, took hold of the body by the shoulders, inclined it over in a horizontal position, poured out his tumbler full from the gory trunk, and drank it in a wild frenzy of joy!25

Leo Kanner has shown that, occasionally, a woman’s blood might also be considered effective. In 1859, a student called Woytasch ‘witnessed the execution of a woman poisoner’ who was ‘beheaded with a sword. When the head was severed from the body and a blood fountain whizzed up as high as one foot and a half, the mob broke through the chain of soldiers, rushed to the scaffold and caught the blood in vessels or dipped white towels in it’.26

    It seems likely that, by these later decades, the educated were very rarely using or prescribing blood medicines. Authorities refused epileptics permission to drink blood at Stockhausen in 1843, stating that it would have no effect on the disease.27 Yet, whatever the gulf between rich and poor, the blood-drinking of the scaffold was occurring in the same Germany, or the same Austria, which we are more accustomed to see as the lands and eras of Leibniz, Goethe, Kant or Schiller; of J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. While the polished violins of the great concerti, string quartets, and monumental symphonies flashed in stately harmony in the salons and palaces and concert halls of Hanover and Salzburg and Vienna, a now forgotten (and perhaps often more pious) ritual was occurring time and again, from north to south of the German-speaking states, as the sick raised steaming cups to their lips and bloodied handkerchiefs were passed down from the spattered scaffold. It continued to do so as the sound of Beethoven gave way to that of Chopin, and as Chopin faded beneath that of Strauss the younger.

Denmark and Sweden

After the execution of an arsonist in Copenhagen in 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft (travelling on business in Denmark at this time) turned ‘with disgust from the well-dressed women who were returning with their children from this sight’. She seemed, in the same letter, no less revolted to hear of the two people who had drunk ‘a glass of the criminal’s blood’ as ‘an infallible remedy for the apoplexy’. Yet when she spoke out against this ‘horrible violation of nature’, a Danish lady ‘reproved me very severely, asking how I knew that it was not a cure for the disease’.27 Given that ‘lady’ here clearly means a woman of status, belief in blood cures was evidently not just for the masses in Denmark at this time.

    In 1823 the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen saw ‘”a pitiful poor person made to drink by his superstitious parents a cup of the blood of an executed person, in an attempt to cure him from epilepsy”’.28 Writing in 1860, Horace Marryat tells of how, ‘even in the present century, either in the island of Amak or Mǿen’ in Denmark, ‘the epileptics stand around the scaffolds in crowds, cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body’. Marryat is evidently speaking about an ongoing practice, and in 1870 Lucy Lloyd similarly states that, in Denmark and Sweden, blood ‘is invaluable for the treatment of a variety of disorders, if the culprit has granted the sick person leave to drink it while yet warm’.29

    Those words about the condemned ‘granting leave’ raise an intriguing question. Do you own your own blood after your head has been severed?  The answer takes us to the Danish island of Funens, near Copenhagen. Here, in the town of Assens on 18 August 1856, two robbers, Boye and Olsen, were beheaded. 

As soon as Olsen’s head was severed from his body, two young peasant girls, fifteen or seventeen years of age, rushed through the double line of armed police who guarded the scaffold, and filled the cups, which they carried, with the blood that spouted from the neck of the mutilated corpse, and instantly swallowed the horrible draught … The girls were taken before a police commissioner, and declared that they had only done what they had a right to do; they showed a paper, signed G. Olsen, in which he had authorised them, whenever he should come to be executed, to drink his blood.30

Any parents who have ever wondered what their teenage daughter was drinking at someone’s party may be reassured to find that there are worse things than alcopop or vodka. There again, this pair were evidently not breaking the law… Nor were they the kind of cowards who would get someone else to buy their drinks for them. These two girls had, we can assume, to look Olsen in the eye and not only remind him of his coming fate, but add the detail of their swallowing some of him whilst he was still warm. Olsen’s permission may have depended on some payment – a sum which could have gone to surviving, perhaps impoverished relatives. For in Britain around the same time it was certainly not unknown for a condemned man to sell their whole body for medical dissection.

    In Sweden there was a different sort of complication. Whilst blood was clearly in high demand, judicial beheadings were all too rare. So it was that, on the morning of 24th January 1851 the normally placid Swedish village of Ystad was ‘invaded by a crowd of persons of all ages and sexes, who had flocked in from the surrounding parts to witness the execution of two criminals, a male and female, for the murder of the husband of the latter’.

As lodgings could not be found for the crowd, at night they bivouacked round large fires, and passed the time in eating, drinking, and singing national songs. No person had been executed in the province for the space of 60 years, and there has been but one instance throughout the whole kingdom during the last eight years … Amongst the lower classes, and particularly amongst the country people of Sweden, there exists a belief that the blood of a decapitated person drunk, particularly if swallowed warm at the moment it flows from the body, will cause the person who drinks to live a long time,will strengthen the weak, cure the sick, and be effectual in all diseases, particularly in epilepsy. On the morning of the execution, before daylight, the plain where the sad sight was to be enacted, was crowded with the populace, furnished with bowls, glasses, cups, and sauce-pans, anxiously awaiting the moment when the axe should do its work.

And so, ‘directly the head of the male criminal was severed, a rush was made to the scaffold; the soldiers, however, resisted, and a fierce struggle took place, in the midst of which, the bodies were driven off, escorted by some cavalry, and the ground was dug up so as to destroy the trace of blood. As soon as the crowd perceived there was no hope of gratifying their horrid taste they dispersed; but around 200 persons were found to be severely wounded, and a great number of others had received contusions’31

    Presumably none of these individuals had managed to gain permission from either of the condemned. What does this startling account tell us? Like Ficino and his Italian peers, some of these desperate onlookers believed that human blood indeed had some vampiric essence of longevity in it (‘live a long time’). It was not merely a medicine, but something to extend the lifespan of the healthy.

    Come summer 1866 another eager crowd had gathered at an execution in the same southern province of Scania, ‘to become possessed of some drops of the blood of the victim, thinking they would so obtain a specific against epilepsy, cramp and other diseases. It was even observed’ adds our reporter,

that a family in the higher ranks of society, in a large town, had come from some distance to the place of execution for the express purpose of obtaining this talisman, which they were most eager to procure as a remedy for one of their children who has been grievously afflicted. Immediately after the execution the crowd pressed around the scaffold, and the military guard had great difficulty in keeping them off, but no sooner had the troop and the police been withdrawn than men and women rushed forward and scraped the ground with their hands that they might collect some of the bloody earth, which they subsequently crammed into their mouths, in hope that they might thus get rid of their disease.32

Was our high-ranking family down there in the dirt with the mob? One thing is ceertain. For sheer animalistic desperation it is hard to beat that image of people jostling in the bloodsoaked earth, perhaps fighting one another, in order to cram some of this gored mud between their teeth. Most of the rites of ‘savage cannibals’ in the Americas look orderly and controlled by comparison.

    For those who were not prepared to drink blood from cups or jugs, there were a number of intermediate forms of consumption. Some time before his death in 1535, the German magus Henricus Cornelius Agrippa cited the belief that ‘if any man shall dip a sword, wherewith men were beheaded, in wine; and the sick drink thereof’ he would be cured of fever.33 Evans cites an 1854 execution in Franconia at which ‘”a number of people, mainly women, hurried eagerly to the scaffold to dip their aprons, handkerchiefs and whips in the poor sinner’s blood”‘. A sideways glance at similar habits outside Europe shows how, ‘”after an execution at Peking”’ circa 1876, ‘“certain large pith-balls are steeped in the blood of the defunct criminal, and under the name of ‘blood-bread’ are sold as a medicine for consumption”’.34

    We might well have many more accounts of execution vampires from Britain if beheadings here had not typically been reserved for the nobility, who could afford to have their bodies protected more easily than ordinary hanged criminals. The examples from Sweden, where executions were extremely rare, suggest a frustrated desire for human blood, which triggered desperate efforts when the axe did fall upon criminals.

    And that suspicion is supported by a surprising account from Italy, where  blood was being drunk at executions in the eighteenth century, despite the rarity of beheadings. In Florence, shortly before 1741, two aspiring young artists saw a man hanged for murdering his wife. The felon was accompanied to the gallows by the Company of Mercy, whose members administered religious rites and comfort moments before death. Our anonymous English author relates how, as soon as the hanged man ‘was taken down, they opened his veins, received his blood into several vessels, and the Fraternity distributed it in large glassfuls, to such as were afraid of apoplectic fits, or any other sudden or violent death, who drank it up greedily’.36

    All of this aimed to maximise the life-force of the dead man’s soul. He was young and healthy, and had not used much of his allotted lifespan or vitality. He was male – a fact which reflects the radical misogyny of many Christians. Some cast doubt on the very existence of the female soul, and others (including John Donne, sometime Dean of St Paul’s) implied that the female soul was weaker, cooler, less biologically potent.37 Other physicians of the day even insisted on death by drowning or hanging, so that the flesh of the subject retained all its blood.38 Execution victims in northern Europe often fitted almost all of these criteria. Very few women were executed, as they could claim pregnancy to escape the axe. And whilst beheaded felons certainly lost their blood, it was usually drunk immediately. A sense that some kind of life remained in a headless body was sometimes borne out by the spasmodic movements of body or head. The German executioner Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) once saw a severed head showing signs of life for around seven minutes.39

Modern Vampires

Partly because so many people were illiterate throughout the nineteenth century, it is not possible to mark any simple shift from religio-magical blood medicine to later versions. But something different certainly was going on in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century.

Fancy the richest cream, warm, with a tart sweetness, and the healthy strength of the pure wine that ‘gladdeneth the heart of man!’ It was a draught simply delicious, sweeter than any concoction of the chemist, the confectioner, the winemaker, it was the very elixir of life itself … it is … rosy life, warm and palpitating with the impulse of the warm heart’s last palpitation; it is ruddy, vigorous, healthful life – not the essence but the protoplasmic fluid itself … No other earthly draught can rival such crimson cream, and its strength spreads through the veins with the very rapidity of wine.40

Writing in 1875, this anonymous American was in fact referring to a glass of fresh bullock’s blood, consumed on a visit to a Cincinnati slaughterhouse – a place where a kind of medicinal blood-drinking was still practised, by consumptives in particular, just as it was in the Shambles of Paris around the same time.

    For in 1879 those suffering ‘affections of the lungs, a general wasting away of the body, and other diseases’ could be found at the slaughterhouse of La Villette in Paris, where ‘every morning between the hours of eight and nine, from a hundred to a hundred and fifty invalids … present themselves to claim their matutinal glass of blood’. With these patients being mainly female, any privileged ‘maids or matrons of high degree’ would be taken to a special reception-room, where they could be seated along with attending relatives. Already well-organised in that sense, the Blood Clinic of Paris also showed a certain broad nod toward scientific precision, given that a patient would take the lifesource of cow, sheep, pig or bullock, depending on their particular condition.41

    In the 1870s around two hundred people were said to be drinking blood regularly at New York slaughterhouses. It was taken warm, usually straight from the neck of the dying animal. Interestingly, most of the clients were again women. As there was no charge for the blood, this may indicate that women were using it as an iron-rich substitute for meat. At this time, in poorer households, meat was often reserved solely for husbands, who themselves might eat it just once a week. In New York one mother even took her baby, which was fed solely on animal blood. Tellingly, many New Yorkers echoed that Cincinnati journalist, insisting that this crimson cream tasted just like milk.42

    At first glance, it seems that older theories about drinking the soul do not apply here. That rhapsodic opening account is pitched somewhere between gourmandising and physiological power, and the daily blood drinking looks more like a kind of nutritious medical tonic. Yet it is perhaps telling that blood is drunk from dying, not dead animals. And the seeming order and quasi-scientific aura of the French or American slaughterhouse could at times slide into something far wilder and vampiric. More than once in the New York area, we find ourselves confronted by stories which now read like dark out-takes from Meyer’s Twilight novels.

    In New York sometime before 1876 a young woman of a respectable family fell sick – possibly from anaemia – whilst studying at college. The family’s medical advisor recommended blood therapy, and ‘permission and the necessary privacy were secured at the abbattoir’. (Notice, here, the seclusion and secrecy which the rich enjoyed in such tabooed areas.) The treatment worked. She became stronger and less pale, and gained fifteen pounds in weight. In an intriguingly romantic – if not erotic – twist, she went on to marry the young assistant of the family doctor. So far, so touching.

    For a time, mutual devotion prevailed. So great was it, indeed, that her husband opened an artery on his leg and permitted his new wife to suck the blood from it. Soon, the young woman was possessed with a morbid craving for his blood alone. Her husband tolerated this until disgust and the danger of physical injury brought him to his senses. Intriguingly, the wife was now again confined to her sick bed, where she consumed animal blood, whilst remaining obsessed with the superior human variety. It was believed that she would have returned to human vampirism had she had the opportunity.43

    Around the same time in New York another ailing wife of 25 consulted her doctor. He prescribed daily doses of cod liver oil, mixed with a wineglass of animal blood. Again, the therapy restored her to health. One day, however, her husband cut the back of his hand on broken glass. A scene of surreal black comedy followed when he stumbled indoors to confront his wife. Genuinely distraught at his injury, she nevertheless was unable to stop herself avidly sucking the blood from his wounded hand. Further disaster was averted only when the couple’s landlady burst in, to see the young woman bewailing her husband’s suffering, even as blood dripped from her crimsoned face.44

    It is possible that there is some link between these late nineteenth century cases and the modern communities of sanguinarians – but here I shall pass readers into the more expert hands of Norine Dresser, John Edgar Browning, and British researcher Jana Britton. Our story shows us that the enduring myth of Enlightenment reason, progress and benefit for the greater good sits uncomfortably with the realities of educated and popular medicine two or three hundred years ago. Corpse medicine was probably at its height at the dawn of the British Scientific Revolution, and was used and prescribed by both Robert Boyle and Thomas Willis.

    What of the present? One of the Rolling Stones’ biographers, Tony Sanchez, describes a period in the early seventies when even the indestructible Keith Richards was not fit to go on stage. He was accordingly rushed to a special Swiss clinic where he had all his blood replaced with that of some clean living donor, and returned in a few days as good as new. Many right-thinking music fans may be keen to make an exception for a working class hero in this case.45

    But the bigger picture of modern medical vampirism is one which shatters the Enlightenment myth of progress into atoms. Bernie Sanders recently pointed out that, ‘Since 1975, there has been a massive redistribution of wealth in this country, but in precisely the wrong direction — more than $50 TRILLION has been redistributed from the bottom 90% to the top 1%.’ And in 2018 Rose George showed what that kind of inequality does in the world of plasma. Pointing out that, in 1998 ‘a barrel of crude oil was worth $13’ whilst ‘a barrel of blood would have cost $20,000’, George found that in 2018 ‘human and animal blood’ was ‘the thirteenth most traded commodity in the world, worth £187,000 million.’ Most of this trade involves plasma, of which the US is the world’s biggest exporter.46

    After charting the rise and fall of Jesse Karmazin’s controversial Ambrosia blood business, George sets out the grim reality behind billionaire fantasies of eternal youth. Between 1980 and 1995, ‘the number of plasma source clinics operating in extreme poverty areas’ in the US ‘grew from 77 to 136’. Moreover, ‘the FDA allows Americans to sell their plasma up to twice a week (because plasma contains no cells, the body can replace it within 48 hours).’ European regulations, by contrast, ‘limit plasma sales to twenty four a year, with at least two weeks between donations’. In the ten years from 2006, the number of US people ‘selling plasma grew threefold, to 32.6 million’. So it is that, since the Great Crash of 2008, people living on $2 a day can ‘raise their income to $3 or $4’ as they might ‘by selling scrap metal or sex’. She adds that, ‘when the journalist Darryl Lorenzo Wellington became a “plasser”, as regular plasma sellers call themselves, he experienced extreme fatigue, passing out for five hours’. Other sellers he spoke to told of ‘pains, rubbery legs, and severe dehydration’. But, as one plasser put it, ‘“I can’t eat if I don’t plass”’.47

    We have journeyed from the age of Christ through to the centuries of the Black Death and smallpox, and on into the time when consumption accounted for perhaps a quarter of early deaths on America’s east coast. Since that time medicine and science have changed our world immeasurably. And yet, travelling from those apparently barbaric scenes at beheadings in Germany or Sweden, we emerge into the ultra-sterilised, plate glass light of the modern clinic to confront one utterly breathtaking reality. In a world where 81 billionaires have more wealth than 50% of the global population, the poor sell their blood so that they can eat.

Further Reading

Richard J. Evans, Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany, 1600-1987(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Rose George, Nine Pints: A Journey through the Mysterious, Miraculous World of Blood (Portobello, 2018).

Kathy Stuart, Defiled Trades: Honour and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Falun Gong (3rd edn, KDP, 2020).

The Smoke of the Soul: Science, Religion and the Invention of the Self (KDP, 2020).

About the Author

Richard Sugg is the author of 16 books, including Murder After Death (Cornell UP, 2007), John Donne (Palgrave, 2007; KDP 2019), The Real Vampires (2023), Ten Days that Changed the World (2023) Kali the Wonder Dog (2023), and Talking Dirty: A History of Disgust from Jesus Christ to Boris Johnson (2023). His work has appeared in The Lancet, Social History of Medicine, BBC History, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel and the New Yorker. You can hear him discussing his work on various podcasts, including Dan Snow, Jim Harold and Haunted History. He previously lectured in English and Cultural History at the universities of Cardiff and Durham.