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It is just before midnight on Thursday, the 19th of April, 1792. Mary Hunt—a 25-year-old servant to a gentleman in Bedford Square (below)—paces her room nervously. On her bedside table lays a small vial of white arsenic. Her mind races, her heart pounds. A moment of weakness has left her desperate and alone. Her lover—a footman in the same household—has rejected her. Now, it is only a matter of time before the news of her pregnancy reaches the ears of her master.

She clutches her midriff, staring at the bottle of arsenic before her. For a moment, she imagines she might weather the storm. But then she glimpses her future self, dirty and unkempt, selling her body to rough men in the back-alleys of London in order to feed her and her baby. Her cheeks burn in shame. There is no way out.

She picks up the vial, closes her eyes, and swallows the contents. Her hands tremble slightly as she reaches for an uncorked bottle of wine by her bed. She drinks nearly a quart to calm her nerves.

She waits.

Around 1 o’clock in the morning, she begins screaming in agony. Terrible pain tears through her stomach. She doubles over and begins vomiting. The household is awakened and a doctor is called to her bedside. She complains of excessive thirst and is given several quarts of brandy and water. She thrashes around in bed, breaking out into a cold sweat, as her body tries to purge itself of the poison. After hours of excruciating pain, she slips into unconsciousness. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, her body begins convulsing as saliva collects in her throat. She looses the ability to swallow, and starts to drown in her own fluids.

Thirteen hours after ingesting the arsenic, Mary Hunt dies a violent, agonizing death. [1]

Suicide—or ‘self-murder’ as it was sometimes called—was not uncommon in 18th-century England. Indeed, the English were renowned for it. The French philosopher, Montesquieu, once quipped: ‘We do not find in history that the Romans ever killed themselves without a cause; but the English are apt to commit suicide most unaccountably; they destroy themselves even in the bosom of happiness’. [2] Others agreed. The writer, Beat Louis de Muralt, claimed that the English ‘die by their own hands with as much indifference as by another’s’ and for reasons ‘that would appear to us but as Trifles’. [3]

While this characterisation may not be entirely accurate, there is some truth in it. Despite the social stigma associated with suicide, people were still finding new (and terrible) ways to end their lives in the 18th century. Consuming arsenic was just one of them.

Bedford Square, London, where Mary Hunt died.

For reasons unexplained in the case records, Mary Hunt’s body ends up in the hands of the surgeon, Thomas Ogle. It may be that Mary had no family, and that her employer was unwilling to take on her burial costs. The fact that she had committed suicide also meant that it was unlikely Mary would have been afforded a Christian burial, although this certainly wasn’t always the case. For these reasons, however, it is likely that her employer may have found it easier (and more profitable) to hand her remains over to Ogle, who then performed an autopsy and dissection.

In his report, Ogle remarked that her stomach contained ‘a greenish fluid, with a curdy substance…an effect produced by the arsenic’. He also noted that there was ‘an uncommon quantity of blood in the vessels of the ovaria and Fallopian tubes’ and that it was ‘evident, from this circumstance, that conception had taken place’. Nevertheless, when told that the date of her last period had only been ‘a little more than a month before her death’, Ogle began to question whether Mary had been pregnant when she died. [4]

Curious to know the truth, Ogle removed the ‘organs of generation’ and gave them over to the famous anatomist, John Hunter, whose interest in pregnant cadavers was well known. Hunter injected the arteries and smaller vessels of the uterus with a wax-like substance so that ‘the whole surface became extremely red’. The uterus was then split open and the ‘inner surface of the cavity…was examined with a magnifying glass’. Hunter noted that it was ‘extremely vascular, and dotted with innumerable whitish spots too small to be seen by the naked eye’. He concluded that the ‘presence of a corpus luteum [essential to establishing and maintaining pregnancy by producing high levels of progesterone], the enlargement of the uterus, the newly-formed vascular membrane…and the history of the case’ sufficiently proved that conception had taken place. [5]

Mary was, indeed, in the very early stages of pregnancy when she committed suicide.

Today, the only thing that remains of Mary Hunt and her unborn child is her disembodied uterus, which is on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Those who visit the collection know nothing of who she was in life, nor why she died at such a young age. They do not even know her name, for only the the word ‘Homo’ [indicating that the specimen is human] and the numbers ‘3590’ are stamped upon the  jar.

1. Story based off details found in Thomas Ogle, ‘The Case of a Young Woman who Poisoned Herself in the First Month of Her Pregnancy’ in John Hunter, Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy (1840), pp. 89 – 92.
2. Montesquieu, ‘Book XIV: Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Climate’ in The Spirit of the Laws (1752).
3. Beat Louis de Muralt, Letters Describing the Characterand Customsof the Eng- lish and French Nations … (I726), p. 44. Originally quoted in Roland Bartel, ‘Suicide in Eighteenth-Century England: The Myth of a Reputation’, Huntington Library Quarterly 23 (Feb., 1960), p. 145.
4. Ogle, ‘The Case of a Young Woman’, p. 90
5. Ibid., pp. 90-1.