V is for Martin Van Butchell

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!

Martin Van ButchellMartin Van Butchell was one of the pioneers of high society cosmetic dentistry, but whose greatest claim to fame if for keeping the embalmed body of his deceased wife on display in his home.

Born in 1735 the son of a tapestry maker, Van Butchell originally studied medicine under the celebrated physicians, John and William Hunter, but chose instead to practice dentistry, and very successfully too.

Martin Van Butchell WoodcutHe wasn’t one to toady his way into fashionable society, in fact, quite the reverse. Van Butchell absolutely refused to make house calls, once turning down an offer of 1,000 guineas to do so, and the more he played hard to get, the more people flocked to his door to the extent that he was able to charge as much as 80 guineas for a set of false teeth.

Van Butchell cut a rather eccentric figure when he was out and about. He refused to shave on principle with the result that his beard hung down to his waist and he sold any hair that fell out as a sort of charm to help women who wanted children.

As if this wasn’t curious enough, Van Butchell always rode a white pony which he painted with purple spots or black stripes and for protection he always he carried a large white bone which was reputedly a Tahitian war club.

Martin Van Butchell riding his favourite pony in Hyde ParkBut his claim to fame came in 1775 on the death of his wife Mary. Van Butchell embalmed her body with the help of his former mentor, William Warner, injecting her body with carmine dye to give her skin a rosy glow. She was also given a pair of ‘nicely matched glass eyes’ and dressed in a fine laced gown, then ‘my dear departed’ was laid out in a glass-topped case in Van Butchell’s parlour.

The reason he gave for this bizarre behaviour was that there was a clause in their marriage settlement which only entitled him to his wife’s fortune as long as she was above ground, although it was more likely yet another publicity stunt.

If it was then it certainly worked because he was soon besieged by people who wanted to see this odd spectacle until he was forced to place an advertisement in the St James Chronicle which read:

Van Butchell (not willing to be unpleasantly circumstanced and wishing to convince some good minds that they have been misinformed) acquaints the Curious, no stranger can see his embalmed wife, unless (by a Friend personally) introduced to himself, any day between Nine and One, Sundays excepted.

He eventually remarried and like his first wife, his new one had to choose either black or white as the only colour she would wear from then on. His first wife had chosen black, so she chose white by way of contrast.

Unsurprisingly, the new Mrs Van Butchell was unhappy with the company of the first and at her insistence the body was removed from view and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons where it remained until it was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 11th December 2013

    Ah, the first wife was such a drag!


  • leslie 11th December 2013

    Where do you dig up these incredible stories? Love every one of them…

    abcw team

  • ChrisJ 12th December 2013

    Good heavens! There are some weird people in the world! You must have a lot of fun seeking them out.

  • kate 13th December 2013

    Marvelous! I hung on every word. Oh nooooo, There’s another story I want to paint! Not enough lives.

    • Kate 14th December 2013

      I put a link to this on my facebook page. I wonder if you’ve been getting lots of visitors?


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