This, I have to say, is one of the strangest Spiritualist narratives I’ve run across, and that is saying something…
A little background, in case my readers are not up on 19th-century breastfeeding. At various times during the 19th century, there was a certain amount of prejudice against women feeding their own children—it spoilt the figure, it wasn’t something genteel ladies did, it was gross, like an animal—fit only for peasant women. It was also recognized that milk from a healthy woman was best for infants. If a woman could or would not feed her own baby, her options before the invention of baby formula were limited to offering “pap,” a thin gruel, from a pap boat or a rag soaked in various mixtures, risking giving cow’s milk that might be diseased or contaminated, or hiring a wet nurse.
The notion of “maternal influence” made the selection of a wet nurse a ticklish yet vital business and medical men set out ideal standards for such women. They must be clean, healthy (no consumption, venereal diseases, or obvious skin disorders), and of a moral character, i.e. no prostitutes.
An article in an 1860 British Medical Journal entitled “On Some of the Disadvantages of Employing Fallen Women as Wet-Nurses,” by C.H.F. Routh, M.D. at a meeting of the Medical Society of London, 2nd April 1860. discusses the pitfalls of employing “fallen women” as wet-nurses, in part because it was believed that they might pass their “depravity” along to the child and they might tempt the husbands of their clients. In addition, “We do not take, as wet-nurses, prostitutes or diseased women, but seduced girls, who have been the victims of others, and whom, by employing as wet-nurses, there is a chance of reclaiming.”
The advertisement at the head of this post shows candidates giving details (married, own baby deceased, first child) that would impress the client. In some cases wet nurses might starve or underfeed their own children in order to provide enough milk for their employer’s baby.
This testimonial by a Spiritualist gentleman is remarkable in that it is the pater familias, rather than the mother, who is searching for and interviewing the wet nurses. Childbirth among the middle and upper classes required a lengthy recuperation period, so perhaps the mother—particularly a mother of thirteen children—was not up to the task of finding a wet nurse. Doctors and midwives often made recommendations for nurses, and, given that the lady in question had a known problem, one would think arrangements would have been made well before the birth. It is extremely unusual to find a gentleman of the 1850s who is not a medical man speaking so frankly about such an intimate subject. The subject was certainly discussed from the 1900s through the 1920s, but normally in the context of women’s papers/magazines or medical journals.
I am a Family man, being the father of thirteen children, and as their mother could not suckle, the miseries of rearing by hand, and the dangers and troubles through wet nurses, are pretty well known to me. Last evening I was thinking of the past, and three scenes were present in my “mind’s eye;” the subjects were, “clairvoyant guidance—Medical guidance—and Spirit guidance: as they embraced incidents in my home experience—it appeared to me that if they were sketched, the reader would be interested and instructed—I therefore paint that you may Think.
Clairvoyant Guidance. Being in want of a wet nurse for one of my girls some ten years ago, and being puzzled where to find one; we looked over the “Times” and saw two advertisements, which appeared likely to supply the lack. Having a wholesome fear of phrenological defects, and impurity of blood, we were of course anxious to obtain a wet nurse as near perfection as possible. At that time having a young girl of about sixteen years of age in the house, whose powers as a Clairvoyant were of a superior order; it was decided on that she be “put to sleep” to give us a description of the two girls. When she was “off” I said Eliza, here are two advertisements from wet nurses, I wish them examined. Go to ___ ____, giving the name and address of one. “I have found her” said Eliza. “She is seated at a table, and seems annoyed at something. Now a little girl comes in, she is laying down the law to her—how precise (mimicking her) but she is very natty, very orderly—can’t bear a pin out of place—Her phreno-organs are very good. She is not strong, but her milk is good &c.” Well, Eliza, now go and see the other girl (giving name and address.) “I have found her but she is a very different sort of a person to the other—a good sort of a girl—a better supply of milk, and healthy, but she is very servant—is not such an one as Mrs. J. would just like to have about her.”
Having implicit confidence in the Clairvoyant examinations, though the parties lived some distance off, we decided on No. 1 character. I drove off to the address, and with difficult found the place in a back lane of a back street. I found it a coal shop, dirty and filthy. Does ___ ___, live here. Yes. Shortly down came a young girl with a broom in her hand—dirty and drabby—much like the appearance of the coal shop. Are you ___ ___? Yes. “Look very little of the prim and natty about you,” thought I. “But Eliza says she is, and I have never found her wrong.” Turning to the girl I said, a lady wants a wet nurse; put your things on and come with me. She did so. Suffice it to say, the girl would give no reference as to character. The Clairvoyant examined her again in an adjoining room—confirmed her previous statements. We engaged her. The girl’s milk agreed with the child; her character for neatness, honesty &c. were perfectly confirmed. We kept her a long time after the suckling days were over, and every now and then, when in Town, she calls to see us.
We sent a person to see the other wet nurse, and found such an one as the Clairvoyant had described.
Medical Guidance. Some three years ago, in consequence of the annoyance arising from the attempt to bring up our last child by hand, I determined on getting a wet nurse as soon as possible after the birth of the child. As soon therefore as the child was born, I went to the workhouse, in the parish of Camberwell—found one girl who was strongly recommended by the matron; not being a judge in the matter, I considered the best and safest plan, would be to bring our family doctor to examine her. He came, put questions &c., and turning to me said, “This girl will do very well.” I engaged her, my boy was very healthy, and took the breast freely; but after a few days it was observed that he nurse only allowed the child to suck at one breast. “Why so?” Because I have more milk in this than the other. In the mean time the child did not thrive, he threw up the milk, and at last it was found that the girls blood was impure, that the concealed breast had an abscess formed, and had been so before she left the “house” we of course discharged her. I was annoyed at the want of care evinced by the doctor, and it was not decreased when in the Bill, I saw a fee charged for examination of wet nurse. I then went to “Marylebone House” and the matron there showed me a wet nurse who she said was quiet and cleanly, and would be a great acquisition; moreover that the doctor thought highly of her. I took the woman, and a few days found her a lying, cursing, drinking young woman, and with a short supply of milk—we had to discharge her also. The child never rallied from the corruption he had sucked, and he is gone—poor boy.
Spirit Guidance. On the birth of my last child, I determined on following my own common sense in the choice of wet nurse. There is a place in London where wet nurses go with their children for the purpose of procuring situations. I seemed to perceive my way clear to go there. Mrs. J. gave me strict injunctions to see that the girl was healthy—that the milk was good, and that the best test was, the condition of the girl’s child. Picture to yourself a benedict in search of a wet nurse for his 13th child. The hour I should be at the institution was 10 o’clock, but to my annoyance various incidents occurred to detain me, so that I could not get there till 12 o’clock—I saying to myself “It is no use going now.” Yet I went. While in the street leading to the building, a girl passed with a child: I stopped her, a nice child, a healthy woman, but I had no heart to engage her; she passed on. I got my clue, I felt my Spirit guide near me. I waited in the street—no one came. Getting tired and faith failing, I happened to turn, and saw another girl in black with a child. I went and stopped her; she was shabby looking and fagged; the child was a poor, sickly, dying little thing. I found by the influence this was the girl for my child. I took her to a neighboring Coffee-shop, ordered for her a cup of coffee and bread, and I afterwards found I had given her the only food she had that day tasted. Her child was evidently dying. I left the girl, went into another division in the shop, and put questions to my Spirit-guide as to the girl’s fitness for the duties of wet nurse. The answers were clear and decisively—yes. I therefore unhesitatingly took her home, laughing to myself at the sample of a healthy child I was bringing to shew Mrs. J. On reaching home, I related my adventures in search of a wet nurse, saying I had chosen the girl under Spirit-guidance, but further said, “Let us ask again, so as to be sure.” The influence came in my right hand with great power—the several questions put by Mrs. J. as to character, health, habits &c., were answered without any hesitancy—and we engaged the girl (who is still with us) without even asking for her references, and to this hour (6 months after) we do not even know the address of her friends. We find her qualifications as declared—her child died, our child lives and thrives, a credit to his nurse and a proof of the value of Spirit Guidance.
P.S. Without detracting from the skill of medical men, the incident narrated of medical guidance, simply shows, that even men of professional skill—men of science, are at best only poor tools for the deciphering of mental powers and physical ailments. That Clairvoyance is a truth, and that Spirit guidance is a fact; that the perceptions of the Clairvoyant and Spirit disentangled from flesh and bones, have powers above—beyond us—and as the magnet sheds an emanation unseen by us, but seen by Clairvoyants, so Human beings shed an emanation unseen by us, but perceived by spirits—by which they judge of health. And as the magnetescope by its vibrations, shows the strength and power of any phrenological organ; so a spirit or a clairvoyant seeing the size and force of the emanations shed from each organ, accurately decides on the mental powers and leading characteristics, of any human being they direct their attention to—so at least I judge. J.J.
The British Spiritual Telegraph Vol. 2 1 October 1857
The magnetescope was a device of the phrenologists. Here is a description:
There is an instrument,—a tell-tale instrument, called the Magnetescope, which I have seen, but not in action; which produces a correct delineation of the character of every one who suffers himself to be examined. By means of a very delicate mechanism, when the operator places a finger of one hand on the machine, and a finger of the other hand on an organ of the’ head of the person to be examined, in proportion to the size and energy of the organ so does the machine pendulate; and when all the organs have been examined, and the numbers also examined; the organs which have registered the highest are the leading characteristics of the person. This instrument has been tried in our gaols and military stations, and found correct. The magnetescope shows two things: 1st, the truth of phrenology; and 2nd, the existence of an individualized emanation or mesmerine from the head of every man. I regret I have not seen the instrument in action, but I have heard the statement from several persons who have seen it in full operation.
The Natural and Supernatural: Or, Man Physical, Apparitional, and Spiritual, John Jones (of Peckham), 1861
Mr Jones, like many Spiritualists, was obviously also interested in phrenology and mesmerism. A phrenologist would probably have found that his bump of philoprogenitiveness was well-developed, while that of benevolence rather less so. “Her child died, our child lives and thrives…” indeed.
Other examples of Spiritualism and obstetrics/pediatrics? Send Eliza to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.