Death by Corset and Tight Lacings in the 1800s

Before many death by corset stories surfaced, critics against these garments voiced their negative opinions of them. For instance, in 1844 the Dublin Weekly Herald stated:

“Corset lacing, as practised in Europe and America, is in truth no other than an impious, murderous, suicidal fashion. Impious, because it undertakes to give the female a better shape than the Lord intended her … Murderous, because parents are often the cause of the fatal disease of the children. Suicidal, because vast numbers continue to wear corsets after they know; they materially injure them.”[1]

Corset from 1878. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The problems caused by the “evil” corset and the health dangers associated with such a garment was also reported in 1874 in the Clare Freeman and Ennis Gazette:

“There is no doubt that [a corset’s] tight-lacing has a very injurious effect on the females who practice it, compressing the abdominal and thoracic viscera till their normal action is impeded and their functions impaired. Even from the point of view of effect, the practice is an ill-advised one, wearer of the corset generally incurring the eternal signs of a cramped liver, with it concomitants of a red and pinched nose, a jaundiced complexion, and an icteric eye. The hour-glass, which seems the model of elegant form to so many of the fair sex, should rather suggest warning than imitation.”[2]

death by corset - effects of the corset

Effects of the corset on a woman. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While many nineteenth century women heard about the health problems associated with corsets, no one expected the fashionable corsets to be linked to deaths. Yet, that is exactly what happened. Women died. These death by corset incidences were often attributed to the corset lacings being too tight and doctors eagerly publicized such stories. For example, one physician, a Dr. Embleton, who practiced in London, reported “he had known deaths to have occurred from tight lacing, and he urged ladies to abstain from the most ridiculous and disfiguring fashion.”[3] The coroner for Central Middlesex, Dr. Danford Thomas, reported in 1881 that he was “personally cognizant” of four or five women dying from wearing tightly laced corsets. A New York physician, E.Y. Robbins, went a step farther. He alleged that death by corset cases were much higher than people imagined because “in the year 1859 10,195 females died of consumption to 5,640 males. [Robbins then stated that the] difference owing mainly to tight lacing [of corsets].”[4]

Shape of a corset wearer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Newspapers also reported on corset deaths regularly. They also frequently warned corset wearers of the dangers of lacing them too tightly. For instance, in Kentucky, in 1868, a warning from Louisville Daily Courier was given to all ladies telling them about what could happen if they laced their corsets too tight:

“A young lady dropped dead in the street last Sunday, and the coroner found that she had killed herself by tight lacing. Deaths from this cause are more common than many suppose.”[5]

Another death by corset story involved a young unnamed American victim. This story was published in 1871 in the Wellington Independent and stated that victim was from Arkansas and “described as thirteen years old, shoeless, bonnetless, stockingless, with the sheriff after her for stealing a horse.”[6]

In 1870, the same year that Samuel Clemens married Olivia Langdon, there was a well-publicized death by corset case in England. A Dr. Lankester held an inquest in Clerkenwell after a 21-year-old domestic servant named Jemima Hall died. According to reports, she had suddenly taken ill with complaints about “pains inside.” A doctor was called. He saw her that day and the next but could find no reasonable cause for her illness. When he called the third day, he found her dead. That resulted in an investigation to determine why she died:

“A post-mortem examination was then made by the coroner’s order, when it was found that the whole of the organs of the body were contracted and out of their places. Her stomach was smaller than that of an ordinary infant, and her heart only weighed four ounces. Death arose from congestion of the lungs and brain, the result of tight-lacing, a practice which the young woman, who was of prepossessing appearance, had long persevered in.”[7]

Location of Clerkenwell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hall was not the only victim of a corset being laced too tightly. Another death by corset story happened in 1844 to 22-year-old Jane Goodwin. In Goodwin’s case she was attending church services when she suddenly became ill. Parishioners quickly carried her to the nearby sexton’s house but within moments of her arrival there she died. It was stated that the cause of her untimely death was that her corset was laced too tightly.

Another 22-year-old death by corset victim lived in Bristol, England. Her story happened in 1851, the same year that Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thèrése of France, died. According to the coroner, a Mr. Grindon, the 22-year-old’s death “was caused, or at least much accelerated, by the pernicious practice of tight lacing.”[8] His post-mortem and medical testimony showed that she was disease free, “except the compression of the stomach and viscera from tight lacing. [Therefore] the jury returned as their verdict, that death was caused by idiopathic asphyxia, hastened by tight lacing.”[9]

A similar story involved a 14-year-old servant girl with the last name Pool. She had been frequently warned against lacing her corset too tight. She did not listen and when she suddenly died at Doncaster in 1851, it was reported that her death was caused from “inflammation of the stomach and general disease of the viscera; and in consequence of the evidence given by the surgeon who made a post-mortem examination … the coroner’s jury returned a verdict that the deceased’s death had been greatly accelerated, if not altogether caused by tight lacing.”[10]

In 1888 another death by corset report involved a Detroit woman name Mary Crawford. She died two days before her wedding. According to the article, Crawford was in the middle of dancing when she collapsed and shortly afterwards died. “An examination revealed the fact that her death was due to tight lacing because her corset had been drawn so tightly that the exertion of dancing had caused the bursting of a blood-vessel.”[11]

Perhaps one of the most well-publicized and interesting of death by corset cases happened on 26 December 1894. Actress Kitty Tyrrel and her actor husband, Harry Ewins, were performing in “Dick Whittington and his Cat” at the Elephant and Castle Theatre in London. It was the first show of the season and after completing act two Kitty barely made it off stage before she collapsed.

Her husband was called and when he arrived at her side, she cried before passing out, “Good God, … Oh! Harry, do unfasten my stays. I’m dying.”[12] An unconscious Kitty was then carried to a dressing room, her corset unlaced, and salts given. Unfortunately, she could not be revived and by the time the doctor arrived, he announced there was nothing he could do. Kitty had died. The audience of course knew nothing of the tragedy playing out backstage because the show continued without a hint that anything was wrong. In fact, even Ewins performed as expected.

Death by corset - Kitty Tyrrel

The tight lacings of Kitty Tyrrel with King Death on stage. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Kitty’s inquest was held at Newington a few days later. It was probably no surprise to anyone one when the coroner announced that Kitty’s corset was laced too tightly. He noted that the tight lacings likely aggravated her existing heart condition making her unable to get enough oxygen and therefore causing her to die of syncope.

Learning about the harm caused by corsets resulted in critics establishing movements and crusades to do away with them. So, for instance, by 1899, Russia and Saxony had put forth decrees against women wearing such garments and around the same time Parisian women also attempted to abolish corsets in their country. There were also the “Apostles of health,” who claimed that corsets caused “confusion and discord” in the body. Religious observers found them unacceptable too and decried that corset wearers were committing a moral sin because it taught them the art of “deception and artificiality.” In 1873, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, an early American feminist also argued against corset wearing when she declared:

“Burn up the corsets! … No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”[13]

Despite the health warnings and despite the numerous death by corset stories, some nineteenth century people saw these garments as a good thing and ignored the warnings given by the apostles of health, religious observers, and Ward. Supporters maintained that wearing a corset was a good thing. They argued that it should be not outlawed or abolished, and, in fact, advocates asserted the choice of wearing a corset should be left up to the individual resulting in the Wairarapa Daily Times concluding:

“The war upon the corset has commenced. Fierce will be the struggle and we cannot guarantee success to the attacking party. It does seem absurd that people should worry so much over their next door neighbours. If a woman chooses to harm herself, that is her own look out; no one has any right to interfere, much less the state at large. … [Most] things in life are a mixture of good and evil. The corset worn in moderation is good. Worn to excess it is evil.”[14]

References:

  • [1] Dublin Weekly Herald, “Tight Lacing,” August 15, 1840, p. 4.
  • [2] Clare Freeman and Ennis Gazette, “A Corset Crusade,” July 18, 1874, p. 2.
  • [3] Hawke’s Bay Herald, “Errors in Women’s Dress,” December 7, 1889, p. 5.
  • [4] The Baltimore Sun, “Corsets and Consumption,” June 11, 1860, p. 1.
  • [5] The Louisville Daily Courier, “A Warning to Ladies,” January 19, 1868, p. 1.
  • [6] Wellington Independent, “Willing Victim,” March 7, 1871, p. 3.
  • [7] The Leeds Mercury, “Death from Tight-Lacing,” December 27, 1870, p. 8.
  • [8] The Observer, “Death from Tight Lacing,” March 17, 1851, p. 7.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, “Tight Lacing,” July 10, 1851, p. 1.
  • [11] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Death Due to Tight Lacing,” October 1, 1888, p. 2.
  • [12] Western Gazette, “An Actress’s Sudden Death,” January 4, 1895, p. 2.
  • [13] E. Phelps, What to Wear (Boston: Osgood), p. 79.
  • [14] Wairarapa Daily Times, “A Delicate Subject,” November 15, 1899, p. 4.

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