The Eccentric Mr. Martin Van Butchell

Not many people are willing to put a dead spouse on display, but that’s exactly what the eccentric Mr. Martin Van Butchell did. When he began life he was not necessarily eccentric as he developed an interest in medicine from a early age and began healing patients. He studied under Doctor William Hunter, a Scottish anatomist and physician who served Queen Charlotte and was considered one of the leading obstetricians and anatomy teacher of the times. Van Butchell’s abilities to cure a wide variety of medical diseases were well documented and included such problems as “Fistulas; Piles, Wens, Carbuncles; Mattery Pimples; Inflammations, Boils; Ulcers, Aching Legs; Tumors, Abscesses; Strictures, and Ruptures, without Confinement; Burning, or Cutting.”[1]

Mr. Martin Van Butchell, Public Domain

Mr. Martin Van Butchell. Public domain.

Van Butchell was an affable and cheerful person, but was noted to be eccentric by those who knew him. For instance, he was married twice and gave each wife the choice of wearing black or white every day. The first wife chose black and the second white, and it was reported that neither wife was ever seen wearing any other color. At dinner time, he dined alone and whistled for his children if he needed something. He encouraged tea drinking and gave his “worthy friends, fragrant, wholesome tea,”[2] the same tea that he and his wife and eight children drank daily. As to himself, Van Butchell refused to consume strong drink or wine, and he also avoided meat and believed in Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”[3]

GB-1737-x350a-Martin Van Butchell

Martin Van Butchell on his horse. Public domain.

For thirty years, Van Butchell resided at number 56 on Mount-street in London near Hyde Park. He had a beard he would not cut and sold his own hair clippings to help barren women have children. Every morning he could be found faithfully riding his grey pony, which according to one source, “excited even royal attention.”[4] He was a striking spectacle as he rode. He had fine flowing beard that at one point hung to his waist, and was further described in the following manner:

“[He wore] a shallow, narrow-brimmed hat, rusty with age, a brown coat, and unblacked [sic] boots; his steed not only decorated with streaks and spots of black, green, or purple, but furnished by way of headgear, with a sort of spring blind, which could be let down over the animal’s eyes in case of his taking fright, or to conceal any particular object at which he was likely to shy.”[5]

Similar to other surgeons and physicians, Van Butchell first began in the medicine field as a dentist. He was as skillful in that capacity as he was eccentric. For instance, he refused to visit patients and his motto, “I go to none,”[6] appeared in his whimsical and humorous advertisements that were also often filled with common sense advice. He once refused 500 guineas from a well-known lawyer to make a house call. But his refusal to make house calls did not deter patients from requesting his expertise. In fact, he “was so successful [as a dentist] that he is said to have received as much as eighty guineas for a set of false teeth.”[7]

Martin Van Butchell Riding His Pony, Public Domain

Martin Van Butchell riding his pony. Public domain.

One of the most eccentric things Van Butchell ever did was exhibit Mary (his first wife) after her death on 14 January 1775. Apparently, he was unwilling to part with her body and wanted her preserved, and he appealed to his previous teacher, a man named Dr. Hunter. Then according to one source:

“Accordingly the doctor, assisted by Mr. [William] Cruikshank, injected the blood-vessels with a coloured fluid, so that the minute red vessels of the cheeks and lips were filled, and exhibited their native hue; and the body, in general, having all the cavities filled with antiseptic substances, remained perfectly free from corruption, or any unpleasant smell, as if it was merely in a state of sleep. But to resemble the appearance of life, glass eyes were also inserted. The corpse was then deposited in a bed of thin paste of plaster of Paris, in a box of sufficient dimensions, which subsequently crystalised, and produced a pleasing effect.”[7]

Dressed her in a fine lawn gown she was encased in a glass-topped coffin. Van Butchell then displayed Mary in his drawing room to visitors:

“[N]umbers of persons went to see it, and in order to account for such a strange whim, [he] invented a report that he was entitled by a clause in a will to certain money as long as his wife ‘remained above-ground.'”[8]

Dr. William Hunter (left) and Dr. William Cruikshank (right), Public Domain

Dr. William Hunter (left) and Dr. William Cruikshank (right). Public domain.

When he remarried, Mary’s preserved body was moved and displayed at London’s Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, until it was destroyed by a German bomb in May of 1941.


  • [1] Granger, William, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1804, p. 617.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Franklin, Benjamin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1900, p. 11.
  • [4] Granger, William, p. 624.
  • [5] Leslie, Frank, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 13, 1882, p. 267.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 3-4, 1835, p. 153.
  • [8] Leslie, Frank, p. 267.

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