Syphilis: A Love Story

We don’t know much about her. We don’t even know her name. What we do know is that the woman who wore the above prosthetic lost her nose in the middle of the 19th century due to a raging case of syphilis.

This deformity was so common amongst those suffering from the pox (as it was sometimes called) that ‘no nose clubs’ sprung up in London.  On 18 February 1874, the Star reported:

Miss Sanborn tells us that an eccentric gentleman, having taken a fancy to see a large party of noseless persons, invited every one thus afflicted, whom he met in the streets, to dine on a certain day at a tavern, where he formed them into a brotherhood. [1]

1The man, who assumed the name Mr Crampton for these clandestine parties, entertained his ‘noseless’ friends every month until he died a year later, at which time the group ‘unhappily dissolved.’ [2]

For those determined to avoid the pox, condoms made from animal membrane and secured with a silk ribbon were available [below], but these were outlandishly expensive. Moreover, many men shunned them for being uncomfortable and cumbersome. In 1717, the surgeon, Daniel Turner, wrote:

The Condum being the best, if not only Preservative our Libertines have found out at present; and yet by reason of its blunting the Sensation, I have heard some of them acknowledge, that they had often chose to risk a Clap, rather than engage cum Hastis sic clypeatis [with spears thus sheathed]. [3]

Everyone blamed each other for the burdensome condom. The French called it ‘la capote anglaise’ (the English cape), while the English called it the ‘French letter.’ Even more unpleasant was the fact that once one procured a condom, he was expected to use it repeatedly.

Unsurprisingly, syphilis continued to rage throughout London during the 18th and 19th centuries despite the growing availability of condoms.

Which brings me back to the owner of the prosthetic nose. Eventually, she lost her teeth and palate after prolonged exposure to mercury treatments. Her husband—whom may have been the source of her suffering—finally died from the disease, leaving her a widow.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the poor, unfortunate Mrs X!

According to records at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the woman found another suitor despite her deformities. After the wedding, she sought out the physician, James Merryweather, and sold the contraption to him for £3. The reason? Her new husband liked her just the way she was – no nose and all!

And that, kind readers, is a true Valentine’s Day love story.

Ignore the part where she most certainly transmitted the disease to her new lover.


1. Origin of the No Nose Club. Star, Issue 1861, 18 February 1874, p. 3.
2. Ibid.
3. Daniel Turner, Syphilis: A Practical Treatise on the Venereal Disease (1717), p. 74.

29 comments on “Syphilis: A Love Story

  1. Jan D'n Druiper says:

    The Knick might be an interesting serie to watch about the subject…

  2. […] (And for a fuller account of the Victorian woman who wore these glasses, click here.) […]

  3. […] o feticismo per le mutilazioni, e se leggete l’inglese potete trovarla per esteso su questa pagina. La versione breve, comunque, è che la protesi raffigurata qui sopra è appartenuta a una donna di […]

  4. […] unusual story from the past about acrotomophilia, the fetishism for mutilated bodies. You can read it in full here, but the gist of it is that in middle XIX century England syphilis was so common that seeing people […]

  5. […] Each of the symbols in the logo represent a story told on this site: A History of the Barber Pole; Syphilis: A Love Story; The Anatomy of a Broken Heart and The Falciform Amputation […]

  6. […] Read more on Lindsey Fitzharris’ wonderful blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: “Syphilis: A Love Story” […]

  7. […] The Chiurgeon’s Apprentice for the whole fascinating […]

  8. […] followers with so much food for thought–from Victorian anti-masturbation devices to nose-less sufferers of syphilis (a love story) to the vagaries of searching dead bodies. Along the way, she illuminates the strange […]

  9. […] discussed deformities caused by syphilis and the problems of prevention using early condoms (“Syphilis: A Love Story”). She also regularly tweets horrifying pictures of syphilis sufferers in the past, or the […]

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  11. […] Syphilis and prosthetic noses. […]

  12. The Savvy Senorita says:

    I watched a documentary a few months back about this disease. I didn’t know the disease ran in stages and could be re-contracted though. I knew their were animal membrane condoms; not surprising they weren’t so popular.

  13. Love is blind. Assuming that the new husband was aware of what she had, how blissfully romantic.

  14. […] unusual story from the past about acrotomophilia, the fetishism for mutilated bodies. You can read it in full here, but the gist of it is that in middle XIX century England syphilis was so common that seeing people […]

  15. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    Lovely story that🙂 especially the fact that he loved her just the way she is. Mostly syphilis was carried to various women by the men with fact they didn’t wish to wear the condoms. Also the general living conditions were poor along with hygiene.

  16. […] This will either give you hope or bum you out. Happy Valentines Day! […]

  17. Rose M. Welch says:

    Why are we all assuming that her new husband wasn’t similarly afflicted?

  18. Umbriel says:

    In the absence of details, I suspect that the marriage may have remained unconsumated. Perhaps the husband wasn’t seeking a bedroom companion, but simply someone to manage housekeeping. Regardless, at least there’s reason to think that all concerned managed to find some happiness in a horrible situation.

    And that wish to all this Valentine’s Day.😉

  19. pinkfizzy says:

    Well, he didn’t marry her thinking her fake nose was real. He knew what he was getting into! I think it’s kind of sweet.

  20. […] The chirurgeon’s apprentice. […]

  21. Dave says:

    can think of worse body parts to lose than your nose … great read, thanks.

  22. osteoarch says:

    Love this. Great article and very fitting for V day.

  23. Though it’s most certainly true if he didn’t already have it, that last line:

    Ignore the part where she most certainly transmitted the disease to her new lover.

    Did make me chuckle a bit. Sorry. It’s a hideous, horrible disease and there was no hope once contracted. So sad. (nm)

  24. Fiz says:

    That is grisly and what she probably gave her new husband as a wedding present is horrible😦

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