Damaging the Body: Loss of Face – Vitriol Throwing in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Britain

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The last seminar in the current series Damaging the Body: Physical Harm and the Self, 1850 – 2010, will take place in the Wellcome Library next Wednesday evening.  Details:

Wednesday 2 May

Dr Katherine Watson (Oxford Brookes University)

Loss of Face: Vitriol Throwing in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain








This paper surveys the nature and extent of vitriol (strong sulphuric acid) throwing in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It will first seek to establish the incidence of this relatively rare form of assault, to identify the contexts in which it occurred (typically but not always a scenario revolving around bitter disagreement provoked either during an industrial dispute or as a result of sexual jealousy), the forms that it took, the individuals who resorted to it and the legal responses to them. This will indicate to what extent vitriol throwing was a gendered or class-related crime, give some indication of how it was perceived by the public of the day and how they judged the perpetrators in the light of claims of provocation (including those phrased in terms of temporary insanity brought on by ill usage), and show how and why these factors changed over time. The remainder of the paper considers the crime from the victim’s point of view. Although this is a more difficult perspective to gain access to, medical reports show how devastating the effects of an acid attack could be. In a culture that values physical regularity, the potential for isolation and ostracism is clear and the paper argues that victims faced physical, social, psychological and economic consequences that could last a lifetime and that far outweighed the penalties imposed on the perpetrators.

The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Library, 2nd floor, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Please deposit bags and coats in the ground floor cloakroom and meet in the 2nd floor foyer. Doors at 6pm prompt, the seminars will start by 6.15.

The Damaging the Body seminars have been organised by the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines in conjunction with the University of the West of England. The aim of the seminars is to provoke interdisciplinary discussion of the ways in which the creation of more diverse histories of bodily damage in the nineteenth century and beyond might open up wider concerns.

Image: Jealous wife attacks her husband’s girlfriend with vitriol, Paris 1897 (Picture No. 10007528, Mary Evans Picture Library).

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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