To mark Movember, we invited “pogonographer-in-chief” Alun Withey, to commission a month of posts celebrating the history and culture of facial hair. Here’s the third in the series, by Jessica P Clark.
In July 1870, a sensational trial unfolded at London’s central criminal court over the murder of Reverend Elias Huelin. Following the 85-year-old’s sudden disappearance, witnesses described the arrival of Huelin’s foreign nephew who took up residence in one of the Reverend’s Chelsea rental properties. Soon after, a local labourer made a grisly discovery: inside one of the properties were the remains of Reverend Huelin’s trusted housekeeper Ann Boss. The respected clergyman was discovered in a shallow grave in the rear of the same house. Huelin’s ‘nephew’, who was revealed to be local plasterer Walter Miller, was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death.
Old Bailey records reveal that a number of Huelin’s neighbours were suspicious of the hard-drinking ‘foreign nephew’. Of particular note was his odd facial hair. As a plasterer, Miller had worn whiskers with “his beard rather long in front, [and] a full beard all round.” But as Huelin’s nephew, he shaved his whiskers “leaving just a little bit on the point of the chin, and a moustache.” What’s more, the hair was dyed a dark hue. For witnesses in the Miller trial, suspect facial hair functioned as a tell, alerting them to underhanded dealings.
A tool of transformation
It was not only criminals who manipulated their facial hair to avoid identification. Men used facial hair to move between social classes or disguise scars and other signs of ill health. In this way, facial hair could function as a tool of transformation, refashioning men into new, unrecognizable forms.
The transformational properties of facial hair proved especially handy for elite men partaking in 19th century urban ‘slumming’. Indeed, an unkempt face was a key feature of the casual poor. When reporter James Greenwood (1832-1929) investigated workhouse conditions for his 1866 exposé, A Night in a Workhouse, he donned a “battered billy-cock hat, with a dissolute drooping brim”. Just below his hat appeared “part of a face, unshaven and not scrupulously clean”.
Other urban investigators took a more elaborate route, contracting experts to oversee their transformations. This included famed wigmaker Willy Clarkson (1861-1934) who described transforming one client, a “well-known medical man,” into a sailor, clergyman, and laborer. For Clarkson, disguises instilled in wearers – both professional and amateur – a new sense of assurance. “[A] characteristic beard or moustache,” he claimed, “gives one a confidence that I think is lacking …”.
A lack of confidence propelled some men to rely on beards to disguise disease and debility. In the late 19th century, facial hair was a viable means of concealing tumours and other scars, boils, and bumps. Writing of seeping neck glands, for example, one physician claimed it was “a great triumph if the patient be a boy”, because the ensuing scar could be “in possible reach of his beard”. Renowned surgeon Jonathan Hutchinson (1828-1913) suggested, in a paper on cancer of the lower lip, that post-operative “scars [were] easily hidden by the growth of a beard”.
At times, however, even thick beards could not mask the ravages of illness. This was the case for “Mr. B” of Bath who, through the 1880s, relied on his beard to conceal a large neck tumour. Over time, however, the swelling mass exceeded the coverage of his beard, and Mr. B resorted to surgery in 1889.
Across multiple cases of facial hair as disguise, a common theme emerges; beards were only effective disguises if they appeared ‘natural’. In the cases of Walter Miller and Mr. B, poorly executed or malformed beards attracted the very attention that their wearers hoped to deflect. In this way, the transformative possibilities of facial hair only existed if beards conformed to dominant Victorian fashions in male grooming.
Author: Dr Jessica P Clark is an assistant professor of history at Brock University, California.