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Health and Medicinemedicine

If You Drowned In Victorian London There Was A Good Chance You'd Get Tobacco Smoke Up Your Anus

What a dignified way to go.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockAug 5 2022, 11:18 UTC
An old-fashioned tobacco enema kit, complete with pipe and bellows.
There's no evidence that it worked. Image credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Picture the scene: You are a fancy Victorian lady or gentleman, taking a stroll down the Thames, somehow managing to ignore the stench enough to enjoy yourself. All of a sudden, you fall into the river – and, owing largely to the frankly ridiculous number of petticoats you are wearing, you begin to drown.

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Before you black out, you see somebody diving into the river to save you. What happens next? 

If you think you are getting dragged to the side and having CPR performed on you, you have chosen the wrong orifice, for lining the Thames were "tobacco enema" kits ready to be thrust up your anus in one final humiliation to your corpse.

Tobacco enemas were first pioneered (for want of a better word) by Native Americans, who would blow smoke up the anus as medicine. Though there are no benefits to this practice, medical or otherwise – it would be hard to argue that smoking even makes you look cool in this form – it was at least more logical than what came next. Europeans who had seen the practice brought it back with them, and applied it to the victims of drowning.

The thinking – again for want of a better word – behind it was that the tobacco smoke would provide warmth and stimulation. Though no real evidence existed that the method worked, smoke enema kits for resuscitating drowning victims were placed along the Thames, and genuinely used on the drowned. In 1774, a rhyme was presented to the British Medical Association – possibly the only poem in existence about blowing smoke up somebody's anus – to help popularize the idea:

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“Tobacco glyster, breath and bleed.

Keep warm and rub till you succeed.

And spare no pains for what you do;

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May one day be repaid to you.”

There are anecdotes of the treatment "working", including one woman in 1746 who was dragged out of the Thames by her husband. According to the account, a passing sailor told the husband to put the sailor's pipe in her anus (hey, in stressful times we all take the help we can get) and then blow in the bowl end, to force the smoke up there manually. She survived, likely for other reasons, long enough to look down and ask something along the lines of "what the hell".

One particularly distressing example of the use of smoke enemas happened in 1650 to 22-year-old Anne Greene, who had been sentenced to death for infanticide, though it was likely she had a miscarriage. 

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Greene was hanged at Oxford Castle on December 14, with her death taking a particularly long time despite attempts by guards and friends to kill her with the butt of their muskets and pulling on her legs. The next day, however, when they looked in her coffin they found that she still had a pulse, and was even breathing. 

Or, to put it in layman's terms, it was time to start inserting tobacco smoke into her anus. 

After bloodletting (yes, that's right, they also removed her blood) they proceeded to give her a "heating odoriferous Clyster to be cast up in her body, to give heat and warmth to her bowels". She survived, and was pardoned, as they believed that God had saved her, suggesting that even back then they had an inkling that it was nothing to do with butt smoke.


Health and Medicinemedicine
  • medicine,

  • tobacco,

  • smoking,

  • drowning,

  • anus,

  • rectum,

  • weird and wonderful,

  • butts

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