The Dark Story of the 19th Century Orphans of Amsterdam

Contribution by Krista Amira Calvo @trowel_and_bone

At the beginning of the 20th century, the remains of 1500 girls and young women were recovered from the DeLiefde cemetery in Amsterdam. After preliminary literary research into the collection, I became intrigued. I felt their remains would tell a story that paralleled historical documentations of illness, social status, and the fate of orphans in the past. What I did not anticipate was the startling percentage of the individuals uncovered did not survive beyond the age of four.

 

 

 

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From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

The orphans that are the focus of my research, all females between the ages of two and 13 years, spent their final days in the Maagdenhuis Roman Catholic Orphanage for Girls from 1850-1900 (1). During my time spent in the lab with these orphans which number over 200 individuals, I was able to weave a narrative for the group of girls and young women who suffered greatly, and gain a more holistic view of care in the past in underfunded facilities that served as homes for the impoverished, orphaned and abandoned.

How did so many girls’ lives get cut short? In 19th century Netherlands it was common to lose one or both parents. Life expectancies were low, maternal mortality rates were high, and the population was plagued with epidemics of diseases such as smallpox and cholera (1). To address the growing number of orphaned children, the Dutch government passed a series of laws, one which ensured that any orphan under the age of 23 was placed in the care of a family member if one could be located (1). Family members were all too happy to bring an orphaned boy into the home, with their ability to someday provide for the family being a very appealing factor (1). However, this was not the case for far too many girls, leaving them abandoned and left to their own devices.

Place in society played a large role in the survival of the orphaned. The accessibility of better care due to high financial standing led an overall better quality of life and better survival rates. However, the orphans who were placed in underfunded institutions often suffered from malnutrition, rickets and other illnesses related to vitamin deficiencies, and infectious diseases such as leprosy (1). Diseases such as these leave markers on bone that can tell a story of hardship and suffering, and give us clues about health and community care in the past.

The standards of living in 19th century orphanages in the Netherlands were often atrocious. Poor hygiene conditions and tales of abuse weave a harrowing story of childhood experiences. This project was sobering, seeing that multitudes of imperative data that have historically been overlooked due to the lack of focus on children and young adults. The dearth of knowledge that could have otherwise been applied to current forensic casework involving children has left a void in methodology that must be filled in order to more accurately address life in the past on multiple levels (2).

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From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

Children are sensitive to their environment, and their remains leave many clues about population fertility, mortality, stress, and disease. My work attempts to continue to advance the bioarchaeology of childhood. We cannot make assumptions that children in the past had the same social experiences as they do in our current society. Thus, the bioarchaeology of childhood must be approached using both an assessment from the skeletal remains and the cultural context to create a better foundation for understanding care and the experiences of the young in the past.

References

[1] Beekink E, van Poppel F, Liefbroer AC. 1999. Surviving the loss of a parent in a

nineteenth-century Dutch provincial town. Journal of Social History, 32(3): 641-669

[2] Lewis, ME. 2007. The bioarchaeology of children: Perspectives from

biological and forensic anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

 

‘Freaks’ as museum exhibits: the case of the Boy of Bengal

Throughout history we have been obsessed with the ‘other’, the ‘weird’ and the wonderful. This is epitomised in the history of ‘freak shows’, which date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. From this time people with unusual physical characteristics often became objects of public curiosity and were shown throughout Europe and beyond. Some of the people shown had growth syndromes (e.g. dwarfism and gigantism), growth defects (e.g. ectrodactyly, or ‘split hand / ‘cleft handand microcephaly), albinism, and the very rare syndrome of hypertrichosis, sometimes called “werewolf syndrome”, which results in excessive hair on the face and body.

One ‘object of curiosity’ is the “Boy of Bengal” whose heads remain on display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London. He was born in rural Bengal in the late 18th century. His parents exhibited him publically around India, and in private gatherings. Unfortunately the boy died at the age of four from a cobra bite.

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During the 18th and 19th centuries there was an increase in medical interest in these conditions, which resulted in these people being studied, and sometimes displayed in medical forums. These people often continued to be objectified after their death through the preservation of their bodies, or parts of their bodies, in museums and clinical settings.

The boy’s grave was robbed and body dissected by as salt agent from the East India Company, and his skull was given to the the British surgeon Everard Home who had expressed interest in his condition.

This condition is now known as Craniopagus parasiticus, which is a form of parasitic twins. Parasitic twins form when a fertilised egg does not split properly, and one embryo maintains dominant development at the expense of its twin. This process is the same as the development of conjoined twins but there is an underdevelopment of one of the twins.

It could be argued that today there is still a type of grotesque fascination of ‘oddities’, evidenced with the interest that people have with these types of historic museum items such as the Boy of Bengal. We also see a continuation of the intense interest in people with unusual physical conditions today, prime examples include conjoined twins making world news and being the subjects in reality TV shows.