Reanimating “Apparently Dead” Bodies in 1790s Charleston

I’ll wager that most Charlestonians don’t realize that a 1793 law offers a reward to citizens who attempt to “restore to life” persons who are “apparently dead,” but who may actually be in a state of “suspended animation.” Not familiar with this gem of our municipal code? Well then, you’re in for a Halloween treat. This Thursday, October 30th at 6 p.m. I’m presenting an illustrated lecture at CCPL titled “Reviving ‘Apparently Dead’ Bodies in 1790s Charleston.” If you’re looking for a ghoulish, yet hilarious tale of macabre local history, you won’t want to miss this event.

Our story begins with the widespread and justifiably real fear of “premature burial.” In the centuries before the advent of modern science, history records many cases, reported from around the world, of persons being buried and then awakening to find themselves trapped six feet underground in a tight wooden box. We learn of such stories from grave diggers who report finding caskets scratched open from the inside, and from physicians reporting apparently dead persons sitting upright at their own funerals.

In London in 1774, a group of physicians formed an organization to combat the scourge of premature burial with science—or at least what passed for science in the eighteenth century. That organization, called the Royal Humane Society, advocated the notion that bodies that appeared to be dead might really be in a state of “suspended animation”; that is, their soul (anima) might be precariously suspended somewhere between life and death. The society’s challenge was not simply to discover techniques for identifying the true state of an “apparently dead” body, but rather to experiment and to devise methods to loosen death’s grip on the bodies and souls of “apparently dead” persons and to encourage their life force to return to a state of vitality. In addition, the Royal Humane Society sought to spread its collective knowledge by encouraging others around the world to conduct similar experiments and to save more people from the horrors of a premature burial.

News of the efforts of the Royal Humane Society soon spread throughout Europe and the United States. It was truly an age of discovery as scientists conducted bold, new experiments that swept aside old superstitions. In Italy, for example, Luigi Galvani was applying electricity to dead frogs to “reanimate” their muscles (a fact that later inspired Mary Shelley‘s classic Frankenstein).

Meanwhile in Charleston, a group of physicians in the Medical Society of South Carolina (established in 1789) learned of these experiments and embraced the scientific challenge of “suspended animation.” In the summer of 1793, they purchased an “apparatus” from the Royal Humane Society and commenced a public education campaign. Not content with merely offering the new science of “reanimation” to the citizens of Charleston, the Medical Society convinced our City Council to pass a law mandating the use of the new techniques in all cases of “apparently dead” bodies. On 19 August 1793, the City of Charleston ratified “An Ordinance for assisting the Medical Society of South Carolina, in their humane intentions, to restore to life persons under suspended animation, and for other purposes therein mentioned.” This law required all retailers of spirituous liquors to receive into their houses “the bodies of persons apparently dead” and to provide “all articles as may be necessary in restoring to life such bodies.” Furthermore, the law also mandates that all retailers of liquors must “constantly keep in public view, printed directions for restoring persons apparently dead to life, which directions, drawn up by the Medical Society of South Carolina, shall be given [to] them gratis.”



Just what did those directions say? It’s a bit of a mystery, as no copies of the 1793 directions are known to survive. Nevertheless, compelling evidence for the “reanimation” techniques used in 1790s Charleston can be found in the directions promulgated by the Royal Humane Society and other similar contemporary organizations. Suffice it to say that the principal methods involved electricity, massage, spirituous liquors poured down the throat, and tobacco smoke “thrown into the fundament.” Really.

As bizarre (and potentially hilarious) as these old methods may seem to twenty-first century readers, we must acknowledge the real scientific achievement of their experiments. In the course of the nineteenth century, the initial forays into the quasi-science of reanimation evolved in to the real and valuable science of resuscitation. Without the pioneering efforts of the Royal Humane Society, the Medical Society of South Carolina, and a host of similar organizations, mankind would not have the benefit of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), or even the miraculous pacemaker.

If you’d like to learn more about this story, please join me at CCPL on Thursday, October 30th at 6 p.m. for “Reviving ‘Apparently Dead’ Bodies in 1790s Charleston.” Click on the image above for a flyer that you can share with your friends!

Charleston’s Hampstead Square

Charleston’s Hampstead Square—actually four public squares surrounding the intersection of Columbus and America Streets—is a unique and beautiful space with a rich history dating back to the the 1760s. It was laid out in 1769 as the center point of the village of Hampstead, a real estate venture developed by the wealthy merchant, Henry Laurens. Over the past two and half centuries, Hampstead Square has weathered some of the most dramatic episodes in Charleston’s history—including several wars, a major earthquake, and Civil Rights demonstrations—and still retains much of its original character.



If you’d like to learn more about this often-overlooked gem of Charleston’s geography, please join me and several other presenters for a community symposium titled Hampstead Square: The Heart of Charleston’s Historic Eastside Neighborhood,” on Monday, October 27th 2014, at 5 p.m. at the Palmer Campus of Trident Technical College. It’s free and open to the public, and you’re guaranteed to learn a few new things about Charleston history and see some rare images of Hampstead’s colorful past.

Lieutenant Hess’s Horn Work

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

In October 2013 Charleston’s Post and Courier ran a front-page story about my research on the “Horn Work,” a large tabby fortification that once straddled King Street and served as the gateway into the town.  As a result of that press coverage, we had a very large turnout for my 2013 “Horn Work” presentation at CCPL. In case you missed that event, we’re offering two ways to catch up on your knowledge of Charleston’s largest fortification. First, you can watch last year’s presentation at your leisure via the following YouTube link:

Second, I’m presenting an updated version of this lecture at CCPL on Wednesday, October 22nd at 6 p.m. What’s new for 2014? I’ve been tinkering with my three-dimensional model of the Horn Work in an effort to render its size and materials more accurately. I’ve also gathered some new information from the British Library about Lt. Col. Henry Bouquet‘s role in convincing the…

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Who Were the Lowcountry’s First Citizens?

The annual commemoration of Columbus Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the earliest Europeans to arrive in the New World. As a resident of coastal South Carolina, I’ve often wondered about when Europeans first made contact with the indigenous people of the Lowcountry, and who was here to greet them. To be honest, this subject hasn’t been on my historically-minded radar until recently, so I’m certainly not an expert on South Carolina’s “first citizens.” I have, however, determined to make an effort to learn more and to help spread the knowledge of our region’s earliest inhabitants, and to share that knowledge with the community.

De Soto visits Cofitachequi  in South Carolina: Library of Congress image 3c04378v

De Soto visits Cofitachequi in South Carolina

This evening at 6 p.m. I’ll be presenting a lecture at CCPL called “South Carolina’s Native Americans and First Contact with Europeans.” I’m working on a bibliography of suggested reading on this topic, as well as a timeline of European contacts with our coastal tribes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Time doesn’t allow us to discuss every tribe that once inhabited the Palmetto State, so our focus will be those indigenous, coastal people who met the earliest Spanish, French, and English visitors. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I encourage you to join us this evening, or let me know if you’d like to have a copy of the handouts.

A Conversation with Lee Pringle

In recent years, some of you might have heard me lecturing about the fascinating subject of African-American musicians in early Charleston and their unsung contribution to our Lowcountry cultural gumbo. This week I’m proud to host Lee Pringle for conversation about his upcoming festival, Colour of Music, which quite literally puts the spotlight on contemporary classically-trained black musicians. If you’d like to learn more about the festival and its mission, please join us at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 14th in the CCPL auditorium at 68 Calhoun Street.

Lee Pringle, found of the Colour of Music festival

Lee Pringle, founder of the Colour of Music festival

Lee Pringle is a Lowcountry native whose career took him to far-away places before he returned to Charleston to pursue his musical dreams. You may have heard him with the renowned Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Gospel Choir, which he founded some fourteen years ago, as well as the CSO Spiritual Ensemble and CSO Spiritual Ensemble Chorale. Music is Lee’s passion, and he stands out among his peers by being well-steeped in both classical and vernacular traditions.

The Colour of Music festival, about to begin its second season, is the fruit of many years of planning. Its purpose is to celebrate the contributions of black musicians and composers who work in the tradition of “classical” art music. Such contributions go back to the eighteenth century, when Joseph Boulogne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), attracted much attention in Europe for his incredible talents as both a violinist and composer. Boulogne’s works, like those of many other subsequent classically-trained black musicians, have been overlooked by generations of audiences and musicologists, but the tide is rapidly changing.  The Colour of Music is the first, and at present only festival dedicated to celebrating the talents of black artists, past and present, who contribute so much to our global cultural gumbo.

This year’s Colour of Music festival runs October 17-23, and includes a variety of artists, ensembles, and musical idioms. We encourage you to check it out, and to come to the Charleston County Public Library to hear Lee Pringle talk about his musical mission.

Time: Tuesday, October 14th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: CCPL Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

The Return of Velocipedes and Windmills!

If you missed one of my recent fun lectures about velocipedes and windmills, here’s your chance to catch up and meet some other fabulous Charleston folks at Affordabike and the American College of the Building Arts.

Goddard_bicycle copy (1)On Tuesday, October 7th, I’ll be talking about “The Velocipede Invasion of 1869: Charleston’s First Bicycles” at Affordabike (573 King St. 29403). This laid-back, free event begins at 7 p.m. and is co-sponsored by Palmetto Brewery and the bicycle rights advocacy group, Bike Law. This will certainly be a fun evening, so please join us and raise a toast to our fair city’s bicycle history.

On Wednesday, October 8th, I’ll present a heavily-illustrated lecture on “Building Windmills in Early South Carolina” at the American College of the Building Arts (21 Magazine St. 29401). This free event begins at 5:30 p.m. and is part of the college’s Mary Scott Guest lecture series. If you’ve never visited the old “haunted” Charleston District Jail, this is your chance to wander through the building and hear a fun lecture about an amazing part of Charleston’s forgotten past.

Questions? Give me a call at 843-805-6968 or email me at butlern[at]

Top Ten Charleston Hurricanes

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

It’s mid-September in the Lowcountry, and historically that means we’ve reached the peak of Hurricane Season. Over the past few centuries of recorded history, the worst of these tropical cyclones have visited the Charleston area during the second half of September and the early days of October. The weather might be turning slightly cooler here, but the Atlantic waters that fuel hurricane development are still sufficiently warm to generate storms of awesome proportions. Consider, for example, the legendary Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm that sheared across Charleston County twenty-five years ago come September 21st.  Those of us who witnessed Hugo’s destruction will never forget that experience, and hope never to see such a storm again!

Hugo certainly wasn’t the first storm to cause massive damage to Charleston, however. A search through various historical documents suggests as many as twenty to thirty storms have left a significant impact on this area since the first Europeans settlers began keeping records here. So which of these was the most destructive? At the risk of sounding elusive, here’s my best answer: we simply don’t have sufficient data to compare historic storms on the modern Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, so it’s impossible to rank the respective strengths of these storms. Contemporary reports tell us that the hurricane of 1752 was pretty awful, for example, but we lack any objective, quantifiable data to facilitate a measurable comparison with the lethal “Sea Islands” hurricane of 1893, or Hurricane Gracie in 1959.

Rather than ranking these storms by intensity, however, we can still make a poll of the worst of the worst. In other words, we can create a chronological list of the “worst” hurricanes to visit Charleston by using contemporary descriptions of the storms as a guide to their strength. For example, the Charleston newspapers of September 1800 reported the visit of a horrible storm that caused great damage, but four years later, in September 1804, the same newspapers tell us that a recent hurricane was much worse than the 1800 storm. In this manner we can whittle our list of twenty to thirty severe hurricanes down to an arbitrary number, say ten, and create a list of the “Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History.” Want to know which storms made my list? Then I invite you to join me for a new program next week titled:

“Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History”

Time: Wednesday September 17th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: 2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library , 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.


Time: Saturday, September 20th 2014 at Noon.

Place: Edgar Allan Poe Library, 1921 I’On Avenue, Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.


Line Street Bicentennial

Two hundred years ago this September, the citizens of Charleston feared for the very survival of their community. Marauding British forces had just plundered and burned Washington, the nation’s capital, and had laid siege to the port of Baltimore. The Royal Navy was working its way down the eastern seaboard of the United States, and it seemed logical to conclude that the rich and strategically important port city of Charleston might be their next military target. So how did our young Federal government respond? It tersely encouraged the citizens of Charleston to make their best possible defense, and informed them not to expect assistance from the United States.

Ignoring, for the moment, the political fallout of that audacious statement, we turn our historical attention to the home front. The courageous citizens of Charleston immediately began building new defensive fortifications, but not along the city’s extensive commercial waterfront. Recalling the lessons learned during the British siege of the city in the spring of 1780, they instead commenced building a zig-zag wall and moat across the “neck” of the peninsula, cutting through a swath of land stretching approximately half a mile long, from the Cooper to the Ashley River. Thousands of citizens—black and white, slave and free, male and female—labored shoulder to shoulder for nearly six months to construct a robust barrier to defend their homes. For many years after the perilous autumn of 1814, these hastily-built fortifications were known as “The Lines” of Charleston.

The line of fortifications erected in late 1814 appear between Sheppard and Line Streets in this detail from an 1823 plat by Robert K. Payne's 1823 at the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

The line of fortifications erected in late 1814 appears between Sheppard and Line Streets in this detail from an 1823 plat by Robert K. Payne at the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

Looking back through the lens of time, it is easy for us to ignore the efforts and emotions that occupied Charleston in 1814. We know that the British did not attack Charleston during what we now call “The War of 1812,” and we know that the war was effectively over by coming of the new year in 1815. As the years passed, “The Lines” were transformed into “Line Street,” and the costly fortifications were razed and built over. Generations of Charlestonians have forgotten the dramatic origin of our humble Line Street, and many inhabitants now imagine that the street once marked the city’s northern boundary in some distant age. Not so.

The name of Line Street is a vestige of a turbulent but forgotten chapter of Charleston’s history, and is worthy of our attention. It was here, at “the lines,” that Denmark Vesey and dozens of other hastily-tried slaves and free persons of color were executed in the summer of 1822. Three years later, the citizens of Charleston and our militia joyfully received the visiting Marquis de Lafayette “at the lines,” which were located nearly half a mile “without the city.”  It was the brickwork of “the lines” that were dismantled in the late 1820s to provide building materials for a new arsenal just north of Charleston’s Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street). Yes, that’s right—nearly a million bricks, cleaned and removed from “the lines,” were used to build the original structure for the South Carolina Military College, better known as The Citadel.

By the year 1850, when the city of Charleston annexed “the Neck” (all of the land between Calhoun and Mt. Pleasant Streets), the memory of the War of 1812 and the fears of 1814 were growing dim. Small vestiges of the defensive works appear on maps of the city published in 1852 and 1872, but nothing of them remains above ground today. Nevertheless, the fears and labors that gave birth to “The Lines” in September 1814 constitute a significant episode in our city’s long and colorful history, and I encourage all carolophiles (if I may coin a term for us Charleston-lovers) to learn more about this topic. If you’re curious (and I hope you are), then please join me next week for a program titled:

“The Bicentennial of Charleston’s

Line Street, 1814–2014″

Time: Wednesday September 10th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: 2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library , 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Charleston’s Second Gate

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

A map of Charleston's new northern wall of 1745, and the town's second gate (in yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

Charleston’s new northern wall of 1745 (red) and its moat (blue), and the town’s second gate (yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

For most of our colonial era, visitors walking or riding into urban Charleston by land had but one avenue of entry: the so-called “high road” or “broad path” that we now call King Street. Between late 1703 and the early 1730s, the entrance into town was controlled by a ravelin and gate at what is now the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets. Following the outbreak of a new war between Britain and Spain in 1739, the so-called “War of Jenkins’ Ear,” our provincial legislature commenced building new fortifications around the perimeter of Charleston.

The culmination of this defensive project was the completion ca. 1745 of a new earthen wall and moat measuring approximately 3,400 linear feet along the town’s northern boundary, with a new gate in…

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Teenage Servitude and/or Slavery in Charleston

Elizabeth King's Apprentice Indenture, 1832

Apprentice’s Indenture, Elizabeth King, 1832

It’s nearly back to school time for teens in the lowcountry, and many young folks probably wish they didn’t have to return to the classroom. Some may dream of a more exciting alternative to textbooks and homework, but, historically speaking, they should consider just how lucky they are. Until about a century ago, only a small minority of the teenage population of  Charleston ever set foot in a proper classroom. Instead, most boys and girls of about 13 or 14 years of age left their familiar home and moved in with another family to begin a long apprenticeship. Only the wealthiest boys (and rarely, wealthy girls) went on to what we now fondly call “high school.” Everyone else, including many enslaved teens and free teens “of color,” were “indentured” to a master to learn a skill or trade. A wide range of career options were open to boys, ranging from attorney to mariner to wheelwright and beyond. Girls had fewer options, however, and were usually limited to domestic pursuits such as cooking, sewing, and nursing.

The documentary history of teenage apprenticeship in early America is generally rich and robust, but not necessarily so in South Carolina. A perusal of books about the history of American childhood, or even a simple search of the Internet, will connect you with good information about apprenticeships in old New England and even Virginia, but you’ll find almost nothing about early Carolina. Rest assured that the early inhabitants of the lowcountry were every bit as familiar with the traditional European practice of sending young teens out of the house to learn a trade, but the paper trail of such practices in early South Carolina is relatively faint. As a result of this dearth of evidence, one doesn’t often hear about the widespread and pragmatic use of teenage servants and/or slaves in this area.

Recently I’ve gathered a number of examples to demonstrate the customs, concerns, and legal issues surrounding the apprentice system in early Charleston. The image seen above, for example, is taken from the Charleston Orphan House records, which are part of the Charleston Archive here at CCPL. Here young Elizabeth King is being “indentured” (denoting a transfer of legal custody) to Elizabeth Williamson for a period of five years, to learn “the trade or mystery” of being a milliner. As you can read in this 1832 document, Mrs. Williamson is undertaking a legal contract to educate, clothe, feed, and care for her teenage apprentice. In return, Miss King promises to keep her mistress’s secrets, to abstain from contracting matrimony, and to avoid ale-houses, taverns, and play-houses. Hundreds of similar examples can be found scattered among the records of early Charleston. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, join me tomorrow for a program titled:

“Teenage Servitude and Slavery: The Apprentice System in Early Charleston”

Time: Tuesday, August 12th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.