From the belief that joining the workforce and getting a job would dry out a woman’s uterus, to the conviction that cats were the familiars of Satan, plenty of people had plenty of strange, bizarre, and macabre beliefs throughout history. Many of these weird notions predated the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, but quite a few existed well into the Modern Era. For that matter, there are no shortages of bizarre beliefs even today, in the twenty-first century.
Some of these odd beliefs were contradictory, but the contradictions did not stop them from being held, and fervently believed in, by the same people. Take the aforementioned belief that women were too delicate for work and that gainful employment would dry out a woman’s uterus. That belief was widespread amongst 18th and 19th-century British upper classes. Yet, those same British upper classes also knew that women routinely worked 16 hour days in coal mines, or toiled for long hours in the hellish factories and workshops of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps their belief in female delicacy was limited to rich women, whom they viewed as a separate species from working-class females.
Following are ten bizarre beliefs that were widespread at one time or another in history.
Blowing Smoke Up the Ass, and the Healing Properties of Tobacco
The harmful effects of tobacco are well known and understood nowadays in most of the world. However, there was a time in history when not only were tobacco’s ills unknown, but tobacco was actually considered healthy and good for you. Centuries ago, tobacco was lauded as a cure for many ailments, not only by quacks and charlatans, but also by respected members of the mainstream medical establishment.
Tobacco was introduced to Europe by the Spanish, circa 1528. From early on, it was described as a “sacred herb” because of its supposed medicinal properties, as claimed by various Native Americans. Before long, European medical practitioners were treating the newly introduced plant as a miracle cure for sundry ailments, from headaches and colds to cancer.
Today, when somebody scoffs at another that “you’re just blowing smoke up my ass“, it is a figure of speech to mean that he is insincerely complementing the scoffer, telling him what he thinks he wants to hear. However, centuries ago, blowing smoke up the ass was meant literally, to describe a medical procedure in which a tube or rubber hose was inserted in a person’s rectum, through which tobacco smoke would be blown.
In the 1700s, doctors routinely used tobacco smoke enemas, in the mistaken belief that they had healing properties. Blowing smoke up the ass was thought to be particularly useful in reviving drowning victims. The nicotine in the tobacco was thought to make the heart beat faster, thus stimulating respiration, while smoke from the burning tobacco was thought to warm the drowning victim from the inside. It made intuitive sense: the drowned person was full of water, so blowing air, in the form of tobacco smoke which was full of healing properties, would expel the water.
Hiccup was that the water was in the person’s lungs, which are not connected to his or her ass. Thus, blowing air up the drowning victims’ butts and into their bowels would do little to expel water from their lungs. Although some doctors preferred sticking the tube directly into the lungs through the mouth or nose, most preferred to shove it up the patient’s butt, instead.
Although medically useless, belief in the efficacy of tobacco smoke enemas in reviving drowning victims, or even those presumed dead, was widespread. So widespread, that medical kits for blowing smoke up the ass were found at routine intervals along major waterways, such as the River Thames. There they waited, like modern defibrillators, ready for use to revive the drowned and bring the (presumed) dead back to life.
Blowing smoke up the ass was eventually used to not only revive the drowned, but to also treat colds, headaches, hernias, abdominal cramps, and even heart attack victims. Tobacco smoke enemas were also used on typhoid fever victims, and those dying of cholera. While the treatment was useless for the patient, it could be quite dangerous for the medical practitioner, particularly if he was blowing the smoke with his mouth instead of using a bellows. Should the doctor inhale instead of exhale, or if gases in the patient’s bowels escaped (i.e.; if the patient farted) fecal particles could get blown back into the doctor’s mouth or inhaled into his lungs. Such a mishap, particularly when treating a cholera patient, could prove fatal for the doctor.