Top ten creepiest objects in the collection

Wellcome Collection is 10 years old this summer, and we’re celebrating by sharing some of our top 10 creepiest objects from the collections. You have been warned...

Kirsten Riley

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Dragon chair

Wellcome Collection.

The razor-sharp steel blades on this chair led to the assumption for many years that it could only be an implement of torture. But look closer; the chair is ornately decorated with foliage, scrolls and the heads of mythological sea monsters called Macara, details not often found in such cruel devices. In fact, this chair is a rare example of a Dragon chair used historically by Chinese mediums (Tangki). The act of sitting on the blades demonstrated the superhuman power of God over human flesh, which apparently remained unharmed. So while this chair might look terrifying, its purpose was very different. *This text was updated on 8 September to more accurately reflect information on the gallery object label.

Tonsil guillotine

Wellcome Collection.

Sometimes surgery only looks like torture. The tonsil guillotine, invented by the American physician Philip Syng Physick in 1828, was the go-to device for tonsillectomies in the 1800s for those experiencing throat infections. The bothersome tonsils would first be punctured with a surgical fork before the double guillotine was employed to slice them off. This method was used for over 80 years but fell from favour in the early 1900s due to the high numbers of people who suffered haemorrhaging and infection, not to mention recurrent sore throats due to parts of the tonsils being left behind.

Piece of William Burke’s brain

Wellcome Collection.

In 1828 the taking of a corpse was not technically illegal, but cadavers had to be fresh, and bereaved families were always coming up with ingenious ways to delay grave robbers' access. Guards were employed, watchtowers were built, and large stone slabs ‘hired’ to cover graves until decay set in. In the face of such public resistance, Burke and Hare decided to bypass the cemeteries entirely. During a period of 10 months they murdered 16 people and delivered the bodies, often still warm, to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox, receiving around £10 per body (approximately £970 in today’s money). The two were eventually caught, with Hare being offered immunity for testifying against his murderous accomplice. Burke was hung on 28 January 1829, and his body publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College – the same institution to which he delivered his victims. His skeleton remains displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School, while a pocketbook bound in his skin can be found at Surgeons' Hall.

Book on virginity bound in human skin

The macabre practice of covering books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, was a subject of great intrigue in the 19th century, although the practice can be traced back even further. This 17th century book on female virginity was rebound in human skin by Dr. Ludovic Bouland around 1865. He is thought to have acquired the skin while a medical student, from the body of an unknown woman who had died in the hospital in Metz. The handwritten note by Bouland on the front title page reads: "This curious little book on virginity and the generative feminine functions seemed to me to merit a binding pertinent to the subject. It is bound with a piece of female skin, tanned by myself with sumac."

Preserved tattooed human skin

Wellcome Collection.

This preserved section of human skin features a tattoo of a sailor and two women wearing hats. The skin was purchased in 1929 from Dr Villette, a Parisian surgeon who worked in military hospitals, and collected and preserved hundreds of samples from the autopsies of French soldiers. While today we may contemplate the aesthetic value of tattoos, focus for 19th century criminologists was on interpreting their common images and symbols to reveal more about the persons criminality or ‘primitiveness’. Wellcome Collection has one of the largest collections of dry-preserved tattooed skin in the world, with over 300 individual tattoo fragments.

Scarificator tool

Wellcome Collection.

This brass contraption, known as a scarificator, was used for blood-letting in the 19th century.  Illness, it was argued, was caused by an imbalance of the four humors in the body - blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The ancient practice of blood-letting was prescribed to act as the balance - the magical cure-all for almost any ailment or disease. While traditional blood-letting involved the opening of a vein, scarificators were used to attack and draw blood from the superficial layers of the skin. The tool operated like a spring-loaded lancet, which could be adjusted according to the depth of wound required. Warm glass cups were then placed on the skin following scarification to encourage blood to the surface. It was only in the late 19th century, after over 3,000 years of practice, that the medical myth of blood-letting’s benefits were finally dispelled, and doctors realised it did the patient more harm than good.  

Tobacco resuscitation kit

Wellcome Collection.

In the 18th century, applying once again the time-honoured principles of bodily humors, it was considered that a drowned person had an excess of wet and cold in their body. This assumption was entirely reasonable. The treatment to neutralise it however - introducing the warm and stimulating vapours of tobacco through the rectum - was not.  Surprisingly, this method of reviving the dead was common throughout the second half of the 18th century. In 1774 the Royal Humane Society (then rather literally named The Society of the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned) was set up after 123 people had drowned in London the previous year. They installed resuscitation kits like this one at various points along the Thames, and even offered cash prizes to anyone that could prove they had revived a person using one. Other approaches to apparent drowning included rubbing the skin, and blood-letting. The only thing the unfortunate patient could be thankful for was that they were very likely dead or unconscious when these indignities were performed.  

Trephinated skull

Wellcome Collection.

This skull, excavated from a tomb in Jericho in 1958, shows clear signs of the ancient surgical process of trephination. Trepanning was, like blood-letting, a method for curing all kinds of ailments, particularly those ‘abnormal’ behaviours often caused by evil spirits. This skull dates from around 2200–2000 BC but archaeological evidence proves that the practice stretches back even further to the neolithic period. The holes on this skull, like many that have been found, had already begun to heal suggesting that although highly dangerous the procedure was not fatal. 

Photograph of an x-ray operator’s hand

Wellcome Collection.

Bones. Until the discovery by Wilhelm Röntgen of X-rays in 1895 you’d never get to see your own. But all good things come at a price. This early 20th century photograph of an X-ray operator's hand from the London Hospital reveals just how damaging the effects of radiation exposure can be. The fingers show signs of chronic X-ray dermatitis, otherwise known as ‘Röntgen hands’. Early radiologists would calibrate their X-ray machines by sliding a hand slowly through the beam, from the fingertips to wrist, in roughly 30-second intervals. Their calibration measured how much time it took for the skin to show signs of burning. Many technicians would eventually have their fingers amputated due to the high frequency of cancer.

Male anti-masturbation devices

Wellcome Collection.

The term "masturbatory insanity", coined by English Psychiatrist Henry Maudsley in 1868, referred to the damage it was assumed one caused to the brain through the licentious act of masturbation. In the late 19th century masturbation was considered a perversion, leading to insatiability, nervous disorders and madness. These devices were designed to ‘help’ the wearer avoid such a fate and were often used in mental institutions and sometimes even in the home. Other interventions existed for women for whom masturbation would almost surely lead to instability and hysteria.   

About the contributors

Kirsten Riley

Kirsten is Wellcome Collection’s Digital Editor for Social Media.