Darker Shades of Brown – Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Well, Opera) in Steampunk and Victorian History

This is a guest post by author Victoria L. Szulc

A couple of years ago I was a little bit stunned to have a reader tell me that my first book, a steampunk western, “triggered” some bad emotions for her. For those who don’t know or haven’t heard that phrase, in very simple terms, a trigger refers to the effect, like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that something has on someone. For example a pop of a cork can sound like a gunshot, and for someone that’s been affected by gun violence, this can be rattling.

This article isn’t to argue whether triggers exist or that people are being overly sensitive by darker works of fiction, rather these comments reminded me that my steampunk books are not sweetness and light. On Amazon they’re marked for adults and I tell buyers at book signings that they’re not YA (Young Adult) or for children. I don’t sugar coat my themes. Most of my characters are spies and spies need to thrive in any environment, including the underbelly of society.

Like their gothic novel cousins and authors like Poe, there are many steampunk tales that have dark sides. Authors like China Mieville and Cherie Priest use underworld themes. And there is plenty of inspiration in the real past to provide gritty fiction. The gilded age wasn’t all gold and progress, manners and etiquette. Let’s examine some of these darker shades of brown. And if you’re easily offended or grossed out, now is the time to stop reading. There now, you’ve been warned, we shall continue, starting with a few basics.

Unlike most bodice rippers, life (and death) in the 1800’s was rough. Watch Victorian House to see a pretty accurate depiction of the following:

  • Most people were poor and diseases were rampant.
  • They didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
  • Children worked alongside their parents, often up to sixteen hours a day.
  • Not everyone could be educated, many were illiterate.
  • Corruption was rampant.
  • Even death was hard. Many were buried in pauper’s graves. A death in the family was the only event important enough to get a picture of the family for most people. So they would scrape money together, keep the body cool, and then take pictures with other living relatives. Sometimes they painted “eyes” over the eyelids to make it look like the loved one was still “there” or put the body in a relaxed position.

I used one such occasion like number 6, in one of my own books. As a young character steps off a train into the Wild West, the first thing she sees in town is a man in a coffin getting his last “good side” taken. Creepy, I know.

So a further delving into the dark side…

Drugs-Down the Rabbit Hole

During Victorian times in London, one could walk into a chemist’s shop and walk out with cocaine, laudanum, arsenic, cannabis, and several other toxic concoctions that could knock out an elephant, let alone cure what ailed them. By the 1840’s, hypodermic needles were invented, so morphine and heroin could be injected. So much for the “new” opioid crisis, eh?

Because the sun never set on the British Empire, including parts of Asia, drugs were plentiful and easily accessed. Coca Cola really did have cocaine (direct from cocoa leaves) from its development in 1886 until 1929. No wonder all those Victorians smiled in those early soda pop ads. Many enjoyed a visit from the “green fairy” or absinthe. Remember, that during these times, there weren’t many filtering or buffering processes for drugs or liquors, making them particularly deadly.

Just like people today, Victorians got hooked and suffered the consequences. Ada Lovelace was known to be addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium mixed with water or wine) that she took to treat her asthma. Writers from Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens, to Oscar Wilde, and of course Lewis Carroll used. Carroll’s trippy images still inspire imbibing youth today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock indulged as did Doyle himself. He wrote of one addict, “when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest East of the city.”

Poor addicts turned to crime and slums were filled with lives ruined by repeated use. Fatal overdoses, especially of small children, were common.

Fashion Victims and Industrial Nightmares

Even those who led clean lives could not escape some of the perils of living in the 1800’s. Clothing and makeup was made from arsenic and lead. The much desired hues of bright green paint and dye were both flammable and toxic. One of the first models for arsenic facial powder died of an arsenic overdose. Green foam poured from her mouth and the whites of her eyes also turned green as she died.

Crinolines and dresses were incredibly hazardous. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife as she perished from burns the day after her dress caught fire from a lit match or lighting paper. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not.”

Nine ballerinas died after one of them brushed against a lit candle on stage at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia. She was close enough to the other dancers and their flammable mohair crinolines, that they were combustible within seconds.

Large ladies hoops were also hazardous for various reasons. Southern preachers warned their flock that the hoops were sinful, especially since a hefty breeze or sitting down too quickly could cause exposure of their undergarments. Scores of women were sucked under train wheels or caught in carriage wheels by oversized skirts. One of my own great aunts was run over by a trolley car. During the Civil War, many a southern belle hid guns, ammunition, and supplies under their immense garments.

Men didn’t have it much easier. Cravats and ties caught fire from cigars and pipes and often ignited men’s facial hair. Top hats used a mercury sealant to preserve the fur which seeped directly into the skull and brain of the wearers, and especially the millinery workers, who became shaky and delusional at work, which coined the phrase mad hatter.

Other production workers suffered. Combs were made of flammable celluloid. Women’s hair would catch fire if those combs became too hot. Men who used heated razors were warned not to use celluloid combs. A whole celluloid comb factory in Brooklyn exploded when the building overheated.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned many garment factories. Two of those, the Diamond Waistshirt Company, were believed to be burned to the ground for the insurance money. But the real tragedy was when their last company, Triangle Waistshirt , caught fire on March 25, 1911. The building was not up to code. A laundry hamper caught fire. The fire hose on that floor was rotted and the valve rusted. There were only four elevators and two fire escapes. One fire escape was blocked off and the other could only support 4-5 people. 145 women died. Many threw themselves down the elevator shafts when the lifts stopped working, or jumped out windows and crushed firemen and equipment below.

Gruesome. So on a lighter note:

Entertainment and the Devil’s Opera

Opera could seem to be stuffy, especially when only wealthier people could afford it.  But in reality, Giuseppe Verdi wrote “Stiffelio” in 1850, about adulterous German Protestants. It was censored. And one his most famous pieces “La Traviata” was about a fallen woman, a courtesan named Violetta Valery. Sounds pretty saucy.

So if listening to music was sinful, dancing was far worse. Waltzes were “morally decadent” due to how the women flung themselves around in scant attire with men allowed to hold them at the waist. “Only Pagans danced like that”, according to one stick-in-the-mud minister.

He probably would have completely lost it if he’d seen any of the Can Can ladies at the Moulin Rouge. The Can Can was originally performed by French courtesans to encourage the finest suitors and first performed at the Rouge in 1889. Dancing mixed with champagne parties during the Belle Époque drew the ire of many a preacher man. But then again, worse things did happen…


The Skin Trade

Sex in the Victorian and Wild West eras was far from “lie still and think of England”. Anxious women suffering from “hysteria” were given treatment in the form of newfangled mechanical vibrators, because of all things, male doctors were complaining that their hands were getting tired from “manual stimulation”.

Unfortunately, slavery was legal for much of the century and so was prostitution.  In the mid 1800’s, there were approximately 80,000 working girls in London. Some of them were literally girls because the age of consent was 13. It wasn’t until 1885 that the legal age was raised to 16. There were even “sporting guides” that gentlemen could order a lady of the evening or have a “quick hand at it”, like a Victorian version of Playboy. In my own works, I have many a prostitute that act as spies, as pillow talk provides some of the best intelligence.

On the other side of the pond, St. Louis, Missouri was the first city to legalize prostitution in 1870. There were said to be over 5,000 ladies that earned a living helping men with their desires. Even Mark Twain commented on “the immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries” just north of downtown in a slum area known as the Wild Cat Chute. Officials who’d tried to stop it on the state level ended up sleeping with many of the local entertaining inhabitants.

The new cemetery entrance, built shortly after Eliza Haycraft’s death (Photo taken from http://bellefontainecemetery.org/destination/history/)

It was a very good living for those ladies who were attractive or worked for Madams like Eliza Haycraft. Eliza was said to be worth $250,000 (4.7 million in today’s money) when she passed away and 5,000 people attended her funeral. She purchased a premium plot in the famous Bellefontaine Cemetery; enough space to hold twenty bodies. However, because of her oldest profession, she was told she could not be buried there. But after Eliza spoke of the possibility of having conversations with the cemetery directors’ wives, she was sold the plot, later to be marked “Civil War 27”. However, the grave could not have a formal tombstone and it was to be located in the back portion of the grounds. But, as fate would have it, due to modernization of roads in the 1930’s, the entrance to the cemetery was moved—to where the back used to be. So in death, even Eliza made it to the front.

Eliza inspired me. Prostitutes make some of the best interlopers. The things men say in and outside of the act…but to carry on…

Still by 1879, legal prostitution had failed. The licensing was corrupt and social diseases among the military were so bad that men had been considered not fit for battle (on both sides of the pond). The poorest women were also addicts and slums were ripe with VD. So The Social Evil Hospital was started to take in the wayward women.

However, some light did come out of all this darkness (as oftentimes happens in my own novels). The name of the Evil institution was changed to St. Louis Female Hospital, where on June 3, 1906, a poor African American washer woman, Carrie McDonald, gave birth to Freda Josephine. Freda would soon go by her middle name, and became Josephine Baker, one of the most famous women in the world.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into deeper shades of brown. For myself, without the bleak undertones, there cannot be light or redemption. There cannot be a hero without a villain.  And heroes are not heroes until they are tested and make their way through the darkness.


-Victorian Slum House/BBC/PBS
-British Museum
-Missouri Historical Society
-St. Louis Magazine/Harper Barnes
-Bellefountaine Cemetery
-Mental Floss/Bess Lovejoy

About the Author

Author Photo by Lori Peterson

Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media steampunk artist/writer who regularly displays her work at 1900 Park Creative Space in the historic Victorian neighborhood of Lafayette Square in St. Louis, MO. She spearheaded and curated the first Steampunk Broken Hearts Ball Masquerade and Art Show in St. Louis and directed the first Steampunk Fashion Show at the Big River Steampunk Festival Masquerade in Hannibal, MO in 2017. Victoria’s third steampunk novel, “A Long Reign” was in competition for the 2017 Amazon UK Storytellers contest and was an Amazon/kindle bestseller. Victoria is currently working on the third part of the Society Trilogy, “Lafayette to London”.

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