I just finished Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Not as entertaining as some other disease books that I've read, but rabies is fascinating and Rabid contains some pretty crazy anecdotes. One of them is period appropriate and so crazy I had to share. Namely, that in the mid-nineteenth century many people believed that sexual frustration caused canine rabies. As Wasik explains:
"Dog owners confronted with the masculine fervor to mount during walks, or with the recurring frenzy of feminine heat, could be forgiven for later imagining that it was these unconsummated passions (and not the unseen nip from a stray in the streets) that caused their pets to be seized by canine madness."
One doctor, Henry William Dewhurst, a man of "murky scientific standing" (which does make me suspect this particular delusion couldn't have been too widespread), backed up his wackadoo theory in 1830 by observing that when sexual urges are "unable to be gratified, as was intended by the great Author of nature, pure madness breaks out."
Which gets around to this basic truth, which most people recognize but bears repetition: the Victorians were as sex-obsessed as anyone else. What we think of as Victorian prudery is a manifestation of that obsession, a symptom of it -- not a separate beast at all. You've got to have sex on the brain to put a skirt around a piano leg.
Anyway, Wasik goes on to describe an 1845 Italian screed that provides a nice anthropomorphic distillation of every single Victorian sexual hangup you can imagine. Based on the assumption that rabies is a form of canine blueballs, "Monsignor Storti" suggested that:
"Each male dog would be brought to a central location [as Wasik clarifies elsewhere, "mandatory canine bordellos"] for his urges to be satisfied. Immediately afterward, he would be neutered and then sold. And then -- presumably in order to keep these dogs from generating rabies eventually -- all male dogs would then be destroyed after two years."
Where are the female dogs? Killed as puppies or relegated to these dog brothels? And doesn't this sound like a blurb for a YA dystopian novel? Victorian newspapers must be full of plots for YA dystopian novels.
I don't think anyone ever tried to execute this horrible idea. Small mercies, right?