Chapter Twenty-four: A Night With Venus

There was no cure for syphilis.

This was widely known. Still, physicians tried. Mercury was most often used. A night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury. But Mercury was also a terrible poison. This was also widely known. However that did not stop patients from taking it.

Such was the terror of syphilis.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, I learned much about what had been occurring in our house, things that had been purposefully concealed from me. For instance, my father had been diagnosed with syphilis some twenty three years prior. My mother had not known when she consented to marry him. Eventually she did find out when he began showing signs of the secondary stages…a rash over his entire body that he could not easily conceal. She had refused to allow him to touch her, at which point he took her by force. I was the result. The rash disappeared and he seemed healthy for a number of years. Somehow my mother had escaped infection, or so she hoped.

Two years ago, the ulcer on his leg appeared. Terribly painful, it drained the most awful smelling pus imaginable. My father began his frantic search for a cure in earnest.

It started with blue mass pills. These pills contained licorice, milk sugar, rose oil, and mercury chloride. He started with two pills each day then increased to three. They caused diarrhea, excessive saliva production, memory issues, irritably and insomnia to name a few.

When he felt that was not helping, he looked to arsenic.

He tried countless elixirs and succumbed to a great amount of quackery.

Finally, he tried even more desperate measures. He had the wound cauterized with red hot irons several times. Aside from being excruciatingly painful, that did very little. He applied all manner of poultices…mustard, plaster, hot and cold, to name a few.

He resorted to superstitions. He tried sex with a young virgin. His victim was poor unwitting Emma. Apparently he had felt that if it did not work the first time, it should be repeated again and again for good measure. There was drinking breast milk from a woman who had just given birth to a daughter. And he consulted homeopaths, naturopaths, and herbalists, none of whom could cure his disease.

Finally, my father resorted to a mercury “clinic” after we had left for Edinburgh. He had been accompanied by his valet. For a month, every day he was rubbed down with mercury and his body covered with flannels while the room was super heated. Apparently the goal was to have the patient ill enough from the mercury that they would make at least three pints of awful looking and smelling saliva per day. Many of his teeth fell out. He developed terrible ulcers of his mouth and genitals. And he became incoherent.

His mind never came back.

This was the state of things when my mother had arrived home. Now he was declining rapidly. The doctor had said that the mercury had poisoned him, as had the syphilis. It was difficult to tell at this point which was the greatest culprit. In the end, we were told there was nothing else that could be done.

So he was tied to the bed as he raged and railed and spit. He refused to eat or drink. And within a fortnight, he was dead.

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