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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Electrical Lady, 1838


The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser was a Chartist newspaper, operating between 1837 and 1852; it began as a protest against the Poor Law of 1834. In 1840 its editor Feargus O’Connor was imprisoned for 18 months for publishing ‘seditious libel’. However, the paperwas not averse to publishing curious stories of general interest, such as this, from 2 June 1838.

An Electrical Lady 

A respectable physician, in the last number of Silliman’s Journal, gives the following very curious account of an electrical lady. He states, that on the evening of January 28th, during a somewhat extraordinary display of the northern lights, the person in question became so highly charged with electricity, as to give out electrical sparks from the end of each finger to the face of each of the company present. This did not cease with the heavenly phenomenon, but continued for several months, during which time she was constantly charged, and giving off electrical sparks to every conductor she approached. This was extremely vexatious, as she could not touch the stove, or any metallic utensil, without first giving off an electrical spark, with the consequent twinge. The state most favourable to this phenomenon was an atmosphere of about 80 Fah., moderate exercise, and social enjoyment. It disappeared in an atmosphere approaching zero, and under the debilitating effects of fear. When seated by a stove, reading, with her feet upon the fender, she gave sparks at the rate of three or four a minute; and under the most favourable circumstances a spark could be seen, heard or felt, passed every second! She could charge others in the same way, when insulated, who could then give sparks to others. To make it satisfactory that her dress did not produce it, it was changed to cotton and woollen without altering the phenomenon. The lady is about thirty – of sedentary pursuits, and a very delicate state of health, having for two years previous suffered from acute rheumatism and neuralgic affections, with peculiar symptoms.

 There is no note as regards the feelings of the people to whose faces the sparks reached. It’s a wonderful science-fiction scene, and extremely Gothic – a woman in delicate health whose body becomes massively charged, sending out sparks to people’s faces. Especially in situations of ‘social enjoyment’ – she must have been a real cracker at parties.

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