Waterloo Teeth: Wearing A Dead Man’s Grin
Toothaches are the worst. We all get them, and we all hate them. Going to the dentist can often seem like a very unpleasant necessity. But in the 21 st century, it is often taken for granted – medicine, dentistry included, has reached great heights. But do we ever stop to think about the past? How was it for our predecessors? We can imagine that teeth weren’t quite the perfect example and attempts at replacing them were quite crude. But what if you took the teeth of another man – and used them yourself? Yes, you’ve read that right – today we are talking about teeth looting, and the Waterloo Teeth!
If you ever felt anxiety or discomfort when going to the dentist, just think back to the past times, and consider yourself lucky that you are not chewing with a set of dead man’s teeth! Join us as we once again flick through those morbid and weird pages of history and tell the story of a ghoulish 19 th century practice of death and dentistry that reached its peak after the Battle of Waterloo !
Early Dentistry – Giving Rise to the Waterloo Teeth
During the 1800s, dentistry was still a crude and largely non-existent branch of medicine. Mouth hygiene was still considerably healthier than it is today – due to the lack of great quantities of sugars and chemicals in food and beverages – but once teeth deteriorated there were few remedies. Even the rich and the elites had rotten and decaying teeth and this called for some innovative measures by the dentists of that age. People of all callings dabbled in attempts to create an efficient replacement for teeth that have fallen out – vying to come up with a set of artificial chompers that would imitate the real thing with success. Suffice is to say, the results were far from perfect. Fake dentures were often clunky, uncomfortable, unnatural, and unstable. They looked appalling and scary and were loose – keeping them within your mouth was a difficult task.
Some of the earliest attempts to create efficient false teeth were using ivory as the material. “Dentists” would skillfully simulate the look of teeth as they carved them out of a single piece of ivory. These sets of teeth would be connected by wire springs to make them articulate, but it was only a marginal success. They were quite costly for the common people, and for those who could afford them, they were a nightmare to wear. Another issue was the material. Bone and ivory lacked the natural enamel and would quickly become prone to rotting. This caused a foul-smelling breath and an equally unpleasant taste in the mouth.
That’s where the would-be dentist took a different approach. They took a big step into the grimmer nooks of medicine, and exploited the largely chaotic and, to an extent, lawless period in which they lived. They resorted to using human teeth in creating their false dentures. These dentists looked to all sources that could procure real and healthy human teeth. These soon became desired, as they looked natural and had all the natural properties one would need.
George Washington’s Dentures. Credit: Library of Congress / Flickr
In the beginning, dentists offered good amounts of money to those who would sell their good teeth . Those that were dreadfully poor and equally desperate, could have resorted to this. But “volunteers” were rare. And demand grew.
And that’s where things get dark.
Anatomists and dentist would turn to the services of shady characters that dealt with body snatching. This was an illegal, immoral, but quite rampant practice of the period, in which bands of men known as the “Resurrectionists” would dig up freshly buried corpses and sell them for use in medicine.
While the cadavers were sought after by anatomists to dissect, the teeth were sold for the use in dentistry. With the abrupt rise in need for fresh cadavers, body snatchers found themselves in a lucrative period and assembled into functioning gangs with a lot of special methods for digging up their goods.
The first source of flesh was capital punishment. Executed murderers and convicts were often sold even from the mortuary table – the web of bribery and informing included local officials, undertakers, and grave diggers. When convicts were rare, the resurrectionists turned to the exhumation of the ordinary, civilian dead. Even though the officials and the law for the most part ignored these foul deeds, the grieving locals did not. And this gave rise to numerous conflicts, in which the mourners caught the body snatchers red-handed and proceeded to lynch them.
It called for the developing of new methods. The body snatchers would work at night with the use of the famous “dark lanterns” – candle-lit lanterns that could be darkened with a special shutter without extinguishing the flame. They also used wooden spades to minimize the noise and piled the excavated earth onto sheets to cover their traces.
Even so, the practice of looting graves and disturbing the mortal remains of innocent people was still disliked by society. And for the dentists, this was bad for business. Customers often displayed worry about the source of their false dentures – they would not want them if the previous owner was exhumed from his grave. Even when the dentists kept quiet about the source of their merchandise, and marketed the goods as “ Natural Teeth” , the potential wearers still knew the origins. A new source was needed.
Dental prosthesis in a 19 th century adult. Credit: Museum of London Archaeology
When War Brings Business – Battle of Waterloo
You might wonder what part of human nature can quickly produce a great number of healthy teeth ready to part the mouths of their owners? That would be war. For common soldiers of the 17 th, 18 th, and 19 th centuries, war was to be expected and, in a sense, it was a lucrative endeavor – but only if they won. Looting was a common practice after great battles, and the dead were stripped of anything valuable. In 19 th century Europe, all sorts of things were considered of value – even teeth.
With the onset of the War of the Seventh Coalition (also known as the Hundred Days War) – when a military alliance formed against Napoleon Bonaparte upon his return from escaping exile from the island of Elba, looters found themselves in pursuit of a different commodity. After big battles were finished, these bands would descend upon the dead and skillfully extract the healthy teeth of fallen soldiers. When the war culminated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 near Waterloo in Belgium, in which tens of thousands of men lost their lives, business was in bloom.
The fields at Waterloo, after the bloody carnage was done when a French army under the command of Napoleon faced up against an Anglo-allied army and a Prussian army, were strewn with thousands of bodies – dead and living. The wounded lay dying, and the dead surrounded them, forming a grotesque and disturbing image. Four days after the battle, Major Frye noted that “ the sight was too horrible to behold”. Even a year after the battle, the bodies still remained on the field.
The Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Public domain
It wasn’t just the surviving soldiers that resorted to pulling out the teeth of their fallen comrades and enemies. It was the locals too, and ‘teeth scavengers’ that travelled over from Great Britain with just that purpose. Tens of thousands of fallen soldiers had their teeth removed. The quantities were so large that the teeth were shipped back to England in barrels. The reason why these teeth were so sought after is the fact that a vast majority of fallen soldiers at Waterloo were young, able-bodied European men – with their teeth healthy and white. And in making dentures, that was the thing that was important.
Once in Britain, the teeth would be sorted and boiled. This was the only means of sterilizing them. Afterwards, a dentist would attempt to compile a set of upper and lower teeth, cut them to shape – usually removing the root part – and affix them onto the ivory dentures. The molar teeth were not too often included in the dentures – they were noticeably difficult to remove and hard to work with. Once completed, these dentures had a realistic look (they were real teeth after all!) and were thus highly sought after by toothless people. Soon after, and through much of the 19 th centuries, men and women all over Europe wore their dentures with satisfaction – knowingly or unknowingly wearing teeth of dead men. These were later known as “Waterloo Teeth” and have flooded the dentist markets of Americas and Europe too.
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Denture with human teeth gathered from dead soldiers. Credit: Wellcome collection
Struggling for Something New
Several attempts were made at advancing the dentistry technology far enough as to surpass the use of actual human teeth. The first notable attempt was made in England, by a dentist called Claudius Ash. Years before, attempts were made at creating porcelain teeth. Little success was made, as these were brittle, way too white, and made a nasty noise.
Years later, Claudius Ash managed to further develop these, and patented his “ Ash’s Tube Teeth” that bore great resemblance to the real deal. An interesting fact is that Mr. Ash actually began his dental career as a battlefield surgeon in Waterloo. He found it lucrative to market the Waterloo Teeth.
Soon after, across the ocean in America, two brothers made another breakthrough creation. They were the Goodyear brothers – Charles and Nelson – and their creation were the vulcanite dentures. In the 1840’s Charles Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization which hardened natural India rubber. Their product was a great improvement – the gums were pink and lifelike, the teeth realistic and durable.
But even so, the use of Waterloo Teeth in making dentures was difficult to root out. Even though the market gradually shifted towards advanced artificial teeth, British dentist still relied on wars. During the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856, tooth looters were once again finding lucrative business, with tens of thousands of men dying across the battlefields.
And tooth extracting was not just reserved for Europe. In America a new conflict arose – from 1861 to 1865 the American Civil War raged, and plenty of teeth were taken in its wake.
In the end, it was a slow and gradual change from the macabre dentures of the 1800’s to something more appropriate. The hardened rubber vulcanite dentures gradually became more desired and affordable. They were the first obvious advancements in the field of dental medicine and were above all cheap. At the time a set of ivory “Waterloo Teeth” dentures were priced at around 25 guineas – a considerable sum for the time. But when vulcanite dentures appeared, they cost only 6 guineas. This affordability made them available to the masses and the poor too.
Vulcanite dentures. National Museum of Health and Medicine / Flickr
From the patenting of hardened vulcanite rubber in 1851, it took until 1881 for these advanced dentures to become the norm and enter general use for dentists all over the world. And with their rise and affirmation, the grim and grisly Waterloo Teeth at last went out of general use.
The history of dentures is enough to pose a unique question to each and every one of us, and give us an important insight into the past of England. How immorally the honorable dead were treated in the great battles of the 18 th and 19 th centuries. Without regard for their mortal remains, looters tore out their teeth like they were a commodity. It is a good glimpse into the nature of the Napoleonic Wars – that these young men, sons of Europe, were left dying on the field of battle, their bodies desecrated, which tells us just how much the common man, the lower class – was appreciated. These men – tens of thousands of them – were merely pawns, great masses moving at the whim of wealthy rulers. In life they played a role – to kill others like them. In death they played a role too – to provide valuables to looters.
Nibbling on Cookies in the Afterlife
The story of the Waterloo Teeth is a grim reminder of our past. People that came before us were often easy going about war and death, and the prospect of wearing the teeth of a dead man seemed not to bother them too much.
And just imagine – to fight for a cause you know nothing about, to charge through cannon fire and canister shot, to the deafening sound of musket fire and the rattling of sabers. And to give your life there, in some faraway field of Belgium, for the whim of a wealthy man. And years later, some wealthy English lady, sipping on her afternoon cup of tea, would nibble on a cookie with the teeth of some fallen and forgotten hero of the Battle of Waterloo.
Top image: Many prosthetic dentures were composed of Waterloo Teeth . Source: Museum of London Archaeology
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