1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon

On this date in 1879, Takahashi Oden was put to death for murder at Tokyo’s execution grounds — the last woman beheaded in Japanese history.

Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.

This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)

“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”

And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*

Since Japan was all about divining the secrets of the human form from the condemned, Oden was dissected after her death.

According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.

Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.

Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.

Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Oden’s day, she was the subject of a 1958 Nobuo Nakagawa film, Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

Katsuko Wakasugi as the title character in Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

* For more on the Oden story as crime literature, see Mark Silver’s “The Lies and Connivances of an Evil Woman: Early Meiji Realism and ‘The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil'” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2003 — or, his book Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937.

1474: Not the Archer of Meudon

On an uncertain date in January 1474, a condemned archer* escaped the noose by volunteering to endure an experimental living vivisection for kidney stones.

The authority for this incident is a single medieval chronicle with just enough context to tantalize:

In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, to be hanged at Paris. He appealed to the Parlement which confirmed the sentence. Then the physicians and surgeons of the city represented to the king that many and divers persons were grievously molested and tormented by stone, colic, and pains in the side, with which the said archer was also much troubled, and that Monseigneur du Bouchaige (a favourite courtier mentioned by Comines) was sorely afflicted by the said maladies, and that it would be very useful to see the places where these maladies are concreted, and that this could be best done by vivisecting a human being, which could be well effected on the person of the said archer, who was also about to suffer death. Which opening and incision was accordingly done on the body of the said archer, and the place of the said maladies having been sought out and examined, his bowels were replaced and he was sewn up again. And by the king’s command the wound was well dressed, so that he was perfectly healed within a fortnight, and he received a free pardon, and some money was given him as well.

-translation from William J. Bishop’s The Early History of Surgery

Pretty cool, and possibly the earliest semi-convincingly documented case of human vivisection in Europe.

Assuming it did really go down, it seems to have made little immediate impression on contemporaries, but it was gradually recovered in centuries later — and the medical achievement really improved in retrospect.

These few lines inflated into a story, a myth of French medicine: in the first place, the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant Italian-trained French physician named Germain Colot (or Collot)** was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe.

Antoine Rivoulon’s 1851 lithograph valorizes the mythical 19th century version of the Archer of Meudon’s surgery as the first kidney stone operation, undertaken by legendary surgeon Germain Colot, and in the very presence of the sovereign. The archer looks pretty chill himself, given his situation.

“Why this story has disappeared from view is almost as baffling as its origin,” observe Vivian and Christine Nutton in their fascinating survey† of the archer’s historiography. “”Patriotic’ history … has not entirely fallen out of favour.”

One major reason is not to be sought in a library but in the operating theater. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this story could be seen as having a practical value: it provided proof that this or that procedure, whether to remove a stone from the bladder or the kidney, could be followed safely and effectively. A modern operation could thus be given historical support, which might tip the balance in deciding which of a number of competing possible courses should be followed. John Douglas’s reprinting of the relevant sections in Rousset was an avowed attempt to secure backing for his new and controversial operation for the stone. But with the advent of anesthesia and aseptic surgery, the priorities of surgeons themselves changed in choosing how to operate … There was no need to scrutinize the historical record to establish the most effective way to proceed.

* We digress to notice that the francs-archers to which our offender belonged were a peasant militia established by Charles VII: archers received tax abatements in exchange for regular practice with the bow.

Charles’s best-known military innovation was elevating raving teenager Joan of Arc to battlefield command. Since God helps those best who help themselves, Charles also evidently was cagey enough to take a warning from rival England’s devastating use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Nice idea, but by this point the archers were “havens for tax exemption … units of ill-disciplined men” — much like our marauding, but fortuitously afflicted, patient.

They were used rarely and ineffectively, and soon after making their mark in the annals of surgery, replaced entirely by foreign mercenaries.

** “Germain Colot” connected a lineage to French lithotomy by way of the historically verifiable 16th century doctor Laurent Colot. As of this writing, Laurent’s Wikipedia page still asserts the existence of this phantom ancestor.

† Nutton, Vivian and Nutton, Christine, “The Archer of Meudon: A Curious Absence of Continuity in the History of Medicine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 401-427