By Richard Sugg, Thursday 8 August 2013 11.51 EDT
A colossal “fatberg” of wet-wipes, sanitary products and food fat clogging a Kingston sewer threatened to send raw sewage spurting into London streets and homes in late July. Looking like some kind of B-movie monster, this 15-tonne abomination reminds us that waste is getting harder to keep underground.
But for most of history, a fatberg would have been a valuable commodity. Rather than shooting high-powered water-jets at the monster, the green solution would have been to make it into tallow candles – the chief source of light for most people before gas or electricity. Hence the job of “grease-dealer” – a person who made their living by collecting the grease of domestic kitchens, scraping it into a tub, and presently re-selling it. Once, you made energy from anything you could – including, sometimes, your pets: “My old dog Quon was killed … and baked for his grease, of which he yielded 11 pounds,” wrote a Dorset farmer in 1698.
But, if you could afford it or steal it, the real prize in the world of fat came not from animals but from humans. On 17 October 1601, just a few weeks into the notoriously protracted siege of Ostend, a number of the town’s Spanish assailants were shot and killed close to the city walls. Soon after, “the surgeons of the town went thither … and brought away sacks full of man’s grease which they had drawn out of their bodies”. The Protestant Ostenders may well have considered this to be a form of poetic justice. Human fat was held to be one of the best agents for the treatment of wounds, and who better to supply your first aid than the people who were shooting at you?
Like various other parts and fluids of the human body, fat was a standard European medical ingredient until the end of the 18th century. Usually applied topically (and sometimes rubbed on as a liniment), it was used to treat gout, cramp, convulsions, breast cancer, ulcers, bruising and melancholy. It was also held to be an excellent painkiller, and could be pasted on your cheeks as a kind of cosmetic, smeared into the facial pits left on surviving victims of smallpox.
Nor was it mere folk medicine. Those prescribing or recommending human fat included Théodore Turquet de Mayerne (personal doctor to James I), the French anatomical pioneer Charles Estienne and the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. There is good reason to think that fat actually worked effectively against wounds and sores. In Germany in particular it was used for this purpose by executioners, who were surprisingly popular healers in the early modern period. In one case, “Lorenz Seitz … a journeyman brewer in Nuremberg, was rescued from knife-happy barber-surgeons by … Johann Michael Schmidt, the local executioner”. The bandages which Schmidt used so successfully were almost certainly steeped in human fat obtained from state executions.
As these slowly became less frequent, human fat may have become harder to obtain (and more costly) back in the Old World. Its economic value was certainly well known. For, at Rushall in Norfolk in 1736, after a man and his wife had “had some words”, the husband suddenly “went out and hanged himself”. Eschewing funeral or burial, “his wife sent for a surgeon, and sold the body for half a guinea”. While the surgeon was carefully “feeling about the body”, she assured him: “he is fit for your purpose, he is as fat as butter”; after which the deceased “was put naked into a sack, with his legs hanging out, thrown upon a cart, and conveyed to the surgeons”.
A still darker history than this emerges when we return to the humble candle. It was quite widely believed among uneducated criminals that a candle made from human fat had magical properties. Thieves could use it to send their victims to sleep, or even to make the possessor invisible (and therefore all the more effective as a burglar). In 1577 another Nuremberg executioner, Franz Schmidt (execution tended to be a family business), broke on the wheel at Bamberg “a man who had committed three murders for the sake of the fat of his victims”. In 17th-century Norway one criminal had his flesh torn off with red-hot pincers after confessing to the practice.
Shortly before a notorious German robber, Theodor Unger, was executed at Magdeburg in 1810, those at his trial heard how “a regular manufactory had been established by gangs of thieves for the production of such candles”. In 1834 a Pomeranian man named Berger chanced on a murder victim, cut fat from under his ribs, and took it home where he borrowed a candle mould from a neighbour before unsuccessfully trying to make a thieves’ candle.
Just two years later a Prussian murderer admitted that he had aimed “to get a sufficient quantity of human fat, with which to make a torch to render himself invisible”. In 1888, four peasants from Russia’s Kursk region murdered a young girl, Lukeria Cherkuahina, for just the same reason – upon being searched, they were found in possession of fat rolled up in Lukeria’s handkerchief. In England during the notorious Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, one writer speculated that the infamous mutilations of female victims also had similar magical aims.
For some time now, modern grease-dealers have been attempting to get restaurant fat waste turned into diesel fuel, rather than being poured into overburdened drains. Back in 2008 a California liposuction surgeon tried a more radical version of this process. In Beverley Hills, Craig Allen Bittner had been using the fat drained from his patients to run the SUVs of himself and his girlfriend. By this stage, however, Californian tissue laws did not permit anyone to beg, borrow or steal parts of the human body. Despite permission from his donors, Bittner presently shut up shop and headed off to South America. He could, of course, have argued that history was on his side: until pretty recently, fat – whether human or animal – was hard to come by, and too good to waste.
Photograph of the “fatberg” – a 15-tonne lump of fat and other debris – coagulated inside a London sewer (AP).