The Poe Museum celebrated its second Unhappy Hour of the season by putting the spotlight on “Berenice”, Poe’s 1835 tale of love, obsession and dentistry.
Amber Boice as Berenice and Ryan Lee as Egaeus
The evenings festivities centered around a dramatic performance of the tale produced in cooperation with Haunts of Richmond and we were honored that Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House & Museum came down to see us and even graced each performance of the story with an informative introduction.
Poe curators – Chris Semtner of the Richmond Poe Museum and Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House – posing outside the Old Stone House
Jeff Jerome getting into the spirit of the event with our “Berenice” actors
Richmond’s own Ethio-Jazz and World Groove powerhouse, Rattlemouth provided the evening’s musical accompaniment and their performance was much enjoyed by our guests.
Various shots of Rattlemouth in action
Museum docent, Jessy Mullins educated and horrified guests with a brief presentation about 19th century dental practices and folks enjoyed wandering through our exhibits and taking in the ambience of the Enchanted Garden throughout the evening (despite there being a bit of rain).
Jessy grossing people out about 19th century dentistry
Unhappy Hour atmosphere
It was a splendid evening full of bite and was enjoyed by all!
Box o’ teeth used in the performance
As always, you can see more photos from the event (or share some of your own) by paying a visit to the Poe Museum’s flickr group.
Videos will be appearing on the museum’s Youtube channel soon as well, so keep an eye out!
Thanks to all who helped to make our May Unhappy Hour such a success!
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for our NEXT Unhappy Hour, which is coming up on June 28th, 2012 and will be themed around “The Oval Portrait”. This 1842 tale by Poe inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray and the event should make an indelible impression on all who attend.
A 19th century sign advertising tooth extraction
Let’s face it: no one likes a trip to the dentist. The mere thought of a root canal is enough to make us cringe and that high-pitched whir of the dentist’s drill is more than enough to send a shiver up our spines. While the modern day dentist’s office may be a far cry from a walk in the park, dentistry in the Victorian era was even more cringe-worthy. While dental practices were experiencing a renaissance from the 18th century, they were still a far cry from modern dentistry. Without electricity or numbing agents like Novocain, going to the dentist was the definition of pain. The mere thought of tooth extraction was so horrifying that Poe utilized it in his lesser-known tale “Berenice.”
A Victorian foot-powered dentist's drill
The Victorian era dentist did not have an office separate from his home –his home was his office. Dentists were also extremely expensive, meaning only the affluent families could afford to pay a visit. The dentist would reuse his instruments instead of replacing them after every visit, and at the most give them a perfunctory wipe-down between appointments (this was an era before sterilization). The most infamous dentist tool, the drill, was powered manually by a foot pedal that the dentist had to pump furiously in order to generate enough power to use it. Because of this, what we know as preventative dentistry today did not exist; the one-stop cure for all dental maladies was tooth extraction.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, dentists began using ether and chloroform to anesthetize their patients. These gases would render the patient unconscious, but only for a brief period of time. A dentist thus had to work very quickly to extract the tooth (or teeth) before the gas would wear off and the patient would wake up.
Tooth Keys: Corkscrews for tooth extraction
Because of the high number of tooth extractions happening in dentistry, dentures became a way of remedying the lack of teeth in one’s mouth. These dentures were not custom-made and often were one-size fits all, meaning that they were extremely uncomfortable to wear. While George Washington’s dentures are by far the most famous dentures in American history, they were not made of wood. Fake teeth at the time were made from ivory taken from hippopotamus teeth or elephant tusks. Or, if you had a doctor who dealt in the black market, your teeth had a much more sinister place of origin; grave robbers could be paid off to dig up corpses and remove their teeth to be used in dentures.
On Thursday, May 24 from 6 to 9 P.M. the Poe Museum will host an Unhappy Hour inspired by the master of horror’s first horror story “Berenice” a tale of obsession, madness, and dentistry. The event features the premiere of a new short film of the story, live performances of the tale, refreshments, and live music by Rattlemouth. Live performances of “Berenice” will be staged at 7 P.M. and 8 P.M. Guests will learn about nineteenth century dental practices from a dental historian between the performances. Admission is by optional donation, and a cash bar is available. The Poe Museum’s exhibits will be open during the event, so visitors will have a chance to see the major new show of dozens of Poe’s manuscripts and letters in addition to its world renowned collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia.
If you have not read “Berenice,” now is the perfect time to do so. This groundbreaking tale is Poe’s first horror story, and it helped to revolutionize a genre. First printed in March 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger, the story is narrated by a man driven to do unspeakable things by his obsession with his wife’s teeth. If you do not have a chance to read it before you come, be sure to watch one of the performances at the Unhappy Hour.