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Horatio Nelson's Body: When The British Pickled Their Dead Leader In A Barrel To Bring Him Home

Military History | March 11, 2020

At the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic War, Britain's most beloved naval hero, Horatio Nelson, was struck by a musket ball on the deck of the Victory. The bullet ripped through his shoulder and severed his spine, so it didn't take long for the decorated military man to succumb to his injuries. Bringing his body back to his home country for burial wasn't even a question, but even in tip-top shape, the Victory wasn't any kind of place to store a corpse for the multi-week journey home, so the medical staff had to think fast. Surgeon William Beatty came up with a brilliant solution: They could pickle him like a cucumber. Nelson returned to England in a barrel of brandy, camphor, and myrrh, where he received a hero's funeral. Meanwhile, Beatty was dogged with questions about his decision until his final days, which sounds pretty fair until you find out why.

(ThoughtCo)

Horatio Nelson Was Loved By All

We don't really have this kind of reverence for military figures today, but in the 1800s, guys like Horatio Nelson were rock stars. He was a vice-admiral known for beating back Napoleon's forces on the high seas and doing it with style. He was fiercely intelligent, and he loved the thrill of fighting to defend Queen and country. He made for quite a sight thanks to his blindness in one eye and a missing arm that he lost in a skirmish in 1797, but that didn't stop him from dallying about with married women. Today, a guy like this would be a total creepazoid, but by 1805, he was one of greatest heroes of the British Navy.

(Atlas Obscura)

Nelson Died With His Boots On

In 1805, the British military was at war with both the French and Spanish. Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson and his band of merry men were fighting both armies off the coast of Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar when that fateful bullet struck Nelson's shoulder. His men tried to do everything they could to save his life, but he knew he was done for, and so did they. His surgeon, William Beatty, did his best to keep Nelson comfortable, and it wasn't long before he slipped away. His last words were "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty." In less than an hour, the battle ended, and England was the victor.

(Wikipedia)

The Pickle Decision

Once Nelson was gone and the battle was over, his crew's minds turned to the question of how to get his body back to England. It was a long journey on a ship that wasn't in prime sailing condition, having just fended off Spain and France. Fortunately (or not, depending on the strength of your stomach), William Beatty was a quick-thinking surgeon. Despite his profession's then-brutal reputation, he had a stellar track record as well as a humble bedside manner. During the Battle of Trafalgar, he managed to successfully treat 96 out of 102 injuries. In 1805, that was as close to a miracle as you could get.

Basically, everyone onboard the Victory looked to Beatty as the guy to handle medical emergencies, and figuring out the transport of a national hero's corpse definitely counted as one of those. Beatty decided that the best course of action would be to store the body in a cask of booze, which actually wasn't considered weird at the time, although arterial embalming wouldn't catch on until the mid–19h century. Most people knew that if you wanted to preserve a body, you kept it stored in navy rum in the same way that we know an apple a day keeps the doctor away: It's not incorrect, but it's not really correct, either. Beatty used brandy instead of rum, however, and it was that decision that would cause a stir with the public.

(Maritime History)

Meanwhile, In England

It took about 16 days for the news of Nelson's demise to reach England, but when people heard what happened to their hero, the whole country freaked out. Every day, there was a new article about Nelson's body, its condition, and the location of the Victory even though there was no way for people on the ship to communicate with the press. The papers were essentially playing a guessing game, but the outcry of mourning for Nelson was so strong that they had to ask English citizens to stop submitting poems about the vice-admiral. At the same time, preparations were made for Nelson's funeral and the rites surrounding his return to England.

(Telegraph)

An Imperfect Pickle

No matter how good of a job Beatty did, his embalming technique was never going to be spot-on. He had to make do with what was available on a battle-worn ship, and to say this was "not much" would be a laughable understatement. Skeptics would question his use of brandy for the rest of his life, but Beatty actually chose the liquor because it has a higher alcohol content than rum and thus a better capacity for preservation. In fact, Beatty commented that he would have used something even stronger if he could have.

Still, despite Beatty's efforts, Nelson's body slowly decomposed over the course of the journey. To keep it as preserved as possible, he was removed from the cask, wrapped in linen, and placed in a lead coffin that was filled with brandy, camphor, and myrrh.

(Amazon)

Nelson Was Moved Once More Before His Burial

Before Nelson's burial, Beatty performed an autopsy on the vice-admiral and recovered the musket ball that ended his life. He already knew what had killed Nelson, so the autopsy was done more to empty out his abdominal soft tissues because they were decomposing faster than the rest of his body. Following the autopsy, Beatty suggested a closed casket funeral because the vice-admiral's face was a horror show, and the body was moved once again to a wooden coffin for the funeral. After 80 unrefrigerated days, the ordeal was over. Well, at least for Nelson.

(Pinterest)

Did Beatty Do The Right Thing?

The vice-admiral may have been dead and buried, but speculation about how his body could have been better preserved remained very much alive. Beatty ended up writing a book two years later called Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson to explain his decision to the folks who wouldn't stop hounding him. He wrote:

... a very general but erroneous opinion was found to prevail on the Victory's arrival in England, that rum preserves the dead body from decay much longer and more perfectly than any other spirit, and ought therefore to have been used: but the fact is quite the reverse, for there are several kinds of spirit much better for that purpose than rum; and as their appropriateness in this respect arises from their degree of strength, on which alone their antiseptic quality depends, brandy is superior. Spirit of wine, however, is certainly by far the best, when it can be procured.

(Maritime History)

Beatty And Nelson's Legacies Live On

Even with all the hemming and hawing, Beatty became famous for his work on the Victory. He held onto the musket ball that killed Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar, using the bullet as a watch fob for the remainder of his life before donating it to Queen Victoria in 1842. It now sits in the grand vestibule of Windsor Castle, but while you may not get a look at that, you can buy spiced rum named after Horatio Nelson. For some reason, the brandy market has never tried to capitalize.

Tags: 1800s | british | death | medical procedures of the past | war

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.