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“Blowing Smoke Up One’s …” – The Bizarre Use of Tobacco Smoke Enemas

Richard Farrell

There’s an engraved plaque in an old English pub a landlord shows off to his guests. For a pound or two a buxom barmaid reveals more. She has a story to tell that her grandmother’s grandmother passed down to her. It could be true, because her grandmother’s grandmother married the narrowboat bargeman in the tale.

Now Ned, for that was his name, was a powerful man, and with huge buttocks from sitting on the steering paddle for hours at a time. This made him quite a catch for his dear Bess who made him her husband, after he complained the other girls would not leave his ‘twin peaks’ alone (and perhaps even a lusty boatman after him too).

Resuscitation set, Europe, 1801-1850. Photo by Wellcome Images CC By SA 4.0

Resuscitation set, Europe, 1801-1850. Photo by Wellcome Images CC By SA 4.0

One night, Ned fell into the canal after a night carousing in the very same pub. By the time they pulled him out, his eyes were closed and his heart barely a flutter. The village doctor galloped up on his horse, and pulled Ned’s canvas trousers down to gasps from assorted maidens watching.

Then he seized a bystander’s pipe, puffed on it furiously, and pressed the glowing bowl to Ned’s rectum while he blew down the stem hard. Ned jolted as the fire entered him, and then let out a tremendous fart that blew a smoky cloud between his cheeks several yards away. “There’s smoke in them thar hills,” his delighted wife Bess cried, as she declared him saved and they lived happily ever after.

Tobacco smoke enemas became popular after mariners imported the weed from the New World they discovered. Even the Lancet Medical Journal gives them more than a passing nod when it says, “injecting tobacco smoke into the rectum was generally thought more powerful” than other alternatives.

Tobacco smoke enema device.

Tobacco smoke enema device.

The Native Americans who shared the idea used the tobacco plant to “treat everything from coughs to cholera” according to a post in BC Medical Journal. It was not long before tobacco smoke became revered for its ability to “soak up moisture, to warm parts of the body, and to therefore maintain the equilibrium so important to a healthy person” according to the Journal of American Folklore.

English physician Sir Richard Mead’s medical research was of historic importance. His name featured in a 1746 report describing how a passing sailor lent his pipe to a grieving man whose wife has fallen into a canal and apparently perished. On his advice, “The woman’s husband inserted the stem of the sailor’s pipe into her rectum, covered the bowl with a piece of perforated paper, and blew hard. The woman was apparently revived.”

Tobacco smoke enema illustration.

Tobacco smoke enema illustration.

By the 1780s, Scientific American reports the Royal Humane Society had stationed tobacco smoke enemas and other resuscitation devices at various points along the River Thames. The technique obtained from South American tribespeople was now the primary method alongside artificial respiration.

However, the treatment declined when somebody figured out breathing tobacco smoke into a person’s bum was unhealthy, and depending on what happened next could have unfortunate results. This heaped more fire on what James 1st of England said a century before.

James 1st of England.

James 1st of England.

“It will not deign to cure heere any other than cleanly and gentlemanly diseases” whatever those were in the king’s mind. Others critics claimed it “dried out the humours and made the brain sooty”. But this did not affect old people because they were “dried out already.”

The practice must have continued for a while despite all this bad press, because historic smoke enema equipment is on view at the Liverpool Medical Institution. A display there features, “a bellows that was once used to blow tobacco smoke up people’s bottoms,” the Liverpool Echo explains.

“That tobacco enema treatment was once used to help resuscitate drowning victims. The treatment has vanished into history but there’s still debate over whether it inspired a famous phrase “blowing smoke up your a**e”, meaning to compliment someone.”

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So there was definitely smoke between them thar hills on that day in history we reported. The treatment apparently worked because they lived happily ever after. Although Bess may have said, “Now, no smoking in bed Ned.”