The Regency must have been an unusually clean shaven age to rate a beard, even of 30 years growth, a more noteworthy mark of eccentricity than keeping the embalmed corpse of your wife in a glass cage. By all accounts Van Butchell’s was an impressive beard, of such virile growth that rumour eventually claimed that a single hair of it worn as a charm could help barren women conceive. The owner of the beard took to selling the hairs left in his brush after each day’s combing for a guinea each. In one of the advertisements for his dentistry business he took it upon himself to explain to a sceptical age the importance of facial hair:
BEARDS- The Delight Of Ancient Beauties.
When the Fair were accustomed to behold their lovers with beards, the sight of a shaved chin excited sentiments of horror and aversion. To obey the injunction of his Bishops, Louis the Seventh of France cropped his hair, and shaved his beard. Eleanor of Acquitaine, his consort, found him, with this uncommon appearance, very ridiculous, and very contemptible. She revenged herself, by becoming something more than a coquette. The King obtained a divorce. She then married the Count of Anjou, who shortly after ascended the English throne. She gave him for her marriage dower the rich provinces of Poitou and Guienne; and this was the origin of those wars which for three hundred years ravaged France, and which cost the French nation three millions of men. All which, probably, had never taken place, if Louis the seventh had not been so rash as to crop his hair and shave his beard, by which he became so disgustful in the eyes of the fair Eleanor.
Van Butchell was born in February 1735 in Eagle street, Red Lion Square, the son of a Flemish tapestry maker. He trained as a surgeon under John Hunter but set himself up in business as a dentist with a side line in selling trusses and other surgical appliances and novelty goods of his own devising such as ‘elasticband’ to keep up a gentleman's small clothes, and a spring-band garter for women. He commanded high fees as a dentist, 2 guineas a consultation and 100 guineas for a set of false teeth but refused on principle to do house calls, once refusing an offer of 1000 guineas to visit one client with more money than sense.
He was famed for his eccentricities – his beard, his unconventional appearance, the unconventional appearance of the pony he rode in Hyde Park (often white but sometimes white with purple spots and occasionally purple all over), the large bone, possibly a human femur, he carried with him attached to his wrist by a string which he claimed was a weapon from Tahiti and was to be used for self defence. He grew tired of London (but not tired of life) and wrote to George Washington in 1794 to let him know that Martin Van Butchell would be quitting his country “I hope ere long we shall be all safe in the United States, for this Country is not the best place for brave fellows.” He refused to call for his children by name and instead whistled for them like dogs. He would only allow his wives to dress in either white or black; Maria his first wife choose black and his second Elizabeth, by way of contrast, chose white.
Maria Van Butchell died on January 14th 1775. No one can be quite sure what goes on the head of such an eccentric individual but everyone is happy to speculate; the reasons variously given for Van Butchell asking William Hunter and William Cruickshank to embalm Maria and then putting her on display in his front room include his wanting to use her as an advertising draw for his dental practice and rumours that he could only use properties in which she had a life interest while she remained above ground. Dead Maria (and her pet parrot who was also stuffed and exhibited with her) generated so much interest that Van Butchell was forced to place an advertisement in the newspapers limiting the hours in which visitors could call to see her and limiting the persons to be presented to friends of friends: “Van Butchell (not willing to be unpleasantly circumstanced and wishing to convince some good minds that they have been misinformed) acquaints the Curious, no stranger can see his embalmed wife, unless (by a Friend personally) introduced to himself, any day between Nine and One, Sundays excepted.”
Van Butchell eventually remarried to Elizabeth (who happened to be his servant) and most commentators agree that it was at this point, presumably because of wifely displeasure, that he was forced to surrender Maria to the Royal College of Surgeons to become an exhibit in the Hunterian Museum (where she was exhibited alongside Miss Johnson). The official records of the Hunterian actually show though that Maria’s embalmed body was only donated to the museum by Van Butchell’s son on August 24th 1815, after his death. Presumably Van Butchell kept Maria with him for the whole of his life. Maria’s presence in the house does not seem to have inhibited Elizabeth who went on to produce five sons for Van Butchell. The second son, Isaac was, in early June 1806, drowned in the Thames when returning from a pleasure cruise to Richmond. He had, with his mother, been in party of 14 people sailing from Richmond back to Lambeth after a day out on the river. The party included the “three Miss Aston’s of Robinson’s Lane, Chelsea.” In Fulham Gut, just downriver of Putney Bridge with Isaac at the helm the boat collided with a barge, staving in the side and overturning, throwing all it’s occupants into the water. Most of the party managed to cling to either the sides of the barge or it’s mooring cable. Elizabeth sank beneath the water though and Isaac dived in after her. He managed to bring his mother to the surface but in doing so hit his head on the side of the barge, sinking without trace. The three Miss Ashton’s grew tired holding onto the barge cable and two of them, unable to hold on any longer, also slipped into the river from where their corpses were recovered several hours later. Everyone else, including Elizabeth, were saved by local residents who launched boats to rescue them.
Martin died at the age of 80 in 1814 and was buried in St George’s fields, Bayswater, the new burial ground of St George’s Hanover square. The burial ground was sold by Church Commissioners for private development in 1969 and covered by a block of flats built to a ziggurat design by architect Patrick Hodgkinson. Another occupant of the same burial ground, Laurence Stern, was exhumed by his admirers and his body and headstone removed to a North Yorkshire churchyard. Van Butchell’s headstone is lost and his remains removed and disposed of before building work began at St George’s Fields.
Maria remained on public display in the Hunterian Museum until she fell victim to a German firebomb in 1941. Time did not treat her kindly. A visitor in 1857 remarked of her embalmed remains “what a wretched mockery of a once lovely woman it now appears, with its shrunken and rotten-looking bust, its hideous, mahogany coloured face, and its remarkably fine set of teeth. Between the feet are the remains of a green parrot – whether immolated or not at the death of his mistress is uncertain – but it still retains it’s plumage.” In the 1885 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography Maria’s corpse received even shorter shrift “at the present time it is a repulsive-looking object.”