From potters to plastic surgeons: Guest Post by Tessa Harris

fictionreboot2In the first of her two-part blog, Tessa Harris reveals how a particular form of savagery gave birth to rhinoplasty in India more than 3,000 years ago

By Tessa Harris, author of ANATOMIST’S APPRENTICE

We’ve all heard of the expression ‘to cut off your nose to spite your face’, but historically in parts of Asia, and in particular in India, this practice was engaged in for a very long time. In the course of my research for my latest novel, part of which is set in Hyderabad, I delved into the terrifying world of torture and execution in 18th century India. Even I – someone very used to the horrors of the anatomist’s dissecting table – winced when I came across the extraordinary and frequently brutal practices of the period.

For thousands of years it seems that both law enforcers and armies in India were keen on punishing those they saw fit by cutting off their noses for a variety of ‘crimes.’ These ranged from adultery and theft, to just being on the opposing side in a war. Then again, even today, there are cases of such mutilation being practised against women in Afghanistan. In 2010, Time magazine featured on their front cover the disturbing image of an 18 year-old who had her nose cut off by the Taliban for fleeing her abusive in-laws, and only earlier this year, another young wife made world news when her husband punished her in a similar way.

The first recorded account of nasal amputation was in 1500 BC in the Hindu epic Ramayana when Prince Lakshmana cut off the nose of Lady Surpanakha. However, the lady’s brother, King Ravana, came to her rescue and arranged for reconstruction.

In the case of adultery, the practice was so widespread that it would be performed either by the injured party or by a chuckler or local cobbler, presumably because he had the appropriate tool for the job.

In India there are also many recorded instances of conquering armies depriving their enemies of their olfactory organs. As Dr Richard Seltzer puts it in his book Confessions of a Knife: “It was not uncommon for a conquering Indian army to commit metropolitan rhinocide, putting to the sword the nose of every man, woman and child in the vanquished city.”

An Italian traveller and surgeon, Manucci (1653-1708 AD) related that when horsemen passed through their forest, the inhabitants of Mysore would often run at them, place their hands on their horses’ quarters and spring up at them from behind to cut off the Mughal enemy riders’ noses! This they did with a specially designed iron instrument shaped like a half-moon. This form of physical humiliation was taken a step further when, in the 18th century, the Naik of Mysore offered a reward for every enemy nose and upper lip brought to him by his soldiers. The Sikhs of Punjab also followed this custom.

Depriving large numbers of people of their noses did, as you might imagine, caused many problems to the local population, but help was at hand from an unlikely source. For several hundred years a small band of potters put their dextrous hands to work operating on unfortunate victims. Their skill spawned the branch of plastic surgery known today as rhinoplasty. (The term ‘plastic’, has nothing to do with the modern synthetic material, but derives from the Greek ‘plastikos’, meaning to mould or shape.) The caste of koomas or khumars, were apparently performing this reconstructive surgery as long ago as 1000 B C. Based on their skill at working with clay, they developed a technique using a skin graft taken from the forehead to ‘regrow’ the nose. However, it was not until the late 18th century, when two English surgeons witnessed the reconstructive procedure for themselves that the West became aware of such practice and adopted it.

In the brutal wars between the formidable Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan against the British during the mid-to-late 18th century, it was a common practice for the Indian soldiers to cut off their enemies’ noses. During one of the campaigns five men – one cart driver and four Indian soldiers serving the British army – fell into enemy hands. Treated as traitors, their punishment was to have their noses and right arms cut off. Thus mutilated, they were sent back to their British masters.

The English commanding officer obviously heard about their appalling injuries. By chance, a few days later, he met a merchant whose nose had been cut off as a punishment for adultery. This man had, however, been fitted with a substitute made by a doctor from the potter caste. Impressed by the surgery, the officer sent for the physician in question and asked him to reconstruct the noses of his mutilated men.

An illustrated account of the first operation appeared in the Madras Gazette. Performed near the city of Pune, it was observed by two English doctors, Thomas Cruso and James Findlay. The article was given a much wider audience when it was reproduced in the Gentleman’s Magazine of London in October 1794. The first part of the operation is described as follows: “A thin plate of wax is fitted to the stump of the nose so as to make a nose of good appearance; it is then flattened and laid on the forehead. A line is drawn

The Indian method of rhinoplasty. Wellcome Library, London. Published: 1816.

around the wax, which is then of no further use, and the operator then dissects off as much skin as it had covered, living undivided a small slip between the eyes. This slip preserves the blood circulation till a union has taken place between the new and the old parts.”

The accounts went on to describe in detail how the scar of the stump of the nose was paired off, and the skin from the forehead was twisted and inserted into this incision. The remaining complex procedures were carried out over the next month or so. For five or six days after the operation, the patient was made to lie on his back, and on the tenth day, bits of soft cloth were put into the nostrils to keep them sufficiently open. The article concludes cheerily: “This operation is always successful. The artificial nose is secured and looks nearly as well as the natural nose, nor is the scar on the forehead very observable after a length of time.”

Such a description inspired a young English surgeon by the name of Joseph Carpue to reproduce the operation in London in 1814. This reconstruction, which involved using a flap of skin taken from the forehead, was to become known in Europe as “Carpue’s operation” even though it had originated in India. A German surgeon, called von Graefe, performed similar plastic operations of the nose using skin from the arm.

After such successes plastic surgery became widespread throughout Europe. Today, all replacement operations using a flap of skin in the immediate area of the loss are known as Indian plastic surgery. It’s a positive bi-product of a terrible custom. In other cases of physical punishment, however, there were no good outcomes, and far worse practices increased the suffering of victims. In the second installment, I shall delve further into some of these forms of penalty and execution. But be prepared! It isn’t always easy reading…

Copyright Maureen McLean 2011Secrets in the Stones, by Tessa Harris, is the sixth novel in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mystery series. It is published by Kensington and is out now.Tessa Harris is an English journalist and historian. She is the author of six novels in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone series, featuring an 18th century American anatomist working in London. *Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best First Mystery Award 2012

3Shadow of the Raven 
 The Lazarus Curse
The Devil’s Breath

The Dead Shall Not Rest
The Anatomist’s Apprentice





Fiction Reboot Author Interview: Tessa Harris, Shadow of the Raven

FictionReboot2Introducing our latest Reboot contributor, Sammie Kurty.

Sammie Kurty, signing in! For today’s Fiction Reboot, we have the pleasure of welcoming back author Tessa Harris. Her first novel, The Anatomist’s Apprentice, won The Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best First Mystery Award in 2012. Since her debut into the publishing world, Ms. Harris has released 5 novels about her ever intriguing anatomist, Dr. Thomas Silkstone. On January 27, 2015, she released the latest installment to the series entitled Shadow of the Raven. The novel investigates one of the most complex and complicated parts of the human anatomy: the mind. Dr. Silkstone and his beloved Lydia experience firsthand the inhumane, poor treatment of the mentally ill and the impact madness made on 18th century England. Today, Ms. Harris discusses Shadow of the Raven, writing, and where history and fiction intertwine.


tessaAuthor Bio: Tessa Harris
After studying History at Oxford University, Tessa Harris began a journalistic career in Lincolnshire. She progressed to a London newspaper, and later a feature writer on Best magazine. After two years, she was made editor of a regional arts and listings publication, and later deputy editor on Heritage magazine. In 2005 she was made editor of Berkshire Life magazine. Tessa always had literature aspirations, and in 2000 won a European-wide screenplay writing competition for a work later optioned by a film company. The script was set in 18th century London and subsequent research led Tessa to the invention of Dr Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist and the world’s first forensic scientist. For more Fiction Reboot interviews with Tessa, see here.


Author Interview

  1. If you could interview any author, living or deceased, who would you and why? Who is your favorite author?

As a journalist I’ve been lucky enough to interview some really big authors: Jeffrey Archer, Robert Harris and Barbara Taylor-Bradford to name but three. However, the author I’d most like to interview is Daphne du Maurier. I adore Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel. When I was on holiday at St Ives, in Cornwall, I passed the cottage where du Maurier used to stay and write, so I started reading her novels. I’d love to share a bottle of wine with her while watching the sun go down over the bay by St Nicholas’s Chapel. As for my favourite author? There are so many, but Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) has to be up there, alongside Andrew Miller (Pure) and Patrick Suskind (Perfume).

  1. In regards to your historical fiction, does the history outweigh the fiction, the fiction outweigh the history, or is it an even mix of both?

I’ve said before that writing historical fiction with real-life characters at its core is a bit like negotiating a minefield that’s already been swept. As long as you keep to the tried and tested path, i.e. stick to the facts, you’ll be safe. But if you stray – beware! If you’re not blown to pieces by eagle-eyed critics, then there’ll still be readers out there keen to take pot shots at you.

  1. What made you want to center your most recent novel, Shadow of the Raven, around the notorious Bedlam Mental Hospital and mental illness in general?

There are only two chapters set in Bedlam, but I wanted to touch on the treatment of mentally ill patients at this point in history. There was a debate going on at the time about how sufferers should be handled. Attitudes were changing. Members of the public could no longer pay to gawp at inmates at Bedlam for entertainment from 1770, but Bedlam’s head, John Monro, was convinced that madness could only be cured ‘evacuation by vomiting.’ Thankfully there were others who did not take this approach and gradually the treatment of the insane did improve.

  1. Do you personally identify with Dr. Thomas Silkstone? Do you identify with the medical detectives or play the “Sherlock Holmes” role in your own life?

I’ve lived with Thomas (in my head) for 17 years now. I identify very much with his reasoned approach to things, but he does tend to be a bit too serious. He needs to lighten up a bit, I think. Whether or not Lydia is the right person to help him do that is another story!

  1. Dr. Schillace recently remarked that students have an interesting but conflicted connection to Lydia as she can be hard to pin down. What would you say best symbolizes Lady Lydia Farrell and why? 

A lot of readers are annoyed by Lydia. They think she’s too submissive. She’s certainly not the conventional heroine of contemporary novels of this period. They’re all very independent and feisty. Today’s leading female characters are very often portrayed as ‘breaking the glass ceiling,’ whereas Lydia exists under it. The reality of this period dictated that women had to conform or face being ostracized. Take Mary Shelley, for example, who was , in effect, banished for her affair with a married man. Not every woman had the will or the courage to forsake convention. Lydia is not weak, but up until now she has accepted her lot because she has had no choice. Many women in certain cultures face the same constraints today. Just because they do not openly challenge them does not make them weak.

6. I read that the Silkstone series originated from a screenplay. Would you consider trying screenwriting again?

I’d love to. In fact I’ve started writing the first book as a TV drama.

7. Finally, any advice to the discouraged writers just starting out? Especially those who are interested in genre fiction, mystery, thriller, etc?

Write, read and write again. Never throw anything away – nothing that you write is ever wasted. And never give up. It took me ten years to find a publisher for the Silkstone series, but I’d been trying with other works for the past 30!

Thank you, Tessa, for joining us today! You can find Tessa on Twitter and Facebook. Her latest novel, Shadow of the Raven, is in stores now!

indexShadow of The Raven
American anatomist Dr. Thomas Silkstone hunts for justice amid a maelstrom of madness, murder, and social upheaval. . .

In the notorious mental hospital known as Bedlam, Dr. Thomas Silkstone seeks out a patient with whom he is on intimate terms. But he is unprepared for the state in which he finds Lady Lydia Farrell. Shocked into action, Thomas vows to help free Lydia by appealing to the custodian of her affairs, Nicholas Lupton. But when Silkstone arrives at the Boughton Estate to speak to Lupton, he finds that another form of madness has taken over the village. . .

What the critics are saying about Shadow of the Raven

““The Dr. Thomas Silkstone books have been an interesting and unique series. Set in 1784 and featuring an anatomist colonist from America, Harris looks at Georgian England through the fresh eyes of an outsider. She displays her complete historical knowledge with her easy and graceful presentation of the times. In this fifth installment, the personal stakes have never been higher. The books highlight a particular, more social aspect of the times. The twists and turns never stop, making Shadow of the Raven impossible to put down.” –RT Book Reviews, 4.5 Stars Top Pick

“Deception, murder and land wars thwart Dr. Thomas Silkstone’s latest attempt to find happiness with his beloved Lydia.” –Kirkus Review

sammieAbout Sammie Kurty Sammie Kurty is an English major in her junior year at Wittenberg University and a contributor to Fiction Reboot. She is a proud member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society. Sammie has been passionate about writing all her life and is about to complete her first novel, Sapphire Lake, a project she has worked on for three years. When she isn’t writing or reading, you can find her practicing makeup artistry or riding roller coasters. Twitter: @Shamtakee

The ‘year of awe’ : A guest post by Tessa Harris

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose! Today we are very pleased to invite back the brilliant and talented Tessa Harris, author of the Anatomist’s Apprentice Thomas Silkstone mystery series. Tessa’s marvelous story-telling, coupled with her conscientious research into the 18th century, make for heart-pounding reading. Today, she provides us with a guest post aDailyDose_Posterbout the “year of awe”…

…Because sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.


Year of Awe | Guest post by Tessa Harris

A deadly fog that killed both man and beast, a blood-red moon, savage thunderstorms and great meteors: no wonder most people in eastern England thought the world was about to end in 1783!

coverSince the publication of my third novel, The Devil’s Breath, in January, several readers have told me they had never heard of this eponymous phenomenon that caused so much havoc in Europe in the years 1783-4. I have a confession to make; nor had I.  Not, that is, until in April 2010 when most of Scotland and England and, indeed, much of northern Europe, found themselves at the mercy of a volcanic ash cloud. Thousands of flights were canceled, millions of air passengers were stranded and the economic fall-out was huge. I had friends who found themselves stuck in Italy for over a week longer than they planned and my husband couldn’t fulfil a business engagement in Aberdeen.

It was only when the UK press picked up on this contemporary calamity that the historical one was revealed to a mass readership, myself included. Newspaper headlines in the UK declared: How an Icelandic volcano helped spark the French Revolution and Volcanic ash cloud may have killed 10,000, which as it turned out, is a conservative estimate.

Naturally, as my particular historical interest is in this period, I was prompted to dig deeper. What I found was both fascinating and almost unbelievable. To begin, we need to go back to a cataclysmic event in the summer of 1783.  volcanic fissure in Iceland called Laki.  On June 8, 1783, a volcanic fissure in Iceland, called Laki, burst asunder, sending 122Mt of sulphur into the atmosphere. The impact on Iceland itself was disastrous, wiping out most sheep and horses and more than 20 per cent of the population. Such was the devastation that the Icelandics even invented a word for it – Moduhardindin – meaning ‘the hardship of the fog.’

What compounded matters, however, was the fact that the summer of 1783 was one of the hottest on record in Europe and the high pressure caused the wind to blow in a south-easterly direction – straight toward northern Europe.

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals

By June 23 the highly toxic cloud of sulphur had reached Britain. On the east coast, in Lincoln, a visitor reported: “A thick hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley, so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1783.)

In Huntington, the poet William Cowper wrote of the ‘thickest fog’ he could remember. He went on: “We never see the sun but shorn of its beams, the trees are scarce discernable at a mile’s distance, he sets with the face of a hot salamander and rises with the same complexion.”

Further south, in Hampshire, the naturalist Gilbert White wrote of “The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.” As the summer wore on plagues of flies irritated horses, meat was inedible a day after butchery, and milk turned sour within hours.

Soon, however, the effect of the fog across the sun meant that temperatures dropped. We know from White’s careful records that there were 28 days of continuous frost that summer!

Crops began to fail, insects died, and fruit simply fell off tees. Naturally the effect spread to livestock, whose food became in short supply. One Cambridge newspaper reported: “The grazing land, which only the day before was full of juice …did immediately after this uncommon event , look as if it had dried up by the sun, and was to walk on like hay.”

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals and the rural chaos led to a hike in food prices. At Halifax market, in Yorkshire, a mob gathered to force merchants to sell their wheat and oats at old prices. Moreover field workers, exposed to high concentrations of noxious gases, began to choke and die of respiratory illnesses.

Recent research has shown that before the year was out as many as 23,000 people had died from inhaling these gases or related conditions. Cambridge University researchers looked at the burial records for 404 church parishes in 39 English counties and discovered two peaks in mortality during the Laki event. In both cases, the worst affected region was the east of England. Data shows the summer of 1783 was particularly hot and that the first months of 1784 were amongst the coldest on record. The researchers believed that the mortality peaks could be partly attributed to these temperature extremes. Add to this fine, airborne particles of volcanic gases transported in the haze and you have a recipe for disaster – literally.

There is even some evidence to suggest that the Scottish poet Robert Burns was one of the thousands affected by the inhalation of sulphuric gas. In August 1784 he wrote of his “fainting fits and other alarming symptoms of pleurisy.”A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.”

By the time the fog had really taken hold, another, and even more terrifying, episode had begun. Contemporaries gave it the truly Hollywood-style epithet the year of awe or annus mirabilus.  During this period, a remarkable number of large meteors were spotted over Britain and throughout Europe. The aurora borealis was also seen very far south. These phenomena contributed to the impending sense that the ‘Day of Judgement’ was at hand.

On August 18, however, another rogue ingredient was added to this apocalyptic stew.  What became known as “the great Meteor” was an exceptionally bright meteor seen across Britain and much of northwest Europe. A letter from Whitby published in the London Chronicle spoke of “an extraordinary meteor…whose lustre almost equalled the sun.” Another observer said that the “whole horizon was illuminated; so that the smallest object might have been seen on the ground.” There are even contemporary engravings of the meteor, the most famous by Thomas Sandby of the phenomenon seen from Windsor Castle.

“an universal terror seized the whole town”

Such extraordinary events naturally prompted the less educated masses to believe that the end of the world was nigh and some ministers even fueled fears. One is reported in the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser as describing seeing “a revelation in flames, a huge beast with seven heads and ten horns.” Little wonder then, that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his diary that on a visit to Witney after a violent thunderstorm: ‘Those that were asleep in the town were waked and many thought the day of judgment had come….Men, women and children flocked out of their houses and kneeled down together in the streets.’

A correspondent from Devon wrote to the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser: “About three hours ago we were all struck with a panic too dreadful to be described: an universal terror seized the whole town, and most people believed the world was at an end, for that the moon was falling from heaven.”

There were those who took great delight from the experience. Take, for example, an excerpt from this letter in the Whitehall Evening Post which stated: The globe of fire that appeared on Monday night…could not, I think, have astonished or terrified any other than the ignorant part of the beholders. It was the most pleasant and beautiful phenomena ever seen, and consequently could not be terrific.”

The more ‘enlightened’ scholars of the time, however, tried to find a scientific attribution for the extraordinary events. One suggested in the London Chronicle that the August meteor may have been “occasioned by some of the vapours issuing from volcanoes upon the New Island lately sprung up in the ocean, about nine leagues to the S.W of Iceland.”

It was, however, none other than Benjamin Franklin whose 1785 essay, entitled Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures, speculated that the dry fog and cold winter might be related to Laki’s eruption. He also suggested that the fog might be due to: “the consumption by fire of some of those great burning balls or globes which we happen to meet with in our rapid course round the sun….”

So why are our history books not full of contemporary accounts of this phenomenon, of analyses and of comment? The truth is that the ‘Great Fogg’ was itself ‘clouded’ if you’ll excuse the pun, by the momentous political events of the day. King George III and his ministers were so preoccupied with the war with the American colonies that mentions of the strange weather and the effect that it had on various populations was extremely limited. Death was an everyday part of life, much more so than it is now. Most people did not question why so many were suffering coughs, sickness and debilitation. It was up to a genius like Franklin to figure out a possible scientific explanation for the momentous episode that may have changed the course of history for ever.