Bad gas

Bad gas

In Brief

Twice in Hades, Bloom thinks of the gases produced by putrefaction. He ponders them at length in the mortuary chapel while watching the bloated Father Coffey perform the service: "What swells him up that way? Molly gets swelled after cabbage. Air of the place maybe. Looks full up of bad gas. Must be an infernal lot of bad gas round the place." In the crypts under St. Werburgh's church, he recalls, "they have to bore a hole in the coffins sometimes to let out the bad gas and burn it. Out it rushes: blue. One whiff of that and you're a goner." Bloom is right that holes were sometimes bored in coffins to let out methane and other gases. He is wrong about mere whiffs of the stuff being deadly, but that had been a commonly held opinion for many decades, even among physicians.

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As European cities got older and bigger, cemeteries became grotesquely crowded places, with disinterred bones scattered about, bodies stacked on top of others from twenty feet down to inches below the surface, and coffins or human remains popping out of the ground with distressing frequency. The solution devised in some cities in the 19th century was to establish spacious parklike cemeteries in the suburbs, where open land was more abundant, ventilation better, and the soil more suited to managing decomposition and drainage. Both Prospect Cemetery (which opened its gates in 1832) and Mount Jerome Cemetery (1836) exemplify this new trend. Bloom thinks that the superintendent of the latter calls it "His garden," and he imagines corpses creating rich compost for plants—an almost wholesome thought.

But in more crowded graveyards, and in churches where bodies were stowed in stone vaults, the gases produced by decomposition were seen as a threat to public health. A well-researched and vividly written book by Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (2014), looks at how reformers in the 1830s and 40s, particularly the surgeon George Alfred ("Graveyard") Walker, mistakenly argued that the "miasma" from poorly interred corpses was poisoning London. "The existence of such gases," Jackson observes, "was undisputed—sextons and undertakers were often called up to 'tap' coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force. Walker dutifully recorded the effects of leaking miasma on the constitution of gravediggers, ranging from general ill health ('pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting') to sudden death. Gas could, indeed, prove fatal: graveyard workers who broke into bloated coffins were occasionally suffocated by the release of 'cadaverous vapours'" (116). But there is no evidence that diluted exposure caused illness.

In his book At Home (2010), Bill Bryson too discusses the fear of "bad gas" in relation to London's hideously overcrowded cemeteries: "Mourners in cities almost never attended at graveside to witness a burial itself. The experience was simply too upsetting, and widely held to be dangerous in addition. Anecdotal reports abounded of graveyard visitors struck down by putrid emanations. A Dr. Walker testified to a parliamentary inquiry that graveyard workers, before disturbing a coffin, would drill a hole in the side, insert a tube, and burn off the escaping gases—a process that could take twenty minutes, he reported. He knew of one man who failed to observe the usual precautions and was felled instantly—'as if struck with a cannon-ball'—by the gases from a fresh grave. 'To inhale this gas, undiluted with atmospheric air, is instant death,' confirmed the committee in its written report, 'and even when much diluted it is productive of disease which commonly ends in death.' Till late in the century, the medical journal The Lancet ran occasional reports of people overcome by bad air while visiting graveyards" (320-21).

Dr. Walker's efforts to save Londoners from miasma at first encountered indifference from government authorities and strong opposition from the property owners and churchmen who collected a fee for every person planted in their yards. But he persisted, and the 1842 parliamentary inquiry to which Bryson refers, followed by growing public clamor and an outbreak of cholera in 1848, led to laws being passed in 1850 and 1852 which closed down most urban graveyards and church vaults and moved burials to parklike suburban settings. Bloom is visiting one of those more hygienic sites and does not appear to worry about his own safety, but the sight of the priest employed in the mortuary chapel makes him wonder about the effects of long-term exposure. Later in the chapter, he has similar thoughts about the cemetery's caretaker, John O'Connell: "Fancy being his wife. Wonder how he had the gumption to propose to any girl. Come out and live in the graveyard. Dangle that before her....Gas of graves. Want to keep her mind off it to conceive at all."

JH 2021
The cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London. Source:
The "Enon Chapel, Cemetery, and Dancing Saloon," a strange establishment in a London slum that housed the first and third functions over the second. Source:
Oil portrait of Dr. George Walker, date unknown. Source: