Why you should care
19th-century New Yorkers drank blood straight from the slaughterhouse. And it’s not as archaic a practice as you think.
Every day in the 1870s, dozens of New Yorkers visited the city’s slaughterhouses, especially one on 34th Street by the Hudson River, not for sides of beef for their dinner tables, but instead for cups of blood, collected straight from the necks of freshly slaughtered steers.
Rich and poor alike — but predominantly women — they then drank it on the spot, straight and hot. These weren’t the era’s head-to-hoof foodies or thrill-seekers. They were mostly sickly folk who reportedly believed fresh blood contained a vital essence, which would fade if it rested too long, grew cold and congealed. The blood, they thought, could “nourish and sustain their own exhausted vitality,” as a writer for the New York Herald observed of the practice in 1877. Specifically, they believed blood had the power to treat everything from consumption to bone diseases to physical disabilities.
This practice may sound odd today, given common modern taboos against consuming or cooking with blood. But these New Yorkers were hardly oddballs. Newspapers of the era describe similar practices at abattoirs from Boston to Cincinnati throughout the decade. Around the same time, notes Richard Sugg, a lecturer at the University of Durham who writes about historic instances of blood drinking (most recently in his upcoming book, The Real Vampires), reports also cropped up about a Christian sect in Kansas that drank first animals’ blood, then each other’s, to heal sick members.
Late 19th-century Americans didn’t invent this medicinal blood-drinking tradition. Although food historian Maureen Ogle explains that Americans of the era were “obsessed with the latest science rather than ideas from the past” (and suggested the practice may have been pushed by butchers looking to turn a waste product into profit), it does seems likely that the age’s blood drinkers were guided by and perpetuating folk beliefs about, and early medical practices built around, blood. And some of these ideas still echo today.
As Rose George explains in Nine Pints: A Journey through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood, many cultures have viewed blood as a potent, animating force. This led to the attribution of magical powers to blood, like Roman beliefs that menstrual blood could ward off hail and lightning. It led to a concern with the regulation of blood within the body through practices like bloodletting. And it led to widespread beliefs that fresh blood could serve as medicine. Based on the idea that like cured like, in Europe especially, people thought its stores of vitality could replace those seemingly lost to consumption or disability, and that it could treat epilepsy, which Sugg explains was “a supposed disease of the soul for most of history.”
Disturbingly to modern minds, from at least the first century onward in Europe, “only human blood would do,” explains Sugg, “because humans had a soul” and animals supposedly did not. This was part and parcel of the almost willfully forgotten European tradition of corpse medicine: the use of everything from dead bodies’ fat as a wound salve to liquor infused with hair to treat baldness to powdered human feces blown into the eye to treat cataracts.
When it came to blood, from the Roman era onward, physicians and folk healers recommended people drink it fresh from the vein, preferably from young, healthy individuals. Some accounts tell of powerful people, like King Louis XI of France and Pope Innocent VII in the 15th century, paying for the blood of young men that they hoped would treat their afflictions or prolong their lives. However, most people got their blood, numerous reports attest, at public executions. Even after physicians stopped promoting human blood as a cure, the practice seems to have persisted in folk medicine until at least the early 20th century. The last recorded attempt to drink an executed man’s blood in Germany, for instance, was in 1908.
But it seems as if sometimes animal blood would suffice, especially if all one needed was vitality as opposed to the supposed presence of human soul essence. Medieval and early modern Nordic communities reportedly saw medicinal value in animal blood. And there are illustrations of Parisian women in the late 19th century visiting local slaughterhouses for curative blood.
It’s unclear when exactly medicinal blood drinking dropped off in the U.S. Reports from the 1870s claim that doctors were actively campaigning against the practice — but not because it was a quack cure, rather because doing so supposedly “created a depraved appetite that might pass beyond all control,” leading to vampiric attacks, as the Herald writer put it. No matter their logic, they may have chipped away at it. So did the gradual rejection of natural products in favor of the perceived sterility and scientific magic of synthetic everything.
But just because most Americans don’t drink blood for their health, or at all, anymore doesn’t mean they’ve dropped the idea behind it entirely. Popular fascination with widely and often irresponsibly covered research into the isolation of certain proteins in young people’s blood and use of them to fight the effects of aging or disease also echoes old practices. As do dubious ventures looking to achieve the same thing by transfusing blood from the young to the old, at least one of them backed by entrepreneur Peter Thiel.
There’s a lingering sense that vitality must literally course through youths’ blood — that maybe we can finally figure out how to suck it out of them with the help of modern science. Such sentiments and coverage are a stark reminder that no matter how insane old medical practices like visiting an abattoir to quaff steer blood straight from the vein may seem, we are rarely as far removed from history as we wish to think.