As anyone who's ever had a toothache – or needed dental work – knows, rotting or otherwise dysfunctional teeth can equate to a relentlessly unhappy and/or agonizing existence. And the 19th century wasn't exactly the heyday of gilded and sophisticated dentistry. Even if you were wealthy, for example, you usually had to contend with dentures made from human teeth. And back then, "human teeth" dentures usually meant corpse teeth dentures. As in pearly whites yanked from slain soldiers on the battlefield. Or, if you were on a budget, chompers illicitly pried from the jaws of already buried corpses in cemeteries. Sometimes, said teeth were cavity and decomposition free and sometimes they weren't. But they all had one thing in common: they'd once resided in somebody else's mouth.
Is utilizing corpse teeth essentially any different from getting a liver transplant? It depends on whom you ask, but at least livers come fresh from the source ... and the key word here really is "fresh." Nevertheless, corpse teeth weren't exactly looked upon with abject horror at the time. The 19th century was, after all, the heyday of corpse medicine, and people were busy doing everything from using ground-up mummies to cure arthritis to drinking the blood of the recently executed to "boost their strength." Read on to find out why the dentist's chair and the embalmer's table might have far more in common than you thought.
A Huge Percentage Of Re-Used Teeth For Dentures Came From The Mouths Of Slain Soldiers
The death of a young soldier is always a tragedy, but in the 19th century, it was a tragedy that also had great commercial appeal for black market teeth-peddlers. And the battle of Waterloo (which took place in June of 1815 in present-day Belgium, and resulted in an estimated 24,000 casualties) was a particularly macabre gold mine.
According to the BBC, "the prospect of thousands of British, French and Prussian teeth sitting in the mouths of recently-killed soldiers on the battlefield ... was an attractive one for looters." Scavengers (who were often barely a step above grave robbers), desperate locals, and even surviving troops would swarm the scene of the carnage with pliers, yanking and extracting whatever they could get. The teeth were subsequently sold to experts who "shaped" them into dentures, and the toothless consumers who purchased them almost invariably had no idea where their newfound smiles had actually come from.
However, even after the scandal was exposed, the teeth remained a hot item among the upper classes. As Strange Remains puts it, "'Waterloo teeth' were particularly high in demand because they generally came from young men who had been robust and healthy when they died." Sad, but health wasn't necessarily required – as the BBC article goes on to explain, the poor, desperate for money, often had no choice but to let their own teeth be yanked out for a few pennies.
Sometimes, The Teeth Were Salvaged From Executed Criminals, And Sometimes The Teeth Had Syphilis
The teeth of a corpse and the corpse itself are two different entities. After all, bones don't (quite) rot at the speed of flesh – so why not dig them up and reuse them? At least that was the logic that many grave robbers applied to their trades. When one couldn't get a hold of soldiers' teeth, the next best thing was to simply go through the cemeteries, pry open the probably-already-gaping jaws of the deceased, and see what pearly whites, if any, were worth saving. According to lore gathered by the British Library, many "pre-war teeth were frequently acquired from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, dentists’ patients and even animals, and were consequently often rotten, worn down or loaded with syphilis."
Never let it be said that you can't catch sexually transmitted diseases from corpses – even if you're not a necrophiliac.
Believe it Or Not, Corpse Teeth Are Still Used In Certain Dental Procedures
Think corpse dentistry is dead and gone with the centuries? Think again. The modern reader may be surprised to learn that the bones of the deceased are still commonly implemented in certain present-day surgical procedures. The folks at Carefree Dental explain it thus:
"Essentially, grafting, the process of using existing bone to generate new bone, allows patients to regrow much-needed jawbone support... dentists often recommend using the patient’s own bone in the grafting procedure... if you’d rather let your bones stay right where they are, though, you have a couple of other options to consider. Many patients opt to use human cadaver bones, which usually arrive freeze-dried and ready for a new life in your mouth."
"A new life in your mouth" is such a life-affirming, spring-like description, is it not? If you're still grossed out, don't worry: you can always use cow bones instead.