a rare disease

they opened Alice up
like she was a tin of sardines
or a potential can of worms
no need for surgical face masks
when dealing with the already dead

they peeled back her widow’s skin
rummaged around her used insides
examined the obviously damaged liver
and wondered at the black gases
that emanated a smell of melancholia

the coroner told his assistant that:
neurological symptoms began with
subtle changes in mental acuity,
mild memory loss, poor reasoning ability
and irritability – heΒ went on:

these symptoms become more severe
eventually progressing to delirium,
suicidal tendencies and coma
his assistant couldn’t stop himself weeping
and noticed too the coroner shedding a tear

here, take a scalpel and grab a leg
we’ll make incisions from belly to tippy toes
then saw open the top of her head
to release the rest of those melancholic gases
that keep her spirit from resting in peace

they set to work to free her corpse
from the devilment that lurked within
and all the while they breathed the black gas
the tears ran down their starched white gowns
a rare diseaseΒ mused the men in unison

when their work was finally done
Alice Mary neatly stitched back up
never to know how far her story would spread
from London to Belfast, Swansea, Scotland
syndicated for all to read

Screenshot (116)

Alice Mary Thomas was my great-grandmother. She was from a family of railway tunnel miners and had spent much of her childhood living in squalid navvy shanty huts around the country. The Thomas family would have met and known my Hill ancestors from working at one or more of these mining projects. Alice married my great-grandfather Alfred William Hill in 1888. Their first two daughters died very young, possibly as a result of the Russian flu epidemic in the 1890’s. The family finally settled in the Lambeth district of London where Alfred died in 1920 aged 53 and Alice in 1929 aged 59. I recently discovered this story about Alice’s death whilst searching the British Newspaper Archives for articles relating to my wider family history. I was previously aware that she had taken her own life but had no idea about the link to the rare Hanot’s disease or primary biliary cirrhosis as it is better known today. The poem is based on these newspaper reports with some added fictional aspects thrown in for good measure.

Some few years later in 1937, their son Ivan Arthur (my grandfather) died whilst working on the new escalator system at King’s Cross Station in London after falling down an access shaft.

Alice Mary’s sister Louise Thomas found her way out of relative poverty and hardship by becoming the governess to the de Havilland family where she met and fell in love with the aviator Geoffrey de Havilland. They married in 1909 and she shared many of his early flying exploits. They had three sons, two of which were test pilots who died carrying out their work – events which she never fully recovered from. In 1944, five years before her death, her husband was knighted and she became Lady ‘Louie’ de Havilland. But that’s another story . . .

Symptom details taken from:



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