Hairy Palms, Or, Onania, and All its Frightful Consequences

In 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus was the oldest member of the first triumvirate (his allies being Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) and the wealthiest. Thus, his attack on Parthia, with whom he had no quarrel, bespoke his impenitent greed. Asked by the Parthian ambassador the reasons for the unprovoked assault, Crassus boasted that his answer would be spoken in Seleucia, the western capital of the empire. Taking his hand and turning up its palm, the envoy, laughing, said; "O Crassus, hair will grow there before thou shalt see Seleucia"[1]
Crassus did not see Seleucia and his palm remained bare, but the idea did not. A hirsute palm is the very definition of unnatural hair and dangerous sexuality. Now a schoolyard joke, whose butt is the youth who looks to his hands, the words had a complex historical marriage. [2] Let us divert a moment to consider the implications of this match. Hair has always occupied an extraordinary place between the natural and the cultural, being both of and outside the body, able to be shaped but never completely controlled; a sexual, national and racial mark. Increasingly in the 18th and 19th centuries, sexuality became a signifier of personal identity, as well as a key area of social relations, playing a role not dissimilar to that of the hair, a biological actuality to be moulded, cultured and controlled.
The widespread masturbation panic had its beginnings in 1715[3] with the distribution of an anonymous[4] pamphlet entitled Onania, or The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All It's Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice[5]. As straightforward as this may sound, its contents were not. Amongst the various ailments in store for the indulger were stranguaries (restricted urine flow), priapisms (persistent and painful erections), consumption[6], epilepsy, hysteric fits, whole body degradation and finally, death. Heavy with Hippocratic humoralism, the pamphlet described how Onanism robbed the body "of its balmy and vital Moisture" and sent its victims to their graves.
In 1758, the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot published L'Onanisme, ou Dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation in which he called semen "the Essential Oil of the animal liquors… the rectified spirit". Indeed, as the onset of puberty in males produced semen, accompanied by new facial and corporeal hair, a deepening voice and strengthened physique, it is not hard to see why masculine virility was attributed to its excess. It is not a far stretch then, to imagine the hair-growing powers of semen affecting the primary instrument of the masturbating adolescent male. Although in no way helpful in dissecting the myth, it does give an insight into the mysticism surrounding both hair and semen in pre-modern society. Hair is corpo-real, emerging naturally from the flesh but worn as though cloth. It was read as both a biological ‘symptom’ and a humoral diagnosis of cultural character. Compared to the bearded Europeans, the 'eunuch-like' Native Americans and East Asians represented the full effects of semen loss. In his Systema Naturae, Carolus Linneas describes the 'sanguine' European with his long, flaxen mane as 'active' and deems the 'phlegmatic' African 'indolent' by his 'frizzled' black shock. Licentious behaviour and excess were also symptoms of the ferocious, uncombed and wild hair of the Afer[7]. Increasingly, the self-proclaimed civilised West saw the African beard as the involuntary costume of a people who had “no opportunity to shave." [8] It seems that cultivated men must cultivate their hair.

As medicine became more advanced, humoralism gave way to physiological psychology, sociology and sexology. Tissot's publication set medical circles and the wider community to panic. The Onanist was reduced to "a being that less resembled a living creature than a corpse… it was difficult to discover that he had formerly been part of the human race." Stupidity, lassitude, apoplexy, gangrene and finally death were in store for the lowly creatures of sin. Jean-Jaques Rousseau's Emile[9] required, until his twentieth year, all his energy to become physically and mentally matured. Admired by Tissot, Rousseau advocated the channelling of energy into education and productive work, warning against the supplement dangereux[10]. Such ideas of self-mastery had been around since Plato, but a receptive and burgeoning middle class had not. The effects of enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and post-Tridentine Catholic discourse could be seen in this new social structure, which placed greater emphasis on self-determination and individual responsibility. And in a class whose concern with progress and work ethic was great, the economic values of thrift were easily applied to semen.
Childhood was a constant reminder of waste and excess, the narcissistic time of no tomorrow. If the child learnt no self-control, there could be no mental or physical advance; he would become an idler, an outsider who could neither earn a wage nor take care of a family. Here we see the appearance of the French phrase, avoir du poil dans la main[11] (to have hair on the palms) in the beginning of the 19th century. L'homme fainéant, the bone idle, was said to have be born with hairy palms, his laziness almost a congenital malformation[12]. Although the 'wasting' of vital fluid is no longer associated with the modern usage of the phrase, in the 18th and 19th centuries the vice showed it's first symptom in lassitude.
The idea of hereditary sin was the calling card of one well-respected Doctor Henry Maudsley, a 19th century physician whose three great passions in work were criminality, insanity and self-abuse. Maudsley and his peers furthered the idea of individual responsibility, insofar as the transgressions of one generation would resurface as physical and moral degradation in their progeny. The onus was soon on parents and carers[13], whose sins would likely cause madness and criminality in their children. There are given many reasons for the masturbatory madness scapegoat, but undoubtedly the growth of psychology and the development of the modern asylum were key, as patients, in varying states of mental deterioration, were observed masturbating. Not knowing, as we do, that masturbation is often a somatic product of mental illness and not its cause, 18th and 19th century doctors 'found' empirical evidence of the consequences of vice.
In actuality, it is likely that there was an increase in masturbation during this period, with the average age of puberty declining and later marriages leaving a substantial gap during which there was no socially acceptable sexual outlet. The changing social and physical structure of the family home also allowed greater solitude, helpful given that the fear of venereal disease during the 15th – 18th centuries had made partnered sex less desirable. It is here that the true sins of masturbation and its hairy consequences become clear. The insane see from "the standpoint of the narrowest selfishness" and are in the social "what a diseased organ is in the physiological organism, something separate, out of harmony and unity with it, alienated from it, in fact too individual." The unnatural was a danger to society; both madness and masturbation were anti-social. We see something of this disharmony in the erstwhile popular urban gothic tale[14], wherein an element enters, violates reality (and therefore defines it) and is eventually expelled, re-establishing order. Of course, the wolfman and Dracula, key monstrosities in urban gothic literature, both had hairy palms.[15]

The werewolf, since its beginning in Eastern European folklore, could be identified by hirsute palms, and Dracula, who is himself part wolf, inherited the same trait.[16] These two unnatural creatures are redolent of pubescent boys, who also enter into a world of the unknown, of mysterious urges that can be neither satisfied nor admitted and whose own bodies betray their changes. It is easy to see excess hair as primitive, and hair on the palms as unnatural hair, a symbol of the unkinding [17] of mind, a stripping away of the higher evolutionary functions, leaving only the base and animalistic creature of pre-moral times. Dracula had a child-like mind, imperfectly formed and thus degenerate; he is naturally selfish, solitary and evil. So too was seen the youth, whose love of solitude was evidence of the secret habit, so vile that in the words of Dr John Harvey Kellogg (of the famed flake) "the most loathsome reptile, rolling in the slush and slime of its stagnant pool, would not bemean itself" by masturbating. Autofellatio stirred something so deep in the public's anxiety about antisocial behaviour that the well-known Doctor James Jackson even considered group masturbation “a favourable symptom”[18] by comparison.

Of gravest danger to the adolescent was sleep. One could be vigilant during the day, but as the mind went quiet, latent sexuality would rise and take hold. The individual required an inner panopticon, constant observation and control. Failing strength of mind, various semen-preventing (and blood-curdling) apparatuses were employed to hinder unconscious arousal. Although some forgave nocturnal emissions and insisted upon the innocence of the unclear mind (others did not), willing desire and fantasy were sins more grave than the act itself. Here we shall make a distinction; desire is that which one wishes to fulfil, whereas fantasy has, for all intents and purposes, no goal. Whilst desiring another's wife was still adultery, and another man, still homosexuality, fantasy was grave beyond forgiveness. It signalled a submission to evil, a petulant flouting of social and moral convention, and the making of an outsider. In Stoker's Dracula, Lucy Westenra is a sleepwalker, a habit traditionally associated with sexual looseness. Etymologically, in most European languages, the word nightmare arose from folklore of a mare (a spirit or goblin) sitting on the chest of the sleeper, well illustrated in Henry Fuselli's painting of the same name. The erotic nightmare, along with incubi and succubi, were strange phenomenon of sexual horror much like the creatures of the urban gothic and the fantastic. The sexual symbolism of both the wolfman and Dracula is hard to miss; monthly attacks that can be measured by the cycle of the moon, sexual and (when appropriate[19]) homoerotic connotations of blood sucking - the red substance often compared to that invaluable life source, semen. In an attempt to hide their true nature, werewolves often shaved their palms, but hair, insubordinate foe, grows back; watch for stubbled hands, we are warned.
Bodily hair and fluids are not rational, they cannot be controlled, are not enlightened. Our constant ridding of unwanted hair and its shameful re-eruption from our skin is key in the relationship between our supposed logical minds and our natural bodies. As sexuality figured more in personal identity, its importance to society increased, as did its responsibility. Sexuality had to be escorted and educated, and if threatening, suppressed and deformed. Masturbation was an act seen as both sexual and solitary[20] and, like hair, was both of the body and outside it. The Onanist and his hirsute-palm were the epitome of the unnatural and improper. His secret vice (or a run-in with werewolves and vampires) guaranteed not just la petite mort of orgasm but eventually la grande mort, true death. Or so the story goes.

[1] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, XVIII.2; Dio, XL.1
[2] For the purpose of this essay and unless stated otherwise, the average youth will be assumed male
[3] Believed to be published in its first edition in 1715, only copies of the second edition, announced February 1716 remain.
[4] The author is still a somewhat disputed fact, and although the name Dr Balthazar Bekker pops up, the Dutch theologian died in 1698.
[5] In the Bible, Onan was directed to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife but unable to do so, spilled his seed on the ground. Although this is technically coitus interruptus, it became a suitably powerful term for the non-procreative act of masturbation.
[6] Consumption is now most commonly applied to pulmonary tuberculosis, though masturbation was thought to cause any respiratory malfunction.
[7] Rosenthal, Angela. Raising Hair. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Hair (Fall, 2004) pp. 2 of 16
[8] ibid., p. 3
[9] Emile, from the eponymous book was published by Rousseau in 1762
[10] dangerous habit
[11] Later the phrase became avoir un poil dans la main (to have a hair on the palm) though it is unclear when exactly this occurred.
[12] Another explanation, though more in the realms of folkish speculation, is that the post-orgasm masturbator, languorous and absent-minded, overlooked a trace of his deed, a pubic hair or two stuck to his palm.
[13] It is often noted that nannies would fondle the genitals of babies to soothe their crying
[14] Kathleen Spencer uses this term in Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis published in ELH, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 197-225
[15] Cases of nevoid hypertrichosis (localized hair, including the palms and soles) and hirsuitism have been cited as possible originators of the werewolf myth, but given the widespread nature of sightings, it is at best a shaky explanation.
[16] In Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, Dracula had hairy palms. In later versions, including stage and film, he was cleaned up and the trait disappeared.
[17] “Unkinding”; a Maudsley term for the undoing of oneself.
[18] Jackson, James. The Sexual Organism and its Healthful Management. (1862) Boston, pp. 60
[19] In Stoker’s novel, Jonathan faces near death at the fangs of female vampires, until Dracula halts the proceedings, demanding Jonathan for himself: “Yes, I too can love”
[20] this is not counting mutual masturbation as a sexual act to an audience of one or more.