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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 July 2007

Can a Corset Save the Heroine's Life?


In romance all things are possible, but I’ve been thinking about plotlines where a heroine’s life was saved by a corset. Now I’m not sure this is really possible, so I surfed the net for a while, looking for real-life accounts of:

1. A corset deflecting a bullet---I recall this was reported by women who were caught in the throes of the American Civil War.

2. A corset deflecting a knife---I recall sensational newspaper accounts of actresses surviving attacks from jealous lovers.

Well, my search turned up zip on this topic. As far as I can tell, there are no well-referenced accounts of a corset saving someone's life.

I did find the well documented murder of the beautiful Empress of Austria, Elisabeth of Bavaria, 1854-1898. Known as “Sisi” to friends and family, she was renowned for her beauty and her horsemanship (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_of_Bavaria). Sisi was stabbed with a file while strolling on the promenade in Geneva, Switzerland, by an anarchist who targeted a royal (any royal would do).

So the story goes, the wound actually pierced a small hole in her heart, but Sisi was corseted so tightly, as was her custom, the compression on her heart and other vital organs staunched the bleeding---enough that she failed to notice the wound. She actually walked several blocks back to her cruise ship before she collapsed. Elisabeth's last words were "What happened to me?"

This is the only documented historical account I can find where a corset deflected a weapon, even though it did not save the wearer’s life, it probably prolonged it.

Anyone out there know of other recorded historical events where a woman’s life was actually saved by the corset she was wearing?

10 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

There are documented cases of corsets (stays) deflecting a razor-wielding attacker in London c. 1788-1790 (see the book The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson).

I've also seen reports of them deflecting bullets, but I can't remember where . . . this would be totally possible though, esp with some of the lower-velocity bullets of the 16th-19th century.

It might also depend on where the bullet/arrow/knife struck. The busk (the roughly 2” stiffener that runs down the front of most pre-Victorian stays) was often made of things like iron, silver, or ivory, all of which under the right circumstances could deflect something.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Thank, Kalen. I was hoping you would know!

That's the thing about the "bullet lore"---I know I've seen reports of corsets deflecting bullets, but for the life of me I can't remember where.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

What a great post, Kathrynn! Something I'd never even thought of. And what a great, great plot point!!! You've got to write this now.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Pearl X Jones said...

Re: bullets--check out the physics in this analysis. Hard on the wardrobe, though worth the sacrifice.

pxj

http://www.npsnet.com/tsarevich_alexei/page18.html

8:00 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Pearl, fasincating info on the account of the assination of the Tsar of Russia and his family.

Corsets, jewels, and physics of the bullet deflection ---anyone who is interested in the possibilities should check out the URL of the website Pearl posted.

Thanks again, Pearl. I read all 19 pages!

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post. I was actually wondering just a few days ago about a corset working to save a heroine's life from a knife or a bullet. Kalen's comment about the busk makes sense. It would be a cool twist on the idea that women's clothing was too decorous for action scenes :-).

7:22 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Wow, what a sensational, and sad, story. I experienced an oddly personal reaction to reading it, and now want to know more about "Sisi."

Thanks for posting this, I did wonder about this same question after reading Jo Beverley's A Most Unsuitable Man.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

What about the Grand Duchesses? One of the statements that contribute to the rumors that one of the GD's escaped was that the bullets were deflected by the jewels hidden in their corsets.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I had heard the same thing Camille. That the bullets bounced off their corsets because they were also wearing jewelry hidden on their persons as well. Supposedly that was how Anastasia aka Anna Anderson survived. The reality is that after they were shot, the soldiers used bayonets to make sure that the Royal family was deceased.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Jane, Sisi has an immensely tragic story. She never wanted to marry Emperor Franz Josef and spent the rest of her life spending as much time away from the court as possible. And then to have her only son commit suicide have been horrible for her. Apparently she also suffered from anorexia and probably bi-polar disorder as well.

6:51 AM  

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