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An advert for shaving cream from the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1839.

The Hull man killed by his shaving brush

Hull man Joseph Taylor was enjoying a holiday in Scarborough when he cut himself while shaving. A few days later, he was dead … from anthrax.

An inquest into his death, held in September 1924, heard how a shaving brush was the likely cause of death.

Taylor, a clerk at Reckitt’s, who lived in Thoresby Street, had been in perfect health when he left for the seaside with his wife.

He bought the brush in Scarborough, for one shilling and sixpence, and used it while shaving every day for a week, before cutting a spot which bled profusely. After a few days the cut got worse and Taylor became sick, but a chemist told him he had “barber’s rash” and suggested an ointment.

The Taylors returned to Hull but Joseph became seriously ill. He was treated by two doctors, who were unable to save his life. The cause of death was anthrax.

An advert for shaving equipment from 1902. It appeared in the Agricultural bulletin of the Straits and Federated Malay States.
An advert for shaving equipment from 1902. It appeared in the Agricultural bulletin of the Straits and Federated Malay States.

Why would a shaving brush be to blame?

Brushes made from animal hair were linked to several hundred cases of anthrax at around the time of the First World War. In 1921, researchers in New York discovered bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, in 78 percent of the brushes they tested.

The mini-epidemic was thought to be caused by a disruption to commerce caused by the war. Shaving brushes were traditionally made from badgers’ hair, but when this became hard to find, manufacturers used hair from horses instead, an animal much more susceptible to anthrax. It is also possible that a broken supply train meant the hair was not properly disinfected.

At the inquest into Taylor’s death, reported by the Hull Daily Mail, the jury heard how the hair from which the brushes had been made was imported largely from Asian ports. So important did the authorities take the inspection of hair, that at Liverpool thousands of pounds had been spent on disinfecting equipment.

How the Hull Daily Mail reported the inquest into Joseph Taylor's death from anthrax.
How the Hull Daily Mail reported the inquest into Joseph Taylor’s death from anthrax.

Taylor may have thought he was perfectly safe with his brush, which bore a label stating: “British make; free from anthrax.”

But if anthrax spores penetrate the skin, for instance through a cut from shaving, they can cause swelling, blisters and, if untreated, death.

There is some doubt that the brush was to blame for Taylor’s death. Arnold Tankard, the Hull analyst and bacteriologist, examined it and failed to detect any signs of anthrax in the bristles. However, the brush was made of “imitation badger hair” and spores could have been present in small numbers. The coroner said he was aware of a similar case in Scarborough.

Ultimately, the Hull jury found that death was due to anthrax but did not express an opinion on how the infection was contracted.

But last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a historical review into the dangers posed by vintage shaving brushes and concluded that there was a small risk that models made before 1930 could carry anthrax spores.

It seems then that cutthroat razors were not the only way to kill yourself while shaving.

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Main image shows an advert for shaving cream from the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1839.

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