Episode 163: Dollop: Syphilis in America

Dave: It started with ulcers on the genitals.

Gareth: That is right off the bat a terrible start–and did you just wink at me?

Before I dig (eww) deep on this one, let’s start with the science and stuff. From the Center for Disease Control, here you go–facts and stuff in .html and .pdf. Sorry, no adult coloring books (for now–give me time):


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Congenital Syphilis:

My vagina’s dropped!


Mine, too, buddy. But we’re not done yet. Clench those Kegels. They really do work.

Four stages of syphilis:

  1. primary
  2. secondary
  3. latent
  4. tertiary

Dig deeper: Tags: STDs

Now. Let’s have a little chitty-chat about what happens when two folks with untreated syphilis have a child. When a mommy and daddy love each other very, very much, something magical happens–

A face only a mother could love, bless him. Sure, that high, high forehead and oddly tilting ears are normal. It’s fine. They aren’t signs of problems, they are delightful quirks.

Meet Mr. Earle Nelson. He was born to parents who both had long-term untreated syphilis when he was born–at least one of them had neurosyphilis–and both were so ravaged by The Syph that they were both deceased before Earle turned three. Neurosyphilis is an infection of the brain and/or spinal cord that occurs from long-term untreated syphilis–basically, when chronic latent or tertiary syphilis jumps the gap and crosses the streams.

Plenty of chronically ill parents raise children, and everything turns out okay, you say? That is true, very true. But let’s look at the combined symptoms of neurosyphilis and chronic syphilis, and translate them to a living environment for a child who was certainly also born with congenital syphilis, shall we?

Buckle your seatbelt and grab your dental dams.

*chronic headaches, blindness/vision problems/ hyper-photosensitivity + visual disturbances + psychosis (which certainly may include paranoia) = exceedingly dark home. Think every horror movie that shows a psycho killer’s lair (spoiler alert) with random newspapers or aluminum foil blockading the windows. What do you think limited visual field does to baby’s brain development, congenital syph or no?

*confusion, disorientation, again with the psychosis, sudden personality changes, changes in mental stability (redundant, but I am overemphasizing because o the humanity), dementia, depression, irritability, memory problems, mood disturbances = completely unstable and unpredictable environment. Baby Earle cannot trust that the parent approaching him will behave consistently from moment to moment. Plus, with all these mental processing problems, odds are good that someone is going to forget there even is a baby. Regularly.

*abnormal gait + numbness in toes, feet, legs + fecal and urinary incontinence + muscle weakness + tremors + seizures + neck stiffness = even if the parents are physically able to lift and carry baby Earle—imagine what this looks like to a toddler. HORROR SHOW. He doesn’t have normal movements to model.

Plus, add in all the chancres all over their skin, all the lovely skin rot. That’s a given.

Well, what happened to baby Earle? Well, both parents’ bodies gave out before he turned three, and he was sent to live with his grandmother (where was she with the shit everywhere and the newspaper on the windows what the hell), and they lived happily ever–


Grandma was a devout, strict Pentecostal, so Earle’s transition must have been a doozy, and God only knows (amirite) how much of his early childhood and his own syphilis was blamed upon him.

At age ten, he collided with a streetcar–Head Injury City–and, when you add that catastrophic a head injury to a congenitally syphlitic brain, you get ding ding ding! unconscious for six days! SIX.

So, who is this poor Sad Syph Sack who never had a chance?

Earle Leonard Nelson, “the Gorilla Man”, necrophiliac serial killer of at least 22 victims from February 20, 1926–June 9, 1927.


There’s no happy endings with syphilis. Wear a fucking condom.

This is your skull on untreated neurosyphilis. Wear a condom.

My favorite true crime historian, Harold Schechter, wrote a splendid book about the Gorilla Man and his 14 months of horror: Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster.

But wait, there’s more:

Treatment of syphilis in early modern Europe:

…understanding of cause necessarily affects treatment.

Translation: hang on to your tits, there’s about to be some bloodletting and mercury rubbing.

Don’t say it out loud or Quentin Tarantino will make it into a movie.


And…This is, of course, going to be a two-parter. I have to cover war propaganda and wartime medicine, Al Capone, more social injustice…and I have to go in deeper and rant and rave about the human experimentation, especially at Tuskegee. But that day is not today, my loves. For now, I don’t have enough oomph left (stupid immune system) for the ragey typing, and I have just typed syphilis and syph enough for one day don’cha think?

Band names from this episode:

  • The Blame Game: first hit, “Pure Woman, Spotless Children, Happy Man”
  • Absent Genital Box
  • Syphillis Fembots
  • Weapons of Sexism
  • Hairy Canteen and the Towel Theory
  • Gravy Bag
  • Social Evil Hospital
  • Genital Gestapo

Cultural references from this episode:

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About Carla

This Bluestocking bookworm is your friendly Dollop web-wrangler and digital library curator. In other words, pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain. I'm just here to John Nash all this stuff together. It's all about connections. IT'S ALL CONNECTED. I live atop a mountain, geographically isolated for the protection of others. Yes, an American mountain.