Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, was published on December 19, 1843. It’s the now-famous story of the conversion of a miserly man into a generous, kind person, who cares for the poor around him. At the beginning of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser of the story, is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley.

The book’s illustrations, by John Leech, a British caricaturist, show the ghostly Marley with a cloth tied around his head. At one point in the story, Marley unwraps the cloth and his lower jaw falls.

Why was Marley’s head wrapped?

Dickens never tells us what killed Marley; perhaps he had a toothache that led to an infection?

“Though [Scrooge] looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!” (From A Christmas Carol)

Victorian pipe smokers

Victorian pipe smokers in a drawing by S. Jenner circa 1850. REUTERS/Wellcome Library Londontion

The early 1840s was an age before antibiotics. An era when something as simple as a toothache could fester and become deadly. Most times, infected teeth were pulled, but the remaining root or resulting wound easily became infected. Or, if Marley were a smoker, as many men in Victorian England were, he might have developed oral cancer, leading to the deterioration of his jaw. Since both Marley and Scrooge were notorious misers, it’s safe to say that they were most likely too cheap to spend money on even rudimentary dental care of the type that was available in Victorian London.


John Leech’s original illustration from A Christmas Carol.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens shows us the reality of early Victorian Christmas – not the beautiful, snowy versions with children in sleighs and smoke emanating from cozy homes that we imagine, but the suffering of the poor, child labor and cold firesides. He urges us to use what we have to relive the suffering of others.A

We may never find out why Marley wears that handkerchief to hold up his jaw, but we can enjoy the holidays, reread A Christmas Carol and marvel at the transformation of Scrooge from miserable miser to a man who embraces the good of the holiday season. Happy Holidays from the team at Benco Dental.

“…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be said of all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” (From A Christmas Carol)