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'Lake Baikal, where the ice queen cast her spell'

Royal favourite hit by sex slurs after epic Siberian trip

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08 July 2012


Kate Marsden, pictured sitting on the horse, left, during her trip around Yakutia

In an era of extraordinary adventurers, hers was especially remarkable both because she was a woman travelling alone, and due to the sheer scale of her undertaking, to reach one of the remotest areas of Yakutia in search of an elusive herbal cure for leprosy.

By the time of her trip, she had already made her mark, and won the hearts of Russians, as a battle-hardened nurse caring for the wounded during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878. There are accounts of her, then aged 19, stalking the battlefield at night, bringing relief to soldiers felled during the day's fighting. It was at this time that she had her first contact with lepers, and it was to their cause that she devoted her life's work.

Her plan was to set up a charity to relieve the condition of lepers in India, and to this end she secured the support of both Queen Victoria, the Empress of the sub-continent, and the  Princess of Wales, Alexandra, Maria's sister. Seeking further patronage, and never fearful of aiming high to secure her ends, she travelled to St Petersburg and sought the assistance of  the Russian Empress, with Alexandra's introduction.

At this stage, she had no inkling of her journey to Siberia; her focus was on India. She set off for  Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus and Constantinople to study how leprosy was treated in different colonies. It was in  Constantinople that she met an English doctor who told her of a rare and unnamed herb, known only to the Yakut people in this faraway permafrost region.

Inspired by its potential, she changed her plans and rushed back to the royal capital of St Petersburg. It was said of her that she 'charmed the Tsarina and her ladies in waiting and blasted her way through the embattled bureaucracy of Imperial Russia'. In November 1890, she not only convinced the Empress to fund her trip to distant Yakutia to find this herb and use it to cure lepers around the world, but also secured from the Tsarina orders to local governors across eastern Russia that they should give Marsden all possible assistance in the name of Her Majesty.

Kate Marsden dress was so thick she could not bend her knees

Kate Marsden pictured before she set off to her remarkable trip, and a cover of the first edition of her book "On Sledge & Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers", published in 1892. 

Marsden, now in her early 30s, knew from the start that the herb was a closely guarded secret but she hoped that the audacity of her mission would persuade locals to give up their knowledge. 'Could they be persuaded to reveal all they knew to a woman who came to them for the sake of humanity, and on behalf of Christ?' she wondered.

At the time leprosy - a bacterial infection ravaging the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes - was incurable; its impact was devastating.

Kate Marsden's extraordinary journey, sights of winter Yakutia

It took Kate Marsden six months to get from Moscow to Yakutia, leaving her by the end of the journey 'exhausted and frozen to death'. Picture: Planet Yakutia

On 1 February 1891 with a female companion, Miss Ada Field, she set out on her journey from Moscow via Samara to the Urals, and in particular Zlatoust, in Chelyabinsk region, at the time the most easterly point of the railway.

'The next part of the journey, from Zlatoust to Ekaterinburg, was made by carts', unsprung, and uncomfortable, drawn by horses, recounts Yuri Bessonov, a Russian physician, independent researcher and historian, in RN Journal. 'In Ekaterinburg Miss Marsden met a couple of Englishmen, who, having known about her intentions, advised her to visit Irbit, a small town where a popular trade fair was traditionally held in February, which would be a chance to meet some Yakut merchants in order to inquire about the lepers in the Yakut area and about the healing herb.

'Miss Marsden and Miss Field did meet one of the Yakut merchants in Irbit and had a thorough talk with him. Although this merchant did not know much about the herb, he provided some useful information about the Yakut area and he also told about horrible conditions in the places where the lepers lived."

On they went in to Tyumen and Tobolsk. And to Omsk, 'riding on a sleigh along a very poor road, exposed to biting frosts and chilling-to-the-marrow winds', wrote Bessonov. 

Kate Marsden's extraordinary journey, snowy landscapes of Yakutia

As Kate's fellow traveller described, 'Miss Marsden had to undergo a terrible ordeal of rains and storms, cold nights, torturous roads' to finally reach her destination. Picture: Planet Yakutia

The women were 'exhausted and frozen to death' but acting on Maria Fedorovna's instructions they received a warm welcome and were cared for by Governor General Sannikov, and his family. Now disaster struck, though, because Marsden's Russian-speaking companion was too ill to go on. "From that moment Miss Marsden did not hear a single word in her mother tongue until the end of the journey and had to communicate with the people she met .... through a French-speaking interpreter and by gestures'.

Marsden paused for two weeks before proceeding to Krasnoyark, accompanied now by a young French-speaking Russia officer tasked with ensuring the British nurse was able to complete her mission.

According to Bessanov's gripping account the roads 'were worsening with every mile the horses made. The sledges were often stuck in deep snow, despite being driven by up to seven horses. Besides, the travellers had to cross numerous rivers, which was really hazardous, because the ice had already started to melt, as the spring was coming to this part of Siberia. In Krasnoyarsk the sledges were substituted for the carts, but it did not make the trip more comfortable, as the road was in fact a perpetual chain of pits and bumps, so that the travellers had to experience interminable jerks and pushes'.

By April, the Marsden odyssey had reached Irkutsk, and from here she made her way to the Lena River. Her sleigh gave way to a pauzok, or open barge, offering no shelter or comforts, as she now followed the flow for a tortuous three weeks. The vessel was normally used for transporting grain.

Kate Marsden Yakutia, town of Vilyuisk where Kate Marsden also worked

Kate Marsden, left, and a Church of Saint Panteleimon in the Yakutian village for lepers where she is now remembered as 'Our British Hero'.

'Having undergone a terrible ordeal of storms and pouring rains, cold and wet nights, myriads of mosquitoes and centipedes, and all the inconveniences of travelling on the open deck, Miss Marsden arrived at Yakutsk. The local General Governor met her at the riverbank and invited her to his steamer, where he expressed his gratitude for the feats she had made and gave her a very warm and hospitable reception. The Governor spoke for a long time about the leprosy that affected many local people and made necessary arrangements for the further journey.'

Here she was warned about the appalling condition of local lepers condemned to live in colonies in the local taiga. Locals, as in other civilizations, regarded leprosy as a punishment visited on sinful people by higher powers.

'Being scared of any contacts with lepers, the Yakuts would expel their relatives or neighbours with any suspicious manifestations of the disease far away into the taiga, where these miserable people soon turned into living corpses, doomed to spend the rest of their lives in a desolate place among similar wretched sufferers,' wrote Bessonov. 'Having been driven out from their families, the lepers were deprived of any rights and were banned from any communication with the outer world. They had to live alone or in small groups in primitive shelters away from the settlements, being exposed to terrible frosts of about minus 50C degrees in winters and tropical heat in summers, when billions of bloodthirsty insects attacked their festering wounds, torturing them until total exhaustion.'

Undaunted, she resolved to go on to visit the lepers and to find for herself this herb, now guided by a Mr Petroff. 

Kate Marsden's extraordinary journey got her to the town of Vilyuisk

Town of Vilyuisk in Yakutia, where a story of Kate Marsden's extraordinary journey has turned into somewhat of a legend.

The following is an account by Marsden in her own words, penned soon after her trip, and later included in a book she wrote entitled 'Riding through Siberia':

'We left Yakutsk for Vilyuysk June 22nd, 1891, to begin our long journey.....on horseback, for the purpose of visiting the lepers living in forests unknown, even to the Russians. Our cavalcade was somewhat curious, consisting of about fifteen men and thirty horses; all those around me were talking in a language which I could not understand, though Mr. Petroff did, who also knew a little French. The photographer in Yakutsk took our photograph; but someone moved before it was finished, and therefore it was a failure. It might have given an idea of our costumes. As to mine, it was not very elegant : a sun-hat, over it a network arrangement as a protection from the mosquitoes, a jacket with very long sleeves, with the badge of the red cross on my left arm. Very full trousers down to my knees, and high boots above my knees. A revolver, a whip, and a little travelling bag.

'I was obliged to ride as a man for many reasons. First, because the Yakutsk horses were so wild that it was impossible for me to ride otherwise; second, no woman could ride on a lady's saddle for 3000 versts (3200 km); and thirdly, as there were no roads, the horse constantly stumbles on the roots that are in the forest, threatening to throw the rider over its head; then it sinks into the mud till the rider's feet are on earth; having somehow recovered its footing, it rushes along between the branches of the trees and shrubs, utterly regardless of the fact that they were tearing and making mincemeat of the rider's dress. The first day we did five versts; the second, fifteen; the third, twenty; and after that, 80 versts without stopping for sleep. One's sufferings were far worse than even when travelling in the tarantass [springless carriage]; the stiffened position of my body being altogether contrary to its usual free and easy habit; and the jerky movements of the untrained horse gave me dreadful pain.

When Kate Marsden reached the lepers, nothing she had seen before in her life prepared her for the shock. With it dawned a realisation that if the Yakut people indeed possessed a cure for leprosy, it was not being used on their own lepers who lived in utter destitution and misery. She saw that whatever other purpose she had, her first task was to improve the lot of the lepers here, and this became her immediate goal. It is one for which she is still remembered with affection and admiration in this remote corner of Siberia, despite attempts elsewhere to to sully her work and her memory.

In one of many observations, she recorded how 'a scene met my eyes too horrible to describe fully. Twelve men, women and children, scantily and filthily clothed, were huddled together in two small yourtas [huts], covered with vermin. The stench was dreadful; one man was dying, two men had lost their toes and half of their feet'. She met some 80 lepers in all.

Though herself exhausted, she set about finding a location for a civilised home for these outcasts, and on her return through Siberia, starting in Irkutsk, began raising money for a colony where the lepers could be properly cared for.

'The General-Governor of Irkutsk summoned a meeting where Miss Marsden reported her observations and appealed to the participants for the immediate help. The first donation of 1,500 rubles was collected right at the meeting. Very soon, owing to Miss Marsden's steadfast activity, the total sum of the fund rose to 20,000 rubles,' recounted Bassonov.

'In the beginning of October Miss Marsden left Yakutsk and headed for Tomsk, where she arrived in November. In Tomsk she continued appealing to the local authorities, trying to raise more funds for the Yakut lepers. She also had a meeting with the Mother Superior of the local Orthodox convent and told her about the terrible conditions of the lepers in the taiga. The Mother Superior promised to send some nuns to the Yakutsk area to take care of the lepers.'

Kate Marsden extraordinary journey, here she is seen leaving Yakutia

Departure: Kate Marsden, pictured lying on the sledge on way back to Britain.

Her journey back was both easier and successful. On her travels back across Russia, and on her return to the UK, she raised raised the 90,000 roubles needed to build a colony for Vilyuysk.

Russian nurses, inspired by Marsden, staffed the colony when it was opened and consecrated on 5 December 1892, the year after her visit. It was completed six years after she left.

Astonishingly, it survived not only the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing Civil War, but lasted to the early 1960s, pioneering the extermination of leprosy in Yakutia.

'Hailed as a compassionate hero, she was presented to Queen Victoria and became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society,' wrote Felicity Ashton in Geographic magazine, who in 2008 retraced some of Marsden's steps in eastern Siberia.

In Vilyuysk, she found locals more than a century after Marsden's epic trip continuing to regard her as a 'hero' in stark contrast to the character assassination that befell the nurse in the West, of which more below.

Ashton's driver took her to a sign on a house reading 3, Kate Marsden Street, solemnly telling her: 'The people of Vilyuysk think that Kate Marsden did a great thing for the region. It is similar to what Lenin did for the Soviet people. That is why they named the street after her.'

Locals, ancestors of those who came here to work in the colony, still remember stories about Marsden passed down through the generations.

Ashton met one who told her: 'One of my ancestors was a personal assistant to her. She called him John. When she was very tired from riding, he used to put two horses parallel and place material between them so that she could travel while having a rest. In every place they stayed, he made a fire to make smoke, just to keep the mosquitoes away from Kate Marsden. She really thanked him at the end. She wanted him to come with her to England, but he refused to leave his country.'

Most intriguingly, the author clears up a mystery which Marsden herself chose not to explain: the name of the herb she sought and ultimately found. In all probability protecting the secrets of the Yakutian healers who divulged the name of the secret herb to her, and gave her some samples.

Vladimir Kandakov, the chief shaman and head of the Association of Traditional Healers in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), rejected speculation on other herbs and told Ashton in certain terms that it was named Katchutka.

'It is a very rare herb and I only found three stems', he told her. He produced a dictionary written eight years after Marsden's visit which said: 'This herb is used by the Yakut [Sakha] for curing leprosy'.

Locals mixed it with other herbs and sometimes with vodka. It was sadly not the cure that Marsden had sought, though of course leprosy is now cure by antibiotics. marsden did indeed did send it to India and by some accounts it had a soothing impact on sufferers.


Modern day Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, which still keeps the memory of Kate Marsden's extraordinary journey. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Marsden's trip would seem to have all the components of a Hollywood film, but when she returned to her homeland, her name was muddied for reasons that are still not entirely clear.

She was accused of embezzling funds from her leprosy foundation.  Sexual innuendo was spread about her. And doubt was cast on details of her epic trip, with questions raised even about whether she had made it at all.

'For many of the British public, her sensational journey with its Dante-like landscapes and extremes of climate and hardship simply seems incredible for a woman to have undertaken: some disbelieved that she had travelled in Siberia at all, others that she could not have ridden the distance. Or if she did, there must have been some sexual impropriety on the way', wrote Avril Maddrell in the book Complex Locations: Women's Geographical Work in the UK.

Geographers later verified her remarkable accounts of her travels in Siberia. Equally, it did seem that she had been careless if not dishonest with her charitable funds. One contemporary investigation found her 'utterly unbusiness-like' and 'extremely careless in dealing with money'.

Some of the backbiting over her perhaps stemmed from jealous rivals, and her ability to mix with the high and mighty, as well as to gain publicity for her causes. And some too came back to haunt her from an earlier period, before Siberia, when she had worked in New Zealand as, among other roles,  Lady Superintendent of Wellington Hospital.

On her return from Siberia, her enemies - and she certainly had some - claimed to have letters from several women in New Zealand admitting to lesbian relationships with Marsden. These relationships were sometimes 'predatory', it was claimed.

One foe, a Reverend Alexander Francis, boasted pruriently to have written evidence in Marsden's own words. 'Immorality with women is, according to Miss Marsden's own written confessions, one of her sins,' he fulminated.

Some authorities (Middleton, 2004) still find it hard to explain the strong antipathy she engendered.  'Hints of financial impropriety and lesbianism cannot explain why Isabel Hapgood, an American translator worked...for her destruction.' The London Times also joined the crusade against her.

At the time such accusations were, of course, deeply damaging, yet for a time she seemed to overcome them. Later she was in America again raising money for leprosy but she was falsely accused of suffering from leprosy, leading to legal bills to clear her name. At some point the vitriol seemed to wear her done.

Later in life she would settle on the south coast of England and was instrumental in setting up  a local museum in Bexhill-on-Sea. She died in 1931 in poverty in a hospital that was formerly a lunatic asylum.

While the RGS made her a fellow for life, her memory remained tarnished in her own country in a way it was not in Siberia, where it is even said a diamond was named after her.

In 2009, the 150th anniversary of her birth was marked by dedicating a stone monument near Yakutsk Medical Colledge. The vice president of the republic, Evgenia Mikhailova, was present and the health minister Vyacheslav Alexandrov said: 'Kate Marsden gave us an example how one can sacrifice yourself to the treatment of sick people which is the main thing for every doctor.'

Last year the town of Vilyuysk marked the 120th anniversary of her visit with a re-enactment of her arrival. This locals will remember the consecration of the hospital and colony she set up.

Comments (1)

Having just read Kate Marsden's book I am amazed and awed by her tenacity for trying to find a cure for leprosy. Even more incredible, her on going 'fight' to help needy, isolated-in every sense of the word-and suffering people.

Although her name and reputation was questioned in Britain I am delighted to read she's fondly remembered in Siberia.Thank you for an interesting and informative article.
Jennie Partington, Denmark ,Western Australia
09/06/2013 09:25

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