Drowned maidens: Victorian depictions of female suicide

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Trigger warnings: this post references some recent cases of suicide that some readers may find distressing.

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“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  Edgar Allan Poe

Ruslana Korshunova’s suicide reported on Fox News 2008.

In 2008, Fox News aired a crime scene video showing a twenty-year-old Model, Ruslana Korshunova, lying dead on the street, after apparently committing suicide by throwing herself from the 9th floor of her New York apartment block. Blood could still be seen oozing from her nose. The image was both shocking and intrusive. But, intrusive media coverage of death and disaster has become an accepted part of our appetite for sensation – a malady we like to think of as particularly modern. However, comments from the reporter, and subsequent comments on social media, which focused on the unworldly beauty of the woman’s corpse, revealed attitudes toward female suicide that find their origin in a much earlier nineteenth-century aesthetic. One that both romanticized female suicide for a male gaze, whilst also serving as a warning to women daring to step outside their proscribed gender roles.

Death becomes her

In the eighteenth-century, male suicide was fairly commonly depicted in art and literature, with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, perhaps the most famous example. The novel created something of a moral panic and ‘Werther Fever’ and the ‘Werther Effect’ were linked to several copy-cat suicides of young men overcome by unrequited love or their own heightened sensibilities [1].

The Werther Effect. Public domain (?)

During the nineteenth century, the depiction of suicide underwent something of a gendered transformation which saw a proliferation in images of female suicide and far fewer images of male suicide [2]. This belied the reality, that in fact, in the nineteenth century, men were (and still are) much more likely to successfully commit suicide than women [3].  Before looking at why this change took place, let’s look at some examples of nineteenth-century images of female suicides.

Firstly, anyone who ever had a Pre-Raphaelite phase at college will be familiar with the poster-girl of drowned maidens, Ophelia.  Painted in 1851 by John Everett Millais, this is considered to be artistic ground zero for the huge proliferation of depictions of drowned females in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain.

Ophelia, 1851, by John Everett Millais. Google Art Project.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is pulled this way and that by the men in her life. Used by her father and brother in their court intrigues because of her implied liaison with Hamlet, she is then cast off by Hamlet and ultimately drowns through her own actions.  Maybe she was an innocent victim, maybe a fallen woman. Maybe it was an accident, maybe suicide.

Millais’s iconic image presents her watery death in a very eroticized way.  Her lips are half-open, singing as she drowned, perhaps, or expelling her dying breath; or just maybe her parted lips are meant to evoke something far more sexual. It is for the viewer to decide. There is a voyeuristic element to the picture, it is even framed in a proscenium-style arch, giving it a theatrical air – even though the actual death of Ophelia was not usually depicted on stage. [4]

L’inconnue_de_la_Seine. Image via Wikimedia.

The Second image will be familiar to anyone who has done CPR Training.  L’Inconnue de la Seine is said to be the death mask of an unknown woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s (although this has been debated).  She was judged to be a suicide. Her corpse was displayed in the Paris Morgue, as was the custom.  One of the morticians was supposed to have been so taken with her beauty, that he cast her death mask.

The image caused a sensation, Richard le Gallienne called her a modern Ophelia while Albert Camus described her ‘Mona Lisa Smile’.  Her mask became a popular, if morbid, fixture in many private homes.  Her image was romanticized and eroticized.  It became a ‘look’ to be emulated by the popular actresses of the day [5].

In 1955 Asmund Laerdal made her even more famous by using her image to create Resusci Anne, giving the unknown woman of the Seine the dubious distinction of having ‘the most kissed lips in history’.  That’s not creepy in the slightest!

The third image, Found Drowned, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1850, presents the scene following a woman’s apparent suicide by drowning. The title reveals something important about how female suicide was recorded, often there were no witnesses to drowning, so while the assumption might be that it was a suicide, societal taboos around female suicide often led to such deaths being hidden under the ambiguous label of ‘found drowned’. [6].

Found Drowned by George Frederick Watts 1850. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The picture, which was inspired by the influential poem The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, assumes that the viewer understands the implicit backstory of this image.  The drowned woman is a fallen woman.  Seduced, abandoned and pregnant.  Rather than descend into shame, poverty, and prostitution, the only route left open to her by society, she has chosen to take her life and thereby redeem herself.

Despite the more sympathetic message of the image, the depiction of the woman is still sensual. The woman’s face appears luminous and her limbs flung wide, displaying the victim’s figure to the viewer.

Hood wrote the poem in 1844 and it helped to raise society’s awareness of the plight of the ‘fallen’ woman – who found the only option left to her was suicide.  In one famous passage, he describes how her sin has been washed away by her death:

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

However, its idea of a fallen-women gaining redemption through drowning, while generating public sympathy, may have also led to an unfortunate increase in life imitating art, as women saw their only option for social redemption, suicide, reinforced [7].

The Punished Suicide. 1863. Photograph by Carlo Vannini and from Ivan Cenzi’s book His Anatomical Majesty

Finally, a lesser-known image of female suicide, this time from Italy.   Ivan Cenzi has brought the story of how this extraordinary image was created to an English speaking audience [8][9]. The subject of this human taxidermy project was an unknown 18-year-old seamstress who drowned herself in the river at Padua, sometime in 1863.  It was pronounced that she had killed herself over an ‘amorous delusion’.

The nearby University of Padova had a long history of anatomical study, and the girl’s body was handed over to the chair of Anatomy himself, Ludovico Brunetti (1813-1899).

Brunetti had a very unusual plan – this was to be no simple anatomical dissection. He intended to create Great Art out of this girl’s pain. He proceeded to take a cast of the girl’s face and bust, then he skinned her, taking care to keep her hair pristine.  He then treated the skin with sulfuric ether and his own special tanning formula, in order to preserve her image for eternity.  The resulting bust is truly startling.

Unfortunately, as the girl had been dragged out of the river using hooks, her face had sustained some damage. However, Brunetti used these flaws to his advantage, seeing them as a way to convey a moral message, as well as display his skill at preservation.  What emerged from his creative processes was a shocking image known as ‘The Punished Suicide‘.  To ram the moral home, that suicide was a mortal sin and suicides would be forever tormented in Hell,  he enveloped her face in writhing snakes and used red candle wax to imitate blood gushing from her wounds.

Somewhat perversely, to modern sensibilities at least, her parents loved it. Brunetti and his Punished Suicide, later wowed the audiences at the Universal Exposition in Paris where he won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions category, which in itself says a lot about public attitudes to images of female suicide and public entertainment. This image is still on display in Padova University, and, to modern eyes at least, evokes a strong reaction. Personally, I find the use and display of human remains as art, without the informed consent of the subject, to be highly problematic.  However, nineteenth-century attitudes were clearly very different.

These are only a few of the many such images in nineteenth-century art, literature, and sculpture.  But why were they so popular and what was their purpose?

Women behaving badly

During the nineteenth century, Western Societies underwent a huge demographic shift as the Industrial Revolution lead to mass migrations from the countryside to towns and cities.  From living in traditional rural communities, where everyone knew one and other, many people now found themselves amongst strangers.  Factory work saw more women working outside the home and competing with men.  Poverty and overcrowded housing brought disease and disorderly behavior, drunkenness was a common outlet for the lower classes.  Add to this the blatant social inequality of Victorian society, where the poor (and particularly the female poor) were routinely exploited by those higher up the social ladder, and you and you can begin to see the cracks undermining the edifice of respectable Victorian society.

Overcrowding in Victorian London. Gustave Dore. 1872. British Library.

The Victorian establishment did not only fear the working class becoming politicized or organized via trade unions, they feared the traditional gender roles of society were being challenged.  Women were supposed to be the ‘Angel in the house’ described in Coventry Patmore’s poem, a sweet and passive homemaker for her husband and family.  However the economic reality for many women was very different, and when a woman transgressed society’s norms, particularly if she was considered a ‘fallen’ woman, she could suffer terrible consequences.

The Outcast. Richard Redgrave. 1851. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Influential sociologists writing about suicide, such as Henry Morselli, writing in 1881, and Emile Durkheim, writing in 1897, both linked urbanization and the breakdown of traditional gender roles as a factor in female suicide. While the stats they relied upon showed that male suicide was more common than female suicide, both promoted the view that women were weaker morally and were safer when protected from the struggles of society [10].

In doing so, they used the stats to reinforced traditional Victorian gender roles by concluding that married people and married people with children were less susceptible to suicide, whereas the unmarried, divorced, widowed or childless were more at risk.  In short, women should stay at home and look after their husbands and family – or risk the consequences. Of course, as Deacon has pointed out, the stats don’t tell the whole picture [11].

There was an underlying hint that perhaps suicide was one way to rid society of unwanted, ungovernable and surplus women.

Idealized family life – the woman is focused on the private home sphere.

Another popular Victorian preconception was that men tended to commit suicide for more important reasons.  Male suicide was viewed as linked to the social and economic well-being of the country, while women were seen as committing suicide for personal and emotional reasons, which were considered less important to society. This had the effect of trivializing female narratives and the reasons for female suicide, often downgrading them by centering them on women’s (failed) relationships with men [12].

As the century progressed, attitudes to suicide also changed, from being considered a sin and a shameful crime, people began to link mental illness to suicide. While this was a good thing, as it led to more understanding of the underlying causes of suicide, it also played into the idea of women as weak, emotional creatures who needed to be protected from themselves or risk the consequences. From Ophelia to the Italian seamstress suffering from ‘Amorous delusions’, women’s suicide was linked to madness and instability in the nineteenth-century mind, further devaluing it by refusing to see it as a final, if desperate, act of autonomy.

From sexual sirens to found drowned

John William waterhouse, Mermaid, 900

The Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. Via Wikimedia.

The Victorians had a particular fondness for depicting women in water, no doubt because of the long-standing associations between femininity and water.  Women were seen as fickle and changeable as the sea, with sexual undercurrents and life-cycles made up of water, blood, and milk [13]. While sexual sirens might be depicted as mermaids or aquatic nymphs, leading men to drown in their transgressive embrace, the fallen woman was often depicted floating serenely, a beatific expression on her face, lovely to behold. Not remotely like a real drowning victim -bloated and muddy.

It has been suggested that this elevated the fallen woman’s suicide to a kind of redemption and washing away of sins – as implied in Hood’s poem. While this sounds romantic and sympathetic, it also created the pernicious cycle of life imitating art, real fallen women, cast out by society and facing a future of shame and prostitution, saw suicide as a way to redeem themselves and avoid becoming a burden on society because it was tacitly reinforced in popular culture.

Conclusion

To sum up, the Victorians fetishized the image of female suicide.  While male suicide was often seen as a final, possibly heroic, act of autonomy, for women, it was quite different.

Artistic images of female suicide had multiple purposes and meanings.  One of the most obvious was to commodify and pacify the female body by creating an ideal,  female beauty for the (male) viewer to appreciate.  The threatening unruly female, stripped of all power and autonomy after death, but still possessed of erotic and romantic fascination.

In addition this, in a society undergoing radical change, images of female suicide, bound up as they were with ideas of shame, madness, and sexual transgression were often used as a warning to women to keep to their proscribed roles and not try to compete with men in the public sphere.

In the 20th Century, widespread publication of Robert Wiles photograph of Evelyn McHale’s suicide made her death both public and iconic -which went against her expressed wishes for privacy.  More recently,  the 21st Century case of Ruslana Korshunova, where the reporter talked of Ruslana’s life and death, as a fairy-tale-gone-wrong, show that in some ways,  attitudes to representations of female suicide have not changed much since the nineteenth century.

However, more nuanced readings of these images are possible, readings that provide a deeper understanding of attitudes society held towards women and the public consumption of their bodies, both then and now.

While male suicides still predominate today, as in the Victorian age,  the recent tragic suicide of Love Island’s Caroline Flack, in the face of much negative media attention, has made it more important than ever to consider the unrealistic expectations that our society and the media still place on women.

Sources and notes

**Firstly, if you are having a hard time and need to talk to someone, you can contact Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/

Cenzi, Ivan, The Punished Suicide, 24 Oct 2016, <https://deadmaidens.com/2016/10/24/the-punished-suicide/> [8] [9

Deacon, Deborah, Fallen Women: The Popular Image of Female Suicide in Victorian England, c1837-1901, 7 April 2015, <https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/history/assets/docs/Honours%20Thesis%20-%20Deborah%20Deacon%202015%20.pdf> [2][4][6][7][11]-[13]

Durkheim, Emile, 1952, (originally published 1897) Suicide a Study in Sociology [3][10]

Meeson, Valerie, Res.Ma HLCS, Post-Mortems: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in Victorian Culture, [date unknown], <https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/3754/Meessen%2c_V.P.H._1.pdf?sequence=1> [4]

Mulhall, Brenna, The Romanticization of the the Dead Female Body in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, 2017, Aisthesis Vol 8 [5]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorrows_of_Young_Werther#Cultural_impact [1]

A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Haunted Palace Blog

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In the dark and cobweb-filled corridors of the Haunted Palace, faint scribblings and mutterings can often be heard eminating from the book-strewn chambers high amongst its ivy-clad towers.  Lenora and Miss Jessel are custodians of an extensive library of peculiar tomes, from which they draw their ideas.  But one thing is missing from the library: a book of their own.  But not for much longer.

Yes, after 7 years and close to half a million views (thanks to you, our wonderful readers), Lenora and Miss Jessel have decided to publish a collection of a few of their favourite posts.

Just to make it extra special, and because copyright is a thing, we have commissioned two talented young artists to produce images for our book.

Naturally, because we at the Haunted Palace love all things creepy, we aim to publish our book for Halloween 2020. There’s a long way to go, but the cogs are turning!

In the meantime, we’d like you to meet the Haunted Palace artists in residence…and maybe give you just a teaser of what to expect in our book…

Iga Pencak aka Baba Jaga art: Freelance artist and costume designer

Iga Pencak studied and Central St Martins and VCA in London, and graduated in Theatre and Screen Costume Design. She is a talented portrait artist, costume designer and milliner. She has worked on large-scale mural projects and led community art workshops with Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_.

Follow Iga on Instagram: @babajagaart 

And find her at:

etsy.com/shop/Igamagination
facebook.com/PortraitServicebyBabaJaga

Costume Designs, part of final degree project, by Iga Pencak

Tranquility, pen and ink, by Iga Pencak

Hanging Bat, paint on glass, by Iga Pencak

Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_: Freelance artist and student

Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_ is a freelance artist and is currently studying for his undergraduate BA degree in Illustration at Newcastle college. He has worked on large scale mural projects and led community art workshops with Iga Pencak.

Rohan accepts commissions.

Follow him on Instagram: @chickenstein_

The Bride of Chickenstein, pencil sketch, by Rohan Hall

Cthulu for climate change, relief print, by Rohan Hall

Memorial for Billy, acrylic on stone by Rohan Hall

And now a flavour of what they are both working on for the Haunted Palace and its Cabinet of Curiosities

Iga is producing the cover-art and full-page images for each section in the book.  She begins the process with a pencil sketch, then inks the images prior to digitalising them for publication.  Here are two of her works in progress.

First, for our ‘History’s lost and found’ section, which will include such dark tales as the dancing mania of the middle ages and the firey fate of the ladies of the ballet blanche, she came up with this darkly dynamic design:

Ballet shoes and skull, pen and ink, by Iga Pencak

Secondly, for this macabre sketch, for our suitably named ‘Macabre’ section, in which you will find such delights as a day out at the Paris Morgue, Iga was inspired by our post about Enon Chapel and its sinister secret.

Dance of Death, preliminary pencil sketch by Iga Pencak

Rohan will be creating smaller images for each individual post. He begins the process by creating a pencil sketch, he then digitalises the image for publishing.

He as already produced two very atmospheric images,  for folktales The King o’ the Cats and Hell-hounds, Hyter Sprites, and God-fearing mermaids (as well as producing our logo – see the about us page)

Illustration for the King O' the Cats

The King O’ the Cats digital sketch by Rohan Hall

Black Shuck by Rohan Hall

Black Shuck by Rohan Hall

We’ll still be posting our usual brand of in-depth darkness, but expect a few updates on how our book is progressing along the way!

We hope you will enjoy it.

Lenora  & Miss Jessel

 

 

 

Jealousy, bigamy, gin and a ghost: The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

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Hanging outside Newgate Prison early 19th century

At 8 o’clock on Monday 18 September 1815, 51 year old Thomas Bedworth was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his on/off lover Elizabeth Beesmore. The details of the murder although vicious were no different to most other crimes of passion, except in one way, Thomas Bedworth claimed that he had been driven to confess in order to put an end to the relentless harrying of Elizabeth’s ghost.

Bedworth’s background

Bedworth was born in 1764 in Bloxidge in Staffordshire. According to him although his parents were good, honest people and tried to keep him on the right path, he was often in trouble. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a brindle bit and stirrup maker in Walsall but left after he had completed the apprenticeship in 1782. He eventually found himself in London and went to work at a factory owned by Mr Rowley in Drury Lane. He left in 1795 when he signed up to join the army.

A bigamous marriage

During his time in London he married Mary Bainer, the daughter of a tradesman from Soho with whom he had three children. He left the army in 1803 and went with family to Birmingham. In 1804 he joined the navy where he gained a reputation as a good sailor. He was discharged in 1813. On returning to his wife he found she had bigamously married again and had three children from this union.

The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

Shortly afterwards he met up with Elizabeth Beesmore who had been deserted by her husband and left destitute with a child. They took up together and Bedworth promised to provide for her as long as she had no contact with her estranged husband. This she agreed to and they pledged themselves to each other to be as husband and wife. To make matters even more complicated she also happened to be the sister of Mary Bainer and so Thomas Bedworth’s sister-in-law.

Detail from William Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of Day’ series. 1738. Public Domain.

They were together for two years when out of the blue John Beesmore returned to London looking for his wife. Thomas was outraged, Elizabeth had broken her word and worse still was giving Beesmore money. Bedworth moved out and took up other lodgings. Attempts on both parties to reconcile failed and during the last altercation Elizabeth announced that she was returning to her husband. Hearing this news a jealous Bedworth vowed to kill Elizabeth.

On the 20 June 1815 Bedworth, his mood heightened by gin, made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms armed with a shoemaker’s knife. On the way he met a woman (Sarah Collis) who lived in the same lodgings as Elizabeth who told him that she was not at home. He and Sarah decided to go for a drink to wait for Elizabeth’s return.

Later he arrived at Elizabeth’s obviously drunk and she allowed him to sleep it off. On awaking he left (without his shoes and coat) and went back to the dram shop, had more gin and returned. He drank tea laced with gin provided by Elizabeth and announced he was going. Before he left, he called Elizabeth to the kitchen where she embraced him and he conflicted “between jealous passion and strong affection” drew his knife and slashed her throat, nearly severing it from her body. He then made his escape.

Cruelty in perfection (Plate III)

Willliam Hogarth. 1751. The Four Stages of Cruelty, Cruelty in perfection (Plate III). Public Domain.

Ghostly recriminations

Bedworth recounts that he first went to Spa-fields where under the cover of darkness he got rid of his blood-splattered apron and then wandered to Regent’s Park where he threw the knife into the canal. He spent the day hiding in Hampstead. It was during that night that he first heard the agonising moans which filled him with ‘disquietude and alarm’.

The next night, which he spent in St Albans, he heard the terrible sounds again and a voice which he recognised as belonging to Elizabeth, crying ‘Oh Bedworth! Bedworth! What have you done?…You have deprived me of all the happiness of this life’. Bedworth terror-stricken prayed for the apparition to leave him in peace.

The nightly visitations continued and grew worse. Tormented by guilt he wandered the streets of London until he came to Highgate Hill. There he saw Elizabeth’s grisly ghost in front of him, she walked by his side and taking his hand placed it on her severed throat. Bedworth fled in terror and lying down in a field felt her lay down alongside him.

Thomas Beesmore.

Thomas Bedworth. Detail from his Confessions. 1815. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

Driven out of his mind and despite being by this time wanted by the police Bedworth managed to obtain a ‘walking pass’ from the Magistrates Public Office and left London. He eventually found himself in Coventry. Although still on the run he had at last come to terms with his guilt. The haunting had also ended. After arriving in Horsley, the torment returned and unable to cope any longer he went back to Coventry where on the 6 July he turned himself in. He was arrested and brought back to London where he signed his confession in front of a magistrate.

The confession of Thomas Bedworth

Frontispiece of Thomas Bedworth's confessions.

1815 Edition of the Confessions of Thomas Bedworth. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

The above account of the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore is taken directly from a statement made by Bedworth the night before his execution[1]. He told his story to witnesses, one of whom wrote it down and produced an 18-page pamphlet costing 6 pence a copy. As always with first-hand accounts it is difficult to know how trustworthy the narrator is and some of the details vary significantly from the two witnesses, Sarah Collis and another friend, Ann Webber who were present at the time of the murder[2]. At the trial Bedworth argued with them causing the judge to admonish the defendant who he believed was trying to recant. Bedworth denied the accusation explaining that he just wanted everything to be accurate such as the murder weapon being a shoemaker’s knife and not a razor.

The major difference surrounds the supposed reappearance of John Beesmore. Bedworth claimed his return was the motive behind Elizabeth’s murder but Sarah Collis stated at the trial that Bedworth moved out due to a dispute with Elizabeth’s son, also called John (even Bedworth admits to arguing with John the day of the murder)[3]. Neither Collis or Webber mentioned Elizabeth estranged husband. It is difficult to know who to believe; maybe Bedworth thought that a crime of passion would gain more sympathy with the general public than a senseless murder committed by a drunk. It is also strange that if involved, John Beesmore never appeared to give evidence at the trial especially if Bedworth was telling the truth and Elizabeth had decided to go back to him.

It took less than an hour for the jury to bring in a guilty verdict of wilful murder. The judge sentenced Bedworth to hang on the following Monday and his body to be given to the surgeons to dissect and anatomise. He also hoped that Bedworth would spend the time he had left repenting and berated Bedworth for taking away Elizabeth’s chance to confess her own sins and die at peace.

A ghastly visitation

So on to Elizabeth’s ghost. The unique aspect of this case was Thomas Bedworth’s assertion that he had been plagued by the restless spirit of Elizabeth who pushed him to the brink of insanity and forced him to confess. Despite many attempts to convince people that ghosts and spirits did not exist through both religious arguments and scientific investigations, the belief persisted. Why a ghost would appear varied but general consensus was that it was more likely if the person had met a violent end and stories of ghosts seeking revenge for their untimely demise were told and retold in all parts of the country. So to many Bedworth’s account would have been entirely credible.

Setting aside the argument that Elizabeth’s ghost was real; the only other logical conclusion is that the ghost had been a figment of Bedworth’s imagination. How and why did Bedworth’s mind conjure up this hallucination can be attributed to two possible causes; alcohol and guilt.

 “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey.  It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away.”[4]

William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane. Public Domain.

The above is the first verse of a poem which accompanied Hogarth’s print of ‘Gin Lane’ and it really says it all. Although since the 1751 Gin Act, gin was no longer viewed as the devil as it had been in the first half of the 1700s[5], its popularity did return during in the early 19th century. Gin could be easily bought in ‘dram shops’ which flourished in areas of extreme poverty and unemployment. Dram shops were small shops where you could either drink the gin there and then or take it away with you[6]. Later these small shops were overtaken by the popular Gin Palaces which sprung up in London in the Late Victorian period.

Then as now people drank to drown their sorrows and forget the misery of their lives, if you were drunk then you couldn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Gin was cheap and strong and easily available[7]. It is noticeable that Bedworth was in the days leading up to the murder pretty much constantly drunk. A witness’ testimony that Bedworth’s was a ‘very quiet man when sober, but when drunk he used to swear a little’[8] seems odd considering Bedworth’s drunken, murderous exclamation at the Two Spies Public House that ‘it would be blood for blood’[9]. All involved on the day of the murder including Elizabeth herself were drinking gin even if it was diluted in water.

Even in the 1800s drinking in excess was understood to be one of the triggers behind ghost sightings. Gin in excess was believed to cause ‘terrible hangovers, depression, anger or even insanity[10]. If it was the effects of the drink which led Bedworth to murder Elizabeth then it must have been the withdrawal from alcohol, the DTs which caused Bedworth to hallucinate the spirit of Elizabeth raised from the grave. Side effects of DTs include ‘nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating[11]. Maybe if Bedworth had been sober he would never have killed Elizabeth.

The Gin Shop. Cruikshank. 1829.

The product of a distorted mind

The most famous work in English literature depicting a descent into madness through guilt is Macbeth. Macbeth during the banquet scene sees the gory apparition of his murdered friend, Banquo and murmurs ‘when the brains were out, the man would die; and there an end, but now they risen again[12] This line encapsulates perfectly the struggle between logic and irrationality and the slow crumbling of a mind at war with itself.

Even in the Victorian period it was accepted that ghosts could be a product of illnesses such as melancholy which could lead to madness. The warning signs of melancholy included dejection, sadness, gloominess and haunting dreams. In many ways it is the modern equivalent of depression with the exception of hallucinations and visions. Melancholy was said to be the result of ghost stories told in childhood as well as anxiety brought on by religious enthusiasm, fear of bewitchment, grieving and guilt[13]. Murderers were known to see their victims and there are countless more recent reports of killers being haunted by the spirits of those whose lives they took.

One famous example is Al Capone who masterminded the murder in 1929 of seven members of a rival gang including James Clark. Shortly after Capone was arrested, his guards ‘would later report that he [Capone] would let out bloodcurdling screams, shouting for Jimmy to leave him alone’[14]. For the rest of his life Capone would see Clark’s ghost, he even hired a medium to banish the spirit but to no avail. [15]

So it is very likely that Bedworth’s guilty conscience did contribute to the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost.

The haunting immortalized

Dickens never claimed to have used the story of Bedworth’s haunting and deranged ramblings as inspiration for his depiction of Sikes wild behaviour, frenzied wandering and hallucinations after the murder of Nancy but the parallels are clear.

He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell…

At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always. [16]

It would be odd if Dickens hadn’t known about the murder since his friend, the artist George Cruikshank and illustrator of Oliver Twist had produced the frontispiece for another friend William Hone, whose pamphlet concerned ‘The Horrid Murder of Elizabeth Beesmore’. After Dickens death, Cruikshank claimed that the idea for Oliver Twist was his[17].

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Elizabeth’s revenge

In my opinion the most likely theory for the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost is guilt mixed with the effects of alcohol withdrawal but I do think that Bedworth did genuinely believe himself to be haunted by Elizabeth’s ghost. The loss of his grasp on reality can be detected in a newspaper article on the trial which reported that Bedworth appeared ‘insensible of the awful situation in which he stood, and was smiling and talking to all the persons about him[18].

Whatever the reason behind Elizabeth’s murder, whether jealousy, anger or drink one thing is certain ghost or not, Elizabeth did finally get her revenge.

Gin glass.

Here’s to Mrs Beesmore’s spectral revenge.

Bibliography

William Hogarth – Gin Lane.jpg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane.jpg

Delirium tremens, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delirium_tremens

The Haunted: Social history of ghosts, Owen Davies, 2007

The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 68, Philological Society, July-December 1815

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

British Executions, http://www.britishexecutions.co.uk/execution-content.php?key=3705&termRef=Thomas%20Bedworth

1800 – 1827 Public executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1800.html 

Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, Peter Marshall, 2004

Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Bridget Walsh, 2014

10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost, http://listverse.com/2017/08/04/10-murderers-haunted-by-their-victims-ghost/ 

The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth: delivered to one of the principal officers of Newgate, the night before his execution, onSeptember 18, 1815, for the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore, in Drury Lane, Thomas Bedworth, https://archive.org/details/powerofconscienc00bedwiala

Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures, (ed.) Robert L. Patten, 2016

Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16, https://newspaperarchive.com/courier-sep-16-1815-p-2/

Gender and Crime, 1815-1834, Julie C. Tatlock, Marquette University, 2009

Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18150913-1-defend50&div=t18150913-1#highlight

Gin Craze, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_Craze

Gin Palace, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_palace

How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the Spirits World: Why do some people fear gin?, Chaim Dauermann, 1 June 2015, https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/6/1/8700045/why-gin-a-look-at-the-roots-of-why-some-fear-this-familiar-j

Notes

[1] The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and     extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth
[2] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
[3] Ibid
[4] William Hogarth - Gin Lane.jpg
[5] Gin Craze
[6] Gin Palace
[7] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
[8] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16
[9] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
[10] How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the SpiritWorld
[11] Delirium tremens
[12] Macbeth Act III, Scene IV, Shakespeare
[13] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
[14] 10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost
[15] Ibid
[16] Oliver Twist
[17] Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures
[18] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16

Fire and Brimstone: The Animal Kingdom on Trial

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‘The Law is an Ass’[1]

Image by Lenora.

One of the strangest practices that developed in the early medieval period was that of animal trials.

Animals were only brought before the law and punished if they affected people or society; animals killing other animals for food was seen as a part of the natural order of things – pretty sensible or there would have been no animals left.

For some reason the majority of cases seem to have taken place in France, maybe animals and insects held an unusually strong grudge against the French. Whatever the reason the industry surrounding animal courts and lawyers specialising in bestial crimes flourished there. Eventually it was decided that it was unfair that animals were being sentenced without the chance to prove their innocence. Obviously the animals and insects were unable to arrange their own defence and so under Francis I (1494-1547) it became illegal for an animal to be tried without a defence lawyer present to act as an intermediary between the animals and the injured human parties[2]. This practice was to some extent adopted in other mainland European countries.

There seems to have been two main types of charges; that of a single animal or small group of animals attacking an individual person and that of large numbers of a species causing harm to a community or society.

The punishment meted out depended on the crime. If an animal or insect could be identified as the culprit they could face a death sentence i.e. death by hanging, burning at the stake or decapitation.

The Death Sentence

Although dressing animals up in human clothes, appointing them a lawyer and conducting a trial is no longer employed, putting down animals which have injured or killed humans is still in use. Whereas today it seems to be dogs that are often in the news for attacking people, in the past it was pigs who dominated the animal trials.

A famous case occurred in Falaise in France where a sow was accused of killing a child and then devouring it. The sow was tried and found guilty of murder and condemned to be killed by the sword. Since the child’s head had been eaten as well as an arm, the sow’s foot was cut off and its face mutilated before it was dressed in men’s clothing and led away to face the executioner[3].

Trial of a sow from The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, Public Domain.

Another occasion also in France, three sows were accused of killing the swineherd, Perrinot Muet. The sows were duly convicted but as if the case wasn’t strange enough two entire herds of swine were accused of being accessories to murder since they had heard Perrinot’s screams, ‘rushed’ to the scene of the crime and ‘witnessed’ his death. After appealing to the Duke of Burgundy, Prior Humbert de Poutier managed to get the death sentence dismissed against the herds[4]. This weird judgement was based on medieval law codes that stated that any living creature in the vicinity of certain serious crimes e.g. murder, rape and sexual assault could be seen as an accomplice and decapitated[5]. What did people expect the animals to do; fight the perpetrators, go for help or raise an alarm? It seems in these situations only Skippy, Flipper and Lassie would have survived.

Banishment

Sentences of banishment or exile were also used where the crime was not considered as severe or where the prosecutors felt sympathy for the perpetrators.

In Russia a he-goat was exiled to Siberia after butting an important official whilst he was tying his shoe[6] and in 1519 a community in Western Tyrol brought to trial some mice which were causing grave damage to the harvest. The defence lawyer argued that the mice served the community by eating insects and enriching the soil. Despite losing the mice were treated with leniency and kindness. Although they were ordered to leave immediately a fourteen day reprieve was granted to any pregnant mice that were unable to travel or any young that could not make the journey unaided[7].

Sometimes the situation was beyond the power of the law courts to deal with and the church was called in to intervene on behalf of the complainants. The church wielded two unique weapons; these were the power of excommunication and anathema.

Excommunication and Anathema

An excommunication in full swing. Public domain.

Excommunication involves ejection from the church and exclusion from its services and communion[8]. Anathema was a more severe form of excommunication and was often used to cast out the devil or his agents. Anathema involved using curses and denouncements to ban a person or thing from the light of the church and was implemented in religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority[9].

The problem with excommunication was that how can you eject something from an institution that it is not a part of in the first place? The other difficulty is that it suggested that animals and insects have souls, something the Catholic Church at that time denied. That is why anathema was often seen as a more powerful and appropriate punishment.

How the excommunication or anathema was implemented could vary. Sometimes it was on the spur of the moment and at other times a representative was appointed to argue on behalf of the accused.

The Power of a Saint

In general the success rate of these judgements against insects, mammals and birds is unknown but in one case the records definitely confirm a win.

St Bernhard of Clairveaux Jorg Breu the elder. 1500. Public domain.

In 1121 St Bernard Clairvaux, initiator of the Cistercian Order and fervent proponent of the 2nd Crusade was preaching at the monastery of Foigny which he had founded when a swarm of irreligious flies entered without permission. These flies showed no respect for the solemnity of the occasion and proceeded to irritate St Bernard and distract his parishioners. The infuriated saint reaching the end of his tether suddenly addressed the flies and announced in a prophetic voice “I excommunicate you”. The next morning all the flies were found dead on the floor and had to be swept out[10].

It does seem that even though excommunication could be performed by any clergyman, effectiveness was more likely when performed by someone high up on the religious ladder.

The curse of the caterpillars

Caterpillars for some reason in particular seemed to have raised the ire of our medieval ancestors.

One of the earliest recorded excommunications took place in 1120 and was carried out by the Bishop of Laon when he issued a letter biding the annoying caterpillars to vacate the area. The caterpillars were apparently working in cohorts with some field mice as they were also named. It is really interesting that the formulae used by the bishop to deliver the proclamation was the same as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims which cursed priests who continued to marry ‘in spite of the canons’[11]. So in France it seems that rebellious priests and mutinous caterpillars warranted the same treatment!

Further decrees of excommunication against caterpillars were issued in 1480 by the spiritual court of Autun responding to complaints from the inhabitants of Mussy and Pernan, in 1543 in Grenoble, in 1585 by the Grand Vicar of Valencia who ordered the caterpillars to vacate his diocese and on the 9 July 1516 when Jean Milon, an officer of Troye passed this damning sentence,

after having heard the parties and granting the request of the inhabitants of Villenove, we admonish the caterpillars to retire within six days; and in case they do not comply, we pronounce them accursed and excommunicated [12]

In general it is not known how the caterpillars felt about these denouncements but in the case of the caterpillars of Valence in 1587 they stuck their suckers in and refused to budge[13]. It seems that the loss of the comfort of the church was less important than the pleasure of some tasty greens.

The Leeches of Geneva

In 1451 a pile of leeches were brought to court on the order of William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, to listen to the accusations against them. How this worked I have no idea as they don’t have ears but anyway it was against the rules to issue any legal edict without representatives from those accused being present. The leeches had been threatening the destruction of fish, in particular salmon stocks in Lake Geneva. The edict confined them to one specified part of the lake. It seems that the leeches on this occasion were not excommunicated as they obeyed and caused no further trouble[14].

Noah’s Ark Stowaways

Sometimes the ingenuity of the arguments given by the lawyers prosecuting and defending insects and animals smacked of brilliance and their arguments had a weird logic to them.

    An Inger…? Image by Chickenstein.

In 1478 the community of Berne in Switzerland asked for judicial help against a plague of insects called ingers which were destroying their crops. A proclamation made from the pulpit gave the ingers six days to leave and if they failed to do so they had to appear at one o’clock at Wifflisburg to face trial before His Grace the Bishop of Lausanne or his deputy. When the ingers did not appear they were appointed Thruing Fricker as their defence lawyer. The clever prosecutor dismissed Fricker’s statement that as one of god’s creatures they were allowed the right to live. He instead argued the opposite pointing out that ingers had survived the flood as stowaways aboard the Ark as they were not listed amongst the creatures invited by Noah. The prosecutor won and it was decreed that the ingers should be banned, exorcised and accursed and that wherever they go their numbers should decrease[15]. Maybe it worked, as I have never heard of ingers! If anyone has please let me know.

The Weevils’ Revenge

Probably the most drawn out animal court case concerns the weevils of Saint-Julien. In 1545 a lawsuit was taken out against weevils who were destroying a local vineyard. A preliminary judicial judgement was successful and the weevils left. Unfortunately forty-two years later they returned. This was seen as the weevils breaking the agreement. I think that this is very unfair considering weevils have a life span of at the most two months, which means at least 252 generations had passed between the original and 1587 miscreants. Even if weevils have an oral tradition it would have been unlikely this 252nd generation of weevils would have been aware of the original judgement. Nevertheless the new trial went ahead. It was finally decided that the accused should be given another piece of land where they could live in happiness and comfort although the opposing lawyers could not agree where that should be since the prosecutors’ choice was deemed as unsuitable. It is unclear what the final decision was as possibly in revenge of theirs and their ancestors’ blackened reputation either the weevils or some of their friends ate the pages outlining the trial summary and the court proceedings[16].

The Rat Attorney

Image by Lenora.

One of the most successful animal lawyers was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, a French jurist and theologian who studied law in France and Italy. He worked in the service of the duchy of Milan and Pope Julius II but moved back to France after a plague outbreak where he became famous for defending a group of rats who were destroying a barley crop in the vicinity of Autun. The citizens of Autun finally applied to the Episcopal Court to get the rats excommunicated as all other means of removal had failed. The court appointed Chasseneuz to represent the rats. Chasseneuz studied the evidence and put forward an interesting argument for adjoining the trial i.e. that the rats had not been properly summoned to the hearing as not all the priests in the infected areas had issued formal citations. This approach did not result in a dismissal of the case so he then tried to delay the trial by arguing that not enough time had been allowed for the rats to present at court considering the physical peril they faced in having to negotiate the church cats[17]. I could not find a record of the sentence but this group of rats probably lost and were excommunicated.

The Deviancy of Birds

Birds did not escape the wrath of the church. Most often they were excommunicated for damaging harvest crops or livestock as in Canada at the end of the 17th century when a number of birds of prey were excommunicated, but occasionally there were other concerns.

In 1559 the Saxon vicar, Daniel Greyber, excommunicated a flock of birds which were residing in his church. Greyber was angry at them disrupting his services and even more concerned at their sexual shenanigans or “scandalous acts of unchastity”[18]. Possibly the vicar was worried about the birds setting a bad example!

Cockchafers and their Deceased Defender

Sometimes the law was ignored and insects not given their proper legal aid. For instance in 1479 in the Lausanne area some cockchafers (whatever they are) were invited to appear at the bishops’ court to face charges. Perrodet was appointed to represent them but neither Perrodet or the cockchafers showed up. Both had good excuses, the cockchafers were insects – enough said and Perrodet had been dead for six months. In their absence a judgement was given in the name of the Holy Trinity and Blessed Virgin and the insects ordered to quit the area forever[19].

Parson Hawker

One of the last known animal excommunications took place in England by the 19th century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.

Image by Lenora.

The difference between this and most of the earlier examples is that Hawker was a minister of the Church of England and not a Catholic priest. Putting that aside his parishioners saw the excommunication as an extension of Hawker’s eccentric behaviour rather than religious adherence, for instance he was known to dress on occasion as a mermaid[20].

“Four legs good, two legs bad”[21]

The list of animals that faced a legal trial is a long one and includes aside from those already mentioned snails, slugs, locusts, moles, eels, grasshoppers and dolphins. Nearly 144 excommunications and executions of animals and insects took place between 824 and 1845[22] but in reality by the 1700s animal trials had begun to fall out of favour.

Although we can laugh at it now at the time animal trials were taken completely seriously as in the medieval mind the devil was working through these creatures and so they needed to be dealt with severely.

As to the views of the members of the animal kingdom that were executed, exiled and condemned, we are in the dark but if Christianity is wrong and Hinduism right about reincarnation then we know who has had the last laugh!

Miss Piggy on trial. Image by Michell O’Connell from Spiked 9 Sept 2015

Bibliography

Popular Science, Dec 1882, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JSsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA248&lpg=PA248&d#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38, Number 5867, 15 January 1870, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18700115.2.10&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1

Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, Thomas A Fudge, 2016

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, Charlie Campbell, 2011

Encyclopædia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, Volume 18, (ed) Edward Smedley, 1845, https://books.google.co.uk/books

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barth%C3%A9lemy_de_Chasseneuz

Popular Science Feb 1876, Feb 1876, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CSIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA504&lpg=PA504&dq=the+bishop+of+laon+excommunicate+caterpillars&source=bl&ots=r8dx_n0saM&sig=Wq3xCjO7hpFd9NWYNoGsPww6zvw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj6lfGjyPfdAhXLKMAKHaD-ChgQ6AEwA3oECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=bishop%20of%20laon%20excommunicate%20caterpillars&f=false

The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, Edward Payson Evans, 1906

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, Chapter 18 in The Mind made Flesh, OUP 2002, http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/2002BugsAndBeasts.pdf

Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them, Matt Simon, https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-europes-insane-history-putting-animals-trial-executing/

Bernard of Clairvaux, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux

Beasts before the Bar, Frank A Beach, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/041873/beasts-before-the-bar?page=2

Robert Stephen Hawker, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stephen_Hawker

Legal Prosecutions of Animals, William Jones, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_17/September_1880/Legal_Prosecutions_of_Animals

Anathema, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Anathema

Excommunication, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Notes

[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Popular Science, Dec 1882

[3] ibid

[4] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[5] ibid

[6] Beasts before the Bar

[7] ibid

[8] Excommunication

[9] Anathema

[10] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[11] ibid

[12] The Popular Science, December 1882

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[14] ibid

[15] Bugs and Beasts

[16] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[17] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[18] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[19] Legal Prosecutions of Animals

[20] Robert Stephen Hawker

[21] Animal Farm, George Orwell

[22] Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

WGW: Whitby Goth Weekend Oct 2019

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Whitby Goth Weekend 24-27 October 2019

Twice a year Whitby, a quaint seaside town in North Yorkshire, becomes the mecca for the darkside. Goths, Steampunks, Victorian enthusiasts all gather for the Whitby Goth Weekend.  The event, which grew out of a goth music festival developed by Jo Hampshire back in 1994,  is now so huge that accommodation is often booked out for two years in advance and it’s estimated that it these two weekends bring in over a £1.1 Millions pounds to the local economy.

WGW brings in the crowds!

I’ve been going to the Goth weekend for many years with Bonnie and Occasionally Miss Jessel has managed to join us, but life and general mischance have meant I’ve not been since the 2015 October event.  My recollections of the at last visit was that there was a change in the air, the Goths who came for the music festival seemed to be in retreat in the face of Victorian enthusiasts and the Steampunk advance.  The locals also seemed to be growing tired of photographers and visitors disrespecting and damaging the historic graveyard of St Mary’s.  What had always seemed to be a very inclusive and welcoming atmosphere had developed fissures and the tensions were bubbling up to the surface. While I still enjoyed the evant, I was left wondering what would happen, if, indeed, it would survive.

WGW at Abbey Wharf

Doctor and the Medics at Abbey Wharf

I’m happy to say that WGW is going strong.  In the face of a huge explosion in popularity over the last few years and the diversity of alternative sub-genres in evidence, it is clear that the event has successfully evolved and regenerated into a wonderful and inclusive event.

These days the music events have diffused and WGW have many official events across the weekend.  The events are all free, but you can get fast-track and VIP tickets (which are worth it, as even after 11pm the Queues were long).  Jo and the other organisers seem to have successfully brought music back to the forefront of the event Abbey Wharf played host to a Stars and Moons Productions Barnum and Bailey/Greatest Showman themed night, headlined by the legendary Doctor and the Medics.  It was packed out and there were queues all night to get in.

The Bizarre Bazaar has also lost none of its allure since moving from Whitby Pavilion to Whitby Leisure Centre (just a short way along from the Pavilion).

Tourists flock through St Mary’s graveyard.

This year sadly  Miss Jessel was unable to join me, but Bonnie and I went down with some younger friends who had never attended the event before.  I don’t think that they were quite ready for how difficult it was to get anywhere without being swarmed by photographers! One of them even made it into the national papers (look for ‘woman in black corset and dramatic face makeup enjoying a stroll’ in the link below) not bad for her first visit!!

Modern Vampire hunters!

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7618815/Goths-steampunks-seaside-town-Whitby-twice-yearly-Goth-Weekend.html

Here are some of the images from Whitby Goth Weekend 2019.

The Goths and the Victorians

Victorian Vampires at St Mary’s Church.

Death stalks the St Mary’s graveyard.

Miss Jessel has a rival in this gothic governess.

Death and the maiden

Detail

The Vampire chained

 

Goth guy

 

Vampyra in the YHA (outfit designed and created by Iga Pecak)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close up by the whale bones

Vampire Alley

 

RNLI guess the weight of the pumpkin!

Grey lady and gent

Purple lady

The Mad Hatter

Bride of the bat

Detail

Victorian Steampunk couple

The undisputed queen of the vampires

Steampunks and the rest

 

Steampunk Pirate hat by Iga Pecak

Detail

Steampunk explorers at the whale bones

Steampunk gentlemen

Gentleman playing the saw at the bandstand

STeampunk pixie girl

Gorgeous Georgians

 

You shall not pass!

Anime girl

Bring out your dead!

Where else but Whitby would you see a lady out strolling with her dragon?

And the final word goes to the fabulous Goth Cat and friend!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

FROM THE HAUNTED PALACE!!

Phantom fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

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Phantom Fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)

“How do you account for the ghost’s clothes – are they ghosts too?” (Saturday Review, 19 July 1856)

Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers.
If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?

Naked ghosts

Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.

In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. [1]

Image from an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Photo by Lenora.

A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.

Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.[2]

Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather).
These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.[3]

So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.

Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.[4]

What do ghosts wear?

Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?

White sheets – obviously

The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.

The three living and the three dead. British Museum Collection.

The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.

The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.

Detail of grave clothes from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Wikimedia.

By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as:
[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard
And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.[5]

But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and  George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809).  Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!

Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? [6]

Artist unknown. University of Austin Texas.

The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.

The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).

The Hammersmith Ghost. Wikimedia

Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.

Their ordinary clothes

By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.

Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer) [7] so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? [8]

The Penny Story Teller – The Fated Hour 1832. Wikimedia.

Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).

Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.[9]

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black. 2012. Dir. James Watkins.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche.  Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent.  However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe.  Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences.  In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory.  One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years.  To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white.  After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. [10]

Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.

Skeptics and believers

“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762)

“…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)

Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.

Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?

This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?

A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained

The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.

The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.

Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she:
“If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” [11]
Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.

Giles Scroggins Ghost. 1893. Wikimedia.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach.  Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.

Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:

Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand.  This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.

Edmund Gurney of the SPR. Wikimedia.

Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.

Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.

However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.

GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.[12]

The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.

Conclusion

In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.

While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts.  Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination.[13]  I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.

What do you think?

‘Oh Whistle Lad and I’ll come to you’. 1904 illustration by James McBryde. Via Wikimedia.

Sources and notes

Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) [11]
Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers”
Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryAndRealityOfApparitions> [7]
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan [1][3][4][9]
Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary [5]
Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books [2][8]-[10][13]
Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate [6]
Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd [12]

Corn Dollies: From the old crone to the maiden

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Corn dollies. Image from Badwitch website.

The tradition of the corn dolly has its origins in pre-Christian Britain. At harvest the last sheaf of corn was sacrificed along with an animal, often a hare which was found amongst the crops, to the gods to ensure soil fertility for the next year. Later a model of a hare was made out of straw to represent ‘the continuity of the spirit[1]. Eventually this evolved into the corn being plaited to represent a figure symbolising ‘the goddess of the grain‘. This became known as a ‘corn dolly’ and was usually hung in a farmhouse’s rafters till the next year.

The corn dolly was a feature of Lammas Day, which in Anglo-Saxon means the ‘Day of the loaf-mass’. Lammas was usually held between the 1st August and 1st September and was the first harvest festival of the year. The ashes of the corn dolly were then ploughed back into the ground during Imbolc[2]. The Celtic festival of Imbolc celebrates the first signs of spring and “commemorates the changing of the Goddess from the Crone to the Maiden[3].

The Spirit of Fertility

The practice of making the last sheath into a symbol of fertility continued after the introduction of Christianity. It was believed that the spirit of the corn resided in the corn fields. As the corn was cut the spirit was driven further and further back eventually taking refuge in the last remaining sheaf. When the last sheaf was finally cut a large hollow corn dolly was made from it in order to give the spirit a home over the winter.

The Harvest. 1785. George Stubbs.

Cutting the sheaf

In the majority of places cutting the last sheaf was seen as an honour but in some areas people were fearful of being held responsible for making the Corn Spirit homeless. To prevent being cursed with bad luck often groups of reapers would take turns in throwing their sickles at the sheaf. To be even safer sometimes the reapers would sweep their scythes back and forward across the sheaf whilst blindfolded. In this way the blame was shared.

The Spirit of the Corn returns home

At the next sowing the corn dolly was returned back into the soil either by being fed to the horses, trampled into the ground or sown back into the first furrow ploughed in the spring along with the new planting.

Naming the corn dolly

It is not clear where the term ‘corn dolly’ comes from. Some believe that it is either a corruption of the word ‘idol’ or from the Greek ‘eidolon’ which means ‘representing something else[4].

Corn dolly’ is a generic term but each area had their own name for their doll. Some of these names include amongst others; the Lame Goat, Old Hag, Old Crone, The Mare, The Maiden, The Granny, The Neck, Kirn (Kern) Baby, Old Sow, The Frog, The Hare and the Gander’s Neck.

Corn maiden. Corn dolly and photo by Renata via Wikimedia.


Even though each county (and often each community within a county) of Britain followed their own harvest and ‘corn dolly’ traditions, the overriding idea was the same for all of them. The corn dolly represented the harvest cycle and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as well as the deep rooted belief in a spirit representing fertility and nature.

Cornwall and Devon

In Cornwall and Devon the last sheath of corn was known as the neck. The person to cut the last sheath held it up in the air and shouted. The shout or ‘cry’ as it was known typically followed this pattern:

Reaper: “I’ave ‘un! I’ave ‘un! I’ave ‘un!
Reply:     “What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee?”
Reaper:   “A neck! A neck! A neck!”
Everyone: “Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr [name of reaper][5]

A man was then chosen to rush to the site of the feast with the ‘The Neck’ of corn and enter the building by stealth avoiding a young woman who was appointed as guardian at the entrance to obstruct him. If he managed to get into the building without being soaked by her, he could claim a kiss as a prize.

The neck or corn dolly would then preside over the harvest celebrations and the feast where it would be seated at a prestigious place at the table.

The tradition of ‘Crying the Neck’ was revived in 2008 in Penzance.

Crying the Neck at Tremayne farm in Cornwall, 2008. Image by Talskiddy via Wikimedia.

Dorset

Called ‘Crying the Neck’ or ‘Crying the Mare’, Dorset customs surrounding the cutting of the last sheaf were very similar to those found in neighbouring Dorset and Cornwall.

When the sheaf was felled a shorty ditty was sung:

“We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck!
Well a-plowed! Well a-sowed!

We’re reaped! And we’ve mowed!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Well a-cut! Well a-bound!
Well a-zot upon the ground!
We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah![6]

As in Dorset and Cornwall, one man was chosen to run with the ‘mare’ to the farmhouse avoiding the female sentry and the bucket of water. If he succeeded he could demand a kiss from the girl.

The sheaf was then fashioned into the form of a human figure or a spiral pyramid or less commonly an animal figure.

During Harvest Home the final cart was decorated with flowers and the youngest girl over the age of seven was chosen to ride in the cart. Representing the corn maiden she was dressed in flowers, a bonnet and a yellow sash. The corn dolly was displayed in pride of place at the top of the corn heap[7].

The Highlands

In Rannoch it was the youngest person in the field who was charged with gathering in the last sheaf. If the harvest was a good one, a corn dolly representing a youthful form was made and if the harvest had been a bad one, a figure representing the Cailleach or Hag was created and dressed in old women’s clothing[8].

Boy carrying sheaf of corn. 1895 by Aleksander Gierymski. Via owlcation website.

Similarly in Fife, reapers would use two sheaves, one to represent the ‘Old Woman’ i.e. the past year and one to symbolise ‘The Maiden’ i.e. the year to come.

Hebrides

Contrary to many other places, farmers in the Hebrides viewed the last sheaf as an unwelcome burden as it contained an unlucky spirit. Often the sheaf or whole section was left uncut[9]. If it was cut then it was made into the Cailleach or Gobhar Bhacah (Lame Goat). The farmer that got left with it might throw it into the field of their neighbour. This was considered an insult and often resulted in a bloody and violent fight. The corn dolly would then be thrown from field to field with the unlucky soul who ended up with it having to bear the burden of looking after it through the winter[10].

Wales

In Wales to hold the last sheaf was seen as an honour. In the Welsh speaking areas it was called ‘The Harvest Mare’ or ‘the Hag’ and in English speaking communities ‘the Neck’.

In some areas of Wales the man who was chosen to bring the corn dolly to the festival had to protect it from a barrier of women throwing water and doing everything they could to prevent him getting it to safety. Often this would include stripping the man as he tried to hide the corn dolly under his clothes. If he succeeded he would be rewarded with all the beer he could drink at the feast and an honoured seat at the harvest table. If he failed he was ‘punished’ by being seated at the foot of the table[11].

Sometimes if another farmer had not finished their reaping, the finished reapers would smuggle the corn dolly into his field. They would choose their fastest runner amongst them to deliver the corn dolly. If he was caught he would be tied up with straw and thrown in the nearest river[12].

Galloway

In the 19th century in Galloway reapers would dress the corn dolly in a long white frock, a ribbon around its waist, a wooden ladle for its head, clay face and beads for its eyes. It would be carried on a pitchfork in a procession towards the farmhouse.

The reapers would chant

“[name of farmer] corns weel shorn,
Bless the day he was born
Kirny Kirny, oo
Kirny Kirny, oo[13]

North Whalton, Northumberland

In 2016 a harvest festival was revived in the Northumberland village of North Whalton. The artist, Faye Claridge created a 15 foot corn dolly based on archival photographs taken by the late 19th century photographer, Sir Benjamin Stone[14].

Corn dolly 1902. Benjamin Stone Collection via Museum Crush website.

The village had a tradition of celebrating the beginning of the harvest season with a large summer Baal bonfire. At this bonfire the ‘Kern Baby’ was thrown into the fire and the village children would circle the fire dancing whilst the corn dolly burnt.

In the revived festivities the ‘Kern Baby’ was not burnt but just shown the fire. It was to be displayed outside the village hall.

End of a tradition?

The custom of creating a corn dolly from the last sheaf ended with the introduction of mechanised agricultural machinery during the Industrial Revolution.

Although the large corn dollies were no longer deemed necessary the regional shapes of the corn dollies did survive and the practice of making smaller corn dollies continued with the tradition handed down from generation to generation. The different shapes are incredibly varied ranging from abstract to more recognisable forms. Some examples are the Hereford lantern, Stafford knot, Suffolk horseshoe, Durham chandelier, Welsh longfen, Essex Terret, Yorkshire spiral and Oxford crown. They are made from a variety of different types of crops, again dependent on the area such as wheat, oats, rye, barley in England and Wales and rushes in Ireland[15].

Often they are placed in houses as a good luck symbol.

A love token and badge of trade

Countryman’s favours. Corn dollies and photo by Renata via Wikimedia.

The idea of the corn dolly was also adapted in other ways in rural communities.

One popular fashion was for young men to plait together three strands of straw and to give it to a girl that they fancied. If the next time they met the girl was wearing the token on her clothes close to her heart then he knew that she returned his affection.

Another interesting tradition was that corn was formed into symbols of different trades. For instance a corn dolly could be decorated with a piece of wool or horsehair to show that they were a shepherd or wagoner. They would then wear them at trade fairs when they were seeking employment[16].

A world-wide belief

The idea of a Corn Spirit is found in communities all over the world and feature prominently in Native American mythology[17].

Hidatsa People celebrating the corn harvest. by George Caltin via Myths and Legends website.

The earliest corn dollies have been found in North Africa where they are known as the Aruseh or Corn Bride[18].

In Europe many examples have been found including in Bruck in Styria where a corn dolly was made into the shape of a woman by the oldest member of the community. Some eaves were then picked out of the corn dolly and made into a wreath which was decorated in flowers and worn on the head of the prettiest girl[19].

In other areas of Europe the corn dolly was hung from a cradle or from the top of a pole. Sometimes the corn dolly was fashioned to represent the figure of a man rather than a woman[20].


The history of the corn dolly is a fascinating one and the fact that the tradition has survived and is actually being revived and remembered in certain areas is incredible. I have always loved my corn dollies although when they were bought for me I had no idea of their symbolic importance and how they are a surviving reminder of the deep and rich customs of rural communities in pre-19th century Britain. I like to think that as well as being ornamental they also represent the young girls who would have been chosen as the harvest maids or queens at the harvest celebrations dressed in bonnets and decorated with flowers and sashes.

Wheatfields near Helmsley, Yorkshire. Image by Lenora.

Bibliography

How to make a corn dolly,  http://www.edenproject.com/learn/for-everyone/how-to-make-a-corn-dolly
The Imbolc, http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/imbolc.asp
Corn dolly, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_dolly
The Corn Dolly – The Spirit Of The Grain, https://www.sabbatbox.com/blogs/sabbat-box-blog/39173505-the-corn-dolly-the-spirit-of-the-grain
History of the corn dolly, https://www.southhollandlife.com/2015/04/history-of-the-corn-dolly/
Charm and romance of the corn dollies, http://www.highland-news.co.uk/Home/Features/Highland-Wildlife/Charm-and-romance-of-the-corn-dollies.htm
Giant corn dolly descends on Northumberland village ahead of Baal bonfire, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/giant-corn-dolly-descends-northumberland-11469712
Corn Dolly, http://symboldictionary.net/?p=409
The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies: Techniques and Projects, Doris Johnson and Alec Coker, 1987
Artist returns Kern Baby to her ancestral home, http://www.hexham-courant.co.uk/features/Artist-returns-Kern-Baby-to-her-ancestral-home-a0fc810e-af02-4179-939c-6157f0a1007b-ds
Eight things you never knew about Harvest Festival, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/only-in-britain/8-things-never-knew-about-harvest-festival/
Crying the Neck, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crying_the_Neck
Guldize, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guldize
Harvest Festival UK, http://www.crewsnest.vispa.com/thanksgivingUK.htm
Lammas, https://stonewylde.com/lammas/
Imbolc, https://stonewylde.com/imbolc/
Lammas Tide & Harvest Home, http://www.darkdorset.co.uk/lammas_tide
The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice, https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/harvest-home-tales-of-mice-and-twice-buried-men/
Capturing the harvest spirit, https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/harvest.htm
Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly, https://meadmuse.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/caseg-fedi-or-harvest-mare/
Spirit of the Corn, https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-stories/spirit-of-corn.htm

Notes

[1] Harvest Festival UK, http://www.crewsnest.vispa.com/thanksgivingUK.htm
[2] Imbolc, https://stonewylde.com/imbolc/
[3] The Imbolc, http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/imbolc.asp
[4] Corn dolly, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_dolly#Traditional_corn_dollies_named_after_counties_or_place_names_of_Great_Britain_and_Northern_Ireland
[5] Crying the Neck, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crying_the_Neck
[6] Lammas Tide & Harvest Home, http://www.darkdorset.co.uk/lammas_tide
[7] ibid
[8] Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice, https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/harvest-home-tales-of-mice-and-twice-buried-men/
[9] The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
[10] Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice, https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/harvest-home-tales-of-mice-and-twice-buried-men/
[11] Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly, https://meadmuse.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/caseg-fedi-or-harvest-mare/
[12] Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly, https://meadmuse.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/caseg-fedi-or-harvest-mare/
[13] The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
[14] Giant corn dolly descends on Northumberland village ahead of Baal bonfire, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/giant-corn-dolly-descends-northumberland-11469712
[15] Corn dolly, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_dolly
[16] How to make a corn dolly,  http://www.edenproject.com/learn/for-everyone/how-to-make-a-corn-dolly
[17] Spirit of the Corn, https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-stories/spirit-of-corn.htm
[18] History of the corn dolly, https://www.southhollandlife.com/2015/04/history-of-the-corn-dolly/
[19] Corn dolly, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_dolly
[20] Corn Dolly, http://symboldictionary.net/?p=409

Death masks and phrenology: the Victorian guide to spotting a psychopath

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Death mask of Tutankhamun. Image by Roland Unger via Wikimedia.

There is something deeply fascinating about looking into the faces of the long-dead. Whether you find yourself gazing at the desiccated remains of ancient Egyptian Mummies, pondering the fate of the often brutally murdered bog-bodies, or staring into face of a long dead ancestor given immortality of sorts via the medium of portraiture or post-mortem photography.

There is clearly a very visceral difference between staring into the actual face of the dead as opposed to their likeness.  However,  sometimes it is possible to come across a likeness so uncanny that it bridges this gap;  where a three dimensional portrait creates a truly intimate and accurate record of how a person looked at the point of death.

A very brief history of the death mask

Death masks of one description or another have been popular in many cultures for thousands of years.  The gold mask of Tutankhamun is possibly the most famous example, although other cultures have just as many, his mask was part of the mummification process and was intended to guard and strengthen the soul on its journey to the afterlife [1].  In the Roman period, noble families had their galleries of imago – wax casts of their venerable ancestors, brought out for processions.  After the murder of Julius Caesar, his entire body was cast and taken in procession.  By the Middle Ages, European Royalty were using wax or wooden effigies of the deceased in their funeral rituals – that of Henry VII is still in existence at Westminster Abbey. Fast forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth century and the great and the good, such as Walter Scott, Coleridge and Mendelssohn, were taking life and death masks to preserve their features for posterity.

Death mask of King Henry VII, Westminster Abbey.

Before the advent of photography, a life or death mask was the most accurate, and not necessarily flattering, likeness that it was possible to get of an individual.

L’inconnue de la Seine – death mask of a Parisienne suicide.

But there is a darker side to death masks (no irony intended).  They were not only used by the great and the good for the edification of posterity, the use of death masks in particular had a more macabre purpose.

In the nineteenth century the police often utilised death masks to help with the identification of unknown corpses.  In the time before effective refrigeration, a corpse would not stay fresh for long.  Places such as the Paris Morgue often resorted to death masks when bodies had deteriorated and could no longer be put on display (masks were later superseded by post-mortem photography).

During the nineteenth century, the death mask took on a new and insidious purpose.  It was used to illustrate the dubious tenants of a very popular new science, designed to categorise the human character and intelligence based on physical traits.

The rise of Phrenology 

Franz Josef Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia.

In 1796, Franz Joseph Gall would set in motion a ‘scientific’ school of thought whose more negative connotations still reverberate to this day.

At the end of the eighteenth century, opinion was divided as to how the brain worked.  Some thought the brain was a homogenous whole, while others thought that specific areas of the brain controlled specific functions.   Gall was of the belief that the development of the brain, with its over or under-developed areas, would influence the shape of the skull.[2]

Gall felt this view was strengthened when he examined the skulls of a group of pick-pockets and identified that each had a pronounced bulge over their ear, which he took to be the area of the brain associated with lying, theft and deception.  He followed this up with extensive (but unscientific) research in prisons and asylums. While his conjectures went far beyond the empirical evidence, his work was the first tentative steps towards understanding and identifying criminal behaviour.

Phrenology Head. Source unknown.

His ideas were enthusiastically taken up and developed in the first half of nineteenth century, his method promised to identify those with criminal potential before they had the opportunity to commit a crime.  Phrenological Societies boomed – London boasted 28 in the 1820’s and the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh was founded by one of Phrenology’s great luminaries – George Combe and his brother Andrew.  The Edinburgh society is credited with laying the ground for Evolutionary theory. [3].

Not only did this research focus on the living, it focused on the dead as well, particularly those of the criminal classes.  Hence the number of death masks of notorious criminals from that age (although not only death masks were taken: while William Burke’s mask was taken after his execution, the slippery Hare, who turned Kings evidence, had his mask taken in life).  Masks were an ideal way to capture and study criminal physiognomy.

Death mask of Burke and life mask of Hare. Edinburgh University. Image by Kim Traynor.

Social Darwinism: born bad and ‘degenerate’ races

While fashionable people flocked to phrenology saloons in the nineteenth century (seeing it as a form of ‘scientific’ fortune-telling due to its supposed ability to predict behaviours) on another more insidious level it was being used to cement ideas of racism and eugenics.

It is hard to believe now, but there had been an ongoing debate amongst the thinkers of the Enlightenment as to whether people of different races were actually different species.  Even great thinkers such as Voltaire and Linneus supported this idea of polygenism.  This created a drive to categorise and measure different races using racial anthropological physiognomy.  Masks, both life and death, played a part in this as did Phrenology, which identified characteristics based on racial stereotypes and well as social stereotypes.

Excerpt from ‘Crania Americana’ by Samuel Morton. 1839. Used to promote racist ideas of the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Image from Vassar Collection.

By the nineteenth century, the view was that while all races were the same species, the non-white races had somehow ‘degenerated’ from the original ‘whiteness’ of Adam and Eve, due to various factors such as climate or food(?!) Clearly this was all based on racist conjecture and stereotyping and had very little to do with actual science.  As the Step Back in History Vlog, Scientific Racism, points out,  there was a purpose behind this, it was to was to create a moral justification for white Christian nations to enslave other people based on race, and to colonise their lands. [4]

John Beddoe whose book provided a pseudo-scientific basis for racism. Public domain.

This is just as insidious as it sounds, and was taken up enthusiastically by American Slave owners and British Colonialists alike to justify the oppression of other people based on race, and to promote the idea of paternalistic colonialism.   An example of this kind of racism can be found in John Beddoe’s The Races of Man, published in 1862, which managed to ‘prove’ the Irish were non-white, therefore ‘degenerate’, using racial anthropological physiognomy to justify British Imperialism against the Irish,  contributing to a century and a half of violence and oppression.

You don’t have to be an expert on twentieth century history to see just how evil this line of thinking gets.

Franz Muller death mask. Metropolitain Police Crime Museum.

Racial stereotypes were not the only stereotypes that phrenology helped to promote. Social Darwinism, the idea that theories of natural selection could be applied to sociology and politics, promoted the idea that some people were simply born bad, and that using ‘scientific’ techniques, criminal types could be identified before any criminal act had been committed.  It was here that phrenology and death masks combined in the study of criminal physiognomy.  Many examples of criminal death masks can be found today, notable examples are in Norwich Castle Museum, Edinburgh University and The Metropolitan Police Crime Museum in London.

Norwich Castle Museum

Norwich Castle Museum boasts a collection of death masks belonging to some of the most notorious murderers of the mid-nineteenth century.   They were created by  Giovanni Bianchi, a Tuscan who moved to London in 1836, and later moved to Norwich.  Between 1837 to 1854, he worked at Norwich Castle producing the death masks of executed criminals.

Norwich Castle. Image by Lenora.

When a condemned criminal was hanged, the bust maker had to move quickly.  To get the best casting, he had to take the mould within a few hours of death, or else bloating would distort the features.

Greenacre’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Robert Wilkins in his Fireside Book of Death outlines the process for taking a mask: first, liberally apply oil to the face to avoid any adhesions, then (if the subject is living) insert tubes into the nostrils, lay thread across the face then build up layers of plaster.  This is allowed to harden,  then the mask is removed usually in three pieces, using the threads laid on the face.  Before the advent of quick drying materials, it could take some time for the plaster to dry, and could be quite a claustrophobic experience.  Obviously, if the subject was dead, this was much less inconvenience to them. 

Once removed this produced a very accurate cast with facial pores, eyelashes and whiskers often visible.  This mould would be filled with wax or other materials to make the final bust.  While living subjects might expect to wear a cap to protect their hair during the casting of the back of their heads, criminals had their head shaved before the cast was taken, so that the phrenologists could have a clear canvas to work on.

Corder’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Bianchi immortalised such notorious individuals as Daniel Good, a murderer hanged at Newgate, whose successful evasion of the law led to the creating of the Detective Branch in London; Samuel Yarham, who murdered Harriet Chandler in Norwich in 1846; and James Bloomfield Rush, who, in 1849, somewhat sensationally went on a bloody rampage one winters night at the home of Isaac Jermy, the Recorder of Norwich.  His shooting spree left Isaac and his son dead, injured his daughter-in-law and seriously wounded a maid. [5]

It is hardly surprising to discover that phrenologists studying criminal physiognomy were not the only ones interested in obtaining images of the criminal dead.  An indication of the popularity of public executions and sensational crimes, as well as the speed at which death masks were produced, is given in The Norwich Mercury. Following the hanging of  James Bloomfield Rush in 1849, the Mercury described the grisly process for the benefit of those unable to attend:

“After hanging the due time, the body was cut down, and in the course of the afternoon the head was shaven and a cast taken of the features and the skull by Bianchi of St George’s Middle Street in this city.  The remains were then buried, according to the sentence, in the precincts of the prison.” [6]

A further indication of the public fascination with sensational crime (and grisly souvenirs) is provided by Sir Robert Bignold of Norwich Union fame, who wrote:

“The clerks of the Norwich Union took the morning off, which was quite in accordance with the precedent on execution days, and no doubt Bianchi the modeller did a good trade. It is even probable that some of the Norwich Union clerks were among his customers, for we have it on good authority of the chief clerk that it was not unusual for the staff to buy the casts of murderers on those days and hide them in their office desks.” [7]

Death masks, it would seem, also fulfilled a less scientific and more profitable niche in Victorian popular culture.

The end of the line

While phrenology continued to be of interest to some even into the twentieth century, it had always had its critics.  By the middle of the nineteenth century its star had waned and it was seen more as a novelty than a real way to identifying criminal types.  By the end of the nineteenth century, death masks of criminals had also become largely obsolete as the spread of cheaper methods of photography ushered in the age of the criminal mug shot.

Behind bars, even after death. Death masks at Norwich Castle Museum. Image by Lenora.

Today, Phrenology is relegated to a pseudo-science for its wild conjectures going  way beyond the empirical evidence, and its use in promoting the invidious so called ‘scientific’ racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -the repercussions of which can still be felt today.

Nevertheless the concept that specific parts of the brain relate to character, thoughts and emotions, did influence early psychiatry and psychology and eventually sow the seeds of neuro-psychology.

One fortunate by-product of the nineteenth century’s obsession with criminal physiology is we now have a series of lifelike and accurate portraits of the lower and criminal classes. Prior to photography images of these, mainly poor, working class people would not exist, or would be known only through distorted illustrations in the popular press of the day.

And if we think were are beyond judging a book by its cover, we should think again. The myth is still peddled that beautiful people have beautiful lives in this Instagram-ready age.  In addition to this, developments in AI technology may mean that both governments and corporations in the near future will be judging us all on our appearances and targeting us accordingly, so, be warned!

Sources & Notes

Corden, Joanna, 2013, ‘Death Masks‘ on the Royal Society Repository website. [1]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Phrenological_Society [3]

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-norwich-castle-museum-dungeon-death-masks-1-6029246   [5]-[7]

Fitzharris, Lindsey, Dr, Under the Knife: The Phrenology Head, YouTube [2]

http://www.historyofphrenology.org.uk/overview.htm

Wilkins, Robert, 1990, ‘The Fireside Book of Death‘, Hale

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-phrenology-2795251

http://theconversation.com/natural-born-killers-brain-shape-behaviour-and-the-history-of-phrenology-27518

http://www.victorianweb.org/science/phrenology/intro.html

https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/the-born-criminal-lombroso-and-the-origins-of-modern-criminology/

Step back in history,  What is scientific racism? YouTube [4]

 

Stratford’s death mask. Norwich Castle Museum image by Lenora.

The Lascars of the Marshalsea

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Role

Three Lascars on the Viceroy of India.  Wikipedia
Three lascars on the Viceroy of India. Wikipedia.

The word ‘Lascar’ comes from the Arabic to mean guard or soldier and was later adopted by the Portuguese to describe an Asian militiamen or seamen from the East, covering Japan, China and India. After the fall of Bombay to Britain the term was adapted by the British to mean specifically East Indian Seamen[1]. Lascars were initially used by the British from the 16th century onwards to serve aboard merchant ships. The reason behind the rising popularity of using lascars was simple – they were cheap! Lascars were paid 5% of white sailors’ wages, often given poorer quality food and accommodation and worked longer hours.

Unlike seamen from Britain, lascars were employed under a ‘lascar agreement’ which meant that ship-owners could retain them for up to three years at a time. Another clause in the agreement gave the ship-owners the right to transfer the lascars from ship to ship, lascars had no say in the matter[2]. The lascars’ employers would need to come to terms with the serang, the headman or labour contractor who acted as a shop steward representing the lascars in any dispute with the ship owners or British authorities. The serang was paid at a higher rate than the men he represented; had to be accommodated whilst in Britain and; his fare paid, for the return journey. All these financial points had to be factored into the decision of whether to employ lascars and in the majority of cases the answer was a resounding yes.

Restrictions

The increase of popularity of lascars resulted in a backlash from the British government and the creation of the Navigation Act in 1660. The Act restricted the employment of lascars by stating that 75% of men on British ships registered to transport cargo from Asia had to be British. The flaw in the argument was that although on the route from Britain to Asia it was possible for the quota to be filled, many sailors died or became extremely ill due to poor sanitation and food or deserted once they reached Asia. Add to this high levels of conscription from merchant to military ships and the situation became dire since by the time the ships began their return voyage they faced a severe manpower shortage and had to fill the posts with whoever was available and so out of necessity the Act was often ignored. One of the earliest records of lascars in Britain comes from a very unusual source and recounts a unique event in the history of one of the most notorious places in 18th century London.

The Marshalsea

Marshalsea Prison c1773
Marshalsea Prison c1773. Wikipedia.

“Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles[3].”

This famous description of the Marshalsea which vividly brought the prison to life, almost making it a living and breathing character in its own right was of course penned by Charles Dickens and appeared in his novel ‘Little Dorrit’. Dickens’ experience of the debtors’ prison where his father was held and his family lived left a deep scar which took years to heal. Therefore it is ironic that it was Dickens who immortalised the memory of the same place which filled him with such horror and revulsion. The Marshalsea which Dickens knew was actually a second more humane incarnation of the notorious prison. The earlier gaol was one of the oldest prisons in London and also one of the most wretched. Prisoners who could not afford to pay for better accommodation in the Masters’ side were consigned to the Commoners’ side where they lived in squalor, abandoned and left to rot in their own filth in overcrowded cells. Death from starvation and illness was a daily occurrence and outbreaks of contagious diseases would regularly empty the jail of its occupants. Punishment and torture were meted out to anyone who tried to stand up to their corrupt jailors.

Instruments of torture used in the Marshalsea c1729.
Instruments of torture used in the Marshalsea c1729. Wikimedia.

These punishments included an iron cap which would be tightened by nuts until blood flowed or being placed in the hole, a space as small as a coffin. The place was a living hell and it is hard to believe that anyone would insist on remaining in such a place but one group of men did, in fact they actually refused to leave despite having the gates of the prison held wide open for them. The Capture of the Santa Catherina The story of ho twenty-one lascars came to be confined within the walls of the Marshalsea began with the capture of a Spanish ship, ‘The Santa Catherina’. On the 11 May 1748 five leagues off the south of Nagapatnam in India a British man of war ship known as The Medway’s Prize spied a large merchant ship and sent out an order to halt. During the routine check of the ship, a British officer noticed a young boy throwing wads of paper into the water. Suspicions aroused the captain was closely questioned about their cargo, passport and last port of call. A number of men of French nationality were found aboard indicating that the hold contained valuable French goods. Although the captain, Leitao was Portuguese and held two passports – one Portuguese and the other American the fact that the Frenchmen had been discovered was not good news for the cargo ship and its owners. Britain and France were then at war over the Austrian succession and therefore the British Navy had the right to confiscate the ship and its goods as enemy property. The rich hoard included chests of silver coins, coral, Venetian necklaces, glass, pearls, gems, dates, almonds, pistachio nuts, rose water and an assortment of diced fruit[4].

Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica.

All the sailors on-board the Medway expected to get a share of the prize money from the capture of the rich cargo ship including a group of lascars as lascars were no longer by this point just employed on merchant ships. Debt, Arrest and Incarceration On reaching Deptford in August 1749 the crew was paid off and left the ship. The lascars took lodgings in the area while they waited. As the days passed the lascars fell deeper into debt. Probably lodgings, food and clothing had been given on credit with the promise of payment once their money came through. By March 1750 someone probably a publican or lodging house keeper had had enough and the lascars were arrested for debt (ten managed to evade capture and remained at large surviving as best they could). The men were taken and placed on the Commoner’s side of the Marshalsea. The Admiralty on being informed of their seizure gave them a daily allowance of 8d and offered them passage home on an East India Company ship with all expenses such as clothing and provision paid by the Navy[5].

Protest

A record dated the 22nd August 1750 (now held by the National Maritime Museum) reports that Admiral Griffin instructed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars in Arcot Rupees with ‘others procured to make up the complement[6]’. This may relate to a separate proposal made by the Admiralty or be linked to the one granting passages home and paid expenses. However, it fits into the chronology of events, all offers were rejected as despite horrendous conditions and sickness the men when offered opportunities to be freed stubbornly refused to budge stating that ‘they would rather be hang’d then go without their prize money[7]’.

Sick men's ward in the Marshalsea.
Sick men’s ward in the Marshalsea. Wikimedia.

Release After nine months of stubborn resistance on the part of the lascars and one failed attempt by the Admiralty to force their creditor to pay the 4d a day maintenance costs for each man, the Admiralty finally admitted defeat. The Navy paid off the men’s debts, their medical expenses and lawyers’ fees and washed its hands of them. Forcibly released from the Marshalsea just before Christmas 1750 the lascars joined their friends begging on the streets[8].

Victory

A year passed and in April 1752 at the King’s Arms tavern on Tower Hill the lascars finally got their share of the prize money which worked out to about 65 pounds in old money[9] (which would today be worth roughly £7500). Their persistence and obstinacy had in the end paid off. Whether it was worth the hardship they had suffered only they could judge. They did emerge with their pride and honour intact whilst at the same time causing the Admiralty embarrassment and inconvenience, which may have given them some consolation. Those that wanted to return to India left in 1753 and 1754 whilst others remained to make a life for themselves in Britain. At this point there was already a small East Indian community in existence in London. Lascars who had been discharged from the Navy at the end of 1749 after the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession joined other lascars who had either chosen to remain in Britain or were waiting for openings on ships. The latter reason was an unforeseen consequence of the Navigation Act. Many lascars voluntarily left the ships due to bad treatment preferring to work in the railways and shipyards whilst others took jobs as street cleaners, hawkers and even beggars[10].

Detail from Hogarths Four times of day.
Detail from Hogarth’s Four Times of Day. Via Wikipedia.

Registers describe marriages between local women and lascars for example one of the Marshalsea lascars was arrested for violence against a Catherine Brownlow who had frittered away his money and then married another lascar. Despite obvious prejudice from some quarters there were no laws prohibiting intermarriage and a mixed community grew up in London’s dockyards, Wapping and Shoreditch. Attitudes The lascars’ case must have generated interest due to the notices which were published informing the public of the outcome. The attitude of the Admiralty is also very revealing as they obviously tried their hardest to convince the lascars to return home.

In general the British authorities ‘often supported lascars, given the egregious nature of some of the abuses against them’ but at the same time implemented regulations which were ‘highly detrimental for them[11]’. For instance by the end of the 17th century although the Admiralty in theory paid their passage back to India, they would in fact charge the cost (which could range from £4 to £6 back to the owner of the ship). This in turn led to many captains forcing their ‘passengers’ to work in horrendous conditions for their passage.

Conclusion

The story of the lascars in the Marshalsea is a fascinating one as it allows a small glimpse of a world and a group of people who are generally silent in the historical record. It also reaffirms the truth of the quote that persistence does pay off. I find it incredible as I can’t imagine for any reason let alone pride or money that anyone would ever have chosen to remain in such a place labelled as ‘Mansions of Misery’ by Jerry Whites in his brilliant book on the history of the Marshalsea.

Lascars at the Royal Albert Doc.
Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock. Wikimedia.

Bibliography

Mansions of Misery: A biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ prison, Jerry Whites, 2016

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 22, for the year 1752,

Sylvanus Urban India and the Islamic Heartlands: An eighteenth century world of circulation and exchange,

Gagan D.S. Sood, 2017 Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring 1780-1860, Aaron Jaffer, 2015 The Lascars of London and Liverpool, https://www.exodus2013.co.uk/the-lascars-of-london-and-liverpool/ Lascars in the East End, http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.50/chapterId/739/The-Goan-community-of-London.html

Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain and in between, 1600-1857,

Michael H. Fisher, 2006 Coolies, Capital and Colonialism: Studies in Indian Labour History, (ed.) Rana P. Behal and Marcel van der Linden, 2006 John Clevland. Admiral Griffin directed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars…, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9182763

Britain’s first Asian immigrant issue: Lascars, http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/britains-first-asian-immigrant-issue-lascars/ Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens Lascar, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascar

Notes

[1] Lascar [2] Ibid [3] Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens [4] India and the Islamic Heartlands: An eighteenth century world of circulation and exchange [5] Mansions of Misery: A biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ prison [6] John Clevland. Admiral Griffin directed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars [7] Ibid [8] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 22 [9] Ibid [10] Britain’s first Asian immigrant issue: Lascars [11] Lascar By W. P. – Edward Walford, “Southwark: High Street,” in Old and New London, Volume 6, 1878. [1] [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33549147

The Cadaver Synod: The Trial of the Pope’s Corpse

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Damnatio Memoriae

The Trial of Pope Formosus by Jean Paul Laurens. Musee des arts Nantes.

Pope Formosus, clad in the sacerdotal robes of the pontiff, sat upon the papal throne in dignified silence while his accuser, the new pope, Stephen VI, spat out charges against him. Formosus was accused of ‘usurping the Universal See in such a spirit of ambition’ [1], of breaking canon law by accepting the Bishopric of Rome while still Bishop of Porto, of perjury, and of attempting to exercise the office of bishop as a layman….Formosus’ past had come back to haunt him.

Race to the top

City plan of Rome, showing the Lateran Palace of the pope. Wikimedia via Met Museum Edward Pearce Casey Fund, 1983.

Rome, and by extension, the papacy, was in a period of instability and turmoil during the ninth and tenth centuries. The reason for this was that the throne of St Peter offered not just spiritual power, but temporal power. Part of this power came from the pope’s role in electing the Holy Roman Emperor. Ever since the death of Charlemagne, Rome and its riches were in the sights of the many fiefdoms and factions that had sprung from the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire. This link meant that influential and powerful families all wanted to have their man on the papal throne, and by extension, if you wanted to be pope, it helped to have powerful backers.

Popes, even those backed by powerful families, came and went with surprising rapidity. The road to high office and ultimately the papal throne was strewn with hazards for the ambitious cleric: political violence, treachery and assassinations were not uncommon. A man had to be ruthless to get to the top and success did not guarantee longevity.

Enter Formosus, born in around 816 CE in Rome. Formosus soon became a high-flyer in the church. Made bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina in 864 by Pope Nicholas I, his talents were such that in 866 he was made papal legate and  sent to convert the Bulgarians. In fact, he was so successful in this task that Prince Bogoris of Bulgaria requested Formosus, and only Formosus, be made their Arch-bishop. If this had been Formosus plan, it was thwarted – the request was refused as it contravened canon law, which stated a bishop could not leave his own see to administer another (an accusation that would come back to haunt Formosus). Even at this early stage, Formosus may have already had his eye on the papal throne. And such high ambition creates enemies.

Pope Formosus

Pope Formosus via Wikimedia.

Despite this personal set-back, Formosus was still flying high in papal regard when in 869 and 872 Pope Adrian II entrusted him with missions to France, as did Pope John VIII in 875.

However, Pope John VIII seems to have begun to regard Formosus as a stalking horse, and soon relations between the up-and-coming bishop and the pope began to sour.

The growing distrust between John VIII and Formosus appears have bubbled to the surface over the controversial election of the new Holy Roman Emperor, the descriptively named Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. Not all Romans wanted Charles the Bald, there were many who supported the widowed Empress Engelburga and her brother-in-law, Louis the German. Formosus may have been one of them [2].

John VIII ordered Formosus to invite Charles to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. Charles took the throne at Pavia and the Imperial Insignia in Rome on 29 December 875. Perhaps Formosus didn’t carry out his orders with enough enthusiasm, because soon after the Coronation of Charles the Bald, Formosus fled Rome for Tours to escape reprisals. But Tours was not far enough away to escape John’s displeasure.

A Synod was called on 19 April 875, in which Pope John VIII demanded Formosus, and other fugitives, return to Rome. Perhaps sensing a trap, Formosus refused. He was excommunicated and removed from the ranks of clergy. Other accusations were that he had deserted his diocese without papal permission, aspired to be arch-bishop of Bulgaria against canon law, and that he had conspired to destroy the papal see and had despoiled the cloisters of Rome.  Many of these allegations would be dug up again during his later trial.

In July, Formosus excommunication was announced. His glittering career had come to an abrupt halt, even his obvious successes, such as his mission to Bulgaria, had been used as ammunition against him. Pope John VIII, it would seem, had successfully put down his rival.

But that wasn’t the end of Formosus rise to power, it was just a hiatus. In 878 Formosus swore an oath the stay out of Rome and desist from performing priestly office in order to have his excommunication revoked.

The ever-spinning wheel of fortune, turned again, and, in 883, a new pope, Marinus I restored Formosus to his Bishopric of Porto. His fortunes continued to prosper under subsequent popes St Adrian III and Stephen V. Formosus was well and truly back in the race for the throne of St Peter.

Pope at last

In October 891, 27 years after becoming Bishop of Porto, Formosus was unanimously elected as pope. His career would suggest that he was a capable, talented and perhaps charismatic man. His personal success in Bulgaria, the trust placed in him by the several popes he served, and not least the mistrust that led John VIII view him as a rival, would indicate that his ambition was well matched with his ability.

Pope Formosus. Public domain via Wikimedia.

As pope, Formosus did not rest on his laurels, after all, the ninth century was rife with internal power-struggles within Rome and Italy, as well as strained international relations. Formosus was asked to intervene in a dispute in Constantinople, where his opposite number, the Patriarch had been relieved of office by a rival. Formosus also engaged in disputes relating to the French Crown, between the Count of Paris, and another Charles with another less than flattering soubriquet – Charles the Simple.

Closer to home Formosus had problems with the current Holy Roman Emperor Guy III Spoleto, things came to a head in April 892. when Guy is thought to have forced Formosus to crown his son Lambert as co-emperor [3].

Perhaps resenting the Spoleto’s strong-arm tactics, Formosus, not a pope to take things lying down, retaliated by inviting Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy and eject the Spoletos. Although Arnulf did invade Italy in 894 the plan fell apart. When Guy III Spoleto died in December, Formosus invited Arnulf to try again, possibly in response to the actions of another Guy, Guy IV Spoleto, who had recently invaded Benvenuto and expelled the Byzantines.

In 896 Arnulf entered Rome and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Formosus, who may have breathed a sigh of relief to finally be rid of the Spoleto stranglehold on his papacy. Fate had other ideas, however, and Arnulf became ill and returned to his kingdom where he died shortly afterwards. Formosus also exited this world on 4 April 896, probably from a stroke, and was succeeded with the exceedingly short-lived papacy of Boniface the VI who lasted an impressively brief 15 days.

In a world where popes might only last days or weeks, Formosus name and deeds might have been expected to quickly fade from memory and merit only a line or two in the history books. However, it is what happened after his death, that ensured his bizarre place in history.

Synodus Horrenda

The Trial of Pope Formosus by Jean Paul Laurens. Musee des arts Nantes.

The trial of a bad pope might not seem unusual, except that in this case, when Formosus sat silently listening to his accuser screaming out allegations against him, he had been dead for nine months.

Pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

The corpse of pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

Yes, Stephen VI, took the bizarre and macabre steps of having his penultimate predecessor’s rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in papal finery and sat upon a throne in the Basilica of St John Lateran, while he, the new pope, acted as a very rabid counsel for the prosecution. To be fair, Stephen did ensure that the dead pope could answer the charges himself, well, sort of. A deacon was employed to speak as Formosus and offer half-hearted responses when required – I can’t imagine that this was a job he boasted about afterwards.

Pope Stephen VI, on the other hand, appears to have thrown himself in to the role of cross-examining the defendant with rather too much vitriol and zeal for most people’s taste, screaming insults and accusations at his rival’s decayed corpse. Even the most cynical Romans felt a little queasy with Stephen’s blasphemous antics.

Pope Stephen VI accusing Formosus. Detail.

The outcome of this bizarre trial was never in doubt, Pope Formosus was found guilty and Litupriand of Cremona, a tenth century commentator, reports that Stephen VI had the corpse of Formosus stripped of its robes of office. Stephen then cut off the three fingers on Formosus right hand, a symbolic gesture, as the right had was used for offering blessings. Then, all of Formosus acts and ordinations were invalidated (ironically, with implications for Stephen as Formosus had ordained him as a bishop, and creating a headache for the church for years to come).

The corpse was then dragged out of the palace, tossed to the mob, who hauled it through the streets. Initially Formosus body was buried in the strangers cemetery, a burial ground for foreigners, however, this was not degrading enough for Stephen VI, and he had the corpse dug up, yet again, and in a final act of desecration it was weighted down and thrown into the Tiber like so much refuse.

River Tiber looking towards Vatican City. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0. Via Wikimedia.

Aftermath

Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI. Public domain via Wikimedia.

The posthumous trial of Pope Formosus is gruesome and bizarre, but what was behind it? It certainly didn’t help Pope Stephen VI cement his power – far from it. His macabre performance did not go down well in Rome, especially when, during the cadaver synod, an earthquake damaged the Lateran palace. Many saw this as an omen. Later, rumours also began circulating that Formosus corpse had washed up from the Tiber and was performing miracles. Soon Rome was in turmoil, there were riots on the streets and Stephen VI was imprisoned and ultimately strangled to death, all this only a few months after he wreaked his terrible revenge on Formosus. Later popes revoked the decrees of the Cadaver Synod and restored Formosus honour and re-validated his ordinations, it would seem Formosus had the last laugh after all.

Sympathetic Magic and Carolingian fallout

So why go to such lengths to destroy the reputation of a dead rival? One interesting interpretation of this papal Grand Guignol, proposed by ER Chamberlain, is that the act of degrading Formosus corpse was a case of sympathetic magic. In stripping and defiling the corpse of the former pope, Stephen VI (and whoever was pulling his strings) intended to symbolically degrade and strip Formosus supporters of their power as well. The whole affair points to a revival of the ancient Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae repurposed for a Christian audience [4].

There are several theories as to why Stephen VI took part in this gory spectacle. Firstly, he could simply have been insane, after all, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to harangue and despoil a corpse in such an elaborate and public spectacle. It hardly seems to fit with the dignity of office of the pope. Alternatively, he could have been attempting to curry favour with Formosus enemies in order to strengthen his own hold on the papacy.

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I

The Frankish king Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I.  Charlemagne had close ties with the papacy.  Antoine Verard. Source , Public Domain

For a long-time the most prominent theory was based on factionalism surrounding who should be Holy Roman Emperor. Following the death of Charlemagne, a slew of illegitimate offspring had vied for the role. Formosus had been viewed as pro-Carolingian, however John the VIII had crowned Guy III Spoleto as Holy Roman Emperor, precipitating Formosus flight to Tours. Later, Guy III Spoleto was thought to have forced Formosus, when pope, to crown his son Lambert in 892. Formosus called upon Arnulf of the Franks, a Carolingian, to help him be rid of the Spoleto’s, but this failed when Arnulf died, leaving Carolingian power in Rome in tatters, and allowing for the return of Lambert and his mother, Angiltrude, bent on posthumous revenge [5].

Later interpretations by Joseph Duhr in 1932, and supported by Girolamo Arnaldi, suggest that relations between Lambert and Formosus were far better than the above theory would allow. Citing positively friendly relations between Formosus and Lambert as late as 895, Arnaldi proposes relations only soured when Guy IV, Lambert’s cousin, invaded Benvenuto and kicked out the Byzantines. To counter this aggression, Formosus called again upon Arnulf to invade Rome.

Lambert of Spoleto. Public domain via Wikimedia.

The alternative theory is that when Formosus and Arnulf died, Lambert and his mother returned to Rome, accompanied by Guy IV Spoleto, and it was he, not Lambert that was the prime mover behind the Cadaver Synod [6].

Arnaldi cites further evidence to support this theory, stating that when the latter pope John IX decided to revoke the decrees of the Cadaver Synod, Lambert appeared to actively support the rehabilitation of Formosus memory [7]. Surely it would be a brave or foolish pope that confronted the instigator of the synod and attempted to reverse its decisions?

I can’t help think that there must have been a lot of personal animus involved to exhume a corpse, but that the act of revenge, being so theatrical and symbolic, undoubtedly had a wider public purpose. This purpose appears to have backfired, and rather than cementing the new pope and the Holy Roman Emperor’s power, actually destabilised it (in the following 12 months there were 4 more popes, some of whom only reigned for days or weeks). It may be that Lambert was more implicated in the cadaver synod than he wished to be, even if he was not its instigator. Perhaps, seeing the horror it evoked, and the political turmoil it caused, he was happy enough to put the past behind him and rehabilitate Formosus when John IX offered him the chance.

Sources and notes

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-cadaver-synod

Chamberlain E.R., The Bad Popes, 1969, Barnes and Noble [4]

Litupriand of Cremona (quoted from ER Chamberlain) [1]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadaver_Synod [5]-[7]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Formosus [2] [3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Stephen_VI