Seaton Delaval Hall lies near the Northumbrian Coast, not far from the former mining villages of Seaton Sluice and New Hartley. The house is spectacular, though not excessively large, with a central block flanked by two enveloping wings that reach out and embrace the visitor. It was designed in the early eighteenth century by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, for Admiral George Delaval. The Admiral never saw the hall completed, as he died after a horse-riding accident before work was finished. Drama and tragedy have always stalked the Delavals, and many strange tales and legends grew up around them, from building a castle in a day, to the macabre tale of the Wallsend Witches, and the tragic story of the white lady of Seaton Delaval.
The White Lady of Seaton Delaval
It is said that the spectre of a lady dressed all in white, or in some versions grey, has, at certain times of day, when the sunlight falls in a particular way, been seen staring soulfully out of a first-floor window on the North front of the house.
Other versions claim the white lady is seen cradling an infant and haunts the nearby family chapel.1
The story is that the son of the Delaval family had a secret love affair with an ‘unsuitable’ girl, possibly a servant. As heir to the Delaval fortune, he was expected to make an advantageous marriage, so his family took steps to end his liaison with the girl. He was swiftly was sent away to the opposite end of the country, never to return. The heart-broken girl pined and died. But her spirit remained, and to this day, can sometimes be seen holding its lonely vigil at the Hall, forever awaiting her lost love’s return.2
It is a tragic and romantic tale, that fits the windswept grandeur of Seaton Delaval Hall. It has also often been linked to a real life Delaval heir who lived in the eighteenth century.
Jack Delaval and the unwilling maid
The White Lady was said to have been in love with John Delaval (1756-1775). John, known as Jack by his family, was the only son of Sir John Delaval, and found himself the accidental heir of Seaton Delaval Hall.
Sir Francis Blake Delaval , Jack’s uncle, had originally inherited Seaton Delaval Hall in 1752. Sir Francis was the original Gay Delaval, infamous for his wild parties, gambling, theatrics, pranks, and sexual liaisons. But even the vast income from the Delaval empire could not keep up with this kind of lavish lifestyle. Sir Francis was soon drowning in debt and forced to hand over his inheritance to his sensible brother John, in return for an annual annuity.
Sir John was an MP and an industrialist, he was the polar opposite of his rakish brother Francis. He was determined that his only son would not replicate his brother’s dissolute behaviour, and tried to stamp this out of Jack through a strictly regulated education. However, it seems that the apple never falls far from the tree, because Jack’s name has forever been linked with another tale of thwarted love and tragic death. However, this tale is considerably less romantic.
Allegedly, young Jack had taken a fancy to a buxom serving girl and decided to exercise his ‘droit de seignior’ and sexually assault her. The girl emphatically rejected his advances and landed him a firm kick in the groin in order to facilitate her get away. Her deftly landed blow hurt more than his pride, and he later died of internal injuries.3 What happened to the feisty servant girl, sadly, is left unrecorded.
Oddly enough, for a young man linked to such unpleasantly vigorous exploits, he was not a strapping lad by any means. Surviving letters suggest he was a sickly, and often peevish boy, and records suggest that while he was definitely sent away from Seaton Delaval Hall, this was to recover from Consumption (Tuberculosis), rather than to escape a mesalliance or to recuperate from an embarrassing injury.4
His obituary in the Morning Post paints a very complementary picture of his character, albeit in the conventional language of the day:
“On Friday last died at Bristol, in the twentieth year of his age, after a severe illness of several months continuance, which he bore with a truly Christian patience, John Delaval, Esq. son of Sir John Hussey Delaval, Bart. whose death is grievously lamented by his most afflicted parents, and by all who had the happiness of being acquainted with him. His manners were so pure, unaffected, and amiable, and his behaviour so engaging and irresistible, that he captured the affections, and was the delight of all that knew him. He spend a precious life of innocence and goodness in this world, by which he prepared himself for the perpetual felicity in the next to which he had been called.”5
Despite this glowing eulogy, the story has stuck, like mud, to Jack’s reputation down the centuries, so much so, that Francis Askham, writing in The Gay Delavals suggests that the Morning Post could have been bribed to keep silent as to the ‘true’ cause of the boy’s death. Askham also quotes lines from The Delavaliad, a satirical poem directed at Sir John, and suggests the poem could hold an oblique reference to the incident with Jack and the girl.
‘And if with foot you kick a ball,
E’en so you may-a Delaval’6
In the context of the poem, the lines could just as easily be talking about the shifting nature of Sir John’s principles in politics, however, it is fascinating to imagine that the story of Jack’s undignified demise might have been an open secret amongst society.
However, it is also worth pointing out that there are no contemporary accounts to suggest that Jack was the victim of his own proclivities and it is just as likely that his posthumous reputation as an unsuccessful womanizer is unfounded.
Jack died in July 1775, at Hot Springs in Bristol. His body was interred at Doddington Church, near Doddington Hall, another of the Delaval family seats. But he was not intended to remain there long.
Sir John was devastated that his only son had died so young, Jack was barely twenty years old.
To assuage his grief, Sir John had a very grand mausoleum built near to Seaton Delaval Hall. It cost the huge sum of £1742.11shillings (about £152,000 in today’s money). However, despite this vast expenditure, he had a falling out with the Bishop of Durham over the cost to consecrate the building.7 In the end, the beautiful structure remained unconsecrated and untenanted, and Jack’s body remained at Doddington. Today, the mausoleum is a blackened and graffitied shell, inaccessible and marooned amongst farmers fields.
Why Jack? Events in Jack’s life were easily grafted on to the tale of the White Lady and her lost lover, the fact that it was known that Jack had been sent away from home suddenly, never to return, may have been used to add a veneer of authenticity to a local ghost story. Such local tales were popular with Victorians.
On the other hand, he also exists in the folk memory of the area as the over-sexed, upper class creep who got his just desserts (and an ignominious death) at the hands of a servant girl. Perhaps this negative story may have something to do with his father being an MP or just a way of local people bringing Bigwigs down a peg or two. What ever the truth of the matter, Jack’s short life will forever been linked to these two very different tales.
All images by Lenora
Asbury, Jonathan, Seaton Delaval Hall Souvenir Guide (National Trust)
Askham, Francis, 1955, The Gay Delavals
Green, Martin, 2010, The Delavals A Family History
In the 1830’s and 40’s a haunting occurred in the small township of Willington, that in its day was as famous as the Haunting at Borley Rectory would be almost 100 years later. However, unlike Borley Rectory, the haunting at Willington Mill House has never been satisfactorily explained.
The haunting caused a sensation in the nineteenth century, with local historians, journalists and psychical researchers all reporting on events and yet now it has been all but forgotten.
Location, Location, Location
With any ghost story, it is important to set the scene.
“Between the railway from Newcastle Upon Tyne to North Shields and the River Tyne, there lie in a hollow some few cottages, a parsonage, a mill, and a miller’s house; these constitute the hamlet of Willington.”1
Willington in the early nineteenth century was a small, close-knit industrial community, nestled beneath the arches of the new railway bridge, with slopes on either side, and a small stream, known as Willington Gut, running through it and emptying into the River Tyne.
The area was not remote or isolated, by any means –in fact it was a hive of industry, with collieries, shipbuilding and milling providing work for the community. In short, it was not the kind of place you would expect to be haunted.
And yet, even before the Mill was built, the land had a bad reputation. The locals believed that a witch once lived in the area, possibly at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Some link the story of the Willington Witch to ‘Mrs Pepper’ a historically attested individual, who was tried and acquitted of witchcraft in nearby Newcastle, in the late seventeenth century, although is remains a theory as there are no records to support her presence.2
The witch may have been some kind of cunning woman, a local folk healer, if in fact, she existed. She is said to have been refused final communion and died unshriven, leading her to curse the area. More recent rumours hinted that a murder had been committed by one of the workers during the building of the Mill, creating a further sense unease in the local community.3,4
The Haunted House
The Mill and Mill house were built sometime between 1800 and 1806 (the sources differ) by the business partnership of William Brown, Joseph Unthanks and Joseph Proctor Snr. The mill was innovative for its time and was thought to be the first steam powered flour mill on Tyneside, with engines running well into the night.
The Mill house was next to the Mill but separated by a road and was originally lived in by Joseph Unthanks and his family. When Joseph Proctor Snr died in 1813, his son, also called Joseph, joined the business, and became a full partner in 1829 (Brown had left the partnership sometime in 1807). The Unthanks’ and Proctors were cousins, and they were both respected quaker businessmen.
The house was visually unremarkable, it was square, double fronted affair, very typical of early nineteenth century domestic architecture. It had three floors (including the ground floor) and a garret/attic area above. Some sources say that the house did not have a cellar, but again, sources differ, for example, Richardson says there was no cellaring,5 while WT Stead and some modern writers, believe that the house did have a cellar. This point is important, because some believed that the cellar related to the alleged murder at the mill house and may have been where the body was concealed.6,7
Living with thedead
Life was unremarkable at the Mill House for many years. The Unthanks lived there from 1806 until 1831, when Joseph Unthank finally retired and moved his family out of the Mill House to Battle Hill Farm. The same year Joseph Proctor had married Elizabeth Carr of Kendal, so he and his new wife took up residence at the Mill house and in a few years their new home was filled with their young family. Things seemed to be going well for the Proctor’s until January 1835. It was at this point, Joseph Proctor decided to keep a diary, to record events, giving us a first-hand account of the haunting. The accounts of events described below are based on that diary.8
The Disturbed Room
It all began with footsteps in an empty room. For about two months, the nursemaid, employed to look after the children, had heard someone pacing back and forth in the room above the nursery. So forceful were the steps, that they even rattled the window frame in the nursery; this happened every evening and lasted for about 10 minutes. Her unease at these strange noises steadily grew until she became convinced that the noise was supernatural in origin, and she reported it to her mistress. The girl left the Proctor’s employment soon after, terrified by her experiences.
The nursemaid was not alone in the hearing ominous noises emanating from the third-floor room. Elizabeth Proctor soon bore witness to the strange sounds herself. At 11 am one morning, she was in the nursery, when she too heard a heavy tread in the room above.
The replacement nursemaid was not told why her predecessor had left, but it didn’t take long for her to find out. Soon she too was regularly being terrified by the sound of heavy boots pacing back and forward in the room above the nursery.
Whenever noises were heard in the room, the room was swiftly checked, but each time, it was found empty.
The room on the third floor, soon became known as the disturbed room. This room was occasionally used for storage but was usually kept empty by the family. What makes this room unusual, is that the door had been nailed shut until quite recently. In addition to this, the window and fireplace were boarded up and there was no access from the roof. Dust lay thick on the floor and that dust had not been disturbed by a single footprint – not even that of a mouse. Exactly when the door was sealed and by whom it was opened, remains unclear. The Unthanks only lived on one floor of the house during their tenure, did they know something about the room, did they seal it shut, did Proctor open it, unknowingly releasing something that should have remained sealed up for ever?
Soon every inhabitant of the house had experienced some form of unexplained and terrifying phenomena emanating from the disturbed room. But things were only going to get worse.
In early 1835, Joseph Proctor’s diary noted that he and his wife were disturbed in their bed by the sound of a mallet hitting a block of wood ten or twelve times, very close to them. The following night, when putting his baby son in his crib, he described hearing indistinct noises from the room above, then suddenly a metallic sound tapped on the cradle, causing it to vibrate.
These were amongst the last times the noises were heard in the disturbed room. Whatever was in there, had got out, and was now roaming the house terrifying the inhabitants.
The invisible thief
On the same night, Thomas Mann, the highly respected foreman of the Mill, was working a nightshift, tending the mill engine. At around 1am he was in the Mill yard to collect more coal, when he heard a loud grating noise on the cobbles. The Mill had a wooden cistern on wheels that was used to bring water to the Mill horses. Mann was convinced someone was trying to steal the cistern and rushed to confront the thief. To his surprise the cistern had not moved, and the yard was deserted. By the time Mann described his experience to Proctor, he was convinced the event was supernatural.
In his journal, Proctor himself noted that he had sometimes heard disembodied footsteps on the gravel outside the house.
By this time, it was clear to Joseph Proctor, that something uncanny was going on in his house. He broached the subject with his cousin Joseph Unthanks.
In February 1835, Proctor wrote:
My wife and I were informed by our cousin Unthanks that they understood that the house, and that room in particular in which the noises now occurred, was said to be haunted before they entered it in 1806, but that nothing they knew of had been heard during their occupancy of 25 years.
How the Proctor’s felt at this revelation and whether they truly believed the Unthanks had not had any strange experience in the house is not recorded.
After this bombshell, Proctor began to research reasons why the house might be haunted and made an indistinct half erased note in his diary saying:
“An infirm old woman, the mother-in-law of R.Oxon, the builder of the premises, lived and died in the house, and after her death the haunting was attributed–”
Much has been made of this phrase as potentially relating to the Willington Witch. But it must be remembered that the Mill House was comparatively new, so if a witch lived there, or nearby, it was likely to have been in an earlier older house.
The ghost in the window
Throughout 1835, the family and other visitors continued to experience strange phenomena on an almost daily basis. The haunting had now evolved from simple bangs and footsteps to full blown apparitions, as the following incidents from November of that year, testify –
“A respectable neighbour had seen a transparent white female figure in a window on the second story of the house.”
The following incident appeared connected –
“Early in the evening, two of the children, one aged about 8, the other under 2 years, both saw, unknown each other, an object which could not be real, and which went into the room where the apparition was afterwards seen, and disappeared there.”
By now the house’s reputation had become notorious and some visitors did not wish to stay in the house overnight. In November 1835, Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Christiana Wright was visiting from Mansfield and chose to lodge with Thomas Mann and his family to avoid the disturbances. However, this precaution made no difference.
The following incident occurred about 9.30pm.
“Soon after going to her bedroom, TMs wife went out of the house for some coals and was struck by a figure in the window previously referred to; she called her husband, who saw the same figure passing backwards and forwards and then standing still in the window. It was very luminous and likewise transparent and had the appearance of a priest in a white surplice”
Mrs Mann called her husband, daughter, and Christiana Wright to observe the apparition, which remained in the window for around 10 minutes until it gradually faded away from the head downwards.
The witnesses described the night as moonless, the yard empty, the window blind down, and the figure seemed to come through the blind and the glass. The possibility of a projection via a Magic Lantern was discounted at the time because a magic lantern would only have projected only on the blinds.
The next event took place on 16 December 1835 when Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Jane Carr was visiting.
“..[A] little before twelve o’clock at night, JC and her bedfellow were disturbed by a noise similar to the winding up of a clock, apparently on the stairs where the clock stands, which continued for the space of 10 minutes. When that ceased, footsteps were heard in the room above, which is unoccupied, for perhaps a quarter of a hour, while this was going on the bed was felt to shake, and JC distinctly heard the sound of a sack falling on the floor. “
The ghost was not finished with Jane Carr yet, on the 31 January 1836,
“About twelve o’clock at night, JC being quite awake was disturbed by a noise similar to a person knocking quickly and strongly on a piece of board in the room; when that ceased, she distinctly heard the sound of a footstep close by the side of the bed.”
The next event dated around 21st February 1836 involved Mrs Proctor who was sleeping apart from her husband and sharing her bed with the children’s Nurse, a woman called Pollard. As they were lying bed, they were raised up and let down three times, as if a man was underneath the bed, pushing it up with his back. The Proctor’s son, Joseph, also experienced his crib being raised up several times, and was so frightened that he called out for a light.
In 1838, Jane Carr, was again visiting. Terrified to spend the night alone, she was sharing her bed with the cook, Mary Young, when things soon took terrifying turn. Sometime between 11 o’clock and midnight, Mary Young heard the bolt on the door of their room slide back. Steps then approached the dressing table, upon which burned a rush light. The light was obscured as if the figure had extinguished it. Jane Carr then felt the bedclothes raised over her twice, then they both heard something rustling the curtains as it went around the bed. Mary Young claimed she saw a dark figure on the outside of the curtains, Jane heard and felt a sound like a fist hitting the headboard on her side. Mary Young then felt pressure on the bed, and saw the curtains pressed inwards, before they both heard it leave the room without shutting the door. The following morning, the door was found to still be bolted. Quite understandably, Jane Carr kept her head firmly under the bedclothes during this nocturnal disturbance.
A haunted childhood
The Children were not immune from the paranormal activity, and while they were sometimes scared of it, they seemed to cope with growing up in a haunted house quite well most of the time. Their experiences range from the bizarre, to the amusing to the downright terrifying. For example, Joseph junior experienced disembodied snatches of conversation, voices saying things like ‘Never mind’ and ‘Come and get,’ he also appears to have haunted himself, as he claimed to have seen his own image staring back at him on one occasion. On other occasions the children claimed they saw and pursued strange animals, including an odd-looking cat and a strange monkey. As an adult Edmund claimed he recalled these events clearly, although he was only around 2 years old at the time. Other, more terrifying experiences, include disembodied white faces, and a female apparition with hollow eye sockets.
Willington Mill has an unusual claim to fame, it was the site of one of the first ever recorded ghost hunts in England. Gossip about the haunting at Willington Mill travelled fast, despite Joseph Proctor’s best efforts to quell the rumours. In 1840, Dr Edward Drury, a sceptic, wrote to Joseph Proctor and cordially invited himself, his dog, and his brace of pistols, to hold vigil at the house at some time when the Proctors were away from home. Surprisingly, Joseph Proctor agreed to the request, he drew the line at the dog, but was fine with the pistols. Dr Drury arrived on Friday 3 July 1840 along with another ghost hunter, a chemist called Thomas Hudson. They hoped to spend the night alone, locked in the Mill house, along with an elderly servant. However, Mr Proctor unexpectedly returned home from his family trip for business reasons, so the two sceptics dined with the hardened believer, suffice to say, they came away converted (or some might say primed).
After minutely searching the house for any tricks, the vigil began. A letter from Dr Drury to Mr Proctor, provides an account of what happened next.
He and Hudson had taken up position on the landing of the third floor at about 11pm. Just before midnight, they began to hear the sound of bare feet pattering on the floor, but he couldn’t tell where they came from. Then, the sound of knocking was heard by their feet, followed by a hollow cough and the sound as of fabric rustling up the stairs towards them. By 12.45am Drury was feeling cold and wanted to go to bed, but Hudson insisted they stay up until dawn. To occupy himself, Drury picked up a note that he had dropped on the floor, read it, then checked his watch, it was 12:50am.
“In taking my eyes from the watch, they became rivetted upon a closet door, which I distinctly saw open, and saw also the figure of a female attired in greyish garments, with the head inclining downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest, as if in pain [..] and the other extending towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards.”
The terrifying figure advanced on Drury and his sleeping companion, stretching out its hand towards Hudson. In an attempt to protect his friend, Drury charged at the figure, but only succeeded in crashing into Hudson, whilst giving out a terrible yell. He was carried from the scene in paroxysms of fear and did not regain his senses for a full three hours.
Some link this apparition to the alleged murder at the Mill house. Hallowell and Ritson, in their excellent book on the haunting have suggested that the body of a woman was buried beneath a large stone in the cellar. WT Stead also thought that there was something hidden in the cellar. 9, 10
Life goes on
The strange events continued for many years, and Proctor continued to record them in his diary and communicate with interested parties on the subject, including William Howitt, Catherine Crowe, and the Spiritualist Magazine (despite his professed efforts to stop the story spreading he seemed fairly open to discussing it).
By 1847 the Proctor’s had finally had enough of their haunted house and moved to Camp Villa in North Shields. The ghost gave them one final performance the night before they left, when they heard banging and dragging of boxes down the stairs, as though the ghost was planning to move house with them.
Fortunately for them, their new home was quiet (although the servants may have played upon the families haunted past to scare new staff!)
When Joseph died in 1875, Edmund, his son, found the diary amongst his papers. Frustratingly the manuscript was incomplete, ending abruptly in August 1842. Joseph was never able to find the missing pages – which were promised to contain absolute proof the events were supernatural. The widowed Mrs Proctor asked Edmund to wait until after her death before publishing the diary and Edmund respected her wishes. Edmund finally submitted the diary to the Journal for Psychical Research, and it was published in their 1891/2 edition.
After the Proctors, the Mill house was split into two, and was occupied by two families, one of them being the Mann family. The Mann’s were familiar with the house’s history and did continue to experience some strange events, nevertheless they remained there for twenty years. Later it was broken up into tenements and eventually fell into ruin.
Joseph Proctor closed the mill in 1865 and eventually sold it in 1871. It is worth mentioning that the mill has its own ghost as well. The ghost of a little girl named Kitty is said to haunt the Mill, having been killed in an industrial accident.
The Willington Mill Haunting has never been satisfactorily explained.
Most of the contemporary accounts stress the reliability of the witnesses, Joseph Proctor and his wife were devout Quakers, Proctor was an abolitionist and a member of the temperance movement. Several of the other witnesses were trusted family members or long-standing servants and employees.
Great pains were taken at the time to consider trickery, environmental factors, or noises from heavy industry. All were, at the time, discounted.
Often, hauntings of this kind can be tracked back to bored children or teenagers faking poltergeist activity. There are two famous eighteenth century cases: the Stockwell Ghost and the Cock Lane Ghost, where the culprits in both cases were young girls simply out for mischief.
This is a possibility at Willington, it was a presumably young nurse maid who first reported the phenomena, however, she left soon after reporting it. There are also the Proctor children to consider, however the haunting starts in 1835 when the oldest child was only 2 years old, so that would seem to rule them out, at least initially.
As far as environmental factors go, the railway viaduct was not opened until June 1840, so would not seem to be a cause, however, it would be interesting to know when construction began, and if digging deep foundations for the railway arches could have caused vibrations or noises in the house. In addition to this the noises of the steam mill, and even the gut emptying and filling with the tide, could account for some of the noises.
It is also a possibility that once the family, and others, experienced some inexplicable phenomena, they remained hypervigilant, ascribing unusual events to the supernatural, rather than looking for a natural explanation.11
Priming may also be a factor, in particular with Dr Drury, who began as a sceptic but was rigorously primed about what kind of events to expect by Proctor. This may also account for Edmund recollecting chasing strange animals when he was 2 years old – his 8-year-old brother Joseph may have been playing a prank and priming him by saying ‘did you see THE Strange cat’ rather than ‘did you see A strange cat?’ causing Edmund to create a false memory of events. 12
There are also several instances that could be attributed to sleep paralysis and hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations which are associated with the first stage of sleep and with waking up. This could be a factor in Dr Dury’s experiences with the apparition of the old lady. If he had nodded off, he could easily have had a terrifying hypnogogic hallucination and then woken himself with a shout. Others had experiences that could similarly be linked to this natural phenomenon.13
The diary itself is also problematic, can we be sure it is genuine, and that Joseph wrote it when events were occurring? He could have written it after the event, and misremembered or misinterpreted things.
Michael J Hallowell & Darren W Ritson have looked at many theories and possible explanations from a paranormal perspective in their excellent book The Haunting of Willington Mill. They consider whether there was a murder at the site, and whether the Browns, Unthanks and Proctors knew or suspected a body was located in the Cellar of the Mill. Hallowell and Ritson also consider the intriguing possibility of a time slip in the area (were the family hearing echoes of the future or seeing into the deep prehistoric past?). 14
Personally, I want to know why the disturbed room was nailed up and sealed off, what, if anything, was in there? Opening up the disturbed room seems to be the key to this whole mystery. But, in the end, without the rest of the diary, we may never know the secret of the Willington Mill Haunting.
For anyone who would like to visit the site of Willington Mill, sadly the house is long gone, now under the carpark next to the old Mill building. The Mill itself remains, reduced in size. It is still operational and is run by Bridon Bekaert as a Rope works, so you cannot access the actual site. However, you can get great views of the Mill Building by walking along the wooded footpath on the other side of Willington Gut. Seeing the rose-coloured building emerging between overhanging tree branches, and reflecting in the still water of the gut, it is easy to imagine that this is a place out of time, where strange things might still happen.
Here at The Haunted Palace Blog, Halloween is our favourite time of year and this year we’ve been busier than ever!
As well as our usual super spooky Halloween post, we have not one, but two podcast collaborations coming up for Halloween!
In the summer, Lenora was lucky enough to be invited onto The Newcastle Witches Podcast to record their Halloween Special. The Newcastle Witches podcast examines the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1649-50, in which 14 innocent women and 1 man lost their lives. In each episode Maria and Caitlin talk to the experts on different aspects the witch trials, seventeenth century belief in witchcraft and magic, and the political and social situation in seventeenth century Newcastle. Each episode is dedicated to one of the victims of the trials. For their Halloween Special they asked Lenora to share the folktale of the Wallsend Witches and consider whether it is linked to a real-life alleged witch in Wallsend.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @newcastle_witches_podcast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM The Newcastle Witches Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Lenora was also delighted to be invited back to the Voices from the North-East Podcast for one of their two Halloween Specials. Voices from the North-East is a social history podcast that is doing amazing work to preserve memories of growing up in the North-East of England, so much so many of their episodes are being preserved in the Northumberland Archives. Last year Lenora chatted with Paul about the Wallsend Witches and the Alnwick Vampire, this year Lenora will be talking about the Willington Mill Haunting, in a podcast that will run alongside our Halloween blog post.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @voicesfromthenortheast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM Voices from the North East Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On 3rd December 1817, Charles Smith was hanged on the Town Moor at Newcastle upon Tyne for “the barbarous and cruel murder of Charles Stewart at Ouseburn Pottery”. 1
The condemned man left instructions that his body be released to his wife for burial. This request was denied, and his body sent to be anatomised at Surgeon’s Hall, Newcastle. So far, so unremarkable. The bodies of many hanged criminals ended up under the anatomist’s knife in Britain at this time. But that was not the end of Charles Smith’s story. The actual fate of at least part of Charles Smith’s body was both peculiar and macabre.
Road to the gallows
The story began the previous year, 1816, when the pottery was declared bankrupt, and a sheriff’s officer was authorised to sell goods to pay off debts. On the night of the 4th of December, Charles Stewart, the elderly Keeper appointed by the Sheriff, was sleeping on the premises, his task, to guard the money from the sale. In the early hours of the morning, he was woken from his slumber by the sound of loud banging on the door. Opening it, he was faced with two ruffians, intent on robbery. He was attacked and beaten severely. Although he eventually managed to summon help, his injuries were too severe and after lingering for several weeks he died on Christmas Day, 1816.
Before he died, Stewart was interviewed and pointed the finger of blame at Irishman Charles Smith, a former employee at the pottery, in a dramatic deathbed confrontation. When accused, Smith denied everything, even though a bloody stick and blood-spattered clothing had been found at his lodgings. Some doubt was cast on Stewart’s ability to identify Smith, and Smith did obtain a brief stay of execution. Ultimately however, Stewart’s testimony, along with some damning circumstantial evidence, and a dash of contemporary prejudice against the Irish, sealed Smith’s fate. He was found guilty of wilful murder and publicly executed the following December. The second assailant was never identified. 2
And so ended the tragic life of Charles Smith.
On 3rd of October 1818 the Durham County Advertiser reported the following curiosity:
“Literary relic – An eminent collector and Antiquarian of Newcastle is possessed of a piece of the skin of the late Charles Smith, executed near the town last year for the murder of Charles Stewart, which he had washed, tanned and dressed for the purposes of binding a large paper copy of the murderer’s dying speech!!!”3
I find the multiple exclamation marks interesting, while the eminent collector might find it acceptable to put human skin to this purpose, the author of the article clearly has his doubts.
The eminent collector and antiquarian in question, was likely to have been John Bell, an avid collector of books and coins, who ran a bookshop on Newcastle’s Quayside.4,5
The practice of binding books in human skin was hinted at in the ancient and Medieval periods. Some examples dating to the 16th and 17th century have survived, but the trend really grew in popularity, amongst certain sections of society, in the 19th century. But what was the motivation behind the practice?
There are several reasons why a book might be bound in human skin. In the early nineteenth century it was occasionally used as a post-mortem punishment for an executed criminal, often adjacent to dissection. Dissection had been an added post-mortem indignity for the executed person since the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752, which allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be publicly dissected (a boon to anatomy schools struggling to obtain cadavers). Both Charles Smith, and more famously, William Burke, half of the murderous duo Burke and Hare, were hanged, dissected, then had parts of their skin removed for book binding.
Binding a book in the skin of the condemned man was a post-mortem mortification with metaphysical consequences. At a time when many Christian’s believed you needed your body to remain whole in order to rise on the day of judgement, having part of your skin made into a pocket notebook or used to bind a copy of your Gallows Speech and clippings about your crime, might well prevent you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. As an Irish Catholic, this may have been on Charles Smith’s mind when he entreated authorities to release his corpse to his wife, for Christian burial.
The practice of public dissection, in this context, is a cruel and unusual punishment, a staggering display of callousness in disregarding the religious beliefs and dignity of the poor and criminal classes who were most likely to suffer this fate.
Some books purported to be made of human skin were used for political propaganda, such as the unproven rumours that French Revolutionaries set up a macabre tannery at Meudon. The tannery was supposed to have specialised in producing a range of fashionable leather breeches, boots, and book bindings, all using human skin. A copy of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, dating from 1793, and supposedly made of human skin, helped feed into the legend of blood thirsty Revolutionaries tanning the hides of their enemies. This legend was still being taken at face value well into the twentieth century, until academics began to look to the original source of the rumour, the rabidly pro-monarchist Abbot of Montgaillard (or possibly his equally monarchist son). 6,7
The infamous Swaatland parchment claims to be an eighteenth-century artefact, linked to the experiences of the real historic figure Luke Swatland. Swatland was captured by Native Americans, and later escaped and wrote of his experiences. The inscription on the piece of leather states that it was made from the skin of a ‘White Man taken by an Ingen, Scalped and skinned Alive[..]’ it went on to make the false claim that Native American’s were using the skin of Europeans as currency. Following testing by Megan Rosenbloom, the parchment proved to be made from cow hide, and was likely made at a much later date as a piece of racist propaganda to justify the treatment of Native Americans by settlers.8
Going back to the Charles Smith book for a moment, it is not known whether John Bell created the book for his own private amusement or as a commodity to sell. However, the fact that John Bell was a book collector is important, because, in the 19th century, in many cases books bound in human skin were made for collectors – enthusiastic bibliophiles with niche tastes in unusual and rare book bindings.
Collectors of such rare commodities invariably considered themselves to be gentlemen and often they were also medical men, as evidenced by the extensive research of Megan Rosenbloom. Many of the authenticated human skin books originated in the libraries of doctors and surgeons.
Medical men had two things in their favour – access to the raw materials, and clinical detachment.
Anthropodermic book binding can be seen as an example of clinical detachment taken to its extreme, with doctors forgetting the essential humanity of their patients, patient consent not being considered, and the unspoken trust between doctor and patient being breached almost irrevocably.
This idea of the gentleman collector is at odds with the popular image of human skin books. Most people’s first thoughts would probably run to HP Lovecraft’s ‘mad Arab’ Abdul al Hazred and his Necronomicon, and obsessive and insane occultists pouring over Grimoires of arcane knowledge. That or serial killers and Nazis. In short, people you would want to avoid at all costs, not your trusted GP or hospital doctor!
A matter of identity
While the matter of who made books of human skin, and why they did so, is fascinating. The question also remains as to whose skin was used?
Evidence would suggest that it was primarily the skin of the poorer classes, executed criminals and those who died in situations that left their bodies open to exploitation by medical men and collectors.
Very occasionally someone might volunteer, like unlucky highwayman James Allen, who asked that his memoirs be bound in his own skin.9 But that was a rare occurrence – in most cases the skin was obtained without consent or in direct opposition to the wishes of the deceased.
In cases where a book was bound in the skin of a criminal, such as William Burke or Charles Smith, we can be fairly sure of their identity. However, in many cases, particularly where the skin was obtained covertly in a medical setting, this is not possible, the identity of the unwilling donor left, quite literally, on the shelf.
One notable exception to this anonymity was uncovered by Beth Lander, the librarian at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in the United States. She uncovered a tale of medical malpractice from over 150 years ago. In 1868, a young, up and coming doctor named John Stockton Hough, performed an autopsy on a twenty-eight-year-old woman who died of Tuberculosis at Philadelphia General Hospital. During her autopsy, Dr Hough decided to take a macabre souvenir of the event, in the form of skin from the woman’s thighs. He held on to his gruesome treasure for many years, but eventually he found a use for it. Hough had an impressive library, and what better than to use this rarest of materials to bind three of his favourite books – on women’s health (which seems a particularly ghoulish choice). Beth Lander was able to follow the clues left by Hough and identified the woman as being Mary Lynch, a twenty-eight-year-old, impoverished Irish widow. 10
Not everything you read is true
One glaring fact about many ‘human skin’ books is that they do not all stand up to scrutiny, this seems to be particularly common where the subject matter is overtly macabre or has a definite political or racial agenda to promote. This can be seen in the case of the Swaatland parchment, which, upon testing, proved to be cow hide, and this may also be true of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, linked to the Meudon Tannery, which has yet to be tested.
But why have so many books claiming to be bound in human skin been taken at face value? One reason is clearly that these artefacts exert a morbid fascination. The other reason is that until recently, there was no fool proof, non-destructive way to authenticate them.
Books bound in human skin don’t scream at you, they look like any other book on the shelf. Previous testing consisted of looking at the binding under a microscope to examine the pores of the hide and compare them to human, pig, cow, etc. This method was not always accurate.
More modern techniques such as DNA testing are a no go because the tanning process destroys DNA, while repeated handling of the books over many years risks contaminating the sample and skewing the results.
All of that has changed recently, with the advent of peptide mass finger printing (PMF). This technique requires only a tiny sample of leather and can conclusively determine if a book is bound in human skin. The Anthropodermic Book Project, co-founded by Megan Rosenbloom, is currently testing as many alleged human skin books as possible using this technique. And while many books are not what they claimed to be, many others prove to be the genuine article.11
While unusual cases, like that of James Allen, show that occasionally people did choose this method of post-mortem memorialisation, most did not. Whether the skin of a condemned criminal or impoverished hospital patient, one thing is clear, the men who created these artefacts, did so with little regard to the wishes of the deceased.
This poses the question, should these books remain in museum and library collections? The curating and display of human remains is a challenging subject at the best of times, fraught with ethical, philosophical, and cultural dilemmas.
My view, is that they are a valuable resource that can help us explore broader subjects, such as how attitudes to race and class have changed over time, issues surrounding informed patient consent, and how the medical gaze, taken to its extreme, can depersonalise the patient.
Ultimately, these most macabre of artefacts can provide a window into a different time, a time when respectable gentlemen could blithely damn the criminal and the poor in the afterlife, and hide behind the clinical gaze, in search of that rarest most precious material to bind their books, human skin.
But what do you think?
As it happens, Bell never did bind his book in Smith’s skin, but instead fixed the sample of tanned flesh inside a rather ordinary half-bound volume (a leather spine, with darkly marbled covers), a particularly rare curio amongst newspaper clippings of the trial, commentary, and other ephemera. He even ended the book with a pen and ink sketch of a devil merrily playing the fiddle, above a dangling noose – gallows humour indeed.
The Charles Smith Book is held at Newcastle Central Library, it is available to view by appointment, but is currently featured as part of an exhibition that runs until the end of July 2022.
Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall displays the pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke.
Sources and credits
I would like to thank Sarah at Newcastle Central Library, for facilitating my viewing of the fascinating human skin book relating to Charles Smith and answering my many questions.
In researching this post, I found the most knowledgeable and accessible writer and speaker on the subject of anthropodermic bibliopegy to be Megan Rosenbloom. I have in particular relied on her excellent book ‘Dark Archives’ as well as several online interviews and articles.
Anyone who went to school in the North East of England will probably be familiar with the famous chorus from the folk-song The Lambton Worm. The song was written in 1867 by C M Leumane and quickly took on a life of its own in popular culture. My own memories of learning it as an eight-year-old, were that I loved the catchy chorus, but there were way too many verses to memorise!
Tales of worms or dragons are not uncommon in British folklore, one only has to think of St George and the Dragon to appreciate how entwined dragon-slayers are in national and regional identity.
But is the tale of the Lambton Worm simply another Dragon Slaying tale, or is there more to it than that?
The Legend of the Lambton Worm
The Legend of the Lambton Worm first appeared in print in 1785. Antiquarian William Hutchinson outlined the folk explanations of the formation of Worm Hill, a glacial moraine, in Fatfield, Washington:
“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women…” 2
This figure from the distant past was often identified as Sir John Lambton, Knight of Rhodes.3
However, these written accounts draw on older local oral traditions.
Here is my summary of the Legend of the Lambton Worm, as we know it today:
Young Lambton, the heir to the Lambton Estate, was fishing in the River Wear one Sunday, when he should have been in church, when he caught a very strange eel-like creature with a dragons head. Unhappy with his scrawny catch, he blithely discarded it down a well, later known as Worm Well, and went on his merry way. Young Lambton grew to repent of his profane ways, and joined a crusade, leaving his home for many years. The worm, however, did not leave, and was thriving and growing to a prodigious size at the bottom of the well where it was discarded. So much so, that it had to relocate to a larger habitat, choosing first to wrap itself around a local hill, which became known as Worm Hill, and later favouring a rock in the River Wear.
All would have been well enough, had the worm not also had a very large appetite. Cattle, Sheep, and even the occasional child all made it onto the worm’s menu. Consequently, the locals lived in terror of the poisonous and very hungry worm that young Lambton had unwittingly set loose amongst them. Finally, young Lambton returned, a new man, from the crusades and set about righting the wrong he had set in motion in his youth. His initial skirmishes with the worm were unsuccessful until he consulted with a local witch or wise woman.
The wise woman gave him some sage advice on how to tackle the slippery beast, which asides from being extremely dangerous, had a habit of being able to pull itself back together if it was ever cut in half. Following her advice almost to the letter (this will be important later) he donned a suite of armour studded with razors and took on the worm on its home territory, the River Wear. The worm, seeing Lambton as another tasty snack, wrapped itself round the knight, in order to crush him, but was instead sliced and diced, with all of its pieces flowing away in the river, never to reform again. The Worm was dead, and the local people were saved and there was much rejoicing!
All would have been well and good, except for one small omission by Lambton, the witch had warned him that once his mission was accomplished, he must kill the first thing that greeted him on his return home, or else the next nine generations of Lambton chiefs would not die in their beds. Despite taking some precautions, Lambton’s father was the first to greet him on his return, and well, young John couldn’t bring himself to kill his own father, so the curse fell upon the Lambton’s and the next nine generations did not die in their beds.
Tales of Dragon Slayers are common throughout Medieval Britain and Europe. The Northeast of England (taking in Northumberland, County Durham and Yorkshire) has twenty or so tales of Dragons and their slayers, for example, the Sockburn Worm and The Laidly Worm to name but two.4
What has been noted to be different about English, and these Northern tales, is that, unlike many of the European tales, the hero is not seeking to win treasure or maiden fair, but has a more pragmatic aim, often to save the local area from some peril (as in the Sockburn and Lambton stories). 5,6
What is particularly distinctive about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, is that once the hero has slayed the dragon, he does not win maiden fair or treasure, in fact he and his family are cursed for several generations to come.
Unpacking the Worm
There are certain elements in the Lambton Worm tale that are worth unpacking.
Dragons and Worms (terms often used interchangeably in historic texts) can mean different things in different cultures and depending on who is using them (see Miss Jessel’s excellent post for more on Dragons in general). For the Medieval church, dragons often represented evil, but for many noble families they represented valour in fighting, so appear on many family crests.7 They have also been linked to natural and manmade catastrophes, water spirits, and remnants of ancient nature religions (of which more below).
Jeffrey Jerome in Monster Culture considers the monster to be a cultural body. The device of the monster can be used to present a warning (of lines not to be crossed), to reveal a truth, to represent the ‘other’ (both within society or external to it), or to embody a cultural moment (often a moment of change). In killing the monster, the hero reaffirms group identity and order. And of course, as any horror fan will know, even if you kill the monster, it may still return.8
The Legend of the Lambton Worm can be seen to contain many of these attributes.
In folklore, fishing on a Sunday can be seen as shorthand for profane behaviour, young Sir John should be in church attending to his Christian duty. One interpretation of the legend, suggested by Tom Murray and discussed in his interview with James Tehrani, an anthropological folklorist, is that the worm as a metaphor for toxic masculinity. It is Sir John’s own out of control behaviour that has put the community in danger, and only Sir John can defeat it, by reforming himself through Christian duty (going on a crusade) then defeating the very phallic worm on his return.9
This idea of toxic masculinity has something of a pedigree, in 1823, William Hutchinson suggested that worm tales, such as the Lambton Worm, could represent a folk memory of the disastrous Viking raids on the Northeast coast that took place in the eighth and nineth centuries. It could perhaps commemorate a local hero who protected his community from them, or more broadly, show the community dealing with the threat itself, without outside assistance. 10
Water beings and the old religion
Another interesting interpretation of the Lambton Worm is that the worm is a metaphor for the relationship between man and water, and that this is part of a global tradition. Veronica Strang11 sees the popularity of dragons in the Medieval period as linked to the changing relationship with water and nature, new technologies and new social and political organisation both controlled water (e.g., through irrigation) also commodified it.
The Lambton worm is set in the Medieval period, at this time Church felt it was facing an existential threat on two fronts: externally in the form of the Islamic world, and internally from lingering nature worship amongst supposedly Christain communities (evident in the churches concerted effort to rededicate pagan holy wells to Christian saints).
Strang projects that the tale of the Lambton Worm could be read as the story of a local lord who fails in his Christian duty, allows pagan nature worship to flourish in his community, and, metaphorically, poison the well. Only when he has taken up his Christian duty and defeated another set of ‘pagans’ by joining the crusade against Islam, can he return home and re-assert Christianity in his local community. Here then, the worm represents the ‘other’ or pagan, which must be defeated in order to restore the established order. [strang] This potentially also links into the worm’s ability to come back to life, until the wise woman offers her advice to Lambton on how to vanquish it for good, if there was a fear that old nature religion would keep on resurfacing if left unchecked.12
A Local tales for local people
Another important factor in the Legend of the Lambton Worm is that it provides a heroic and ancient pedigree for a prominent local family, the Lambton’s, setting up one of their ancestors as the hero of the hour, protecting his community. It also incorporates tangible local landmarks – Worm Hill in Fatfield, Washington – further fixing the legend to the local imagination.
Jamie Beckett13 has identified the Legend of the Sockburn Worm as a potential inspiration for the Lambton Worm. The Sockburn Worm is attached to the ancient and once powerful Coyners’ family and is a much older tale but running along similar lines. Sir John Conyer’s defeats the dragon and saves the day with his trusty falchion sword. Visible reminders of Conyers bravery and chivalric pedigree remained for all to see in the ‘greystone’ marking the worm’s burial place and the Conyers’ Falchion, still extant today and held in the Treasury at Durham Cathedral (it forms part of the ceremony of enthroning new Bishop’s of Durham to this day).
Beckett sees the rise of the Legend of the Lambton Worm growing out of this tale, and coinciding with the declining fortunes of the Conyers family in the seventeenth century, and the rise of the ancient but not previously powerful Lambton’s from that period onwards. 14
The Lambton Worm and the Radical Politician
Folktales and legends morph and change over time. The Legend of the Lambton Worm is no different. One element of the tale that I certainly grew up believing, was that the Worm wound its tale around Penshaw’s Monument. I’d never heard of Worm Hill or Fatfield. So why is Penshaw’s Monument (or Penshaw’s Folly) come to be intrinsically linked to the Legend of the Lambton Worm?
The simple answer is that in 1867 C.M. Leumane wrote a very catchy tune about the Lambton Worm, forever linking it with Penshaw:
This feorful woorm wad often feed On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep, An’ swally little bairns alive When they laid doon to sleep. An’ when he’d eaten aal he cud An’ he had has he’s fill, Away he went an’ lapped his tail Ten times roond Pensher Hill. [Cj]
The Penshaw Monument, visible for miles around, is a Greek Temple on a hill in Penshaw Village Co Durham. It was built by public subscription in 1844/5 in honour of John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, who died a few years earlier in 1840.
John Lambton was born in 1792, he was Byronically handsome, rebellious, and had suffered many tragedies in his life (his first wife, Harriet, who he married for love, in 1812, died only three years later, they had three children who all pre-deceased him). While he was undoubtedly a tragic and romantic figure, what endeared him to the local population was his politics.
Known as Radical Jack, he was MP for Co Durham from 1812, pursuing radical Whig politics, he was in favour of a number of very progressive reforms such as secret ballots, fixed term parliaments, universal suffrage. Following the shocking Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where a large crowd of unarmed people, campaigning for parliamentary reform, were violently attacked by the cavalry, resulting in many deaths and injuries, Lambton controversially criticised the actions of the establishment in attacking and killing innocent people. He was later instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. All of this made him terrifying to the establishment and beloved of the working classes.
Such was his reputation, that by the 1820’s and 30’s at least three chapbooks existed that told the tale of the Lambton Worm, with the inferred compassion between the contemporary John Lambton defending the poor from political and social oppression, and his Romantic and heroic namesake ancestor, protecting the poor from a dangerous worm, in the distant chivalric past.15
Such was his popular appeal, that a lasting monument, funded by public subscription, was erected in his honour on Penshaw Hill. Tens of thousands of spectators watched as it’s foundation stone was laid in a Masonic Ceremony by the 2nd Earl of Zetland.16
I am drawn to Veronica Strang’s interpretation of the Worm as a metaphor for the church suppressing lingering elements of nature religion in its congregation, whilst fighting off ‘pagan’s abroad. This would seem a good fit if the legend was of Medieval or earlier origin. However, if the tale was created later, then Jamie Beckett’s view that these type of Legends were used by prominent families to establish their pedigree in the dim and distant past, then the legend of the Worm might be best interpreted as a public relations exercise by a family on the rise.
Perhaps more likely, is that it may contains elements both these theories, and others, with the most recent and most popular written iterations of the legend, from 1785 and onwards, being designed to give prominence to the powerful Lambtons, and to handsome, radical, John 1st Earl Lambton, in a fashionably Romantic and nostalgic way.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the worm is still slippery enough to both elude and fascinates us today, like all good folktales, it is alive and well and no doubt, continuing to evolve through the ages with each retelling.
There is undoubtably a lot more that could be said about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, its origin (ancient or otherwise), and its deeper meanings. For anyone interested in finding out more about the Lambton Worm (and other worms, dragons, and water spirits), I have provided a list of excellent sources below.
You can hear The Lambton Worm (C.M. Leumane, 1867) arranged and performed by Geordie Wilson on YouTube, via the link below.
The Lambton Worm composed in 1867 by C. M. Leumane
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Robert Surtees et al, The history and antiquities of the county palatine of Durham 1816-40
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood, The Lore of the Land
Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture
Tom Murray, Tracing the Cultural History of the Monstrous Lambton Worm
Veronica Strang, Reflecting nature: water beings in history
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Across Europe and America, if you visit a museum with an Ethnography section, you may come across a display of shrunken heads, or Tsantsas, from South America. The heads are no larger than a man’s fist, with lips and eyes stitched up, threads hanging from them, and framed by long black hair. If you haven’t seen one in a museum, then you’ve likely seen one depicted in popular culture, the movies Beetlejuice and more recently Harry Potter both feature shrunken heads in a horror/comedy setting.
But how did shrunken heads from the Amazon basin find their way into the museums and collections of Britain, Europe and the USA and how did interaction with western societies influence and change this indigenous tradition?
Who made them?
Tsantsas were created by the Shuar, Achuar, Awajun/Aguaruna, Wampis/Huambisa, Candoshi-Shampra, who are now collectively known as SAAWC. Europeans historically referred to this group of peoples as Jivaro, however, this became synonymous with being uncivilized or savage, so is considered offensive in Ecuador .
These groups lived in the Amazon, in small villages often based on family groups. They subsisted primarily from hunting, fishing, raising pigs and gardening. They also traded with other indigenous groups, and later with European settlers.
The Shuar’s primary claim to fame is that they successfully thew off the yoke of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1599, earning themselves a legendary reputation for fierceness and independence. This love of independence is reflected in the structure of their society, which was based on family groups and existed without any centralised authority .
More than just a war trophy
It is fair to say that even now the popular view in the West is that all headhunting cultures took heads as war trophies. And while some did, this is a reductive view, for the SAAWC peoples the head of an enemy killed in combat was much more than simply a brutal material symbol of victory. The power of Tsantsas came from harnessing the power imbued in them from the dead man’s soul for the benefit of the warrior’s family. The process of obtaining and preparing a Tsantsa was complex, time consuming and resource intensive, it was also fraught with danger. This meant that the practice of headhunting was not taken lightly, nor one practiced frequently by SAAWC peoples.
SAAWC peoples believed that the soul of a man was made up of separate components the Arutam and the Muisak. The Arutam was the soul-power, the spirit, power, and knowledge of the man. A man became Kakaram through killing and this strengthened his Arutam, this power was obtained through raids on other tribes to obtain Tsantsas. So, the best Tsantsas, the most powerful, came from a man who had killed a lot of people and therefore had strong Arutam. However, taking the head of such a man (and it invariably was a man, as a woman was not thought to be possessed of a strong Arutam), a powerful enemy warrior, possessed of such power, required careful rituals, or else his Muisak, his avenging soul which came into being at the point of death, could wreak havoc on his killer  .
How were they made?
The skills involved would be passed down from father to son . The process was both practical and ritual. To ensure the head could be transported away from the enemy village quickly, the skull, brains, muscle were removed, making it lighter to carry. This skin ‘bag’ was then filled with hot sand and pebbles repeatedly until it shrunk to the size of a man’s fist . Shrinking the head was the beginning of the ritual process of trapping power in the artefact.
A series of rituals and feasts were held, the first of which was a binding ritual. It was crucial to trap the Muisak in the head before it could escape and seek revenge. The Muisak would try and escape through the mouth, so it was vital to sew up the lips of the decapitated head quickly. Similarly, eyes were sewn shut to prevent it from seeing, and the skin was blackened with charcoal  . Once the Muisak was trapped, the owner could begin to use the soul- power of the Tsantsa, and transfer it to others, through a series of ritual feasts.
The feasts could take place over several years, this allowed the owner and his family to grow enough food to feed the many guests that would be expected to attend. The purpose of the feasts was to harness the power of the individual warrior’s Arutam (his skills and knowledge} and pass them on to the women of the owner’s family, so that they would be more productive. The final ritual would expel the Muisak from the head, rendering the physical head less valuable to the village. Sometimes the warrior would keep the head, but more often than not the head, once divested of its spiritual power, would be discarded, or traded away . As the whole ritual process associated with creating and utilising a Tsantsa was a lengthy one, and required extensive resources, it was not done often.
The Shuar themselves have emphasised that it is not the head per se that interests them , it was the soul-power of the warrior, which was contained in the decapitated head, that was their object in creating Tsantsas. However, by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century the production of tsantsas escalated rapidly. Now women, even children might find themselves targets of head-hunting raids.
So, how, and why did this tradition change?
Guns for heads
In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began to encroach on Shuar lands in search of rubber and cinchona bark, which was used to make Quinine, and this led to more interactions between the Shuar and neighbouring tribes and westerners. Quickly trade began between the groups, the Shuar providing settlers with much needed pigs, deer, salt and occasional Tsantsas, in return for cloth, machetes and guns. The dynamic changed when the settlers began raising their own livestock, the Shuar still wished to trade for goods such as machetes and guns, which made their lives easier, (they did not make their own metal) but the only thing the settlers wanted now was Tsantsas .
A trade had rapidly grown up around Tsantsas with North American and European Museums, collectors, and souvenir hunters all eager to snap up these curious tribal artefacts. Because the numbers of Tsantsas produced for ritual purposes was so limited, demand soon outstripped supply.
To meet this demand for Tsantsas, the Shuar and other tribes, massively increase in head-hunting raids, often using the guns they so keenly traded for. Raids involved hundreds of people, and now encompassed the murder of women and even children, who would not have previously been victims as their soul-power was considered lesser than a man’s. Frances Larson notes that the going rate for one gun was one Tsantsa, and commented that the Tsantsas on display in museums show more of the history of “white man’s gun” as an economic incentive for the Shuar to kill . Tsantsas produced for trade would not be ritual Tsantsas, they were produced specifically for the open market.
This trade in tribal curios led to many fake shrunken heads being created, with some reports of the bodies of the poor-dead in morgues being used to create Tstantsas, along with the heads of countless monkeys and sloths . Some of these fakes even ended up in distinguished museums in North America and Europe. Charlie Morgan of the Wellcome Collection, estimates that up to 80% of Tsantsas on display could in fact be fakes .
The Holy Grail of Ethnography
From the enlightenment onwards western society has been obsessed with cataloguing everything, from plants and animals to humans. However, in the nineteenth century this drive to understand the world soon became a tool for justifying an ethnocentric world view. The gap created by the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the early nineteenth century, was filled the European Imperial Project. Imperialism often wore a paternalistic face, civilised western nations claimed to be improving the lives of less advanced races who were unable to govern themselves.
This Imperialist project was quick to co-opt science to support colonialist expansion. In a similar way that the pseudo-science of phrenology began as a genuine endeavour to understand how the brain worked but ended up being used to justify eugenics and racism, so ethnographic hierarchies of people (with white Europeans at top of the evolutionary tree, and brown and black races at the bottom) were used to promote a race theory which justified the ‘superior’ races colonising less civilised races. The fall-out from this is still being felt today.
The position of Shuar peoples, never having been colonised meant they fell into that Holy Grail of Victorian Ethnography: the untouched tribe. A tribe in need of being studied and civilised.
Education, entertainment, exploitation
In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Human Zoos or ‘ethnological expositions’ were extremely popular. These exhibits would have people from traditional societies displayed in a ‘natural setting,’ ostensibly for the education of Western spectators, but in reality, as a way contrasting ‘primitive’ peoples and societies unfavourably to the more advanced nations of the West .
People are still drawn to the exotic and the ‘other.’ Museum visitors today, when faced with Tsantsas, often experience a sense of horror and an underlying feeling of cultural superiority, in that the viewer, is perhaps grateful that they do not belong to a culture that could produce such unnerving artefacts, that they themselves live in a ‘civilized’ culture where these things do not happen .
A review by Peter Gordon in 2003, reinforced this view as he found that visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum often viewed the Shrunken heads for entertainment purposes, using words like ‘gruesome’ ‘barbaric’ and evoked ‘a freakshow element’ . This led the museum to re-evaluate their display and whether it was achieving its intended aims to teach visitors about how other cultures treated their dead enemies.
This is in part because Tsantsas have come to represent an entire culture, this is all many people will ever know of the SAAWC peoples. Head-hunters have become synonymous with primitive and savage practices that the march of human progress has suppressed. However, this is a distortion of the rich symbolic meaning behind these sacred ritual objects.
Should the Tsantsas head home?
At a time when museums are being challenged to de-colonise their collections and address their imperial past, the history of the trade in shrunken heads is a timely reminder of the impact European colonisation had on the indigenous cultures they encountered.
Greater involvement and dialogue with indigenous cultures whose artefacts, particularly those that constitute human remains, are in western museums has changed the landscape of many museums. Museums, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, have now removed their displays of Tsantsas, and have reconsidered how they present information about indigenous cultures. This moved has been a polarising one, with some people welcoming the change and others against it.
The debate over the role of Western museums in curating artefacts from the colonial past, especially human remains, is a highly fraught area, with excellent arguments on both sides. There is a vocal lobby for the for the role of museums as conservators of our shared past, and educators, and equally strong lobby against that, and that the views of other cultures and their struggle to regain control over their own identities and heritage should take precedence. And of course there is also the problem of identifying real Tsantsas from the many historic fakes on display.
The issues of repatriation of cultural objects is a very controversial area, with genuine fears of great museum collections being broken up and lost forever. Use of modern technologies, such as digitised collections, contextualisation of collections and most importantly, involvement from colonised cultures could be one way to build a bridge between the rights of those cultures that were colonised alongside the valuable role of museums to protect and educate using artefacts from our shared past. I suspect this is an argument that will continue for many years to come, and may never have an outcome that will please everyone.
The last word
But what of the people whose ancestors made these artefacts, what are their views? Currently SAAWC peoples are engaged in a political and cultural fight for survival against the pressures of mining and the oil industry, sacred objects created by their ancestors, are potent symbol of cultural unity, and many now want them returned. Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar-Achuar now represent the interests of the SAAWC peoples.
The last word should go to Shuar themselves, Indigenous leaders Miguel Puwainchir and Felipe Tsenkush:
“Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without full realising the implications” 
“We don’t want to be thought of as dead people to be exhibited in a museum, described in a book, or recorded on film.” 
I would love to hear your views on this topic.
My primary inspiration for writing this article was the chapter on Tsantsas in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found, by Frances Larson, a fabulously witty, erudite, and thought provoking book.
Wishing all of the readers of the Haunted Palace Blog a happy holidays, however you celebrate them. If you’re taking it easy this Boxing Day, following a day of over-indulging in festive cheer, why not relax to a spooky tale for Christmas. I’ve been collaborating with Paul from the excellent Voices from the North East podcast again. This time I’m talking about the Legend of the Alnwick Vampire, vampire lore and medieval revenants. And for anyone who listened in to The Wallsend Witches, you’ll be glad to hear I’ve invested in a better mic for this episode!!
Join us for more dark history and folklore from the Haunted Palace Blog. Discover the tales of rogues and vagabonds, from the romantic to the ruthless, and the downright incompetent. Meet inventors and eccentrics, from the Elizabethan scientist killed by a chicken to the quack doctor who electrified Georgian society with his theories about sex.
Come face to face with vampires, mermaids and pixies and find out what grisly secrets are hidden away in farms and manor houses across England’s green and pleasant land. Rediscover some of history’s forgotten stories, such as the female sheriff of Lincoln who successfully defended a castle against an unrelenting opponent and the mysterious dancing manias that gripped medieval Northern Europe and threw whole communities into turmoil and chaos.
Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, ghosts and rediscover some of history’s lost souls.
With original art by @igamagination and @chknstyn.
This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.
Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.
Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.
Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death  or the gateway to heaven . This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.
Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.
Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.
Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).
Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument .
Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.
Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.
Coats of arms
Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.
The kingdom of heaven.
Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.
As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.
See world, below.
Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed . The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity .
Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.
Memento Mori Scenes
Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!
Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.
Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.
Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.
The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.
Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.
Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.
Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)
The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry .
Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.
Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.
Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven . They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments and often denoted the death of an older person  (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).
Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.
Women in mourning (weepers)
The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).
The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).
This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.