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
“Why, my goot Master Oldenbuck, you will only laugh at me. But de hand of glory is vary well known in de countriess where your worthy progenitors did live, – and it is hand cut off from a dead man, as has been hanged for murther, and dried very nice in de shmoke of juniper wood; and if you put a little of what you call yew wid your juniper it will not be any better, – that is, it will not be no worse; then you do take something of de fatsh of de bear, and of de badger, and of de great eber, as you call de grand boar, and of de little suckling child as has not been christened (for dat is very essentials), and you do make a candle, and put it into de hand of glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonish, and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall never find none at all”
So, what is the truth behind the mummified hand held in Whitby, why does the Hand of Glory occupy such a precarious position between fact and fiction and why did the myth around the dried and pickled hands of hanged criminals take such a strong hold on the imagination of so many people?
Hand of Glory Recipe
Step 1: Preparation of the Hand
There are quite a few pamphlets that describe how to make Hands of Glory. Certain minor details vary from account to account but overall, the instructions are strikingly similar in detail. The following instructions are taken from the Petit Albert (an eighteenth-century grimoire of natural and cabalistic magic) which cites Émile-Jules Grillot de Givry, a French occultist as its source and from the Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunter’s manual written by Francesco Maria Guazzo in 1608.
Sever the hand from the body of a still hanging criminal. Choose the left hand, except in the case when the man is a murderer, then cut off the hand that committed the murder. If this is not known, remove his right hand as this is the hand most likely to have been used.
Remove the hand in the dead of the night or during an eclipse.
Wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well.
Then put it into an earthenware vessel along with zimat (an unknown substance, possibly verdigris), nitre (the mineral form of potassium nitrate also known as saltpeter), salt and long peppers. The contents should be well powdered.
Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days (the hottest days of July and August) until it becomes quite dry (if the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain)
A different method of making a Hand of Glory can be found in the text which accompanied the Whitby Museum’s Hand and which was published in a book in 1823.
“It must be cut from the body of a criminal on the gibbet; pickled in salt, and the urine of man, woman, dog, horse and mare; smoked with herbs and hay for a month; hung on an oak tree for three nights running, then laid at a crossroads, then hung on a church door for one night while the maker keeps watch in the porch”
Step 2: Create the Candle
There are two ways to make a Hand Glory.
The first is to bleed the hand, dry it and then dip it in wax, turning each finger into a candle.
The second is to use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold a candle. The candle must be made from human fat taken from the corpse of the same hanged man and then combined with virgin wax, sesame and ponie. De Givry proposed that ponie was another name for horse dung, which due to its combustible nature when dry would make it a logical choice. An alternative suggestion also put forward is that ponie is a contraction of ‘sisame de Laponie’, in English, Lapland Sesame.
In some descriptions, the hair of the deceased man is used for the wick.
The Perfect Thieves’ Tool
Hands of Glory were most commonly associated with thieves who would harness its power to steal from households.
It was believed that all the fingers and the thumb should be lit. If one finger refused to ignite it was due to there either being less than five people in the house or to one person still being awake. Dousing the hand in milk was the only way to extinguish the flames and render the power of the hand dormant, releasing anyone under its control.
The hand could:
Induce a coma-like state for anyone already asleep in the household.
Open any door, however securely it had been locked and bolted.
Cause the holder to become invisible to others.
Make any person to whom the candle was presented, motionless.
How to Protect Your Home and Property
A household could protect itself from the Hand by rubbing a rather unpleasant and pungent concoction on their thresholds or other parts of the house. The mixture should be composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen and the blood of a screech-owl. As with the creation of the hand, the potion has to be made during the hottest days of July and August.
Historical Evidence for the Hand of Glory
Body parts have always had the reputation of being imbued with special qualities, you have only to look at the reverence that remains of Christian saints are held in. Even today in Africa, body parts are used in witchcraft practices, for instance, male genitalia is the most sought-after human body parts used in traditional witchcraft ceremonies. So, it is easy to understand that in the past, remains were thought by many to have magical qualities and how in their minds, crime, especially terrible crimes would increase the dark power of those remains.
So, what actual historical evidence do we have? The answer is very little. Most of it is either hearsay, second-hand accounts or very obviously fanciful. Hand of Glory stories are most common in Northern England. Robert Southey in his memoirs at one-point talks of assisting in the “definitive judgement” of certain criminals. Before he begins to demonstrate his knowledge, he makes it very clear to his audience that he himself had never attempted to create such an abominable object. He then states that men who had undergone torture confessed to him their use of a Hand of Glory. He says that its purpose was to render people motionless “insomuch that they could not stir, anymore than if they were dead“. He then goes on to describe how to create a Hand of Glory. Unfortunately, the lack of actual details such as where the trials took place and who the men were does call its veracity into question and besides under torture people will admit to anything!
There are also many stories that have been passed down, recounting incidents of the Hand being used. A famous account concerns the Inn of Spital on Stanmore (possibly Stainmore) in Yorkshire. It was said that on a cold October night in 1797, an old female beggar come to the door asking for lodgings. The owner of the inn, George Alderson agreed but stated that the beggar would have to be content with sleeping by the fire in the kitchen. The family then went to bed. Only the maid, Bella remained awake. Something about the beggar’s appearance unsettled her. Pretending to be asleep, she watched the beggar and was shocked to discover that the raggedy old woman was actually a man in disguise. She saw him remove a withered hand from his pocket, as well as a candle. Taking her chance, she rushed to her master’s bedroom but was unable to wake him or his son. On her return to the kitchen, she saw the man open the door and go outside leaving the Hand on the table. Realising that the household was under a spell, she grabbed a cup of milk and poured it on the Hand’s flames. Immediately the household woke and grabbing their guns, they shot at the thief and his accomplice. Knowing their luck had run out, the thief asked for the Hand of Glory to be returned. In answer, the son shot at them again. The Hand remained in the family’s possession for sixteen years. This account was supposedly given to the author by someone who had themselves heard it from the daughter of Bella. Two other Hand of Glory stories from Yorkshire are known; one is from Oak Tree Inn, Leeming (the incident reported to have taken place in 1824) and another earlier tale retold by Sabine Baring-Gould. The heroes of these stories are again female servants who save the families (and their valuables) through their bravery and intelligence.
Whitby’s Hand of Glory
The only surviving Hand of Glory can be found in Whitby Museum. Given to the museum in 1935, it was discovered in a cottage in Castleton by stonemason and local historian, Joseph Ford. Hidden in the wall, Ford identified it based on depictions found in numerous stories.
Often the Whitby example is cited as being proof of the existence of the Hand of Glory but is it really what it is purported to be? As shown above, stories about its existence were widespread and widely believed but could it have just been one of many items such as witches’ bottles and shoes that were hidden in walls to protect against witchcraft, demons and the fey or could it have been the property of cunning folk or ‘witches’? Unfortunately, we will never know.
Witches, Fairies and a Dead Hand
It was not only thieves that were associated with dead hands or Hands of Glory but also witches and fairies. These stories show the power of such objects as well as the fear that they could stir in people’s hearts and minds.
In Ireland ill luck, diseases and ‘curses’ were more commonly attributed to fairies rather than witches. It was generally believed that butter witches used the hand of a corpse to help them produce large quantities of butter and milk. In one tale an old woman asks a fairy how to get more butter and the fairy in response digs up a corpse’s hand and gives it to her to use for collecting it. In another, locals of the parish of Eyrecourt suspect a neighbour of having a dead hand in her possession due to the large amount of milk and butter she managed to produce from only a few cows. Despite the possible benefits of owning a dead hand such as taking a neighbour’s “crops and stock, and maybe breaking them out of house and home”, it was strongly believed that in the end, the hand would become a curse for whoever was in possession of it.
In England, a number of local stories appeared which linked the Hand of Glory to witches. One more light-hearted tale is set in the village of Crasswall in Herefordshire where it was said that a witch made a Hand of Glory from a hanged corpse in order to put a spell on the people who ducked her in a horsepond. The story was told by a woman from the village who remembered it as being one of her great-uncle’s “silly old tales”.
The most famous case concerns the Scottish schoolmaster and convicted ‘sorcerer’, Dr John Fian (alias Cunninghame). Tortured to breaking point and in extreme agony, he admitted to having trained several witches in North Berwick Kirk (many of whom found themselves centre stage in the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials), bewitching townsfolk and raising a storm to sink the ship carrying King James VI of Scotland and his newlywed wife, Anne of Denmark as they returned from Copenhagen and using a Hand of Glory to help him break into a church and perform a service to the Devil.
Further afield in Germany, during their witch hunts in 1588, two women, Nichel and Bessers were accused of witchcraft and the exhumation of corpses. The women admitted to “poisoning helpless people after lighting hands of glory to immobilise them”.
The Hand’s Medicinal Properties
One other curious aspect of the belief in the power of dead hands was that people, despite the objects’ gruesome nature, also associated it with healing. Even in Ireland, dead hands were believed to cure toothache. The hand had to be rubbed against the tooth. For the treatment to be effective for men, they had to avoid shaving on a Sunday.
Hands of Glory were also thought to have healing properties. In particular, they could be used to heal goitre, an abnormal growth on the thyroid gland caused by poor diet and nutrition, by passing the Hand over the swelling. Severed and preserved hands have been found in physicians’ medical bags and collections.
It is fascinating that stories about hands used for similar purposes can also be found in other countries in Northern Europe.
In Switzerland, it was said that the bodies of deceased and unbaptised children should be buried at night so that the location of their graves remained unknown. This was done to prevent the bodies from being mutilated as it was thought that the hands of such infants could open any lock. As in England, it was believed that the number of fingers that were not burning indicated how many in a house were still awake.
Germanic folklore also contained stories of how thieves would make lights for themselves which would cast a spell over people keeping them asleep for however long the candles burned. Known as ‘Thieves’ lights’, these gruesome objects were made from the fingers of unborn children. These infants would have to have been cut from a womb of a thief or murderer who had either been hanged, beheaded or had committed suicide. Specific and strict instructions had to be followed in order to invoke the hand’s power:
Special incantations and spells had to be recited.
The journey must be made along the devil’s roads at midnight.
The journey must be taken in absolute silence.
The same axe or knife that had been used by the executioner must be used to “open up the poor sinner’s belly, take out the child, cut off its fingers, and take them with you”.
The candles fashioned from these tiny hands would ignite whenever their owner wished it and would be quenched in the same manner. The power held by these macabre objects echoes exactly the power displayed by Hands of Glory. To add to the gruesome origin of these lights, it was reported that pregnant women were often sold to or stolen by brigands of thieves.
In West Flanders in the Netherlands, a story persists of how a foot of a hanged man was found in the possession of a thief which he used for the purpose of putting people to sleep. There is also a story from Huy, which bears a remarkable similarity to the Yorkshire tales. In this version, two men request permission to sleep by their host’s fire. The maid not liking the look of the visitors, spies on them. When they believe themselves to be unobserved, one of them, to the maid’s horror, draws a thief’s hand from his pocket. Despite his best efforts, all the fingers burn except for one. Realising that someone in the house was not asleep but seemingly unperturbed they hang it by the chimney and go to the door to call their associates. Failing to wake her master, the maid runs to the kitchen and blows out the candles. In an instant, the men of the household wake up and drive off the robbers.
The Hand of Glory: An Interesting Tale or a Grim Tool
Although it is highly improbable that Hands of Glory were powerful magical instruments, it is more than likely that people did try to make them. There are just too many stories, from too many countries, to dismiss them as complete nonsense. It is a shame that only one has survived as more physical evidence could give us a better understanding of this traditional occult practice. What happened to the others? One possible explanation is that they were buried in secret locations where they could not cause harm and another is that they were simply destroyed. Going back to the introduction and the section taken from the novel Waverley, it is apparent that the author did have knowledge of the Hands although the description given here of their creation is very different from the written accounts that have come down to us. Also, its use to protect secret treasure seems contradictory, it is more likely the Hands would be used to find it instead!
I will leave the last word to Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor (pen name of Richard Harris Barham) who wrote The Hand of Glory, the second of the Ingoldsby Legends.
Now open, lock! To the Dead Man’s knock! Fly, bolt, and bar, and band! Nor move, nor swerve. Joint, muscle, or nerve At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand! Sleep, all who sleep! – Wake, all who wake! But be as the dead for the Dead Man’s sake
Baring-Gould, Sabine: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Rivingtons: London, Oxford & Cambridge, 1868
Guazzo, Francesco Maria: The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
Guiley, Rosemary: The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, Checkmark Books, 2008
 Francesco Maria Guazzo, The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
 Hand of Glory: The Dark Secret Of The Severed Hand At Whitby Museum, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/
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.
Between 27 March 2014 and 20 December 2015, an archaeological dig led by Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services took place at a site to the south-east of Oxford, near the Kassam Stadium. The land on which developers had gained building permission to erect a three-storey hotel had originally been the site of a priory which had been dismantled during the reign of Henry VIII, as part of the English Reformation.
During the excavations, 92 bodies were discovered. Some would have been buried in the church itself and others just outside, east of the choir. This discovery led many people to suspect that they were deviant burials and somehow connected to the infamous nuns residing in what became known as “one of the worst nunneries of which record has survived”.
A Fall from Grace
The Priory of Benedictine nuns at Sandford was founded in 1110 BC, during the reign of King Stephen by Sir Robert de Sandford and initially dedicated to Saints Mary, Nicholas and Edmund. Eventually its association with Mary and Edmund was dropped and the religious house became solely devoted to Saint Nicholas. The Sandford family remained beneficiaries of the religious establishment until around 1239, when it was gifted to the Knights Templars who held the preceptory at Sandford Manor. Sometime during the thirteenth century, the priory became known permanently as Littlemore and its fortunes waxed and waned. The priory like other small and obscure houses on a limited income struggled to survive. The slide into poverty was probably the reason behind the nunnery’s dissolute and wayward behaviour. Despite its long-standing reputation as a place of ill-repute, it only had its first visitation in 1445, when Prioress Alice Wakeley (or Wakelyn) was in charge.
Beware Oxford Students!
At the time of the visit of Dr John Derby on behalf of William Alnwick, Bishop of Lincoln, there were only seven nuns living at the priory. These included Agnes Marcham and Joan Maynard and to our knowledge, four laywomen; Agnes, a serving woman of Robert Fitz Elys; the daughter of John Fitz and; Ingram Warlands’ daughters. Derby discovered to his horror that the nuns were eating meat every day and that the dormitory was in such a dilapidated state that the nuns were afraid to sleep in the room. The financial state of the priory was so dire that the nuns were sleeping two to a bed as the prioress had been forced to sell most of the furniture.
Agnes Marcham spoke vehemently about the salacious behaviour of the prioress and the other nuns, decrying “the ill-fame which is current there-abouts concerning the place”. On questioning it was revealed that the nuns often entertained male visitors and that men regularly dined with the prioress, on some occasions even spending a couple of nights at the priory. Among these ‘visitors’ were a monk from Rievalulx who was studying at Oxford; John Herars, a kinsman of the prioress and masters of arts and Oxford scholar and; Sir John Somerset, a parish chaplain of Sandford Boards (who was suspected of being rather closer to Joan Maynard than was acceptable). The other nuns in turn argued that Agnes was lazy and rebellious, refusing to do her share of the work. With all this bad feeling, the atmosphere at the priory must have surely been an unpleasant one.
On the close of the visitation it was decided to issue an injunction against secular persons (especially Oxford scholars) from consorting and speaking with the nuns. The nuns were also warned against sleeping together, each nun had to have their own bed and stay there – alone! The nuns were charged under “pain of cursing and command of fasting”. It is interesting that despite Agnes Marcham’s repulsion at the behaviour of the sisters, her refusal even after thirteen years (she had spent half her life at the priory) to make her public profession and her deep fear that the priory would sink even further into poverty, she stayed! Unfortunately, Agnes prediction on the fortunes of Littlemore turned out to be correct.
The Worst Prioress in England
In 1517, scandalous reports of lewd behaviour reached the ears of the higher ecclesiastical authorities leading to Atwater, Bishop of Lincoln charging his commissary Edmund Horde with the task of finding out what exactly was going on. Horde found a priory going to ruin under the mismanagement of the scheming, licentious and deceitful prioress, Katherine Wells (who had been appointed to the role in 1507). Only five nuns were in-resident. These were Anne Willye, Juliana Bechaump and the sisters Juliana, Johanna and Elizabeth Wynter. Despite Katherine threatening her nuns to remain silent, the nuns under questioning revealed a number of crimes committed by their prioress spanning the last eight years. Financial mismanagement had left the priory destitute with no food, drink or pay for the nuns. She had also pawned off the priory’s silver as well as “pannes, pottes, candilsticks, basynes, shetts, pelous, federe beds etc” in order to raise a dowry for her now deceased daughter whom she had had with Richard Hewes, a priest from Kent. In addition, she had leased tenements under the common seal and pocketed the money. As punishment Katherine lost her title of prioress but was allowed to carry on with her duties, presumably until a suitable replacement was found, as long as she took advice and direction from Horde. Things did not improve and nine months later on the 2 September 1518, Bishop Atwater arrived in person.
The Bishop found the priory in an even worse state of disarray and the feud between Katherine and the sisters even more acrimonious. Katherine had continued to allow Hewes to visit and had been selling off the wood from the lands belonging to the priory without permission, Juliana had fallen into sin with a male commissary, Elizabeth was romping and wrestling with the boys in the cloister and one of the Wynter nuns (it is not clear which one) had had a child with a married man from Oxford. Katherine complained to the Bishop that Elizabeth refused to correct her behaviour and so had been put in the stocks (it must have been a regular punishment for the unruly nuns). It seems that three of the other nuns released Elizabeth and burnt down the hated stocks. In the chaos, Katherine sought help from neighbours and servants but while she was away the nuns escaped by breaking a window and fleeing to friends for safety. When they returned Katherine apparently beat Elizabeth around the head and kicked her. The nuns for their part complained of Katherine’s violent temper and accused her of punishing them for no reason (maybe as retribution for them speaking out against her).
The End of the Road
No replacement prioress was ever found for Littlemore, perhaps no-one wanted to take on such a burden! Maybe Littlemore was seen as a lost cause. Somehow the priory continued to exist for the new few years. It wasn’t until 1525, that Cardinal Wolsey, in need of money for his new school, Cardinal College, Oxford was given the authorisation to dissolve some of the decaying monasteries and religious houses. One of the those he chose was Littlemore. Probably, it was seen as a way to stop the contagion of immorality from spreading to other houses. Katherine was pensioned off and the nuns were released from a vocation that they were obviously not suited to. As former nuns, according to a decree issued by the hypocritical Henry VIII, they were forbidden from marrying. It is possible that some of the women may have returned to their families but it is equally as likely that a far worse fate then being a nun lay in store for them.
The Littlemore Burials
As mentioned in the introduction, 92 bodies were found during excavations. Of the 92 remains, 75 were adults, three adolescents and 13 children of which 35 were females and 28 were male, with the others unidentifiable. The majority of the females were over 45 years old, although their actual age when they died would be difficult to gauge from the remains (the older age at which these women would have died would correlate to the nuns’ circumstances which meant that they would have had access to better quality food than the general female population).
It is more than likely that the burials included nuns, lay-sisters, servants, patrons, children attending school at the nunnery and relatives. Archaeologists stressed in the site report the importance of the find as one of only four out of a 152 nunneries known to produce a large enough sample for scientific conclusions to be drawn and is “one of the few collections of remains from a small English nunnery”.
The burials included that of a woman, probably a prioress, interred in a limestone coffin; a still born baby buried in a casket; a man who had died from trauma to the back of the head; two children aged six and ten (probably female) with congenital hip dysplasia (which would have left them with walking difficulties) and; an individual who had probably suffered from leprosy when he was alive. Two other high-status males were discovered buried in the church – possibly beneficiaries of the priory, clergy or close kin to the prioress. None of these burials are unusual in themselves with the exception of one!
A Deviant Burial
At the time of the excavation, a number of sensationalist headlines hit the newspapers about the finds such as the Daily Mail’s headline “Sex-crazed nun in a bizarre position among 90 skeletons dug up near priory”. The Daily Mail and other papers were referring specifically to one burial that of a female, aged between 19 and 25, buried in a prone position along with a 6-month old infant.
Prone burials where the body is placed face down are not uncommon in the United Kingdom where over 200 cases are known (these burials are usually found on the edges of a cemetery to indicate that they have been cast out; in shallow graves or buried without a coffin). Often this type of burial was an after-death punishment reserved for sinners or ‘witches’ but it could have equally been the wishes of the deceased. Such a request could have been seen as a desire to atone for sins (either theirs or a close relative or friend’s) or to show humility.
So, was the woman a penitent nun who had been interred with her illegitimate child or had the baby just been added to the burial as occasionally happened or was the woman a wealthy and noble lady who had been buried with her infant? We are unlikely to ever find out but for some it is irrefutable physical proof of the debauchery and immorality that went on behind the priory’s walls.
Nuns Behaving Badly
The question that is raised from all the accounts of the priory is how unusual was the lewd behaviour of the nuns and prioress at Littlemore?
Examples of nuns acting against their vows are plentiful. Many of these women had entered the nunneries and convents at a young age and not through choice. Parents would send their girls to become nuns for financial or moral reasons (maybe the girl was bringing shame on their family) or even as a pawn in a game of power, abbesses were influential figures in medieval England and so having an abbess in the family was definitely a bonus. So, it is not surprising that as these girls grew up, some of them rebelled against the constrictive and stifling life they had be condemned to.
Stories of nuns having relationships and children (usually with male priests – often they themselves had been pushed into a lifetime of celibacy against their natural instincts) abound in literature and folklore. The punishment for such immoral behaviour was severe but did not usually result in their deaths. Walled up nuns and priests became a trope in gothic literature but was hardly, if ever practised in Britain (more evidence of such a practice occurs on the continent). Nuns who took a lover were forgiven as long as they repented of their sins. More severe action was also common with women placed in strict isolation. For instance, in 1535, when a Cistercian nun at Esholt Priory in Yorkshire became pregnant she was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a room within the nuns’ dormitory – for many this would have been a death sentence.
In 1442, at a convent in Catesby a prioress named Margaret Wavere had an affair with a priest named William Taylour. Furious when her indiscretion became public knowledge, she tore off the veils of her charges and dragged them about by their hair. Six of the nuns escaped and gave their account of the situation at Catesby. Apparently at a bishop’s inquiry, “she beat any nun who gave testimony against her, and bribed the bishop’s clerk to discover what had been said and by whom”.
Not all were isolated cases. Stories of the bad behaviour of entire nunneries can be found throughout England during the middle and later medieval periods. In 1351, the Cannington Convent in Somerset was compared to a brothel by a commissary of the Bishop of Bath and Wells whilst the black nuns of Wroxall Priory in Warwickshire during the 1320s and 1330S, earned a bad reputation due to the obsession of the prioress, Agnes de Aylesbury with the priest, John de Warton. According to records, the priory “slid into serious disarray during her rule” with her nuns running wild and refusing to obey her. A situation not helped by the fact that she lavished food and gifts (which the house could ill-afford) on her lover.
In conclusion, the situation at Littlemore was not an exception but it was also not the rule. Many convents were respectable institutions with nuns fulfilling their duties with dignity and devotion. At another point in time Littlemore would have survived but the era of the nunneries and monasteries in England was drawing to a close. Worsley, Thomas Cromwell and others used examples such as Littlemore to justify first the reformation of and later the dissolution of the religious houses and create, on behalf of Henry VIII, a new religious order. In the end, the closure of Littlemore was probably met with a sigh of relief rather than pangs of regret.
Logan, F. Donald: Runaway Religious in Medieval England, C.1240-1540, Cambridge University Press, 1996
Power, Eileen: ‘Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535’ in The Complete Works of Eileen Power, Eileen Power, Shrine of Knowledge, 2020, Kindle Edition
Rosewell, Roger: The Medieval Monastery, Shire Publications, 2012
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.
A common definition of a turf maze is a “convoluted path cut into level areas of short grass” . Sometimes the groove cut into the turf is to be walked but more commonly it is the turf itself which is the path. The maze is cut into level areas of short grass or lawn to create raised paths of turf marked by shallow channels excavated between twists and turns.
CATHOLISM AND THE MINATOUR
There are two types of turf mazes; classical and medieval. The medieval pattern of turf mazes is identical to pavement labyrinths found in Gothic Cathedrals elsewhere in Europe such as the famous example in Chartres Cathedral.
On the other hand, the classical form seems to have taken its inspiration from ancient Greek mythology and history. Coins depicting the minotaur’s labyrinth found in Crete at the site of ancient Knossos confirms this as does the names of three of the surviving English examples; ‘The City of Troy’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Troy Town’. The preference for the name Troy could refer to an ancient Roman equestrian game which re-enacted the battle of Troy played over a maze-like pattern with the grooves separating the pathways representing the walls of the ancient city. The link between the name Troy and the design is taken as evidence of the deliberate decision to connect the mazes to the ancient world but there is another school of thought that asserts that ‘Troy’ is a corruption of the Celtic word to turn, ‘tro’. I personally don’t see any reason why the name ‘Troy’ couldn’t have been chosen precisely because of its double meaning.
Although they are known as mazes, the name itself is misleading. They are actually labyrinths because unlike mazes there is only one route from the entrance to the centre.
SURVIVAL AGAINST THE ODDS
Turf mazes come in all sizes and can be found in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Denmark but the practice of constructing mazes from stones and boulders was much more widespread. Most experts believe the tradition of ancient stone mazes predates the creation of the earliest turf mazes. This is more than likely correct but it is nearly impossible to verify because of the nature of turf mazes. In order for turf mazes to keep their shape they need to be constantly re-cut; this destroys any archaeological material which could have helped with the dating process.
Evidence from written sources such as W.H. Matthews, who in his 1922 book, Mazes and Labyrinths recorded over 30 mazes, and also from local oral folklore reveal that at one time turf mazes existed all over Britain but unfortunately only eight have survived in England. These are: –
Alkborough, North Lincolnshire
Dalby North Yorkshire
Saffron Walden, Essex
Troy Farm, Somerton, Oxfordshire
St Catherine’s Hill, Hampshire
So, what was the purpose of these mazes? Many theories have been put forward including those relating to religion and fertility rites. Whatever the reason, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trend of cutting turf mazes reached its peak. More and more appeared, mainly on village greens but also on estates of wealthy landowners. During Cromwell’s reign the use of turf mazes was forbidden but they regained popularity after the restoration of the monarchy. A memorial obelisk placed at the centre of the Hilton turf maze by 19-year-old William Sparrow who re-cut the turf maze in 1660, commemorates both the return of King Charles II to England and the rededication of the maze . Turf mazes witnessed a revival in interest in the nineteenth century although many on private land were destroyed by Capability Brown, who disliked their unnatural stylised form.
TORMENTING THE DEVIL
As was mentioned before, turf mazes cut in the medieval pattern are identical in style and shape to the engravings found in the naves of cathedrals in mainland Europe. These labyrinths symbolised the search for redemption. Penitents were encouraged to cleanse their souls by following the path of the labyrinth as it was believed that walking a twisting path would confound the Devil who could only travel in straight lines. Many would do so on their hands and knees. Few of these survive, most were destroyed, seen as a distraction from the religious solemnity of the services. You can sort of picture the scene, a queue of sinners all lined up to walk the labyrinth and so focused on keeping their place that they become oblivious to the words of wisdom coming from the pulpit.
There are no records of pavement mazes inside English churches but there is evidence that some turf mazes existed just outside as well as close to places of pilgrimage such as Julian’s Bower, the twelve-circuit turf maze in Alkborough which was located next to a thirteenth century Benedictine cell . This has led some to speculate that they fulfilled the same function as their European counterparts. An unsubstantiated but interesting legend recounts how the Alkborough maze was created to force a knight who took part in the murder of Thomas Becket to pay penance. Even if this can explain why turf mazes were first introduced it does not account for the fact that so many mazes were located far from any religious sites. The evidence for a few mazes near churches have also led to some theorising that they actually predated Christianity which is also a possibility as early Christian sites do have strong links to the sacred places of pre-Christian religious practices.
If turf mazes were linked to Christian practices it leads to the question of why English churches or cathedrals did not incorporate them into their design? Could it have been due to differences in architectural, cultural or religious preferences or is there another reason that we are just not aware of. Did the early turf mazes have a religious purpose and if not, why was this particular design adopted? Do the origins of the English turf mazes lie in the European pavement labyrinths or were the church versions built upon an earlier tradition? There are so many questions, most of which we will never know the answers to.
PROTECTION FROM THE PERILS OF THE SEA
A number of stone mazes existed and still survive along the Baltic coast. According to the folklore of this area, these mazes were used by fishermen as a snare to trap evil sprites during tempestuous weather. It was believed that the smagubbar or little people followed fishermen everywhere and brought bad luck . In order to prevent them from wreaking havoc the fishermen would walk the maze calling on the smagubbar to follow them. Once they reached the middle the men would flee and put out to sea, thus confounding the smagubbars’ dastardly plans. It was believed these sprites were unable to turn corners which links back to the Catholic belief about the Devil only being able to walk in straight lines.
Studies of labyrinth imagery from Scandinavia has shown that from the earliest times it was asserted that
“walking the stone labyrinths in the proper way gave fortune and protection healing and magical aid – even fishermen used labyrinths in the hope of being able to control the weather and increase the catch, as well as protection against the perils of the sea”.
Fishermen and sailors because of the perilous nature of their work and the fact that their lives depend on elements which are beyond their control have some of the most fascinating superstitions of any other group of people. Therefore, considering how so many countries share similar mythologies and practices I can see no reason why this link between fishermen and mazes shouldn’t have also existed in England. Although no examples exist in England, the closest comparison we have comes from St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly where a stone and boulder seven-ring maze can be found on the coast. The present form of the maze was built by the son of a man who worked the local lighthouse in the 1700s. Considering that the role of lighthouses is to keep sailors safe it would be logical to think that the maze was also a form of protection. Excavations of the site have revealed that the current maze was built on top of an earlier one, lending support to the idea that this connection goes back a long way.
As with every ancient countryside ritual or structure sooner or later we get back to the idea of fertility and turf mazes are no exception.
There are many different versions of this practice but they all centre around one particular theme, that of the boy finding his way to the girl and carrying her off. Often the event took place during village fairs. In some places the chosen girl would stand in the centre and a group of young men would run through the maze to reach her and claim her as their prize or the men would race to the middle, the winner able to take his pick of the young women waiting on the edges of the maze. At the turf maze in Saffron Walden a young maiden would have to wait patiently at ‘home’ i.e. the centre of the maze, to be rescued by a boy who had managed to negotiate the twists and turns of the path without stumbling.
Lending credibility to the similarity of uses of the turf mazes and their stone maze cousins is the fact that nearly identical fertility rituals existed in Scandinavia where races would take place and girls saved and ‘freed’ from their imprisonment in the maze. In Finland another strange custom existed called The Virgin Dances, whereby the man who won would be allowed to lead her in a dance. In Sweden even as late as 1985, the folklore department of Abo Akademi recorded how locals from one area would still meet in secret at their stone maze during the summer, choose a girl to stand in the centre and watch the boys race the maze. The girl would belong to the first boy to reach her who had not taken any wrong turns. The rest of the villagers would watch the entertainment clapping and encouraging the participants.
In many ways these practices remind me of the rituals surrounding the harvesting the last sheath of corn and the creation of the corn dollies, in that the young men of the villages would run a gauntlet in order to demand a kiss from one of the village girls.
Connecting the mazes back to their classical associations can be seen in the writing of Abraham de la Pryme. Whilst at Alkborough in 1697, he relates how he sat on the hill overlooking the maze and watched two Roman games being played. I would hazard a guess that this must have been an English version of the Battle of Troy re-enactment. From his account the games seemed to have been very popular.
Understandably the mazes became a source of amusement for local children who would make up games and invent rules for playing on the maze. Few details of these games have survived.
The mazes also seem to have been turned into a drinking game where local men would wager beer for walking the maze. In one village a game was played where three men, blindfolded, tried to follow the maze’s path without stepping off . Not sure if they did this sober or drunk!
In Saffron Walden there still survives the largest turf maze in Europe with a circumference of 132 feet, a pathway of one mile, seventeen circuits and enclosed by a bank and ditch. Four bastions are located at equal distances around the perimeter. A notebook owned by the town’s museum records how each part of the maze was named after a local town. During festivals and fairs everyone would come together to watch men race between the different sections of the maze within a set time. An umpire watched over the proceedings to ensure no cheating took place.
The cutting of the turf was also an occasion for celebration as the whole village would turn out to help with food being provided and music and dancing taking place. It seems that turf mazes played an important role in village life.
THE LEIGH WITCHES
William Barnes in 1879, wrote how the eastern part of Leigh Common was called Witches Corner and that records from Somerset magistrates contain information about the site between 1650 to 1664, being the meeting places of a coven of witches. The turf maze at Leigh has long since disappeared and although there is no evidence of the maze having any association with witchcraft, a local legend has somehow developed which fuses the two together. Personally, I think it would have been a very appropriate place for them to meet except for the fact that it seems that evil beings are unable to traverse the mazes due to their circular design, maybe witches were an exception to this rule! According to sources in the 1990s, Leigh Women’s Institute designed a banner which depicted a witch on a broomstick viewing the six-sided puzzle.
MEETING PLACE FOR LOST SOULS
Not only does England boast the largest turf maze but we also have the smallest one too. The classical shaped seven-ringed turf maze in Dalby, North Yorkshire is tiny but beautifully preserved. I am not sure if someone was being ironic but it is known as the City of Troy. A sign nearby informs visitors that the maze is a waiting point for trapped lost souls and that they may be consulted at the centre of the maze
Although most documentary evidence suggests that turf mazes sprung up in the sixteenth century, there is no reason to suppose that they had not existed prior to this period. Why they appeared is a mystery, it is possible they originally had a religious purpose whether that was for Christians or Pagans but it is equally as likely that they were simply a form of rural entertainment.
Why they were allowed to overgrow and disappear was probably due to several factors. Maybe over time the reason for their existence disappeared alongside many traditional countryside superstitions, maybe just like many fads they just fell out of popularity or maybe the money and labour needed for their upkeep was seen as an unnecessary expense, for example in 1699, it cost 15 shillings to pay for three men to work for five days to cut the turf at the Saffron Walden maze.
I am just really glad that at least a few of them defied the odds and survived. They are a remnant of a bygone age and as such should be cherished and protected because they are just as much a part of our history and culture as the castles, iron age forts and standing stones which decorate the English countryside.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
Kraft, John: The Goddess in the Labyrinth, Abo Akademi, 1995
Gogerty, Clare: Beyond the Footpath: Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims, Little, Brown Book Club, 2019
Bounford, Dr Julie E: The Curious History of Mazes: 4000 years of Fascinating Twists and Turns, Wellfleet, 2018
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
There is no mythical creature more enduring in literature, myths and ballads or whose image both fictional or imagined has struck terror in the hearts of so many people from around the world, as that of the dragon.
It is not known when the idea of a ‘dragon’ entered the consciousness of people but texts from both the Sumerians and Ancient Greek civilisations contain references to such a creature. Indeed, the word dragon comes from the Ancient Greek, drakōn and was originally used for any large serpent. Dragons may come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is their long serpentine torso.
The way in which the character of the dragon has been represented has changed over time, its appearance and nature adapting to the environment and culture in which it was created. In China, the dragon came to symbolise both imperial power and the emperor whereas in the Middle East, dragons were viewed as evil (transferring the characteristics of the poisonous and deadly snakes common in the region onto its mythical counterpart). In other regions, the feeling towards them was more ambivalent, for example in Ancient Greece, they were sometimes depicted as benevolent towards humans. .
In general, in Northern Europe and Britain, dragons were portrayed negatively, a belief which only intensified under Christianity when they came to represent an embodiment of evil, something to be destroyed at all cost. The legend of St George and the dragon typifies this belief, symbolising Christianity’s defeat of paganism and the old beliefs. In stories and ballads, dragon slaying became almost a rite of passage for any brave young man or knight seeking to prove his worth (as well as save some terrified villagers and their livestock). The reward aside from fame, was often wealth and/or the hand of a nobleman/king’s daughter. It is interesting that despite their fearsome reputation, the dragons are nearly always defeated even when it is at the expense of their slayer.
This leads on to the question of what exactly are dragons?
Recognising a dragon!
As has been said before, the traits of dragons varied from country to country, so too do their physical appearance. In Asia, dragons are depicted as more serpentine whereas in Northern Europe, they are often shown as composite beasts i.e. composed of different parts of different animals.
If asked for a description, most people (in Europe) would describe a dragon as a gigantic creature with massive fangs, four strong clawed legs, a pair of powerful wings, a ridge of razor-sharp spikes along its entire torso, a barbed tail and a mouth from which deadly fire erupts. Although this is the image that in general people are the most familiar with and the one that commonly appears in heraldry, books and films, it is not the only one that exists in literature and oral traditions. There are a number of variations across countries and regions. Some are not even immediately recognisable as dragons but which do fall under the classification of dragon.
Here is my short guide to the more unusual types of dragons. It is not complete, there are just too many variations to include but if you are like me and find the whole subject daunting then it may just give you some clarity.
Wyverns: A Biped Dragon with Poisonous Breath
There are different views on the origin of the word wyvern. One interpretation is that it came from either the Middle English word wyver or from the Anglo-French word wivre taken from the Latin, vipera – meaning viper, adder or asp. The second school of thought claims that after the word was reintroduced into Medieval Latin, it took on a different meaning, that of light javelin. So, the meaning of viper and light javelin became melded to reflect the shape of the creature, creating a new type of flying biped snake.
Wyverns are described as having only two legs which end in eagle’s claws. Their wings extend from where their front legs would have been. Some descriptions have their front limbs forming the wings and in others the limbs are not visible. All descriptions depict the leathery wings similar to those of a bat, with a claw protruding from either the top of the wing or half-way down. Their tail is another distinctive feature, ending in either a diamond or arrow-shaped tip. Often drawn as a knot or turned in on itself, it carries a powerful sting which is fatal to humans. Rarely are they described as breathing fire, rather their breath is said to be poisonous and, in some stories, it is told that they pollute the earth over which they walk, causing fungus to grow (one explanation for fairy rings) and leaving distorted animals such as flounder fish in their wake. They are said to always be hot – images of wyverns and sculptures found on medieval buildings usually show them with their mouths open[8. Wyverns occur in numerous tales. Some people believe, based on imagery, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, was describing wyverns when he spoke of the prophecy that Wales would fall to the Anglo-Saxons,
“Woe to the red dragon, for his banishment hasteneth on. His lurking holes shall be seized by the white dragon, which signifies the Saxons whom you invited over; but the red denotes the British nation, which shall be oppressed by the white. Therefore shall its mountains be leveled as the valleys, and the rivers of the valleys shall run with blood.”
Another myth recounts how in the distant past, a “huge, coiling and writhing monster with a humped back and undulating neck”, took up residence in Llyn Cynwch in North Wales. People fearful of its presence avoided the lake. This beast (from its description recognisable as as a wyvern), terrorised the surrounding area, eating livestock and on occasion an unlucky villager. Eventually, the locals decided they had had enough and decided to put an end to the wyvern’s reign of terror. Many tried and failed, killed by either the creature’s poisonous green breath or by the deadly sting in its tail. A warlock from Ganllwid decided to use archers who would be positioned at a safe distance. Unfortunately, his plan failed, the wyvern could sense when the archers were close and would hide beneath the water. One morning a young shepherd from Meredydd, noticed the wyvern lying on the bank of the lake, sleeping under the hot morning sun. Seizing the opportunity, he ran to Cymmer Abbey where the monks on hearing the shepherd’s news, gave him a magical axe which they had in their possession. Returning to the lake, he was relieved to see the wyvern still asleep and with a powerful blow, severed its head from its body.
Many more stories of wyverns exist in other countries. Often in Northern Europe, no distinction is made between four and two legged dragons.
Lindwurms: A Dragon without Wings
Images of lindwurms can be seen as early as the eleventh century in Sweden, incised on runestones. Although their descriptions can vary, in general they are shown as large wingless creatures with serpentine bodies, a dragon’s head, scaly skin and two clawed forearms. Its limbs used not to bear the weight of its body but to pull itself along the ground. Some believe that its name is derived from the Old High German word for flexible. Their shredded skin was believed to have magical abilities and could increase a person’s knowledge about nature and medicine. They were said to feed on cattle and human corpses, often invading a churchyard in order to eat the remains of those buried there.
A tale from Klagenfurt, Austria, in the thirteenth century, recounts how the villagers blamed a lindwurm for the severe flooding they were suffering. A duke offered a reward to anyone who could kill the creature. A group of young men decided to try their luck. Fixing a bull to a chain, they lowered it into the river. The lindwurm taking the bait, grabbed onto the bull, allowing the men to pull it up on to the bank and kill it.
Even as late as the nineteenth century, the belief in lindwurms in Sweden persisted, especially in the province of Småland where people claimed to have seen them first-hand. The folklorist, Gunnar Olaf Hyltén-Cavalius in 1884, became a figure of ridicule when he put up a reward for anyone who could bring him a lindwurm, dead or alive. No-one did!
Wyrms: A Wingless and Legless Dragon
Wryms (worms) look exactly how they sound. They are simply wingless and legless dragons. Despite the fact that they lack appendages, myths recount their dangerous nature and the terror they inspired.
There are many stories centred around these wyrms including the famous tale of the Lambton Worm.
Set in the county of Durham in the North East of England, it tells the story of John Lambton who one Sunday morning, decided to go fishing in the River Wear. While fishing, instead of a fish he caught to his horror a hideous looking worm-like creature. Thinking he had snared a devil, he dropped it into a well. Years passed and John went off to fight in the Crusades. During this time, the creature presence had poisoned the well. Eventually it had grown to such a size that it slithered out of the well, coiling itself around a local hill (either Worm Hill or Penshaw Hill). It stayed there for awhile, devouring livestock, taking small children and preventing cows from producing milk. Finally, it decided to make its way to Lambton Castle. All those who attempted to kill it were despatched quickly. Its strength residing in the fact that every time a piece of its body was chopped off, it would reattach itself, making it near impossible to kill. On his return, John was horrified to discover what had happened during his absence and was charged with the task of killing the beast. John sought counsel from a local wise woman. She told him to wear armour covered in spikes but warned him that in order to avoid his family being cursed, he needed to kill the first thing he saw afterwards. Making his way to the hill where the wyrm resided, he confronted the creature which coiled itself around him, impaling itself on the spikes, allowing John the opportunity to cut the worm to pieces and float them away in the river – so the worm could not reassemble itself. He then blew a horn alerting his father of his success. His father in his excitement, instead of releasing a dog to be killed, ran to his son. John refused to kill his father and so his family was cursed .
Tatzelwurm: A Cat-faced Dragon
The Tatzelwurm (sometimes called a bergstutz) is a mystical creature found in the Alpine regions. It is said to be a relative of the dragon and lindwurm. Small in size, its physical appearance is rather strange with its snake-like abdomen, two paw-studied forelimbs, a reptile’s body and a head resembling a big cat. The legends say that Tatzelwurms lived in tunnels and caves dug into rock and that although it was in general a shy creature, it could be dangerous and aggressive, preying on both humans and animals. It was believed that when a Tatzelwurm crawled through sand, it turned the sand into glass due to the extreme heat of its body.
A Swiss tale tells of how one Tatzelwurm was killed. On Mt Pilatus, a Tatzelwurm caused chaos by burning stables and killing cattle. No-one had the courage to face it. The only person who was willing to risk their life was the convicted killer, Heinrich von Winkelried who had nothing to lose. In return he was promised his freedom if he killed the monster. Using his sword to carve a sharp point at the end of a tree trunk, he confronted the beast. When the Tatzelwurm opened its mouth, Winkelried pushed the point of the thorny trunk into its mouth. With the beast in agony, Winkelried killed it. Unfortunately, when he raised his sword in victory, a drop of the Tatzelwurm’s venomous blood fell onto his hand, killing him instantly.
In a similar vein to Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti, sightings of the Tatzelwurm had been reported as recently as the 1980s, in South Tyrol and Aosta in the Italian Alps.
Knuckers: A Sea Serpent with Tiny Wings
Knuckers were considered to be a type of water dragon found in Sussex, England. Its habitat were the knuckerholes – a very deep (believed to be infinitely deep) pool. Their name comes from the old English word nicor, meaning ‘water monster’. They are mentioned in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf.
Knuckers have been described as possessing a giant slithering sea serpent’s torso, cold eyes, a deadly hissing mouth, four legs, tiny wings and as having a fondness for shiny objects such as glass or marbles.
Legends of knuckers, centre around Lyminster, Lancing, Shoreham and Worthing.
The most well-known story concerns the Knucker of Lyminster. There are two versions of the tale. The first involves a knight-errant who agrees to kill the beast in return for the hand of the King of Sussex’s daughter. He is victorious and returns to claim his wife. In the second version, the Mayor of Arundel offers a reward to anyone who could slay the creature. A local farmer’s boy, Jim Pulk (or Puttock) accepts the challenge. After baking a huge poisonous pie, he transports it on a horse and cart to the knucker’s hole. The greedy knucker eats the pie, horse and cart and while it is dying, the boy cuts off his head (in some versions the boy also dies). A slayer’s slab reputed to be the grave of the knucker’s slayer can be found inside Lyminster Church.
Guivres: A Rather Prudish Dragon
Guivres (also known as vouivres) are a dragon common in the legends of Medieval France. They were described as highly aggressive and dangerous with a breath that causes diseases. Interestingly they have one major weakness – naked humans. It was said that if you confronted the guivre wearing your birthday suit, it would blush and turn away!
Guivres were believed to live in woods, forests, lakes and pools, anywhere that was damp and isolated. They were described as a monstrous reptile with the head of a dragon and horns protruding from its forehead. They were also said to be extremely greedy.
The book, The Drac: French Tales of Dragons and Demons, contains a tale adapted from a French legend which describes a female vouivre. She is said to have dazzling green scales which emit a sound when she flies and to wear a crown of pearls around her head and a gold ring on her tail. It claims that this vouivre preferred to live in a cave, which she only left for a short period of time, so she could bathe.
Amphiptere: Bi-winged Serpent
Stories of amphipteres (also spelt: amphithere, amphitere, phipthere) can be found in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Although descriptions of them vary considerably, on two-points there is consensus: they have no legs but do have a serpentine shaped body. Some descriptions portray them as scaly; a few as having a body completely covered in feathers; while others state that they had light-coloured feathers, a body similar to a lindwurm’s, feathered bat-like wings and a wyvern-like tail. In Egypt they were believed to guard Frankincense trees, defending them against anyone who wanted to harvest the trees’ precious substance.
My Concluding Thoughts on Dragons
So, there you have it – my brief guide to dragons. Although, there are many differences between dragon types, they do share a few traits in common, aside from their serpentine bodies – that is their aggressive nature and preference for a solitary life. I hope that this guide will help you to identify them – just in case you happen to come across one! Still, whereas the differences might be important for an observer, I would think for the people in the tales and legends, when you are being eaten by a large serpentine creature, it doesn’t really matter whether it has two or four or no legs!
On a sidenote and just for accuracy sake, Daenerys Targeryen wasn’t actually the Mother of Dragons, but rather the Mother of Wyverns – I guess that didn’t sound quite so catchy!
Bibliography and Further Reading
Ogden, Daniel: Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, 2013
Rose, Carol: Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth, W. W. Norton & Company, (Reprint) 2001
Shuker, Karl P.N: Dragons: A Natural History, Simon & Schuster, 1995
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.
By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain via Wikimedia.
In The Netherlands in the 1590s, tales of the Devil’s evil machinations once again conjured up fear and horror in the minds of the inhabitants of Amersfoort and Utrecht. This time the cause was a trial that combined accusations of witchcraft and sorcery with the unnatural state of animal shapeshifting.
The trial held in 1595, led to the execution of Folkt Dirks a 62-year-old farmer from the Hoogland province of Utrecht and his 17-year-old daughter Hendrika along with members of their ‘coven’; Anthonis Bulck and Maria Barten. The main evidence against them was provided by Dirks’ sons, in particular 14-year-old Hessel and 13-year-old Elbert.
Elbert in his testimony spoke of having had made a pact with the Devil, along with his father, sister, older brother, and two younger brothers; 11-year-old Gijsbert and 8-year-old Dirk. He also claimed that the Devil had given his father a hairy belt after receiving the family’s oaths of loyalty. The belt gave them the power to turn into wolves. In this form, they had, after accepting the gift, immediately gone to the fields in Eemland, where he, together with his older brother, and his father had drunk the blood of cattle . Elbert continued that the Devil had also ordered them to undress and had changed them into cats. In this guise, they had been taken to a place near Amersfoort where they had found other cats with whom they danced until two in the morning .
“The Water Torture.— Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium: in 4to, Antwerp, 1556.” – Used to illustrate. Public domain via Wikimedia.
Hessel’s confession ran on very similar lines to his brother’s. He recalled that on one occasion while he was with his godmother, the Devil had come down the chimney along with a woman who danced for the Devil’s pleasure. In the original text, the woman is described as a “red cat (Tom)” (although it is unclear if she was already in the form of a cat when she first appeared). The Devil had given him a piece of black leather and a black cloth with pins in it . Eventually, the Devil had stopped the woman’s dance with the words “Thou ugly beast, now you will go with me” and had tied a leather belt around her, changing her into a wolf. The Devil and the female were-wolf had then, along with Hessel (also in his wolf form) flown up the chimney to a field, where they attacked and fed on the local livestock .
After hearing this evidence, the local officials brought Folkt Dirks to listen to his sons’ accusations. After having gone through two separate stints of torture, the water test, and hearing his sons condemn him to his face, Dirks finally broke and on his knees confessed to being an emissary of the Devil, practicing witchcraft, and having taken the form of a wolf. He told his torturers how after receiving a black doublet a few years earlier he had been compelled to commit evil acts and had been given the ability to shapeshift. On the 14 June 1595, Dirks was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake the very same day .
A week later, Hendrika Dirks, followed in her father’s footsteps. She admitted to having surrendered to the Devil when she was eleven years old and having for the last few years been sexually intimate with him. She spoke of attacking cattle in the fields  and described how she, accompanied by some unnamed female relatives, attended dances during the witches’ sabbath in the form of either a cat or a wolf  (there seems to be some confusion here as to which). During her interrogation, whether under duress or not, she gave her torturers the names of others whom she claimed had been present at these orgies. Based on her testimony; Grietje Segers, Cornelius Hendrik Bulck and his son Anthonis and Maria Barten were also condemned. Grietje Segers committed suicide in prison but Cornelius Hendrik Bulck managed to escape and was never heard from again. Anthonis and Maria were tortured and were finally executed alongside Hendrika .
The lives of Dirks’ sons; Hessel, Elbert, Gijsbert and Dirk were spared due to their youth but they were severely whipped until their backs ran with blood. They were also forced to watch the executions of their sister and Maria
The case of Folkt Dirks is an interesting one. It is more than likely that the Dirks’ family had been under suspicion for a long time. If they hadn’t then Hessel and Elbert must have really hated their father and sister in order to accuse them of committing such terrible, heretical crimes. At certain points during the trial, the boys seemed confused, unsure of what they were saying. This is reflected in their testimonials where they sometimes contradict themselves e.g. they state that they had never taken part in the mutilation of cattle but a local official testified that they had admitted to him of having been involved. Maybe they were under pressure to testify or were being controlled or were simply terrified.
One story which had floated about for about a year prior to his arrest, alludes to Dirks’ dark skills and in particular his unnatural control over animals. According to a female neighbour, Dirks had bewitched her horse with the words “whata nice bay that is, god bless him”. The woman gives no further details about why he would want to curse her horse. Possibly she thought he had done it out of envy or spite. It is also interesting that another rumour existed that Dirks’ wife was descended from a matrilineal hereditary line of witches. Although there is no mention of her (probably she had already died), it might explain the accusations against Hendrika and possibly why it was considered safe to allow the boys to go free.
There is one more case that occurred at the same time in the same area and that was the trial of Kanti Hans and his wife. They admitted to being followers of Satan and having been given the power to turn into bears as a reward. There is no evidence as to why they were arrested and since their statements were made whilst they were being tortured, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of their confessions. The fascinating point with the case of Hans and his wife is that they were given the power of transforming into bears and not wolves. Compared to the number of witchcraft trials happening in Europe at the time, only a small proportion included accusations of shapeshifting into were-wolves  and even less involved were-bears.
German Woodcut 1722. Public domain via Wikimedia.
Studies of this case have agreed that the judgment passed on the Dirks’ family was one based on witchcraft rather than on werewolfery (although werewolf trials at that point in time were being held, albeit in much lower numbers than witchcraft trials). That being said there is one main element of both these stories that link them to the more straight-forward trials of suspected were-wolves e.g. the 1598 trial of Peter Stumpp, that is the role of the wolfskins and bearskins in the Dirks’ and Hans’ confessions.
The Battle Lust of the Berserkers
By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.
The idea that a bite can cause a person to become a were-wolf is a relatively recent idea. More common in the past was the belief that the change was caused by a salve rubbed on the body or by the wearing of animal skins. The concept of the transformational power of animal skins has a long history which more than likely originated with the emergence of powerful and feared fighters who eventually became the berserkers of Viking sagas and legends.
When someone talks of berserkers the image that appears in our heads has been so strongly influenced by the mythology that arose around them that it is hard to extract the reality from the fantasy. The berserkers ‘bear-shirts’ were originally an elite group of warriors who served under the Scandinavian kings in honour of Odin, alongside another group known as the wolfskins (heathen wolves). There seems to be confusion in the sources over whether or not the wolfskins were part of the berserker brotherhood or a separate group altogether . It is possible that berserkers and wolfskins form two subcategories of one group, with each choosing a different totem and as a result assuming the characteristics and mannerisms of that animal. It is more than probable that these warriors wore either a wolf or bear skin over their armour . This would have accomplished a number of things; the skins would have provided insulation from the harsh weather of Northern Europe, afforded them extra protection in battle which would partly explain their reputation as being invulnerable to weapons and also given them the “appearance of grimness and ferocity” which would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Add this to them being intoxicated with battle lust; biting their shields, attacking boulders and trees, and even killing each other whilst waiting  and you get a striking image.
The Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald at Hatrsfjord perfectly captures the maniacal nature of the berserkers when it describes how the “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled”. It is not then surprising that their foes seeing the berserkers’ primeval and maniacal behaviour would assign them supernatural powers, abilities which to their minds would have been attributed to the wearing of animal skins.
The Legend of Sigmund and Sinfjotli
Woodcut image of one of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on Öland, Sweden. It probably depicts the god of frenzy Óðinn followed by a Berserker. Public domain via Wikimedia.
This idea that by covering yourself in animal skins the wearer can take on the power of the animal was passed down through popular tales and legends in northern Europe and was initially associated with sorcery. In the wild saga of the Volsungs, it is told how Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli came across a house where they found two men asleep and above them hanging up, wolfskins. Knowing that the sleeping men had dealing with witchcraft the brothers dressed themselves in the wolfskins and were immediately overtaken by the “nature of the original beast”. With the power of the wolf, they went on a ten-day rampage which ended when Sigmund gave his son a lethal bite on the neck. The son only survived because a kind raven gave Sigmund a feather imbued with healing powers .
The Werewolf of Landes
By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.
The belief that wolf skins could turn someone into a wolf was not confined to Northern Europe, it existed all over Europe and even further afield. Eventually, the story subtly changed and by the medieval period, it was believed that it was the Devil who gave those who he wished to corrupt, pellets or belts, in order to commit atrocious acts in his name.
This can be seen in the story of Jean Grenier who lived in Landes in the South of France. Jean admitted to local officials that he had sold his soul to the Devil who had in return given him a salve and wolf pelt which had conferred on him the power of transforming into a wolf. He said he had the wolf skin in his possession and that he went out hunting for children to devour at his master’s command. Jean’s evidence matched the circumstances surrounding reported child disappearances and several children testified to having been attacked by him. An enlightened sentence for the time stated that Jean was an imbecile and dismissed his confession of being in league with a demonic figure. Jean was sentenced to confinement at a local monastery for the rest of his life .
The Beast of Bedburg
The most notorious and famous werewolf case is that of Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer who lived in the late 1500s in Bedburg, Germany. He was accused of the killing and mutilation of livestock and multiple murders including 13 children and two pregnant women, whose foetuses he ripped from their bellies, feeding on the unborn babies’ hearts. He was also believed to have sexually molested his own daughter and having killed his son and eaten his brains. The townspeople of Bedburg initially believed that the crimes had been committed by wolves but later feared that it was the responsibility of a demonic force or a werewolf. At his trial, Stubbe admitted to having received a wolf’s pelt from the Devil at the age of 12 which would turn him into the likeness of a wolf with an insatiable hunger. He said when he removed it, he would return to his human state again. His confession obtained on the rack does make one wonder about its veracity. His punishment was severe and terrible, he was placed on a wheel and his flesh removed with red hot pincers. His arms and legs were broken and his head cut off. His daughter and mistress were accused of being his accomplices, strangled and their bodies burnt along with his. Suffice it to say, the belt was never found .
Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Public domain via Wikipedia.
One recent interpretation of Stubbe’s case is that the accusation was motivated by greed and jealousy; Stubbe was a very wealthy and powerful man. It would have been in some people’s interests to destroy him and his family and in that, they were successful!
Returning to the Dirks family, the fascinating part of their story is not their being accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were numerous during this period, but the werewolf side of it. In many countries in Europe, witches were believed to have the power to shapeshift, so these accusations were not unusual in itself but linking their tale and that of Hans and his wife to were-wolves and were-bears is. It combined two elements that people in the medieval period feared the most, witches and werewolves, whilst at the same time continuing a long-held belief that went back to the berserkers and the power of the ancient gods.
The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan. Palace Pictures 1984.