Rest in peace Ma’am
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.
Bell, John, 1817(?) ‘The Particulars of the trial and Execution of Charles Smith by John W Bell’, Newcastle Central Library Special Collection.
Ocker, JW, 2020, Cursed Objects, Philadelphia
Rosenbloom, Megan, 2020, Dark Archives, New York
Rosenbloom, Megan, 2016, A Book by Its Cover | Lapham’s Quarterly (laphamsquarterly.org)
Xavier, Paddy, 24/11/2016, Murder in the Ouseburn and Books of Human Skin – lastdyingwords
- John Bell, ‘The Particulars of the trial and Execution of Charles Smith by John W Bell’
- Paddy Xavier, Murder in the Ouseburn and Books of Human Skin – lastdyingwords
- Megan Rosenbloom, A Book by Its Cover | Lapham’s Quarterly (laphamsquarterly.org)
- Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives
- JW Ocker, Cursed Objects
- Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives
cemetery symbols, Christianity, death, Felbrigg, Free masons, Funerary art, graveystone, headstones, iconography, memento mori, monuments, mourning, reading gravestones, skulls, symbols, tombstones, Victorian Death
Popular graveyard images explained
This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.
Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.
Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.
Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death  or the gateway to heaven . This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.
Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.
Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.
Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).
Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument .
Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.
Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.
Coats of arms
Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.
The kingdom of heaven.
Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.
As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.
See world, below.
Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed . The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity .
Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.
Memento Mori Scenes
Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!
Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.
Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.
Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.
The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.
Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.
Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.
Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)
The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry .
Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.
Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.
Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven . They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments and often denoted the death of an older person  (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).
Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.
Women in mourning (weepers)
The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).
The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).
This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.
Happy headstone hunting!
Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
- BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual. One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.
Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles. Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I have done a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.
As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.
A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments
Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial
Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it . The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.
Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century . The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out .
From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men
Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.
While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister. In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).
The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography .
As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location . There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate .
While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.
Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe. While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses' in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools.
As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.
The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.
These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.
These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings .
As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).
Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children .
The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek.
By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs. Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries.
The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out .
The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone, and more generic religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].
New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).
The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores. You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death.
Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.
Who lies beneath
Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.
Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London
Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”
The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle
This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.
Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London
You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument .
For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries. Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead. Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.
The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.
Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.
Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery
Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
- Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
- The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers
Dr Croghan and the Coughing Cave People
In the state of Kentucky, beneath a national park, you will find the longest known cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave lives up to its name, comprising more that 630km (400 miles) of known passageways, but it is not the geology which is the subject of this blog. It is a story so dark and extraordinary that it has inspired visitors to believe that even now, they still hear spectral coughing in the endless caverns.
In 1842, a Kentucky doctor lead a group of volunteers to live deep within the bowels of the cave, in the pitch-darkness, for months on end. Who was Dr John Croghan? And why did he believe that leading 15 patients into the unique conditions of Mammoth Cave may be the key to treating tuberculosis?
In the nineteenth century, Tuberculosis was an un-treatable condition. Germ theory was not yet dominant in understanding the cause of disease, and a working antibiotic would not be developed for more than 100 years, meaning that this mysterious illness was most often a death sentence. Known variably as Consumption, Pthisis, Scrofula, and the White Plague, Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease which most commonly affects the respiratory system. Those who did survive would frequently suffer with flare-ups and respiratory difficulties for the rest of their lives.
The most common lay term for Tuberculosis was Consumption, referring to the wasting effects of the disease. This rapid weight loss, pale skin, and fever lead to a gaunt and spectral appearance and extreme fatigue. Much has been made in historiography and popular culture of the ways in which Tuberculosis was portrayed at the time as a ‘romantic disease’, revealing the sensibility of the sufferer, and leading to the creation of some of the world’s greatest art and literature. So influential was this romanticization of tuberculosis that it became fashionable for both women and men to be waif-thin, emphasize their collarbones, and powder their faces to appear as pale and feverish as possible.
Late-stage tuberculosis is nonetheless extremely uncomfortable for those infected and, despite this morbid link between beauty, genius, and death in the wealthier sections of society, tuberculosis did not discriminate based on class and was an epidemic of biblical proportions amongst the lower classes in urban areas.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a great deal of effort and resource was being invested by the learned men and philanthropists of the age to find a cure and a means to prevent transmission. Though medical professionals disagreed about the cause of the disease, many understood it to be contagious and public health campaigns often encouraged quarantine (a next to impossible feat in the cramped and squalid conditions in which poor and working-class individuals lived and worked). Meanwhile, charitable organisations funded sanatoriums to separate sufferers from the general populous, and learned men continued to argue and debate over their observations and experimental treatments.
Unfortunately, their valiant efforts were limited by contemporary understanding of what diseases were and how they were transmitted. Whilst Galenic medicine and the notion that diseases were caused by an imbalance in the four humours continued a significant decline as a prevalent way of understanding the body and diagnosing patients throughout the nineteenth century, treatments for diseases did not keep pace with the new discoveries of anatomy and pathology. For this reason, despite the improvements in observation and diagnosis, the treatment for many diseases by even the most preeminent doctors continued in the tradition of focusing on emetics, bleeding, and regimen. The term ‘regimen’ refers to a prescribed daily routine based the idea that certain food, drinks, locations, and temperatures may have an impact on the health of patients. However, the prevailing, and best available treatment for tuberculosis in the early and mid-nineteenth century was bed rest, short walks, and fresh air.
Dr John Croghan and the Mammoth Cave
John Croghan of Louisville, Kentucky was a doctor from a wealthy local family, searching for a treatment for tuberculosis. Having worked as a founder and director of the Louisville Marine Hospital from 1823 to 1832, he was himself diagnosed with Tuberculosis. In 1839, Croghan purchased 2,000 acres of land, including Mammoth Cave, and several enslaved individuals for $10,000. Part of his intention was to profit from the tours of the cave, which had been started in 1816. However, Croghan also had another motive…
His plan was to open a large health resort deep within the cave system. The foundation of his experimental treatment was to use the temperate climate of the cave, and its presumed stabilizing effect on the body to potentially temper or cure tuberculosis. Croghan noted the steady temperature of the cave and believed the air to have curative properties, observing that other organic matter did not appear to wither or decay in the cave. Croghan confirmed 11 tuberculosis patients, four companions, and the child of a patient to live in the cave over the winter of 1842.
The logic of the assumption that the conditions in the cave may improve their condition rested in the humoral tradition, whereby respiratory issues were usually attributed to an excess of phlegm; an imbalance of coldness and wetness. Therefore, the appropriate treatment to correct this imbalance was to maintain a consistent, temperate environment, devoid of changes and extremes, as could be experienced in Mammoth Cave. (This may seem an odd logic but to this day, you may still receive advice that exposure to intemperate climates and wetness may induce illness, despite nigh on a century of evidence that colds are caused by viruses. Thus, still why we refer to rhinoviruses as the common ‘cold’.)
The characteristics of the cave which Dr Croghan chose seemed ideal for his purpose. In the winter of 1842, Dr Croghan led his patients down into the caves where they, as far as we know, willingly engaged in his experiment. They were to live in the cave indefinitely, or until they were well enough to leave. The residents of the cave had little access to anything beyond the meals delivered to them by enslaved people. Photographs show individuals standing and sitting on simple stone and wooden huts, some of which are still standing to this day in the belly of the cave.
For five months, Dr Croghan’s patients lived as a commune in the depths of the limestone caves. Their only light came from lard-oil lamps and simple fires, with the constant belch of smoke and fumes filling chambers and lungs with noxious gases. They read episcopal sermons and ate wholesome food, delivered by the enslaved persons who lived outside the cave formation.
A server named Alfred noted, “I used to stand on that rock and blow the horn to call them to dinner. There were fifteen of them and they looked more like a company of skeletons than anything else.”
All the while the experiment ensued, tourists were still being guided throughout the cave system. Both servers and tourists alike spoke of the eerie sight of pale, spectres emerging from shadow, smoke, and flame, hacking and coughing in the muted torchlight.
They encountered “a bizarre scene. Pale, spectral figures in dressing-gowns moved weakly along the passageway, slipping in and out of shadowed huts, the silence of the cave broken by hollow coughing and muttered conversations.”
The results of this experiment, to the modern observer, would appear almost inevitable. Of the fifteen people who descended into the Mammoth Caves, five died before the experiment was unceremoniously ended. Their bodies were laid out on a stone now known as ‘Corpse Rock’. Whether the time which the remaining participants spent in the cave had any bearing whatsoever on their lifespan is impossible to say now in any certainty. However, with the benefit of modern medicine it is reasonable to state that confining tuberculosis patients together in damp, dark environments brimming with toxic smoke pollution is unlikely to have had any sort of positive effect on their vitality. Dr Croghan himself passed away as a result of Tuberculosis in 1849.
The unequivocal failure of Dr Croghan’s experiment was commonly discussed in the popular press, but the story seemed only to gain more traction as the American middle-classes gained more disposable income, and tourism became a common all-American pass-time. A very famous and entertaining spooky story has always been a very good selling point when advertising a tour… Just ask the tour guides of Whitechapel. Remarkably, the industry around these tours in the late nineteenth century became so acrimonious that it led to the wonderfully named ‘Kentucky Cave Wars’, where rival land-owners would sabotage signs and spread misinformation about Mammoth Cave in order to deceive the public to coming to their own private cave tours. Like an episode of Wacky Races.
By the late nineteenth century, Mammoth Cave was an internationally noteworthy natural curiosity and was the subject of a number of short stories and periodicals. In 1877, 35 years after the beginning of the experiment in Mammoth Cave, Harper’s Weekly published an article which included two engravings, documenting and dramatizing the morbid history of the cave. With a circulation in excess of 100,000, Harper’s Weekly was a very successful and ubiquitous publication in the USA. The inclusion of such an article suggests that there was still significant interest in the story of Dr Croghan and his patients long after their demise. In fact, the first line of the page reads “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky has been so frequently described both in our own and other periodicals that the two engravings on this page will need but a brief mention.”
The engravings are accompanied by the following, very short description:
“[The first image] represents the ruins of a hotel which was built in one of the larger chambers of the caves for the accommodation of consumptive and asthmatic patients, the equable temperature and nitrous atmosphere having been recommended as a remedy for diseases of the lungs. It has been long abandoned, however, invalids having found little to no alleviation for their sufferings, whatever benefit may have been derived from the peculiar air having been more than counterbalanced by the depressing influences of a sojourn under-ground/ the second sketch shows a party crossing the cave river, which has received the somber[sic] name of the Styx.”
Named for the mythological Greek river which marked the boundary of the lands of the living and the dead, it is possible that the macabre history of the cave also wound its way into the naming of landmarks and features.
H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer, famed for his horror and science fiction.
In 1905, Lovecraft published a short story about a man lost in Mammoth Cave who comes across an anthropomorphic beast in the darkness. He writes:
“The creature was described as having snow-white hair, rat-like claws on its hands and feet with pale, white skin. Its eyes were black, lacking irises and sunken into its skull. Finally, it was very gaunt.”
In the story, Lovecraft mentions that a colony of consumptives lived in the cave in a gigantic grotto.
Knowing what we do about the physical symptoms of tuberculosis, and the infamy which of the story of Dr Croghan and the consumptives maintained in the popular psyche, it appears that the beast in the cave is heavily inspired by the stories of those tourists who claim to have seen patients shuffling about the cave in their dressing gowns, looking pale, gaunt, and one step from death.
In 1882, more than 40 years after Dr Croghan’s experiments, Dr Robert Koch isolated the cause of Tuberculosis: Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. This discovery was the first step on our continuing journey to finally understand, control, and treat Tuberculosis; from the development of the BCG vaccine in 1921 and the discovery of the antibiotic Streoptomycin in 1943, to the four drug cocktail which was discovered in 1966 and is still widely used in treatment today. Contemporary scientists continue to work tirelessly, pushing on in leaps and bounds to imagine new, innovative ways to improve the health of people all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) have an ambitious target to eradicate Tuberculosis by 2030.
However, as concerns rise about increasing incidences in the UK, multi-drug resistance, and how to combat the socio-economic inequality which continues to stifle our ability to manage pandemic and endemic diseases, one has to wonder; have they tried Mammoth Caves?
In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all. Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.
Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come; Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.
Grim traditions for a grim time. However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts. This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.
Origins of the Macabre
Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject. A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.
There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) . Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.
The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague. Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:
I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.
This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry. Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife. This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead. Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.
Dancing in the graveyard
The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons. Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.
Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller .
The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural. The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ .
Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards . Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.
The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war. The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England. However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.
The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician. There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest. With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance . As John Lydgate put it:
Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. 
The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king. It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.
Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time. Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text .
In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘). Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death. The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ . Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:
“[..] About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.”
Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.
Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions. Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.
Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500). Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.
Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck). Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.
So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?
The Unwanted Dance Partner
The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller. No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.
The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact. The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures.
The danse was also undeniably slapstick. Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.
But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things. The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about. It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards . The Danse images were challenging the norm. Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional .
But, what of the text that sat alongside the images. In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it? While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.
However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate. The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul. After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant .
The reformation and Death gets a reboot
In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot. In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form. This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson .
Dancing down the ages
The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815. In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.
The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions .
Sources and notes
Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996    
Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019        
Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. 
Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art  [15 
Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England, UCL Press.
anatomist, Elizabeth Siddall, Fallen women, found drowned, gender roles, John Waterhouse, Ludovico Brunetti, nineteenth century, Ophelia, Padua, Paris, Sir John Everett Millais, suicide, The Bridge of Sighs, The punished suicide, Thomas Hood, Victorian
Trigger warnings: this post references some recent cases of suicide that some readers may find distressing.
“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Edgar Allan Poe
In 2008, Fox News aired a crime scene video showing a twenty-year-old Model, Ruslana Korshunova, lying dead on the street, after apparently committing suicide by throwing herself from the 9th floor of her New York apartment block. Blood could still be seen oozing from her nose. The image was both shocking and intrusive. But, intrusive media coverage of death and disaster has become an accepted part of our appetite for sensation – a malady we like to think of as particularly modern. However, comments from the reporter, and subsequent comments on social media, which focused on the unworldly beauty of the woman’s corpse, revealed attitudes toward female suicide that find their origin in a much earlier nineteenth-century aesthetic. One that both romanticized female suicide for a male gaze, whilst also serving as a warning to women daring to step outside their proscribed gender roles.
Death becomes her
In the eighteenth-century, male suicide was fairly commonly depicted in art and literature, with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, perhaps the most famous example. The novel created something of a moral panic and ‘Werther Fever’ and the ‘Werther Effect’ were linked to several copy-cat suicides of young men overcome by unrequited love or their own heightened sensibilities .
During the nineteenth century, the depiction of suicide underwent something of a gendered transformation which saw a proliferation in images of female suicide and far fewer images of male suicide . This belied the reality, that in fact, in the nineteenth century, men were (and still are) much more likely to successfully commit suicide than women . Before looking at why this change took place, let’s look at some examples of nineteenth-century images of female suicides.
Firstly, anyone who ever had a Pre-Raphaelite phase at college will be familiar with the poster-girl of drowned maidens, Ophelia. Painted in 1851 by John Everett Millais, this is considered to be artistic ground zero for the huge proliferation of depictions of drowned females in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is pulled this way and that by the men in her life. Used by her father and brother in their court intrigues because of her implied liaison with Hamlet, she is then cast off by Hamlet and ultimately drowns through her own actions. Maybe she was an innocent victim, maybe a fallen woman. Maybe it was an accident, maybe suicide.
Millais’s iconic image presents her watery death in a very eroticized way. Her lips are half-open, singing as she drowned, perhaps, or expelling her dying breath; or just maybe her parted lips are meant to evoke something far more sexual. It is for the viewer to decide. There is a voyeuristic element to the picture, it is even framed in a proscenium-style arch, giving it a theatrical air – even though the actual death of Ophelia was not usually depicted on stage. 
The Second image will be familiar to anyone who has done CPR Training. L’Inconnue de la Seine is said to be the death mask of an unknown woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s (although this has been debated). She was judged to be a suicide. Her corpse was displayed in the Paris Morgue, as was the custom. One of the morticians was supposed to have been so taken with her beauty, that he cast her death mask.
The image caused a sensation, Richard le Gallienne called her a modern Ophelia while Albert Camus described her ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. Her mask became a popular, if morbid, fixture in many private homes. Her image was romanticized and eroticized. It became a ‘look’ to be emulated by the popular actresses of the day .
In 1955 Asmund Laerdal made her even more famous by using her image to create Resusci Anne, giving the unknown woman of the Seine the dubious distinction of having ‘the most kissed lips in history’. That’s not creepy in the slightest!
The third image, Found Drowned, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1850, presents the scene following a woman’s apparent suicide by drowning. The title reveals something important about how female suicide was recorded, often there were no witnesses to drowning, so while the assumption might be that it was a suicide, societal taboos around female suicide often led to such deaths being hidden under the ambiguous label of ‘found drowned’. .
The picture, which was inspired by the influential poem The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, assumes that the viewer understands the implicit backstory of this image. The drowned woman is a fallen woman. Seduced, abandoned and pregnant. Rather than descend into shame, poverty, and prostitution, the only route left open to her by society, she has chosen to take her life and thereby redeem herself.
Despite the more sympathetic message of the image, the depiction of the woman is still sensual. The woman’s face appears luminous and her limbs flung wide, displaying the victim’s figure to the viewer.
Hood wrote the poem in 1844 and it helped to raise society’s awareness of the plight of the ‘fallen’ woman – who found the only option left to her was suicide. In one famous passage, he describes how her sin has been washed away by her death:
Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.
However, its idea of a fallen-women gaining redemption through drowning, while generating public sympathy, may have also led to an unfortunate increase in life imitating art, as women saw their only option for social redemption, suicide, reinforced .
Finally, a lesser-known image of female suicide, this time from Italy. Ivan Cenzi has brought the story of how this extraordinary image was created to an English speaking audience . The subject of this human taxidermy project was an unknown 18-year-old seamstress who drowned herself in the river at Padua, sometime in 1863. It was pronounced that she had killed herself over an ‘amorous delusion’.
The nearby University of Padova had a long history of anatomical study, and the girl’s body was handed over to the chair of Anatomy himself, Ludovico Brunetti (1813-1899).
Brunetti had a very unusual plan – this was to be no simple anatomical dissection. He intended to create Great Art out of this girl’s pain. He proceeded to take a cast of the girl’s face and bust, then he skinned her, taking care to keep her hair pristine. He then treated the skin with sulfuric ether and his own special tanning formula, in order to preserve her image for eternity. The resulting bust is truly startling.
Unfortunately, as the girl had been dragged out of the river using hooks, her face had sustained some damage. However, Brunetti used these flaws to his advantage, seeing them as a way to convey a moral message, as well as display his skill at preservation. What emerged from his creative processes was a shocking image known as ‘The Punished Suicide‘. To ram the moral home, that suicide was a mortal sin and suicides would be forever tormented in Hell, he enveloped her face in writhing snakes and used red candle wax to imitate blood gushing from her wounds.
Somewhat perversely, to modern sensibilities at least, her parents loved it. Brunetti and his Punished Suicide, later wowed the audiences at the Universal Exposition in Paris where he won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions category, which in itself says a lot about public attitudes to images of female suicide and public entertainment. This image is still on display in Padova University, and, to modern eyes at least, evokes a strong reaction. Personally, I find the use and display of human remains as art, without the informed consent of the subject, to be highly problematic. However, nineteenth-century attitudes were clearly very different.
These are only a few of the many such images in nineteenth-century art, literature, and sculpture. But why were they so popular and what was their purpose?
Women behaving badly
During the nineteenth century, Western Societies underwent a huge demographic shift as the Industrial Revolution lead to mass migrations from the countryside to towns and cities. From living in traditional rural communities, where everyone knew one and other, many people now found themselves amongst strangers. Factory work saw more women working outside the home and competing with men. Poverty and overcrowded housing brought disease and disorderly behavior, drunkenness was a common outlet for the lower classes. Add to this the blatant social inequality of Victorian society, where the poor (and particularly the female poor) were routinely exploited by those higher up the social ladder, and you and you can begin to see the cracks undermining the edifice of respectable Victorian society.
The Victorian establishment did not only fear the working class becoming politicized or organized via trade unions, they feared the traditional gender roles of society were being challenged. Women were supposed to be the ‘Angel in the house’ described in Coventry Patmore’s poem, a sweet and passive homemaker for her husband and family. However the economic reality for many women was very different, and when a woman transgressed society’s norms, particularly if she was considered a ‘fallen’ woman, she could suffer terrible consequences.
Influential sociologists writing about suicide, such as Henry Morselli, writing in 1881, and Emile Durkheim, writing in 1897, both linked urbanization and the breakdown of traditional gender roles as a factor in female suicide. While the stats they relied upon showed that male suicide was more common than female suicide, both promoted the view that women were weaker morally and were safer when protected from the struggles of society .
In doing so, they used the stats to reinforced traditional Victorian gender roles by concluding that married people and married people with children were less susceptible to suicide, whereas the unmarried, divorced, widowed or childless were more at risk. In short, women should stay at home and look after their husbands and family – or risk the consequences. Of course, as Deacon has pointed out, the stats don’t tell the whole picture .
There was an underlying hint that perhaps suicide was one way to rid society of unwanted, ungovernable and surplus women.
Another popular Victorian preconception was that men tended to commit suicide for more important reasons. Male suicide was viewed as linked to the social and economic well-being of the country, while women were seen as committing suicide for personal and emotional reasons, which were considered less important to society. This had the effect of trivializing female narratives and the reasons for female suicide, often downgrading them by centering them on women’s (failed) relationships with men .
As the century progressed, attitudes to suicide also changed, from being considered a sin and a shameful crime, people began to link mental illness to suicide. While this was a good thing, as it led to more understanding of the underlying causes of suicide, it also played into the idea of women as weak, emotional creatures who needed to be protected from themselves or risk the consequences. From Ophelia to the Italian seamstress suffering from ‘Amorous delusions’, women’s suicide was linked to madness and instability in the nineteenth-century mind, further devaluing it by refusing to see it as a final, if desperate, act of autonomy.
From sexual sirens to found drowned
The Victorians had a particular fondness for depicting women in water, no doubt because of the long-standing associations between femininity and water. Women were seen as fickle and changeable as the sea, with sexual undercurrents and life-cycles made up of water, blood, and milk . While sexual sirens might be depicted as mermaids or aquatic nymphs, leading men to drown in their transgressive embrace, the fallen woman was often depicted floating serenely, a beatific expression on her face, lovely to behold. Not remotely like a real drowning victim -bloated and muddy.
It has been suggested that this elevated the fallen woman’s suicide to a kind of redemption and washing away of sins – as implied in Hood’s poem. While this sounds romantic and sympathetic, it also created the pernicious cycle of life imitating art, real fallen women, cast out by society and facing a future of shame and prostitution, saw suicide as a way to redeem themselves and avoid becoming a burden on society because it was tacitly reinforced in popular culture.
To sum up, the Victorians fetishized the image of female suicide. While male suicide was often seen as a final, possibly heroic, act of autonomy, for women, it was quite different.
Artistic images of female suicide had multiple purposes and meanings. One of the most obvious was to commodify and pacify the female body by creating an ideal, female beauty for the (male) viewer to appreciate. The threatening unruly female, stripped of all power and autonomy after death, but still possessed of erotic and romantic fascination.
In addition this, in a society undergoing radical change, images of female suicide, bound up as they were with ideas of shame, madness, and sexual transgression were often used as a warning to women to keep to their proscribed roles and not try to compete with men in the public sphere.
In the 20th Century, widespread publication of Robert Wiles photograph of Evelyn McHale’s suicide made her death both public and iconic -which went against her expressed wishes for privacy. More recently, the 21st Century case of Ruslana Korshunova, where the reporter talked of Ruslana’s life and death, as a fairy-tale-gone-wrong, show that in some ways, attitudes to representations of female suicide have not changed much since the nineteenth century.
However, more nuanced readings of these images are possible, readings that provide a deeper understanding of attitudes society held towards women and the public consumption of their bodies, both then and now.
While male suicides still predominate today, as in the Victorian age, the recent tragic suicide of Love Island’s Caroline Flack, in the face of much negative media attention, has made it more important than ever to consider the unrealistic expectations that our society and the media still place on women.
Sources and notes
**Firstly, if you are having a hard time and need to talk to someone, you can contact Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
Cenzi, Ivan, The Punished Suicide, 24 Oct 2016, <https://deadmaidens.com/2016/10/24/the-punished-suicide/>  [9
Deacon, Deborah, Fallen Women: The Popular Image of Female Suicide in Victorian England, c1837-1901, 7 April 2015, <https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/history/assets/docs/Honours%20Thesis%20-%20Deborah%20Deacon%202015%20.pdf> -
Durkheim, Emile, 1952, (originally published 1897) Suicide a Study in Sociology 
Meeson, Valerie, Res.Ma HLCS, Post-Mortems: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in Victorian Culture, [date unknown], <https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/3754/Meessen%2c_V.P.H._1.pdf?sequence=1> 
Mulhall, Brenna, The Romanticization of the the Dead Female Body in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, 2017, Aisthesis Vol 8 
At 8 o’clock on Monday 18 September 1815, 51 year old Thomas Bedworth was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his on/off lover Elizabeth Beesmore. The details of the murder although vicious were no different to most other crimes of passion, except in one way, Thomas Bedworth claimed that he had been driven to confess in order to put an end to the relentless harrying of Elizabeth’s ghost.
Bedworth was born in 1764 in Bloxidge in Staffordshire. According to him although his parents were good, honest people and tried to keep him on the right path, he was often in trouble. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a brindle bit and stirrup maker in Walsall but left after he had completed the apprenticeship in 1782. He eventually found himself in London and went to work at a factory owned by Mr Rowley in Drury Lane. He left in 1795 when he signed up to join the army.
A bigamous marriage
During his time in London he married Mary Bainer, the daughter of a tradesman from Soho with whom he had three children. He left the army in 1803 and went with family to Birmingham. In 1804 he joined the navy where he gained a reputation as a good sailor. He was discharged in 1813. On returning to his wife he found she had bigamously married again and had three children from this union.
The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore
Shortly afterwards he met up with Elizabeth Beesmore who had been deserted by her husband and left destitute with a child. They took up together and Bedworth promised to provide for her as long as she had no contact with her estranged husband. This she agreed to and they pledged themselves to each other to be as husband and wife. To make matters even more complicated she also happened to be the sister of Mary Bainer and so Thomas Bedworth’s sister-in-law.
They were together for two years when out of the blue John Beesmore returned to London looking for his wife. Thomas was outraged, Elizabeth had broken her word and worse still was giving Beesmore money. Bedworth moved out and took up other lodgings. Attempts on both parties to reconcile failed and during the last altercation Elizabeth announced that she was returning to her husband. Hearing this news a jealous Bedworth vowed to kill Elizabeth.
On the 20 June 1815 Bedworth, his mood heightened by gin, made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms armed with a shoemaker’s knife. On the way he met a woman (Sarah Collis) who lived in the same lodgings as Elizabeth who told him that she was not at home. He and Sarah decided to go for a drink to wait for Elizabeth’s return.
Later he arrived at Elizabeth’s obviously drunk and she allowed him to sleep it off. On awaking he left (without his shoes and coat) and went back to the dram shop, had more gin and returned. He drank tea laced with gin provided by Elizabeth and announced he was going. Before he left, he called Elizabeth to the kitchen where she embraced him and he conflicted “between jealous passion and strong affection” drew his knife and slashed her throat, nearly severing it from her body. He then made his escape.
Bedworth recounts that he first went to Spa-fields where under the cover of darkness he got rid of his blood-splattered apron and then wandered to Regent’s Park where he threw the knife into the canal. He spent the day hiding in Hampstead. It was during that night that he first heard the agonising moans which filled him with ‘disquietude and alarm’.
The next night, which he spent in St Albans, he heard the terrible sounds again and a voice which he recognised as belonging to Elizabeth, crying ‘Oh Bedworth! Bedworth! What have you done?…You have deprived me of all the happiness of this life’. Bedworth terror-stricken prayed for the apparition to leave him in peace.
The nightly visitations continued and grew worse. Tormented by guilt he wandered the streets of London until he came to Highgate Hill. There he saw Elizabeth’s grisly ghost in front of him, she walked by his side and taking his hand placed it on her severed throat. Bedworth fled in terror and lying down in a field felt her lay down alongside him.
Driven out of his mind and despite being by this time wanted by the police Bedworth managed to obtain a ‘walking pass’ from the Magistrates Public Office and left London. He eventually found himself in Coventry. Although still on the run he had at last come to terms with his guilt. The haunting had also ended. After arriving in Horsley, the torment returned and unable to cope any longer he went back to Coventry where on the 6 July he turned himself in. He was arrested and brought back to London where he signed his confession in front of a magistrate.
The confession of Thomas Bedworth
The above account of the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore is taken directly from a statement made by Bedworth the night before his execution. He told his story to witnesses, one of whom wrote it down and produced an 18-page pamphlet costing 6 pence a copy. As always with first-hand accounts it is difficult to know how trustworthy the narrator is and some of the details vary significantly from the two witnesses, Sarah Collis and another friend, Ann Webber who were present at the time of the murder. At the trial Bedworth argued with them causing the judge to admonish the defendant who he believed was trying to recant. Bedworth denied the accusation explaining that he just wanted everything to be accurate such as the murder weapon being a shoemaker’s knife and not a razor.
The major difference surrounds the supposed reappearance of John Beesmore. Bedworth claimed his return was the motive behind Elizabeth’s murder but Sarah Collis stated at the trial that Bedworth moved out due to a dispute with Elizabeth’s son, also called John (even Bedworth admits to arguing with John the day of the murder). Neither Collis or Webber mentioned Elizabeth estranged husband. It is difficult to know who to believe; maybe Bedworth thought that a crime of passion would gain more sympathy with the general public than a senseless murder committed by a drunk. It is also strange that if involved, John Beesmore never appeared to give evidence at the trial especially if Bedworth was telling the truth and Elizabeth had decided to go back to him.
It took less than an hour for the jury to bring in a guilty verdict of wilful murder. The judge sentenced Bedworth to hang on the following Monday and his body to be given to the surgeons to dissect and anatomise. He also hoped that Bedworth would spend the time he had left repenting and berated Bedworth for taking away Elizabeth’s chance to confess her own sins and die at peace.
A ghastly visitation
So on to Elizabeth’s ghost. The unique aspect of this case was Thomas Bedworth’s assertion that he had been plagued by the restless spirit of Elizabeth who pushed him to the brink of insanity and forced him to confess. Despite many attempts to convince people that ghosts and spirits did not exist through both religious arguments and scientific investigations, the belief persisted. Why a ghost would appear varied but general consensus was that it was more likely if the person had met a violent end and stories of ghosts seeking revenge for their untimely demise were told and retold in all parts of the country. So to many Bedworth’s account would have been entirely credible.
Setting aside the argument that Elizabeth’s ghost was real; the only other logical conclusion is that the ghost had been a figment of Bedworth’s imagination. How and why did Bedworth’s mind conjure up this hallucination can be attributed to two possible causes; alcohol and guilt.
“Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey. It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away.”
The above is the first verse of a poem which accompanied Hogarth’s print of ‘Gin Lane’ and it really says it all. Although since the 1751 Gin Act, gin was no longer viewed as the devil as it had been in the first half of the 1700s, its popularity did return during in the early 19th century. Gin could be easily bought in ‘dram shops’ which flourished in areas of extreme poverty and unemployment. Dram shops were small shops where you could either drink the gin there and then or take it away with you. Later these small shops were overtaken by the popular Gin Palaces which sprung up in London in the Late Victorian period.
Then as now people drank to drown their sorrows and forget the misery of their lives, if you were drunk then you couldn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Gin was cheap and strong and easily available. It is noticeable that Bedworth was in the days leading up to the murder pretty much constantly drunk. A witness’ testimony that Bedworth’s was a ‘very quiet man when sober, but when drunk he used to swear a little’ seems odd considering Bedworth’s drunken, murderous exclamation at the Two Spies Public House that ‘it would be blood for blood’. All involved on the day of the murder including Elizabeth herself were drinking gin even if it was diluted in water.
Even in the 1800s drinking in excess was understood to be one of the triggers behind ghost sightings. Gin in excess was believed to cause ‘terrible hangovers, depression, anger or even insanity’. If it was the effects of the drink which led Bedworth to murder Elizabeth then it must have been the withdrawal from alcohol, the DTs which caused Bedworth to hallucinate the spirit of Elizabeth raised from the grave. Side effects of DTs include ‘nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating’. Maybe if Bedworth had been sober he would never have killed Elizabeth.
The product of a distorted mind
The most famous work in English literature depicting a descent into madness through guilt is Macbeth. Macbeth during the banquet scene sees the gory apparition of his murdered friend, Banquo and murmurs ‘when the brains were out, the man would die; and there an end, but now they risen again’ This line encapsulates perfectly the struggle between logic and irrationality and the slow crumbling of a mind at war with itself.
Even in the Victorian period it was accepted that ghosts could be a product of illnesses such as melancholy which could lead to madness. The warning signs of melancholy included dejection, sadness, gloominess and haunting dreams. In many ways it is the modern equivalent of depression with the exception of hallucinations and visions. Melancholy was said to be the result of ghost stories told in childhood as well as anxiety brought on by religious enthusiasm, fear of bewitchment, grieving and guilt. Murderers were known to see their victims and there are countless more recent reports of killers being haunted by the spirits of those whose lives they took.
One famous example is Al Capone who masterminded the murder in 1929 of seven members of a rival gang including James Clark. Shortly after Capone was arrested, his guards ‘would later report that he [Capone] would let out bloodcurdling screams, shouting for Jimmy to leave him alone’. For the rest of his life Capone would see Clark’s ghost, he even hired a medium to banish the spirit but to no avail. 
So it is very likely that Bedworth’s guilty conscience did contribute to the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost.
The haunting immortalized
Dickens never claimed to have used the story of Bedworth’s haunting and deranged ramblings as inspiration for his depiction of Sikes wild behaviour, frenzied wandering and hallucinations after the murder of Nancy but the parallels are clear.
He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell…
At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always. 
It would be odd if Dickens hadn’t known about the murder since his friend, the artist George Cruikshank and illustrator of Oliver Twist had produced the frontispiece for another friend William Hone, whose pamphlet concerned ‘The Horrid Murder of Elizabeth Beesmore’. After Dickens death, Cruikshank claimed that the idea for Oliver Twist was his.
In my opinion the most likely theory for the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost is guilt mixed with the effects of alcohol withdrawal but I do think that Bedworth did genuinely believe himself to be haunted by Elizabeth’s ghost. The loss of his grasp on reality can be detected in a newspaper article on the trial which reported that Bedworth appeared ‘insensible of the awful situation in which he stood, and was smiling and talking to all the persons about him’.
Whatever the reason behind Elizabeth’s murder, whether jealousy, anger or drink one thing is certain ghost or not, Elizabeth did finally get her revenge.
William Hogarth – Gin Lane.jpg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane.jpg
Delirium tremens, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delirium_tremens
The Haunted: Social history of ghosts, Owen Davies, 2007
The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 68, Philological Society, July-December 1815
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
1800 – 1827 Public executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1800.html
Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, Peter Marshall, 2004
Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Bridget Walsh, 2014
10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost, http://listverse.com/2017/08/04/10-murderers-haunted-by-their-victims-ghost/
The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth: delivered to one of the principal officers of Newgate, the night before his execution, onSeptember 18, 1815, for the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore, in Drury Lane, Thomas Bedworth, https://archive.org/details/powerofconscienc00bedwiala
Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures, (ed.) Robert L. Patten, 2016
Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16, https://newspaperarchive.com/courier-sep-16-1815-p-2/
Gender and Crime, 1815-1834, Julie C. Tatlock, Marquette University, 2009
Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18150913-1-defend50&div=t18150913-1#highlight
Gin Craze, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_Craze
Gin Palace, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_palace
How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the Spirits World: Why do some people fear gin?, Chaim Dauermann, 1 June 2015, https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/6/1/8700045/why-gin-a-look-at-the-roots-of-why-some-fear-this-familiar-j
Notes  The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth  Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815  Ibid  William Hogarth - Gin Lane.jpg  Gin Craze  Gin Palace  The Haunted: Social history of ghosts  Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16  Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815  How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the SpiritWorld  Delirium tremens  Macbeth Act III, Scene IV, Shakespeare  The Haunted: Social history of ghosts  10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost  Ibid  Oliver Twist  Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures  Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16
‘The Law is an Ass’
One of the strangest practices that developed in the early medieval period was that of animal trials.
Animals were only brought before the law and punished if they affected people or society; animals killing other animals for food was seen as a part of the natural order of things – pretty sensible or there would have been no animals left.
For some reason the majority of cases seem to have taken place in France, maybe animals and insects held an unusually strong grudge against the French. Whatever the reason the industry surrounding animal courts and lawyers specialising in bestial crimes flourished there. Eventually it was decided that it was unfair that animals were being sentenced without the chance to prove their innocence. Obviously the animals and insects were unable to arrange their own defence and so under Francis I (1494-1547) it became illegal for an animal to be tried without a defence lawyer present to act as an intermediary between the animals and the injured human parties. This practice was to some extent adopted in other mainland European countries.
There seems to have been two main types of charges; that of a single animal or small group of animals attacking an individual person and that of large numbers of a species causing harm to a community or society.
The punishment meted out depended on the crime. If an animal or insect could be identified as the culprit they could face a death sentence i.e. death by hanging, burning at the stake or decapitation.
The Death Sentence
Although dressing animals up in human clothes, appointing them a lawyer and conducting a trial is no longer employed, putting down animals which have injured or killed humans is still in use. Whereas today it seems to be dogs that are often in the news for attacking people, in the past it was pigs who dominated the animal trials.
A famous case occurred in Falaise in France where a sow was accused of killing a child and then devouring it. The sow was tried and found guilty of murder and condemned to be killed by the sword. Since the child’s head had been eaten as well as an arm, the sow’s foot was cut off and its face mutilated before it was dressed in men’s clothing and led away to face the executioner.
Another occasion also in France, three sows were accused of killing the swineherd, Perrinot Muet. The sows were duly convicted but as if the case wasn’t strange enough two entire herds of swine were accused of being accessories to murder since they had heard Perrinot’s screams, ‘rushed’ to the scene of the crime and ‘witnessed’ his death. After appealing to the Duke of Burgundy, Prior Humbert de Poutier managed to get the death sentence dismissed against the herds. This weird judgement was based on medieval law codes that stated that any living creature in the vicinity of certain serious crimes e.g. murder, rape and sexual assault could be seen as an accomplice and decapitated. What did people expect the animals to do; fight the perpetrators, go for help or raise an alarm? It seems in these situations only Skippy, Flipper and Lassie would have survived.
Sentences of banishment or exile were also used where the crime was not considered as severe or where the prosecutors felt sympathy for the perpetrators.
In Russia a he-goat was exiled to Siberia after butting an important official whilst he was tying his shoe and in 1519 a community in Western Tyrol brought to trial some mice which were causing grave damage to the harvest. The defence lawyer argued that the mice served the community by eating insects and enriching the soil. Despite losing the mice were treated with leniency and kindness. Although they were ordered to leave immediately a fourteen day reprieve was granted to any pregnant mice that were unable to travel or any young that could not make the journey unaided.
Sometimes the situation was beyond the power of the law courts to deal with and the church was called in to intervene on behalf of the complainants. The church wielded two unique weapons; these were the power of excommunication and anathema.
Excommunication and Anathema
Excommunication involves ejection from the church and exclusion from its services and communion. Anathema was a more severe form of excommunication and was often used to cast out the devil or his agents. Anathema involved using curses and denouncements to ban a person or thing from the light of the church and was implemented in religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority.
The problem with excommunication was that how can you eject something from an institution that it is not a part of in the first place? The other difficulty is that it suggested that animals and insects have souls, something the Catholic Church at that time denied. That is why anathema was often seen as a more powerful and appropriate punishment.
How the excommunication or anathema was implemented could vary. Sometimes it was on the spur of the moment and at other times a representative was appointed to argue on behalf of the accused.
The Power of a Saint
In general the success rate of these judgements against insects, mammals and birds is unknown but in one case the records definitely confirm a win.
In 1121 St Bernard Clairvaux, initiator of the Cistercian Order and fervent proponent of the 2nd Crusade was preaching at the monastery of Foigny which he had founded when a swarm of irreligious flies entered without permission. These flies showed no respect for the solemnity of the occasion and proceeded to irritate St Bernard and distract his parishioners. The infuriated saint reaching the end of his tether suddenly addressed the flies and announced in a prophetic voice “I excommunicate you”. The next morning all the flies were found dead on the floor and had to be swept out.
It does seem that even though excommunication could be performed by any clergyman, effectiveness was more likely when performed by someone high up on the religious ladder.
The curse of the caterpillars
Caterpillars for some reason in particular seemed to have raised the ire of our medieval ancestors.
One of the earliest recorded excommunications took place in 1120 and was carried out by the Bishop of Laon when he issued a letter biding the annoying caterpillars to vacate the area. The caterpillars were apparently working in cohorts with some field mice as they were also named. It is really interesting that the formulae used by the bishop to deliver the proclamation was the same as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims which cursed priests who continued to marry ‘in spite of the canons’. So in France it seems that rebellious priests and mutinous caterpillars warranted the same treatment!
Further decrees of excommunication against caterpillars were issued in 1480 by the spiritual court of Autun responding to complaints from the inhabitants of Mussy and Pernan, in 1543 in Grenoble, in 1585 by the Grand Vicar of Valencia who ordered the caterpillars to vacate his diocese and on the 9 July 1516 when Jean Milon, an officer of Troye passed this damning sentence,
after having heard the parties and granting the request of the inhabitants of Villenove, we admonish the caterpillars to retire within six days; and in case they do not comply, we pronounce them accursed and excommunicated 
In general it is not known how the caterpillars felt about these denouncements but in the case of the caterpillars of Valence in 1587 they stuck their suckers in and refused to budge. It seems that the loss of the comfort of the church was less important than the pleasure of some tasty greens.
The Leeches of Geneva
In 1451 a pile of leeches were brought to court on the order of William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, to listen to the accusations against them. How this worked I have no idea as they don’t have ears but anyway it was against the rules to issue any legal edict without representatives from those accused being present. The leeches had been threatening the destruction of fish, in particular salmon stocks in Lake Geneva. The edict confined them to one specified part of the lake. It seems that the leeches on this occasion were not excommunicated as they obeyed and caused no further trouble.
Noah’s Ark Stowaways
Sometimes the ingenuity of the arguments given by the lawyers prosecuting and defending insects and animals smacked of brilliance and their arguments had a weird logic to them.
In 1478 the community of Berne in Switzerland asked for judicial help against a plague of insects called ingers which were destroying their crops. A proclamation made from the pulpit gave the ingers six days to leave and if they failed to do so they had to appear at one o’clock at Wifflisburg to face trial before His Grace the Bishop of Lausanne or his deputy. When the ingers did not appear they were appointed Thruing Fricker as their defence lawyer. The clever prosecutor dismissed Fricker’s statement that as one of god’s creatures they were allowed the right to live. He instead argued the opposite pointing out that ingers had survived the flood as stowaways aboard the Ark as they were not listed amongst the creatures invited by Noah. The prosecutor won and it was decreed that the ingers should be banned, exorcised and accursed and that wherever they go their numbers should decrease. Maybe it worked, as I have never heard of ingers! If anyone has please let me know.
The Weevils’ Revenge
Probably the most drawn out animal court case concerns the weevils of Saint-Julien. In 1545 a lawsuit was taken out against weevils who were destroying a local vineyard. A preliminary judicial judgement was successful and the weevils left. Unfortunately forty-two years later they returned. This was seen as the weevils breaking the agreement. I think that this is very unfair considering weevils have a life span of at the most two months, which means at least 252 generations had passed between the original and 1587 miscreants. Even if weevils have an oral tradition it would have been unlikely this 252nd generation of weevils would have been aware of the original judgement. Nevertheless the new trial went ahead. It was finally decided that the accused should be given another piece of land where they could live in happiness and comfort although the opposing lawyers could not agree where that should be since the prosecutors’ choice was deemed as unsuitable. It is unclear what the final decision was as possibly in revenge of theirs and their ancestors’ blackened reputation either the weevils or some of their friends ate the pages outlining the trial summary and the court proceedings.
The Rat Attorney
One of the most successful animal lawyers was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, a French jurist and theologian who studied law in France and Italy. He worked in the service of the duchy of Milan and Pope Julius II but moved back to France after a plague outbreak where he became famous for defending a group of rats who were destroying a barley crop in the vicinity of Autun. The citizens of Autun finally applied to the Episcopal Court to get the rats excommunicated as all other means of removal had failed. The court appointed Chasseneuz to represent the rats. Chasseneuz studied the evidence and put forward an interesting argument for adjoining the trial i.e. that the rats had not been properly summoned to the hearing as not all the priests in the infected areas had issued formal citations. This approach did not result in a dismissal of the case so he then tried to delay the trial by arguing that not enough time had been allowed for the rats to present at court considering the physical peril they faced in having to negotiate the church cats. I could not find a record of the sentence but this group of rats probably lost and were excommunicated.
The Deviancy of Birds
Birds did not escape the wrath of the church. Most often they were excommunicated for damaging harvest crops or livestock as in Canada at the end of the 17th century when a number of birds of prey were excommunicated, but occasionally there were other concerns.
In 1559 the Saxon vicar, Daniel Greyber, excommunicated a flock of birds which were residing in his church. Greyber was angry at them disrupting his services and even more concerned at their sexual shenanigans or “scandalous acts of unchastity”. Possibly the vicar was worried about the birds setting a bad example!
Cockchafers and their Deceased Defender
Sometimes the law was ignored and insects not given their proper legal aid. For instance in 1479 in the Lausanne area some cockchafers (whatever they are) were invited to appear at the bishops’ court to face charges. Perrodet was appointed to represent them but neither Perrodet or the cockchafers showed up. Both had good excuses, the cockchafers were insects – enough said and Perrodet had been dead for six months. In their absence a judgement was given in the name of the Holy Trinity and Blessed Virgin and the insects ordered to quit the area forever.
One of the last known animal excommunications took place in England by the 19th century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.
The difference between this and most of the earlier examples is that Hawker was a minister of the Church of England and not a Catholic priest. Putting that aside his parishioners saw the excommunication as an extension of Hawker’s eccentric behaviour rather than religious adherence, for instance he was known to dress on occasion as a mermaid.
“Four legs good, two legs bad”
The list of animals that faced a legal trial is a long one and includes aside from those already mentioned snails, slugs, locusts, moles, eels, grasshoppers and dolphins. Nearly 144 excommunications and executions of animals and insects took place between 824 and 1845 but in reality by the 1700s animal trials had begun to fall out of favour.
Although we can laugh at it now at the time animal trials were taken completely seriously as in the medieval mind the devil was working through these creatures and so they needed to be dealt with severely.
As to the views of the members of the animal kingdom that were executed, exiled and condemned, we are in the dark but if Christianity is wrong and Hinduism right about reincarnation then we know who has had the last laugh!
Popular Science, Dec 1882, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JSsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA248&lpg=PA248&d#v=onepage&q&f=false
Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38, Number 5867, 15 January 1870, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18700115.2.10&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, Thomas A Fudge, 2016
Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, Charlie Campbell, 2011
Encyclopædia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, Volume 18, (ed) Edward Smedley, 1845, https://books.google.co.uk/books
Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barth%C3%A9lemy_de_Chasseneuz
Popular Science Feb 1876, Feb 1876, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CSIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA504&lpg=PA504&dq=the+bishop+of+laon+excommunicate+caterpillars&source=bl&ots=r8dx_n0saM&sig=Wq3xCjO7hpFd9NWYNoGsPww6zvw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj6lfGjyPfdAhXLKMAKHaD-ChgQ6AEwA3oECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=bishop%20of%20laon%20excommunicate%20caterpillars&f=false
The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, Edward Payson Evans, 1906
Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, Chapter 18 in The Mind made Flesh, OUP 2002, http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/2002BugsAndBeasts.pdf
Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them, Matt Simon, https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-europes-insane-history-putting-animals-trial-executing/
Bernard of Clairvaux, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux
Beasts before the Bar, Frank A Beach, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/041873/beasts-before-the-bar?page=2
Robert Stephen Hawker, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stephen_Hawker
Legal Prosecutions of Animals, William Jones, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_17/September_1880/Legal_Prosecutions_of_Animals
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
 Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
 Popular Science, Dec 1882
 Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages
 Beasts before the Bar
 Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38
 The Popular Science, December 1882
 Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38
 Bugs and Beasts
 Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages
 Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38
 Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages
 Legal Prosecutions of Animals
 Robert Stephen Hawker
 Animal Farm, George Orwell
 Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
apparitions, catharine crowe, clothing, cruikshank, Daniel Dafoe, Frank Podmore, ghost clothes, Ghosts, Gillray, GMN Tyrell, Myers and Gurney, Newton Crossland, Nightside of nature, Nora Sidgwick, Society for psychical research, spectres, Spiritual photographic theory, Spiritualism, SPR, telephathy
Phantom Fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?
“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)
“How do you account for the ghost’s clothes – are they ghosts too?” (Saturday Review, 19 July 1856)
Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers.
If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?
Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.
In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. 
A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.
Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.
Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather).
These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.
So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.
Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.
What do ghosts wear?
Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?
White sheets – obviously
The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.
The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.
The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.
By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as:
“[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard”
And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.
But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809). Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!
Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? 
The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.
The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).
Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.
Their ordinary clothes
By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.
Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer)  so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? 
Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).
Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.
The Woman in Black
Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche. Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent. However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe. Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences. In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory. One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years. To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white. After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. 
Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.
Skeptics and believers
“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762)
“…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)
Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.
Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?
This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?
A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained
The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.
The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.
Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she:
“If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” 
Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.
In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach. Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.
Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:
Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand. This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.
Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.
Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.
However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.
GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.
The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.
In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.
While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts. Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination. I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.
What do you think?
Sources and notes
Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) 
Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers”
Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryAndRealityOfApparitions> 
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan 
Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary 
Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books -
Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate 
Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd