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


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

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

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

A very brief history of the death mask

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

Death mask of King Henry VII, Westminster Abbey.

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of Phrenology 

Franz Josef Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

Phrenology Head. Source unknown.

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

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

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

Social Darwinism: born bad and ‘degenerate’ races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Muller death mask. Metropolitain Police Crime Museum.

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

Norwich Castle Museum

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

Norwich Castle. Image by Lenora.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources & Notes

Corden, Joanna, 2013, ‘Death Masks‘ on the Royal Society Repository website. [1] [3]   [5]-[7]

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

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

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


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

The Lascars of the Marshalsea


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

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

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


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

The Marshalsea

Marshalsea Prison c1773
Marshalsea Prison c1773. Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Gagan D.S. Sood, 2017 Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring 1780-1860, Aaron Jaffer, 2015 The Lascars of London and Liverpool, Lascars in the East End,

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

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

Britain’s first Asian immigrant issue: Lascars, Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens Lascar,


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

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


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Damnatio Memoriae

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

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

Race to the top

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

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

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

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

Pope Formosus

Pope Formosus via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope at last

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

Pope Formosus. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

Synodus Horrenda

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

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

Pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

The corpse of pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

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

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

Pope Stephen VI accusing Formosus. Detail.

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

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

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


Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

Sympathetic Magic and Carolingian fallout

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

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

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I

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

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

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

Lambert of Spoleto. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

Litupriand of Cremona (quoted from ER Chamberlain) [1] [5]-[7] [2] [3]


The Bitter Taste of Poison: Death by Chocolate


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Chocolate is one of lives greatest pleasures or as Michael Levine put it ‘Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world’s perfect food’. It seems that the majority of Britain agrees as in 2017 the UK topped the Europe chocolate eating league, comprising a third of the European market. On average Britain consumes 11.2kg or 266 Mars bars per year[1]. Our love affair with chocolate began hundreds of years ago and it seems to be a relationship which will last for many years to come.

Mmmmm chocolate. Image from Thorntons website.

A very brief history of chocolate

Aztec woman making chocolate.  Image from the Codex Tuleda via  Wikimedia.

Cacao has been used by South American indigenous cultures for centuries and until very recently it was believed that it was the Olmec people (originating from Mexico) who were the first to have consumed chocolate which they called Theobramo Cacao or ‘food of the gods’. A recent discovery now pushes back the timeline by about 1500 years and reveals that in fact the Mayo Chinchipe culture of Ecuador were processing cacao more than 5000 years ago.

Cacao was a tricky plant to grow and because of its low yield was considered extremely valuable. The Mayans preferred their cacao, hot and frothy seasoned with chilli and vanilla whilst the Aztecs liked it foamy and cold[2]. The Aztecs used the beans as currency, 10 beans could buy a rabbit and a 100 a human slave[3]. They saw it as a man’s drink and warriors drunk it before battle to stimulate aggression and sexual performance. The Spanish conquistadors were fascinated with chocolate and were able to add sugar to the mixture to dilute the bitter taste although at first not all Europeans knew what to make of these strange ‘black almonds’. A pirate ship after finding the precious cargo threw it overboard thinking they were rabbit droppings[4].

The Spanish brought back to Europe the know how to make chocolate which rapidly became popular throughout the continent. Most Europeans added coffee, wine and water to their chocolate drink whilst the English and Dutch added milk. In the 1700s Britain saw the rise of the chocolate houses. Chocolate was even recommended as medicinal for children and consumptive patients. It was popular amongst the aristocracy and a unique set of rooms especially for the preparation of chocolate has recently been found at Hampton Court dating to the reign of William III and Mary II[5].

An 17th Century European Chocolate Shop. Image via California Herb Museum.

Despite its popularity, this bitter tasting drink gained a possibly unfounded reputation as the perfect tool for poisoners.

“Beware the chocolate of Chiapas”[6]

Lady pouring chocolate. Image by Jean Etienne Liotard, 1744.. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

This popular Mexican saying refers to one of the earliest suspected cases of poisoned chocolate being used. In the mid-1600s a Bishop of Chiapas incurred the wrath of his female parishioners when he banned the drinking of chocolate in his church which he said broke religious fast laws. The women protested saying that the chocolate was a medicinal necessity for their weak stomachs and prevented them from fainting during the long mass services. The ladies tried to circumvent the ban by attending mass in other outlying parishes and convents[7]. In order to bring his disobeying congregants to heel, the bishop extended the ban to cover all parishes and forced the women to attend mass at their own parish i.e. his. The ladies still defiant stayed at home and refused for a month to attend church[8].

According to the Dominican English monk who was travelling in the Americas at the time, Thomas Gage, one of the ladies, the wealthy Doña Magdalena de Morales was so incensed that she sent the bishop a poisoned cup of chocolate[9]. Shortly afterwards the bishop became sick and died convinced that he had been poisoned. In order to prevent dissent Pope Alexander VII made a law that all drinks including chocolate did not break the fast.

Whatever the truth behind the legend, what is clear is that in the war between chocolate versus Church; chocolate wins!

“What frosts to fruits, what arsnick to the rat; What to fair Denham mortal chocolate”[10]

Lady Denham. Royal Collection.

One of the famous stories of drinking poisoned chocolate is that of the death of Lady Margaret Denham. Lady Denham was the second wife of John Denham, 30 years her senior. Her beauty attracted the attention of many men including the king’s brother, James, Duke of York. Denham a respected poet and government official was at this time suffering premature aging which had left him limp and reliant on crutches. He had also just recovered from a serious mental breakdown during which he had believed he was the Holy Ghost. A rather cruel description of the couple notes “His wife was young and beautiful; himself was old and unappetizing[11].

The evidence isn’t clear on whether Denham knew that his wife was the duke’s mistress although it was hardly a secret. Some sources imply that Denham was cuckolded and so passionately devoted to his wife that he was blind to her faults. If these are to be believed Denham only learned of Lady Denham’s indiscretion during a trip to visit his quarries in Portland, a destination he never reached as he returned, planning to make her pay.

Detail of the Poisoning of Queen Bona. Public domain via Wikimedia.

In early November 1667 Pepys wrote that Lady Denham was sick and a rumour started to circulate that she had drunk poisoned chocolate. She never totally recovered. There was minor improvement in the middle of month but in December she was still unwell. In January, the following year she died.

Aside from Denham the other poisoner in the running was the Duke of York’s wife Ann Hyde who had a double reason to hate Margaret who was not only having a very public affair with her husband but also was an advocate of a political rival faction which campaigned against her father, the Earl of Clarendon. A popular rumour was that the Duchess was so terrified by an apparition of the deceased lady that she bit off part of her tongue[12].

Pepys never gave weight to the rumour although he did express his intense dislike of Lady Denham and her influence over the Duke of York calling her a whore and ‘this bitch of Denham[13]. Despite an autopsy which suggested a ruptured appendix later generations were convinced the story of poisoned chocolate was true and it reached almost mythical proportions.

A Poisoned Pope: Clement XIV

Pope Clement XIV was born Giovanni Ganganelli near Rimini in 1705. Educated by the Jesuits after school he became a Franciscan Friar and was promoted to cardinal in 1759. A close friend of Pope Benedict XIV he was named his successor and ascended to the papal throne in May 1769[14].

Pope Clement XIV. Public domain via wikimedia.

Clement XIV inherited a Catholic Church in crisis with the Holy See being opposed, the role of the pope decreasing in importance and France wanting back French provinces such as Avignon held by the papacy. Added to this Portugal (and other Catholic countries) was threatening a schism if the interfering Society of Jesuits were not disbanded. Initially Clement prevaricated partly because of his genuine admiration of the Jesuits and partly because he was afraid of their (possibly unwarranted) reputation as assassins. Eventually under increased pressure and to avoid a total schism, Clement banned the Society and the Jesuits were expelled from all Catholic countries.

The stress which Clement had been under began to take on a toll on his mental health. He spent the last year of his life suffering from remorse, depression and a paranoid fear of assassination[15]. On the 10 September 1774 Clement was violently sick and confined to bed. He insisted it was due to poison which had been delivered to him in a chocolate drink. On the 22 September 1774 he died.

Despite being described as an ‘upright and moral man’[16] his papacy was fraught with difficulties and has been seen by posterity negatively. Was he poisoned, Clement thought he was but the autopsy said otherwise!

Napoleon’s near miss

Napoleon by David. Image via Google Art Project.

A rumour abounded in both English and American newspapers possibly the result of British propaganda[17] at its most inventive that Napoleon had narrowly avoided death when he was served a poisoned chocolate beverage by an abandoned lover. The story goes that Pauline Riotti, a former mistress of Bonaparte was left destitute by Napoleon who had promised to support her and their child. With no means of income a sympathetic priest helped her find a job as a monastery kitchen inspector.

In 1807 Pauline after learning that Napoleon planned to visit the monastery was determined to get her revenge. During the preparation of Bonaparte’s late morning chocolate Pauline emptied something into the mug. Unfortunately a cook had been watching and relayed a warning message to Napoleon. Pauline was sent for and forced to drink the chocolate. She began to convulse and an hour later she died, apparently mad[18].

This is a classic story of a failed attempt at murder by a spurned lover. Did it happen, not sure but I would love it to be true.

The Chocolate Cream Poisoner

One story of chocolate poisoning which is undoubtably true concerns a woman called Christiana Edmunds. In 1869 Christiana was living with her elderly mother in Brighton and engaged in a secret love affair with a local married doctor, Dr Charles Beard. She was infatuated and when he ended things she continued to harass him. When Dr Beard refused to see her, Christiana instead of venting her anger at her ex-lover decided her only option was to get rid of the wife.

Christiana Edmunds. Image from the Brighton Journal.

Obtaining strychnine from a dentist, Isaac Garrett under a false name and on the pretence of poisoning feral cats[19] and forging prescriptions for arsenic which were delivered by an errand boy to different chemists, Christiana injected the poison into chocolates. The chocolates having been procured from Maynard’s a local chocolate shop. Christiana’s first attempt on Mrs Beard was when she personally delivered the chocolates to her house, after which the unfortunate lady became violently sick. When confronted by the doctor, she denied any culpability and even claimed to have been ill herself. Mollified the doctor left.

Poison bottle.

Christiana began sending boxes of chocolates anonymously to not only Mrs Beard but also to other well-to-do families in Brighton, to her own friends, herself and sometimes back to Maynard’s for resale. Her targets were indiscriminate she did not care who ate the poisoned chocolates. More and more people began to fall sick.

In 1871 Christiana’s campaign claimed its first victim. Sidney Barker aged 4 died after eating chocolates bought from him at Maynard’s whilst he was visiting Brighton with his family. At the inquest a verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded. John Maynard was exonerated and destroyed all his stock. Christiana had the nerve to give evidence at the inquest complaining that she had also been poisoned. Her vindictive campaign against John Maynard continued as she sent three letters to Sidney’s father[20] encouraging him to sue Maynard.

The poisoning continued and it was not until six victims including Mrs Beard’s servants fell sick that the Chief Constable placed an advert in the local paper asking for anyone with evidence to step forward. Finally Dr Beard handed in Christiana’s incriminating love letters. Suddenly everything fell into place as now there was a motive for what had looked like random attacks. Christiana was identified as the anonymous author of both the letters sent to the police attacking Maynard and to Sidney’s father. She was arrested on the charge of murder and placed in custody.

Contemporary news report. Image from the Old Police Cells Museum.

After an initial hearing in Brighton it was decided that no Brighton judge could give a fair judgement and the trial was moved to the Old Bailey in London[21]. On 8 January 1872 Christiana was convicted of the murder of Sidney Barker and sentenced to death. The sensational nature of the trial was relished by the tabloids. The descriptions given in the papers varied from tall and handsome to thinking too much of herself. One damning article called her a ‘scheming, image-obsessed murdering minx[22]. Her sentence was commuted and she was placed in Broadmoor mental asylum for the criminally insane where she stayed until her death in 1907. She never denied, gave an explanation or showed any remorse for what she had done[23].

“Of all murders poisoning is ye worst and most  horrible

because it is secret

because it is not to be prevented

because it is most against nature and therefore most hainous

it is also a cowardly thing”

       Sir John Coke  [24]

The above reasons illustrate a deep-rooted fear in England in the 17th century of being poisoned even though actual cases were rare with most casualties being accidental or suicides. Literature was full of lurid tales of poisoning which only increased the paranoia. Initially poisoning was linked to witchcraft due to the mixing of ingredients and seen as the murder weapon of choice for women. For some reason maybe a guilty conscience men developed a huge fear of being poisoned by their wives[25].

Reynolds’s Miscellany [PP.6004.b Vol.21 No 525 p.1] Images Online

The difficulty of proving that someone had been poisoned is illustrated by the case of Mary Bell who was accused of killing her husband in 1663, five years after the supposed crime took place[26]. Chocolate was a popular drink, it could disguise bitter tastes and so there was no better choice. Countless other unsubstantiated rumours of chocolate poisoning attempts floated around including Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Charles II[27].

Even today chocolate poisoning cases occur. In France in 2006 Ghislain Beaumont aged 45 murdered both his parents with a poisoned chocolate mousse. He claimed that his mother kept him as a virtual prisoner and was trying to prevent him moving in with his girlfriend[28].

Interesting chocolate fact! 

Luckily chocolate itself is not lethal for humans but if you are determined to use it to commit a murder then somehow you must persuade them to consume 22lb of cacao, the equivalent of 40 bars of Dairy Milk in one go![29]

…one last wafer thin mint…? Image Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Dir. Terry Jones.1983.


Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham, Brendan O Hehir, 1968

Sir John Denham (1614/15–1669) Reassessed: The State’s Poet, Philip Major, 2016

John Denham (poet),

COLUMNIST: Painting a picture of Lady Denham – the scandal and her demise, Stephanie Bateman,

Sir John Denham,

By Permission Of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London, Adrian Tinniswood, 2004

Death By Chocolate: Did You Know It Can Kill?,

Death by poisoning of His Holiness Pope Clement XIV,

Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV,

Clement XIV,

QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate, The Telegraph,

Humoring Resistance: Laughter and the Excessive Body in Latin American Women’s Fiction, Dianna C. Niebylski, 2004

Death by chocolate,

When the Church said “No” to chocolate,

Britain is now top of the chocoholics league,

Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro, 2009

Poison – hidden weapon of the Tudor wife,

A historical murder: The Chocolate Box Poisoner,

Christiana Edmunds,

Broadmoor Revealed: Some patient stories: Christiana Edmunds (1829-1907),

The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds, Kaye Jones, 2016

Archaeologists Find Earliest Chocolate Ingredients in Ecuador, Kristina Killgrove,

Chocolate mousse murderer: Middle-aged man kills parents by lacing pudding with poison because they wouldn’t let him leave home, February 2008

The Chocolate Kitchens,

Christiana Edmunds, 


[1] Britain is now top of the chocoholics league

[2] QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate

[3] When the Church said “No” to chocolate,

[4] Ibid

[5] The Chocolate Kitchens

[6] Death by chocolate

[7] Ibid

[8] Death by chocolate

[9] Humoring Resistance

[10] Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham

[11] Ibid

[12] Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham

[13] Ibid

[14] Clement XIV

[15] Ibid

[16] Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV

[17] Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage

[18] Ibid

[19] A historical murder: The chocolate box poisoner

[20] Broadmoor Revealed: Some patient stories: Christiana Edmunds

[21] Christiana Edmunds (Old Bailey Records Online)

[22] Christiana Edmunds

[23] Ibid

[24] Poison – Hidden weapon of the Tudor wife

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Chocolate: History, culture and Heritage

[28] Daily Mail: Chocolate Mousse Murderer

[29] QI: Quite Interesting facts about chocolate

The Paris Morgue – Dark Tourism in the 19th Century


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Dark tourism

The Paris Morgue on the Quai du Marche. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Anyone familiar with David Farrier’s recent Netflix Series Dark Tourist, will know that for a certain element of society, tourism isn’t about sun, sea and sand but about exploring the macabre, dangerous or disturbing. Far from being a new trend, this phenomena has long history. In the nineteenth century the Paris Morgue was an unlikely, but popular, attraction. Many an English traveller would turn their steps away from the famous sights of that most romantic of cities and follow the crowds towards the best free show in town.

In Thérèse Raquin Zola perfectly captures the popular appeal of the morgue, with all of its grisly drama and spectacle:

“The Morgue is a spectacle within the reach of all pockets, free for all, the poor and the rich. The door is open, anyone who wishes enters. There are fans who make detours so as not to miss a single representation of death. When the slabs are empty, people leave disappointed, robbed, mumbling under their breath. When the slabs are well furnished, when there is a good display of human flesh, the visitors crowd each other, they provide cheap emotions, they scare one another, they chat, applaud or sniffle, as at the theatre, and then they leave satisfied, declaring that the Morgue was a success, that day”

The Paris Morgue was regularly featured in journals and travel books of the era. While there was often there was an undercurrent of moral disapproval at the voyeurism inherent in the morgue’s attraction, it’s popularity as a free public spectacle knew no bounds.

The Diamond Guide for the stranger in Paris, 1867, with a chapter about ‘The Morgue (Dead House)’. Via MessyNessy.

But how did a civic institution become a public spectacle and was there a more serious purpose behind this most macabre institution?

A Stinking Pestilent Place

The Militia after the storming of the Bastille. 1789 Public domain via Wikimedia.

Every city has a problem with what to do with the unidentified and unclaimed dead. In Paris the Medieval period, the Order of St Catherine fulfilled this function. Later, in the reign of Louis XIV, the practice of displaying the dead to identify them was established. The very word morgue comes from an archaic verb morguer which, as Vanessa R Schwartz explains, means to stare or have a fixed and questioning gaze, which would seem very appropriate under the circumstances.

In 1718 the Dictionaire de l’Academie defined the Paris Morgue as ‘a place at the Chatelet [prison] where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public to view in order that they be recognised’ and which was composed of ‘dead bodies found in the street and also found drowned’ [p49].  Indeed, drowning victims would be the staple of the morgue for most of its existence.

Despite the public function of such morgues, those historically attached to prisons were by no means a clinical setting for viewing the dead. Corpses were often tossed on the ground in piles, left to putrefy while unfortunate visitors had to to breath in the noxious vapours as they tried to identify them. Adophe Guillot described the Basse Geole as ‘[..] a stinking pestilent place with little of the respect death deserves ‘[1].

The Chalelet Prison in Paris fell-foul of its royal connections during the French Revolution and was closed in 1792. But not before hosting the grisly remains of the 7 prison guards killed during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

The Temple to the Dead

The Paris Morgue, 1850’s.  Brown University Library.

The growing urbanisation of Paris in the nineteenth century, which saw more people living cut off from their traditional communities, increased the chance of people dying anonymously amongst strangers.  This in turn created an administrative problem of how to identify the masses of unidentified corpses that kept turning up on the streets and in the Seine.

In 1804, a new morgue was built by order of the Napoleonic Prefect, in order to address this problem. The purpose-built morgue was sited on the Ile de la Cite, at the Quai du Marche, on the corner of Pont St Michel, it was close to the river – the supplier of so many corpses destined for display in the morgue. This new classical building was purpose-built in the centre of the administrative district –it was very visible, sited on a busy road and close by the Police HQ and courts. All elements crucial to its civic function – the river to bring the bodies, the public to identify the bodies, the police to solve crime, the courts to punish the guilty.

A corpse being delivered to the Morgue, Public domain via Atlas Obscura.

Although this new specialised building was far better than what went before, and drew in thousands of spectators, it still had its problems; there was no private entrance for delivery of corpses, the morgue had a terrible chemical smell, and there was a huge population of large grey rats that frequented the area.

the Morgue and the Media

In the 1850’s Napoleon’s prefect of the Seine, Baron George Haussmann had grand plans for Paris.  Haussmann redeveloped (some say ‘disemboweled’) the crowded Medieval Isle de la cite, to build the new more spacious Boulevard Sebastopol. The old morgue, in the heart of Medieval Paris, fell foul of ‘Haussmannization’ and was demolished.  In 1864 a new and improved morgue was built behind Notre Dame Cathedral on the quai de l’Arche Veche.

The Paris Morgue c1900. Source unknown.

The new morgue was much larger than the old, with a large Salle du Public (exhibition room) and it was endowed with more advanced facilities including rooms for autopsies, registrar and staff, a laundry (for the clothing of the deceased) and a more discreet rear entrance for corpses.  By the 1870’s photography was being utilised when corpses were no longer suitable for display, and by the 1880’s refrigeration was introduced.  However, despite these sound scientific improvements and the emphasis on the civic duty of displaying the corpses to the public in order to aid identification, there remained a huge element of sensation and entertainment in a visit to the morgue. In the public imagination, which was fuelled by the popular press of the day, the morgue was intrinsically linked to suicide, murder and human tragedy.

L’inconnue de la Seine, alleged to be a suicide victim brought to the Morgue.

A visitor to the new morgue in the 1860s would have been in for a grand spectacle of everyday drama.  If the body on display was a cause celebre a visitor might have to queue for hours to gain entrance. In a single day tens-of-thousands of men, women, children, of all classes, might come to view the latest media sensation, such happened in the cases of L’affaire Billoir in 1876 & the Mystere de la rue Vert Bois in 1886. In the first case a man dismembered his lover, her body was fished out of the Seine in two packages, while the second related to an 18 month old girl found dead at the foot of a staircase.  Both cases caused an ongoing media sensation. Keeping the cases in the news kept the crowds coming to the morgue in their thousands, to view the corpses and speculate on the circumstances of their demise.  Ironically, in the Billoir case, while tens of thousands of visitors thronged the morgue to view his victim’s remains, less than 600 people attended his public execution. [2]

A visit to the morgue

La Femme Coupee en Morceaux/L’affaire Billoir. Paris Musee Collection.

The layout of the building created a kind of peep show for the crowds as they patiently jostled forwards. Billboards and posters advertised the corpses within, visitors were ushered in single file in one direction. Corpses were displayed behind vast plate-glass windows, draped with long green curtains which only succeeded in adding to the theatrical nature of the experience.

Bodies were laid out in two rows of six, naked but for a cloth covering their modestly, items belonging to them were hung up near them. In some cases, such as the Rue Vert Bois case and Mystere de  Suresnes  (two young girls retrieved from the Seine, triggering speculation that they might have been sisters), drama was added to the tragedy by posing them on chairs, in a kind of tableau, rather than on the cold hard slab. Due to initial mis-identification in the Suresnes case, these little corpses had to be put back on display, even after the bodies began to significantly decay, which must have been both a very macabre and a very sad sight.  And as such, it was just the kind of spectacle the crowd came for: combining sensation, sentimentality and speculation.

Voyeurism and Moral Hygiene

Der Anatom. Wellcome Collection.

Before refrigeration was introduced in the 1880s a constant drip of water was fed from pipes above each slab, in order to keep the bodies fresh. It is debatable how well this worked, and sometimes, such as that of the woman in the Billoir case, the body began to deteriorate and a wax model had to be substituted for the real thing.

Most of the bodies displayed were male, although women and children were also displayed (and were often the focus of intense media interest). Zola famously wrote of the morgue in his novel Therese Racine, where he touches on the erotic undertones of viewing a corpse:

“Laurent looked at her for a long time, his eyes wandering on her flesh, absorbed by a frightening desire.”

Contemporary moralists were particularly worried about threats to the risk to ‘moral hygiene’ entailed in a visit to the morgue.  In particular, they feared the uncontrolled voyeurism of female visitor, women being considered the ‘weaker’ sex morally as well as physically.  A visit to the morgue gave women access to view near naked male bodies.  Not only women, but children were also frequent visitors to the morgue, and the effects of visiting such a macabre site on children were also a cause of public concern.  None of this moral panic, however, diminished the crowds thronging the streets to gain entrance to the Morgue.

‘The last scene of the tragedy’. Harper’s Weekly 1874. Public Domain.

The unclaimed little girl of the Mystere de la Rue Vert.

While it is true that some visitors attending the morgue might imagine that perhaps they could assist in the identification of one of the unfortunates on display, this was not the prime motive for most visitors. As Schwartz has argued, they were attending for the drama of the everyday, an interest both generated and sensationalized by the media. It was free theatre. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to witness the murderer, not quite returning to the scene of the crime, but brought low by conscience after being faced with his victim. This was not so far-fetched a scenario, the police did sometimes bring the accused to the morgue to gauge their reactions in a ‘day of confrontation’ [3], Clovis Pierre writing in Le Figaro described these events as ‘[a] sensational show’. It also gave the public the opportunity to participate in the drama directly. A contemporary writer, Firmin Maillard, exclaimed ‘who needs fiction when life is so dramatic’ [4] – this was a huge element of the Morgue’s continued popularity.

It is interesting to note that the voyeurism inherent in a visit to the morgue extended beyond the corpses to its living denizens as well. Often better-off visitors came to the morgue as much to gawp at the lower classes at play, as at the deceased (whom they would have very little chance of being able to identify). One factor in common with those whose death resulted in the stigma of public display in the morgue, was that they were nearly all members of the lower classes, the poor and dispossessed of Paris were far more likely to die alone or remain unidentified. [5][6]

Innovation and Social Engineering

But of course the morgue served as far more than a public spectacle. Alan Mitchell in his article The Paris Morgue as a Social Institution in the Nineteenth Century, sees it as a positivist force, helping to revolutionise forensic medicine and policing – introducing refrigeration, pioneering forensic photography, focusing on autopsies.

It could also be seen has an attempt at social engineering: a way of turning the active and dangerously mob, who had engaged in revolutionary and subversive activity in the eighteenth century and the earlier parts of the nineteenth century, into passive and  more tractable group of spectators. [7]  Whether as deliberate policy or not, the morgue could be seen to have been a part of a wider social and political agenda in de-politicising the masses.  Setting the foundation for today’s passive consumer culture, easily distracted from the bigger issues by the latest sensation or spectacle.

The Parisian Mob in action. Source unknown.

The final curtain

The Morgue was finally closed in 1907 due to concerns with moral hygiene and a desire to professionalize the Morgue and its functions. Its replacement was the Medico-legal Institute which remains to this day.  However, the Paris Morgue of the past should not be dismissed simply as grisly voyeurism (although that certainly did play its part).

The Morgue represented a way for the authorities to institutionalise death which contributed to the improvement in scientific and forensic techniques. It also highlighted the drastic changes in rapidly industrialising societies.  While the nineteenth century is famous for its obsession with the Good Death, the morgue showcased the alternative, the Bad Death. Showing death as anonymous,  ignominious, public, and, the antithesis of the Good Death, an ephemeral popular entertainment.

This de-sacralisation of death, turning it from a private religious contemplation of the eternal into a public spectacle, heavily linked to current events was fed by the popular press, whose influence on popular culture was becoming more pervasive as the century progressed. It may also have been a way of allowing an increasingly secular, urbanised and disconnected people to experience the horror, the drama, and the hidden tragedies of everyday lives – from a safe distance. In some ways, not much has changed.

Photograph of the Paris Morgue public viewing room. Source unknown. Via Cult of Weird.

Sources and notes

Mitchell, Alan, ‘The Paris Morgue as a social institution in the nineteenth century’ Francia 4 1976 (581-96) [6]

Schwartz, Vanessa, R, 1998 ‘Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris’ University of California Press [1]-[5] and [7]

Tredennick, Bianca, – Some Collections of Mortality: Dickens, the Paris Morgue, and the Material Corpse, The Victorian Review.



The Screaming Mandrake: Power, Potions and Witchcraft


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Belonging to the nightshade family and found in the Mediterranean region, the mandrake has been known for centuries as one of the most powerful and potent of all plants. People originally believed that the mandrake had two forms; one male and the other female. Some botanists now think that these are two distinct species with the one known as the Autumn Mandrake native to the Levant area and the other Mandragora Officinarum found in the rest of the Mediterranean[1].

Two Mandrakes. Wellcome Collection.

The name mandragora (mandrake in Middle English and Middle Dutch) is formed from man symbolising its resemblance to a miniature person and dragora or drake taken from the archaic word for dragon alluding to its magical powers[2].

A Powerful Poison

The medical properties of the mandrake were known to the Egyptians 6000 years ago. Egyptians called it ‘the water of life’ and used it to improve health, vigour and longevity. The mandrake was attributed with divine powers and placed in a visible corner of a dwelling. Vows were made to it and candles lit[3].

Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Wellcome Collection.

Mandrake plants contain hyoscine, an alkaloid which if too much is ingested causes hallucinations, delirium and even comas. Accidental poisoning could lead to various symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness and blurred vision[4]. There were some positive benefits of medicinal mandrake such as the relief of rheumatic pains and eye infections and even as far back as AD60 the Greek botanist and physician Dioscorides wrote about its use as an anaesthetic. An anaesthetic mandrake root mixture which also contained opium, hemlock and ivy was used by surgeons well into the Middle Ages.

During the Roman period a mandrake infused wine or ‘death wine’ was also known to have been offered to those being crucified[5]. I suppose being drugged into a near coma made the tortuous punishment a little easier to bear.

For many it was the presence of this alkaloid together with the mandrake’s unusual shape that conjured up images of magic and power.

‘Love apple of the ancients[6]

Circe. 17th Century. British Museum Collection.

Mandrakes were also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac (as long as the dosage was right otherwise the outcome would not have been so pleasant for either parties!). The Greek made a mandrake love potion by steeping the root in wine and vinegar and the plant became associated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Circe (the goddess of sorcery) who used the potion to cast a spell over the Argonauts. In Arabic the mandrake is known as the Devil’s Apple and was believed to inflame a man’s love. It was also alleged that if a man carried the female-shaped mandrake in his pocket he would win the woman he desired.

‘Goe, and catche a falling starre, Get with a child a mandrake root’, John Donne[7]

The mandrake has long been linked to fertility probably because its shape reminded people of a human figure. Even in early illustrations it was drawn with a head, body and legs crossed.

One of the oldest references can be found in the Bible in Genesis, when Rachel desperate for a child asks her sister Leah for a loan of the mandrakes which her son, Rueben had harvested from the field as it was believed that eating the sweet smelling yellow fruits of the mandrake would imbue a person with sexual energy and fertility.

The mandrake could also act like an ancient test tube such as in the legend of King Hermones who wanted a male heir but was adamant in his refusal to have sex with women! The king ordered his advisors to find another solution. His astrologers, at an auspicious time took the king’s semen and placed it on a mandrake. Through alchemy a male-child was created much to the king’s delight [8].

Not only could the mandrake help to get a woman pregnant it was also used in childbirth. In order to make use of the mandrake’s power it had to be carefully looked after e.g. the root was placed on a plate and fed with milk or red wine on special days such as every Friday. The milk used to bathe the mandrake could then be fed to pregnant women. Some traditions suggest putting the mandrake under a woman’s bed in a plate full of milk mixed with breast milk. Both rituals were believed to ease childbirth and protect the mothers and babies. [9].

‘Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan’[10]

One of the most powerful legends concerns the deadly scream emitted by the mandrake when it was pulled out of the ground and how to avoid being its victim.

In Theophrastus’ treatise written in or around 230BC he explains how to pick the mandrake to avoid being bewitched. He advised drawing three circles around the plant with a sword of virgin iron and then facing west cut portions of the taproot. After cutting the second portion the picker must dance around the plant muttering incantations concerning the mysteries of love. The sword should only ever be used to cut a mandrake[11].

A later account written by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus (c.37 to 100AD) was the first to mention the use of a dog to extract the plant. He instructed the digger to dig around the root until the lower part was exposed. A starving dog should then be fastened by a rope to the mandrake root and then encouraged to pull out the plant by placing a piece of food just out of its reach. The scream of the mandrake would kill the dog instead of its master and the mandrake would then be safe to handle[12]. This practice of using a dog to remove the mandrake was still being used in the 13th century as witnessed by the Moorish herbalist Ibn al-Baitar. He wrote that the dog in this case survived the ordeal[13]. In Germany it was believed that the dog had to be completely black with no blemishes.

Pulling a mandrake with a dog. Wikimedia.

Other variations on how to extract the mandrake have come down to us. These include stuffing your ears with wax or earth and blowing a horn whilst pulling the mandrake out. Anything to drown out the mandrake’s screams. Pliny suggests using an ivory staff to dig around the mandrake, others advise placing crosses on the plant for protection against evil forces whilst the Roman writer Apuleius stated that on certain holy days an evil spirit would emerge to do the pickers’ bidding, similar to the genie in a lamp.

Some claimed that the legend of the screaming mandrake was invented by witches to stop ordinary folk from picking their precious plant[14]. Witches were believed to enter an alliance with the spirit of the mandrake. They would promise to care for the mandrake if the mandrake’s spirit would act as a vessel for other spirits and familiars. Offerings were made to the mandrake spirit on the night of a full or dark moon and a circle of salt drawn around the plant. A black dog was tied to the plant and food used as a lure. The mandrake was then covered by a cloth and placed in a special bag.

A more practical but less colourful explanation is that it was the squelching sound made by the mandrake when its fleshy roots was pulled out of the damp earth that was mistaken for a screech.

The Little Gallow’s Man

Male Mandrake from Hortus Sanitatis. Wellcome Institute.

Myths also arose relating to where mandrakes could be found. In Welsh folklore mandrakes were found at crossroads. Crossroads were associated with supernatural and dark forces and it was here criminals were often hanged and buried along with others who could not be interred on consecrated ground.

Crossroads and gallows were known to be popular places for the gathering of herbs for a witches brew and so the link between mandrakes, gallows and witchcraft was widely accepted. The ground where a gallows was placed was seen as contaminated by the blood or semen of the hanged. Some stories stated that it had to be semen from innocent men who with the help of a witch were given a second chance at life as a mandrake whilst others claimed that they were formed from the tears and blood of the fallen innocent. In Iceland the mandrake was known as Thjofarot or Thiefs’ root and it was believed to grow where the froth from a hanged thief’s mouth fell[15].

Talismans and Charms

Female Mandrake. Wellcome Institute.

Mandrakes became popular as talismans and good luck charms. They were thought to bring wealth, popularity and the ability to control one’s own and other people’s destinies[16]. It was believed that King Solomon wore a mandrake root seal which enabled him to gain sovereignty over souls.

The powers  of the mandrake seem to be limitless such as making a person invisible, healing domestic animals, changing the weather, guiding a person to hidden treasure, transmitting diseases and allowing its owner to tell fortunes.

Mandrakes could also protect a family as well as individuals. Sprinkled with blessed water and salt mandrakes were buried near the front door to protect the households from intruders and evil spirits.

In Germany the trade in mandrake talismans flourished as they rose in popularity and were worth their weight in gold. Often roots of other plants were carved to look like mandrakes in order to meet the increased demand. People took painstaking care of their mandrakes wrapping them in white cloth, tying it with golden rope and placing them in special boxes or bags of pure silk[17]. In Germany the talismans were passed down to the youngest son.

Although mandrake charms were at first ignored by the ecclesiastical authorities the scale of their popularity eventually started to worry the Church. Wearers of the charms were accused of invoking demons and tried for witchcraft. In 1603 in Romorantin, France the wife of a Moor was hanged as a witch for keeping a familiar in the form of a mandrake and in 1630 three women in Germany were executed for possessing mandrake talismans. Although this was not the first time that the church took exception to mandrake talismans e.g. in 1431 during her public interrogation Joan of Arc was asked whether she was had a mandrake figurine to which she replied ‘I have no mandrake, and never had one,[18] the increasing hostility of the church did dampen public enthusiasm for the charms. Trouble was that giving away a mandrake charm was not easy as they had a habit of returning unaided to their owners.

Up Up And Away!

Witches taking flight. Goya. 1796-98. British Museum Collection.

Witches on brooms, flying high above the ground silhouetted against the moon is an image most of us grow up with but this was not always the case. In earlier traditions witches were believed to be able to fly on just about anything including kitchen utensils and furniture. It was only later that witches were linked to brooms.

The famous witches’ brew was made from deadly nightshade, henbane, devil’s snare and of course mandrake. Such a concoction was obviously lethal and so could not be ingested. It had to be placed somewhere where the user could get the maximum effect without dying. There are only two places on the body which are suitable; the armpits and the genitals. Women’s clothing at the time would have made it extremely difficult to smear the ointment on their armpits so they were left with only one alternative. In order to reach far enough inside the vagina an appropriate implement was needed and so they used a tool which was easily available – a broom handle[19].

Historical evidence can be found for the use of the broomstick. On being arrested for witchcraft and the killing of her husband in 1324, a broom with the tip coated in a strange substance was found in the cupboard of Lady Alice Kyteler[20].

The medieval chronicler of witches Jordanes de Bergamo in the 15th century stated that he had heard witches confess to using brooms to insert a potion into their ‘hairy places[21] which enabled them to fly. Giovanni Della Porta in the the 16th century confirmed that he had witnessed a woman who had applied the brew to her body state that she ‘had passed over both seas and mountains’[22] and the ‘witch’ Antoine Rose testified that she had smeared a potion given to her by the devil onto a stick which she had then straddled shouting ‘Go, in the name of the devil, go![23]

Since the ointment contained ingredients which are known to cause intense hallucinations it is not surprising that the women believed they were flying, what is more remarkable is that more of them did not poison themselves before they were arrested and executed.

The English Mandrake

Although the power of the mandrake was well-known in Britain they were expensive and difficult to obtain and so people began to look around for cheaper substitutes. Carvers of mandrake charms saw the large root of the white byrony (a climbing plant belonging to the gourd family) as a perfect alternative. Known as the English Mandrake these counterfeit mandrakes were carved to represent the human body with wheat and grass used to represent pubic hair. Not everyone was convinced by the power of the English Mandrake, Dr William Turner denounced the superstition stating that people ‘are thus deprived both of their wits and money’. These views did not seem to have damaged their popularity as the charms were considered valuable heirlooms and left as bequests in wills.

False Mandrake Root. Wikimedia.

In Jean-Baptiste Pitois’ book ‘The History and Practice of Magic’ he describes how to make a powerful charm from the root of the byrony plant[24].

  1. Take it out of the ground on a Monday (preferably the day of the moon) a little time after the vernal equinox.
  2. Cut the ends of the root.
  3. Bury it at night in a country churchyard in a dead man’s grave.
  4. For 30 days water the plant with cow’s milk in which three bats have drowned.
  5. On the 31st day take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with the branches of the verbena plant.
  6. Then wrap it in a dead man’s winding sheet and carry it with you everywhere.

Even in the early years of the 20th century the confusion between the byrony and the mandrake persisted. A story told in Warwickshire claims that in December 1908 a man employed in digging a garden half a mile from Stratford upon Avon cut out the large root of a white byrony plant. Mistaking it for a mandrake he stopped working claiming that it was bad luck to cause damage to them. A few days later he fell down some steps and broke his neck[25].

Although not quite as potent as the mandrake the white byrony it can cause nausea, vomiting, anxiety, paralysis and death[26] so it is not really surprising that it came to be viewed with the same mixture of respect and fear.

An Unbreakable Cord

The reputation of the mandrake affected one of the other members of its family, the tomato. Early herbalists associated the tomato with the mandrake and so in the 18th century instead of being eaten people preferred to grow them as ornamental plants[27]. Potatoes were also initially viewed with suspicion, luckily for the sake of the humble chip and roast dinners people eventually overcame their fears.

The myths surrounding the link between the mandrake and witchcraft are numerous. It was believed that if a witch made love to a mandrake root they produced offspring which couldn’t feel real love and possessed no soul[28]. Many of the stories contradict each other but they do show how over the centuries the mandrake has been seen as a powerful and dangerous supernatural tool. Even though today getting hold of a mandrake is much less hazardous, being available online and even on eBay, the plant’s link to witchcraft remains unbroken as it still plays an important role in modern witchcraft.

Professor Sprout pulling a Mandrake. From Warner Bros Harry Potter films.





Bryonia Dioica,

The plant that can kill and cure,


The History and Uses of the Magical Mandrake, According to Modern Witches,

Mandragora autumnalis,

How to harvest a mandrake, arvest-a-mandrake.html

Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches,

Rare occult herbs: Mandrake,

The Magic of Mandrake,

Why Do Witches Fly on Brooms?,

The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks,

Myths and mandrakes

Fantastically Wrong: The Murderous Plant That Grows From the Blood of Hanged Men,

Trial of Joan of Arc,


The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil, Mr Lee,

Plants of Life, Plants of Death, Frederick J. Simoons, 1998

An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente, 1973

Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine, Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni, 2017

Henry VI Part 2, William Shakespeare


[1] Mandrake

[2] The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil

[3] The Magic of Mandrake

[4] Myths and Mandrakes

[5] The Magic of Mandrake

[6] Myths and Mandrakes

[7] Ibid

[8] Plants of Life, Plants of Death

[9] Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches

[10] Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2

[11] The  Solanaceae  II: The  mandrake  (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil

[12] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[13] The plant that can kill and cure

[14] Mandrake

[15] The Magic of Mandrake

[16] Myths and Mandrakes

[17] The Magic of Mandrake

[18] The Trial of Joan of Arc

[19] Why do witches fly on brooms?

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks

[23] ibid

[24] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[25] Myths and Mandrakes

[26] Bryonia Dioica

[27] The plant that can kill and cure

[28] Alarune

From fact to folklore, Janet Pereson & the Witches of Wallsend


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The Wallsend Witches, revisited

In anticipation of Halloween I decided to revisit an old post of mine from 2013. Way back when I first started writing this blog I wrote about the fairly obscure local legend of the Wallsend Witches.  A gothic tale of horrible hags, revolting rituals and a dashing Delaval, all played out in the picturesque ruins of Old Holy Cross church, Wallsend.  The tale is found in print in several Victorian Table books and seems to have been oft retold in the eighteenth century by Sir Francis Blake Delaval (1727-1771) of Delaval Hall.

Holy Cross Church, Wallsend.

The gist of the tale is that a scion of the Delaval family was riding home late one night and noticed light emanating from Holy Cross Church.  Upon investigation he came across a band of hags performing a diabolical ritual upon a disinterred corpse.  Brave Delaval then apprehended the ring leader and brought her to trial and to the stake at nearby Seaton Sluice – but not before the accused had tried to make an aerial getaway on some enchanted plates.  For the full version of the tale, originally recounted in Richardson’s Local Table Book of 1838-46 but in this case taken from North-Country Lore and Legend, Monthly Chronicle (April 1888), click here: The Wallsend Witches: a tale for Halloween.

Having initially dismissed the tale as a combination of colourful folklore and florid Victorian Romanticism, I was surprised to come across an actual report of a Wallsend woman accused of witchcraft during the sixteenth century.

the pointing finger

Talismans & Charms used in folk magic.

I first came across this case in A History of Northumberland volume XIII which provides an extract from an earlier source: Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham,extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth.  After a little digging I managed to get hold of a copy of the depositions, published by the Surtees Society in 1845. Here was discussed the case of one Janet Pereson of Wallsend, accused of witchcraft in about 1570.

Janet Pereson was accused by two people. One, a farmer called Robert Durham of Walshend, aged 72, who said ‘He hath heard saye that Jennet Pereson uses wytchecraft in measuringe of belts to preserve folks frome the farye’.  And the other one Catherine Fenwick, aged 20, the daughter of Constance Fenwick who accused Janet of taking payment for using magical charms to cure a little boy by the name of Benjamin Widdrington. Catherine went on to claim that ‘she knoweth not whether she is a wytche or not’. Despite the possibly malicious intent of the accusations, Janet herself was not accused of practicing malificent magic, rather, the accusations appear to indicate that she was some kind of local cunning woman or wise woman.

Cunning woman or witch?

16th Century image of a witch and her familiars. Via Wikimedia.

While cunning folk would seem to be broadly speaking, forces for good, such ‘white witches’ did not escape censure and in fact their brand of magic, whilst not obviously malevolent in intent, was viewed by many as a threat to the very souls of those who sought their aid.

Title Page of 7 Ed of Malleus Maleficarum. 1520. Via Wikipedia.

In 1487 notorious women-haters Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote of such cunning folk in their infamous book The Malleus Maleficarum:

 although it is quite unlawful… bewitched persons… resort to wise women, by whom they are very frequently cured, and not by priests and exorcists. So experience shows that such cures are affected by the help of devils, which is unlawful to seek

Based on the information provided in the deposition, Janet’s case would seem fall into this category.   The accusation was recorded thus:

The said Pereson wyfe said the child was taken with the fayre, and bad hir [the child’s mother] sent 2 for Southrowninge [south-running] water, and then theis 2 shull not speke by the waye, and that the child shuld be washed in that water, and dib the shirt in the water, and so hand it up on a hedge all that night, and that on the morrow the shirt should be gone and the child shuld recover health – but the shirt was not gone as she said.

Robert Thompson, the Vicar of Benton, had the following to say about Janet:

Dicit that he herd one wedo Archer doughter called Elizabethe Gibson, saye that Jenkyn Person wyfe heled hir mother who was taken with the fayre, and gave her 6d for her payment and that the said Jenkyn Pereson wyfe took 3d of Edmund Thompson for a like matter.

Despite official unease over the practices of cunning men and women, they  were usually tolerated when they were performing helpful actions.  And,  Janet comes across as quite honest – she did not not steal the shirt left out over night (either that, or she really believed the fairies would take it). So what was going on?

Hidden motives

Digging a little deeper, Janet seems to have been accused of witchcraft after her husband, William, and son, Jenkyn, were charged with stealing a horse from Robert Thompson, the Vicar of Benton [1]. Whether any or all of the accusations were true or not, it would seem someone was out to get the entire Pereson family.

Sixteenth century court scene. Source Unknown.

As has been pointed out by many writers on historical witchcraft, witchcraft accusations could often stem from long-standing local disputes or social anxieties, focusing on those seen as a threat to social order, either by virtue of their anti-social behaviour, illness, deformity or poverty.  This element could be a factor in Janet’s case, on initial reading, if the horse theft allegation against William and Jenkyn Pereson was true, it may indicate that they were a troublesome family.  Staying under the radar of officialdom was probably the safest course for a cunning woman, but the allegations against her husband and son could have brought Janet’s practices sharply into focus as well.

Shakespeares three Scottish Witches. Source unknown.

One important factor in Janet’s case can be found in the footnote of the Depositions. The witchcraft  accusations against Janet appears in a series of Exceptions against the witnesses to a tithe Suit relative to the Living of Benton. Tithe disputes were very common in pre-modern England, especially after the Reformation, and hinged over payment of church dues [2]. All the allegations against Janet and her family seem to have arisen as part of this tithe dispute. As Jo Bath points out, Constance, the mother of Katherine Fenwick (Janet’s accuser),  was a the one engaged in this acrimonious dispute with the Pereson family [3] and the Vicar of Benton seemed to have been willing to add his accusations to the pile. Perhaps this dispute, compounded with any other real or imagined anti-social behaviour by the family, was the last straw?  Or, maybe, Constance simply was ready to use any means at her disposal to win the argument, whatever the cost.  The case certainly shows how neighbourhood disputes could easily escalate into allegations of witchcraft.

Janet’s fate

Heron Prison Pit, Black Gate Newcastle. From an original image by Barabbas 312. Wikimedia.

Unfortunately, the texts that I have seen do not provide the outcome of Janet’s case – I would be interested to hear if anyone has this information.  In the Surtees volume, a Janet/Jennet Pearson appears in relation to another case in Dunston in 1586. While differences of spelling were common at the time, it is hard, nevertheless to tell if this is the same woman or simply another with a similar name.

Broadly speaking, in England when cunning folk fell foul of the law, the were usually tried in the Ecclesiastical Courts rather than secular courts.  Allegations of providing charms, love potions, enchantments or even the of finding lost goods, could all wind a local cunning person in such a court, and this is what happened to Janet, as her case is recorded in the Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham.

The 1563 ‘Act agaynst Conjuracons Inchantments and Witchecraftes’ focused mainly on black magic and offered a penalty of death for anyone that ‘practise or exercise [of] any Witchecrafte Enchantment Charme or Sorcerie, whereby any pson shall happen to bee killed or destroyed’ they would be put to death.’  However, cunning folk were not overlooked and the Act goes on to say:

That yf any pson or psons shall from and after the sayd first daye of June nexte coming, take upon him or them, by Witchecrafte Enchantment Charme or Sorcerie, to tell or decleare in what Place any Treasure of Golde or Sylver shoulde or might bee founde or had in the Earthe or
other secret Places, or where Goodes or Thinges lost or stolen should be founde or becume, or shall use or practise anye Sorcerye Enchantment Charme or Witchcrafte, to this intent to provoke any pson to unlaufull love, or to hurte or destroye any pson in his or her Body, Member or Goodes; that then every suche pson or psons so offending, and being therof laufully convicted, shall for the said offence suffer Imprysonment by the space of One whole yere wthout Bayle.

Janet was tried in or around 1570, and her alleged actions would seem to meet the criteria of the recent legislation.  While the outcome of Janet’s trial was not recorded, it would be possible, that if found guilty, she could have been imprisoned (rather than burned at the stake – the purported fate of the captured Wallsend Witch).  Although it’s worth noting that imprisonment could in itself be a death sentence, due to the dreadful conditions in most prisons at that time.

From Fact to folklore

Contemporary Pamphlet about the North Berwick Witches. C1590. Via Wikimedia.

Having revisited the story of the Wallsend Witches and found in it a grain of historical truth, in that Wallsend did in fact boast at least one real-life alleged Witch, the tale of the Wallsend Witches takes on a new aura.  One in which real historical events evolve over time to become folk-lore – of course it would be hard to prove that Janet Pereson’s case is the ‘true’ origin of this tale. Nevertheless, it is appealing to think it forms the core: that as living memory of her tale faded, it began to incorporate such elements as the fate of the North Berwick Witches (burned at the stake in 1590) along with more fantastical elements of established folklore (such as that witches were thought to be able to use wooden platters to fly).

The story appears to have come down through the ages at first in folk-memory,  then, perhaps, permeating different levels of society though Sir Francis Blake Deleval’s constant retelling, eventually being embellished with the real location of Holy Cross Church, Satanic necromancy and a Delaval as hero, and ultimately being collected as a colourful piece of local lore, by Richardson in his Local Table Book of 1838-46.  

So, it would seem that however florid a tale may become with the telling and re-telling, sometimes there is a kernel of truth in it!!

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated.

Bath, Jo, Charmers, Enchanters and Witches: True tales of Magic and Maleficia from the North East [3]

Honeybell, F, Cunning Folk and Wizards In Early Modern England, University of Warwick MA Dissertation, 2010

Raine, James, Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham,extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth Vol 21, published by the Surtees Society, 1845 [1] [2]

‘Robber’ Snooks: The last highwayman to be hanged in England


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A life of crime

James Snooks was born in Hemel Hempstead on the 16th August 1761, the second of four children to John and Mary Snooks. That is pretty much all that is known of the early life of James Snooks.

The Highwayman. Image from Victorian Toy Theatre.

The next time the name of James Snooks appears is in connection with a case held at the Old Bailey on the 15 January 1800 where he was indicted for stealing a gelding valued at 91 shillings. The horse the property of Thomas Somerset disappeared from his paddock in Preshute near Marlborough on the 1st November 1799. On the 1st December 1799, the horse was discovered by one of Somerset’s men being driven along the Bath road on the way to the Cinque Port Fencibles. The investigation carried out determined that the horse had come into the possession of a Mr James Langhorne who had sold it in a private auction to a Mr Bishop who in turn had sold it to a Mr Marsden, a horse dealer. Mr Langhorne testified that the name “Blackman” was entered in his books as the person from whom he had acquired the horse. Langhorne also stated that after receiving a good character reference from a Mr Chancellor for James Blackman Snooks, he gave Snooks the money owed to him from the sale. After it was discovered that the horse had been stolen, Mr Langhorne’s foreman had searched for Snooks and after a game of cat and mouse had finally caught the prisoner. Snooks was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence since no-one had ever seen the horse in Snooks’ possession and Mr Somerset couldn’t be 100% sure that the horse had been stolen and not simply got out of its paddock[1].

Painting by George Stubbs via Wikimedia.

Although Snooks escaped from justice this time, he didn’t learn his lesson. At some point either before or after his trial Snooks took to the road and enjoyed for a time at least, a relatively successful career as a highwayman, his preferred area of operation being the road between Bath and Salisbury. That is until he made during one of his heists, a grave error in judgement which led to the hangman’s noose.

One theft too many

Hemel Hempstead in the 19th Century. Image from Herts Genealogy website.

On Sunday 10th May 1801 at around 10.15pm, John Stevens, a post boy was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead when he was ambushed and robbed at gun point by a single highwayman mounted on a dark coloured grey horse. The man stole six mail bags full of promissory notes and letters. One of the letters contained a large sum of money comprising of £50 and £10 notes. In total the amount stolen was estimated at £500. Once the bags had been emptied of anything of value, he threw away the rest and left them strewn over the moor[2].

The man had chosen an isolated part of Boxmoor near Bourne End to make his attack, probably reasoning that the remoteness as well as being under the cover of darkness would conceal his identity. Unfortunately it was as he was making his get-away that he made a fatal mistake and one which he would live to regret. Along with the empty mail bags and the worthless letters, he also discarded a saddle with a broken strap.

After the highwayman had disappeared, Stevens made his way back and reported the robbery to both the Postmaster and the High Constable John Page (of the King’s Arms of nearby Berkhamsted). The next day they began their investigation.

To catch a highwayman

During the course of his enquiries, Page discovered that several people remembered seeing a man at the King’s Arms fixing a broken girth strap[3]. The man in question was identified as James Snooks. Snooks had previously worked for Page as an ostler a year or so earlier. He was known to have lived in Hemel Hempstead in 1800 and so was perfectly positioned to observe the post boy’s route[4].

The next step was to find Snooks. On top of the ususal £100 reward offered for the capture of highwaymen by Parliament, a further £200 remuneration was promised by the Postmaster General. The high price on Snooks head shows just how serious and determined the officials were to bring Snooks to justice.

The London Chronicle in May 1801 published an article on the crime in which they recounted what took place on the night in question as well as giving a detailed description of Snooks. In most myths, novels and folklore highwaymen tend to be cast into the role of debonair, handsome, roguish adventurers. In the case of Snooks this couldn’t be further from the truth. He was described as in his late 30s/early 40s, 5 feet 10/11 inches tall with short light brown hair and a face left pitted due to smallpox. The Chronicle also states that Snooks was last seen leaving his lodgings at 3 Woodstock Street wearing a blue coat, black velvet collar, Marcella waistcoat with blue and white stripes, velveteen breaches and dark coloured stockings[5].

Snooks had after leaving the King’s Arms headed to Southwark before continuing on to Hungerford. Why he decided to return to his home town where he was well-known seems strange; maybe he was panicking, maybe he was arrogant or maybe he simply trusted in his friends and family to protect him.

London Stage Coach. Via Wikimedia.

Despite his precarious situation it was reported that Snooks could not help bragging about his nefarious deeds and finally his luck ran out. On the 8th December 1801 whilst driving a post-chaise through Marlborough Forest, the driver William Salt recognised Snooks and with the help of his passengers managed to apprehend him[6]. Salt had gone to the same school as Snooks and so was in no doubt about whom he was capturing. When searched £200 were found on Snooks’ person as well as a brace of pistols. Snooks’ career as a highwayman was over.

The evidence

Although it was pretty much universally accepted that Snooks had been the man behind the highwayman’s mask, proving it was a little harder. Due to the theft having taken place at night Stevens was unable to conclusively identify Snooks as the thief.

Earliest £5 note (18th century). Image copyright Bank of England.

The nail in the coffin turned out in the end to be the money itself. Whilst in Southwark, Snooks had despatched a servant to purchase some cloth for a coat on his behalf and to bring him back the change. accidentally he had given the girl £50 instead of a £5 note[7]. £50 in 1800 would have been worth about £900 in today’s money. This note aroused the trader’s suspicions and he contacted the authorities. On investigation the note was traced back to the Tring mail robbery. Snooks must have been aware of his blunder and this was probably why he fled Southwark in such haste.

Trial and Judgement

The Old Bailey. Image via BBC website.

Hanging in chains. Image via Wikimedia.

Snooks was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison before being transferred to Hertford gaol on the 4th March 1802. The trial was held at the Hertford Assizes five days later. The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. Transportation was not an option as the crime was considered “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”[8].

The actual sentence was for Snooks to be hanged in chains, a rather gruesome means of execution. Page, now promoted to the position of High Constable of the Hundred of Dacorum was given the task of deciding where the execution was to take place. Page decreed it would be held at the place where the crime had been committed. This ruling was not unusual and was often used when officials wanted to make an example out of a particular case.

By the start of the 1800s people were starting to lose their taste for grisly public executions and that was probably the reason why the residents of Boxmoor decided to petition the court to commute the sentence to that of a simple hanging.

Execution day

Two days later on the 11th March 1802, James Snooks was taken from the gaol and transported to his final destination on Boxmoor. As custom dictated the condemned man was allowed to stop for one final drink. It was reported that Snooks when faced with his escorts’ impatience exclaimed “it’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there[9].

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice. Via Wikimedia.

A large crowd had been gathering since early that morning to witness justice being served. The day had been declared a local holiday and people were excited and eager to hear the highwayman’s last words. Unfortunately from their point of view Snooks failed to live up to their expectations. His audience made their feelings clear as they stamped and hissed as he spoke about the necessity to observe the Sabbath and the need for children to listen to their parents and follow their advice in order to avoid being drawn into a life of crime[10]. At the end of his monologue he offered his gold watch to anyone who was prepared to assure him of a decent burial. No-one accepted his offer and he was strung up from one group of five horse-chestnut trees[11]

Robert Snooks grave, Boxmoor. Image by Rob Farrow Creative Commons license.

His body was eventually cut down and unceremoniously tossed into a makeshift grave which had been layered with straw. A rather unpleasant scene then ensued with the executioner trying to strip the corpse of its clothes insisting that it was his right. Page had to step in and stop the chaos and prevent any further desecration of the body. He ordered the remaining straw to be thrown in on top of the corpse and the grave to be filled in. The officials then retired to the Swan Public House for a drink.

The next day the villagers obviously had a change of heart as they returned to the execution site, exhumed the body, placed it in a wooden coffin and then reburied it at the same spot.

In 1904 the Box Moor Trust placed a small white headstone on a site which is believed to have been the area where Snooks was hanged. The exact location of the grave is unknown. The inscription on the gravestone is simply “Robert Snooks 11th March 1802”. James Snooks has gone down in history as Robert Snooks probably due to a corruption of his nickname ‘Robber Snooks’[12]. The headstone and a small footstone placed in 1994 now stand some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.

The last highwayman to be hanged in England

Satire 4120. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Snooks himself was a common all garden thief. There was nothing distinctive about him in life but in death he achieved a rather unexpected notoriety, that of the last highwayman to be hanged in England.

The occupation of highwayman was becoming less attractive as a criminal activity and by 1815 it was rare for mounted robberies to take place. There were a number of reasons for this decline. One of which was the expansion of gated and manned toll roads and turnpikes which hampered the highwaymen’s escape. Another reason was the increase in 1800 of horse patrols. This together with the newly formed police service[13] which had started in London in 1805 had resulted in pushing the highwayman’s area of operation away from the city and further into more remote locations[14]. A final obstacle and the one that had been Snooks’ downfall was the introduction and greater use of notes as currency. Notes as Snooks found out were traceable and so harder to get rid of than gold[15]. The golden era of the highwayman was over.

M0012499 Tottenham Court Road Turnpike, about 1800.  Wellcome Collection.

Into folklore

As tradition dictates Snooks has become somewhat of a mythical figure and a number of supernatural stories have become associated with him.

Robert Snooks gravestone. Image by Rob Farrow, creative commons license.

It is said that if you run around the four trees where Snooks was hanged you will see his ghost. A slight issue with this particular story but one which seems not to bother this particular restless spirit, is that the trees which now stand near the grave are not the same ones as in 1802 (the original trees were cut down years ago when they became diseased)[16].

One legend states that if you walk around the gravestone three times and call out Snooks name he will materialise[17]. A slight variation on this theme recounts that if you summon Snooks whilst circling the stone twelve times he will appear and join you in a danse macabre!

On a number of occasions it has been reported that the grave site has been disturbed at night by people trying to find Snooks skull and bones to use them in magical rituals[18].

Lastly fresh flowers are often seen at the stone along with children’s drawings. [19]. For me for some reason the idea of children’s sketches being given almost as an offering sends a chill up my spine.


Robert Snooks,
Robert Snooks – Highwayman,
Last highwayman hung in Hemel Hempstead,
James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang,
Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on,
Snook’s Grave,
Whores and Highwaymen, Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth Century Metropolis by Gregory J. Dunston, 2012
Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
Beware, the ghost of highwayman Snooks,
10 Notorious Men from European History,
Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800.,


[1] The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800.,
[2] Robert Snooks,
[3] ibid
[4] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on,
[5] Highwaymen,
[6] Robert Snooks,
[7] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on,
[8] Robert Snooks,
[9] ibid
[10] Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
[11] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on,
[12] Robert Snooks,
[13] Highwaymen,
[14] James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang,
[15] Highwaymen,
[16] Robert Snooks – Highwayman,
[17] 10 Notorious Men from European History,
[18] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on,
[19] Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002

Medieval Death: The Cadaver Tomb (transi tomb)


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Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke in Tallin, Estonia. (Image via Wikipedia).

A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral

Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry, Lincoln Cathedral.

A visitor wandering the aisles of Lincoln’s fine Gothic cathedral, awed by its vast air ribbed vaulting, intrigued by its curious Medieval carvings – such as the famous Lincoln Imp – and immersed in its impressive Medieval and Wren libraries, would be forgiven for overlooking the tomb of Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln from 1420-1431.

Fleming’s monument forms part of a chantry chapel and is tucked away on the North wall of the cathedral. A cursory glance is all most visitors probably afford it – yet another elaborate memorial to a high churchman. But if you look a little closer, Richard Fleming’s tomb hides a remarkable and macabre secret. In the lower part of the monument, beneath the sculpture of the recumbent bishop in his robes of office, lies a very different image, a shrunken cadaver, ribs protruding, eyes hollow, wrapped in a winding-sheet.  The sculpture offers a visceral reminder of the bodily decay, awaiting high and low alike, after death. Fleming’s tomb is one of the earliest English examples of the Transi or Cadaver Tomb in England. But why would a prominent and influential churchman chose to have himself depicted as food for worms?

Richard Fleming’s transi image. Lincoln Cathedral.

What’s in a name

Kathleen Cohen, in her fascinating book Metamorphosis of a death symbol, explains that the word transi derives from the latin verb transire – trans to cross, ire to go and that this links in with the French word transir, in use from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and which means ‘to die’ or ‘to pass away’ or ‘ to go’. Transi tombs can, using this basis, be interpreted as depicting the transitional body, from life, to death, and onwards to resurrection.

Gisant style tomb of Charles III in the Cathedral of Pamplona.

Transi or as they are more commonly know, cadaver tombs are similar but also distinct from the more familiar Medieval tombs, known as gisants, which depicted the medieval deceased recumbent and dressed clothes befitting their rank and station. In stark contrast, the transi figure presents the viewer with the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sunken eyes, prominent ribs, even covered in toads, snakes and vermin (although this was always more popular on the continent, particularly Germany, rather than in the British Isles).

The cadaverous transi attributed to Thomas Haxby, York Minster.

Cadaver tombs could be double deckers or single – Richard Fleming’s is a fine example of the double-decker with the gisant style representation atop the cadaverous one, while the sadly battered and worn cadaver tomb in York Minster, in the west aisle of the north trancept, is an example of the single-decker, with deceased represented only as a decayed corpse. The York tomb is attributed to Treasurer Thomas Haxby (1418-1425) but according to research by Dr Pamela King, may in fact belong to Treasurer John Neuton, founder of York Cathedral’s Medieval library.[1]

Possibly the most famous cadaver tomb in England belongs to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1414 – 1443, and is a fine example of the double-decker transi tomb. Other examples of cadaver tombs were employed by lay people, men and women alike, and even royalty (particularly in France).

Medieval Death: Plague and punishment

For many years art and architecture historians shied away from examining any deeper meaning in these grisly monuments, seeing at most either a simple didactic Memento Mori function – reminding the living that they too will die, or a psychological reaction to the horrors of the Black Death. The plague that had killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population had peaked in the 1340’s and many felt that its impact was expressed in these monuments and other Morbid medievalisms.  However, the plague argument can be challenged by the fact that there had been regular outbreaks of plague before the Black Death. Perhaps most convincingly, Italy, the origin of the Black Death in Europe, and which suffered huge numbers of deaths, did not evolve a strong cadaver tomb tradition at this time.  So, while the Black Death may have had some influence on the medieval taste for the macabre, it was not necessarily the driving force behind the development of the cadaver style tomb. [2]

Burying the plague victims of Tournai. 14th Century. Public domain image.

In fact, more recent research by Kathleen Cohen in her 1973 work Metamorphosis of a death symbol and in 1987 Dr Pamela King’s PhD thesis Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England have added new dimensions of temporal and spiritual complexity to these remarkable and shocking monuments.   They argue that they can be viewed as both a reaction to changing social and political situation of the fifteenth century a time when church and nation-state were becoming ever more intertwined – and as a part of the broader spirituality of the Medieval past.  They may be viewed then, not as a simple Memento Mori didactic with the viewer, but a reaction to contemporary issues faced by the church as well as a crucial part of the souls journey through purgatory – a dramatic means for soliciting the prayers of the living for the benefit of the dead.

The very early transi of Jean de la Grange. Avignon. Via Wikimedia.

A Morbid Taste for Bones,  The state of the soul after death

Danse Macabre from the Nuremburg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

As mentioned above, while it is true that lay people, both men and women chose the cadaver tomb for their funerary monument, churchmen seemed particularly drawn to this style of memorial and may have been instrumental in its initial dissemination.  Cohen and others have suggested that this may in part be due to the fact that during the 15th century the church underwent a radical change due to the rise of the nation-state.  As more and more powerful men were rewarded for their loyalty to king and country with ecclesiastical preferments, the church became vastly wealthy and inextricably linked to worldly power.  Henry Chichele (1363/4 – 1443) was a prime example of this type of man: a high-flying ecclesiastical lawyer who was rewarded by Henry V for services rendered to the crown with the archbishopric of Canterbury, in 1414.

Henry Chichele Tomb, Canterbury Cathedral. Image by Flambard via Wikimedia.

Chichele, like many of his contemporary churchmen, chose the cadaver tomb.  And make no mistake, these tombs would have been deliberately chosen by their future occupants, not picked for them by relatives after death.  In a ‘double-decker’ the incorruptible office held by the individual is depicted in the gisant style sculpture above – showing the individual in all the pomp and glory of their office. Beneath, the corrupt human form is depicted decaying and gnawed by worms.  But what was the message they were trying to convey?

The three quick and three dead. Arundel83-1 British Library Collection.

Medieval art and literature often portrayed the body as intrinsically sinful.  Images of a vain and luxurious life were often counterpoised with images of the consequences of sin suffered after death.  The state of the soul after death was of huge importance to Medieval people.  Images such as the Danse Macabre, Mort Roi (king death) and the three quick and the three dead, emphasised that worldly vanity and glory would not help the soul awaiting judgement.  This preoccupation with the state of the soul after death was because Medieval people believed that upon death, the bulk of them would end up in purgatory for an indeterminate period before they reached their final destination, be it heaven or hell.  One of the prime purposes of most medieval tombs was, therefore, to elicit prayers from the living to speed the deceased person’s passage through purgatory to heaven. Cadaver tombs were no different, many, such as that of Richard Fleming, being associated with their own chantry chapel precisely for this purpose.

It was also an element of Medieval Christian belief that the death provided not only a release from the sins of the mortal body, but also from the original sin of Adam.  It was thought that the life of an individual from cradle to grave was a re-run in microcosm of mankind’s fall from Grace.  And with the fall from Grace came the hope for resurrection.  Pamela King decodes the cadaver tomb imagery thus: the physically corrupt body is an allegory for the soul,  the Transi image therefore provides, to paraphrase Dr King, an accessible figure for a metaphysical state. [3]

Part of this concern for the soul expressed itself in a wish to humiliate or abase the mortal (and sinful) body in order to save the soul. Not only wealthy and powerful churchmen could wish to patch up the disjoint between their worldly success and their Christian faith. John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (1408-1435) chose a cadaver tomb. Arundel was a highly successful and able commander during the latter part of the Hundred Year’s War.  During his short but highly successful military career he accrued many titles and lands for his services.  Although he died of wounds in France, his will stipulated he be buried in the FitzAlan Chapel at Arundel Castle, his tomb is a double-decker cadaver tomb.

Cadavar tomb of the Earl of Arundel. Image by Lampman via Wikimedia.

In an aside provided by Kathleen Cohen, Arundel, despite being praised as the ‘English Achilles’ for his military skill, could also be ruthless and cruel.  En route to fight in France it is said that he rounded up 60 or so women and girls from a convent in Southampton to ‘amuse’ his troops while at sea.  The unfortunate women, having been raped by the soldiers, were then tossed overboard when a storm overtook the troop ships.  It would seem then, at least to modern eyes, that a powerful and wealthy individual choosing a tomb that humbles and humiliates the body as an act of Christian piety in death, could also display a certain degree of hypocrisy.

Overall though, the transi image can be seen not solely as a reminder that the glories of high office may seem to be long-lasting, but sinful mortal bodies will all end up as food for worms, but also that death and decay are an inevitable part of the process that ultimately lead to resurrection of the good Christian soul. [4]

The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory

The fashion for cadaver tombs ran from the fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century (and beyond, John Donne commissioned an extraordinary monument that would seem to have been influenced by this tradition).  However as the religious climate of Europe changed with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, transis too, began to change.  As the new protestant ideology promoted by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others, rejected the idea that good deeds and indulgences from the church would get you into heaven, and promoted the idea that entry to heaven was based on God’s grace alone, the existence of purgatory was questioned. And if there was no purgatory then there was no need for elaborate tombs and chantry chapels designed to elicit prayers from the living for the dead soul.

The Renaissance also brought with it new ideas that contrasted with the Medieval mindset, including the concept of commemorating the deceased and their worldly deeds.  So, while cadaver tombs continued to be built, in particular by royalty, they began to display a kind of pagan sense of glory instead of the Medieval focus on humility and abasement of the body associated with these types of  tombs. One prime  example of this change is the tomb of Henri II and Catherine Medici, at the Basilica St Denis, built between 1560-1573. Catherine, who was alive when the tomb was created, is said to have disliked the first emaciated image created for her and commissioned a second one.  The replacement sculpture is said to have been based on a Venus from the Uffizi in Florence [5] [6] and presents a very different image from the cadaverous worm riddled transis of the previous century.  While the cadaver tomb still undoubtedly pointed to the resurrection of the soul, in this instance at least, royal vanity demanded a pagan aesthetic!

Tomb of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. Mid 16th Century. Image from Basilica St Denis website.


Transi of Rene de Chalons. Image from French Ministry of Culture.

Cadaver tombs developed from a combination of factors – the concern for the state of the sinful soul after death – its need for prayers in order to achieve salvation, the conflict faced (in particular, but not solely) by high churchmen in relation to growing temporal power versus the spiritual asceticism of Christianity. Although it is hard to imagine that a modern viewer of such a tomb would not take away some form of Memento Mori didactic, it would seem that this was not their primary purpose as understood by Medieval people. As Protestantism spread through Europe, and the Renaissance provided a new emphasis on commemorating the dead, the cadaver tomb changed in style and purpose.

Regardless of their ultimate meaning, a modern viewer, coming across one of these macabre monuments is given a thought-provoking and startling insight in to the Medieval mind.

You can find some notable transi tombs in England in York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.

Sources and notes

Uncredited images by Lenora.

Brown, Sarah, The Mystery of Neuton’s Tomb
<> [1]

Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, ‘Metamorphosis of a death symbol’ [4] [6]

King, Pamela, 1987, ‘Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England’ [2][3] [5]