Available now on Amazon! The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural, from the Haunted Palace Blog


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Published 16 May 2021, 230 pages

Paperback £8.99

Kindle £3.99

Buy now on Amazon, click here: The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural from the Haunted Palace Blog (The Haunted Palace Blog Collection): Amazon.co.uk: ., Lenora, Jessel, Miss: 9798505220504: Books


A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.

Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.

Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.


The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Schools of Fobology – Part 1


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Training with Fagin

When the breakfast was cleared away, the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game…The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin his shirt, buttoned his coat right round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick…All this time the two boys followed him closely about; getting out of his sight so nimbly, every time he turned round…If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again. [1]

This passage from Oliver Twist is the most famous description of the training of young thieves in literature. Although it is a fictional account, as with all Dickens’ books it was taken from real life stories and events he had witnessed, read about or heard of from the people involved. The details of how pickpockets learnt their trade are corroborated by numerous factual accounts and Saffron Hill where Dickens placed The Three Cripples, Bill Sikes favourite alehouse was actually a lodging house in the Victorian period. Next to the lodging house was a pub called The One Tun which Dickens patronised. This public house was established in 1759, and is one of only two pubs of this name still in existence and trading in London today[2].

The One Tun of Old Pye Street

Incredibly there was another One Tun public house during the same period which also boasted a connection to Dickens. Although both pubs were located in slums, the pub in Old Pye Street managed to reach new lows even in a city noted for areas of abject poverty. The name of this infamous area of London paints a vivid picture – The Devil’s Acre. The Devil’s Acre was only a few yards from Westminster Abbey and the prestigious houses which surrounded it. The irony of its location was not missed by Dickens who wrote “The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey”[3]. This notorious rookery (a popular slang word for slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) with its narrow streets, gloomy alleyways, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings was home to thousands of destitute and poor inhabitants, many of whom eked out a meagre living through criminal activities and prostitution.

Dorset Street 1902. Jack London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The pub in Old Pye Street was known to be a hideout for a thief-trainer and his boys, orphans who had been taken off the streets. On a visit, Andrew Walker, a member of The City of London Mission, was horrified to find the children living in such a place. He nicknamed it ‘The School of Fobology’[4] and witnessed first-hand, children being taught the art of pickpocketing. His report so shocked the Mission that the wealthy philanthropist, Adeline Cooper in 1853, bought the pub and along with the famous social reformer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, founded the first Ragged School which gave free basic education for poor children. Interestingly the landlord left without paying his rent and stripped the pub of all its furnishings and fittings. By 1871, the school had around 133 pupils[5].

The Billigsgate Cutpurses

One of the earliest known schools of theft was found at an alehouse at Smarts Key near Billingsgate in 1585. It was run by Wotton, a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. The Recorder, Fleetwood, wrote that somehow Wotton convinced all the cutpurses in the area to come to his house. He set up a school to train thieves and devised some ingenious methods to help them learn their trade. Two objects were hung from the roof, one a pocket and the other a purse. The pocket contained counters and was hung up with hawk’s bells and a little scaring bell. The purse held silver. The boys would try to remove a counter and the silver without disturbing the bells. Those that managed to get the counter became a “public foyster”(pick-pocket) and those that took out the silver was “adjudged a judicial nypper” (cutpurse or pick-purse)[6].

Life on the Streets

Amongst the filth and poverty and largely ignored were the street children. Neglected and abandoned both by their parents who were often in prison, absent or dead and society to whom they were either invisible or treated like vermin, they stole to survive. The large number of children in prison or in Houses of Correction is heart-breaking. In 1849, in England and Wales 10,460 children under 17 had been arrested and convicted[7]. Living on the streets, preferable to the brutal workhouse, was dangerous and so many preferred to band together into child gangs as there was safety in numbers.

See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is therefore no wonder that the professional thief-trainers had their pick of candidates. For street children suffering malnutrition and living in filth this represented a step up as they would gain a roof over their head and food in their belly. Thief-trainers would look out for boys and girls who were quick, sharp and steady. Sometimes they would notice a child stealing and approach them. If the child was good-looking this would be another point in their favour.

As well as teaching them the tools of their trade they would also instruct them on how to behave and dress in fashionable places such as railway stations and race-courses so they could blend in with the crowd. As for the thief-trainers they gained a source of income and knew that if the child got caught it was nearly impossible to trace the crime back to them and so they could “concoct crimes with a readiness and a recklessness arising only from impunity”.[8]

How to be a Thief

Nearly two hundred years later the Annual Register of the 5 March 1756, records another school which had managed to achieve notoriety[9]. The school was sited in a public house near Fleet Market where a club of boys were instructed on pickpocketing. Taken from the evidence given by the four boys who were arrested, an idea emerges of the techniques and skills which the boys were taught at this school.

Stage One: The ability to remove a handkerchief out of the thief trainer’s pocket and then a watch. They were taught to go for small light objects such as scarf pins which were easy to remove and hide; how to bump into and distract their prey; and where they could find the best pickings such as at crowded fairs and firework displays. Practice made perfect and eventually the trainee thief could remove the items without the owner being aware that their property had gone.

Image courtesy of www.janeaustenslondon.com

Stage Two: The next stage was how to pilfer from a shop. The first important step was to choose a shop with a hatch. One boy would distract the owner or manager by gaining entry whilst the other would lie on his belly close to the hatch. The hatch would be left slightly ajar when the first boy left. Once the owner had disappeared from the shop floor the second boy would crawl in on all fours and take whatever items they could, including money from the till. They would then escape the same way.

Stage Three: This stage saw the pickpocket move on to breaking and entering. Here they were instructed to work in pairs. The boys would be sent to a potentially lucrative target and pretend to be beggars. They would then lie down under the shop’s window and feign sleep whenever someone passed them. During the intervals when they were unobserved they would scrape out the mortar from around the bricks in the wall (which were usually thin and poorly constructed). Once they had a hole big enough, one of them would crawl in and steal anything they could carry and the other would hide the gap with his body, pretending to be asleep[10].

Lodging Houses and Flash Houses

Lodging houses also gained a bad reputation and as with public houses sometimes functioned as schools for thieves. These schools flourished during the Victorian era largely due to the end of apprenticeships and the march of industrialisation which worsened conditions in the slums.

Generally the training techniques did not vary that much wherever the children received their education. An unidentified lodging house trained both boys and girls (girls were often used as decoys and could be more successful as thieves since they could get closer to wealthy ladies without arousing suspicion). In this school a doll was hung up and dressed in the image of a gentleman or lady and a purse placed in its pocket. The purse contained 6 old pence and a bell. Again the children had to remove the money without ringing the bell[11].

Pubs because they sold alcohol were seen as places of vice and disrepute and so it is not surprising that they often became centres “for thieves and other evil-doers”[12]. Those pubs which had a particularly bad reputation became known as ‘flash-houses’ and were labelled “nurseries of crime”[13]. It was believed that in the first half of the 1800s, at least 200 flash-houses functioned in London. Here the police and crooks would drink side by side. Often the police ignored any dubious goings on within their walls such as the fencing of stolen goods since they provided such a rich source of information for any more serious criminal activities in the area. The infamous Mrs Jennings of the Red Lion in White Cross Street ran a very profitable flash-house where she acted as a fence, hiding goods behind cupboards and at the same time controlled a number of boys and girls who reported to her and lived with her [14].

Final Thoughts

In my mind the image of the Victorian thief and their training will always bring to mind Ron Moody from the musical Oliver dressed in a tatty green coat with handkerchiefs hanging out of his pockets dancing and singing You’ve got to pick a pocket or two to a group of cheerful urchins. Although, I know that in reality life for these children was far from jovial, I do find it fascinating that the musical does in its own way show the reality of how juvenile pickpockets and cutpurses were trained.

So who were the thief-trainers? That is another post…

Ron Moody as Fagin in Carol Reed’s 1968 musical drama film, Oliver!


Thomson, J. & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/thomson-35.htm

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/peopled-01.htm

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

Slum Living: London’s Rookeries-, http://georgianlondon.com/post/49461306842/slum-living-londons-rookeries

Cholera and the Thames: The Devil’s Acre, https://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-westminster/the-devils-arce/

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’,  Bodley Head , 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, Palala Press, 2012

Lower Thames Street, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp41-60

Saffron Hill, https://exploring-london.com/tag/the-three-cripples/

Day, Samuel Philips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, Samuel Phillips Day, (originally published 1858), 2014

Rookery (slum), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rookery_(slum)

Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist

Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill, https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/one-tun-pub-saffron-hill

The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870, http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/750780/the-one-tun-ragged-school-perkins-rents-c-1870

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster, https://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/WestminsterStJohn/OneTun.shtml


[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill

[3] The Devil’s Acre

[4] Cholera and the Thames – The Devil’s Acre

[5] The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870

[6] Thames Street

[7] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[8] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[9] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster

[13] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[14] Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice

A Stroll through a graveyard: a very brief history of British cemeteries


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With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual.  One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.

Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles.  Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I have done a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.

As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.

Bluebells at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne

A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments

Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial

Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it [1]. The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.

Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century [2]. The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out [3].

From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men

Richard Flemings Tomb at Lincoln Cathedral
Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry chapel, Lincoln Cathedral.

Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards  salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.

Gisant monument for Sir Ralph Grey and his wife, 1443, St Peter's church, Chillingham, Northumberland
The Gisant style monument for Sir Ralph Grey (d1443) and his wife, Elizabeth. St Peter’s church, Chillingham, Northumberland.

While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister.   In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography [6].

As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location [7]. There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate [8].

While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.

Image by https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/0a/b0/95f14983a9a287f3932cd1e71806.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0010462.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-24): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/b2gb3sp8 CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36452434

Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe.  While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses'[9] in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools. 

Mort safes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tombstone trends

As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.

The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.

The size difference between the early 18th Century gravestone on the left, and the nineteenth century one on the right. St Peter’s Church, Chillingham.

These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.

These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings [10].

As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).

Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children [11].

The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek. 

Late eighteenth century tombstone with classical motifs, St Andrew’s, Newcastle.

By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs.  Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries. 

Victorian Gothic, the funerary monument of the Reed family, at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.

The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out [12]. 

The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone,  and more generic  religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].

The ubiquitous lancet headstones found in Victorian cemeteries across Britain.

New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).

This unusual but appropriate iron headstone was chosen for William Crawford, an Iron Founder, and can be found in Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle. Unfortunately, it has weathered badly.

The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores.  You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death. 

Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.

St Peter's church, Wallsend.
There has been a church on this site since the 12th Century, St Peter’s church was rebuilt in 1809 and remodelled in 1892. Wallsend, North Tyneside.

Who lies beneath

Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.

Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London

Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”

The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle

This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.

Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London

You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument [15].


For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries.  Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead.  Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.

Ledger stone for eighteenth century Newcastle composer and organist Charles Avison. Avison died in 1770, but the ledger stone was replaced in the nineteenth century.

The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.

All Saints, Newcastle.

Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.


Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol

King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England

Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds

Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers (1826-1865), Western Cemetery, Highgate, London N.6. (victorianweb.org)

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials


  1. Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
  2. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  3. ibid
  4. Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
  5. Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
  6. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  7. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  8. Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
  9. The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
  10. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  11. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  12. Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
  13. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  14. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  15. Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers

Which Mortality Remindin’ Shirt is for You? | The Order of the Good Death

The White Plague: TB the world’s forgotten killer


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Dr Croghan and the Coughing Cave People

In the state of Kentucky, beneath a national park, you will find the longest known cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave lives up to its name, comprising more that 630km (400 miles) of known passageways, but it is not the geology which is the subject of this blog. It is a story so dark and extraordinary that it has inspired visitors to believe that even now, they still hear spectral coughing in the endless caverns.

Mammoth Caves, Kentucky by Dr. Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Private Collections - Lisbon Date: 1887. Public domain.

Mammoth Caves, Kentucky by Dr. Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Private Collections – Lisbon Date: 1887. Public domain.

In  1842, a Kentucky doctor lead a group of volunteers to live deep within the bowels of the cave, in the pitch-darkness, for months on end. Who was Dr John Croghan? And why did he believe that leading 15 patients into the unique conditions of Mammoth Cave may be the key to treating tuberculosis?


In the nineteenth century, Tuberculosis was an un-treatable condition. Germ theory was not yet dominant in understanding the cause of disease, and a working antibiotic would not be developed for more than 100 years, meaning that this mysterious illness was most often a death sentence. Known variably as Consumption, Pthisis, Scrofula, and the White Plague, Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease which most commonly affects the respiratory system. Those who did survive would frequently suffer with flare-ups and respiratory difficulties for the rest of their lives.

Dropsy Courting Consumption, Thomas Rowlandson (British, London 1757–1827 London), Hand-colored etching

Dropsy Courting Consumption, Thomas Rowlandson, 1810. Public Domain.

The most common lay term for Tuberculosis was Consumption, referring to the wasting effects of the disease. This rapid weight loss, pale skin, and fever lead to a gaunt and spectral appearance and extreme fatigue. Much has been made in historiography and popular culture of the ways in which Tuberculosis was portrayed at the time as a ‘romantic disease’, revealing the sensibility of the sufferer, and leading to the creation of some of the world’s greatest art and literature. So influential was this romanticization of tuberculosis that it became fashionable for both women and men to be waif-thin, emphasize their collarbones, and powder their faces to appear as pale and feverish as possible.

Late-stage tuberculosis is nonetheless extremely uncomfortable for those infected and, despite this morbid link between beauty, genius, and death in the wealthier sections of society, tuberculosis did not discriminate based on class and was an epidemic of biblical proportions amongst the lower classes in urban areas.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a great deal of effort and resource was being invested by the learned men and philanthropists of the age to find a cure and a means to prevent transmission. Though medical professionals disagreed about the cause of the disease, many understood it to be contagious and public health campaigns often encouraged quarantine (a next to impossible feat in the cramped and squalid conditions in which poor and working-class individuals lived and worked). Meanwhile, charitable organisations funded sanatoriums to separate sufferers from the general populous, and learned men continued to argue and debate over their observations and experimental treatments.

Unfortunately, their valiant efforts were limited by contemporary understanding of what diseases were and how they were transmitted. Whilst Galenic medicine and the notion that diseases were caused by an imbalance in the four humours continued a significant decline as a prevalent way of understanding the body and diagnosing patients throughout the nineteenth century, treatments for diseases did not keep pace with the new discoveries of anatomy and pathology. For this reason, despite the improvements in observation and diagnosis, the treatment for many diseases by even the most preeminent doctors continued in the tradition of focusing on emetics, bleeding, and regimen. The term ‘regimen’ refers to a prescribed daily routine based the idea that certain food, drinks, locations, and temperatures may have an impact on the health of patients. However, the prevailing, and best available treatment for tuberculosis in the early and mid-nineteenth century was bed rest, short walks, and fresh air.

Dr John Croghan and the Mammoth Cave

John Croghan of Louisville, Kentucky was a doctor from a wealthy local family, searching for a treatment for tuberculosis. Having worked as a founder and director of the Louisville Marine Hospital from 1823 to 1832, he was himself diagnosed with Tuberculosis. In 1839, Croghan purchased 2,000 acres of land, including Mammoth Cave, and several enslaved individuals for $10,000. Part of his intention was to profit from the tours of the cave, which had been started in 1816. However, Croghan also had another motive…

His plan was to open a large health resort deep within the cave system. The foundation of his experimental treatment was to use the temperate climate of the cave, and its presumed stabilizing effect on the body to potentially temper or cure tuberculosis. Croghan noted the steady temperature of the cave and believed the air to have curative properties, observing that other organic matter did not appear to wither or decay in the cave. Croghan confirmed 11 tuberculosis patients, four companions, and the child of a patient to live in the cave over the winter of 1842.

The logic of the assumption that the conditions in the cave may improve their condition rested in the humoral tradition, whereby respiratory issues were usually attributed to an excess of phlegm; an imbalance of coldness and wetness. Therefore, the appropriate treatment to correct this imbalance was to maintain a consistent, temperate environment, devoid of changes and extremes, as could be experienced in Mammoth Cave. (This may seem an odd logic but to this day, you may still receive advice that exposure to intemperate climates and wetness may induce illness, despite nigh on a century of evidence that colds are caused by viruses. Thus, still why we refer to rhinoviruses as the common ‘cold.)

The characteristics of the cave which Dr Croghan chose seemed ideal for his purpose. In the winter of 1842, Dr Croghan led his patients down into the caves where they, as far as we know, willingly engaged in his experiment. They were to live in the cave indefinitely, or until they were well enough to leave. The residents of the cave had little access to anything beyond the meals delivered to them by enslaved people. Photographs show individuals standing and sitting on simple stone and wooden huts, some of which are still standing to this day in the belly of the cave.

Consumptive’s Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-64952) A TOURIST VISITING MAMMOTH CA

Consumptive’s Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-64952)

For five months, Dr Croghan’s patients lived as a commune in the depths of the limestone caves. Their only light came from lard-oil lamps and simple fires, with the constant belch of smoke and fumes filling chambers and lungs with noxious gases. They read episcopal sermons and ate wholesome food, delivered by the enslaved persons who lived outside the cave formation.

A server named Alfred noted, “I used to stand on that rock and blow the horn to call them to dinner. There were fifteen of them and they looked more like a company of skeletons than anything else.”

All the while the experiment ensued, tourists were still being guided throughout the cave system. Both servers and tourists alike spoke of the eerie sight of pale, spectres emerging from shadow, smoke, and flame, hacking and coughing in the muted torchlight.

They encountered “a bizarre scene. Pale, spectral figures in dressing-gowns moved weakly along the passageway, slipping in and out of shadowed huts, the silence of the cave broken by hollow coughing and muttered conversations.”

The results of this experiment, to the modern observer, would appear almost inevitable. Of the fifteen people who descended into the Mammoth Caves, five died before the experiment was unceremoniously ended. Their bodies were laid out on a stone now known as ‘Corpse Rock’. Whether the time which the remaining participants spent in the cave had any bearing whatsoever on their lifespan is impossible to say now in any certainty. However, with the benefit of modern medicine it is reasonable to state that confining tuberculosis patients together in damp, dark environments brimming with toxic smoke pollution is unlikely to have had any sort of positive effect on their vitality. Dr Croghan himself passed away as a result of Tuberculosis in 1849.


The unequivocal failure of Dr Croghan’s experiment was commonly discussed in the popular press, but the story seemed only to gain more traction as the American middle-classes gained more disposable income, and tourism became a common all-American pass-time. A very famous and entertaining spooky story has always been a very good selling point when advertising a tour… Just ask the tour guides of Whitechapel. Remarkably, the industry around these tours in the late nineteenth century became so acrimonious that it led to the wonderfully named ‘Kentucky Cave Wars’, where rival land-owners would sabotage signs and spread misinformation about Mammoth Cave in order to deceive the public to coming to their own private cave tours. Like an episode of Wacky Races.

By the late nineteenth century, Mammoth Cave was an internationally noteworthy natural curiosity and was the subject of a number of short stories and periodicals. In 1877, 35 years after the beginning of the experiment in Mammoth Cave, Harper’s Weekly published an article which included two engravings, documenting and dramatizing the morbid history of the cave. With a circulation in excess of 100,000, Harper’s Weekly was a very successful and ubiquitous publication in the USA. The inclusion of such an article suggests that there was still significant interest in the story of Dr Croghan and his patients long after their demise. In fact, the first line of the page reads “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky has been so frequently described both in our own and other periodicals that the two engravings on this page will need but a brief mention.

Henry Duff Linton’s Harper’s Weekly engraving The Mammoth Cave - House Formerly Used by Consumptive Patients, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-119566)

Henry Duff Linton’s Harper’s Weekly engraving The Mammoth Cave – House Formerly Used by Consumptive Patients, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-119566)

The engravings are accompanied by the following, very short description:

“[The first image] represents the ruins of a hotel which was built in one of the larger chambers of the caves for the accommodation of consumptive and asthmatic patients, the equable temperature and nitrous atmosphere having been recommended as a remedy for diseases of the lungs. It has been long abandoned, however, invalids having found little to no alleviation for their sufferings, whatever benefit may have been derived from the peculiar air having been more than counterbalanced by the depressing influences of a sojourn under-groundthe second sketch shows a party crossing the cave river, which has received the somber[sic] name of the Styx.

Named for the mythological Greek river which marked the boundary of the lands of the living and the dead, it is possible that the macabre history of the cave also wound its way into the naming of landmarks and features.

H.P. Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft by Lucian Bert Truesdale, 1934.

H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer, famed for his horror and science fiction.

In 1905, Lovecraft published a short story about a man lost in Mammoth Cave who comes across an anthropomorphic beast in the darkness. He writes:

The creature was described as having snow-white hair, rat-like claws on its hands and feet with pale, white skin.  Its eyes were black, lacking irises and sunken into its skull.  Finally, it was very gaunt.”

In the story, Lovecraft mentions that a colony of consumptives lived in the cave in a gigantic grotto.

Knowing what we do about the physical symptoms of tuberculosis, and the infamy which of the story of Dr Croghan and the consumptives maintained in the popular psyche, it appears that the beast in the cave is heavily inspired by the stories of those tourists who claim to have seen patients shuffling about the cave in their dressing gowns, looking pale, gaunt, and one step from death.

Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, During the Year 1844 by a Visiter

Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, During the Year 1844 by a Visiter (via Walkabout books)

Modern TB

In 1882, more than 40 years after Dr Croghan’s experiments, Dr Robert Koch isolated the cause of Tuberculosis: Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. This discovery was the first step on our continuing journey to finally understand, control, and treat Tuberculosis; from the development of the BCG vaccine in 1921 and the discovery of the antibiotic Streoptomycin in 1943, to the four drug cocktail which was discovered in 1966 and is still widely used in treatment today. Contemporary scientists continue to work tirelessly, pushing on in leaps and bounds to imagine new, innovative ways to improve the health of people all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) have an ambitious target to eradicate Tuberculosis by 2030.

However, as concerns rise about increasing incidences in the UK, multi-drug resistance, and how to combat the socio-economic inequality which continues to stifle our ability to manage pandemic and endemic diseases, one has to wonder; have they tried Mammoth Caves?


History of Tuberculosis:

Eastbury Manor House: Barking’s hidden gem and its Gunpowder Plot Myth


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Eastbury Manor.  Image by Gordon Joly Attribution Sharealike 2.5

In the middle of Barking surrounded by a council estate stands a Grade I listed Elizabethan manor house. I have heard people gasp when they first see it, not just because of the beauty of the building but because its sheer existence is so surprising. Its location seems incongruous almost as if it has been dropped from a great height and landed in an alien landscape. In fact, Eastbury Manor is one of the last reminders of a time when Barking was part of one of the most powerful and wealthy institutions in England.

The Most Powerful Abbesses in the Kingdom

Barking Abbey: curfew tower by Rept0n1x – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia. org/w/index.php?curid=10960052

The Benedictine monastery of Barking was founded in AD666 by Erkenwald, later Bishop of London. Erkenwald appointed his sister, Ethelburga as the Abbey’s first Abbess. Barking was built originally as a ‘double house[1]’ which meant that monks and nuns lived in separate communities but were both under the control of the Abbess. In 870, the Vikings attacked and the lands surrounding the monastery became part of Dane Law territory until the 900s when the English retook the area. The abbey and nunnery were rebuilt this time as a single-sex institution. Further building work and remodelling took place again in the 12th century[2].

Over the next 600 years, the abbey grew in both wealth and size as it gained new charters relating to taxation and control of Barking water mill and tolls as well as accruing more and more holdings. The seat of abbess became highly sought after with kings and powerful barons desiring the position for their wives and female relations. Initially, the king had the power of choosing the abbess but later it became an elected seat at the insistence of the pope during the reign of King John.

The abbey was the richest and most powerful institution in the kingdom and the Abbess of Barking the most important religious female role in England with all other abbesses subject to her authority. Unfortunately, its eminence ended with Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. In 1539 the Abbey surrendered, it was one of the last religious houses to be dissolved as the final abbess, Dorothy Borley was a friend of the King’s Representative[3].

In 1541 the abbey which had played host to William the Conqueror and had been ruled by some of the most influential women in medieval history including Mary Beckett (who had been promoted as abbess by a guilt-stricken Henry II to atone for the murder of her brother, Thomas Beckett[4]) was dismantled and the reign of the Abbesses of Barking came to an ignoble end. The nuns were given large pensions, the abbey’s treasures confiscated and the lands divided up and sold. Included in the property was the land on which Eastbury Manor House was later built.

The Early Years

There might have already been a house built on the land but no residence is mentioned in the listing of the halls (which included Mucking and Westbury) belonging to the abbey at the time of the dissolution. The land which was primarily marshland was acquired by Sir William Denham who had made his fortune in commerce and had been elected Master of the Ironmongers’ company seven times. He had also served eleven years as Alderman of Coleman Street Ward[5]. On his death, he still owned the lands of Eastbury although there is no evidence that he had ever lived on the property. Eventually, the estate came into the possession of Clement Sysley who was responsible for the building that exists today.

The Building of Eastbury Manor

In the booklet published by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, it says that the ‘architectural expert, Sir Nicholas Pevsner believed that various distinctive features were characteristic of the 1550s’[6]. He suggested that based on features such as the lead rainwater hopper head which has been dated to the 1570s the building took many years to complete. The political stability under Elizabeth I is reflected in the changing building styles. Eastbury Manor House was built with large windows on the outside instead of around a central courtyard with windows facing the centre and easily defendable outer walls.

Elizabeth I in coronation robes. By anonymous – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, https://commons.  wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639542


Eastbury Manor House is a handsome timber-framed building with red-brick work ‘enhanced with diaper-work patterns in a grey colour bricks’[7]. The main part of the house has two storeys with an attic above and cellar below. The manor has two wings. The western wing contained the sleeping quarters and the east side the ‘Great Chamber’. On the ground floor was the ‘dining room, vestibule, hall and buttery, plus a parlour and kitchen[8]. Originally there would have been two octagonal turrets linking the floors but only one has survived.

The house has some interesting features. If you look at the wall of the entrance to the building you can see a blocked slit window. This window ‘once gave light to a hidden space above the porch ceiling but below the floor of the chamber above[9] and is believed to have been used by Sysley as a strong room where he kept his valuables and important documents. Upstairs in the two main rooms above the hall, the remains of wall paintings are still visible. These stunning murals depict pastoral and fishing scenes framed by painted columns and archways. The building would have had murals in many of the rooms but unfortunately, the majority of them have been lost.

The house was known as a ‘gentry house’ as despite the wealth of its owner and the expensive materials used i.e. glass in all the windows and red brick in its construction it was still a provincial residence. Time has stood still for this building as it was never extended and so remains a perfect example of Elizabethan architecture

A Confused History

Although the actual structure of the Manor House is pretty simple to understand it is a completely different story when it comes to who was living in the house after Sysley’s death in 1578.

Monument to Sir Thomas Vyner, attributed to Jasper Latham in 1672, at All Saints’ Church in Gautby. Image by Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0

What is clear is that on Sysley’s death his wife Anne gained possession with the proviso that it would be passed onto their son Thomas ‘to him and his heirs forever at Eastbury[10], it was not to be. Thomas appears to have had serious money troubles and had to ask his mother’s second husband, Augustine Steward for assistance. So far so good but now things start to go adrift. Some sources state that in 1592 Thomas ‘granted a 500 year lease to his stepbrother, Augustine Steward the younger[11]’ but others imply that Thomas still owned the building at this time. The phrasing used is confusing as it says that Thomas was in possession to ‘just before 1608[12] which could mean anytime between 1592 and 1608. If the later date is correct that maybe Steward was living in the property as a tenant. Other possible occupants of Eastbury at this time were the diplomat and tax collector John Moore and his Spanish wife Maria Perez de Recalde. Some researchers believe that they were responsible for the commissioning of the wall paintings in the early 1600s.

Things get clearer later on when in 1628 Martin Steward sells Eastbury to Jacob Price. The house for some reason did not stay with one family for very long. Most of the owners rented the property out to tenant farmers, who worked the land and on occasion housed their animals on the ground floor, rather than live in it themselves. The most well-known purchaser was Sir Thomas Vyner, Lord Mayor of London from 1653-1654 who bought the manor house in 1650[13].

The chronology for the late 16th and early 17th century of who lived when at Eastbury becomes really important when trying to work out if the most famous legend associated with the manor house has any grounding in truth. This is its connection to the plot to blow up the House of Lords more commonly known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Eastbury Manor and the Gunpowder Plot

17/18th Century Broadsheet. Unknown (printed for P. Brooksby, I. Deacon, I. Blare, I. Back.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To a large extent, the writer Daniel Defoe can be blamed for the longevity of the myth. Around 1770 he wrote in the publication ‘Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain

“a little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was at first contriv’d and that all the first consultations about it were held there”

Aside from the tradition that the conspirators met at Eastbury to discuss the plans for the blowing up of parliament, there was also a story circulating that Lord Monteagle was staying at the manor house when he received the anonymous letter that led to the discovery of the plot. Another tale refers to the plotters plan to return to Eastbury and watch the flash and the ensuing commotion from the top of one of the towers[14].

There are many holes in these scenarios for one thing Lord Monteagle stated that he received the letter at his town house in Hoxton[15]. The only tenuous connection is a baptism entry from the local parish records that suggests that at some point in Monteagle’s life he may have resided in the area but there is nothing to link him to residing at Eastbury. In addition, the idea of watching the aftermath of the explosion from Eastbury is definitely far-fetched. The only basis for this is that apparently, Fawkes hired a Barking boat to ferry him and another man to Gravelines, northern France.

William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575 – 1 July 1622) By John de Critz – Berger Collection: id #5 (Denver, Colorado), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6436462

Those that in the past believed that the conspirators met at Eastbury usually base their supposition on the link between Francis Tresham and John Moore and his wife Maria, the Moores’ supposed presence at Eastbury and the fact they were all recusants. Their theory may go something like this: John and Maria being recusants who harboured ill-feeling toward the king and parliament and wanted the country to return to Catholicism allowed Francis, who was related to them through John’s step-daughter’s marriage to Francis’ younger brother Lewis, and the conspirators to meet at Eastbury.

The problem is that although John and Mary were recusants i.e. they refused to attend services of the Church of England and were likely disappointed that James was not more sympathetic to the Catholic cause, there is no evidence that they ever worked against the crown and indeed John Moore held an important official role.

On the other hand, Francis Tresham did know about the plot against the government and had previously been imprisoned for plotting against the crown. He had also been involved in what was called the ‘Spanish Treason’ in which he travelled to Spain with Thomas Wintour and more suspiciously Guido (Guy) Fawkes[16]. By 1605 he had seemingly renounced his treasonous activities and even sworn loyalty to James. Francis was also related by marriage to both Edward, 10th Baron Stourten and William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle (whose father was also a recusant).

The fly in this ointment is that Tresham did not learn of the plot until the 14 October 1605 only three weeks before the planned attack. All details on the how and the when would have already been decided on. Maybe Robert Catesby, the plot’s chief instigator and the others were concerned that Tresham was a liability due to his reputation as a hot-headed[17] and his family connections. Indeed when Tresham raised concerns about the safety of Monteagle and Stourton he was told that unfortunately the innocent must also suffer for the greater good. This has led to many historians believing that Francis Tresham was the author of the anonymous letter warning Monteagle not to attend the opening of the House of Lords. The letter once deciphered was shown to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Sainsbury and the King. Monteagle joined the search of the House of Lords’s undercroft where Fawkes was found with a match and the gunpowder. On being tortured Fawkes revealed the names of his co-conspirators including Tresham. The men were arrested and taken to the Tower. Tresham died of a urinary tract infection before he could be charged with treason. Despite not being formally charged his head was removed and displayed alongside Robert Catesby at Northampton and his body thrown into a hole at Tower Hill[18].

So unless Moore and his wife were involved themselves in the plot without Tresham’s knowledge and were without question living in Eastbury at the time, the legend does not really hold water. As a child I grew up hearing the story and believing in it and so was really disappointed when I learnt it was a myth, I would have loved it to be true!

The gunpowder plotters. National Portrait Gallery: NPG 334a

The manor house preserved for posterity

By the beginning of the last century, the house was in ruins. The Great Tower staircase was demolished in 1814, the wooden flooring and fireplaces had been removed and only the west wing was liveable. Luckily it came to the notice of Octavia Hill and C.R. Ashbee and they began a campaign to buy the house from its then owners. Eventually, the manor house was taken under the guardianship and protection in 1917 of the National Trust and restored with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham later managing it on their behalf. It is now a popular wedding venue as well as holding cultural and educational events. So although the gunpowder plot connection is debunked, Eastbury is still a wonderful place to visit and we are so lucky to have it.

And of course…

…there are the resident ghosts, roughly about five of them including one of a young girl who has been sighted in the upper rooms but who can only be seen by women and children!


Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe

The ancient parish of Barking: Manors, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol5/pp190-214

Barking Abbey, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003581

Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 7, Sylvanus Urban, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RaE3AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA664&dq=eastbury+manor&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1zPnbprDdAhUqK8AKHc1pBcg4RhDoAQhMMAg#v=onepage&q=eastbury%20manor&f=false

House of Benedictine nuns, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp115-122

Barking Abbey, http://valencehousecollections.co.uk/exhibitions/barking-abbey/

At Eastbury Manor, http://spitalfieldslife.com/2018/07/01/at-eastbury-manor/

Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/bk11/pp13-18

Eastbury House, https://www.barkingdagenhamlocalhistory.co.uk/barking-eastbury-house

Eastbury Manor House, Upney, https://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/tag/lord-monteagle/

William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Parker,_4th_Baron_Monteagle

Connections to the Gunpowder Plot, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/connections-to-the-gunpowder-plot

Francis Tresham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Tresham

Tresham baronets, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tresham_baronets

A guide to Eastbury House, Susan Curtis

British Express: Eastbury Manor House, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=1431


[1] Barking Abbey (Valence House)

[2] Barking Abbey – Historic England

[3] Barking Abbey (Valence House)

[4] Ibid

[5] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[6] A Guide to Eastbury House

[7] Ibid

[8] Eastbury House

[9] British Express: Eastbury Manor House

[10] At Eastbury Manor

[11] The ancient parish of Barking: Manors

[12] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[13] Ibid

[14] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[15] Eastbury Manor House, Upney

[16] Francis Tresham

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

The Witchcraft Werewolf Trials of Amersfoort och Utrecht


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Shapeshifters on Trial

By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

In The Netherlands in the 1590s, tales of the Devil’s evil machinations once again conjured up fear and horror in the minds of the inhabitants of Amersfoort and Utrecht. This time the cause was a trial that combined accusations of witchcraft and sorcery with the unnatural state of animal shapeshifting.

The trial held in 1595, led to the execution of Folkt Dirks a 62-year-old farmer from the Hoogland province of Utrecht and his 17-year-old daughter Hendrika along with members of their ‘coven’; Anthonis Bulck and Maria Barten. The main evidence against them was provided by Dirks’ sons, in particular 14-year-old Hessel and 13-year-old Elbert.

Elbert in his testimony spoke of having had made a pact with the Devil, along with his father, sister, older brother, and two younger brothers; 11-year-old Gijsbert and 8-year-old Dirk. He also claimed that the Devil had given his father a hairy belt after receiving the family’s oaths of loyalty. The belt gave them the power to turn into wolves. In this form, they had, after accepting the gift, immediately gone to the fields in Eemland, where he, together with his older brother, and his father had drunk the blood of cattle [1]. Elbert continued that the Devil had also ordered them to undress and had changed them into cats. In this guise, they had been taken to a place near Amersfoort where they had found other cats with whom they danced until two in the morning [2].

“The Water Torture.— Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium: in 4to, Antwerp, 1556.” – Used to illustrate. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hessel’s confession ran on very similar lines to his brother’s. He recalled that on one occasion while he was with his godmother, the Devil had come down the chimney along with a woman who danced for the Devil’s pleasure. In the original text, the woman is described as a “red cat (Tom)” (although it is unclear if she was already in the form of a cat when she first appeared). The Devil had given him a piece of black leather and a black cloth with pins in it [3]. Eventually, the Devil had stopped the woman’s dance with the words “Thou ugly beast, now you will go with me” and had tied a leather belt around her, changing her into a wolf. The Devil and the female were-wolf had then, along with Hessel (also in his wolf form) flown up the chimney to a field, where they attacked and fed on the local livestock [4].

After hearing this evidence, the local officials brought Folkt Dirks to listen to his sons’ accusations. After having gone through two separate stints of torture, the water test, and hearing his sons condemn him to his face, Dirks finally broke and on his knees confessed to being an emissary of the Devil, practicing witchcraft, and having taken the form of a wolf. He told his torturers how after receiving a black doublet a few years earlier he had been compelled to commit evil acts and had been given the ability to shapeshift. On the 14 June 1595, Dirks was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake the very same day [5].

A week later, Hendrika Dirks, followed in her father’s footsteps. She admitted to having surrendered to the Devil when she was eleven years old and having for the last few years been sexually intimate with him. She spoke of attacking cattle in the fields [6] and described how she, accompanied by some unnamed female relatives, attended dances during the witches’ sabbath in the form of either a cat or a wolf [7] (there seems to be some confusion here as to which). During her interrogation, whether under duress or not, she gave her torturers the names of others whom she claimed had been present at these orgies. Based on her testimony; Grietje Segers, Cornelius Hendrik Bulck and his son Anthonis and Maria Barten were also condemned. Grietje Segers committed suicide in prison but Cornelius Hendrik Bulck managed to escape and was never heard from again. Anthonis and Maria were tortured and were finally executed alongside Hendrika [8].

The lives of Dirks’ sons; Hessel, Elbert, Gijsbert and Dirk were spared due to their youth but they were severely whipped until their backs ran with blood. They were also forced to watch the executions of their sister and Maria

The case of Folkt Dirks is an interesting one. It is more than likely that the Dirks’ family had been under suspicion for a long time. If they hadn’t then Hessel and Elbert must have really hated their father and sister in order to accuse them of committing such terrible, heretical crimes. At certain points during the trial, the boys seemed confused, unsure of what they were saying. This is reflected in their testimonials where they sometimes contradict themselves e.g. they state that they had never taken part in the mutilation of cattle but a local official testified that they had admitted to him of having been involved. Maybe they were under pressure to testify or were being controlled or were simply terrified.

One story which had floated about for about a year prior to his arrest, alludes to Dirks’ dark skills and in particular his unnatural control over animals. According to a female neighbour, Dirks had bewitched her horse with the words “what a nice bay that is, god bless him” [9]. The woman gives no further details about why he would want to curse her horse. Possibly she thought he had done it out of envy or spite. It is also interesting that another rumour existed that Dirks’ wife was descended from a matrilineal hereditary line of witches. Although there is no mention of her (probably she had already died), it might explain the accusations against Hendrika and possibly why it was considered safe to allow the boys to go free.

There is one more case that occurred at the same time in the same area and that was the trial of Kanti Hans and his wife. They admitted to being followers of Satan and having been given the power to turn into bears as a reward. There is no evidence as to why they were arrested and since their statements were made whilst they were being tortured, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of their confessions. The fascinating point with the case of Hans and his wife is that they were given the power of transforming into bears and not wolves. Compared to the number of witchcraft trials happening in Europe at the time, only a small proportion included accusations of shapeshifting into were-wolves [10] and even less involved were-bears.

German Woodcut 1722. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Studies of this case have agreed that the judgment passed on the Dirks’ family was one based on witchcraft rather than on werewolfery (although werewolf trials at that point in time were being held, albeit in much lower numbers than witchcraft trials). That being said there is one main element of both these stories that link them to the more straight-forward trials of suspected were-wolves e.g. the 1598 trial of Peter Stumpp, that is the role of the wolfskins and bearskins in the Dirks’ and Hans’ confessions.

The Battle Lust of the Berserkers

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The idea that a bite can cause a person to become a were-wolf is a relatively recent idea. More common in the past was the belief that the change was caused by a salve rubbed on the body or by the wearing of animal skins. The concept of the transformational power of animal skins has a long history which more than likely originated with the emergence of powerful and feared fighters who eventually became the berserkers of Viking sagas and legends.

When someone talks of berserkers the image that appears in our heads has been so strongly influenced by the mythology that arose around them that it is hard to extract the reality from the fantasy. The berserkers ‘bear-shirts’ were originally an elite group of warriors who served under the Scandinavian kings in honour of Odin, alongside another group known as the wolfskins (heathen wolves). There seems to be confusion in the sources over whether or not the wolfskins were part of the berserker brotherhood or a separate group altogether [11]. It is possible that berserkers and wolfskins form two subcategories of one group, with each choosing a different totem and as a result assuming the characteristics and mannerisms of that animal. It is more than probable that these warriors wore either a wolf or bear skin over their armour [12]. This would have accomplished a number of things; the skins would have provided insulation from the harsh weather of Northern Europe, afforded them extra protection in battle which would partly explain their reputation as being invulnerable to weapons and also given them the “appearance of grimness and ferocity” [13] which would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Add this to them being intoxicated with battle lust; biting their shields, attacking boulders and trees, and even killing each other whilst waiting [14] and you get a striking image.

The Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald at Hatrsfjord perfectly captures the maniacal nature of the berserkers when it describes how the “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled” [15]. It is not then surprising that their foes seeing the berserkers’ primeval and maniacal behaviour would assign them supernatural powers, abilities which to their minds would have been attributed to the wearing of animal skins.

The Legend of Sigmund and Sinfjotli

Woodcut image of one of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on Öland, Sweden. It probably depicts the god of frenzy Óðinn followed by a Berserker.  Public domain via Wikimedia.

This idea that by covering yourself in animal skins the wearer can take on the power of the animal was passed down through popular tales and legends in northern Europe and was initially associated with sorcery. In the wild saga of the Volsungs, it is told how Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli came across a house where they found two men asleep and above them hanging up, wolfskins. Knowing that the sleeping men had dealing with witchcraft the brothers dressed themselves in the wolfskins and were immediately overtaken by the “nature of the original beast” [16]. With the power of the wolf, they went on a ten-day rampage which ended when Sigmund gave his son a lethal bite on the neck. The son only survived because a kind raven gave Sigmund a feather imbued with healing powers [17].

The Werewolf of Landes

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The belief that wolf skins could turn someone into a wolf was not confined to Northern Europe, it existed all over Europe and even further afield. Eventually, the story subtly changed and by the medieval period, it was believed that it was the Devil who gave those who he wished to corrupt, pellets or belts, in order to commit atrocious acts in his name.

This can be seen in the story of Jean Grenier who lived in Landes in the South of France. Jean admitted to local officials that he had sold his soul to the Devil who had in return given him a salve and wolf pelt which had conferred on him the power of transforming into a wolf. He said he had the wolf skin in his possession and that he went out hunting for children to devour at his master’s command.  Jean’s evidence matched the circumstances surrounding reported child disappearances and several children testified to having been attacked by him. An enlightened sentence for the time stated that Jean was an imbecile and dismissed his confession of being in league with a demonic figure. Jean was sentenced to confinement at a local monastery for the rest of his life [18].

The Beast of Bedburg

The most notorious and famous werewolf case is that of Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer who lived in the late 1500s in Bedburg, Germany. He was accused of the killing and mutilation of livestock and multiple murders including 13 children and two pregnant women, whose foetuses he ripped from their bellies, feeding on the unborn babies’ hearts. He was also believed to have sexually molested his own daughter and having killed his son and eaten his brains. The townspeople of Bedburg initially believed that the crimes had been committed by wolves but later feared that it was the responsibility of a demonic force or a werewolf. At his trial, Stubbe admitted to having received a wolf’s pelt from the Devil at the age of 12 which would turn him into the likeness of a wolf with an insatiable hunger. He said when he removed it, he would return to his human state again. His confession obtained on the rack does make one wonder about its veracity. His punishment was severe and terrible, he was placed on a wheel and his flesh removed with red hot pincers. His arms and legs were broken and his head cut off. His daughter and mistress were accused of being his accomplices, strangled and their bodies burnt along with his. Suffice it to say, the belt was never found [19].

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Public domain via Wikipedia.

One recent interpretation of Stubbe’s case is that the accusation was motivated by greed and jealousy; Stubbe was a very wealthy and powerful man. It would have been in some people’s interests to destroy him and his family and in that, they were successful!


Returning to the Dirks family, the fascinating part of their story is not their being accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were numerous during this period, but the werewolf side of it. In many countries in Europe, witches were believed to have the power to shapeshift, so these accusations were not unusual in itself but linking their tale and that of Hans and his wife to were-wolves and were-bears is. It combined two elements that people in the medieval period feared the most, witches and werewolves, whilst at the same time continuing a long-held belief that went back to the berserkers and the power of the ancient gods.

The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan. Palace Pictures 1984.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Werewolf%20witch%20trials&item_type=topic

Willem de Bleucourt, https://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Arcana/Witchcraft%20and%20Grimoires/deBlecourt-womenaswitch.pdf

The Truth about Viking Berserkers, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.historyextra.com/period/viking/the-truth-about-viking-berserkers/amp/

The Wild and Insane Viking Warriors, https://www.historia.ro/sectiune/general/articol/the-wild-and-insane-viking-warriors

Berserkers and other Shamanic Warriors, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/berserkers-and-other-shamanic-warriors/

History of the Werewolf Legend, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/folklore/history-of-the-werewolf-legend

Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden tijdens de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw, https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_tie002200201_01/_tie002200201_01_0037.php

The Werewolf of Bedburg: The true story of a monster that terrorized a German village, https://www.liveabout.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445

Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Alison Rowlands, 2009

Peter Stubbe, http://www.scaryforkids.com/peter-stubbe/

Germany’s Brutal Werewolf Belt and The Gut-Wrenching Execution of Peter Stubbe, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/germany-s-brutal-werewolf-belt-and-gut-wrenching-execution-of-peter-stubbe

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf_witch_trials

Werewolf Trials, https://m.ranker.com/list/werewolf-trials-facts/Inigo-gonzalez

The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865

Mythical Creatures: Mysteries, Legends and Unexplained Phenomena, Linda S. Godfrey, 2009


[1] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[2] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[3] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[4] ibid

[5] Werewolf Witch Trials

[6] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[7] Werewolf Witch Trials

[8] ibid

[9] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[10] Werewolf Witch Trials

[11] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[12] The Book of Were-Wolves

[13] ibid

[14] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[15] ibid

[16] The Book of Were-Wolves

[17] History of the Werewolf Legend

[18] The Book of Were-Wolves

[19] History of the Werewolf Legend

Medieval Death: The Danse Macabre


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Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death_Getty

Ms. 109 (2011.40), fol. 156 c 1493-1510. Getty collection.

In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all.  Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.

Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come;  Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.

Grim traditions for a grim time.  However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts.  This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.

Origins of the Macabre

Nuremberg_chronicle Dance of Death (CCLXIIIIv) Via Wikimedia

Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject.  A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.

There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) [1].  Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.

The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague.  Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:

I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.[2]

This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry.  Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife.  This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead.  Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.

The hours of Dionara of Urbino’), Italy, ca. 1480

Dancing in the graveyard

The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons.  Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.

Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller [3][4].

Marchants Danse Macabre, pope and emperor

Guy Marchants Danse Macabre from Holy Innocents Cemetery. c1491 -92.

The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural.  The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ [5][6].

Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards [7]. Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.

Charnel House at Holy Innocents/Cimetière des Innocents, Paris. Via Wikimedia.

The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war.  The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England.  However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.

The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician.  There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest.  With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance [8].  As John Lydgate put it:

Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. [9]

The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king.  It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.

Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time.  Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text [10].

Danse Macabre at Tallinn by Bernt Notke

Danse Macabre from Talllinn by Bernt Notke c1500.

In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘).  Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death.  The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ [11].  Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:

“[..] About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.”

Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.

Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions.  Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.

Marchant's Danse of Death

Holy Innocents Cemetery by Guy Marchant c1491-92.

Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500).  Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.

Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck).  Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.

So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?

The Unwanted Dance Partner

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke, image via Wikimedia.

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke via Wikimedia.

The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller.  No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.

The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact.  The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures[12].

The danse was also undeniably slapstick.  Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things.  The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about.  It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards [13].  The Danse images were challenging the norm.  Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional [14].

But, what of the text that sat alongside the images.  In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it?  While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.

However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate.  The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul.  After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant [15].

The reformation and Death gets a reboot

The Abbess by Holbein 1523/5. Public domain.

In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot.  In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form.  This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson [16]. 

Dancing down the ages

The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.

In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815.  In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.

The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions [17].

Sources and notes

Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996 [3] [13] [14] [16]

Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019 [1] [2] [4] [5] [7] [9] [10] [11]

Dodedans – St Paul’s dance, [8] http://www.dodedans.com/Epaul.htm#:~:text=The%20most%20famous%20dance%20of%20death%20in%20England,%28And%20fro%20Paris%20%2F%20to%20Inglond%20hit%20sent%29.

Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. [6]

Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art [12] [15 [17]

Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England,  UCL Press.

Review: Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G. Horey


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Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey

Frogman Publishing, 2019, 267 pages.

About the author

Philip G. Horey is from the North East of England. He is a Commercial Diver and Photographer. For 30 years he lived on the West Coast of Scotland after having sailed there in an old ship’s lifeboat in 1985. He now lives on the outskirts of Newcastle. ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ is his first writing foray into the legends and folklore of the British Isles having previously published two pictorial books ‘3rd Hung Kuen Championships 2018, 70-75 kg: Full Contact’ and ‘Islands of the Blue Men’, a pictorial voyage to the Shiant Islands.

Book Review

Horey is fascinated by the unknown and in his new book, ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ delves into the mysterious legends which envelope some of the most fascinating places and locations in Scotland and England.

The book is divided into twenty-two chapters with each chapter concentrating on one specific location or theme, exploring both the history and legends which surround it. The book covers a range of topics from spirits to the undead to UFO sightings. The book includes poetry written by well-known writers, as well as stories and legends from oral tradition and is illustrated with the author’s own photographs. All of this adds to the sense of otherworldliness which permeates through the pages.

Sandlewood By by Philip G Horey

Sandwood Bay by Philip G Horey

The book opens up with the poem ‘The Haunter’ by Thomas Hardy. A wonderfully atmospheric poem which was written by Hardy, himself a firm believer in ghosts, after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912. The poem is written from the perspective of his deceased wife, whose increasing frustration at her inability to communicate with her grieving husband, is powerfully conveyed in the last stanza of the poem. The poem itself is the perfect introduction to the book and sets the tone for what follows.

Some of the stories Horley recounts are already well known such as the Loch Ness Monster, Culloden and Chillingham Castle with its multitude of ghosts and grisly stories. Others, less familiar such as ‘The Mermaid of Sennor’, ‘Windhouse’ on Shetland, ‘Sandwood Bay’ and ‘The Cloutie Tree’ are just as fascinating. Even with those legends that have been told and retold countless times, the author with his own unique style manages to resurrect them, making the reader feel that they are being introduced to the stories for the very first time. One particular chapter, ‘Bomber County’ was particularly moving. The loss of so many young men in horrific circumstances is in itself, heart-breaking but Horey in his description of the many hauntings associated with the airfields and crash sites stirs both our compassion as well as our dread. In a very different tone, Horey gives a detailed description of a ‘ghost hunt’ which he participated in, at Castle Menzies in Scotland. The ensuing account is hilarious, as he describes both the other participants and the various scenes he witnessed, revealing here, as elsewhere, both his self-deprecating sense of humour as well as his sympathy for the stories of those individuals he is recounting.

Throughout the book, Horey uses his photographs to illustrate the tales, capturing their spirit and enhancing their effectiveness. Horey is a skilled and clever photographer and I was particularly impressed with the powerful imagery of his black and white photographs.

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Whilst describing the creaking door of an aircraft hangar at night, which had caught his attention and stirred his imagination, Horey ponders whether it is this that is the reason “why ghosts are more associated with the night, when one’s senses can more easily focus on something so subtle and vague, something easily overlooked with the distractions of the day?”. This sentiment for me sums up the feeling of the book; which is one of mystery, wonder and eeriness, with an author who believes that sometimes we are better off not really knowing the answers to our many questions.

I would strongly recommend ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ for all who are interested in the supernatural, history and folklore. The book veers from achingly sad to amusing and back again but it is always informative and fascinating. It is well-written and on the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey is available at Frogman Publishing at http://www.spanglefish.com/frogmanpublishing/index.asp

Culloden by Philip G Horey

Culloden by Philip G Horey

The Legends of Agnes Hotot and Skulking Dudley


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The Etiquette of Duelling

The Code of Honor. Godefroy Durand, Harpur’s Weekly, January 1875.

  • No duels were to be fought on Sunday, on a day of a Festival, or near a place of public worship.
  • A Principal was not to “wear light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations, or any other … attractive object, upon which the eye of his antagonist [could] … rest,” as it could affect the outcome of the duel.
  • The time and place were to be as convenient as possible to surgical assistance and to the combatants.
  • The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”
  • No gentleman was allowed to wear spectacles unless they used them on public streets.
  • There was to be at least 10 yards distance between the combatants.
  • The Seconds were to present pistols to Principals and the pistols were not to be cocked before delivery.
  • After each discharge the Seconds were to “mutually and zealously attempt a reconciliation.”
  • No more than three exchanges of fire were allowed, as to exchange more shots was considered barbaric.

The above duelling rules were taken from the Royal Code of Honour which aimed to lay down a code of etiquette governing how duellists behaved[1]. During the height of duelling popularity a number of codes were written in Britain and in Europe, sometimes with conflicting rules and covering a range of topics including how to accept a challenge, how to behave after the duel and even how to die!

Codex Manesse. Early 14th Century. Public domain.

Despite slight differences expressed in the competing codes one area which they wholeheartedly agreed on was that honour of both the challenger and the defender must be maintained at all costs. This idea of personal honour goes to the heart of duelling and in turn acts as a mirror to the society in which duelling as a practice flourished. It also provides a thread connecting it to its distant medieval ancestors, trial by combat and the spectacle of the joust.

Duels were generally considered the preserve of men, in particular those from the aristocratic classes. To refuse a duel was viewed as a stain on a gentleman’s reputation. The most common reason to duel was over a perceived insult to a woman’s virtue but records show that on occasion women did take the initiative. In 1777 Paris, Mademoiselle Leverrier shot her former lover, Duprez in the face after he had left her for another woman. In fairness she had given him the chance to defend himself but chivalrously he had shot into the air, she had no such qualms[2].

The Honour of the Hotots

Another famous duel involving a woman reaches back in time to a period of history when jousts were not only a popular form of entertainment but also a pretty useful way of settling scores.

Medieval Jousting tournament. Public domain [?]

In 1390 a duel took place in Northamptonshire, on the line was family honour. The story believed to have been documented by a monk living in Clapton during the reign of Henry VII, tells of Sir John Hotot, a wealthy landowner who was in dispute with a man called Ringsdale over the title to a piece of land. Eventually the situation escalated to the point where the only way to resolve their quarrel was through a contest of skill and strength. Unfortunately when the appointed day came, Sir John was taken ill, suffering from gout and so his daughter and heiress Agnes “rather than he should lose the land, or suffer in his honor[3] decided to take her father’s place.

Dressed in armour “cap-a-pie” style[4], armed with a lance and astride her father’s steed, she set out to meet Ringsdale. She was said to have fought bravely and hard and finally managed to dismount her opponent. Once on the ground she removed her helmet and with her hair cascading down her shoulders revealed herself to a stunned Ringsdale. Another variation is that she also removed her breastplate in order to remove any doubts that the victor was in fact a woman. This action despite adding a dramatic flourish to the story is extremely unlikely, nothing to do with modesty but simply due to the difficulty of removing a breastplate from armour!

Miniature issue du manuscrit Les vies des femmes célèbres d’Antoine Dufour, 1504, Nantes, musée Dobrée.

The Crest of the Dudleys of Clapton

Having saved the reputation of her family, Agnes later married into the wealthy Dudleys’ of Clapton or Clopton, Northamptonshire. In honour of Agnes’ courage, her in-laws designed a new crest, depicting the bust of a woman with dishevelled hair, a bare bosom and a helmet on her head with “the stays or throat latch down[5]. The crest was rumoured to have survived for as long as the male line of the Dudley family held the lands of Clapton. In 1764, Sir William Dudley, the last male descendant of the Clapton Dudleys died.

Agnes and Skulking Dudley

This intriguing tale of honour and daring has over time become conflated with the darker legend of ‘Skulking Dudley’. In this version, Agnes is the daughter of Dudley, the bullying lord of Clapton Manor. Her father having insulted a number of his fellow landowners in the area was finally challenged to a duel by Richard Hazelbere of Barnwell. By nature a coward Dudley feigned illness, took to his bed in order to avoid having to fight and persuaded or forced his daughter to go instead. According to this account, Agnes despite fighting valiantly, loses. Just before striking the fatal blow, Hazelbere discovers her identity and allows her to live. Impressed by her courage and virtue, they marry shortly afterwards. Dudley finally gets his just deserts when he is decapitated by Hazelbere.

Bodleian Library. 14th Century Manuscript.

The Legend of Skulking Dudley

The actual legend surrounding ‘Skulking Dudley’ is much more unpleasant and has absolutely nothing to do with Agnes.

The most popular version is that Dudley, a member of the influential Dudleys of Clapton was known to be a violent and vicious character, bullying his servants and tenants. In 1349 he was believed to have committed a gruesome murder. Who he was supposed to have murdered is unclear but one account claims that it was in fact, Richard Hazelbere. Dudley was reported to have shown no remorse and instead revelled in the deed[6]. The tables turned when Dudley was killed by a scythe to the head when a harvester he was whipping fought back in self-defence[7].


Source unknown. Public domain [?]

For some reason at the beginning of the last century after an absence of nearly 600 years his ghost minus a head suddenly reappeared to torment the villagers (maybe for imagined slights inflicted on him by their ancestors). Locals reported having seen him make his way from the site of Clapton Manor, past the old graveyard, along Lilford Road to a small coppice (later named after him). His spirit was named ‘skulking’ from its habit of dodging in and out of hedgerows[8]. His soul was finally laid to rest by the efforts of Bishop of Peterborough aided by twenty-one clergymen. Skulking Dudley has not been seen since. A popular local tradition has it that Dudley was hunch-backed[9], a physical deformity which was in the past often viewed as the outward symptom of a corrupt and vicious nature – just think of the much maligned Richard III.

One other interesting variation of the Skulking Dudley legend manages to bring it back to the concept of a duel. In this description, Dudley killed his own cousin in a duel over the ownership of Clapton Manor House. Despite not being injured in any way, Dudley suddenly aged and withered, dying soon after[10].

Women who joust

Source unknown. Public domain [?]

How probable is the story of Agnes Hotot? In 1348 a British chronicler records how at tournaments beautiful ladies from wealthy families and of noble lineage would regularly take part in jousting competitions. At one event he recounts that as many as forty female contestants were seen participating. From his writing, it becomes clear that he holds these women in low esteem as he describes how dressed in divided tunics with hoods, wearing knives and daggers they fought on splendidly dressed horses and “in such a manner they spent and wasted their riches and injured their bodies with abuses with ludicrous wantoness[11]. Whether or not the chronicler’s disparaging remarks reflect how the medieval world in general really felt about female jousters is unclear but accounts of women fighting in tournaments do continue to appear in later centuries. So the evidence indicates that the legend of Agnes Hotot could very well be rooted in a real event, as to the legend of Skulking Dudley that could be stretching possibility a little too far!


Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules, Geri Walton, https://www.geriwalton.com/pistol-dueling-its-etiquette-and-rules/, 2014

Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

Haunting History of Clopton, https://www.facebook.com/historyhaunted/videos/1824694297556642

Agnes Hotot, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Hotot

The Encyclopaedia of Amazons, women warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Age, Jessica Salmonson, 1991

Dudley, Sir Matthew, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/dudley-sir-matthew-1661-1721

Dudley baronets, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dudley_baronets

Skulking in the Woods, https://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/opinion/skulking-in-the-woods-1-4402161

Haunted England: The penguin book of ghosts, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, 2010

A genealogical and heraldic history of the extinct and dormant baronetcies of England,  John Burke, 1838


[1] Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules, https://www.geriwalton.com/pistol-dueling-its-etiquette-and-rules/

[2] Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

[3] Agnes Hotot, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Hotot

[4] Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

[5] Ibid

[6] Skulking in the Woods, https://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/opinion/skulking-in-the-woods-1-4402161

[7] Ghostly Tales of the Unexpected, https://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/ghostly-tales-of-the-unexpected-1-718777

[8] Haunting History of Clopton, https://www.facebook.com/historyhaunted/videos/1824694297556642

[9] ibid

[10] Ghostly Tales of the Unexpected, https://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/ghostly-tales-of-the-unexpected-1-718777

[11] The Encyclopaedia of Amazons, women warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Age, Jessica Salmonson, 1991

Drowned maidens: Victorian depictions of female suicide


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


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

Ruslana Korshunova’s suicide reported on Fox News 2008.

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

Death becomes her

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

The Werther Effect. Public domain (?)

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

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

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

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

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

L’inconnue_de_la_Seine. Image via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women behaving badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From sexual sirens to found drowned

John William waterhouse, Mermaid, 900

The Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. Via Wikimedia.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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