Fire and Brimstone: The Animal Kingdom on Trial


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‘The Law is an Ass’[1]

Image by Lenora.

One of the strangest practices that developed in the early medieval period was that of animal trials.

Animals were only brought before the law and punished if they affected people or society; animals killing other animals for food was seen as a part of the natural order of things – pretty sensible or there would have been no animals left.

For some reason the majority of cases seem to have taken place in France, maybe animals and insects held an unusually strong grudge against the French. Whatever the reason the industry surrounding animal courts and lawyers specialising in bestial crimes flourished there. Eventually it was decided that it was unfair that animals were being sentenced without the chance to prove their innocence. Obviously the animals and insects were unable to arrange their own defence and so under Francis I (1494-1547) it became illegal for an animal to be tried without a defence lawyer present to act as an intermediary between the animals and the injured human parties[2]. This practice was to some extent adopted in other mainland European countries.

There seems to have been two main types of charges; that of a single animal or small group of animals attacking an individual person and that of large numbers of a species causing harm to a community or society.

The punishment meted out depended on the crime. If an animal or insect could be identified as the culprit they could face a death sentence i.e. death by hanging, burning at the stake or decapitation.

The Death Sentence

Although dressing animals up in human clothes, appointing them a lawyer and conducting a trial is no longer employed, putting down animals which have injured or killed humans is still in use. Whereas today it seems to be dogs that are often in the news for attacking people, in the past it was pigs who dominated the animal trials.

A famous case occurred in Falaise in France where a sow was accused of killing a child and then devouring it. The sow was tried and found guilty of murder and condemned to be killed by the sword. Since the child’s head had been eaten as well as an arm, the sow’s foot was cut off and its face mutilated before it was dressed in men’s clothing and led away to face the executioner[3].

Trial of a sow from The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, Public Domain.

Another occasion also in France, three sows were accused of killing the swineherd, Perrinot Muet. The sows were duly convicted but as if the case wasn’t strange enough two entire herds of swine were accused of being accessories to murder since they had heard Perrinot’s screams, ‘rushed’ to the scene of the crime and ‘witnessed’ his death. After appealing to the Duke of Burgundy, Prior Humbert de Poutier managed to get the death sentence dismissed against the herds[4]. This weird judgement was based on medieval law codes that stated that any living creature in the vicinity of certain serious crimes e.g. murder, rape and sexual assault could be seen as an accomplice and decapitated[5]. What did people expect the animals to do; fight the perpetrators, go for help or raise an alarm? It seems in these situations only Skippy, Flipper and Lassie would have survived.


Sentences of banishment or exile were also used where the crime was not considered as severe or where the prosecutors felt sympathy for the perpetrators.

In Russia a he-goat was exiled to Siberia after butting an important official whilst he was tying his shoe[6] and in 1519 a community in Western Tyrol brought to trial some mice which were causing grave damage to the harvest. The defence lawyer argued that the mice served the community by eating insects and enriching the soil. Despite losing the mice were treated with leniency and kindness. Although they were ordered to leave immediately a fourteen day reprieve was granted to any pregnant mice that were unable to travel or any young that could not make the journey unaided[7].

Sometimes the situation was beyond the power of the law courts to deal with and the church was called in to intervene on behalf of the complainants. The church wielded two unique weapons; these were the power of excommunication and anathema.

Excommunication and Anathema

An excommunication in full swing. Public domain.

Excommunication involves ejection from the church and exclusion from its services and communion[8]. Anathema was a more severe form of excommunication and was often used to cast out the devil or his agents. Anathema involved using curses and denouncements to ban a person or thing from the light of the church and was implemented in religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority[9].

The problem with excommunication was that how can you eject something from an institution that it is not a part of in the first place? The other difficulty is that it suggested that animals and insects have souls, something the Catholic Church at that time denied. That is why anathema was often seen as a more powerful and appropriate punishment.

How the excommunication or anathema was implemented could vary. Sometimes it was on the spur of the moment and at other times a representative was appointed to argue on behalf of the accused.

The Power of a Saint

In general the success rate of these judgements against insects, mammals and birds is unknown but in one case the records definitely confirm a win.

St Bernhard of Clairveaux Jorg Breu the elder. 1500. Public domain.

In 1121 St Bernard Clairvaux, initiator of the Cistercian Order and fervent proponent of the 2nd Crusade was preaching at the monastery of Foigny which he had founded when a swarm of irreligious flies entered without permission. These flies showed no respect for the solemnity of the occasion and proceeded to irritate St Bernard and distract his parishioners. The infuriated saint reaching the end of his tether suddenly addressed the flies and announced in a prophetic voice “I excommunicate you”. The next morning all the flies were found dead on the floor and had to be swept out[10].

It does seem that even though excommunication could be performed by any clergyman, effectiveness was more likely when performed by someone high up on the religious ladder.

The curse of the caterpillars

Caterpillars for some reason in particular seemed to have raised the ire of our medieval ancestors.

One of the earliest recorded excommunications took place in 1120 and was carried out by the Bishop of Laon when he issued a letter biding the annoying caterpillars to vacate the area. The caterpillars were apparently working in cohorts with some field mice as they were also named. It is really interesting that the formulae used by the bishop to deliver the proclamation was the same as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims which cursed priests who continued to marry ‘in spite of the canons’[11]. So in France it seems that rebellious priests and mutinous caterpillars warranted the same treatment!

Further decrees of excommunication against caterpillars were issued in 1480 by the spiritual court of Autun responding to complaints from the inhabitants of Mussy and Pernan, in 1543 in Grenoble, in 1585 by the Grand Vicar of Valencia who ordered the caterpillars to vacate his diocese and on the 9 July 1516 when Jean Milon, an officer of Troye passed this damning sentence,

after having heard the parties and granting the request of the inhabitants of Villenove, we admonish the caterpillars to retire within six days; and in case they do not comply, we pronounce them accursed and excommunicated [12]

In general it is not known how the caterpillars felt about these denouncements but in the case of the caterpillars of Valence in 1587 they stuck their suckers in and refused to budge[13]. It seems that the loss of the comfort of the church was less important than the pleasure of some tasty greens.

The Leeches of Geneva

In 1451 a pile of leeches were brought to court on the order of William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, to listen to the accusations against them. How this worked I have no idea as they don’t have ears but anyway it was against the rules to issue any legal edict without representatives from those accused being present. The leeches had been threatening the destruction of fish, in particular salmon stocks in Lake Geneva. The edict confined them to one specified part of the lake. It seems that the leeches on this occasion were not excommunicated as they obeyed and caused no further trouble[14].

Noah’s Ark Stowaways

Sometimes the ingenuity of the arguments given by the lawyers prosecuting and defending insects and animals smacked of brilliance and their arguments had a weird logic to them.

    An Inger…? Image by Chickenstein.

In 1478 the community of Berne in Switzerland asked for judicial help against a plague of insects called ingers which were destroying their crops. A proclamation made from the pulpit gave the ingers six days to leave and if they failed to do so they had to appear at one o’clock at Wifflisburg to face trial before His Grace the Bishop of Lausanne or his deputy. When the ingers did not appear they were appointed Thruing Fricker as their defence lawyer. The clever prosecutor dismissed Fricker’s statement that as one of god’s creatures they were allowed the right to live. He instead argued the opposite pointing out that ingers had survived the flood as stowaways aboard the Ark as they were not listed amongst the creatures invited by Noah. The prosecutor won and it was decreed that the ingers should be banned, exorcised and accursed and that wherever they go their numbers should decrease[15]. Maybe it worked, as I have never heard of ingers! If anyone has please let me know.

The Weevils’ Revenge

Probably the most drawn out animal court case concerns the weevils of Saint-Julien. In 1545 a lawsuit was taken out against weevils who were destroying a local vineyard. A preliminary judicial judgement was successful and the weevils left. Unfortunately forty-two years later they returned. This was seen as the weevils breaking the agreement. I think that this is very unfair considering weevils have a life span of at the most two months, which means at least 252 generations had passed between the original and 1587 miscreants. Even if weevils have an oral tradition it would have been unlikely this 252nd generation of weevils would have been aware of the original judgement. Nevertheless the new trial went ahead. It was finally decided that the accused should be given another piece of land where they could live in happiness and comfort although the opposing lawyers could not agree where that should be since the prosecutors’ choice was deemed as unsuitable. It is unclear what the final decision was as possibly in revenge of theirs and their ancestors’ blackened reputation either the weevils or some of their friends ate the pages outlining the trial summary and the court proceedings[16].

The Rat Attorney

Image by Lenora.

One of the most successful animal lawyers was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, a French jurist and theologian who studied law in France and Italy. He worked in the service of the duchy of Milan and Pope Julius II but moved back to France after a plague outbreak where he became famous for defending a group of rats who were destroying a barley crop in the vicinity of Autun. The citizens of Autun finally applied to the Episcopal Court to get the rats excommunicated as all other means of removal had failed. The court appointed Chasseneuz to represent the rats. Chasseneuz studied the evidence and put forward an interesting argument for adjoining the trial i.e. that the rats had not been properly summoned to the hearing as not all the priests in the infected areas had issued formal citations. This approach did not result in a dismissal of the case so he then tried to delay the trial by arguing that not enough time had been allowed for the rats to present at court considering the physical peril they faced in having to negotiate the church cats[17]. I could not find a record of the sentence but this group of rats probably lost and were excommunicated.

The Deviancy of Birds

Birds did not escape the wrath of the church. Most often they were excommunicated for damaging harvest crops or livestock as in Canada at the end of the 17th century when a number of birds of prey were excommunicated, but occasionally there were other concerns.

In 1559 the Saxon vicar, Daniel Greyber, excommunicated a flock of birds which were residing in his church. Greyber was angry at them disrupting his services and even more concerned at their sexual shenanigans or “scandalous acts of unchastity”[18]. Possibly the vicar was worried about the birds setting a bad example!

Cockchafers and their Deceased Defender

Sometimes the law was ignored and insects not given their proper legal aid. For instance in 1479 in the Lausanne area some cockchafers (whatever they are) were invited to appear at the bishops’ court to face charges. Perrodet was appointed to represent them but neither Perrodet or the cockchafers showed up. Both had good excuses, the cockchafers were insects – enough said and Perrodet had been dead for six months. In their absence a judgement was given in the name of the Holy Trinity and Blessed Virgin and the insects ordered to quit the area forever[19].

Parson Hawker

One of the last known animal excommunications took place in England by the 19th century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.

Image by Lenora.

The difference between this and most of the earlier examples is that Hawker was a minister of the Church of England and not a Catholic priest. Putting that aside his parishioners saw the excommunication as an extension of Hawker’s eccentric behaviour rather than religious adherence, for instance he was known to dress on occasion as a mermaid[20].

“Four legs good, two legs bad”[21]

The list of animals that faced a legal trial is a long one and includes aside from those already mentioned snails, slugs, locusts, moles, eels, grasshoppers and dolphins. Nearly 144 excommunications and executions of animals and insects took place between 824 and 1845[22] but in reality by the 1700s animal trials had begun to fall out of favour.

Although we can laugh at it now at the time animal trials were taken completely seriously as in the medieval mind the devil was working through these creatures and so they needed to be dealt with severely.

As to the views of the members of the animal kingdom that were executed, exiled and condemned, we are in the dark but if Christianity is wrong and Hinduism right about reincarnation then we know who has had the last laugh!

Miss Piggy on trial. Image by Michell O’Connell from Spiked 9 Sept 2015


Popular Science, Dec 1882,

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38, Number 5867, 15 January 1870,——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1

Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, Thomas A Fudge, 2016

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, Charlie Campbell, 2011

Encyclopædia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, Volume 18, (ed) Edward Smedley, 1845,

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz,

Popular Science Feb 1876, Feb 1876,

The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, Edward Payson Evans, 1906

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, Chapter 18 in The Mind made Flesh, OUP 2002,

Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them, Matt Simon,

Bernard of Clairvaux,

Beasts before the Bar, Frank A Beach,

Robert Stephen Hawker,

Legal Prosecutions of Animals, William Jones,



Animal Farm, George Orwell

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens


[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Popular Science, Dec 1882

[3] ibid

[4] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[5] ibid

[6] Beasts before the Bar

[7] ibid

[8] Excommunication

[9] Anathema

[10] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[11] ibid

[12] The Popular Science, December 1882

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[14] ibid

[15] Bugs and Beasts

[16] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[17] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[18] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[19] Legal Prosecutions of Animals

[20] Robert Stephen Hawker

[21] Animal Farm, George Orwell

[22] Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

WGW: Whitby Goth Weekend Oct 2019


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Whitby Goth Weekend 24-27 October 2019

Twice a year Whitby, a quaint seaside town in North Yorkshire, becomes the mecca for the darkside. Goths, Steampunks, Victorian enthusiasts all gather for the Whitby Goth Weekend.  The event, which grew out of a goth music festival developed by Jo Hampshire back in 1994,  is now so huge that accommodation is often booked out for two years in advance and it’s estimated that it these two weekends bring in over a £1.1 Millions pounds to the local economy.

WGW brings in the crowds!

I’ve been going to the Goth weekend for many years with Bonnie and Occasionally Miss Jessel has managed to join us, but life and general mischance have meant I’ve not been since the 2015 October event.  My recollections of the at last visit was that there was a change in the air, the Goths who came for the music festival seemed to be in retreat in the face of Victorian enthusiasts and the Steampunk advance.  The locals also seemed to be growing tired of photographers and visitors disrespecting and damaging the historic graveyard of St Mary’s.  What had always seemed to be a very inclusive and welcoming atmosphere had developed fissures and the tensions were bubbling up to the surface. While I still enjoyed the evant, I was left wondering what would happen, if, indeed, it would survive.

WGW at Abbey Wharf

Doctor and the Medics at Abbey Wharf

I’m happy to say that WGW is going strong.  In the face of a huge explosion in popularity over the last few years and the diversity of alternative sub-genres in evidence, it is clear that the event has successfully evolved and regenerated into a wonderful and inclusive event.

These days the music events have diffused and WGW have many official events across the weekend.  The events are all free, but you can get fast-track and VIP tickets (which are worth it, as even after 11pm the Queues were long).  Jo and the other organisers seem to have successfully brought music back to the forefront of the event Abbey Wharf played host to a Stars and Moons Productions Barnum and Bailey/Greatest Showman themed night, headlined by the legendary Doctor and the Medics.  It was packed out and there were queues all night to get in.

The Bizarre Bazaar has also lost none of its allure since moving from Whitby Pavilion to Whitby Leisure Centre (just a short way along from the Pavilion).

Tourists flock through St Mary’s graveyard.

This year sadly  Miss Jessel was unable to join me, but Bonnie and I went down with some younger friends who had never attended the event before.  I don’t think that they were quite ready for how difficult it was to get anywhere without being swarmed by photographers! One of them even made it into the national papers (look for ‘woman in black corset and dramatic face makeup enjoying a stroll’ in the link below) not bad for her first visit!!

Modern Vampire hunters!

Here are some of the images from Whitby Goth Weekend 2019.

The Goths and the Victorians

Victorian Vampires at St Mary’s Church.

Death stalks the St Mary’s graveyard.

Miss Jessel has a rival in this gothic governess.

Death and the maiden


The Vampire chained


Goth guy


Vampyra in the YHA (outfit designed and created by Iga Pecak)










Close up by the whale bones

Vampire Alley


RNLI guess the weight of the pumpkin!

Grey lady and gent

Purple lady

The Mad Hatter

Bride of the bat


Victorian Steampunk couple

The undisputed queen of the vampires

Steampunks and the rest


Steampunk Pirate hat by Iga Pecak


Steampunk explorers at the whale bones

Steampunk gentlemen

Gentleman playing the saw at the bandstand

STeampunk pixie girl

Gorgeous Georgians


You shall not pass!

Anime girl

Bring out your dead!

Where else but Whitby would you see a lady out strolling with her dragon?

And the final word goes to the fabulous Goth Cat and friend!



Phantom fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?


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Phantom Fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)

“How do you account for the ghost’s clothes – are they ghosts too?” (Saturday Review, 19 July 1856)

Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers.
If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?

Naked ghosts

Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.

In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. [1]

Image from an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Photo by Lenora.

A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.

Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.[2]

Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather).
These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.[3]

So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.

Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.[4]

What do ghosts wear?

Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?

White sheets – obviously

The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.

The three living and the three dead. British Museum Collection.

The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.

The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.

Detail of grave clothes from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Wikimedia.

By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as:
[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard
And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.[5]

But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and  George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809).  Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!

Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? [6]

Artist unknown. University of Austin Texas.

The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.

The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).

The Hammersmith Ghost. Wikimedia

Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.

Their ordinary clothes

By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.

Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer) [7] so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? [8]

The Penny Story Teller – The Fated Hour 1832. Wikimedia.

Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).

Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.[9]

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black. 2012. Dir. James Watkins.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche.  Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent.  However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe.  Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences.  In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory.  One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years.  To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white.  After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. [10]

Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.

Skeptics and believers

“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762)

“…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)

Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.

Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?

This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?

A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained

The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.

The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.

Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she:
“If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” [11]
Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.

Giles Scroggins Ghost. 1893. Wikimedia.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach.  Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.

Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:

Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand.  This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.

Edmund Gurney of the SPR. Wikimedia.

Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.

Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.

However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.

GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.[12]

The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.


In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.

While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts.  Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination.[13]  I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.

What do you think?

‘Oh Whistle Lad and I’ll come to you’. 1904 illustration by James McBryde. Via Wikimedia.

Sources and notes

Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) [11]
Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers”
Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <> [7]
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan [1][3][4][9]
Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary [5]
Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books [2][8]-[10][13]
Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate [6]
Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd [12]

Corn Dollies: From the old crone to the maiden


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Corn dollies. Image from Badwitch website.

The tradition of the corn dolly has its origins in pre-Christian Britain. At harvest the last sheaf of corn was sacrificed along with an animal, often a hare which was found amongst the crops, to the gods to ensure soil fertility for the next year. Later a model of a hare was made out of straw to represent ‘the continuity of the spirit[1]. Eventually this evolved into the corn being plaited to represent a figure symbolising ‘the goddess of the grain‘. This became known as a ‘corn dolly’ and was usually hung in a farmhouse’s rafters till the next year.

The corn dolly was a feature of Lammas Day, which in Anglo-Saxon means the ‘Day of the loaf-mass’. Lammas was usually held between the 1st August and 1st September and was the first harvest festival of the year. The ashes of the corn dolly were then ploughed back into the ground during Imbolc[2]. The Celtic festival of Imbolc celebrates the first signs of spring and “commemorates the changing of the Goddess from the Crone to the Maiden[3].

The Spirit of Fertility

The practice of making the last sheath into a symbol of fertility continued after the introduction of Christianity. It was believed that the spirit of the corn resided in the corn fields. As the corn was cut the spirit was driven further and further back eventually taking refuge in the last remaining sheaf. When the last sheaf was finally cut a large hollow corn dolly was made from it in order to give the spirit a home over the winter.

The Harvest. 1785. George Stubbs.

Cutting the sheaf

In the majority of places cutting the last sheaf was seen as an honour but in some areas people were fearful of being held responsible for making the Corn Spirit homeless. To prevent being cursed with bad luck often groups of reapers would take turns in throwing their sickles at the sheaf. To be even safer sometimes the reapers would sweep their scythes back and forward across the sheaf whilst blindfolded. In this way the blame was shared.

The Spirit of the Corn returns home

At the next sowing the corn dolly was returned back into the soil either by being fed to the horses, trampled into the ground or sown back into the first furrow ploughed in the spring along with the new planting.

Naming the corn dolly

It is not clear where the term ‘corn dolly’ comes from. Some believe that it is either a corruption of the word ‘idol’ or from the Greek ‘eidolon’ which means ‘representing something else[4].

Corn dolly’ is a generic term but each area had their own name for their doll. Some of these names include amongst others; the Lame Goat, Old Hag, Old Crone, The Mare, The Maiden, The Granny, The Neck, Kirn (Kern) Baby, Old Sow, The Frog, The Hare and the Gander’s Neck.

Corn maiden. Corn dolly and photo by Renata via Wikimedia.

Even though each county (and often each community within a county) of Britain followed their own harvest and ‘corn dolly’ traditions, the overriding idea was the same for all of them. The corn dolly represented the harvest cycle and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as well as the deep rooted belief in a spirit representing fertility and nature.

Cornwall and Devon

In Cornwall and Devon the last sheath of corn was known as the neck. The person to cut the last sheath held it up in the air and shouted. The shout or ‘cry’ as it was known typically followed this pattern:

Reaper: “I’ave ‘un! I’ave ‘un! I’ave ‘un!
Reply:     “What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee?”
Reaper:   “A neck! A neck! A neck!”
Everyone: “Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr [name of reaper][5]

A man was then chosen to rush to the site of the feast with the ‘The Neck’ of corn and enter the building by stealth avoiding a young woman who was appointed as guardian at the entrance to obstruct him. If he managed to get into the building without being soaked by her, he could claim a kiss as a prize.

The neck or corn dolly would then preside over the harvest celebrations and the feast where it would be seated at a prestigious place at the table.

The tradition of ‘Crying the Neck’ was revived in 2008 in Penzance.

Crying the Neck at Tremayne farm in Cornwall, 2008. Image by Talskiddy via Wikimedia.


Called ‘Crying the Neck’ or ‘Crying the Mare’, Dorset customs surrounding the cutting of the last sheaf were very similar to those found in neighbouring Dorset and Cornwall.

When the sheaf was felled a shorty ditty was sung:

“We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck!
Well a-plowed! Well a-sowed!

We’re reaped! And we’ve mowed!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Well a-cut! Well a-bound!
Well a-zot upon the ground!
We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah![6]

As in Dorset and Cornwall, one man was chosen to run with the ‘mare’ to the farmhouse avoiding the female sentry and the bucket of water. If he succeeded he could demand a kiss from the girl.

The sheaf was then fashioned into the form of a human figure or a spiral pyramid or less commonly an animal figure.

During Harvest Home the final cart was decorated with flowers and the youngest girl over the age of seven was chosen to ride in the cart. Representing the corn maiden she was dressed in flowers, a bonnet and a yellow sash. The corn dolly was displayed in pride of place at the top of the corn heap[7].

The Highlands

In Rannoch it was the youngest person in the field who was charged with gathering in the last sheaf. If the harvest was a good one, a corn dolly representing a youthful form was made and if the harvest had been a bad one, a figure representing the Cailleach or Hag was created and dressed in old women’s clothing[8].

Boy carrying sheaf of corn. 1895 by Aleksander Gierymski. Via owlcation website.

Similarly in Fife, reapers would use two sheaves, one to represent the ‘Old Woman’ i.e. the past year and one to symbolise ‘The Maiden’ i.e. the year to come.


Contrary to many other places, farmers in the Hebrides viewed the last sheaf as an unwelcome burden as it contained an unlucky spirit. Often the sheaf or whole section was left uncut[9]. If it was cut then it was made into the Cailleach or Gobhar Bhacah (Lame Goat). The farmer that got left with it might throw it into the field of their neighbour. This was considered an insult and often resulted in a bloody and violent fight. The corn dolly would then be thrown from field to field with the unlucky soul who ended up with it having to bear the burden of looking after it through the winter[10].


In Wales to hold the last sheaf was seen as an honour. In the Welsh speaking areas it was called ‘The Harvest Mare’ or ‘the Hag’ and in English speaking communities ‘the Neck’.

In some areas of Wales the man who was chosen to bring the corn dolly to the festival had to protect it from a barrier of women throwing water and doing everything they could to prevent him getting it to safety. Often this would include stripping the man as he tried to hide the corn dolly under his clothes. If he succeeded he would be rewarded with all the beer he could drink at the feast and an honoured seat at the harvest table. If he failed he was ‘punished’ by being seated at the foot of the table[11].

Sometimes if another farmer had not finished their reaping, the finished reapers would smuggle the corn dolly into his field. They would choose their fastest runner amongst them to deliver the corn dolly. If he was caught he would be tied up with straw and thrown in the nearest river[12].


In the 19th century in Galloway reapers would dress the corn dolly in a long white frock, a ribbon around its waist, a wooden ladle for its head, clay face and beads for its eyes. It would be carried on a pitchfork in a procession towards the farmhouse.

The reapers would chant

“[name of farmer] corns weel shorn,
Bless the day he was born
Kirny Kirny, oo
Kirny Kirny, oo[13]

North Whalton, Northumberland

In 2016 a harvest festival was revived in the Northumberland village of North Whalton. The artist, Faye Claridge created a 15 foot corn dolly based on archival photographs taken by the late 19th century photographer, Sir Benjamin Stone[14].

Corn dolly 1902. Benjamin Stone Collection via Museum Crush website.

The village had a tradition of celebrating the beginning of the harvest season with a large summer Baal bonfire. At this bonfire the ‘Kern Baby’ was thrown into the fire and the village children would circle the fire dancing whilst the corn dolly burnt.

In the revived festivities the ‘Kern Baby’ was not burnt but just shown the fire. It was to be displayed outside the village hall.

End of a tradition?

The custom of creating a corn dolly from the last sheaf ended with the introduction of mechanised agricultural machinery during the Industrial Revolution.

Although the large corn dollies were no longer deemed necessary the regional shapes of the corn dollies did survive and the practice of making smaller corn dollies continued with the tradition handed down from generation to generation. The different shapes are incredibly varied ranging from abstract to more recognisable forms. Some examples are the Hereford lantern, Stafford knot, Suffolk horseshoe, Durham chandelier, Welsh longfen, Essex Terret, Yorkshire spiral and Oxford crown. They are made from a variety of different types of crops, again dependent on the area such as wheat, oats, rye, barley in England and Wales and rushes in Ireland[15].

Often they are placed in houses as a good luck symbol.

A love token and badge of trade

Countryman’s favours. Corn dollies and photo by Renata via Wikimedia.

The idea of the corn dolly was also adapted in other ways in rural communities.

One popular fashion was for young men to plait together three strands of straw and to give it to a girl that they fancied. If the next time they met the girl was wearing the token on her clothes close to her heart then he knew that she returned his affection.

Another interesting tradition was that corn was formed into symbols of different trades. For instance a corn dolly could be decorated with a piece of wool or horsehair to show that they were a shepherd or wagoner. They would then wear them at trade fairs when they were seeking employment[16].

A world-wide belief

The idea of a Corn Spirit is found in communities all over the world and feature prominently in Native American mythology[17].

Hidatsa People celebrating the corn harvest. by George Caltin via Myths and Legends website.

The earliest corn dollies have been found in North Africa where they are known as the Aruseh or Corn Bride[18].

In Europe many examples have been found including in Bruck in Styria where a corn dolly was made into the shape of a woman by the oldest member of the community. Some eaves were then picked out of the corn dolly and made into a wreath which was decorated in flowers and worn on the head of the prettiest girl[19].

In other areas of Europe the corn dolly was hung from a cradle or from the top of a pole. Sometimes the corn dolly was fashioned to represent the figure of a man rather than a woman[20].

The history of the corn dolly is a fascinating one and the fact that the tradition has survived and is actually being revived and remembered in certain areas is incredible. I have always loved my corn dollies although when they were bought for me I had no idea of their symbolic importance and how they are a surviving reminder of the deep and rich customs of rural communities in pre-19th century Britain. I like to think that as well as being ornamental they also represent the young girls who would have been chosen as the harvest maids or queens at the harvest celebrations dressed in bonnets and decorated with flowers and sashes.

Wheatfields near Helmsley, Yorkshire. Image by Lenora.


How to make a corn dolly,
The Imbolc,
Corn dolly,
The Corn Dolly – The Spirit Of The Grain,
History of the corn dolly,
Charm and romance of the corn dollies,
Giant corn dolly descends on Northumberland village ahead of Baal bonfire,
Corn Dolly,
The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies: Techniques and Projects, Doris Johnson and Alec Coker, 1987
Artist returns Kern Baby to her ancestral home,
Eight things you never knew about Harvest Festival,
Crying the Neck,
Harvest Festival UK,
Lammas Tide & Harvest Home,
The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice,
Capturing the harvest spirit,
Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly,
Spirit of the Corn,


[1] Harvest Festival UK,
[2] Imbolc,
[3] The Imbolc,
[4] Corn dolly,
[5] Crying the Neck,
[6] Lammas Tide & Harvest Home,
[7] ibid
[8] Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice,
[9] The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
[10] Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice,
[11] Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly,
[12] Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly,
[13] The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996
[14] Giant corn dolly descends on Northumberland village ahead of Baal bonfire,
[15] Corn dolly,
[16] How to make a corn dolly,
[17] Spirit of the Corn,
[18] History of the corn dolly,
[19] Corn dolly,
[20] Corn Dolly,

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


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

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

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

A very brief history of the death mask

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

Death mask of King Henry VII, Westminster Abbey.

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of Phrenology 

Franz Josef Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

Phrenology Head. Source unknown.

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

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

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

Social Darwinism: born bad and ‘degenerate’ races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Muller death mask. Metropolitain Police Crime Museum.

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

Norwich Castle Museum

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

Norwich Castle. Image by Lenora.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources & Notes

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

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

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

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


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

The Lascars of the Marshalsea


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

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

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


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

The Marshalsea

Marshalsea Prison c1773
Marshalsea Prison c1773. Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Damnatio Memoriae

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

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

Race to the top

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

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

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

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

Pope Formosus

Pope Formosus via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope at last

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

Pope Formosus. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

Synodus Horrenda

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

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

Pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

The corpse of pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

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

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

Pope Stephen VI accusing Formosus. Detail.

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

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

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


Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

Sympathetic Magic and Carolingian fallout

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

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

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I

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

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

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

Lambert of Spoleto. Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

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


The Bitter Taste of Poison: Death by Chocolate


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

Mmmmm chocolate. Image from Thorntons website.

A very brief history of chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beware the chocolate of Chiapas”[6]

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Denham. Royal Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Poisoned Pope: Clement XIV

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

Pope Clement XIV. Public domain via wikimedia.

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

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

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

Napoleon’s near miss

Napoleon by David. Image via Google Art Project.

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

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

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

The Chocolate Cream Poisoner

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

Christiana Edmunds. Image from the Brighton Journal.

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

Poison bottle.

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

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

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

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

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

“Of all murders poisoning is ye worst and most  horrible

because it is secret

because it is not to be prevented

because it is most against nature and therefore most hainous

it is also a cowardly thing”

       Sir John Coke  [24]

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

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

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

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

Interesting chocolate fact! 

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

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


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

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

John Denham (poet),

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

Sir John Denham,

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

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

Death by poisoning of His Holiness Pope Clement XIV,

Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV,

Clement XIV,

QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate, The Telegraph,

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

Death by chocolate,

When the Church said “No” to chocolate,

Britain is now top of the chocoholics league,

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

Poison – hidden weapon of the Tudor wife,

A historical murder: The Chocolate Box Poisoner,

Christiana Edmunds,

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

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

Archaeologists Find Earliest Chocolate Ingredients in Ecuador, Kristina Killgrove,

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

The Chocolate Kitchens,

Christiana Edmunds, 


[1] Britain is now top of the chocoholics league

[2] QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate

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

[4] Ibid

[5] The Chocolate Kitchens

[6] Death by chocolate

[7] Ibid

[8] Death by chocolate

[9] Humoring Resistance

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

[11] Ibid

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

[13] Ibid

[14] Clement XIV

[15] Ibid

[16] Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV

[17] Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage

[18] Ibid

[19] A historical murder: The chocolate box poisoner

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

[21] Christiana Edmunds (Old Bailey Records Online)

[22] Christiana Edmunds

[23] Ibid

[24] Poison – Hidden weapon of the Tudor wife

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Chocolate: History, culture and Heritage

[28] Daily Mail: Chocolate Mousse Murderer

[29] QI: Quite Interesting facts about chocolate

The Paris Morgue – Dark Tourism in the 19th Century


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Dark tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stinking Pestilent Place

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

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

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

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

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

The Temple to the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

the Morgue and the Media

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

The Paris Morgue c1900. Source unknown.

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

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

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

A visit to the morgue

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

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

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

Voyeurism and Moral Hygiene

Der Anatom. Wellcome Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovation and Social Engineering

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

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

The Parisian Mob in action. Source unknown.

The final curtain

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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

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

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