The Paris Morgue – Dark Tourism in the 19th Century


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Dark tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stinking Pestilent Place

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

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

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

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

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

The Temple to the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

the Morgue and the Media

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

The Paris Morgue c1900. Source unknown.

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

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

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

A visit to the morgue

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

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

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

Voyeurism and Moral Hygiene

Der Anatom. Wellcome Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovation and Social Engineering

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

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

The Parisian Mob in action. Source unknown.

The final curtain

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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

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

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



The Screaming Mandrake: Power, Potions and Witchcraft


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

Two Mandrakes. Wellcome Collection.

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

A Powerful Poison

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

Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Wellcome Collection.

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

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

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

‘Love apple of the ancients[6]

Circe. 17th Century. British Museum Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulling a mandrake with a dog. Wikimedia.

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

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

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

The Little Gallow’s Man

Male Mandrake from Hortus Sanitatis. Wellcome Institute.

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

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

Talismans and Charms

Female Mandrake. Wellcome Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

Up Up And Away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The English Mandrake

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

False Mandrake Root. Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

An Unbreakable Cord

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

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

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





Bryonia Dioica,

The plant that can kill and cure,


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

Mandragora autumnalis,

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

Herb Analysis: Mandrake, greatest ally of witches,

Rare occult herbs: Mandrake,

The Magic of Mandrake,

Why Do Witches Fly on Brooms?,

The Fascinating Reason Witches are Commonly Depicted Flying on Broomsticks,

Myths and mandrakes

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

Trial of Joan of Arc,


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

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

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

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

Henry VI Part 2, William Shakespeare


[1] Mandrake

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

[3] The Magic of Mandrake

[4] Myths and Mandrakes

[5] The Magic of Mandrake

[6] Myths and Mandrakes

[7] Ibid

[8] Plants of Life, Plants of Death

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

[10] Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2

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

[12] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[13] The plant that can kill and cure

[14] Mandrake

[15] The Magic of Mandrake

[16] Myths and Mandrakes

[17] The Magic of Mandrake

[18] The Trial of Joan of Arc

[19] Why do witches fly on brooms?

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

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

[23] ibid

[24] Mandrake, Wikipedia

[25] Myths and Mandrakes

[26] Bryonia Dioica

[27] The plant that can kill and cure

[28] Alarune

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


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The Wallsend Witches, revisited

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

Holy Cross Church, Wallsend.

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

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

the pointing finger

Talismans & Charms used in folk magic.

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

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

Cunning woman or witch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden motives

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

Sixteenth century court scene. Source Unknown.

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

Shakespeares three Scottish Witches. Source unknown.

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

Janet’s fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Fact to folklore

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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated.

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

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

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

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


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A life of crime

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

The Highwayman. Image from Victorian Toy Theatre.

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

Painting by George Stubbs via Wikimedia.

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

One theft too many

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

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

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

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

To catch a highwayman

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

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

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

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

London Stage Coach. Via Wikimedia.

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

The evidence

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

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

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

Trial and Judgement

The Old Bailey. Image via BBC website.

Hanging in chains. Image via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

Execution day

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

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice. Via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

The last highwayman to be hanged in England

Satire 4120. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

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

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

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

Into folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Medieval Death: The Cadaver Tomb (transi tomb)


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

A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral

Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry, Lincoln Cathedral.

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

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

Richard Fleming’s transi image. Lincoln Cathedral.

What’s in a name

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

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

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

The cadaverous transi attributed to Thomas Haxby, York Minster.

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

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

Medieval Death: Plague and punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

Uncredited images by Lenora.

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

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

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



Wimund: Bishop-Pirate and Scourge of Scotland


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Adhémar_de_Monteil_à_Antioche. 13th Century. Wikimedia.

Wimund’ s background is shrouded in mystery with even the chronicler William of Newburgh, a canon of Newburgh Priory and the author of Historia rerum Anglicarum (“History of English Affairs”), who had direct contact with Wimund and wrote a brief account of his life unable to give a clear picture.

William of Newburgh recounted that Wimund was “born in the most obscure spot in England[1]. From the information that is given Wimund was probably born in Cumbria possibly near the area of Furness.

Wimund himself believed that he was the heir of the Earls of Moray in Scotland although at the time most of his contemporaries viewed this claim as spurious. Recently a re-examination of the evidence has led some historian to give credence to Wimund’s assertion. Many have supposed that Wimund was referring to Angus of Moray, the son of Lulach, King of Scotland, who was killed in 1130 but Richard Oram in his book ‘Domination and Lordship: Scotland 1070 – 1230’ presents the theory that it was in fact William, Earl of Moray and son of Duncan II, who was in actual fact the father of Wimund.

William himself spent some time in Allerdale with his mother’s family after the murder of his father in 1094. Allerdale is also located in Cumbria, so it is not out of the realms of possibility that William could have met Wimund’s mother and had a child by her.

If Wimund was the illegitimate son of William of Moray and so was the grandson of Duncan II of Scotland then it would explain why Wimund believed he had a claim to the crown of Scotland and why he chose to go down the path he did.


Wimund was educated at Furness Abbey. The abbey was founded by the future Stephen I of England in 1127. Although the architecture lacked the grandeur of some of the older and more established religious houses the “isolation of Furness increased rather than checked a power possessed by few religious houses in the north; and the abbot ruled vast territories with feudal independence and social advantage[2].

Furness Abbey. Image source Wikipedia.

It was said that due to Wimund penmanship that he was assigned the task of transcribing old writings in monasteries. Wimund had proved that he was a good scholar, intelligent and astute. He was also ambitious and being fortunate enough to belong to an important religious centre must have made him hungry for advancement and power.

Bishop elect

Walters Manuscript W.163, fol. 109r

In 1134 Olaf I, King of the Isles (which included the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and the Islands of the Firth of Clyde) requested that Furness Abbey should found a sister abbey on the Isle of Man. Wimund was a member of the party that was sent to help establish and manage the Abbey of Rushden. Wimund made a good first impression. He was tall and athletic with a “sweetness of face” and “three admirable requisites – an ardent temper, a retentive memory and competent eloquence”[3]. Therefore it was only natural that when the abbey was granted the right to elect a bishop during the time of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, Wimund was chosen. He was given the title of ‘Bishop of the Isles’ or ‘Bishop of Sodor’ and was described as the bishop of sancta ecclesia de Schith, ‘Bishop of the Holy Church of Skye’.

On the warpath

At some point in the late 1140s, probably after the death of William of Moray, Wimund decided to fight for what he believed was rightfully his.

William of Newburgh’s disapproval of Wimund’s actions rings out loud and clear as he writes “[n]ot content with the dignity of his episcopal offices, he next anticipated in his mind how he might accomplish great and wonderful things; for he possessed a haughty speaking mouth with the proudest heart[4].

Medieval royal family tree. Image source: Harley 7353

Although most historians agree that Wimund began to terrorise Scotland to avenge himself on David whom he believed had unfairly deprived him of his inheritance, there also seemed to be another grievance which involved Gille Aldan, the Bishop of Whithorn. Some researchers have merged the two conflicts but others see them as separate issues[5].

The first, Wimund’s paternal inheritance is well-documented. At the time of William’s death his legitimate heir was not yet ten years of age and so was not able to take on his father’s responsibilities and role. William as well as being the Earl of Moray had possessed the areas of Skipton and Craven in Yorkshire and so David had not only lost a key ally but also a strategic foothold in northern England. This foothold had been vital component in David’s expansion plans as well as his desire to pressurise and dominate the already weakened King Stephen. Wimund obvious believed that he was entitled to a share of his father’s lands and saw David as an obstacle. He may have also seen David as a usurper. If Wimund was the son of William then he could claim the eldest son of Malcolm III as his ancestor which would mean he did in fact have a stronger claim to the throne of Scotland than David who was descended through the line of Malcolm’s youngest son.

The second conflict was with Gille Aldan. Aldan was made the first bishop of the restored bishopric of Whithorn. The appointment was made with the approval of Pope Honorius III. The lands of Whithorn were subject to the Bishops of the Isles and so it could have been that Wimund was trying to prevent the loss of lands belonging to Rushden Abbey.

Whatever the reasons behind his subsequent actions, Wimund managed to raise a large army from the male population of the Isle of Man. His army were either convinced by Wimund’s arguments or money to follow him into battle.

A seafaring warlord

Image source: Histoire de pirates et corsaires 1846.

William of Newburgh describes how Wimund came by boat and descended on Scotland embarking on a “mad career” of pillage, rapine and slaughter disturbing “the tranquillity of a nation happy and contented under the government of a virtuous prince[6].

Standing a head and shoulder taller than his men, he must have been an imposing figure as he sailed around the islands of Scotland striking fear into the hearts of the islanders.

David sent royal troops to deal with Wimund’s threat but Wimund had the upper hand. His army would either dissolve into the forests or take to the sea and just wait until the troops had left. They would then return to carry on attacking and terrorising the local villagers.

Even in an age which was inured to hardship, violence and warfare, being attacked in this manner by a man of god and their own bishop turned seafaring pirate and warlord “this fisher of men turned hunter of men[7] must have been viewed as a strange and disturbing turn of events.

Bishop versus Bishop

It is recorded that an unknown bishop, probably Gille Aldan, refused to pay the levy demanded by Wimund. It is said that the bishop swore that he “never will establish a precedent for one bishop paying tribute to another[8]. Finally the bishop unable to take any more provocation and threats from Wimund raised his own army and met Wimund on the battlefield.

Tower Manuscript 1.33. Image source: Royal Armouries

Despite probably being less skilled in the art of warfare and with less experienced men, the bishop threw the first hatchet and managed miraculously to strike Wimund, wounding him severely. Somehow Wimund managed to escape but seeing their leader felled, the rest of his men turned tail and fled.


Even being seriously injured did not put a stop to Wimund. Somehow he managed regroup his men and continue to be a thorn in David’s side.

Eventually David realised that Wimund was too strong and too dangerous to be stopped by force and decided that a new approach was needed. David who had been given control of the whole of Cumberland and Westmoreland by Stephen in 1136, granted Wimund the lands and monastery of Furness as a symbol of reconciliation.

The reckoning

Although both David and Wimund might have been satisfied with the arrangement, the people of Furness and the surrounding lands which were now under the control of Wimund were less than pleased.

Wimund must have infuriated them with his arrogance and manner and it is highly likely that Wimund treatment of them must have both harsh, ruthless and contemptuous because after a while, they could no longer stomach his presence and plotted to overthrow him.

The people with the consent of their nobles decided to teach their errant bishop a lesson he would never forget. They laid a trap. Somehow they managed to isolate Wimund from his men whilst he was following behind a large party of entertainers. They grabbed him, kidnapped him and bound him. They then proceeded to castrate him making “him a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of Scotland, not for that of heaven” and “as both eyes were wicked, deprived him of both[9].

Castration image from The Romain de la rose. Image source Vincente Lachan I.

A repentant retirement!

Wimund was taken and imprisoned in the castle of Roxburgh. He was later pardoned and retired to the Abbey of Byland in Yorkshire.

It was here that William of Newburgh, whose abbey was only two miles from Byland, came into contact with the notorious bishop.

William stated that despite Wimund’s severe mutilation, his spirit was neither dampened nor chastened. He never expressed regret for any of his actions or the harm that he had caused. Instead the complete opposite, he joked that he had never been beaten in battle except by a silly bishop and boasted of his deeds declaring that if he only had “the eye of a sparrow his enemies should have little occasion to rejoice at what they had done to him[10].

Hardly the traditional image of a humble man of god!

A larger than life figure

Was Wimund a fraud and “a flagitious impostor[11]? It is so hard to tell with the limited information available. Even William who had direct contact with Wimund seemed unable to come to a firm conclusion. The one thing that does suggest that there was some validity to Wimund’s claim is that despite all his terrible actions and the threats he had issued against the king of Scotland, David never exacted the ultimate revenge by executing his adversary. Despite being cruel, brutal and merciless, Wimund must have had a magnetic personality and an unquenchable thirst for life. In some ways he reminds me of a medieval, real-life Long John Silver and he was unique in being the one and only ‘Bishop-Pirate’.

Wimund, larger than life.  Image Source:  Image source Blackadder II by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.

Bibliography & Images

William of Newburgh,

King Orry & King Olaf – Ramsey, Isle of Man,

Óláfr Guðrøðarson (died 1153),


The exploits of Wimund,

The Tale of a Man Called Wimund,

William of Newburgh: Book one,

Domination and Lordship: Scotland 1070 – 1230 by Richard Oram, 2011
Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Furness,

David I: The King who made Scotland by Richard Oram, 2008


[1] William of Newburgh: Book one,
[2]Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Furness,
[3] William of Newburgh: Book one,
[4] Wimund,
[5] ibid
[6] The exploits of Wimund,
[8] ibid
[9] William of Newburgh: Book one,
[10] ibid
[11] The exploits of Wimund,

Ghost Hunting with Ghost North East


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Spencer from S.M.O.G (Scientific Measurement of Ghost) Avengers, The Living Dead, 1967.

When I think of the Avengers, I don’t think of the Marvel superheroes, I think of John Steed and Mrs Peel.  The Mrs Peel series’ were rerun when I was a child and I loved the quirky humour and the eccentric and often surreal storylines.  One of my favourite episodes was The Living Dead, from the 1967 series.   In this episode Steed and Mrs Peel investigate strange happenings at the estate of the Duke of Benedict, including ghostly goings on in a creepy old church.  Here they cross paths with rival ghost hunting factions FOG and SMOG (respectively, Friends of Ghosts and Scientific Measurements of Ghosts).  The over the top characters of Mandy from FOG and Spencer from SMOG perfectly highlight the divide still often found in the ghost hunting community – between the psychic believers and the sceptical scientific types.  To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure which camp I fit into.

In recent years I have been on several ghost hunts operated by various different groups. It’s fair to say that some were more FOG than SMOG and some clearly geared up primarily for entertainment. Nevertheless I enjoyed each one, and some were at truly excellent locations, with compelling and charismatic guides – Chillingham Castle springs to mind (it’s an experience not to be missed for sheer drama of location and the ghostly tradition attached to the castle).  However, one thing that I have often felt lacking on some of the more commercial tours, is the element of investigation – I guess I’ve always had a secret affinity with Spencer from SMOG, despite the allure of FOG.  Ultimately, what I was really looking for was a group that could accommodate both viewpoints.

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.

I came across Ghost North East by chance, a local not for profit group who investigate locations in the North East of England and the Scottish borders.  Ghost Northeast was founded just under 10 years ago by friends Steve Watson and David Howland.  In Steve’s book The Chronicles of a Ghosthunter he explained:

“..we decided we should open our own group. We wanted it to be 100% genuine and 100% honest.  If nothing happened, then nothing happened.  But, if we did see, feel or hear things then we knew as far as we were concerned that the activity would be real”

They and their team now run regular ghost hunts throughout the North East of England and Scottish Borders, taking in haunted locations such as Jarrow Hall, Ellison Hall, Hexham Old Jail, Jedburgh Jail and Neidpath Castle.

The Ghost Hunter kit

Ghost hunters kit.

The group don’t use mediums or psychics, but do use psychic tools such as the Ouija/spirit board, planchet and dowsing rods.  These methods sit alongside more scientific tools such as lasers, thermal imaging devices, EMF and K2 meters (for detecting electromagnetic fields -such as given off by ordinary electrical devices or, more interestingly, unexplained sources) and the Franks/Ghost box.

The latter is a device which is a somewhat controversial in ghost hunting circles.  The Franks box works by rapidly scanning radio waves for anomalous phenomena.  The device is familiar to many people through its use on popular TV series such as Zac Baggins Ghost Adventures.  While some people believe that it can facilitate communication with spirits, others dismiss its effectiveness citing the credulousness of over eager ghost hunters in attributing random results as being of paranormal origin [1]. My own view is that although it can bring up some interesting results, it would be hard to confirm they were of paranormal origin rather than just wishful thinking.

Ghost North East make the whole ghost hunter kit available to everyone at each location, and ‘ghosties’ are encouraged to be very hands on. Whether their preference is for the scientific or psychic tools, everyone gets to play with the kit and draw their own conclusions from the results.

Three Ghost Hunts:

1. On a dark November night – Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society

The Lit & Phil, as it is affectionately known, is the largest independent library outside of London, and the oldest in Newcastle.  The current building, dating to 1825, is located near the oldest parts of Newcastle (the Close) and Roman foundations can be found in the basement.

The Lit & Phil, Newcastle.

This was my first ghost hunt with the group, and the first thing I discovered was that many people attending were regulars, despite this, everyone was very welcoming and friendly.  Steve Watson the founder of the group welcomed everyone and set out the housekeeping and the ground rules – in short, to respect that everyone has their own equally valid views on the supernatural.  I was impressed by how accommodating the group where to those with mobility issues, although the locations often don’t lend themselves to full disabled access,  the group are happy to cater for the less mobile.

Steve then took the whole group down to the Gentleman’s Library and held a circle and conducted a blessing – in the pitch dark.  Standing in the musty darkness, surrounded by ancient tomes from floor to ceiling, with only the rhythmic ticking of an old clock puncturing the silence, he called out to the spirits and the K2 meter lit up….from that moment, I was hooked.

We were then split up into three separate groups to conduct investigations in different parts of the building (around 8 people max).  Smaller groups made it a much more hands on experience, and we all had a case of equipment to play with, from Lasers, Franks Boxes, EVF meters to dowsing rods and dice.  I was in Peter’s group and we began in ‘the stacks’ – a book store in the basement where they store books and manuscripts, it is a very eerie place, filled with looming shadows and priceless volumes.  A number of people in the group said they felt a quite malevolent male presence down there. I can’t say that I did, however, I’m not sure I would have been willing to stay down there alone even with all those fabulous books (and I don’t scare easily).

Lit & Phil Main Library. Newcastle.

Later in the night, my group went into the main library and tried to communicate with spirits via the Franks Box.  During this experiment I took up the offer to do a ‘Lone Vigil’ in the ladies waiting room, in the pitch black, with only an EVF meter for company!  Not being shy I sat in the middle of the sofa and asked if any spirits would like to come and sit next to me, having previously checked for any reaction on the EVF and getting none.  However, once I made the invitation and rescanned the sofa, the box reacted in a very definite manner.  I withhold judgement on whether a ghost actually did accept my invitation to join me on the sofa, but the timing was most interesting….

Perhaps the most powerful part of the night occurred in the Music Room, where the groups rejoined and formed a circle while the Gnostic Mass was played.  This is a very strange piece of music and whether the music, the darkness or supernatural forces were at play, several people were overcome and had to leave the room…the music player also jumped unexpectedly to particular song, one with significance to one of the Lit & Phil’s early patrons.

By the end of the night, while many of the phenomenon could clearly be explained away, nevertheless, various interesting pieces of information came to light that could be linked to the historical record. I’m giving away no spoilers though!

2. On a frosty January night – Gateshead’s Little Theatre

The Little Theatre Gateshead, is a remarkable building, the current theatre was opened in Autumn 1943 and was the only theatre to be built during World War II. It sits on the corner of Saltwell Road, and faces onto the beautiful Saltwell Park.

The Little Theatre Gateshead

The Little Theatre Gateshead.

The theatre is home to the Progressive Players, whose founding members, Misses Hope, Ruth and Sylvia Dodds, helped to fund the building work in the 1930’s.  However, things did not go smoothly and upon the outbreak of war, the empty house purchased for the theatre was requisitioned for a RAF Barrage Balloon station.  The players only got the site back on New Years Day 1942, when the RAF decamped following a particularly harsh winter.  The theatre also suffered from collateral bomb damage on a misty night in early 1943, when a German bomb hit Saltwell Park just across the street from the theatre.  Windows were blown out, the doors damaged and a tree fell through the roof.  No one appears to have been hurt or killed.[2]

All in all, a promising location for not only theatrical ghosts, but perhaps some wartime spectres as well.

After our orientation and the group circle, which Steve conducted on the stage, we split into our groups.  Unable to help myself, I, yet again, volunteered to do a lone vigil.  I was conducted down a maze of corridors to one of the dressing rooms, and here I waited in the dark, calling out occasionally.  Unfortunately there was no activity that I could discern, and the evening as a whole appeared quite quiet, with little activity on the planchet or otherwise.  However, some other groups did report activity and one individual did become noticeably affected during an invocation on the stage. Despite the lack of activity on this occasion, it was a wonderfully atmospheric venue.

Planchet in use.

The Planchet in use, but no messages this time.

3. On a snowy March night, Jarrow Hall

My third, and most recent outing with Ghost North East, was at Jarrow Hall.  I have to say it was my favourite venue, perhaps that is because the Hall itself is eighteenth century (and I’m a sucker for the Georgians). The falling snow made it even more atmospheric – the North East was in the grip of the mini Beast from the East that night, just getting to the venue was an adventure.  Jarrow Hall is closely associated with the Venerable Bede (considered the ‘Father of English history’) and linked to the Anglo-Saxon monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow.  It houses a lot of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the museum, and a reconstruction of an atrium style house of the period.

Jarrow Hall by night. Jarrow.

Now, I firmly believe that most paranormal phenomena can be explained rationally, however…..during the group circle that took place at the foot of the staircase, I kept getting the impression of someone peaking round the banisters at the top of the stairs….I’m not sure if it was just peripheral vision going scatty but I was not the only one who felt this.

‘I met a man upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there’….Jarrow Hall Stairs.

There were some very interesting results from the dowsing rods in the museum (linking up with the Anglo-Saxon history of the location). Beyond that, the most active part of the Hall was the back stairs, where some quite extraordinary activity unfolded.  I was with two others using the Ouija board, while another member of the team was seated on the stairs (around the corner and out of the line of sight of the board).  As we asked questions and the glass moved around the board, the information was conveyed almost simultaneously by the person on the stairs, who was convinced that a spirit was communicating directly with them.  A tragic tale was soon pieced together, and culminated with the board spelling out a song title, as the person on the stairs began to sing the same song.

There were some contradictions brought up by the board, and some elements of the information that did not add up, however the overall story that unfolded could be linked to the historical record – as far as could be ascertained. This phenomena could be explained in several ways, from auto-suggestion, telepathy or pure coincidence, whatever the explanation, being a part of the experience was extraordinary (and I can say for certain that I didn’t know the story and I definitely wasn’t pushing the glass!)

The Ghost Hunter

Emma Peel and Mandy from F.O.G (Friends of Ghosts). The Avengers, The Living Dead, 1967.

It’s fair to say that people want different things from ghost hunts, for some people it is pure entertainment – and any creak or strange noise is enough to send them off into paroxysm of fearful giggles, others may want a more spiritual experience – to connect with a supernatural that they firmly believe in, others may prefer a purely rational or sceptical approach.  I have to say, that to my mind, a good ghost hunting group can accommodate all viewpoints and belief systems.

In short, I would say that whether you are Mandy from Friends of Ghosts or Spencer from Scientific Measurements of Ghosts a ghost hunt with Ghost North East will not disappoint.

For those who are interested in reading more about the investigations, full investigation reports are published by Ghost North East in their magazine.

Ouija Board

Ouija board, and EMF readers, a mix of the scientific and the spiritual.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated. [1]

Watson, Steve, Ghostnortheast volume 1: The Chronicles of a Ghost Hunter, 2017 [2]


The Fall of the House of Usher


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If someone were to measure just how ‘gothic’ a story was via a tick-list analysis of stereotypical parts, then Edgar Allan Poe’s classic ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ would cross the qualifying line furlongs ahead of its competitors. A claustrophobic and foreboding location? Yes. A deliciously wordy study of depression and mania, sanity and insanity, the melancholy and the bizarre? Absolutely. A premature burial and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom? Indeed.

Poe and H.P. Lovecraft never fail to scratch the itch for macabre entertainment when the mood takes me, and while I have always enjoyed them as a reader from childhood, doing audio performances of their work has brought a new and deeper appreciation of the music and rhythm of the language used.

I particularly relished the pronunciation challenges arising from the narrator’s discussion of the various books that Roderick Usher and he had been studying (around 24:30 in) and the fact that the story opens with a couplet in French. In addition, both Lovecraft and Poe had no problem in making single sentences stretch almost over a full paragraph, with punctuation which needs to be carefully noted in order for the main point of emphasis not to be lost.

I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it.

The Green Children of Woolpit


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Woolpit Sigh Image by Rod Bacon via Wikimedia

The story of the Woolpit children is one which many people know. Countless articles have been written and numerous theories put forward by various people to explain what happened. There are so many ideas and interpretations that I am only going to look at a few of them briefly but in the bibliography below I have listed a number of sources that explore the topic in much more detail.

The Chroniclers

There exists two near contemporary sources which chronicle the events at Woolpit and the appearance of the green children, one of whom is Ralph of Coggeshall and the other is William of Newburgh.

Medieval Scribe c1490_1500. Harley MS4425

Ralph was appointed as the sixth abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Coggeshall in Essex and served from until he retired in 1218 due to bad health. After he stepped down from his duties he took up and continued his house’s Chronicon Anglicanum. His account contains few original documents but he seems to have taken pains to check his facts and collect anecdotal accounts from visitors to the abbey. It is possible that it was from one of these visitors that Ralph discovered the story of the green children of Woolpit[1].

The second chronicler was William of Newburgh. William was a well-respected 12th century English historian and an Augustinian Canon of Newburgh Priory. His work contains important historical accounts as well as being “a major source for stories of medieval revenants, those souls who return from the dead, including early vampire stories and the only source for the bishop-pirate Wimund[2]. The likelihood is that he took many of his facts about the Woolpit green children directly from Ralph, although many of the details differ slightly from the earlier account[3].

The Tale of the Green Children of Woolpit

Sometime in the 12th century  during the reign of either Stephen or Henry II, two young children, a boy and a girl were discovered by reapers. They were found either in a wolf pit by the village of Woolpit or at the edge of a field (according to which account you read). The children were frightened and thin, wore odd clothes and spoke a language incomprehensible to the villagers. The strangest thing about the children was that their skin was green in colour. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne[4]. For a few days the children refused to eat any food until they were given broad beans. They eagerly accepted the beans but instead of opening the pods they opened the stalks. On seeing them empty they wept. When shown how to eat the beans correctly they stopped crying. For a long time beans were all they would eat. The boy became depressed and eventually weakened and died but the girl was healthy and thrived. She was baptised Agnes, learnt English, started to eat other food and completely lost her green colouring.

According to Ralph’s account she told the villagers that they had come from a twilight underground world where the sun never shone and everyone and everything was green. One day they followed their cattle into a cave and heard the sound of bells. They walked through the cave towards the sound until they reached the wolf pits where they laid down in a daze, blinded by the sunlight. They became frightened after being woken by the reapers and tried to escape back through the cave but couldn’t find its entrance.

However, William wrote that the girl revealed that her home was called “St Martin’s Land” and that Christianity was practiced there. She said that she was unsure how they had arrived at Woolpit as they had been herding their father’s cattle when they suddenly heard a loud noise and the next minute found themselves at the village.

As Agnes got older she worked as a servant. From Ralph we learn that she was employed in the household of Richard de Colne but was “rather lose and wanton in her conduct[5] and from William that she married a man from King’s Lynne.

What is interesting is that neither William nor Ralph made any attempt to question or explain the story of the green children of Woolpit.

Medieval Ploughing. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Investigating the tale

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the story of Woolpit’s green children. These can be separated into two main categories, historical or folkloric. There is also an extra-terrestrial hypothesis which is held by a small number of people who believe that the children arrived through a space portal and that their green colour was due to the vegetation on their home planet.

Medieval Aliens? Alleged sighting from Nuremburg 1561. Wickiana Collection Zurich.

The historical angle

Many support the theory that the story does contain a kernel of truth in it. For instance through his research on children escaping their masters, Charles Oman sees something more sinister such as drugging and kidnapping behind the tale. There is a story retold in the area which must have been rooted in a distant memory of two children whose uncle, the children’s guardian, tried to poison them with arsenic. He was said to have left them in Thetford Forest to die so that he could claim their lands and money. The tragic folk tale “Babes in the Wood” was probably based on this story. Arsenic would have turned their skins a green colour. On the other hand Jeffrey Jerome Cohen believes the story is an allegory recalling the differences between the English and the indigenous Britons.

Effects of arsenic. Image Wellcome Institute.

Another interpretation given is that the children were part of the Flemish immigrant community which arrived in the 12th century. The Battle of Fornham, sited in Suffolk not far from Bury St Edmunds, took place in October 1173. It was fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, the 3rd Earl of Leicester. The rebel forces contained a large contingent of about 3000 Flemish soldiers. The rebels were eventually defeated and the Flemish soldiers forced into the swamps near the battle site where most were killed by the local peasants[6]. The children after their parents’ deaths fled into Thetford Forest and lost their way. Suddenly they heard the ringing of Bury St Edmunds’ bells and making their way towards them, they entered the flint mines known as Grimes Graves emerging at the village of Woolpit. The green colour came from a diet deficiency disease such as chlorosis which would have been cured once the children ate nutritious food.

On the surface this last explanation seems plausible enough but in Brian Haughton’s excellent article he presents some problems with this particular theory[7]. Firstly he states that it was Flemish mercenaries who were killed. They were unlikely to have brought their families with them and there is no historical evidence of Flemish merchants or weavers being targeted. A second problem relates to the location of the forest and mines. The forest is 20km from Bury St Edmunds so the children could not have heard the bells and the mines themselves do not end near Woolpit. Also the distances from Fornham St Martins to Woolpit and in particular from the forest to Woolpit are considerable and a long way for the children to walk especially in their weakened state. A last point that he raises is that it is unlikely that a wealthy, educated and noble lord such as Richard de Colne would not have recognised the Flemish language even if he could not understand it himself.

Folkloric elements

Haughton also makes an interesting statement and one which I think cuts to the heart of the matter. He states that the story of the green children has “elements of truth mixed in with mythology and folk beliefs of fairies and the afterlife[8]. Three themes which run through the story; the caves, the beans and the colour green all have links with the supernatural.

The caves

In the past caves were perceived as mysterious and sometimes threatening. Unknown supernatural entities were thought to inhabit them and many believed that they were portals to another world either the land of the fae or to the underworld. As far back as the Greeks, caves were seen as openings to the underworld. For instance Charonium cave in Greece which emited poisonous fumes was believed to be the entrance to Hades.

Owenagcat the Cave of Cruachan. Image via Wikimedia. Davska 2005.

Closer to home there are folktales from all over the British Isles that tell of spirits or the fae dwelling in caves. It was a common belief that if a human entered these caves then they might be rewarded with new talents or skills but should be aware that time worked differently there and a moment with the fae could mean years had passed in the world of mortals.

A famous Irish myth concerns Oweynagat Cave in Roscommon. The cave also known as the ‘Cave of Cats’ was located near the ancient Connaught capital of ‘Cruachan’ and believed to have been the birthplace of Medh, the powerful queen of Connach. The cave was also used by Morrigan, the goddess of fate (in particularly doom and death in battle) who would at sunset drive her otherworldly cattle through the caves to her world[9].

It is not surprising then that if the children were believed to be supernatural and that the land the girl described was otherworldly that they would have reached what became their new home by journeying through a cave.

‘You are what you eat’

In British folklore it is often said that a human should never eat fairy food because by doing so you will bind yourself to their world and you will never leave. In fact it was common if relatives went missing for families to leave food in a basket outside their homes so that their missing kin would not have to eat the food of the faeries. Since it was strongly believed that “you are what you eat” it makes sense that faery food can change a mortal into a faery. Even in Greek mythology Persephone was bound to Hades when she ate some pomegranate seeds.

This idea was thought to work the other way round as well. There is a Scandinavian tale of an elf-maiden who ate mortal food to stay with her lover and there are various Celtic stories of sidhe eating mortal food to become human[10]. In terms of the green children, maybe the loss of their green colouring was seen as the natural result of their eating the food given to them by the villagers so changing their essential physical nature.This is definitely what Willim of Newburgh believed as he wrote in his history “by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves…“. If this idea is accepted then the boy’s death could be seen as his body simply being unable to adapt.

The Sinister broad bean

Broad beans. Image via Wikimedia.

Then there are the beans. It is hard to imagine but fava beans, more commonly known as broad beans have in the past been looked on with some suspicion. To the Greeks and Romans this type of bean symbolised death. Aristotle was convinced that the beans looked like testicles, were evil and that eating them was a one way ticket to Hades! Both cultures thought the shape of the bean resembled the doorway to hell. The Romans also believed that they contained the souls of their ancestors and used to offer them to newly-married couples on their wedding day to attract the souls of male ancestors in order to ask for their help in carrying on the bloodline[11]. Even today on All Soul’s Day, Italian will make cookies in the shape of a bean and eat bean soup.

With the beans being associated with death, spirits and the supernatural it is again not surprising that they turned up in the story of the green children.

The Colour Green

Green is the colour of the forest, nature and the cycle of life. It is also associated with youth, hope and springtime as well as some negative ideas such as wildness, envy, death, sickness and the devil. Faeries and elves are often described as green-hued and wearing green coloured clothing. So when green skinned children appeared it would have been only natural for the villagers to assume they were forest sprites or some other supernatural being.

The old and the new

Green man at Rochester Cathedral. Image by Akoliasnikoff 2008. Via Wikimedia.

Why was it so easy for the villagers and others to so accept that the children were from another world? In my opinion a major reason would have been that although they considered themselves to be strong Christians, beliefs which emanated from the old pagan religion were still firmly entrenched, colouring their perceptions of their world. The merging of pagan and Christian symbols and practices was common. An obvious example is the green man carvings which adorn many early churches. These symbols of fertility, nature and rebirth are visible expressions of the old religion which although supressed was never eradicated. Even the two chroniclers, men who represented the new religion did not seem to question the authenticity of the tale too closely. If Ralph’s version is accepted then you can see the story as a parable i.e. the children are attracted away from their home (pre-Christian) which is without the warmth of the sun to a bright new world by the sound of bells, representing Christianity. Additionally when Ralph describes Agnes as wanton, he could be referring to a wildness which he believed derived from her pagan or otherworldly origins (the fae were considered seducers of men).

Remembering the green children

The green children are still remembered in Woolpit. They appear on a village sign and on the church’s altar cloth. As mentioned before the fable “The Babes in the Wood” has distinct links to the story of the green children. In this morality tale written in the 16th century, two young children are looked after by their aunt and uncle after their parents die. Eager to get his hands on their fortune he pays two men to take them into the forest and kill them. During an argument between the two men, the kinder of the two kills his accomplice. He then promises to return with provisions for the children. He never does and the children left to wander in the forest eventually die. The birds cover their bodies with leaves.

My final thought!

Whatever the truth, I love the way a story probably rooted in fact was embellished with supernatural elements to create a unique, mysterious and fascinating tale which has captured the imagination of so many.

Kylie Minouge as the Green Fairy in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’.


Ralph of Coggeshall,
William of Newburgh,
Battle of Fornham,
A dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, 2000
Green Children of Woolpit,
The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th century legend of visitors from another world,
The Green Children of Woolpit,
Green children of Woolpit,
Welcome to Woolpit village,
Creepy History: Who Were The Green Children of Woolpit?
The Green Children of Woolpit – Investigating a Medieval mystery,
Folklore, History and the Study of Myth,
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland,
Faerie Feast – Writing in margins,
Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
The evils of beans,
1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit,
William of Newburgh: Book one


[1] Green Children of Woolpit,
[2] William of Newburgh,
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Battle of Fornham,
[7] The Green Children of Woolpit,
[8] ibid
[9] Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland,
[10] Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
[11] The evils of beans,

A storyteller visits The Haunted Palace


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Ramblingidioms at the Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace has long been the home of the dark and unusual. Be it history folklore or the supernatural, Lenora and Miss Jessel have always delighted in all things strange and mysterious. It is with therefore with a great fanfare of dramatic gloomth that we would like to introduce the dark talents of Ramblingidioms.

As well as being a gifted writer and poet (see our post on his book of poetry Esto Perpetua), he has recently created a You Tube channel, Ramblingidoms, dedicated to the spoken word. Visitors can immerse themselves in classic yarns, from Dickens to Lovecraft, the supernatural to science fiction.

It seems appropriate to start this literary liaison with a classic Edgar Allan Poe story.  The Masque of the Red Death is a vivid and dreamlike allegory of how death is the ultimate leveler – coming not just for peasants, but for princes too, no matter how wealthy they may be.

So, settle yourself in an overstuffed armchair, rest your feet on the grate of crackling fire, pick up your goblet of red wine…or blood… as Ramblingidioms presents: