Friday, 24 January 2014

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Maria Van Butchell (died 1775, Hunterian Museum) & Martin Van Butchell (1735-1814) St George's Field Burial Ground, Bayswater

The Regency must have been an unusually clean shaven age to rate a beard, even of 30 years growth, a more noteworthy mark of eccentricity than keeping the embalmed corpse of your wife in a glass cage. By all accounts Van Butchell’s was an impressive beard, of such virile growth that rumour eventually claimed that a single hair of it worn as a charm could help barren women conceive. The owner of the beard took to selling the hairs left in his brush after each day’s combing for a guinea each. In one of the advertisements for his dentistry business he took it upon himself to explain to a sceptical age the importance of facial hair:
BEARDS- The Delight Of Ancient Beauties.

When the Fair were accustomed to behold their lovers with beards, the sight of a shaved chin excited sentiments of horror and aversion. To obey the injunction of his Bishops, Louis the Seventh of France cropped his hair, and shaved his beard. Eleanor of Acquitaine, his consort, found him, with this uncommon appearance, very ridiculous, and very contemptible. She revenged herself, by becoming something more than a coquette. The King obtained a divorce. She then married the Count of Anjou, who shortly after ascended the English throne. She gave him for her marriage dower the rich provinces of Poitou and Guienne; and this was the origin of those wars which for three hundred years ravaged France, and which cost the French nation three millions of men. All which, probably, had never taken place, if Louis the seventh had not been so rash as to crop his hair and shave his beard, by which he became so disgustful in the eyes of the fair Eleanor.

Van Butchell was born in February 1735 in Eagle street, Red Lion Square, the son of a Flemish tapestry maker.  He trained as a surgeon under John Hunter but set himself up in business as a dentist with a side line  in selling trusses and other surgical appliances and novelty goods of his own devising such as  ‘elasticband’ to keep up a gentleman's small clothes, and a spring-band garter for women. He commanded high fees as a dentist, 2 guineas a consultation and 100 guineas for a set of false teeth but refused on principle to do house calls, once refusing an offer of 1000 guineas to visit one client with more money than sense.
He was famed for his eccentricities – his beard, his unconventional appearance, the unconventional appearance of the pony he rode in Hyde Park (often white but sometimes white with purple spots and occasionally purple all over), the large bone, possibly a human femur, he carried with him attached to his wrist by a string which he claimed was a weapon from Tahiti and was to be used for self defence. He grew tired of London (but not tired of life) and wrote to George Washington in 1794 to let him know that Martin Van Butchell would be quitting his country “I hope ere long we shall be all safe in the United States, for this Country is not the best place for brave fellows.” He refused to call for his children by name and instead whistled for them like dogs. He would only allow his wives to dress in either white or black; Maria his first wife choose black and his second Elizabeth, by way of contrast, chose white.
Maria Van Butchell died on January 14th 1775. No one can be quite sure what goes on the head of such an eccentric individual but everyone is happy to speculate; the reasons variously given for Van Butchell asking William Hunter and William Cruickshank  to embalm Maria and then putting her on display in his front room include his wanting to use her as an advertising draw for his dental practice and rumours that he could only use properties in which she had a life interest while she remained above ground. Dead Maria (and her pet parrot who was also stuffed and exhibited with her) generated so much interest that Van Butchell was forced to place an advertisement in the newspapers limiting the hours in which visitors could call to see her and limiting the persons to be presented to friends of friends: “Van Butchell (not willing to be unpleasantly circumstanced and wishing to convince some good minds that they have been misinformed) acquaints the Curious, no stranger can see his embalmed wife, unless (by a Friend personally) introduced to himself, any day between Nine and One, Sundays excepted.”
Van Butchell eventually remarried to Elizabeth (who happened to be his servant) and most commentators agree that it was at this point, presumably because of wifely displeasure, that he was forced to surrender Maria to the Royal College of Surgeons to become an exhibit in the Hunterian Museum (where she was exhibited alongside Miss Johnson). The official records of the Hunterian actually show though that Maria’s embalmed body was only donated to the museum by Van Butchell’s son on August 24th 1815, after his death. Presumably Van Butchell kept Maria with him for the whole of his life. Maria’s presence in the house does not seem to have inhibited Elizabeth who went on to produce five sons for Van Butchell. The second son, Isaac was, in early June 1806, drowned in the Thames when returning from a pleasure cruise to Richmond. He had, with his mother, been in party of 14 people sailing from Richmond back to Lambeth after a day out on the river. The party included the “three Miss Aston’s of Robinson’s Lane, Chelsea.” In Fulham Gut, just downriver of Putney Bridge with Isaac at the helm the boat collided with a barge, staving in the side and overturning, throwing all it’s occupants into the water. Most of the party managed to cling to either the sides of the barge or it’s mooring cable. Elizabeth sank beneath the water though and Isaac dived in after her. He managed to bring his mother to the surface but in doing so hit his head on the side of the barge, sinking without trace. The three Miss Ashton’s grew tired holding onto the barge cable and two of them, unable to hold on any longer, also slipped into the river from where their corpses were recovered several hours later.  Everyone else, including Elizabeth, were saved by local residents who launched boats to rescue them.

Martin died at the age of 80 in 1814 and was buried in St George’s fields, Bayswater, the new burial ground of St George’s Hanover square. The burial ground was sold by Church Commissioners for private development in 1969 and covered by a block of flats built to a ziggurat design by architect Patrick Hodgkinson. Another occupant of the same burial ground, Laurence Stern, was exhumed by his admirers and his body and headstone removed to a North Yorkshire churchyard. Van Butchell’s headstone is lost and his remains removed and disposed of before building work began at St George’s Fields.

Maria remained on public display in the Hunterian Museum until she fell victim to a German firebomb in 1941. Time did not treat her kindly. A visitor in 1857 remarked of her embalmed remains “what a wretched mockery of a once lovely woman it now appears, with its shrunken and rotten-looking bust, its hideous, mahogany coloured face, and its remarkably fine set of teeth. Between the feet are the remains of a green parrot – whether immolated or not at the death of his mistress is uncertain – but it still retains it’s plumage.” In the 1885 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography Maria’s corpse received even shorter shrift “at the present time it is a repulsive-looking object.”     

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Miss Johnson, the Hunterian Museum (1775-1941) & John Sheldon (1752-1808) Combe Raleigh Churchyard

Ms Johnson  was Maria Van Butchell's inseparable companion for 125 years, they were exhibited side by side in the Hunterian Museum and perished together in 1941 in the conflagration that followed the direct hit on the Royal College of Surgeons by a fire bomb  during the blitz. In the 1830 museum catalogue she was described as “the embalmed body of a female subject aged 24, of the name of Johnson , who died of phthisis in the Lock Hospital, about the year 1775 and left her body for dissection to Mr Sheldon, who was at that time a pupil of that charily…..Presented by Mrs Rebecca Sheldon Dec 24th 1808.”  

Ms Johnson’s embalmer John Sheldon, anatomist and surgeon, was born 6 July 1752 in Tottenham Court Road. He was educated at Harrow and apprenticed to Henry Watson the professor of anatomy at the company of surgeons. He trained at the Westminster and Lock hospitals and in 1774 became resident pupil to John Hunter. After a year in the Lock Hospital he was appointed Lecturer in Anatomy in William Hunter’s school.  He was by all accounts an outstanding teacher eventually becoming William Hunters successor as professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy. He published various learned works on anatomy including his magnum opus ‘The History of the Absorbent system’ in 1784. This was a good year for him, he married Rebeca Palmer the daughter of the vicar of Combe Raleigh in Devon and also took part in the second manned balloon flight in England when he accompanied the French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard from Chelsea to Sunbury The flight, which unsurprisingly was the object of great public interest, did not go smoothly. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine, “the fields for a considerable distance round little Chelsea were crowded with horse and foot, in consequence of which a general devastation took place in the gardens, the produce being either trampled down or torn up. The turnips grown there were totally despoiled. At 12 o’clock M Blanchard and Dr Sheldon stepped into the boat pending from the balloon, and the cords being loosed, it took a diagonal direction across the garden, its altitude being about two feet off the ground, and then rose above the wall, but not high enough for the boat to clear it.” Blanchard tried to persuade Sheldon to leave the balloon in order to lighten the load but Sheldon, who was paying for the trip, refused. A piqued Blanchard reacted by throwing Sheldon’s scientific instruments overboard and the balloon finally took off. The two men had a violent quarrel as they floated over South west London and into Surrey and when the balloon came down at Sunbury Sheldon departed leaving Blanchard to fly on alone to Romsey, 73 miles from their starting point in Chelsea.

As well as ballooning Sheldon was also interested in the anatomy of whales. After devising a poisoned harpoon to help him secure specimens he set out on a voyage to Greenland in 1788. At sea he had some sort of breakdown, an attack of ‘brain fever’ as his contemporaries put it and was transferred to another vessel making the return voyage to England. From that point on he suffered a recurring madness, probably a bi-polar disorder, that made it impossible for him to work regularly for the next ten years. Following a petition from his brother the Queen gave him permission to continue to give an annual lecture at the Royal Academy and he published a couple of essays, one on the patella and the other on the iris, but otherwise he was out of work for a decade. He moved to Combe Raleigh where his wife’s father was vicar and lived quietly until 1797 when he had recovered sufficiently to be appointed surgeon to the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. He died in October 1808 and was buried in his father-in-law’s churchyard. A couple of months later his long suffering wife Rebecca presented his prize anatomical specimen to the Hunterian, the naked, embalmed body of a 24 year old woman which Sheldon apparently had kept on prominent display in his bedchamber for over thirty years.

The French Geologist and traveller Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (left), shared Sheldon’s passion for ballooning  and had met him on a trip to England and Scotland in 1772. In 1797 he published his ‘Voyage en Angleterre, en Écosse et aux Îles Hébrides’ which contained a detailed account of their meeting at Sheldon’s London home. He had, Saint-Fond noted, “one of the finest anatomical cabinets in existence.” His host had ‘none of that English gravity,’ about him the Frenchman noted approvingly, instead he had an “extraordinary passion for study…..unceasingly animated by the vivacity or fervour of his character.” The two men discussed ballooning – at this point Sheldon had yet to make his ascent with Blanchard and had limited his experiments in aeronautics to building a balloon of varnished linen, 56 feet in diameter, in Lord Foley’s garden. As for Sheldon’s cabinet of curiosities, this was so interesting that Saint-Fond dedicated several mornings to studying its contents. The object that fascinated him the most though was ‘a kind of mummy which was very remarkable……It occupied a distinguished place in the chamber where the anatomist usually slept; and he was particularly fond of this work.” He goes on to describe how he was introduced into a “very handsome bed-room” where an oblong mahogany table occupied the middle of the floor facing the bed. The top of the table slid open to reveal a glass topped display case containing “the body of a young woman of nineteen or twenty, entirely naked. She had fine brown hair, and lay extended as on a bed.” Sheldon opened the display case and encouraged Saint-Fond to handle the embalmed corpse. He admired “the flexibility of the arms” and “a kind of elasticity in the bosom” and the perfect preservation of the “other parts” of the body.  Saint-Fond did notice, and commented to his host, that the fleshy parts appeared rather dry and the muscles too tense. Sheldon tetchily explained that this was the result of the long sickness which had killed the young woman rather than his embalming technique which he went to explain in great detail to the fascinated Frenchman.  As Sheldon was closing up his display case Saint-Fond asked who this young woman was to which Sheldon replied “frankly and without any hesitation ‘It is a mistress whom I tenderly loved. I paid every attention to her during a long sickness and a short time before her death she requested that I should make a mummy of her body and keep her beside me. I have kept my word to her.” Worldly as he was, Saint-Fond was shocked “I could not escape a disagreeable feeling at seeing a lover coolly describe the anatomical operations which he had made on the object of his most tender affection, on a most charming young woman whom he had lost.”  Who could, with his own hands, “perform the disgusting operations which must be necessary to preserve the body of his friend?” he asks. “I avow I should almost be tempted to act like the Egyptians, who stoned those who executed this melancholy business.” Later though he discovered that many “well informed persons in London” were aware of Sheldon’s story and assured him that it required great strength of mind for Sheldon to overcome his sensitivity and carry out the work necessary to preserve Ms Johnson. “I certainly deceived myself and was wrong in regarding this kind of courage on his part as an act of cynicism,” Saint Fond observes sadly before moving onto a livelier subject, a dinner given in his honour at the Royal Academy.    

So who was Miss Johnson? Do we know anything about her? William Sweeting, a nephew of John Sheldon’s, told various people, including William Clift curator of the Hunterian that his uncle’s lover had been Sarah Stone a medical artist. At first glance it seems an unimpeachable source, a close relative but Sweeting admitted that his aunt knew nothing of Miss Johnson’s true identity and so he must have had Sarah Stone’s name directly from Sheldon. There cannot have been many female professional artists working in the 1770’s and so I assumed it would be easy to track down Sarah Stone, and indeed it was not hard to find her. Born 1760 Sarah Stone was a painter and illustrator of natural history subjects most renowned for her paintings of the artefacts and specimens gathered during Captain Cook’s south sea voyages commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks. The only problem with the theory is that Sarah Stone was alive and professionally active until the 1840’s (long after Sheldon himself died) which makes it impossible for her to be the “most charming young woman” kept embalmed and naked in Sheldon’s bedroom. Was there another Sarah Stone working as an artist at the time? It seems unlikely and I certainly can’t trace one. 
A view of the Royal College of Surgeons Museum following
the bomb damage in 1941 which destroyed the embalmed
 corpses of Miss Johnson and Maria Van Butchell 
The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450 - Julian Litten (London, 1991)

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Burnside Memorial, Brompton Cemetery

The Burnside Memorial dates from around 1943 when Josephine Smith Burnside (nee Eaton), the daughter of Scottish-Canadian Department Store magnate, died. The memorial commemorates her two children who both pre-deceased her, Allan Burnside who died in Paris in 1937 and her daughter Iris who died at the age of 20 on board the Lusitania in May 1915. Iris was born in Holloway and Allan in Hornsey but the family had extensive cross Atlantic connections in Canada, Ireland and Scotland as well as England.

On the 7th may 1915 Iris was travelling with her mother from New York to visit relatives in Ireland. They decided to travel despite warnings placed prominently in the press by the Imperial Geman Embassy “that the zone of war includes water adjacent to the British Isles” and that vessels “flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone….do so at their own risk” They were not alone, the ship had 1959 passengers and crew when it departed from pier 54 on Chelsea wharf in Manhattan on the 1st May.

Official warning from the German
embassy to potential passengers
The luxury liner was very fast and on the 7th May she was cruising parallel to the south coast of Ireland and due to dock in Liverpool late in the afternoon. At 2.00pm Iris and her mother along with their maid Martha Waites and three Canadian friends,  Frederick McMurtry, George Powell and Walter McLean, were enjoying lunch in the main restaurant. Shortly afterwards the ship’s course was intercepted by U-Boat U-20 commanded by Walther Schwieger. The Lusitania was flying a neutral flag (despite being a British ship) and was carrying small arms rounds and explosive fuses according to it’s manifest. It had previously been used to transport troops and there is some evidence to suggest that the munitions it carried regularly weren’t limited to small arms. The U boat commander decided to attack, without warning. At 2.10pm a single torpedo hit the ship on the starboard bow just below the wheelhouse. Seconds later there was a second larger explosion from within the ships hull. The Lusitania began to rapidly founder with a prominent starboard list that made it difficult to launch the lifeboats; only six out of 48 were launched in the 18 minutes it took for the ship to sink. 1195 people were drowned including Iris Burnside,   Martha Waites Frederick McMurtry, George Powell and Walter McLean. Only Josephine survived.

Ironically one of the survivors of the Lusitania was the captain William Thomas Turner. Quite properly he tried to remain with his ship as it went down but the waters sucked him from the wreckage and he was recovered unconscious from the sea by one of the many rescue boats that arrived on the scene to help the wrecked passengers and crew.  

Portrait of Iris Burnside by ME Gray in the Toronto Museum

Friday, 3 January 2014

George Solon Ladd, Kensal Green

John Gay's photo of the Ladd memorial taken
 sometime in the 1980's
George Solon Ladd of San Francisco was just passing through London when he died in 1889. His doctors had ordered the 47 year old president of the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Edison Electric Light Company to the Bohemian Spa of Karlovy Vary (better known to non Czech speakers as Carlsbad) for the sake of his health. He never made it to the hot springs of Bohemia, the 5772 mile journey across two continents proving to be too much for his ailing constitution. His wife Elizabeth was presumably with him when he died (the couple had no children) and must have taken the decision to bury him in London before she left to return to the estimated half million dollar estate he left in the U.S. The angel sitting on George’s tomb managed to keep his head for the best part of a hundred years – photographs by John Gay taken in the 1980’s show him in all his undecapitated glory. At some point in the last 25 years vandals beheaded him.

George Solon Ladd was born in Michigan in 1841 but moved with his parents to the mining town of Iowa Hill in California when he was 15. He worked as a telegraph operator for the Alta Telegraph Company as a 15 year old before moving on to Sacramento, Stockton and eventually San Francisco. Ambitious, hardworking and intelligent he rose rapidly in the incipient  telecommunications industry, initially as an employee in the California State Telegraph Company but eventually setting up the Electrical Construction and Maintenance Company of San Francisco, specialising in the construction of private and commercial telegraph lines. In 1877 he formed the American speaking Telephone Company and brought the telephone to the West Coast. Two years later another of his ventures, the Western Electric Light Company carried out the first tests of electric street lighting in San Francisco. He was a prominent member of San Francisco society and despite the heavy work commitments that undermined his health also found time for civic and social activities. There were many obituaries in the American newspapers once the news of his death was cabled across the Atlantic but he was virtually unknown in England and his demise went completely unreported in the British press. 

George Solon Ladd by Fritz Kettenburg, Reprinted from "INSULATORS - Crown Jewels of the Wire", February 1978, page 4: