Friday 23 October 2020

Reanimated! The shocking fate of George Foster (1769-1803)

The parish register from St Andrew's Holborn showing the baptism of baby Louisa Foster 

There were two baptisms at St Andrew’s, Holborn on 12 March 1802, both of them workhouse babies from the parish workhouse on Gray’s Inn Lane.  Mary Beauchamp christened her son George, no father was present or recorded, and George and Jane Foster had their infant daughter Louisa baptised.  George had married Jane Humphrey at St Clements Dane on 26 June 1794 and Louisa was the Foster’s fourth child; one had died in infancy but the other two had, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned in the Barnet workhouse. George Foster according to his employer, coachmaker James Bushwell, was “one of the most diligent men he had ever employed.”  In the harsh economic conditions at the start of the nineteenth century his diligence earned him 24 shillings a week in summer and 21 a week in winter but this was not enough to enable him to support his own children or to secure a regular place of residence. When not in the workhouse George Foster lodged, without his wife and children, in a house in North Row, Grosvenor Square though he often only slept there one or two nights a week. Jane Foster lodged with her mother when she could, in Old Boswell Court. George’s landlord did not feel that man and wife were on particularly good terms because Jane wanted the family to live together and George was not keen. George told one of his workmates that he “was determined not to live with her any more.” She often called at North Row looking for George and wanting money from him. Perhaps alcohol contributed to the families unsettled lifestyle; there is some evidence from their last day together that drink may well have played its part. Within a year of the christening at St Andrews, George, Jane and baby Louisa were all dead.

Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'

On Monday morning 6 December John Atkins, a boatman on the Grand Union Canal, made a harrowing discovery, the ice-covered body of a drowned baby had somehow wedged itself under the bow of his barge at Westbourne Green. He promptly informed the authorities and Sir Richard Ford, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street and so effectively London’s police chief, instructed him to drag the canal looking for further bodies. In the meantime, the dead baby was removed to Chelsea workhouse where a few days later it was seen by Margaret Bradfield, George Foster’s landlady. When she was later asked at his trial if she had recognised the deceased she responded “it was the prisoner's child; I pulled up its eye-lids to look at the colour of its eyes; its name was Louisa.” It took three days of dredging by bargemen to find the corpse of a woman entangled in a submerged bush “close by the window of the Mitre Tavern”. The landlady and waiter of the Mitre both recognised the body as a customer from the previous Sunday afternoon who had drunk rum and porter in the company of an unknown man. No further bodies were discovered and George Foster was not taken into custody until after Christmas. He was interrogated by Sir Richard Ford himself and made the following statement:

‘My wife and child came to me on Saturday se’nnight, about eight o’clock in the evening, and slept at my lodgings that night. The next morning, about nine or ten o’clock, I went out with them, and walked to the New Cut at Paddington; we went to the Mitre tavern, and had some rum, some porter, and some bread and cheese. Before that we had stopped at a public house near the first bridge, where we had some beefsteaks and some porter; after which she desired me to walk further on by the cut, so I went with her. I left her directly I came out of the Mitre tavern, which was about three o’clock, and made the best of my way to Whetstone, in order to go to Barnet, to see two of my children, who are in the workhouse there. I went by the bye lanes, and was about an hour and a half walking from the Mitre to Whetstone. When I got there, I found it so dark that I would not go on to Barnet, but came home that night. I have not seen my wife nor child since; I have not enquired after them, but I meant to have done so to-morrow evening, at Mrs. Hobart’s. -- I came home from Whetstone that evening between seven and eight o’clock; I saw no person in going to Whetstone; nor did I stop any where, at any public house, or elsewhere, except the Green Dragon, at Highgate, where I had a glass of rum. My wife had a black gown on, and a black bonnet; the child had a straw bonnet, and white bed gown. My wife was a little in liquor.’

The Mitre Tavern, opposite Wormwood Scrubs on the Regents Canal
On 19 December Jane Foster was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s in Hammersmith, the old church that was demolished in the early 1880’s to make for the current church (much of the churchyard was later lost when the Hammersmith flyover was built). As well as the official parish register the curate of St Paul’s also kept a personal notebook in which he calculated his quarterly bill to the board of the workhouse for burying the paupers and made aide-memoires of the deaths he needed to register sometimes with piquant details of how the deceased had met their end.  John Smith, for example, was “killed by a horse at the black bull” in November 1801 and John Cooper appears to have met his end in November 1803 in a bathing tub. The curate noted that Jane Foster was aged 34 at the time of her death and added that she was “drownd in the New Cutt in the wood”. At the bottom of the page he later added a footnote “the above Jane Foster & her infant child was drownd in the New Cutt by her Husband who was Hanged for it Jan Monday 17 1803”. Sadly baby Louisa was not buried with her mother but was interred the following day 3 miles away at St Luke’s in Chelsea (not the church on Sydney Street but Chelsea Old Church on Cheyne Walk).  
The entry on Jane Foster in the curate's notebook
Baby Louisa Foster in the burial Register of St Luke's, Chelsea

A Coroner’s jury delivered a verdict of accidental death on Jane and Louisa Foster and George Hodgson, the Middlesex Coroner, later testified that he had viewed the bodies and also had them examined by a surgeon and that neither he nor the surgeon had observed any sign of violence. Despite this George’s story was not believed by Sir Richard Ford and he was charged with the murder of his wife and child. At the trial at the Old Bailey there were hints that Jane Foster may have taken her own life. The landlady of the Mitre reported that her parting remark on quitting the tavern had been “this is the last time I shall come here,” though she said this was not said despondently but more in a huff. Another witness, Sarah Goring in whose house the Fosters had lodged four years previously was asked if Jane Foster has “ever said any thing to you respecting her inclination or disinclination to remain in this world?” No she said, adding “I was very much surprised to hear she was in the work-house, because he was a very tender husband and a good father.” George’s employer and four other witnesses gave him a good character but his story of walking to Whetstone, more than 9 miles away from the Mitre tavern, in an hour and a half and of walking almost 20 miles in a little over three hours, was not credible. And why would he be lying? The only possible reason as far as the jury were concerned was to hide his guilt. They found him guilty as charged and he was condemned to hang and his body to be handed to the surgeons for dissection.

A hastily put together report by the Recorder of London recorded grounds for clemency in evidence not produced at the trial. The Rev. William Agutter, Chaplain of the asylum for Female Orphans in St George’s Fields, had written a letter to the Recorder “regarding a long consultation with Ann Arnold who was friendly with the dead woman. Arnold stated that Mrs Foster had parted from her husband and had gone into the workhouse. Mrs Foster and the child had since left the workhouse and were destitute. Arnold had told Mrs Foster to leave the child at the workhouse and obtain a nursing position, but she would not as the children 'were used so very ill.' Mrs Foster is stated to have said "If we die, we die together," and that "if something was not done for her she would put an End to her Misery." Eleanor Deker, who had met Mrs Foster at Arnolds, confirmed this statement and said they both thought that 'some mischief' would happen to Mrs Foster.” 

Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'

In the week that George Foster went on trial Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, was astonishing polite London society with his demonstrations of the power of electricity. On 6 January 1803 the Morning Post reported:

Dr. Aldini, now in London, lately exhibited at the house of Mr. Hunter, some curious experiments on the body' of a dog newly killed, by which the company then present were exceedingly astonished by the powers of Galvanism. The head of the animal was cut off. The head and body were put beside each other, on a table previously rubbed with a solution of ammonia. Two wires communicating with the Galvanic trough, were then applied, the one in the ear, the other at the anus of the dead animal. No sooner had those applications been made, than both head and body were thrown into the most animated muscular motions. The body started up with a movement by which it passed over the side of the table. The head equally moved; its lips and teeth grinning violently. A curiosity has been expressed to have these experiments tried on a criminal newly executed. Dr. Aldini has communicated his discoveries, in an ingenious paper, to the Royal Society. He is soon to publish an English work on this subject.   

George Foster was soon to satisfy the curiosity to see the dead dog experiments repeated on a human being. Since his trial he had ‘he had scarcely taken the smallest nourishment’ and had been so troubled by his conscience that he had made a full confession to his crime and in response to questions would only say that “I ought to die.”  On 17 January at three minutes to eight in the morning he was brought out from Newgate wearing the same brown greatcoat and red waistcoat that he had worn through his trial. He was so enfeebled that he could not walk unassisted the short distance from the prison to the place of execution and had to be helped up the stairs to the scaffold that stood outside the debtor’s door of the Old Bailey. The reporter from Bell’s Weekly Messenger noted that when he ascended the platform “his air was dejected in the extreme, and the sorrow manifested in his countenance, depicted the inward workings of a heart conscious of the heinous crime he had committed.”  According to the Newgate Calendar after “passing a short time in prayer with Dr Ford, the ordinary of Newgate, the cap was pulled over his eyes, when the stage falling from under him, he was launched into eternity.” The calendar also reports that he ‘died very easy’ with the help of his friends, who had stood beneath the scaffold with the express purpose of pulling on his legs to break his neck and cutting short his sufferings. What happened next was reported in full in the Morning Post of 22 January:

The body of Forster, who was executed on Monday last for murder, was conveyed to a house not far distant, where it was subjected to the Galvanic Process, by Professor Aldini, under the inspection of Mr. Keate, Mr. Carpue, and several other Professional Gentlemen. M. Aldini, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, shewed the eminent and superior powers of Galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eve was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life. This, however, was impossible, as several of his friends who were near the scaffold had violently pulled his legs, in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings. The experiment, in fact, was of a better use and tendency. Its object was to shew the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby re-kindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of Galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men, that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of great, and perhaps, as yet unforeseen utility.
Giovanni Aldini by William Brockedon (1830) in the National Portrait Gallery

Later rumour had it that the raised right arm and clenched fist had connected with the nose of Mr Pass the Beadle of Surgeons Hall who suffered such a fright that he returned home and died the same night. Aldini’s grisly but theatrical demonstrations were a great success though not everyone was impressed. The American Thomas G. Fessenden who was in London at the time wrote, under the pseudonym Dr Christopher Caustic, the “Terrible Tractoration: A Poetical Petition Against Galvanising Trumpery, and the Perkinistic Institution. Addressed to the Royal College of Physicians.” This includes the following lines about Aldini:

For he, ‘tis told In public papers,
Can make dead people cut droll capers 
And shuffling off death's iron trammels, 
To kick and hop like dancing camels!  
To raise a dead dog he was able, 
Though laid in quarters on a table; 
And led him yelping, round the town, 
With two legs up, and two legs down! 
And this most comical magician 
Will soon, in public exhibition, 
Perform a feat he's often boasted, 
And animate a dead pig roasted!  
With powers of these Metallic Tractors; 
He can revive dead malefactors; 
And is reanimating, daily, 
Rogues that were hung once, at Old Bailey!
And sure I am he'll break the peace, 
Unless secured by our police; 
For such a chap, as you're alive, 
Full many a felon will revive. 
And as he can, no doubt of that, 
Give rogues the nine lives of a cat; 
Why then, to expiate their crimes, 
These rogues must all be hung nine times!


  1. Just before you quote the Morning Post of 22 January, you say "On 18 January at three minutes to eight in the morning" Forster was hung, but he was hung on Monday the 17th of January, according to both the source of Jane Forster's curate and the Morning Post. Also wondering: what are your sources for what is not quoted?

  2. Another thing, in his statement Forster said "on Saturday se’nnight". I assumed that he meant 'last week' by "se'nnight" as if he were saying 'Saturday week' then the "se'nnight" is redundant. However if he is saying last week then he would have been detained before Christmas, but you state that he was not detained until after Christmas

    1. The Newgate Calendar gives the date of execution as 18 January 1803 but all contemporary newspaper accounts either give the date as the 17th or say he was hanged on the Monday (which was the 17th). The date almost always quoted these days is the 18th but all the contemporary sources (bar the Newgate Calendar) give the 17th so that must be right. This was an expanded version of something I posted about four years ago. I added the newspaper and other original sources to the this version but didn't notice the discrepancy on dates. The Newgate Calendar and the Old Bailey trial records online were the two main uncredited sources here.

      George Foster's statement is reported verbatim in the Newgate Calendar and is dated 27 December 1802. The murder had taken place three weeks before so you are right se'nnight' doesn't make any sense in the context.

    2. Thanks for explaining, I appreciate it! This site is the best source I've found on George and it really goes into detail!
      Thanks again.

    3. Thank you for asking the questions - I wouldn't have spotted the date discrepancy if you hadn't. I've amended the date of execution in the text because it was wrong! I have had two goes at this story because I find it particularly fascinating (and pathetic).

  3. What do you mean by pathetic? And out of interest, do you believe that he was guilty or not?

  4. Going back to the se'nnight: In the Old Bailey Proceedings of the trial Sir Richard Ford says "[I] ordered the prisoner to be apprehended, about a week after the body of the child was found; he was examined before me two or three times"

    This would suggest that he was apprehended before Christmas but signed his defence on 27th of December. (I only found this because you named the source so thanks again!)

    1. I meant pathetic in the sense of arousing pity because of vulnerability or weakness. I can't make my mind up about George and his innocence or guilt. The story of him walking to Whetstone in an hour and a half doesn't ring true - it's a ten mile walk and he claims he stopped off at Highgate for a glass or rum on the way. But that apparent lie is the only evidence against him (I discount the confession as all condemned criminals seemed to confess on the eve of their execution but without giving any details of what they did) - it seems a slim thread to hang a man on. And there are the witnesses that said Jane Foster was talking about suicide. It is hard to decide on the basis of a very scrappy investigation.

      At least you have cleared up the mystery of the 'sen'night'!

    2. Thanks again for replying, I have one last question: Please -if you do not mind- could you tell me the source used for the paragraph about Rev. William Agutter and Ann Arnold?
      and again thankyou

    3. I thought you might tell me if you think George was guilty? The report is in the national archive. William Rose, the Recorder of London, thought that there were grounds for clemency.

    4. I'm still figuring that one out, most witnesses say he was a good and kind man, particularly those from his work. However their was an obvious issue in the marriage. That paragraph which I had just enquired about is convincing of his innocence but that fact that they say "some mischief' would happen to Mrs Foster" suggests that it was jest (or she had horrible friends).

      The biggest part that makes him seem guilty is as you said his story of going to Whetstone and the Green Dragon. And that one instant of strong suicidal language from Jane (though everyone else said that she was not suicidal).

      Finally there is the drink to consider, though most witnesses say they were not alcoholics either of them, Foster said his wife was drunk on the day, and there is a chance it made him or her commit the crime.

      Overall I think I'd be inclined to say he's innocent. Perhaps his reason for lying was tied up in the embarrassing state of his relationship with Jane?

      Anyways thanks for the source!!!