Saturday, 21 March 2015

"A clever but very eccentric person..."; Joseph Constantine Carpue (1764 - 1846), St Nicholas Churchyard, Chiswick

Carpue's family tomb in the churchyard at Chiswick

Saturday 2 October 1841 was a fine autumn day for an excursion to the coast. The 77 year old anatomist and surgeon Joseph Carpue escorted his four daughters from his house in Fitzroy Square to Victoria Station and put them in a first class coach on the Brighton train. As irrepressibly curious as ever and “anxious to see the structure of the Brighton line” (which had only been open for 11 days) from the best vantage point possible Carpue sat in an open carriage accompanied by two of his servants  Henry Palmer, aged twenty-three, a footman, and Jane Watson, also twenty-three, a housemaid.  The journey was without incident until the train arrived at Horley where an additional engine was attached to provide additional power to haul the carriages up the steep incline of the South Downs to the Balcombe Tunnel.  Once through the tunnel, as the train moved downhill towards Haywards Heath, it began to build up excessive speed and one of the two engines derailed taking with it the open carriages immediately behind, throwing Carpue and his servants onto the tracks. At the inquest James Jackson, the driver of the derailed locomotive, described the immediate aftermath of the accident, how he had stumbled around in the wreckage of the train amongst the dead and injured “I got between the carriages, when I discovered the deceased young woman lying across the rails…. she was also quite dead, one of the wheels having passed over her stomach, nearly cutting her in half. One of the guards threw his great coat over her….. Palmer was also lying on the line quite dead, his head being fractured in a shocking manner.”  William Elliot, surgeon and keeper of the Cowper House Lunatic Asylum at Brompton, was also present in the open carriage. In his evidence to the inquest he enlarged on the shocking manner of Henry Palmer’s death; “The first object that met his eye was the body of a servant in livery, and a little further on was his head completely severed, though the passing of one the wheels over the neck it was cut in half, and the brains scattered about in all directions. Near this was a female completely cut in half, the wheels of the engine having passed over her.”
Carpue by Charles Turner, mezzotint, published 1822

When Carpue recovered consciousness he immediately began calling for his family; “Are my daughters killed? Will any one inquire what has become of the Miss Carpues?” Badly injured as he was he got to his feet and began looking for them. He saw a dead body covered with his own cloak – unknown to him it must have been the body of Henry Palmer – and the corpse of a female who he assumed to be his own maidservant. To his joy he found his daughters still sitting in the first class carriage completely uninjured. The surgeon was eventually persuaded to lie down on a makeshift stretcher constructed out of a board and was carried to another carriage and taken to Brighton where he was met by his wife and taken to a friend’s house. According to a letter later written to one of the London papers Carpue credited his recovery to “my old friend Mr. Attree [who] immediately attended, and did not leave till he had applied, I believe, 100 leeches; and I beg to state, that to that gentleman's Judgment, attention, and unremitting kindness I owe my life.” Although he lived for another 5 years by all accounts Carpue never fully recovered from the shock of the accident. He took the railway company to court and “after a tedious process at law he obtained a verdict for damages in the sum of £250, most of which had already been spent in costs.”

Carpue was born in Brook Green, Hammersmith in 1764, to a family of Spanish catholic descent. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Douai and travelled extensively around France on foot before and during the Revolution. He saw Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the dinner table with Philip Egalité, Duke of Orleans, waiting on them and later in Paris listened to the speeches of Danton, Marat and Robespierre. His wanderlust continued all through his life and he later traveled, again on foot, through Wales, the Scottish Highlands, Holland, Italy, Germany and the Tyrol. He had trouble settling himself to a career; he had attended Douai with the intention of becoming a priest but abandoned the idea in favour of becoming a bookseller like his uncle. He then toyed with a career on the stage (his admiration for Shakespeare was so great that in later life he proposed erecting a colossal statue to the bard at the mouth of the Thames) but finally alighted on medicine. He studied at St Georges and become an accomplished anatomist and experimental surgeon. In 1801 he anatomised James Legg the executed Chelsea Pensioner for the benefit of three Royal Academicians who wanted to study the effects of crucifixion on the human body. In 1803 he was one of the fascinated audience of surgeons present when Giovanni Aldini used galvanic batteries to attempt the reanimation of another executed criminal, George Foster. Shortly afterwards he purchased his own electrical machine which he kept in his dining room to experiment on various fragments of human and animal corpses and he wrote a book on the subject “An Introduction to Electricity and Galvanism, with Cases showing their Effects in the Cure of Disease.” He also wrote books on human muscles, removing gall stones and a pioneering work on plastic surgery.

The 'Italian' method
Carpue published this “Account of Two Successful Operations for Restoring a Lost Nose,” in December 1815. The book surveys the history of early rhinoplasty, particularly the celebrated ‘Italian method’ which attached skin from the arm to the nose. The drawback of the Italian method was that severe cold weather often caused the transplanted nose to die and drop off. Carpue studied cases when noses which had been accidentally cut off were successfully sewn back into place and then adapted a technique used for centuries in India of rebuilding the nose using a flap of skin from the forehead which he had read about in an issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Carpue experimented with the technique firstly on a man who had lost his nose either through contracting syphilis or from the excessive administration of mercury to cure it. His second case was of an officer who had lost the end of his nose to a sabre at the Battle of Albeura in 1810. Both Carpue and his two patients were pleased with the result of the trailblazing operation though doubtless neither nose job would pass muster today.

J.F. South, twice President of the London College of Surgeons described Carpue as “a clever but very eccentric person. . . . a very good anatomist, who had but few pupils, and carried on his teaching by the very unusual method of catechism—for instance, he described a bone, and then made each pupil severally describe it after him, he correcting the errors whilst the catechisation proceeded. . . . I remember him a tall, ungainly, good-tempered, grey-haired man, in an unfitted black dress, and his neck swathed in an enormous white kerchief, very nearly approximating to a jack-towel.”  
Bust of Carpue by William Behnes - the inscription on the base is a stanza from
Thomas Hood's "Mary's Ghost; A Pathetic ballad" which  mentions the anatomist

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Hung, flayed and crucified; the gruesome fate of James Legg (1731-1801)

On October 28 1801, 70 year old Chelsea Pensioner James Legg was convicted of the murder of fellow pensioner William Lambe at the Old Bailey. The only witness to the murder was Lambe’s wife. She told the court that she was surprised that Legg, whom she had known for years, had shot her husband with a pistol because “I took him to be a very solid man, for he washed his own linen, cooked his own victuals, and took the sacrament regularly…” But on the morning of October second, in the common room of the Royal Hospital Mrs Lambe got up a little before seven to find Legg walking about “swearing, and quite in an ill humour, I thought; I asked him what was the matter, when he began to swear the more, and said, I will turn you out of the room, if you speak another word.”  William Lambe was still in bed, perhaps Legg’s threats to his wife woke him up for when she opened the door to their room he was just getting up. Legg brushed past her and put a pistol into his hand. Still half fuddled with sleep Lambe, according to his wife “took it, turned it about, and looked at it, and said, what is this for; the room was dark, and then he threw it into the common room; my husband had just put on a little flannel waistcoat, and stood up against the door.” Legg rushed up to him and fired his own pistol into Lambe’s chest, killing him immediately; “he endeavoured to call my name, but could not…” said Mrs Lambe pathetically. Legg seemed to be challenging Lambe to a duel, newspapers reported that he had said “You must get up and fight me,” as he threw the gun at Lambe but when the pistol was examined later it was found to be primed with gunpowder but to contain no bullet.

A Chelsea Pensioner in uniform

None of the witnesses at the trial had any idea why James Legg would want to kill William Lambe. When questioned Charles Coates, another pensioner and one of the first on the scene after the shooting told the court “I said, good God, why you have killed him, he is quite dead, how could you do so; he (Legg) paused, and said, I gave him a pistol in his hand, to come out and fight me like a man, he would not, but threw it down, then I fired….” The newspapers had reported that the two men had been at loggerheads over the coal ration but this seemed a poor motive for murder. So senseless did the killing seem that some witnesses suggested Legg was out of his mind.  Joseph Ryland, a tobacconist, swore that Legg did not seem in his right senses “This year past, he used to buy tobacco of me; one day, about half a year ago, he talked very wild, and said he was going to have a company, and be in commission afresh, under Lord Cornwallis in Ireland.” Ann Grant a nurse at the Old Infirmary testified “the prisoner was in the hospital, under my care, from the beginning of the year to the 10th or 11th of May; and, during that time, I saw a very great change in him, which I never saw before; a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself.” Mr Justice Heath was not swayed by this thin evidence of insanity and finding Legg guilty condemned him to death by hanging and, once dead, to anatomisation by the surgeons.

There was great public interest in James Legg. The Morning Post reported the scenes at Newgate Chapel the following Sunday when the condemned sermon was due to be read:

On Sunday morning a great number of persons attended the Old Bailey chapel to hear the condemned sermon. The principal objects of attraction were Smith, the pretended Parson, and Leigh, the Chelsea pensioner, both capitally convicted last week... The price of admission was at first a shilling; it soon rose to two shillings, and shortly after to three. From the increasing demand for places, and the affluent appearance of the visitors, the door keepers now thought they might sport box prices, and were on the point of demanding a crown a-head but unfortunately the place by this time was completely full, and the reflux of a disappointed tide put an end to any further solicitation for admittance. Still, however, numbers hovered about the place, waiting to receive an account of what passed within from their more lucky friends. From this state of suspense and expectation they were relieved much sooner than they could have had reason to hope. No condemned sermon was preached, the unfortunate objects of their curiosity did not appear in the Chapel, and the audience were dismissed after a short prayer. This disappointment was followed with loud murmurs against the Chaplain, and loud demands to have their money returned and, strange to tell, many Gentlemen did not leave Newgate without actual compulsion. 

The condemned sermon being read at Newgate Chapel

The same newspaper also gave a full account of the execution the following day:

Yesterday morning, a few minutes after eight o’clock, James Legg, the Chelsea pensioner, and Richard Stark, who were both convicted of murder at the present Old Bailey Sessions and ordered for execution were launched into eternity, opposite the debtors door of Newgate amidst the execrations of many thousand spectators who were assembled as early as half past seven o'clock, to witness their behavior at the place of execution.

Legg’s manner was as unconcerned during his confinement in the condemned cell as on his trial…. Throughout the whole of his confinement, he betrayed no fear of death, was always collected; and when he was about to ascend the scaffold, he took Mr. Kirby by the hand, and said, "I mind this no more than I would entering the field of action”. He afterwards shook hands with all around him, and turning to his companion Stark, who was weeping bitterly, said, 'Be a man, and die with spirit." He made use of many other exhortations, and so far succeeded as to make Stark hold up his head. Before they were turned off, Legg looked around, bowed to the populace, smiled, and appeared quite unconcerned. After hanging the usual time (an hour), their bodies were carried to the dissecting-room on Saffron-hill and this day they will be exhibited for public inspection. Legg was in the 25th regiment of foot about sixteen years, was born in Shropshire…. His appearance was prepossessing, an open countenance, about six feet one inch high.


The intention of the court was that Legg should be publicly dissected but the corpse was claimed by a staff surgeon at the Chelsea Hospital, Joseph Constantine Carpue, who had agreed to take part in an unusual experiment at the request of three prominent artists, Thomas Banks, Richard Cosway and Benjamin West.  All three were Royal Academicians; West was in fact the second President, having taken over the position left vacant on the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Banks was a celebrated sculptor, Cosway a portrait painter and the Anglo-American West a painter of historical subjects. These three distinguished men had been debating for some time the questionable anatomical accuracy of crucifixion scenes. They approached Carpue to help them determine the exact effects being nailed and hung from a cross would have on the human body. Conducting the experiment on a live human being would be likely to land them all in serious trouble so they settled on the next best option, experimenting with a fresh corpse.

Thomas Banks
Benjamin West
Richard Cosway

According to Carpue, Legg’s body was removed to a temporary building “erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided. The subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended…the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into…When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” Carpue then flayed the crucified corpse, removing every shred of skin and subcutaneous fat to expose the muscle beneath. Banks made another plaster cast of the body, a classic ecorché. Both casts were later displayed in Banks studio, creating huge public interest before being moved to the Royal Academy where the sculptor hoped they 'might be useful to the Students of the Royal Academy & also to the professor of Anatomy at the time of his giving his lectures as they may be mov'd from the Antique Academy to the Lecture room & back again with very little trouble'. In the 1820’s they were moved to Carpue’s own museum of anatomy. St George’s Hospital inherited the two casts from Carpue and during the First World War the ecorché ended up back at the Royal Academy. The other cast has been lost.

James Legg's ecorché cast in the Royal Academy collection.