Friday, 28 September 2018

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

In May the Royal Academy finally opened the doors to its £56 million redevelopment to the public. The event received much coverage in the media including terrestrial TV news coverage. I was watching it on Channel 4 news which took you on a tour of the new gallery spaces, the new bridge linking Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building, the refurbished vaults and the new auditorium. They were interviewing someone, possibly Tim Marlow the RA’s recently appointed Artistic Director; I wasn’t really listening because my attention was transfixed by something in the background to the interviewee’s head shot. A life size model of a man being crucified. Some change in my demeanour, a shifting forward in my seat, widening of the eyes, a sharp intake of breath, I’m not sure what, alerted my wife that that I was taking more than usual interest in the programme.

“What is it?” she asked. I pointed to the crucifixion behind the interviewee’s neatly trimmed hair.

“That’s James Legg, the Chelsea pensioner, who was executed for murder then handed to the anatomists, who crucified him in an experiment then flayed his corpse and made a plaster cast…” I told her. She rolled her eyes and went back to leafing through her magazine, taking no further interest in the subject. I was much more interested in the 200 year old plaster cast than I was in the £56 million refurbishment of the Royal Academy. James Legg normally languishes in the RA’s vaults, seen only by students. He has occasionally been put on public view over the last two centuries but his public appearances are normally pretty brief and I have never managed to catch one of them. From the news report he looked to be on prominent display. I went to see him this week, the first opportunity I have had since seeing the news item in May, and didn’t even bother looking round the new gallery spaces, the new bridge or the new auditorium. I only had eyes for James.          

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 and friends, now apparently on permanent display in the Royal Academy vaults

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