Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The dead man's beard and other tales of exhumation at Highgate cemetery (Part One)

Professor Pepper's statement in the course of his evidence in the case in the Druce case that the growth of hair ceases very soon after death, and that it is quite impossible for a corpse clean shaven to develop a bushy beard, is emphatically controverted by Dr. W. A. Jones. The latter says that he was concerned in case at Bedminster in 1881, in which the body of a man was exhumed after three months owing to allegations of poisoning. The man was clean shaven when he died, but the exhumed body had a large beard. There is, too, the instance of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's wife, whose body was exhumed in Highgate Cemetery to recover the MSS. of book of poems which her husband in his grief had placed in the coffin. It was found that the deceased lady's hair had grown to an extraordinary length, and had become so entangled with the MSS. that had to be cut to recover the volume.

Grantham Journal - Saturday 11 January 1908

Highgate was the location of London’s two most celebrated cases of exhumation; the pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddal who died in 1862 and was dug up again in October 1869, and the proprietor of the  Baker Street Bazaar, Thomas Charles Druce who died just a couple of years after Lizzie in 1864 but had to wait 43 years for his brief disinterment in December 1907. Lizzie Siddal’s unearthing was a furtive affair carried out in the dead of night by the light of a bonfire whilst T.C. Druce’s was carried out in such a blaze of publicity that the cemetery had to be closed to keep out the crowds and a temporary shed constructed over the grave to prevent snooping by the press and public.

The Druce-Portland affair is a well-known (and complex) story which became a cause célèbre in the early years of the last century. Thomas Charles Druce was a London businessman with obscure origins who worked himself up from being a salesman on Oxford Street to becoming sole proprietor of the Baker Street Bazaar, a sort of forerunner of the department store whose upper floors were once occupied by Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Druce had a complicated personal life involving two marriages, one of which wasn’t strictly legal as the bride had falsely declared herself to be of age at the ceremony, and a sizeable brood of children from both wives. He died in 1864 of complications arising from a fistula and was buried beneath a three-ton memorial at Highgate Cemetery. 34 years later Ann Marie Druce, the widow of one of Thomas’ sons by his second marriage, petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court of London to have her father in law exhumed. She claimed that T.C. Druce had at least two alternative identities and had been leading a double secret life, one as a Dr Harmer who she had met when he had held a position in a Lunatic Asylum and the other as the 5th Duke of Portland, the reclusive, eccentric and extremely wealthy owner of Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Marie claimed that the Duke assumed the identity of TC Druce and faked his death in 1864 when he had decided to retire to Welbeck. Although she may not have been entirely rational Marie had done her homework and had a significant amount of supporting evidence to back her superficially implausible claims. The Ecclesiastical Court dismissed her case nevertheless but the indefatigable widow refused to accept defeat and continued to pursue her efforts to get her father in law exhumed through other courts. As the matter rumbled on other Druce relatives were drawn into the fray, no doubt attracted by the sizeable estate of the deceased Duke who had never married and whose title and possession s had passed to distant relatives on his death in 1879. Marie’s case came to an abrupt end in 1903 when she admitted to a lunatic asylum but the battle to get Druce exhumed to prove that the coffin contained only lead weights was continued by George Hollamby Druce, an Australian grandson of Thomas via his first marriage, who financed his legal battle by selling shares in a limited company (premiums to be paid on settlement of the case). In 1907 the case finally reached the courts via a perjury charge against Herbert Druce, one of Thomas’ sons who had been with him when he died. It was to settle this case that the order to exhume Druce was finally signed by the Home Secretary.  

To thwart public prurience not only was the cemetery closed during the exhumation but an L shaped shed measuring 40 by 35 feet was built over the Druce grave at the insistence of the Home Office. Police patrolled the grounds of the cemetery from closing time and all through the night of 29 December and next day, according to the Falkirk Herald “the time officially fixed for the commencement of the operations was eight o’clock, but an hour before that 200 police constables relieved the watchers of the night, and posted themselves in the pathways and behind clumps of trees at all the entrances to the cemetery, and upon prominent points of vantage within it. They even guarded the doors of the grave-diggers’ cottages in Swain’s Lane lest some adventurous person might seek to use the windows overlooking the grounds.” Inside the shed ‘a small group of gentlemen’ and a larger group of workmen gathered. The gravediggers had to remove ‘mould and sod’ from the top of the grave then remove the massive flagstone which covered the entrance to the vault. Once the vault was opened an electric light was lowered into and it and a ladder was placed inside. The workmen first removed the coffin of Mrs Druce using ropes to pull her up into the shed and then removed the slabs covering the coffin of T.C. Druce himself. Before it was brought up a photographer was summoned to take a photograph of the coffin in situ. The account goes on:

The coffin was allowed to lie at the bottom of the tomb awaiting the arrival of Dr Pepper and Sir Thomas Stevenson, who appeared promptly at the appointed time. The men once more descended, and ropes being got round the casket it was hoisted to the surface with the utmost care. It was an old-fashioned coffin covered with cloth and studded, panel style.' with brass nails. One of its six brass handles had come off, but otherwise all that was amiss was some fraying of the cloth and a little wasting of the edge of the lid. Careful measurements were made of the dimensions by the professional gentlemen, and both Dr Pepper and Sir Thomas Stevenson made a detailed note of all these particulars, as well as of the actual state of the casket. The name-plate having been washed, the inscription became plainly visible; “Thomas Charles Druce, Esq., died 28th December, 1864, in his 71st year.” A photograph was taken, after which the gravediggers were ejected, and two workmen employed by the undertakers entered the shed, Unscrewed the lid with powerful pliers, and showed the lead inner coffin, which bore on its surface the same inscription as that on the outer oaken and cloth-covered coffin. Further measurements were taken and noted. A workman next cut through the lead all round the outer edge of the upper surface; the lid was removed, bringing away with it the top of the innermost wooden shell which was attached to it.

Then there was displayed a shrouded human figure, which proved to be that an aged bearded man. It is understood that after the Home Office experts and the other interested persons had made all the observations and records which the circumstances of the case demanded, steps were immediately taken to replace the coffin, to restore the vault to its original condition, and to replace the monument by which has hitherto been covered.

If anyone thought that the discovery of a body in the coffin rather than a set of lead weights would be the end of the case they were to be disappointed. As the London Evening Standard reported just two days after the exhumation, you can’t keep a good conspiracy theory down, and the principal claimant was already revelling in the potential ramifications of this new development;  

Mr. George Hollamby Druce, writing to the Daily Express, says that one vital question is who was the man, and what manner of man was he whose body was disinterred at Highgate and adds:—“What a maze of complications would ensue if it should turn out that the body interred in 1864 was that of man who was known as the Duke, while the man known as Druce lived on to personate and masquerade as the Duke!”

Druce’s beard now came into its own as a matter for contention. Ann Marie had always alleged that the clean-shaven Duke of Portland donned a false beard when posing as T.C. Druce; she even had photographs to show the transformation. These daguerreotypes were in themselves controversial. The reclusive Duke of Portland had never been known to subject himself to a studio sitting for a photographer so Ann Marie’s supposed image was immediately an object of suspicion. The picture did bear an uncanny likeness to a photo of Druce in full beard but the defence in the trial said that both photographs were of Druce, one clean shaven (apart from his mutton chop whiskers) and the other bearded. Virtually every witness called who had met either the Duke of Portland or T.C. Druce was quizzed about their facial hair at some point in their testimony. Contradictory responses abounded. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 03 December 1907 under the subheading  “Mr Druce, his change of whiskers” reported on the evidence of 73 year old Robert Cobington Naylor, of 73, Cromer Street, Gray’s Inn Road, who had worked as a photographer for Southwood Brothers, a studio opposite the Baker Street Bazaar, from 1860 to 1862;

Mr. Goodman: Have you any recollection of gentleman named Druce being a customer there? — Yes, decidedly.
Was he Thomas Charles Druce? — Yes; the proprietor the Baker Street Bazaar.
Have you yourself photographed him at Southwoods? — Yes.
Once, or more than once? — l think four times.
Did these occasions spread over the two years you were there, 186l and 1862? — I think the first time was in the early part of 1861, and the last time August 1862.
Had he always a beard on when you photographed him? — No.
Had he sometimes? — Yes.
Had he always, side whiskers? — No.
Had he sometimes? — Yes.
Did he wear a moustache? — Sometimes.
The three photographs were then handed to Mr. Naylor—the large one and two smaller ones. He identified all three photographs of Thomas Charles Druce and said that the large one was not his own work but the other two were produced by his firm. The beard, side whiskers and moustache worn by Mr. Druce were all false, but in the two small photographs it was natural hair which appeared. 

Naylor went to explain that when he left Southwood Brothers he had moved to Hastings. He had visited London in 1865 to go to the funeral of Tom Sayers the boxer (at Highgate cemetery) who had photographed with his dog at Hastings the year previously. Naylor told the court “that he met two friends while in London—John Rawlins and Mr. Batting, artificial florist, and they went together to the Baker Street Bazaar. It was in the afternoon, about four o’clock, and when they reached the Bazaar they saw Thomas Charles Druce in the hall, going into the waxworks. He was standing up in a frock coat, muffled up, and had a beard on.” Naylor said he had acknowledged Druce, and Druce had replied with a gesture. All this was odd because Druce had died over a year earlier. When challenged Naylor told the court he had not heard of Druce’s “supposed death and was therefore not surprised to see him.”  It was out of such muddled testimony that the prosecution hoped to create doubt against more reliable witnesses such as Druce’s sons. Following the exhumation though the judge was having none of it. He allowed the prosecution lawyers to quiz Professor Augustus Joseph Pepper on whether it was possible for a beard to grow post mortem but the venerable professor explained that it was not, that human hair did not continue to grow after death and any appearance to the contrary was simply due to shrinkage of the skin. On Monday 06 January the counsel for the prosecution finally faced up to the inevitable and withdrew their case adding “"I should be acting entirely contrary to the best traditions of my profession if I were to persist in this case."  Mr Plowden the Police Magistrate overseeing the case commented that this was not only a “wise and proper course, but if you will permit me say so, it is the only course which was open to counsel of your experience.” Speculating on how “the myth that confused him [Druce] and the fifth Duke of Portland in one and the same Personality ever arose would be idle to speculate on: sufficient say that the case is a fresh resultant of that love of the marvellous which is so deeply engrained in human nature, and is likely to be remembered in legal annals as affording one more striking proof of the truly unfathomable depths of human credulity.”

The Rossetti family grave in Highgate

A Rossetti Tomb Mystery. Professor Pepper, in his evidence at the Druce trial, called to prick one bubble, demolished a second. We are all familiar with the story of Rossetti's sacrifice; of his burying the manuscript of his poems with the body of his wife; of his yielding to the importunity and entreaties of friends, seven-and-a-half years after the interment, to have the manuscripts uncoffined. At dead of night, with a fire burning at the side of the tomb, the coffin was brought to the surface and opened, and the poems were removed from it. Mr. Hall Caine tells us that the beautiful golden hair of the dead woman had grown about the poems, and so enclosed them that it had to be cut. But Professor Pepper told the Court the other day that hair does not grow after death that such lengthening as is apparent results from shrinkage of the skin.
The Sketch 15 January 1908

It was inevitable perhaps that the Druce case would bring to mind that other celebrated Highgate exhumation, of Lizzie Siddal in 1869. The Siddal exhumation has already mentioned during the case itself during an argument in court about whether the Home Secretary’s permission was required before an exhumation could be carried out. The arguments about Druce’s post mortem growth of beard instantly reminded many commentators of the legend of the miraculous post mortem preservation of Lizzie Siddal’s corpse and the superabundant growth of her auburn hair filling the coffin and entangling itself in her husband’s manuscript. In January 1885, little more than 15 years after the exhumation, that most pragmatic of publications, the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, was reporting An Anecdote of Rossetti in a manner more suitable to a fairy-tale than a news story;  

When Gabriel Dante Rossetti was very young, scarcely more than a boy, he was deeply in love with a young girl; and having a poet’s gift, he sang a poet’s love in numerous sonnets and verses to her. She died young, and by her wish the manuscripts of these poems were placed in her casket, and laid under her head, so that even in the last sleep they should be, as they always had been, kept beneath her pillow. Years passed and Rossetti’s fame grew, until every line of his composition became precious, and some of those who prized his writing most asked him for copies of the songs that had been buried. He had kept no copies, or they had been lost. At all events, he could furnish none; and when they asked him to re-write the verses, he declared that he was utterly unable to do so. At last his friends importuned him for permission to have the original manuscripts exhumed. He consented after some hesitation, and after all the necessary preliminaries having been complied with, the grave which had been sealed for many years was opened in the presence of a wondering few. Then a strange thing was found. The casket containing the poems had proved to be of perishable material, and its cover had crumbled away The long tresses of the girl had grown after death, and had twined and intertwined among the leaves of the poet’s paper, coiling around the written words of love in a loving embrace long after death had sealed the lips and dimmed the eyes that had made response to that love.

Lizzie Siddal was a talented artist in her own right - this is one of her drawings
Dante Gabriel Rossetti met the 20 year dressmaker Elizabeth Siddall in 1849 when she was modelling for his friend Walter Deverell. She quickly became Rossetti’s model and muse and, somewhat less quickly, his wife (in 1860).  Rossetti’s middle class family did not approve of the working class Siddall and their relationship was always troubled. Lizzie’s health was also poor – at the time of her wedding she was so frail that she had to be carried into church. Her health was not improved by a pregnancy that resulted in a still birth in 1861 and following that trauma she quickly became pregnant again. She died of a laudanum overdose in February 1862. The death was judged to be accidental by the coroner at her inquest but rumours persisted that she had killed herself deliberately and had left a suicide note pinned to her nightdress which Rossetti had removed and destroyed.  She was buried, along with Rossetti’s manuscript, in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate. Seven years later is was Rossetti’s agent Charles Augustus Howell (“the vilest wretch I ever came across” according to Swinburne, “a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignant fellow,” in Burn-Jones’ view and for Ford Maddox Brown “one of the biggest liars in existence”) who persuaded him to exhume Lizzie and retrieve the missing poems. He arranged the exhumation and attended on Rossetti’s behalf. He was also generally acknowledged as the source of the story of Lizzie’s uncorrupted corpse and of the growth of her hair after death. 

Lizzie's memorial stone of the Rossetti grave