Thursday, 29 October 2020

Premature burial of a baby at Abney Park Cemetery (1885)

From the London Daily News of 21 October 1885

This story was very widely reported in late October 1885 appearing in at least 70 national and provincial newspapers. All the stories consist of just one almost identical paragraph though there are a variety of headlines: child (or infant) buried alive (or nearly buried alive), child almost interred alive, burying a live child, narrow escape from being buried alive, strange scene at grave, startling discovery at grave,  an extraordinary story (or affair or case), Remarkable case of premature burial, and trance and premature burial…. The story first appeared on 20 October when it was reported in at least 11 newspapers across the UK from the Evening News in Portsmouth on the south coast of England to the Evening Express in Aberdeen on the north coast of Scotland.  Surprisingly in light of the 19th century obsession with premature burial and given the wide spread reporting of the story no one seems to have followed it up. Makes you wonder if it was really true.

Abney Park Cemetery is, of course, in Stoke Newington where Edgar Allan Poe, author of ‘The Premature Burial’ was a boarder at the Manor House school for 8 years from 1815 to 1823. Just a decade after this incident Dr William Tebb and Walter Hadwen founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896 with the aim of diffusing “knowledge regarding the pre-disposing causes of the various forms of Suspended Animation or Death-Counterfeits”. One of their concerns was that medical practitioners were not obliged to view a body before certifying a death so in many cases they were relying on the word of next of kin, ministers of religion or undertakers. In most cases death would have been self-evident but occasionally errors would be made. When they were made not many would awake in the nick of time and get themselves pulled out of their graves at the last minute.  

Do many babies still get buried alive? I was rather horrified when I googled it to see recent stories of squalling infants being dug up in cemeteries, waste ground and in woods across the world from Brazil, to India, China and the United States. In most cases they had been deliberately interred alive by parents who didn’t want them and most still had their umbilical cords attached. One hopes the incident in Abney Park cemetery was just human error… 

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!

Friday, 9 October 2020

Peter Ross 'A Tomb With A View; The stories and glories of graveyards' (Headline £20)

Graveyards themselves are essentially colons: they can introduce a narrative. Graveyards are opportunities for storytelling, for understanding who these people were and who we are.

Peter Ross in an interview for the Times

“I grew up in Graveyards. The dead were my babysitters, my quiet companions.”; Peter Ross opens his new book as though he is the protagonist of a novel by Neil Gaiman. In reality the award-winning Scottish journalist grew up in a house just like the rest of us though the house he lived in seems to have been a stone’s throw away from Stirling Old Town Cemetery where as a callow youth he went fishing for tadpoles or admiring the view across the city from an outcrop called Ladies’ Rock. To Ross graves were, and are “shelves full of stories”. Perhaps unsurprisingly the first living person in his new book is the ubiquitous Sheldon K. Goodman, who tells Ross “burial grounds are like libraries of the dead, indexes to lives long gone.”  I have a good deal of sympathy for that view; it is pretty much my own attitude towards cemeteries. For all our professions of lifelong fascination with cemeteries the truth is that 20 years ago graveyards were a bit of a niche interest and hardcore taphophiles were rare creatures indeed.  Cemetery books were published infrequently and cemeteries themselves were often lost and abandoned places. Graveyards have become fascinating in the age of the internet because on-line newspaper archives and genealogical sites make research of cemetery occupants much easier to do. And with their several million occupants UK burial grounds provide enough raw research material to keep bloggers and writers busy for at least another couple of hundred years. Is taphophilia the new trainspotting?   

The author in his element - Peter Ross in Greyfriars Kirkyard, photo by James Glossop for The Times

Ross’ book is a collection of journalistic short pieces on cemeteries in the UK and Ireland. He visits burial places in London, (Brompton for Sheldon’s Queerly Departed tour, Highgate, and Kensal Green), looks at Milltown cemetery in Belfast and its intimate connection with the troubles, visits the grave of Phoebe Hessel, the Stepney Amazon at St Nicholas in Brighton and Peter the Wild Boy in Hertfordshire, war graves on the Scottish Islands and attends a wedding at Arnos Grove cemetery in Bristol.  At Kensal Green he clears up a mystery that has puzzled me the last couple of years when he meets Mehdi Mehra, an Iranian businessman who built an extraordinary memorial to his eleven-year-old son Medi, who died in a riding accident. “Around his son’s grave,” Ross says, “he built a memorial on a scale the Victorians would recognise.” This is something of an understatement – the memorial is so huge it dwarfs everything else in the cemetery. It is so large it isn’t even immediately recognisable as a memorial. A 30-metre-long half circle of Corinthian columns built using 350 tonnes of granite, 150 tonnes of steel and 200 tons of concrete and decorated with angels holding torches, books and flowers, this is monument on a scale the Ancient Egyptians would recognise rather than the Victorians. At Glasnevin cemetery we hear the harrowing story of charismatic tour guide Shane Mac Thomáis who became an unexpected celebrity after appearing in a documentary about the cemetery One Million Dubliners. On March 19 2014 CCTV cameras captured Mac Thomáis entering the cemetery at 7.00 in the evening. Walking towards the main part of the cemetery he paused, turned around and saluted the camera. His body was found hanging from a tree next morning. His grave is now almost as big a draw at the cemetery as that of Michael Collins.

Ross is a good writer; this could so easily have felt like a collection of newspaper features loosely connected by theme but it doesn’t. The book is as concerned with the living as it is with the dead (something for which it has been criticised!) but the exploration of what draws the living to the dead is what in the end elevates this above similar offerings on the same subject. It is extremely readable, very polished and definitely highly recommended. 

Kensal Green - the 'Belgravia of death'.

Friday, 2 October 2020

The Perils of Foreign Travel; Julia Slater (1834-1858) Kensal Green Cemetery

The rather fine memorial for Julia Slater caught my eye when I was recently in Kensal Green Cemetery mainly because I couldn’t remember having seen it before. I was slightly puzzled because given where it is in the cemetery, I must have walked past it dozens of times – how could I not have noticed it? It was only when I started researching it that I discovered that it had been extensively restored and that I had seen it before, and indeed photographed it.  The renovation has so totally transformed it that it is hard to connect the crumbling pile of masonry that it was before the restoration with the rather spectacular monument that now stands in the same place. The memorial is Grade II listed. FoKGC had been wanting to restore it for some time but planning permission was only applied for in August 2016. Planning consent was granted by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in October 2016. The estimated costs for the works were £7990 (excluding VAT) but I suspect the final costs would have been significantly more than this. I don’t know who did the actual restoration but they made an excellent job of it.   

The memorial is an unusual triangular monument on a circular plinth made from Portland stone. The three faces of the triangle carry relief carvings of allegorical female figures, Faith holding a book and cradling a large cross, Hope with an anchor and Charity suckling an infant and with a child at her knee. There are carved palm trees at the three corners. Before restoration it was in a very poor condition, shrouded by encroaching trees, a gaping hole at one corner of the triangle, and covered in moss.  

Julia Slater, who died on 27 May 1858 at the age of 24 was the wife of Major Mortimer John Slater of the 5th Bengal European Regiment. She was born in 1834, in St Martin’s Lane, Westminster, the second daughter of John Pannett Bull, a successful haberdasher. She married her army officer husband on 06 February 1855 at Christ Church in Turnham Green where her father owned a second home, Arlington House. Within two months she was pregnant and on her way to India with her husband. Her son, named after his father, was born on 03 January 1856 in the British cantonment of Ambala in Northern India. Perhaps she was sent home to England with her new baby because she was already unwell. In England she went to live at the house of her father at 15 Hyde Park Street (just across the road from the house of Mr WH Smith, bookseller) where she died within a few months of arriving home. Her husband had been obliged to stay in India where he was eventually promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. He came from an artistic family his father John was one of three brothers who like their own father, became professional artists. He was born in 1824 and was educated at Marlborough. Presumably not having inherited any artistic talent he joined the Army of India and served in the first Afghan War. His abilities seem to have been administrative rather than military and he eventually became the Pension Paymaster based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In 1863 he was allowed to go home on leave where no doubt he looked forward to seeing the young son he hadn’t set eyes on since he was a baby. Unfortunately, he died on board HMS Nimrod on his way home on 29 October and was buried at sea. The baby Mortimer John Slater followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army. He died on New Years Eve 1897 at the age of 41 in Up Park Camp, British Army Headquarters in Jamaica. Julia rests alone in her splendid sepulchre, without her husband or her son, a lesson in the perils of foreign travel.