Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The man who buried himself - Vital Douat (1825-1875) St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Leyton

On Sunday 3 December 1865 the reverend Father McQuoid presided over what must have struck him as an unusual funeral at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leyton. The deceased, a French wine merchant from Bordeaux called Vital Douat, arrived on an ordinary dray cart rather than a hearse, direct from the train station. There was no undertaker (and consequently no help getting the heavy coffin down from the cart and into the chapel) and only one mourner, a mysterious foreigner who called himself Signor Bernardi, who spoke almost no English.  Bernardi insisted that Monsieur Douat was buried with full Roman rites but as soon as the coffin had been lowered into the grave and the gravediggers started shovelling earth over it, he disappeared, never to be seen again. The Douat grave lay unmarked, unvisited and neglected for several months until the weeds had taken over the plot and Father McQuoid had almost completely forgotten about the peculiar funeral. 

The entry for Vital Douat for the Oct-Dec quarter of the 1865 Civil Registration Death Index

Meanwhile in Paris, Marie-Clara the widow of Vital Douat, presented herself at the office of the Insurance Company where her husband had assured his life for 100,000 francs just a few months before. The Insurers were presented with copies of the English death and burial certificates and a claim was lodged.  The Insurers were suspicious; shortly after Monsieur Douat had taken out his life policy he had returned to Bordeaux and declared himself bankrupt. Investigation by the local fiscal authorities at the time had soon revealed the bankruptcy claim to be fraudulent and Douat had fled the country. The Insurers contacted Scotland Yard with their suspicions and the case was assigned to Sergeant Nathaniel Druscovich.

The Moldovan Detective Druscovich
Druscovich had been born in the parish of St George-in-the-East on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway in the east end of London in the 1840’s, the son of a carpenter from Moldova. He spent some of his childhood in Romania and spoke English with a noticeable foreign accent all his life. For this reason Scotland Yard often gave him their ‘foreign’ cases and so the thin file on Vital Douat landed on his desk to investigate. Druscovich soon discovered that on arriving in London Douat had booked himself into Fords Hotel in Manchester Street, Marylebone under the name Roberti. While there be had convinced a French waiter to sign the name Dr Crittie to a forged death certificate which he claimed was to be used to play a prank on a friend of his who never replied to his correspondence. The certificate said that one Vital Douat had died of an aneurism of the heart on 20 November. This certificate was presented to the Registrar of Deaths at Plaistow on 1 December by Douat (who was now using the name Bernardi), the body supposedly lying at 32 Anne Street, E13. The same day Douat presented himself at St Patrick's Cemetery, purchased a burial plot from the sexton and ordered a grave to be dug.

Druscovich then picked up the trail in the Mile End Road where Douat, now using yet another alias, Rubini, had bought a heavy ready-made coffin from an undertaker, asking for it to be adapted by the addition of extra lead lining and the handles to be placed at the ends of the coffin in the continental manner rather than at the sides in the English way. Two days later Douat/ Roberti/ Rubini/ Bernardi appeared again at the undertakers, paid for his coffin, hired two labourers to help him transport it and made his way to Shoreditch Station where he took the train to Leyton and had himself buried at St Patrick's. Druscovich had enough information to request an exhumation certificate from the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and a few days later accompanied by his boss, Inspector Williamson, two of the witnesses who had seen Douat whilst in London, and a doctor the small party made their way to Leyton to dig up the coffin. In the event neither the witnesses nor the services of the doctor were required, because once the coffin had been disinterred and unscrewed it was found to be completely empty. A warrant was issued for Douat’s arrest but by this time he was no longer even in Europe. Having decided it would be safer to remove himself as far away from the continent as possible until his insurance claim was settled out he had sailed to the United States sometime earlier.

Vital Douat at work sealing his own coffin in an illustration from "A Sleuth and a Mystery Coffin: Another True Story of the Master Detectives of Scotland Yard" published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec 4, 1927
Douat was arrested at Antwerp on his return from the United States. Whilst in Belgium he was tried for further crimes of forgery, including burning a ship in order to claim the insurance and, shockingly, condemned to death once convicted. By March 1867 the hapless Douat (surely the most incompetent white collar criminal of all time?) had had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and had been extradited to France to face fraudulent bankruptcy and forgery charges there. This was widely reported in the press:   

GETTING OFF LIGHTLY! A convict condemned to death in Belgium, whose sentence had been commuted to hard labour for life, has just been delivered up to the French authorities. His name is Vital Douat, of Panillac, in the department of the Gironde, and he was formerly a wine merchant in Bordeaux. He was condemned to death by sentence of the 13th of November last at Antwerp, for having in that city, where he had taken refuge in the false name of Willis Romero Donatry, wilfully set fire to certain combustibles for the purpose of burning one or more ships, being also convicted of forgery. He is now about to take his trial in France for fraudulent bankrupt, and for the forgery of bills of lading to the value of nearly a million of francs. His position is somewhat strange, for he escapes from a sentence of hard labour for life to undergo trial which can entail at most hard labour for a definite period, and should he be acquitted, which is not, however, very likely, there seems to be no way by which he can be given up again to the Belgian authorities for crimes committed in Belgium.

Douat's son Pierre-Albert was the French caricaturist J. Blass.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Sundown in the snow, Kensal Green Cemetery (December 2022)


These are the rest of my photographs from my visit to Kensal Green on the 15th December, all taken just before sundown.

This is Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia’s poem ‘Cementerio en la nieve’ (Cemetery in the snow) from his book Nostalgia de la Muerte (1934). My translation (all errors mine, please feel to correct in the comments section)) is below:

A nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve.
¿Qué nombre dar a la blancura sobre lo blanco?
El cielo ha dejado caer insensibles piedras de nieve
sobre las tumbas,
y ya no queda sino la nieve sobre la nieve
como la mano sobre sí misma eternamente posada.
Los pájaros prefieren atravesar el cielo,
herir los invisibles corredores del aire
para dejar sola la nieve,
que es como dejarla intacta,
que es como dejarla nieve.
Porque no basta decir que un cementerio en la nieve
es como un sueño sin sueños
ni como unos ojos en blanco.
Si algo tiene de un cuerpo insensible y dormido,
de la caída de un silencio sobre otro
y de la blanca persistencia del olvido,
¡a nada puede compararse un cementerio en la nieve!
Porque la nieve es sobre todo silenciosa,
más silenciosa aún sobre las losas exangües:
labios que ya no pueden decir una palabra.

Nothing can compare to a cemetery in the snow. What name to give to whiteness on white? The sky has let fall unfeeling drifts of snow upon the tombs and now nothing is left but snow upon the snow like a hand left resting on itself for all eternity.

The birds prefer to cross the sky, striking the invisible corridors of air, to leave just the snow, which is like leaving it intact, which is like leaving it snow

Because it is not enough to say that a cemetery in the snow is like sleep without dreams, nor like sightless eyes.

If something has a sleeping insensible body, from the fall of one silence upon another, and from the white persistence of oblivion, then nothing can be compared to a cemetery in the snow!

Because above all snow is silence, made even more silent on bloodless slabs: lips that can no longer say a single word.

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Kensal Green in the snow (December 2022)

The tomb of Alexander Nesbitt Shaw ('late of the Bombay Civil Service")

I took all these photos at Kensal Green Cemetery on the afternoon of the 15th December. The snow that had fallen a few days before was still on the ground and the temperature was still hovering around zero despite it being a sunny afternoon. The light was spectacular, a clear, cloudless afternoon with the sun already low in the sky by the time I arrived at 2.30. Despite it being ten days before Christmas there were still leaves on some of the trees and the colours of sky, snow and the last gasp of autumn were just beautiful.

I also took a lot of twilight pictures but I’ll post them later in the week.

Previous previous pre-Christmas visits to Kensal Green can be seen here (2018) and here (2019) and here (St Mary's Catholic Cemetery 2021)

View along Central Avenue towards the Anglican Chapel

Memorial to Major General Sir William Casement, Indian army officer

The Tomb of William Mulready, artist and Royal Academician 

The tomb of the circus equestrian Andrew Ducrow

A multitude of Angels (playing with your heart?)

The grave of George Ryall formerly of Lahore, India

Damn, I can't for the life of me remember whose grave this is...

Friday, 13 January 2023

The death of the Hardy tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard


Over Christmas the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard finally succumbed to blight and collapsed. No one was there to witness the trees last moment though reddit user Srinjoy Dey, who was the first to photograph the toppled ash on Boxing Day, says that he heard a loud bang just as he was going into the churchyard. The trunk had been snapped off at the point where it emerges from the encircling headstones.  I was last in the churchyard on 12th December when I was taking photos in the snow, including a few of the tree. On my first day back at work after the holidays I stopped off on the way into the office to see the damage for myself. I expected the fallen tree to have already been removed by Camden Council and to find myself contemplating its absence but it was still there, resting where it had collapsed, like a felled giant. As a concession to health and safety the council had surrounded it with a security fence, forcing me to risk losing my phone to take photos as I had to poke it between the wires to get a clear view. The fence also stopped me from acquiring a twig or a piece of bark as a souvenir, as I had planned. I have always been fond of the tree, and I’ve written about it several times, including a debunking of the myth that it had anything to do with Thomas Hardy. Looking at its mortal remains I felt slightly guilty, as if, in the days before they died, I had challenged the accuracy of the tall tales told by an elderly relative.

It was an anonymous commenter on one of my posts that tipped me off to the tree’s demise a couple of days after it had happened. By then the event had been reported on the BBC website and in the Camden New Journal, the Standard, the Guardian and in various other newspapers nationally and internationally, including the New York Times. Most of that initial coverage reiterated the story that it was Thomas Hardy himself that had arranged the headstones around the tree but by the time The Guardian followed up its initial coverage with an editorial published on 29 December entitled The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree; a legend uprooted, the connection with Hardy was being called into question;  

The toppling of a tree, without injury, in a city churchyard would not normally make news headlines, but the mighty ash outside London’s Old St Pancras church was one of the capital’s most venerated natural landmarks and a destination of literary pilgrimage. Encircled with gravestones that it seemed to be absorbing into its root system, the Hardy Tree acquired its name, and its celebrity, from a story that the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, then a young architect’s apprentice in a rapidly growing London, was personally responsible for stacking its trunk with stones cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway line in the mid-1860s.

…Hardy himself wrote of overseeing the exhumations. He was charged with turning up at unexpected times to ensure that the clerk of works was doing a respectful job and not simply dumping the bones, as had happened in previous cemetery clearances.

What is missing is any evidence that Hardy had any direct involvement in the arrangement of the stones. Moreover, photographs of the churchyard, unearthed by an assiduous amateur historian, suggest that the current ash grew between 1926 and 1960, only later becoming known as the Hardy Tree. That it had no greater verifiable connection with the Victorian author than, say, Sherwood Forest’s Major Oak had with Robin Hood, or Berkshire’s Ankerwycke Yew had with the signing of the Magna Carta, hardly matters. By mere dint of their longevity, trees collect myths and become lightning rods for the historical imagination.

There was a link to the work of the ‘assiduous amateur historian’, who I was pleasantly surprised to find out, was me. I wasn’t named but being tagged and linked by a broadsheet are enough kudos for me. Guardian readers are a literate bunch; the last contribution to the comments section before it was closed is a poem called Ashes to Ashes by Lepidus77;  

An assiduous amateur historian
questions the provenance
of the Hardy Ash, that crashed
in Old St. Pancras churchyard
late in twenty twenty-two.

Ashes are the opportunists
of the arboreal world,
good for a few hundred years
with luck, becoming
lightning rods for the historical imagination.

Legend has it Hardy helped
stack the stones to
stay the mighty ash
where the Shelleys had tiptoed
permissively, and later
Mary Wollstonecraft would lie.

We need that tree to have
predated Hardy, ideally
witnessing the sunlit
Shelley trysts, providing
shade for Mary’s long lying in.

A post-war chancer ash, toppling
after sixty odd years,
barely mocks our own
three score plus stint. We need
the ash to bookend us,
implying that life going on.

At least one commenter, who calls himself Alabasterhand, took umbrage with the Guardian questioning the authenticity of the connection between the tree and Thomas Hardy; “There is something positively malignant in the way that this newspaper seems grimly determined to sweep away what it seemingly regards as dangerous myths like the age of the Hardy tree.... If the Editorial team on The Guardian feels it has nothing better to do than to crush and stamp out charming, harmless consolatory legends then I would suggest it is high time they pack it in altogether.” Several other commenters pointed out that you can hardly complain about someone doubting the truth of something you call a ‘charming harmless consolatory legend’ as legends are, by definition, not true.

Another commenter, stpman, had additional interesting details to add about the history of the tree; “About 20 years ago I suspected that the tree was rather less than 100 years old and did some research at the Camden Local Studies Library in Theobald's Road, Holborn... In the late 1970s the graveyard needed repair work to the paths, railings and stonework. The gravestones were again tidied - and placed rather more neatly around the tree that had grown alongside from about the 1920s. I was told by the library staff that a St. Pancras church cleric began referring to it as "The Hardy Tree" at that time, and this is probably how the myth was born.”  Alabasterhand was quick to jump in again; “Hardy's activity at Old St Pancras is most certainly not a "myth" but a well documented fact, working under the supervision of the architect Arthur Bloomfield. I can moreover confirm that the circle of overlapping gravestones was attributed to Hardy to my clear memory in the mid 1960's. Why would anyone make up such a story? More importantly, why are people so keen to rush in to call the story into question? What horrible, joyless times we live in.”  Quite why anyone would take a correction to the factual record so hard is a mystery to me.

The Guardian finished its editorial with the following reflection;

The demise of an old tree is always sad. But perhaps the real story of the Hardy ash is that it wasn’t special; it didn’t witness the canoodlings of the Shelleys, fall in a freak storm or die in a scary, imported pandemic. The entanglement of root and stone reveals a history of nature and humanity competing and coexisting in a swiftly changing industrial landscape. In death, it has grown into its own urban myth.

The Hardy Tree when it was still hale and hearty