The Hand of Glory

Curiosities, Folk Tales

When packing your kit for a casual night of burglary and thieving, you may be tempted to stick with the old tried-and-tested balaclava, torch and crowbar combination.

However, dear reader, may I suggest bucking the trend? Instead, try arming yourself with a tried-and-tested illuminating aid from yesteryear; the severed hand of a hanged man.

Lightweight and versatile! Let me tell you about it…

 

A Hand of Glory was of particular interest to burglars and house-breakers of yesteryear. It was a widely-held belief that using the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man as a candle or candle holder would transfer somewhat magical powers to the bearer. While the specifics vary between countries and regions, the desiccated hand generally assisted in robbery.

The hand’s powers were recorded in many 18thcentury documents and varied in inventiveness and severity.

These included, but were not limited to:

  • Possessing the ability to burn forever; providing endless light.
  • Providing a light only visible to the perpetrator and not to the householder.
  • Holding the ability to unlock any door.
  • Magically rendering any person motionless upon presentation of the hand.

 

The most consistent and well known of these abilities was that placing the hand outside or on the doorstep of a house would render all the occupants in such a deep sleep that the burglars movements could not wake them.

While using the hand as a candle holder seems the most practical of setups, there are many stories in which the fingers themselves act as candles. In such accounts, each finger that catches alight signals the number of inhabitants within the house who are sleeping. Subsequently, once the finger begins to burn, that person was believed to be unable to wake. However, an unlit finger could create confusion; the lit fingers could signal that all inhabitants were sleeping, but did not account for everyone within the house. An unlit finger could signal there were no more inhabitants or that one was still awake. There are similar accounts of burglars misjudging the amount of people within the house on account of inhabitants outnumbering flaming fingers.

The practicalities of lighting fingers may not have suited all criminals, so a popular alternative was purported to be bending the fingers around a separate candle which was itself sculpted from the deceased’s fat with the man’s hair as a makeshift wick.

Hand of Glory Varients

Hand of Glory Varients

But how does one create their own hand of glory? Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have been a task requiring specialist work, and it was certainly no mean feat to find an abundance of hanged men in the 18thcentury.

When creating your mystical severed appendage, there were rules to be followed. Your hand had to come from a man who was still swinging from the gallows. A right hand is preferred, especially if your chosen felon was a murderer – the right hand being regarded as ‘the hand that did the deed’. However, even severed hands aren’t black and white and some preferred to use the other, as left hands were traditionally thought of as the ‘sinister hand’ in Christian tradition.

Preferably, you should remove the hand at night, unless there’s a mad rush following the hanging. Afterwards, a series of blood-draining, finger positioning, pickling and mummifying follows.

In 1722, Petit Albert recorded how to prepare a hand yourself –

 

‘Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.’

 

Examples of ‘Hand of Glory’ usage have been noted all over Europe for around 400 years. The name itself is thought to derive from the French term ‘main de gloire’, a version of ‘mandragore’, meaning ‘mandrake’. Mandrakes have long been regarded as having magical properties. Some historians believe the folk-beliefs surrounding the hand of glory relate directly to these mandrake beliefs. It was thought to be a plant that would grow beneath the gallows of a hanged man, directly from his ‘seed’. Which is a thought to dwell on in itself.

Mandrake

Mandrake

Mandrake leaves were also thought to resemble hands, which is an understandable reference. Similarly, in Saxon times, it is said that mandrakes were thought to shine at night, which similarly may have fed into the legend of the Hand of Glory’s powers.

But how does one protect their household from the mystical powers of a severed hand?

18thCentury householders had several options. A popular option was that, upon finding a burning hand, one could extinguish the flame with sterilised milk or blood, rendering it useless. However, no historical preventative ritual would be complete without an elaborate concoction of animal bits –

‘The Hand of Glory would become ineffective, and thieves would not be able to utilize it, if you were to rub the threshold or other parts of the house by which they may enter with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl.’

 

Whitby Museum's Hand of Glory

Whitby Museum’s Hand of Glory

 

As most Hand of Glorys have been lost to the fleshy sands of time, there are few remaining today. As far as I am aware, the only remaining hand in the world rests in Whitby Museum where it is very nicely displayed beside a monumental Victorian jet and fossil collection.

Whitby’s hand was found in the early 20thcentury, hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by stonemason Joseph Ford. It has been in the museum’s possession since 1935 and continues to be a draw to this day.

As hanging and extreme superstitions lost their place in society, so did the Hand of Glory. And although only one hand remains, those of you living in historical houses might find some withered treats within your walls should you ever wish to take on renovations…

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Whitby Museum, North Yorkshire

http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins15607-the-hand-of-glory.html

https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/whats-here/collections/special-collections/hand-of-glory/

https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/

 

Images-

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-severed-hands

evil.wikia.com

And author’s own.

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Ghosts, Hauntings, Superstition

The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.

Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.

But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.

image

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

 

The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.

The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.

 

There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.

However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.

The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;

 

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. 

…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.

…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.

 

Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.

 

There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.

raynham-hall-main

Raynham Hall

The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.

After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.

Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.

Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.

brownlady_001

Country Life Magazine, 1936

Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.

 

Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.

 

Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.

 

Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.

And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.

 

 

Sources:

 

http://hoaxes.org/raynham.html

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Lady_of_Raynham_Hall

 

http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/dorothywalpole.htm

 

https://fern-flower.org/en/articles/ghost-rayham-hall

 

A Short History of British Screaming Skulls

Curiosities, Death, Folk Tales, Hauntings, Superstition

 

While sounding like a high-school punk band, screaming skulls are a not-uncommon element woven through the rich British tapestry of haunted body parts.

Screaming, or more specifically, haunted skulls make their home in several towns throughout England.

These skulls need not necessarily be attached to a body, but rather exist independently from their corporeal form. Rather than aimless haunting, or haunting in more attractive surroundings, it is said that these skulls are emotionally linked to the houses in which they wish to continue to live.

 

Screaming Skulls are most commonly attributed to those who suffered religious persecution during the Henry VIII’s 16thCentury Reformation, or under Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil war in the 17thCentury. Immediately prior to their death/undoubtedly violent murder, all owners of future haunted skulls professed that they wished to be buried within the walls of the house in which they lay. When these wishes were ignored and the persecuted individual was laid to rest in a grave, vault or in undesired grounds, the spirit fought back.

Inhabitants of these houses reported strange noises; bangs, crashes and moans and various ‘unexplained happenings’. Once the houses’ occupants made the connection between the noises and the deceased, they frequently disinterred the skull, returning it to the homestead. While the skull rests in the home, undisturbed (on its shelf, stoop or within its case) all is well, yet once one attempts to remove said skull, supernatural chaos ensues.

 

Should one try to dispose of such a ‘screaming skull’ by any means – via physical destruction, throwing into a river, or even by burial – the skull will always return to its house intact. More often than not, the skull delights in its revenge by not only terrifying the perpetrator, but cursing them with bad luck, a poor harvest or illness.

 

While the UK has several such skulls, below are three of our greatest hitters.

Because if you can’t have a top of the pops style countdown on severed heads, what can you truly enjoy in life?

 

The Bettiscombe Skull

Bettiscombe SkullThe Bettiscombe skull is attributed to an unnamed slave from the West Indies whose unfortunate path led him to Lyme Regis, Dorset. The slave was originally thought to have been brought to Dorset to serve Azariah Pinney, a plantation owner and dealer in the Slave Trade.

As with most apocryphal stories of slaves at this time, it is unclear whether the unnamed slave was a victim of, or perpetrator of, a murder. Nonetheless, the deceased’s wishes were to be buried back in his homeland. These were ignored and this supposed ‘faithful black servant’ was interred at Bettiscombe churchyard, in response to which, his haunting began. Supposedly screams were heard from the churchyard, and bizarre noises emanated from the farmhouse. The disturbances only ceased when the body was disinterred.

In 1872, it was published in Dorset “Notes and Queries” that:

 

The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.”

 

Many attempts were made to re-bury the body, but with little success. Such attempts were so frequent and ill-managed, that after time, only the skull remained. The skull eventually found its resting place back at the farmhouse, in the nook of a staircase.

Or so the legend goes…

In more recent years, the skull was examined by Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons. He deemed the skull as not only female, but pre-historic in origin, most probably a sacrificial victim from an earlier settlement. Yet the legend had laid roots and is well known, and well-minded to this day.

The skull’s – and the Pinney family’s – journey is well documented throughout the years and is well-researched by the Dorset County Museum, whose links I have provided at the bottom of this article.

 

The Tunstead Farm Skull

Tunstead Farm, known locally as ‘Skull Farm’, sits in a quiet hamlet in Derbyshire that dates back to the 13thCentury.dicky2

According to local legend, there are many options as to the owner and ‘haunter’ of the head:

Firstly, a (as ever) unnamed young woman was murdered in the same room as the skull is kept. Secondly, a man named ‘Ned Dixon’, a spurned ancestor of the farm’s owners or thirdly, and most dramatically, a murdered sister.

The most gripping of these potential haunting sources originates with two sisters, both enamoured with the same man. In jealousy, one murdered the other. On her deathbed, the murdered sister proclaimed that her bones would never rest.

As referenced in the blog ‘Ludchurch’ (linked below), the 1895 work ‘Household Tales and other Traditional Remains’ went on to say that:

 

‘Her bones are kept in a cheese vat in the farmhouse which stands in a staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die or are seized with illness.’

 

The skull, nicknamed “Dickie” was also said to be a supernatural guardian of the farmhouse and forces knocking noises to herald the approach of strangers. Supposedly, Dickie’s rappings have also heralded deaths in the family and further issues with livestock.

 

As with most other haunted skulls, all is well unless Dickie is removed, in which case auditory chaos reigns. Superstitions concerning Dickie’s power over the farmland, that in 1870, following issues with a railway company and unsuccessful (on account of Dickie’s intervention) building work, a Lancashire poet wrote:

 

Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’ thee,lad,

An ‘let navvies an’ railways a ‘be;

Mon tha shouldn’t do soa, its to bad,

What harm are they doin’ to thee?

Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’

But leov o’ these matters to th’wick;

They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know-

Dos’t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?

 

After several instances of theft and frenzied return, Dickie remains at the homestead where she occupies her usual spot by the kitchen window.

 

The Wardley Skull

The Wardley Skull has two potential roots – one fanciful, one probable.

Wardley SkullThe less-likely legend surrounds the skull- that it is the cranium of Roger Downes, a shamed member of the family owning Wardley hall who, after escaping a murder trial, drunkenly attacked a watchman who swiftly beheaded Downes with a swipe of his rapier.

(This would be improbable, nigh impossible – hence the unlikely legend.)

The Wardley Skull follows the tradition of persecuted clergy, reportedly belonging to a Catholic priest, Father Ambrose Barlow who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1641. His severed head was subsequently put on display at Lancaster Castle, later being stolen by a Catholic sympathiser and secreted within the walls of Wardley Hall.

The skull lay undiscovered until the 18thCentury where the legends surrounding its power begun to take hold.

It is said that, believing it to be an animal skull, a servant of Matthew Moreton (the then owner

 

of Wardley) hurled the skull into the Hall’s moat. That night, a particularly strong storm broke out. Both the skull and the Hall’s owner were displeased with this turn of events, with the owner demanding the draining of the moat and the safe return of the skull.

Although not open to the public, the Wardley skull remains protected in a niche beside the main staircase, preserved behind glass.

 

While Morris Dancing, Cheese-Rolling and the burning of treacherous effigies atop bonfires have maintained their twee popularity over the years, I put my vote in for the return of a greater British tradition. A good, haunted skull. If anyone needs me, I’ll be disinterring some clergy…

 

Sources/Further Reading:

https://dorsetcountymuseum.wordpress.com/tag/pinney-family/

https://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/places-of-interest-in-cheshire/the-cursed-skull-of-tunstead-farm/

https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/skulls.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=28

http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/screaming-skull.html

http://www.landcas.org.uk/wardleyhall.html

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/screaming-skulls-folklore-fact-and-fiction/

Haunted England – Christina Hole (1940)

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1992)

 

 

Cora L. V. Scott – Medium, Spiritualist, Icon.

Mediums, Spiritualism, Uncategorized

Hello reader! My aim for this blog is to cover elements of all aspects of burials and ‘beyond’… While I have some rather exciting cemetery posts on the backburner, I’ve certainly slacked on starting my most exciting/obsessive series concerning mediumship, Victorian spiritualism and wonderfully (potentially morally questionable) entrepreneurial women avoiding gender boundaries like ghosts in televised ghost hunts.

CoraHatchSm-2

 

 

 

This week on Burials and Beyond, I’d like to introduce you to Cora L V Scott, one of the most influential mediums in the 19th century spiritualist movement and the most famous Victorian you’ve never heard of.

Probably…

 

 

 

 

Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott was born in 1840 near Cuba, New York. At birth, Cora’s face was covered with a caul; a piece of membrane that many cultures believe to give the wearer a ‘sixth sense’ or special abilities (Should you want to read more about beliefs surrounding the caul, read my previous blog post on the magical membranes HERE).

 

Her parents, who had been dedicated Presbyterians, turned to universalism and joined the Hopedale religious community in 1851. After a time, the Scotts found Hopedale too crowded for their likings and, with the blessings of Hopedale’s founder Adin Ballou, they moved to pastures new. The Scotts founded their own international religious community in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1852. Sadly, due to the death of Cora’s father in 1853, she left Wisconsin a year later to return to New York. But here is where things get very interesting indeed.

Cora_L_V_Hatch_Engraving

In 1852, when the Waterloo community was in its infancy, Cora began to show the first signs of her (supposed) supernatural/spiritual abilities.  Aged 11, while dozing on her schoolwork in the family garden, Cora awoke to find that her writing slates were covered with unfamiliar handwriting. It is said that, excited and bewildered, Cora showed the slates to her mother who was alarmed by their contents and quickly hid the offending script. The writing Cora had presented was said to have been addressed to ‘My Dear Sister’, referring to a long-deceased sister of Cora’s mother. It is in these pubescent years that Cora’s abilities are said to have developed with sudden and unrelenting speed.

 

Cora’s sudden need for sleep, or ‘trances’ as they became known, began to increase in frequency. As the child fell asleep in the drawing room shortly after the first communicative experience, her hand began to twitch, as though writing. While her mother attempted and failed to rouse her, she soon thought to put slate and pencil into Cora’s hand. Several messages from deceased relations later, each closing with the phrase ‘We Are Not Dead’, this ‘ability’ was clear to make the young girl’s name.

 

Now, with the blessings of her mother (thanks to the reassurances of deceased relatives), Cora’s periods of trance sleep – now occurring multiple times a week – attracted crowds eagerly awaiting her messages. It is said that she delivered meaningful messages from deceased parties to endless gathered strangers. It was in these early years of her development that Cora was frequently ‘taken over’ by the spirit of a German surgeon – which considering young Cora was neither, was quite a feat.

 

Her Germanic guide would take over Cora for some several hours a day, healing those who came to her, and visiting those who were too ill to make the trip. She supposedly caused such a stir within her community that both doctors and ministers alike were perturbed by her presence and her mysterious healing abilities. The blog ‘The Unobstructed Universe’describes the clergy within her community as being ‘sycophants’, disgruntled by their empty pews (due to Cora’s proofof life beyond death) with their parishioners ‘doing their own thinking’. Opinions around Cora’s abilities, particularly her work during this German era (much like Bowie) continue to be delivered with much conviction, even today.

 

Indeed, in one of many apocryphal stories of her youth, she was deemed ‘satanic’ by clergy after successfully operating on Mr Keyes, a carpenter, whose infected finger was causing him great distress. The German spirit surgeon was soon thriving through these small acts of medical intervention. However, it must be reiterated, the surgeon was just that, and Mr Keyes, although free of infection, still lost part of his finger.

Soon, Cora’s small community became a spiritualist stronghold where traditional practises of faith and medicine were surplus to requirements.

 

Still aged eleven, Cora’s spirit guides commanded it that she be removed from school, as the current teachings of man would do them, and in turn, her mediumistic abilities, no good. Given the idea, I can attest that most eleven year olds would convey the same message, spirit guides or not.

Therefore, after watching the young girl’s abilities, it was decided that Cora would be utilised for public speaking. After reading no specialist textbooks, the young girl showed the ability to speak on a plethora of scientific and esoteric subjects via the intelligence of multiple spirits. As her name and abilities grew, she could speak on any subject given to her by a public audience, all with supernatural accuracy.

After moving to Buffalo, New York aged fourteen, by fifteen, she was commanding large audiences and amazing the masses. Her age, as with many other young successful mediums, certainly played a key part in solidifying the legitimacy of her abilities.

250px-Cora_L_V_Richmond_-_portrait_-_1876

Accounts of mediums early years are, more often than not, fantastical and compelling, but must (understandably) be taken with a pinch of salt. One must remember that however one may believe the authenticity of another’s abilities, personal histories within the 19thcentury were exactly that – written and edited however one wanted, with few means of referencing their paranormal claims.

 

As with all good Victorian mediums, much of their early years are filled with apocryphal tales of unexplainable abilities and communications from heretofore unknown relatives, where later years, tales of success and fraud are far more equal in their frequency. Did pre-teen Cora speak in fluent German and operate on those who were suffering? While many may see it as unlikely, many others beg to disagree to this day.

 

Frank Podmore, writing in 1902, said that ‘naughty little girls have for many generations amused themselves and mystified their elders by rapping on the foot of their wooden bedsteads and throwing the less expensive crockery…’ (202)

 

While rather dismissive in language, Podmore is not untrue in his generalisations. Many successful female mediums required lavish backstories, where mediumistic abilities were developed from a very young age. Some claimed to summon coal from thin air, others talked to deceased relatives while some levitated or solved murders. Dipping your toe into the pool of early mediumship spills forth a veritable flood of mystical childhoods.

 

Cora first married aged sixteen. Her husband, some thirty years her senior, was the professional mesmerist Benjamin Franklin Hatch. He subsequently became Cora’s manager, moving her into performance circles she had previously been unable to permeate as a young, unmarried woman. For better or worse, he equipped Cora with a showmanship lacking in many of her contemporaries.

Her marriage with Hatch was fraught with problems, her divorce proceedings (still recorded in newspaper archives) even more so. With back and forth claims of abuse and affairs on both sides, they were divorced in 1863. Twenty-three year old Cora was not on her own for long, but managed to get three more marriages under her belt before her death in 1923.

 

Despite her troubled personal life, Cora’s large public lectures were a huge source of income and notoriety for much of her professional life. Unlike many mediums who preferred to conduct one to one readings or slate writings in a large arena, acting as background artists to their phenomena, Cora was at its forefront. She delivered lectures on a wide range of topics from spiritual and esoteric matters for mathematics, physics and the abolition of slavery.

There are multiple testimonies of triumphant lectures; stories of moral redemption and scientific astonishment.

 

Her biographer Harrison Delivan Barrett recounts-

“At Lynn, Massachusetts, in December, 1857, a committee composed of scholarly men anticipated that they would confound Cora’s guides by asking, “Will you please define the Pythagorean proposition?” Speaking through Cora, the guides asked, “Which proposition do you mean – the Moral Code or the so-called Scientific Proposition?” When no answer came from the committee, the guides took up the Moral Code. Following that discourse, a committee member, apparently a scientist, asked, “What is the diameter of a bucket filled to the brim with water?’ The response came through Cora, “The diameter of a bucket of water is probably as great as the diameter of a cranial structure, destitute the grey material denominated ‘brain’ by so-called scientists.”

 

By 1858, Cora had given some 600 lectures and assurances of her wondrous insight andCoraT1875 legitimacy were strewn throughout periodicals and newsletters. Commenting on a lecture Cora delivered aged 18, Dr A. B Childs commented that ‘The lady can address an audience of five thousand people with great ease, and the guides through her give an elaborate discourse upon any subject the audience may choose. There cannot well be a greater test of Spirit power than this.” (Jul 24th1858)

 

Not only was Cora able to lecture extensively on any subject given to her, but she delivered these talks through the abilities of co-working spirits, some of whom were particularly well known. On 24thFebruary, 1883, Cora delivered a lecture in one of her trances via the spirit of President James A Garfield, who had been assassinated two years prior.

 

Many transcripts of Cora’s ‘high level trances’ have been preserved for students and believers of Spiritualism, and are held up by many as still possessing unrivalled insight into the spirit world. Those behind Interfarfacing.org and the extensive Cora L V Richmond Archives remark that ‘For future generations they will bring more knowledge and wisdom to students better able to perceive larger portions of the gestalt; universal spiritual quantum physics.’

 

The lectures Cora so expertly delivered are often recorded as being as successful and thought-provoking as her early spiritualistic work in her small community. However, due to the developments in newspaper and periodical culture, unimpressed attendees’ voices were afforded as much column space as those celebrating the medium’s abilities. Taking newspaper reports and cultural context into account… when lecturing, it seems Cora may have spouted a lot of drivel.

 

As reported in the Boston Courier on November 21st1857, Cora Scott’s (then, Hatch) appearance and lecture was not received so positively by all attendees.

 

‘The first evening [Monday], Mrs. Hatch, though professing to be too ill to speak at all, did, nevertheless, talk one hour and a half “against time,” in order that the committee might not have an opportunity to test her claims to scientific attainments…Seven-eights of her time, at least, was consumed in rhapsodies upon points that had notthe most distant connection with the subject given her; and when at last she concluded, she said, that “in consequence of illness and exhaustion of the medium, we shall answer no questions tonight.” This was a downright imposition upon those who had been invited there to test her superhuman powers, and an effort was made to induce her to answer. Her reply was: “The spirts have declined to answer, and that is sufficient.”’

 

Despite such comments littering newspapers throughout Cora’s professional career, many people continue to praise her as one of life’s great inspirational speakers. A skim through psychic and spiritualist archives will unearth a plethora of contemporary journals who still explore the academic merits of her lectures. Considering Cora was actively speaking, presenting and lecturing at conferences until her death in 1923, there’s a LOT of material to sift through.. and as much as I adore the legacies of female Victorian mediums, I wanted to make this post part of a series, not a thesis!

 

A medium’s success and the hysteria surrounding so many performances and supposed demonstrations of other-worldly abilities are understandably easy to mock through modern eyes. There are understandably endless technological, cultural and social aspects to consider, but also developments in spiritualism itself; trance mediumship and performance mediumship/mesmerism on such a scale was new to many North American audiences. A growing willingness to speculate on the nature of eternity and a keenness to explore the new field of spirit study and experience the zeitgeist as it toured your doorstep. To put it bluntly, the 19thCentury wasn’t drowning in Psychic Sallys and Derek Acorahs.

 

After a series of spirit-guided lectures in the UK (to moderate success at most), Cora returned to North America in 1875, becoming a pastor in a Chicago spiritualist church (a position she held until her death), where she finally seemed to lay roots.

 

While doubts were cast upon her legitimacy as a medium in her lifetime, admirers of, and believers in, her work remain as passionate today as in Cora’s mortal lifetime.

Personally, I admire Cora’s gumption. She was a critic of evolution, four-times married at a time when one divorce would often ruin a woman’s reputation and publically danced about scientific topics through rambling spirit raptures on the nature of existence. She was a businesswoman, a celebrity and a woman with more confidence than anyone should strictly possess.

To me, whether or not she held mediumistic powers is immaterial; she was an international artist and icon, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

 

 

 

Further Reading/Sources:

 

https://interfarfacing.com

 

https://interfarfacing.com/statements.htm

 

http://psychictruth.info/Medium_Cora_Lodencia_Veronica_Scott.htm

 

http://theunobstructeduniverse.com/TUU_Blog/cora-l-v-richmond-the-most-amazing-medium-youve-never-heard-of/

 

http://www1.assumption.edu/WHW/Hatch/LifeWork.html

 

https://hatch.kookscience.com/wiki/Cora_L.V._Scott

 

 

The Curious Case of Edward Mordake’s Demon Face

Curiosities, Folk Tales, urban legends

 

You think you’re having a bad day? Well, imagine how bad you’d be feeling if you had a second face on the back of your skull, whispering ‘things one would only speak about in hell’ as you slept. What if the face delights in your suffering and ultimately results in your suicide?

It would be doubly bad if you were also fictitious.

But let’s not allow such trifles as ‘truth’ to hamper our enjoyment of emotionally abusive apocryphal parasitic heads.

Edward Mordake (sometimes cited as ‘Mordrake’) first appeared in ‘official’ publication in 1896, in Gould & Pyle’s ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine’. He was purportedly a 19th century gentleman who was ‘heir to one of the noblest peerages in England’, and an accomplished musician and scholar. He was born with a case of polycephaly, or craniopagus parasiticus (depending on your reading of the legend), which resulted in the growth or a parasitic face behind his own. His ‘main face’ was said to be so chiselled and beautiful that it was referred to as being an Antinous – “arguably the most notorious pretty boy from the annals of classical history”. However, his parasitic face was that of a beautiful woman, “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil” that possessed a form of independent sentience and intelligence.

The initial report recounts – “The female face was a mere mask, “occupying only a small portion of the posterior part of the skull, yet exhibiting every sign of intelligence, of a malignant sort, however”. It would be seen to smile and sneer while Mordake was weeping. The eyes would follow the movements of the spectator, and the lips “would gibber without ceasing”. No voice was audible, but Mordake avers that he was kept from his rest at night by the hateful whispers of his “devil twin”, as he called it, “which never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in Hell.”

Mordake is said to have attributed the parasitic face to a curse or punishment as a result of the wrongdoings of his ancestors. It was reported that he begged his physicians to dispense with the face, even if it resulted in his death. Yet his pleadings were to no avail, and, driven mad by his attached ‘fiend’, committed suicide by poisoning at the age of 23. Yet, before doing so, he made sure to leave instructions as to the treatment and burial of his body, requesting the destruction of the ‘demon face’ and to be ‘interred in a waste place, without stone or legend to mark his grave.’

Like most perpetuating urban legends, there are no sources cited in the original text. Gould and Pyle cited only that the story of Mordake had been taken from ‘lay sources’, or, word of mouth. While this original printed source is from a medical background, its authenticity can be hugely brought into question when considering the other accounts within the work, many of which are similarly unreferenced and untraceable.

While the story of Mordake appears to be little more than hearsay, many academics (and the hard-working people behind ‘The Museum of Hoaxes’) have followed the crumb-trail to a further, earlier source – that of The Boston Post in 1895. The Wonders of Modern Science: some half human monsters once thought to be of the Devil’s brood,’

The article, as penned by poet and fiction writer Charles Lotin Hildreth is a collection of descriptions of ‘human freaks’ as catalogued by the (non-existent) ‘Royal Scientific Society’. ‘stand-out’ characters include ‘The Fish Woman of Lincoln’, the ‘Four-eyed man of Cricklade’ and ‘Half Human Half Crab’. However, the illustrations included to assist the reader’s imagination are worth viewing for their bizarre artistic merits alone. Last in Hildreth’s list, just after the ‘Norfolk Spider’, is that of ‘Mordake and his “Devil Twin”’, later being lifted word-for-word for Gould & Pyle’s publication. Mordake is not exactly in credible company.

While printed as a standard newspaper report, the presentation of fiction as non-fiction was commonplace in 19th century news culture. While amusing to a contemporary audience, such creative efforts led to multiple urban legends and hoaxes being accepted as fact into contemporaneous and contemporary culture. It must be considered that Hildreth was a prolific author of science fiction and lurid gothic poetry; images presented in his ‘Wonders of Modern Science’ article would not sit out of place within his other literary creations.

Sadly (or thankfully, however you look at it), Mordake was categorically a creation of Charles Lotin Hildreth, and arguably his most successful creation. Nonetheless, images of Mordake perpetually circulate on social media, usually attacked to a black and white photograph of a two-headed man (see pictures). However, the image is that of a wax effigy created some time after Mordake came to the public fore, and is simply an imagined likeness.

Still today presented as a human ‘oddity’ or meme, images of Mordake’s wax likeness circulate as fact and are still featured in novelty publications and wax museums to this day.

 

 

Further Reading/Sources Used

hoaxes.org/images/hoaxarchive/mordale_article.jpg

snipes.com/fact-check/edward-mordrake/

hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/edward_mordake

thehumanparvels.com/from-the-archives-edward-mordake-poor-edward/

 

Picture Sources/Referenced Texts

hoaxes.org

curioustendency.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/edward-mordrake-was-he-truly-real.html

Vout, Caroline. Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Via Wiki.

Gravedigging 101

Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

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This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warstone Lane – Birmingham’s Hidden Catacombs

Catacombs, Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

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When searching for cemeteries and memorials, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Birmingham city centre’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. Take the time to stroll into the jewellery quarter and you’ll find a little death-y treat, slap bang in the middle of all your diamond shopping needs.

Indeed, alongside Lenny Henry, Industrialisation and Black Sabbath, Birmingham can boast of bearing catacombs. Small, but beautifully formed. Don’t get your hopes up by expecting some labyrinthine, beautifully preserved affair, complete with tour guides and postcards at the gift shop. Birmingham’s catacombs are small, blocked up, shielded from view and not for those of clumsy disposition. Or those of us with easily-triggered vertigo! Nonetheless, they’re well worth a visit if you find yourself in the black country.

Warstone Lane Cemetery (also known as Brookfields, C of E or Mint Cemetery) was established in 1848 by a private company to cope with the overcrowding of cemeteries that was commonplace throughout much of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was initially intended as a burial ground for Anglicans, but, as with most city burial grounds, this was not strictly enforced as time progressed. The last internments were made in 1982, meaning that little is done to the cemetery in terms of upkeep and preservation; that is not to say the place is going to rack and ruin, but it is evident how few graves are regularly visited by relatives. However, during our brief walk around the grounds, we saw a number of flat topped tombs used as informal dining tables for workers on their lunchbreak. It was nice to see engagement and an element of non-destructive activity within the cemetery ; the workers’ setups seemed rather ingenious and not at all disrespectful. Warstone Cemetery, clearly has changing usages and is ingrained into the fabric of the surrounding area.

A short internet search will furnish you with a list of notable burials, such as – Harry Gem (a 19th century sportsman with excellent sideburns), Clement Ingelby (Shakespearian Scholar – sideburn status, unknown) and John Postgate (Surgeon and food safety campaigner. Fluffy sideburns.)  In order to stay true to my ‘casual’ writing style, (and as my trip was unplanned), I sought out none of these. You’re welcome.

However, it takes little more than a short wander around the cemetery to find a number of interesting tombs, memorials and carvings that would keep the casual visitor interested for hours.

Personal favourites of mine included:-

 

 

  • The Tomb of William Hipkins, his wife Lavinia and sister Bertha. William himself was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the stone reading ‘the sea shall give up its dead.’

Hipkins had been a successful engineer and the main initiator of the formation of the University of Birmingham’s Business School.

 

  • The traditional headstone of Mary Ann Broore (technically a lawn grave, but before such sections existed). While I know little of her life, her headstone contains a beautiful array of carved flowers, wheat, ferns and ivy.

 

  • The variety of veiled urns and headstones. There are a number of heavily veiled headstones (traditionally, a Victorian shorthand for displaying grief), predominantly on family plots containing heart-breaking numbers of young children. While deeply sad, they are towering, beautiful monuments to a very personal tragedy experienced by so many.

 

The upper section of the cemetery is filled with simplistic chest tombs, hence the propensity for passing workers to utilise their makeshift picnic spots. Several of the larger examples are family vaults, most with short histories recorded on the side.

In-between pockets of tombs and vaults, there are a number of beautifully sculpted urns, obelisks and a snaking line of ledgers above the catacomb recess, commemorating civilians who died during the war. There are broken columns galore and a lot of granite. So mind your step if its wet when you visit!

While headstones and tombs are the bread and butter of a taphophile’s day out, I found some of the most interesting features in Warstone Cemetery to be of relatively ‘natural’ formation. To reiterate; Warstone, although no longer a working cemetery, is not abandoned, but has suffered from neglect over the years. The first feature to capture my interest resembled rows and rows of uneven, fresh graves.

As I entered the cemetery, I was met with rows of tilted headstones, each looming over a deep trough of dead leaves. These brown recesses gave the contradictory appearance of being freshly dug, but, due to the weathered headstones, simultaneously old and abandoned. These jaunty rows appeared to be more noticeable in the upper, and subsequently older part of the cemetery. These graves that have not been backfilled since the initial coffin collapse (often hundreds of years prior) – leading to an interesting topography of deep ditches, particularly on the side of the cemetery closest to the station.

Naturally, the key attraction at Warstone Cemetery is its tiered catacombs. These were initially constructed as a means of absorbing the site’s existing sandpit into the environs. (Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery were built on hillsides that had been quarried for sand, later used in the metal casting process.)

While this added a few extra family vaults – creating a three-storey cemetery of sorts – it cannot be deemed to be a space-saving construction. However, is has been recorded that the unpleasant vapours exuding from said catacombs resulted in the instigation of the Birmingham Cemeteries Act, meaning that all coffins that were not directly interred should be sealed with pitch or lead.

Sadly, the catacombs themselves are no longer directly accessible to the public; you can stroll along the paths, read the inscriptions, but the tombs themselves are now fully sealed.  I am to understand they’d previously been open to the public, but have found no photographic or first hand evidence of this. Nonetheless, many of the entrances are now an attractive shade of concrete.

Upon approaching the catacombs, there is a circular plot, surrounding a central grouping of beech and pine trees. The burials within it are all pleasant enough, as are the ones flanking either side of the entrance and beside the ominously buttressed wall. There are easily accessible stairs to the side of the catacombs, so access is easy enough, HOWEVER, if you plan on visiting, there are no safety precautions once the stairs have been ascended. The structure is as it always was, which is utterly refreshing in today’s cemetery environments where headstones are regularly laid flat at the slightest sniff of a slant.  The catacombs are shown as they were intended to be; not to overstate it, but as a certain amphitheatre of death. Conversely, a stone surface, 9 feet up high, thick with moss, isn’t health and safety’s best friend. There is no railing on the top level, meaning that one wrong step close to the edge could result in your own internment if you’re not careful. So, enjoy the view, keep your eyes open and don’t be an idiot.

 

At the top of the catacombs sits the tomb of businessman John Baskervillle. While his name lends itself to the famous typeface, the story of his death, or rather the treatment of his corpse, is far more interesting. I’ll try to provide a short summary, however I urge you to follow the further reading links at the bottom of the post. When John Baskerville died in 1775, he was a very successful and wealthy man, but also a confirmed atheist. In his will, he provided strict instructions as to the treatment of his body. Baskerville was not only buried upright, but in an air-tight lead-lined coffin. Initially, these wishes were carried out and old Baskerville was interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds of his house Easy Hill, where he rested for many years. However, in 1821, workmen digging for gravel disinterred Baskerville’s coffin, where is subsequently laid unclaimed by relatives. As Baskerville was unwanted and an outspoken atheist, no cemetery would inter him and his decayed body created somewhat of a quandary. For several years, it rested in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, the man whose business stood in the place of the old Baskerville House. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Gibson would occasionally open Baskerville’s coffin to curious visitors at the cost of 6d a peek. Oweing to Baskervilles method of burial, he was remarkably well preserved. A visitor, Thomas Underwood, sketched Baskerville’s body in August 1829 and recorded that –

his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.”

Visitors notwithstanding, being stored in a warehouse didn’t suit the fast-putrifying businessman and Baskerville soon changed hands. Plumber John Marston soon found himself the new guardian of Baskerville and was decidedly less conscientious about opening the coffin. Soon, visitors to his corpse (oh yes, there were still visitors) were overcome by the smell of putrefaction and Baskerville had to go. At this stage, Baskerville’s state was less than pretty, but still, no-one would bury his remains. After a series of underhand machinations on the part of Marston, Baskerville was buried in the catacombs beneath Christ Church. However, Baskerville was denied his rest once more when Christ Church was demolished in 1899 and he – along with 600 other internees – was finally laid to rest at Warstone. His one wish of rejecting burial on consecrated ground was not to be. Today his manhandled remains have the best view of the cemetery, which, although pleasant. No doubt would have provided no small comfort.

As I left Warstone via the gatehouse, I believed that no memorial could top the unexpected wonder of the catacombs. However, as I made my way towards the gates, I found myself drawn to a stunningly unique memorial to the Sutcliffe family – a literal family tree.

The monument is a perfect example of the late 19th century naturalism movement by taking the form of a tree stump. The stone trunk stands beautifully stark against the ‘standard’ headstones around it and is the most unusual ‘small’ memorial within the entirety of Warstone. The Sutcliffe tree lists the names of the deceased at irregular intervals, and at jaunty angles, as though they had been carved by young lovers. Sutcliffe’s work is not just a feat of cemetery masonry, but is a beautifully considered piece of sentimental art. Erected in 1888, it was designed and erected by LW Sutcliffe and seemed to  – initially – be conventional in its listing of deceased ‘kindred’.  However, the latest addition is the most emotionally charged, being a eulogy for his eldest son, Isherwood Edmonds Sutcliffe who had died as a result of wounds received in France in 1916.

While Warstone has its fair share of supposed hauntings (an obligatory ‘grey lady’ and a lost WW1 soldier), its appeal lies firmly in the stories left by the living and the remarkable ways by which nature shuffles its way through established structures.

 

 

Sites used in Research/Further Reading:

 

http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org/2012/10/19/haunted-heritage-warstone-lane-cemetery/

 

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-edward-hipkins.html

 

https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-opinion/city-securing-sweet-melancholy-death-9810015

 

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2425682/memorial-search?page=1#sr-111232711

 

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001545

 

http://houndofhecate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/john-baskervilles-peripatetic-corpse.html

(Sketch image courtesy of the above)

 

Invoking the Owlman

Cryptozoology, Curiosities, Folk Tales, Superstition, Uncategorized

 

The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.

On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.

Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.

The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.

Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects.  He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’

But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.

Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found.  Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’

Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.

The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’

While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.

Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.

To my knowledge, at least.

 

 

Further Reading:

Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014

Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005

The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.

http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/monstrous-tales.html

http://www.paranormal-encounters.com

The Tomb of Sir Christopher Wray at Glentworth

Churches, Death, Graves, Lincolnshire

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Like many counties, Lincolnshire celebrates an annual open churches festival, in which numerous small villages open their church doors to visitors with a cup of tea and a frightening array of cakes and jams.

One of the churches involved in celebrations was the unassuming-looking parish church of St Michael in the tiny village of Glentworth. Glentworth, a village and civil parish, boasted a population of only 323 in 2011.

 

Surrounded by immaculately maintained grounds, St Michaels, like most small parish churches, is a small, composite building, with multiple additions made over several centuries.  The oldest part of St Michael’s is the Anglo Saxon tower, with later additions made in the Elizabethan, Victorian and Georgian periods. The structure, being predominantly rebuilt in the Victorian and Georgian periods, is beautifully maintained and simplistic in design.

 

Aside from their annual scarecrow event, the sleepy village of Glentworth seems to be renowned for little else. Which, once you cross the threshold of St Michael’s, is a truly baffling fact.

 

The interior of the church is plainly decorated, with simple plastered walls, gothic windows and attractive Victorian red floor tiles. The stained-glass windows are understandably more elaborate, with the east wall featuring bright depictions of the crucifixion and last supper.

However, the window itself was built for another purpose; to cast more light upon the tombs beneath it. These tombs, are – without a doubt – the jewel in Glentworth’s crown.

 

To the left of the window stands the imposing tomb of Sir Christopher Wray and his family. Wray was Chief Justice during the reign of Elizabeth I, and a hardened, controversial Judge. A quick scan across any history book will reveal Wray’s name next to a whole manner of high profile trials including that of John Somerville and William Parry, who conspired to assassinate the queen. However, my personal favourite, with a decidedly grizzly ending is that of the pamphleteer John Stubbs who – after publishing disparaging materials about the English monarchy’s relationship with France – was condemned to have his right hand cut off by ‘means of a cleaver driven through the wrist by a mallet’. Although not especially relevant to Wray himself, I must repeat Stubbs’ morbidly wonderful final words before his hand was removed were ‘Pray for me not my calamity is at hand.

Most importantly, in historical terms, is that Wray, acting as an assessor, took part in passing the death sentence on Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

 

It may seem strange for such an eminent politician to have found his final resting place within sleepy Glentworth, yet one must remember that during the 16th Century, Lincolnshire – Lincoln in particular – was an important political centre. Wray was also Lord of numerous manors across the county

 

Wray’s tomb is an imposing structure; a marble and alabaster monolith stretching to the very top of the chancel wall. Effigies of Wray and his wife Anne are set back into a niche, with four smaller figures beneath them. These small figures of women, stand around a foot in height and represent Wray’s daughters, two of whom died in infancy.

Above the figures of Wray and his wife, lies a whole host of stunning carved imagery. Acanthus leaves (a popular Greek symbol of immortality) lie at each corner of the inscription, nestled alongside skulls, torches and ribbons. The tomb is remarkably well preserved and maintained, with many of the painted details remaining vivid.

 

Opposite the tomb, rather overshadowed by Wray and his family, is another beautiful alabaster memorial. Although far smaller, the memorial to Elizabeth Saunderson is similarly filled with well-preserved carvings and striking figures of cherubs, acanthus leaves, crossed bones and hourglasses (see pictures).

Considering the enormous and unusual nature of Wray’s tomb, it is surprising to say that a remarkably similar tomb of full-size effigies lies a stones’ throw away at the village of Snarford. But I’ll leave that jaunt for another time.

 

Wray’s tomb is a true gem in Lincolnshire’s historical and ‘deathy’ fabric, and I would urge you to pass by if you ever find yourself in the county. The church is open during the daytime and relatively easy to access. Although I can’t guarantee they’ll have cake.

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stubbs#Trial,_punishment,_and_further_writing

 

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/wray-christopher-1522-92

Cemetery Festivities in Finland

Cemeteries, Death, Graves, Traditions, Uncategorized

 

As ‘Burials and Beyond’ is first and foremost, a personal blog, I hope you’ll indulge me as I recount my recent experiences in Finland, remembering the dead at Christmas-time.

 

On Christmas Day 2017, I found myself not at home with my family, but around 1000 miles away in Helsinki, Finland. It is a long-standing tradition among Finns to visit cemeteries around the Christmas period and I for one was more than happy to take part.

The majority of Finnish families (reports quote as many as three quarters) visit the graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve, leaving candles and paying their respects to their dead loved ones. This was our original plan.

I would love to say that my friends and I joined the crowds on Christmas Eve, but owing to a mutual hatred of crowds and an adoration of mulled wine, we waited until the 25th to make our trip to neighbouring Espoo. Besides, Christmas Eve was already filled with a huge meal, festive drinks, a trip to the sauna with a festive cider… not to mention the arrival of Joulupukki (Santa Claus), so we were more than a little strapped for both time and sobriety.

 

However, on Xmas day itself – a day usually reserved for visiting family and recovering from the previous day’s frivolities – we hopped on a bus and began the short journey to neighbouring Espoo. It should be said that I had been spending the festive period in the company of two Finns, both of whom had loved ones buried in the same cemetery, making our journey not simply a tourist exercise, but a personal and purposeful one.

After leaving the bus, armed with backpacks filled with knitwear and candles, we made our way through the snow towards Kappelin hautausmaa (The Espoo Chapel Cemetery). There could be no mistaking as to where the cemetery lay; as we walked the curving roads towards the gates, the warm glow of thousands of candles cast unmistakable shadows across the trees. The whole scene would have been decidedly dramatic and gothic, were it not for my propensity for sudden, sprawling meetings with the ice underfoot.

 

We entered the cemetery around 5pm in pitch darkness (such is Finnish weather), and I was unsure as to who, if anyone, we would encounter in our wanderings. While I obviously can’t comment on the experiences or intentions of all visitors at this time, the atmosphere of the cemetery was not especially sombre. As we made our way down the snowy tracks, we encountered several families with children in tow, some chasing toddlers, some talking intently with one another. There was certainly no hard-kept silence, rather pockets of visitors going about their business in whatever way they saw fit. There was a distinct sensation of individual purpose during our visit – each visitor interacting with no one outside of their group, quickly tending to their own specific plot among a multitude of identical headstones. Far more families than I anticipated were taking time out of their celebrations to visit the cemetery, making such a tradition seem somewhat ageless and very much active, rather than some dying (pardon the pun) practise. As Finns make visits to their living family around the Christmas period, it was evident that those who have died are not neglected.

 

The prevalence of the practise is evident all throughout the lead up to Christmas, most notably through supermarket shelves. Homeware sections, from supermarkets to corner shops, have their space dedicated to a variety of grave candles, from elaborate glass affairs with angels and metal hearts to multipacks of candles in plastic tubes. The latter, plastic-tubed, traditional grave candle was very much the popular ‘standard’ choice across cemeteries. Despite contemporary connotations of candles with Christian practise and remembrance, the Finnish tradition taking candles to graves across ‘Christmas time’ is not an exclusively Christian act, but is practised across all faiths. Many pre-Christian belief systems held ideas that the souls of the dead were closest to the living around the time of the winter solstice.

While no-one is able to pinpoint the origin of their use in cemeteries, the popularity of grave candles in Finland appears to track back to the 1920s. At this time, candles had become more affordable to the masses and, following the Finnish Civil War, were placed on the graves of soldiers.

 

This Finnish relationship with death, or memorialisation to be more precise, appears to be a far more accepting and active one compared to that of the UK.

A 2015 report by Perfect Choice Funeral Plans claimed that ‘half of Britons do not visit their deceased relatives’ resting place.’ Reasons cited ranged from ‘lost track of time’ to ‘too upsetting’, yet the outcome is the same. Ultimately, with or without a central family focus on the deceased, upkeep ultimately passes over to local authorities and similar organisations to maintain the environment around them. Most cemeteries within the UK do not employ the practise of re-using grave plots after a set amount of years, as it continues to spark outrage within certain communities, with buzzwords such as ‘desecration’ and ‘grave robbers’ scattered with wild abandon (see links below).

As Kappelin hautausmaa was not a historical cemetery, the practise of re-using plots is widely employed. Subsequently, most headstones were decidedly uniform, being simple and squat in appearance. In Finland, plots are not owned, but ‘rented’ for 25 years, after which the family may renew their lease for a further 25 years. Depending on the cemetery and age of the plot, families may opt to include multiple burials within their 25 years, as there is often space for multiple embalmed bodies and cremated remains (as is most popular in Finland, with FuneralBusinessAdvisor quoting an ‘85% cremation rate’). As turnover is high, there are regulations in place in terms of headstones and there were few artistically remarkable memorials within the cemetery. This is not to say that the simplicity of family plots to be without merit; it is within the simplicity of the lone family name that I personally felt most potency.

 

As I watched my friends kneel and balance flickering candles against the impacted snow, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of this communal relationship with death. My trip to Espoo was indeed a great visual experience, but more importantly, enlightening. I found that, even if it occurs just once a year, a community – however scattered – can interact with death in such an easy, simplistic, positive, way.

 

 

http://www.nevillefuneralservice.com/files/3014/3038/7260/Half_of_Brits_do_not_regularly_visit_family_graves.pdf

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/06/re-using-graves-means-uk-cemetery-will-never-run-out-of-space

 

http://www.customsofchristmas.com/finland.html