Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Continuing Carnage of the Scottish Stranglings

                  The regular, relatively substantial income was spent on clothes for the Burkes and the Hares that were grander than those normally seen in West Port, so that the neighbours began to comment but, as yet, no one suspected the true cause of their affluence. It was also spent freely on drink, of which all the parties were inordinately fond, but William Hare was not one to be crossed when in his cups. Burke got wind of a plot by him to murder Helen, for the sin of ‘being Scotch’ but the growingly frequent quarrels reached a head when Burke learned that Hare had sold a body to Knox whilst he had been away in the country with Helen, and had pocketed all the money himself. 

The ten pounds was usually split with six pounds going to Hare (who then paid a pound to Mary, for the use of the house), and the remaining four pounds going to Burke. Accusations flew first and then fists, and the neighbours, not privy to the cause of the fight, gathered to watch the two Irishmen going at it like Kilkenny cats. 

An Edinburgh Wynd

After the fight, which it seems Burke won, the Burkes moved into a nearby house owned by John Broggan, whose wife was Burke’s cousin. They lodged there at first, but afterwards took over the premises and rented out the rooms to other lodgers. The quarrel did not, however, interrupt business and in autumn 1828, Ann McDougal, a cousin of Helen McDougal’s came on a visit from Falkirk. 

After a couple of days of coming and going, cousin Ann was given a dram. Pretty soon, Hare was smothering her, with Burke lying on top to stop her arms and legs from thrashing about, and her body was stripped and put into a trunk supplied by Knox’s porter, Paterson. John Broggan saw the trunk standing on the landing and began to ask awkward questions about it, but he was given thirty shillings in hush money and a couple of drinks and then went off to Glasgow to think about things. Ann’s relatives began to ask questions too, but Helen deflected their attention and things were left to lie. 

From The Ballad of Daft Jamie

Burke and Hare’s next victim was, perhaps, their most controversial. James Wilson was universally know as Daft Jamie, and loved as a harmless local character. He was one of those touched individuals without a jot of harm in them, who attract the sympathy and affection of all they meet. Daft Jamie Wilson’s father, an Edinburgh hawker of general goods, had died when the boy was about twelve, and now, at about eighteen, he was left to wander the streets, where the general charity of the people provided him with meals and a few odd pennies to spend. He was well known to the citizens of Auld Reekie and liked to spend his time in the company of university students, whom he would try to trick with his riddles, and was famous for his snuffbox, which had a matching spoon and seven openings, a large central one ‘for Sundays’ and six surrounding ones for the remainder of the week, and which he was proud to offer round. 

Daft Jamie Wilson

Wandering about as was his wont, he came one day in the late September or early October of 1828 to the Grassmarket, asking if any there knew where he might find his estranged mother. Mrs Hare was in the Grassmarket too and told the poor lad his mother was at her home, over at Tanner’s Court, and if he wished, she would take him to her directly. So, innocent, simple-minded Jamie went along with her and found not his mother but William Hare waiting for him. Out, of course, came the bottle but Jamie was not so daft as to suspect strong drink, for fear of getting fou’

Mary went out to find Burke, bringing him and more whisky back home, where Jamie sat sipping from a cup of scotch. The spirits played quickly on his addled brain and soon he was lying, worse for drink and most definitely fou’, on the bed. Burke and Hare watched him for a while and, thinking him asleep, Burke jumped the lad, whose innate survival instincts roused him and he began to fight back. He was getting the better of Burke but the strapping teenager was no match for the murderous duo, so when Hare joined in the battle he was quickly bested and rapidly smothered. 

Broadsheet ballad - Poor Daft Jamie

His body was customarily stripped, bundled into the chest and delivered to Doctor Knox’s rooms, all for another ten quid. Daft Jamie was certainly too well known to be mistaken for another, and Knox’s students would certainly have recognised his sorry corpse but it is telling that Knox’s first class involved the dissection of the subject’s facial muscles, thus rendering it unrecognisable. Jamie Wilson’s disappearance did not go unnoticed, questions began to be asked at long last, rumours started to circulate and fear came to the streets of Edinburgh. 

But suspicion lay at the door of the doctors, and the plain people of Scotland knew nothing, yet, about their suppliers.

Yet more murders tomorrow

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Lengthening List of the Blarneying Butchers

                 Further murders followed – one morning Mrs Hare met an old woman, took her home, cracked out the whisky bottle, got her drunk and put her to bed. Hare came home for his lunch, shoved the bedding over the woman’s face and went back to work. When he returned later, she had suffocated and another fresh specimen went off to the anatomists. 

Effy the cinder woman, met a similar fate. This old woman collected what she could from cinder pits and scrap heaps, and sold on what bits of leather she found to Burke, still ostensibly a respectable cobbler. He gave her a dram, and another, then Hare arrived, so the bottle went round again until Effy climbed onto a pile of hay to sleep it off. She didn’t wake up again and another £10 was had from Dr Knox. 

William Burke

Burke’s respectable local reputation allowed him to intervene when a drunken woman was being taken to the West Port watch-house by a policeman, Andrew Williamson, whom he persuaded to pass her over into his care. She was next seen on a slab at Surgeon’s Square. 

Widow Hostler, a washerwoman, was next to go, got drunk by Burke, smothered by Hare, sold by them both for £8 (and ninepence ha’penny, which they forced out of the dead woman’s hand). 

Helen McDougal

Old Mary Haldane, a former lodger at Tanner’s Close, had once been something of a beauty, but a series of deceptions in her youth had broken her, and now, in her drunken dotage, she was a target of local sympathy and ridicule in equal measure. Burke drove off some of the district brats who were teasing ‘Mistress Mary’ and was walking her back home, when they met Hare in the street. Invited by her former landlord for the customary dram, Mary didn’t need asking twice, and the alliterative ‘dram, drunk, dead’ trilogy was played out yet again. 

Peggy Haldane, Mary’s daughter, missed her mother and made enquiries of her whereabouts, which eventually led her to the Hare household. Tales were told, stories spun and lies laid, Peggy had a dram, Burke arrived, more merry toasts, followed by slurring and rambling, until dull and stupid, Peggy lay down for a rest. Face down, Burke and Hare did their dirty despatching and another tea-chest was lugged to Dr Knox.

Tea chest

Burke happened upon an old Irish woman, new to Edinburgh, a stranger in a strange land looking for some countryman to afford her some customary Celtic hospitality. With her was her simple-minded, deaf, dumb and blind grandson, and Burke took the pair home with him, with much talk of the Ould Country and promises of a welcoming draught. Out came the bottle, and round it was passed, with the two Irishmen blarneying away to their countrywoman whilst Mary Hare kept the boy out of the parlour. Inevitably, the whisky did its work and as Grandma slept, Burke and Hare took her life and her breath away. But what to do with the child? He was not a threat – he was just a deaf, dumb and blind kid – but could they merely abandon him alone in the middle of the big city? The following morning Burke solved the dilemma. He took the boy into the same room where his fallen grandmother lay, took him tenderly upon his bended knee and stretched his little body until his back broke. 

Murder most foul

By now, the supply of tea chests at Tanner’s Close was spent so Hare found an empty herring barrel and stuffed the bodies into it, then loaded it onto his wagon and set off to see the Doctor. Hare’s horse had other ideas however, and when it reached the Meal Market it stopped, and no amount of whipping and lashing by Burke, Hare and the crowd of spectators could persuade it to move. The barrel was transferred onto a hired hand cart before its grisly secret could be discovered and was sent on to Surgeon’s Square, with Burke going ahead to announce its imminent arrival. The contents had stiffened so much in transit that it was difficult to get the cadavers out, but after much pulling and yanking, out they came and sixteen pounds were handed over. Again, no questions asked. Back at the wagon, Hare dragged the horse, sans cart, into a neighbouring tan yard, where it was shot. It was discovered to have two large dried up sores on its back, which had been stuffed with cotton and covered up with the skin of another horse. Small wonder it had refused to proceed.

More killings tomorrow

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Early Exploits of the Edinburgh Executioners

                      Burke and Hare. A right pair of wrong ’uns and no doubt, and although Burke might well have been the lesser of these two particular evils, it’s true that the lesser of two evils is still evil. And William Burke was trouble from the start – that feckless Irish wanderer who left a wife and two children behind when he skipped to Scotland following a family row, and threw his lot in with Helen McDougal (who already had a couple of husbands somewhere about the place), he worked as a navvy on the Union Canal, where it’s likely he first met William Hare, another Irish immigrant navvy. 

William Burke

Hare was married to the widow of a lodging house keeper, Mary (or Maggie) Logue, and she invited Burke and McDougal to move into her house in Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh, from where Burke then worked as a cobbler. At about Christmas 1827, an old army pensioner named Donald died at the lodging house, owing Hare £4 in rent and loans, and Hare doubted that Donald’s relations would honour the debt. Burke and Hare devised a plan to raise the money to cover the arrears; when the coffin was closed, they surreptitiously unscrewed the lid, removed Donald’s corpse, replaced it with oak bark and screwed the lid back into place. The coffin was taken off and buried with due ceremony, with Donald’s relatives none the wiser; Burke and Hare put the body in a sack and took it to Surgeon’s Square, where they met with some medical students and Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy teacher. 

William Hare

One of the students, Thomas Wharton Jones (who would later become a very eminent physiologist), paid Burke and Hare £7 10s for Donald’s mortal remains, with Hare receiving £4 5s and Burke £3 5s. The prospect of ready money so easily made tempted the pair to repeat the transaction, but as the fresh cadavers of those who had died from natural causes were a bit thin on the ground in Tanner’s Close, Burke and Hare commenced making corpses of their own. 

The first was Abigail Simpson, an old woman whom Hare found drunkenly wandering in the Edinburgh Grassmarket and easily convinced that they were former acquaintances. They went back to the lodging house, drank copious drams and sang the old songs, before the whole party passed out, drunk. In the following morning, the old soak said she was making for home but whisky and porter soon changed her mind and she passed out again. Hare put his hands over her mouth whilst Burke laid over her body, to prevent her from moving, until she was suffocated. The corpse was stripped and put in a chest and Burke and Hare delivered it to Dr Knox that evening, for which they were paid £10. 

Dr Robert Knox

Next came an unfortunate known only as ‘Joseph’, a miller from a good family who had fallen on hard times and was reduced to dossing at Hare’s flophouse. Joseph took ill with a fever and Hare and his wife feared that if word of an infection got out, business would suffer, so Burke forced a pillow to Joseph’s mouth whilst Hare held him down, and another £10 body went over to Surgeon’s Square. 

An almost identical murder followed next – a forty-year-old matchseller from Cheshire became ill with jaundice in the lodging house, so Burke and Hare smothered him for the customary ten quid from Dr Knox, no questions asked.

Two ladies who are no better than they should be

Early in the morning of April 9th 1828, Burke went to a pub in Canongate and picked up a pair of prostitutes, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown, who had spent the night in the Canongate police cells for being drunk and disorderly, and had been set free at about four or five that morning. Burke began pouring drink into the girls before inviting them back to his house for breakfast. In fact, they went to Burke’s brother Constantine’s house, where he pretended to be a lodger, and after tea, bread, eggs and haddock, the whisky bottles were produced and more drinking followed. Paterson passed out and Burke and Brown went for a walk, came back again with more booze when Helen McDougal turned up, intent on a fight with just about anyone present. Burke and McDougal began throwing the crockery at each other and Janet Brown staggered off home, glad (and unbelievably lucky) to be out of it. 

Mary Paterson (or Patterson or Mitchell)

Then Hare arrived on the scene and he and Burke murdered the still comatose Paterson, stripped her body and made for Surgeon’s Square with it. This time however, questions were asked. Some of the students recognized Bonny Mary, who had been a particular beauty with very distinctive red tresses, indeed one of them was sure he had seen this girl, or one very like her, in Canongate that very morning, and the body, although cold, was suspiciously flexible. Bodies were ordinarily procured from graves by resurrection men but this one had not come out of any burial ground – she still had her curling papers in her hair, for crying out loud! Nevertheless, Dr Knox gave his suppliers £8 for their trouble and was so taken with the body that he preserved it in spirits for three months, at one time inviting an unnamed painter to come over and see it (like many good looking strumpets, Mary had occasionally been an artist’s model). 

Mary Paterson posing as Venus

Maybe we should not speculate too much on what may have occurred between the Doctor and his cadavre exquis during those three months.

More murders by Burke and Hare tomorrow

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Exhumation Escapades of the Resurrectionists' Racket

                     I’ve mentioned it before (and there is no reason to suppose that I won’t mention it again in the future), but it wasn’t until the 17th Century that any real progress was made in medicinal knowledge because medicine, like many other fields of knowledge, was hide-bound by the scholastic legacy of the Ancients. Doctors were, more or less, obediently and unthinkingly basing their practices on the writings and theories of such Ancient Greek authors as Galen, Avicenna or Hippocrates. 

Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates

There was some small progress by the odd individual, and the odd remarkable breakthrough, but it wasn’t until the Age of the Enlightenment that things really began change. The great leap forward began with such empiricists as Francis Bacon, men who were not satisfied with simply reading what had been written two millennia previously but who observed, experimented and questioned, seeking answers for themselves. 

Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon famously wrote that ‘knowledge is power’ and it was the search for knowledge that gave doctors the power to treat their patients much more efficiently. The basis of all medical and surgical knowledge comes ultimately from the study of anatomy. Disease is, essentially, disordered function and disordered function cannot be treated without knowledge of healthy function, which, in turn, cannot be understood without knowledge of structure, and structure cannot be understood unless it is examined.  You cannot ‘guess’ anatomy; it has to be studied and examined. 

Let’s say you have a pain in your right shoulder. You might think that maybe it’s due to sleeping badly or perhaps straining yourself when lifting something awkwardly and in most cases you’d be right, but it could also be a symptom that there is something wrong with, say, your liver. Why? 


Because the right phrenic nerve has a branch to the liver, and the third cervical nerve, from which the phrenic nerves arise, extends into the shoulder. In what is called ‘referred pain’, a disorder in one part of the body actually produces pain in a different part of the body –but you couldn’t guess that a dodgy liver is giving you gip in your right shoulder. You’d need to know about the physical structure of the nerves. And to do that, you’d need to see them. And to do that, until very recently, you’d need to get yourself a body. Preferably a dead one. Now, in the past, this was a bit of a problem. 

Brughel - The Triumph of Death

The Church, for instance, wasn’t too keen on the idea, not least because you’d need your body at the Final Trump when you’d be raised out of your grave for the Final Judgement (and diseases were caused by the Devil anyway, so why did you need to study anatomy when theology was much more efficacious). And the populace also thought that they might need their bodies again at some time in the future. The bodies of condemned criminals were sometimes made available for dissection (following the 1752 Murder Act) but the former judicial zeal for executions for the most trivial of offences had started to wane by then and capital sentences had fallen to about fifty per year in Victorian days, but the medical and anatomy schools needed around about ten times that amount. So the necessary deficit was made up by the Resurrection Men, a class of criminals that dug up freshly buried corpses and sold them to the doctors. 

Resurrectionists at work

It was an odd crime really, as the theft of a body was a misdemeanour at common law punishable by a fine or imprisonment (or a whipping in Scotland), rather than being a felony, which carried the punishment of either the death penalty or transportation for life. The authorities tended, on the whole, to turn a blind eye, providing that the body snatchers were not too blatant, and considered the whole sorry business to be somewhat of a necessary evil. The public did try, by a variety of methods, to deter the thefts; cemeteries were patrolled by watchmen with guard dogs at night, lookout towers were erected in them, or iron cages, called mort safes, were built over graves and sunk deep into the soil. 

Mort safes

Popular public sentiment was almost entirely hostile to the Resurrectionists, painting them as fearsome, ruthless ghouls and the lowest of the criminal low. The doctors were in terrible bind – they needed the bodies for dissection, in order to train future members of the profession. Objectively, only good could come from the anatomy schools, and mankind as a whole stood to benefit. But without a steady supply of specimens, they had no other recourse but to deal with the criminals. This led to the public tarring the medical profession with the same brush, and tales, often unsubstantiated, were circulated of unscrupulous surgeons getting up to all manner of Frankensteinish behaviour. 

Snatching a Body

There were a number of sensational cases that kept the practice of grave robbing firmly in the public gaze (more of which over the next couple of days), but perhaps one of the oddest stories was reported in the Northampton Mercury of November 2nd 1811, which told how the whole corps of London resurrectionists went on strike for a price increase of one guinea per body, following the success of a similar action in the previous year, raising the overall cost of a cadaver from three guineas to five guineas! The situation changed following the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, when greater licence was given to the medical schools, allowing them more access to legitimate specimens. In addition to executed criminals, unclaimed bodies from workhouses and prisons could then be used in dissections, as well as donated corpses from the next of kin (usually in return for the cost of burial later). 

Body Snatching - 1824

There is an excellent anonymous pamphlet of 1824, reprinted from the Westminster Review, entitled Body Snatching, which puts forward a sober, considered case for the practice of anatomical dissection, presenting the benefits of a sensible approach to this delicate subject and, rightly, pointing out that the illegal recourse to the body snatchers could be eliminated overnight if the provision of corpses was properly licensed and administered. There was some sentimental public opposition to the proposals but a couple of particularly grisly cases altered the opinions of many people and the Act eventually passed on the Statute Books and, as predicted, the resurrection men were condemned to the pages of history.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Polished Prognosticator of the Playful Physician

             … and if you think that’s weird, then what do you make of the Tempest Prognosticator? This fabulous contraption was invented by the aptly named Dr George Merryweather, who was inspired by a couple of lines from the poem Signs of Rain by Edward Jenner,
The leech, disturb'd, is newly risen.
Quite to the summit of his prison.”

Edward Jenner - Signs of Rain

This couplet brought to the good Doctor’s mind a letter written by another poet, William Cowper, to his cousin  Lady Hesketh, dated October 10th 1787, in which he describes the behaviour of a leech he owns,
Yesterday it thundered, last night it lightened, and at three this morning I saw the sky as red as a city in flames could have made it. I have a leech in a bottle that foretells all these prodigies and convulsions of nature. No, not as you will naturally conjecture, by articulate utterance of oracular notices, but by a variety of gesticulations, which here I have not room to give an account of. Suffice it to say, that no change of weather surprises him, and that, in point of the earliest and most accurate intelligence, he is worth all the barometers in the world.”

William Cowper - Letter to Lady Hesketh - 1787

Merryweather began to observe leeches, and noted that some, but not all, would indeed crawl upwards in the bottle in which they were kept prior to a thunderstorm. He selected those that were, in his opinion, the most prescient and put a dozen of them (his ‘jury of philosophical counsellors’) into pint bottles, which he arranged in a circle so that the leeches could see each other and not suffer the ‘affliction of solitary confinement’

The Medicinal Leech

In the neck of each bottle he placed a metal tube, into which the leech could crawl, and attached to each tube was a small whalebone trigger, which was dislodged by the movement of the leech. This, by means of a mouse-trap like contrivance, caused a spring-loaded hammer to strike a bell placed at the centre of the circle of bottles. The ringing of the bell indicated the advent of a thunderstorm, and the more times the bell rang, the greater the likelihood of a storm. Merryweather deduced that the leeches were acting due to a change in atmospheric electricity prior to inclement weather, and he toyed with the notion of calling his device The Atmospheric Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Conducted by Animal Instinct but thought better of it and called it instead his Tempest Prognosticator
“… two words expressive enough for all foreigners to understand.”

The Tempest Prognosticator

Dr Merryweather was a surgeon in Whitby, Yorkshire and a member of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, to whom he unveiled his invention in a three-hour presentation on February 27th 1851. 

G Merryweather - An Essay Explanatory of the Tempest Prognosticator

The tone of the paper is excellently maintained throughout –it is erudite and suitably scholarly, meticulously referenced and learnedly footnoted, and rambles off in unexpected directions only to be brought expertly back to its subject, and it is all done with a tongue held very firmly in cheek. Merryweather was having a very good time with his Tempest Prognosticator, and having picked up his ball he certainly ran with it. 

Merryweather's Letter

He wrote a letter to the committee that was organising the Great Exhibition of 1851, asking if he might have space to present this great benefit to humanity (with a wonderful proviso that his device be protected from potential piracy whilst on display) and, perhaps to his surprise, he was given permission to take it to London. The Great Exhibition opened on May 1st 1851 and Dr Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator was shown to the world. Constructed from French-polished mahogany, polished brass, silver, ivory and glass, and fashioned like an Indian temple, it was a great success. 

Detail of a replica Tempest Prognosticator

Merryweather applied to the Admirality to have his machines installed at sea ports but for some strange reason his application was declined, the Navy Board plumping instead for Robert Fitzroy’s Storm Glass Barometer.  The original mechanism has been lost, but replicas have since been made (notably for the 1951 Festival of Britain).

Build Your Own Tempest Prognosticator

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Extraordinary Escargotism of the Pasilalinic Phoney

              Mankind had long puzzled how to transmit messages at long distances as quickly as possible. From antiquity, various solutions had been tried – fire beacons, smoke signals, flashing mirrors and so on, but in the snappily titled A century of the names and scantlings of such inventions as at present I can call to mind to have tried and perfected which (my former notes being lost) I have, at the instance of a powerful friend, endeavored now, in the year 1655, to set these down in such a way, as may sufficiently instruct me to put any of them to practice, (written in 1655 but not published until 1663), Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquess of Worcester, put forward the idea of,
How at a window, far as eye can discover black from white, a man may hold discourse with his correspondent, without noise made or notice taken; being, according to occasion given and means afforded, ex re nata, and no need of provision beforehand; though much better if foreseen, and means prepared for it, and a premeditated course taken by mutual consent of parties.”

Worcester - Century of Inventions - 1663

Robert Hooke, took up the idea in 1684, as a aid to the military following the Battle of Vienna in the previous year, but the plans came to naught. The notion was revived by the Frenchman Claude Chappe who, with his four brothers, built a series of 556 signalling towers, covering 3,000 miles, across the French landscape, from 1792 onwards. The towers used a system of semaphore posts, which could be changed to various configurations that represented letters or code words. A central post – the ‘regulator’ – had two shorter beams at its end, and could be aligned vertically or horizontally, giving a total of 196 possible configurations. It was a marvellous invention (and has been dubbed the ‘mechanical internet’), but had one drawback – it could not be used in bad weather or at night. 

Various types of Semaphore Telegraphs

Attempts were made in the early 1800s to utilize the new advances in electrology, with the electric telegraph being developed in the 1830s by Wheatstone and Morse. Eventually, the telegraph superseded the optical towers of the Chappes, and the prospect of global communication was seriously considered but the early attempts to lay cables under the English Channel in 1850 failed when they repeatedly broke. The probability of transatlantic cabling seemed doomed before it began. Heads were scratched and beards stroked perplexedly, until two gentlemen of Gallic origins, a Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît and his colleague, a mysterious and quite possibly fictious, Monsieur Biat-Chrétien (who, apparently, resided in America although no one ever saw him), proposed a system that utilised galvanism together with terrestrial and animal magnetism. And, being French, their system was, of course, based on snails. 

La Presse - October 27 1850

This remarkable discovery was announced to the world in the prestigious Parisian newspaper La Presse of October 27th 1850, by M Jules Allix who, in an almost stereotypically Gallic piece of rambling rhodomontadic journalism, eventually gets around to explaining the principles thus, 
“… it seems that snails which have once been put in contact, are always in sympathetic communication. When separated, there disengages itself from them a species of fluid of which the earth is the conductor, which develops and unrolls, so to speak, like the almost invisible thread of the spider, or that of the silk worm, which can be uncoiled and prolonged almost indefinitely in space without its breaking, but with this vital difference that the thread of the escargotic fluid is invisible as completely and the pulsation along it is as rapid as the electric fluid.”
This galvano-terrestrial-magnetic-animal and adamic force exploits the same principle as Sir Kenelm Digby’s Sympathetic Powder, that two things, be they snails or people or weapons, form a contact that remains in place even when they are later separated and which operates regardless of the distance between them. M Benoît proposed that after two snails had been in contact, an invisible escargotic fluid came into being and if the snails were separated, let’s say one left in Paris and the other taken to New York, that fluid connected them through the earth, so if a person were to touch the Parisian snail, the New York snail would react. 

Snails ...

An apparatus was built – a square box containing a Voltaic pile, with a central steel axis around which the plates were arranged, with small zinc cups attached to each. The cups were lined with cloth soaked in copper sulphate solution and held in place by a copper strip, and into which a snail was glued. Each galvanic cup rested on a delicate spring, arranged so it responded to ‘every escargotic commotion’, and was marked by a letter of the alphabet, by which messages could be spelled out. This marvellous device went by the name of the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compass. 

... and a conventional Telegram

 M Benoît made the acquaintance of a M Triat, the founder and manager of a Parisian gymnasium, of whom was, it was said, he possessed common sense but little education. Carried away by the enthusiasm of Benoît, Triat provided the inventor with premises, materials and a hired help, and Benoît set about building his apparatus. At first he had told Triat that all he needed was two or three bits of wood but then it became apparent that a few more bits of wood were required, and then some other bits and pieces too, the cost of which came from the pocket of M Triat. 

After twelve months, he began to get a little anxious and threatened to withhold further funding but Benoît, who had spent most of the time and money on other projects, pronounced the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses were now complete. Ideally, they should have been in different rooms but space was limited, so he had built the pair in the small apartment that was available to him, and the two or three bits of wood had grown into two ten-foot tall scaffolds, from each of which was suspended the massive voltaic piles. Benoît assured Triat that he was in daily correspondence with his associate, M Biat-Chrétien, over in America, via his snail mail, but advised caution, as if word was to get out about this miracle before it was fully perfected, competitors might steal the idea from under them. This line of reasoning fell onto M Triat’s deaf ears, who insisted on a practical demonstration and on October 2nd, in the company of the afore-mentioned reporter M Allix, Benoît proceeded to perturb his gastropods. 

M Jules Allix

On one scaffold stood Allix, who was told to spell out a word by touching the appropriate letters; Benoît stood on the other scaffold awaiting the message, but found it necessary, for a variety of technical reasons, to shuttle between the two Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses, before declaring the word ‘gymoate’ had been sent. It was close. The actual word sent had been ‘gymnase’, said Allix. He changed places with Triat, who sent the words ‘lumiere divine’, which the still-shuttling Benoît and his orthologically-challenged molluscs rendered as ‘lumhere divine.’ He was then told to get in touch with his transatlantic counterpart, so he sent the Alert signal and then touched each of the snails corresponding to the letters of the word BIAT in turn, with a ‘sympathetic’ snail held in his hand. After a short delay, the horns of certain miserable, glued-down snails crept out of their shells before darting back in, on contact with the copper sulphate. With a little judicious punctuation, the letters received were, Benoît revealed, ‘c’est bien.’ Allix was delighted, impressed and excited. Triat was disgusted, unimpressed and underwhelmed. Allix went off and wrote his piece of prolix prose. Triat went away and sulked. 

Unsympathetic Snails

Then he came back and let fly at Benoît. He was pulling the plug, he fumed, he had been swindled and made a fool of. Enough was too much. Benoît was contrite. He could, he said apologetically, give Triat the demonstration he wanted. He would relocate the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses to M Triat’s gymnasium, one in one room and one in another, and remain firmly in whatever room Monsieur designated. Triat was mollified to the extent that he offered Benoît one thousand francs a day for his researches if only he could see the snail telegraph work convincingly. He contacted another journalist from La Presse, M de Girardin, who arranged to be present at the demonstration, also offered a further thousand francs a day if he was suitably impressed and laid out plans from further public demonstrations at the Jardin d’hiver, to a paying audience. Everything was arranged, and the day before the appointed day, Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît disappeared. And that was that. Gone. Into the night. Not known at this address.

He was rumoured to have been seen wandering around and about Paris from time to time, hollow-eyed and muttering to himself, and is said to have died, quite mad, in 1852. 

Another Snail

The plans for the snail telegraph were shelved, never to be seen again, and the whole fiasco became a world-wide laughing stock – Sir Richard Francis Burton refers to it in his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madhina and Meccah -  
“… even hard-headed America believes in "mediums," in "snail-telegraphs," and "spirit-rappings” 
and the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould dedicated a chapter to the snail telegraph in his Historic Oddities and Strange Events (1891).

S Baring-Gould - The Snail Telegraph - 1891

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Mortiferous Machinations of the Maleficent Murderess

                 Some contemporary critics of Joanna Southcott sought to damn her by association when one of her Passports to Paradise was found in the possession of the notorious murderess Mary Bateman, known as The Yorkshire Witch. Regardless of what we may think about Southcott and her shenanigans, this is a cheap shot and a low blow, as she had absolutely no control over who subsequently gained possession of the things. Mary Bateman, nee Harker, was born at Aisenby, near Thirsk in North Yorkshire, in 1768, to respectable farming stock, and at about twelve years of age she entered domestic service in Thirsk. She was a poor servant, and was dismissed from several households for petty pilfering, and in 1788 she moved to Leeds, where she worked as a silk dressmaker and began to exploit a growing reputation as a witch. 

Mary Bateman - The Yorkshire Witch

In 1792, she met John Bateman, a wheelwright, and within three weeks they were married, an act that poor John had cause to repent at his leisure. One day he received a letter from Thirsk, saying his father was gravely ill and like to die. He immediately left Leeds for home, where he met his father, hale and well, walking in the street. When asked about his health, the father replied he was well, and had been for a long time. Perplexed, John returned to Leeds, where he found Mary had stripped the house and sold everything! 

Leeds in Bygone Days

She repeatedly stole from their lodgers, and following a factory fire, she approached various people for bedsheets with which to make shrouds for dead children, which were freely given, only to turn up later in local pawnshops. John attempted to be free of her by joining the militia, but she simply followed him, so in 1799, they returned to Marsh Lane, Leeds, where Mary began again to practice her magic, providing love potions and reading fortunes. One of her more imaginative ruses at this time was to inscribe eggs with such messages as ‘Crist [sic] is coming’, re-introduce them into hens and then wait for them to be re-laid, for which she charged observers a penny a time to witness the miracle. 

Bateman with one of her miraculous eggs

She ingratiated herself into the household of two Quaker sisters, the Misses Kitchin, who kept a small linen draper’s shop in St Peter’s Square, Leeds, and presented herself frequently with promises to read their fortunes, and even ended up working in the shop. In September 1803, one of these young ladies became ill, and Mary took the task of nursing her upon herself. Mrs Kitchin senior, hearing of the illness, arrived from Wakefield but she, together with her other daughter, also became ill. Within ten days, all three were dead and Mary put out word that plague was to blame, thereby ensuring there were no unwanted inquirers. When the house was eventually opened, it ws found that all its contents, the stock and the books from the shop, were all missing. But no suspicion fell on the good friend Mary, who continued to read the fortunes of mainly young serving girls, many of whom she terrified into parting with their little savings. She employed a pair of fictitious confederates, a Miss Blythe and a Mrs Moore, whose sagacious ‘good advice’ she passed on to her dupes, wringing even more pennies from them. 

Joanna Southcott

Mary next devised a plan to visit York, where she announced herself to be a follower of Joanna Southcott and enquired where she might find others who were ‘Sealed’ in that City (knowing, full well, that these credulous folk would be the easiest to swindle). She took lodgings, for free, at the house of a widow Southcottian, where she lived for a while, allowing herself to be well fed and made comfortable. When she eventually left, the widow discovered that several guineas and the contents of her wardrobe had departed with her former ‘guest’. 

The Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman - 1811

In the early spring of 1806, a servant girl from Leeds, Sarah Stead, spent her Whitsuntide holiday with her aunt and uncle in the nearby village of Bramley and was concerned to find her aunt Rebecca had a ‘flacking’ or fluttering in her chest. A local ‘hedge’ doctor had been consulted, who declared she had an ‘evil wish’ had been laid upon her but a cure was beyond his powers. Luckily, Sarah knew a woman who knew a woman, and Mary Bateman’s assistance was sought. She did, she affirmed, know a Miss Blythe in Scarborough who could help. All she needed was a flannel nightdress or some other item worn by the lady next to her skin, which would be sent off, in order for Miss Blythe to ascertain the true nature of the curse. 

Mr Perigo brought the nightdress and was told to return in a week’s time, which he did. A reply had come from Scarborough, which told them to take the four guinea notes that were supplied, sew them into silk bags and place them at the corners of Mrs Perigo’s bed, where they were to remain for eighteen months. Four guineas were to be given in return to Mrs Bateman, who would send them back to Scarborough. All this was done, and two weeks later another letter arrived, instructing them to nail up two horseshoes on their door, using not a hammer but the back of a pair of pliers, which were then to be sent to Scarborough. For months, letters arrived instructing them to send all manner of odd things back to Scarborough, including cheeses, silver spoons, a goose pie, worsted stockings, china tea sets and a tea-caddy. Sums of money also arrived, to be sewn into the Perigo’s bed, and replacement amounts were to be returned, via Mrs Bateman, to Scarborough. 

Notes and Queries - 1873

In May 1807, another letter came, instructing them to take the seven packets of powder enclosed, give one to Mrs Bateman who was to mix it in half a pound of honey, and the other six to be held by the Perigos, awaiting instruction. This soon arrived; the powder was to be mixed each day with a pudding, which William and Rebecca Perigo were to eat on consecutive days, eating the whole pudding themselves, and not allowing anyone to see them during the time. If they were ill, they need not consult a doctor, but continue with the powder and pudding regime until complete and to also take a spoonful of the honey, otherwise it would not work. For five days, all went well, but on the sixth day they both became violently ill, vomiting and nauseous, and on May 24th Rebecca Perigo died. 

A Doctor Chorley was called, who opined that she had died from poison, a fact he proved by giving some of the remaining pudding to a cat, which promptly also died. But, incredibly, nothing else was done. Miss Blythe wrote again, expressing her sorrow at Rebecca’s death but pointing out that it was her own fault, as she had not followed her instructions to the letter, which also put the lives of herself and Mrs Bateman at risk! For two more years, William Perigo continued to send goods to Miss Blythe via Mrs Bateman, until it dawned on him that the eighteen month period initially mentioned by Miss Blythe was long passed. He went and rooted out the various silk bags placed in the bed, opened them and discovered they contained bad farthings and cabbage leaves! He contacted Bateman on the pretence of wanting to buy some medicine, and when she arrived, he had her apprehended by the law. In her pocket was a bottle of fluid, containing oatmeal and arsenic. 


She was brought to trial in York, before Sir Simon Le Blanc (honestly!) on Friday March 17th 1809, where Doctor Chorley confirmed he had tested the pudding and the honey, both of which contained the poison sublimate of mercury. The Judge commented with marvellous British understatement that, 
It is impossible not to be struck with wonder at the extraordinary credulity of Wm. Perigo, which neither the loss of his property, the death of his wife nor his own severe sufferings, could dispel.” 
The jury found Bateman guilty of the death of Rebecca Perigo by poisoning, the attempted murder of William Perigo and the intent to also murder him with the arsenic and oatmeal mix, and defrauding the couple out of at least seventy pounds. Judge Le Blanc sentenced Mary Bateman to death by hanging, whereupon she announced that the sentence could not be carried out as she was twenty-two weeks pregnant. Le Blanc then empanelled twelve married women in the courtroom to examine Bateman; this dozen matrons baulked at the prospect and bolted for the doors but the Judge was already one step ahead and had the exits blocked. Bateman and the good wives of York retired to a side room and the examination took place; they re-emerged and informed the Judge that the prisoner was not with child as she had claimed. You have to admit it, Mary Bateman had more front than Blackpool. 

She was sent to the condemned cells, where a fellow prisoner told her that her last wish was to see her beloved. Mary told her that if she would give a certain number of coins, she would fashion a charm from them, which she would then sew into the stays of the girl’s corset and which would guarantee to bring the young man running. The coins were found and Mary set about her magic-making but soon after the girl had second thoughts and unpicked the stays only to find them empty. Even when she was waiting to be hanged, Mary had conned an innocent and pocketed the money! That really is front. 

On the morning of Monday March 20th 1809, Mary Bateman went to the gallows at the New Drop near to York Castle, declaring her innocence to the last. When the sentence had been carried out, her body was taken down and transferred to Leeds General Infirmary, where it was dissected before an audience who paid thrupence each to watch, raising £30 for the Infirmary. 

The Mortal Remains of Mary Bateman

Her skin was taken off, tanned, and strips of the resulting leather were sold as lucky charms. Her skeleton (or what is left of it) and her death mask are still on display at the Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds.

Notes and Queries Jan 1873