Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Still Stranger Story of the Bunny Breeder

I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford … All London is upon this occasion … divided into factions about it.” 
Letter from Alexander Pope to John Caryll, Dec 5 1726.
This affair has “… almost alarmed England, and in a manner persuaded several people of sound judgment that it was true.”
Lord Onslow, note to Sir Hans Sloane.

                   Everyone was talking about it. News of it spread like wildfire. Mary Toft was a sensation. On Sunday November 20th 1726, Mr Cyriacus Ahlers, physician to the German household of King George I, went to Guilford to meet her. On arrival, Mr Howard’s nurse brought news that Mrs Toft was once again in labour. 

Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits

Ahlers, assisted by Howard, presided over the delivery of the loins and lower limbs of a young rabbit and was convinced that this could not have been introduced into her uterus earlier. He gave Toft a guinea and promised her a pension from the King then, claiming a headache and a sore throat, at 5 pm he departed back for London. Doctors, surgeons and obstetricians shuttled between London and Guilford and, inevitably, their opinions differed. Sir Richard Manningham was convinced it was all an elaborate fraud; Dr St André was convinced it was a miracle. 

John Maubray - The Female Physician - 1724

On November 29th, Mary Toft was brought to London and was lodged at Lacey’s bagnio (bath house) in Leicester Fields, to where even more doctors flocked to see her. Amongst them was John Maubray, author of The Female Physician, a work in which he describes the phenomena of ‘maternal impression’, a belief that women, particularly pregnant women, could be influenced by exterior experiences that were reflected on the bodies of their offspring. 

An Elephant Man

John Merrick, the famous ‘Elephant Man’, was convinced that his own condition was the result of his mother being frightened by a circus elephant when she was carrying him. Medical literature of the day contains many examples of monstrous births that were brought about by the encounters of mothers-to-be with various creatures, or even, in some cases, by dreaming about animals. 

God only knows ...

Maubray wrote about something called a suyger, a word he translates as sooterkin, and describes how, on a voyage to Holland, he witnessed the birth of just such a monster, 
Upon which occafion, in fhort I immediately lent her a helping Hand and upon the membranes giving way, this forementioned Animal made its wonderful Egrefs filling my Ears with difmal Shrieks, and my Mind with greater CONSTERNATION.” 

Maubray -The Female Physician - 1724

More disconcertingly, Maubray also describes how the wives of the sea-faring Dutch expected at least one in three births to result in the production of a suyger, and how the women prepared for these births  
“…to receive it warmly, And throw it into the Fire; holding Sheets before the Chimney that it may not get off as it always endeavours to fave itfelf by getting into fome dark Hole or Corner. They properly call it de Suyger which is (in our Language) the Sucker, becaufe, like a Leech it sucks up the Infant's Blood and Aliment.” 

Your guess is as good as mine ...

At Lacey’s, Manningham sat by Toft’s bedside as she went in labour yet again; he examined her externally and internally, and although she exhibited labour pains, there was nothing to indicate that she was about to give birth. These pains continued for several days, with the sceptical Manningham in close attention; he noted how she moved in and out of the pains, how she slept fitfully, and how she ate beef, rabbit and (ironically) red herrings. 

Mary Toft

Then, on December 4th, Mr Thomas Howard, a porter at Lacey’s bagnio, gave a sworn statement to Sir Thomas Clarges, Justice of the Peace, that Toft’s sister-in-law, Margaret, had clandestinely approached him with a request to procure a rabbit. Clarges immediately placed Toft under arrest and she was closely questioned, but swore that the rabbit had been asked for as food. Her sister-in-law, who was there to assist with the birth, also swore under oath that the rabbit had solely been intended for eating. 

The Surrey Rabbit Breeder

Unimpressed, Clarges intended to imprison Toft until Manningham intervened, urging caution on the off chance that Toft was still about to deliver more animal parts, regardless of their origins, and with great difficulty he managed to persuade Clarges to allow her to remain under the custody of the High Constable of Westminster at Lacey’s. Two days later, Clarges threatened Toft with much more severe treatment, which seems to have worked as, in the presence of Manningham, Dr Duncan, Lord Baltimore and the Duke of Montague, Mary Toft began her confession. 

Much Ado About Nothing - 1727

She had, she said, miscarried her natural child and it was then, when her cervix was dilated, that an unnamed accomplice had introduced the monster (as she termed it) into her uterus. This was the body of a cat and the head of a rabbit, and the accomplice had assured Mary that she would never need work again if she continued with the imposture, and she would put her into a good livelihood for a share in the profits. To make the miracle convincing, she had been told that she had to produce the same number in a litter as a female rabbit would deliver, maybe thirteen in all. The introduction and delivery of all these rabbit parts had caused her great pain and discomfort, she had simulated some of the pains but the rest had been genuine agony. 

Several Depositions - 1727

At the same time, Lord Onslow took depositions from six people, who all said that they had sold rabbits to Joshua Toft. Under a statute of Edward III, Mary Toft was charged with being a vile cheat and impostor, and sent for a short while to the Bridewell at Tothill Fields. Great crowds sought entry to see her but none of the public was admitted; she was attended solely by the gaoler’s wife and whenever Joshua Toft visited her, he was closely searched before being allowed into her cell. However, the prosecution was not proceeded with, and Mary returned home to Godalming. 

This wasn’t the end of her criminality – in 1740, she was served a sentence in Guilford gaol for receiving stolen goods. She died in January 1763. 

The repercussions of the Toft case resounded throughout Georgian England, and it is these I will turn to next.

Tomorrow - Repercussions and so forth ... 

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Stranger Story of the Rabbit Reproducer

             She was born Mary Denyer at Godalming, Surrey, and baptised on February 21st 1703. In 1720, she married Joshua Toft, a journeyman clothier (a journeyman was someone who had completed his apprenticeship but was not yet a master of his craft. They were often itinerants, who worked for day wages – hence the term ‘journeyman’, from the French journée – ‘day’). Mary was an unprepossessing girl; she was short of stature and bad tempered, stupid and illiterate, wilful, wooden and stolid. 

N St Andre's opinion of Mary Toft

Joshua and Mary had three children and, in spring 1726, she was pregnant again. In the first few weeks, whilst working in the fields, Mary was shocked by a rabbit that sprang unseen at her feet. She and her companion then saw another rabbit, and from then Mary developed an obsession with rabbits, she dreamed about them and had an overwhelming urge to eat them, a luxury an eighteenth century English peasant could ill afford. 

Mary Toft

In early August, Mary began to suffer from severe abdominal pains and egested a mass of unformed tissue, followed three weeks later by a similar event. During the night of September 27th, she was again taken ill during the night and her mother-in-law, Ann Toft, who was a midwife was sent for. Mary delivered what was said to resemble the lights and innards of a pig. Joshua Toft took these to Mr John Howard, a surgeon and man-midwife with thirty years experience, at Guilford, and Mr Howard went to Godalming some days later, where he delivered what seemed to be further parts of a pig. 

It seemed that the affair was over, but early in November, Mary Toft went into labour once more and Howard returned to Godalming. News began to reach the London medical establishment that a woman in Surrey was giving birth to rabbits, and these rumours were confirmed when Mr Howard wrote to the capital, saying he had removed Mrs Toft to Guilford after she had borne nine rabbits and inviting any interested parties to come and see the wonders for themselves. 

Nathaniel St Andre

This invitation was taken up by Dr Nathaniel St André, surgeon to the Royal Household of King George I, who travelled to Guilford on November 15th, in the company of the Honourable Mr Samuel Molyneux, Secretary to H R H the Prince of Wales. They arrived in the afternoon and were met by Howard, who informed them that Mrs Toft was in the process of delivering her fifteenth rabbit. St André and Howard attended her, finding her in great pain, and soon after she delivered the torso of a rabbit, stripped of its skin but containing lungs, heart and diaphragm. The doctors examined Mrs Toft and St André found irregularities in the right fallopian tube, suspecting that the rabbits were developing there before passing into the uterus. 

A Bunny Baby?

They repaired to the mayor’s house, and two hours later news reached them that Mrs Toft had borne the hind parts of a rabbit that fitted with the torso delivered earlier. They returned to the doctor’s house, where Toft was once more in immense pain, and soon after the rolled-up skin of a rabbit appeared together with a rabbit’s head, complete with skin, and with a torn ear. All the parts so far delivered were preserved in alcohol, and St André began his examination of them. 

In the guts of one, normal rabbit dung was found, containing plant material, although another contained a thick, viscous mucus resembling meconium. The first creature was found not to be a perfect rabbit, having three of its four paws more like those of a cat, the various sections formed complete bodies although some lacked viscera, and the majority were female. 

St Andre - Narrative - 1726 

St André wrote a short but medically detailed report, which he forwarded to London and which was presented before the King and court on November 26th 1726. 

It caused an immediate sensation.

Tomorrow - Just how the immediate sensation went ...

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Strange Story of the Pregnant Peasantess

             Her mother-in-law, the midwife, had promised her that, after the first three, leastways it would be wonderful easy this time around, like shelling peas she said, but now that her belly had begun to bloat, now that she had started spitting up that thin, bitter bile-water early in the mornings again, now that the ache in her ankles was back to bite her as she puddled about, and now that her already short temper was growing even shorter by the day, she knew now that the lying old bitch was lying to her again. 

She cursed her for her lying, she cursed that feckless runagate streak she called a son for lying to her, with his silvery words, his golden tongue and his brass promises, and most of all she cursed herself for falling for them easy, empty lies again. She cursed the stupid, boss-eyed bitch they’d sent to help her grub out the last of these stupid, worm-riddled turnips, what with her stupid lisp and her stupid whistling. She cursed her own aching back, her fruz fingers and this stupid, stupid, unwanted brat. She hoicked her mire-spattered round-frock about her knees, swung herself to one side and planted her otherside, cack-caked clog half a yard to the left. 

A rabbit erupted from the sod, its scut bobbing in the half-light, she hadn’t seen it cowering in the turf and she cursed the fright it gave her. If only she’d seen it first, she’d have brained the thing and there’d have been spoon-meat in the pot tonight. The boss-eyed bitch snorted and spluttered, hawking out what might have been a laugh, and dropped her sack of swedes, spilling them in the mud. Mary skewered the spawny-eyed silly with a gimlet glare for a second, spat a satisfying green gob at her and turned back to the clung red clay. Stupid damn rabbit. 

She flinched as the gormless bitch plucked at her arm, spun and faced her, a curse forming in her mouth when she saw the pointing finger. There. There in the hedge. Under an elder. Another rabbit quaked, twitching and shivering, tight as a fist, hiding in brambles. Slowly, she drew the hefty turnip from her trug, weighing it with a poacher’s pull as she raised her weary arm back. Aim and weigh, slow, slowly, without blinking or breathing, she hefted it, arcing it toward the brown buck’s back. 

It sprang, rising and jinking and kinking like a trout on a line, barrelling toward her, quirking afirst then, at once, a wild thing screeching like a teething brat. She’d been told once that rabbits could scream but she’d never heard one do it before. The banshee bolted aright at her and then, in a blinking, it was gone, gone as quickly as her bloom, her figure and her dreams. Too frightened to think, it had panicked and now it was her turn to gasp and shiver, cold with sweat, trembling with fear, wondering why. Stupid, stupid rabbit. And deep inside her belly, she felt a kick.

Tomorrow - The True Tale of Mary Toft

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Contrasting Combinations of the Tri-syllabic Thingummies

                     Let’s go back to prosody and metrical feet. Tri-syllables in particular; I’ve been thinking about those recently. Tri-syllables are what they say on the tin. They’re just three syllables tied together – tri like tripod or tricycle – three things. 


If you’ve got three things – syllables in this case – and if you can do something more with them, then there’s something going on. In English, as in many more other languages, you can put a stress on one, two or all three of those syllables, or you can put no stress at all on any or all of them. Stress in combination. Syllables are the building blocks of words, just as proteins are the building blocks of life and bricks are the building blocks of houses. 


Syllables are the little bits of that go to make up words. Some words are single syllables – monosyllables. Cat and Dog are monosyllables.  Some words are bi-syllables, words like Mother and Father.  You can split them into two parts – Mo-ther or Fa-ther. You can hear the two bits when you say the words. And the stress is how you say the word. 

Take a word like ‘strawberry’. That’s a tri-syllabic word. Straw – ber- ry. And if you pronounce it properly, you say STRAW–ber–ry. The stress is on the first syllable. Stress the first syllable and just let the other two fall out of your mouth. If you say straw-BERRY then it’s possible that you might need to consider evening classes. 

Strawberries and Culture

In this stressed and unstressed business, the stressed syllables are called macrons and the unstressed ones are called breves (if you really want to get picky, it’s to do with the long and short vowel sounds, but I’m a Lancastrian and we have flat and round vowels to play with too, together with all that rhotic business, and my southern brethren muck about with clipped and unclipped vowels too). ‘Strawberry’ starts with a macron and ends with a couple of breves. 

It’s what we call a dactyl. A dactyl gets its fancy Greek name from ‘finger’ – look at any one of your fingers and you’ll see, from the knuckle to the fingernail, a long bone and two shorter ones. It’s why pterodactyls are called pterodactyls – ptero is Greek for winged and dactyl, as I’ve said, means ‘finger’.  

Look at the Dactyls on this Ptero-doo-dah

 A macron and two breves, a stressed syllable and a couple of unstressed ones, a long bone and two shorter ones. But what happens if you move where the stress falls inside a foot? Let’s move it along the line. What do you get if you have a breve, a macron and a breve? You get an amphibrach. That sounds even a bit more weird than a dactyl. It’s Greek (of course) and it means ‘short on both sides’. Which it is. 

You know amphibrachs better than you think. It’s the metrical foot used in limericks. ‘There once was’. That’s an amphibrach. Syllables can be whole words too, not just bits of words. They can be bits of words, but remember what we said about building blocks. They are put together to make bigger things. Let’s nip back to limericks. 

There once was a man from Nantucket’. 
There are three amphibrachs right away. The best way I know to hear this is to read it aloud and clap your hands together on the stresses. Try it yourself. 
‘There once was / a man from / Nan tuck et’. 
Got it?   
Quiet Clap Quiet. Breve Macron Breve. Unstressed, Stressed, Unstressed.
Am- phi -brach. 

Right, let’s move the stress to the end of the metrical foot. That will give us the pattern of unstressed, unstressed, stressed syllables. This one is called an ‘anapaest’. Sorry for this, but it’s more Greek. It means ‘struck back’ and in essence it’s a backward dactyl, it’s a dactyl that has been reversed, a dactyl that has been struck back. 

Backward Ptero-flying-things

Anapaests are not really all that common. They are used, but they are mainly used for effect, switching the metre of a line to add emphasis or to break the rhythm of a poetic line. Fine. That’s dactyls, amphibrachs and anapaests. You can jiggle the syllables around and come up with other combinations. 

Obviously, there are tri-syllables that are completely stressed, (woh, steady syllables, have a minute). All three parts have equal importance; you get this in names quite a lot. Great North Road. Great White Hope. All the stresses are given the same importance. Want a name? It’s called a molossus

Its polar opposite has no stressed syllables at all (whu, sorted fellah), and that’s called a tribrach, which is something so unstressed that its very existence is questioned. 
Tribrach cool wi’ dat, mon. Tribrach fine.

One Cool Tribrach

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Mystifying Muddle of the Misheard Maundy

                  When I was a child, I became confused when adults started talking about Monday Thursday. What were they on about now? Which was it? Was it a Monday or was it a Thursday? It was obvious that they were talking about the day that came after a Wednesday, so that meant that it should be a Thursday, then why on earth were they calling it Monday? It didn’t make any sense. 

Of course, I’d misheard. They were talking about Maundy Thursday, the day that comes before Good Friday, which was interesting to the younger me because it meant that Lent was almost over and we could all get back to eating normally and there was always a chance of chocolate in the immediate future too. Maundy was just another of those strange words that adults used when they were talking about ‘Church’, words like Assumption or Ascension, words that you didn’t know what they meant, apart from them being something to do with ‘Church’ and you didn’t ask too many questions about that unless you wanted to attract the attention of the nuns. And nobody in their right mind wanted anything like that to happen. 

It’s still a strange word, even now, and as with many strange words there are conflicting accounts of the word’s origin. The ‘Church’ version, what you might call the official version, is that Maundy is a corruption of the word ‘Mandate’, the day being designated Dies Mandati in the old prayer books. This comes from the first word of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13, verse 34, 
A New Commandment I give to you, Love one another,” 
in Latin, 
Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem.” 

Christ Washing the Feet

Immediately before this, Christ washes the feet of his disciples, and this action was taken up as a form of penance and outward show of humility in the early church. 

In the Voyage of St Brendan, (who lived c. 484 to c. 577), which was written in about 1000 CE, is this account of his landing on the Isle of Sheppey, 
The Procurator came to meet them and welcomed them anon, 
And kissed St. Brendan's feet, and the monks, each one;
And set them to supper, for the day it would so. 
And then he washed their feet all, the Maundy for to do. 
They held there their Maundy, and there they stayed, 
On Good Friday all the long day, until Easter Eve.” 

The Voyage of St Brendan

In addition to the washing of the feet, it became to custom for Kings, Princes and nobles to distribute food, drinks, money and other gifts to the deserving poor. In 1327, there is a record of Edward II washing the feet of fifty poor men, and the tradition grew that the number of supplicants would be equal to the number of years that the monarch had reigned, (Queen Elizabeth I did this at Greenwich in 1572), although the last ruler to wash the feet of the poor was James II, in 1685, after which the ceremony was performed by the Lord Almoner. 

Maundy Money

The ruling monarch also gave alms in the form of money, commonly called Maundy Money, a custom that began during the reign of King John when he gave thirteen pennies to thirteen poor men at Rochester in 1213. The small sums of money were given in red or white leather purses, and from Charles II day, special Maundy coins were minted, although the annual minting did not begin until 1822. Maundy money is made up of one, two, three and four-penny coins, the amount and the numbers of recipients equal to the number of years that the monarch has ruled, with two other purses containing money in lieu of the allowances once made for food and clothing. 

Maundy Money

The other supposed etymology of the word Maundy is, in my opinion, due to a coincidence and something of a folk- or back-etymology. An old Saxon word for a basket was maund, and to maunder was another term for begging. Shakespeare uses the word in his poem A Lover’s Complaint, where he writes, 
A thousand favours from a maund she drew 
Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet.” 
It comes through the French mand, basket, and follows a set precedent of /an/ in foreign words transforming to /au/ in English (French branse or bransle, a limb-shaking dance, is the root of the English braul – now brawl – and the German dandle, play or loiter, became the English dawdle). 

In the rhymed life of St Brendan mentioned above, the term for the day is scher-thursdai, and a similar term is found in the rhymed life of St Cuthbert, where the lines are, 
To Skyre thuresday þan walde he his fete waschyn and clensed be.” 

The Life of St Cuthbert

In more modern English, this is Shere Thursday, the older name for the day, and has links to the Icelandic skíri-þórsdagr – 'cleansing or washing Thursday', reflecting the washing of the feet by Christ. In the north, the Nordic /k/ was retained, whereas in the south it moved to a /h/ sound. With another example of back-etymology, the shere became shear, as the story grew that this was the day that monks and friars had their heads sheared (or their hair cut). 
For that in old Fathers days the people would that day shere theyr hedes and clypp theyr berdes, and pool theyr heedes, and so make them honest ayenst Easter day.” 
[Festival, 1511, quoted in John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, Vol 1, 1813]

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Players' Pleasures of the Pall-Mall Pastime

            If you have ever visited central London, there is every chance that you will have walked along the street called Pall Mall, which runs through St James’s, parallel to the Mall, and extends, as Pall Mall East, as far as Trafalgar Square. 

Pall Mall, London

The name, Pall Mall, derives from a game that was popular in England during the seventeenth century. This game was introduced from France, where it was called paille-maille, and originated in Italy, where it was called pallamaglio, coming from the Latin pila – ball and malleus – hammer. 

Games with the Ball

Ball and mallet games have a long history – in ancient Rome there was a game called paganica, where a leather ball stuffed with feathers was struck with a stick, and in England during the reign of Edward III, cambuca was played, this was also called bandy ball, on account of the bandy, or bent, stick. In one incarnation, this game developed into golf, or goff as it was sometimes called, and another variation became pall mall. 

Pall Mall

In his Latin Dictionary (1735), Adam Littleton gives the definition of paganica as ‘a goff ball, a stow ball, stuffed with feathers’, stow ball was a similar sort of game to golf. 

Adam Littleton - Paganica - Latin Dictionary - 1735

An alternative etymology posits that the name comes from pale-mail, French for straw-mallet, as the target hoops were made from twisted or plaited straw, although ball-mallet makes much more sense. 

Jeu de Mail - Fifteenth Century

Jeu de mail (mallet-game) was played in France in the fifteenth century, as were other kinds of ground billiards, and continued well into the twentieth century; jeu de palme (hand-game) eventually developed into tennis, and such sports as cricket and lacrosse were later versions of these stick and ball games. 

Jeu de Mail - France 1895

The earliest mention of the game is made in Method for Travel (1598), by Sir Robert Dallington, 
Among all the exercises of France, I prefer none before the Paille Maille, both because it is a gentlemanlike sport, not violent, and yields good occasion and opportunity of discourse as they walke from one marke to the other.” 
The enthusiasm for ‘gentlemanly’ sports is also seen in the Basilikon Doron (Royal Gift), written by James I as advice for his eldest son, Prince Henry (born 1594), 
But the exercises that I would have you to use (although but moderately, not making a craft of them) are running, leaping, wrastling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch or tennise, archery, palle maille, and such like other faire and pleasant field games.” 

Pall Mall

It seems that the Prince followed this fatherly advice, for a later anecdote records, 
At another time playing at goff, a play not unlike to pale-maille, whilst his schoolmaster stood talking with another, and marked not his highness warning him to stand farther off, the prince thinking he had gone aside, lifted up his goff-club to strike the ball.” 

Games with a stick

Not long after, the younger Henry Peacham, in the Compleat Gentleman (1622), describes the habits of the French, 
Their exercifes are for the molt part Tennife play, Pallemaille, fhooting in the Croffe-bow or Peece, and Dancing,” 
The same author, in The Worth of a Penny (1644), describes the beneficial pleasures of the body as, 
Walking, riding upon pleasure, hunting, hawking, bowling, ringing, Paile Maille or Pell Mell, and the like which are recreations without doors [i.e. outdoors].

Pall Mall Mallet and Ball

On April 2nd 1661, Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that, 
So I into St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele, the first time that ever I saw the sport.” 

Pall Mall circa 1740

This Duke of York would become King James II, after the death of his brother, King Charles II, who was also extremely fond of playing Pall Mall. The poet, Edmund Waller, wrote about the King’s expertise in the game in his On St James’s Park, 
Here, a well-polished Mall gives us the joy 
To see our Prince his matchless force employ; 
His manly posture, and his graceful mien, 
Vigour and youth, in all his motions seen; 
His shape so lovely, and his limbs so strong, 
Confirm our hopes we shall obey him long. 
No sooner has he touched the flying ball, 
But 'tis already more than half the Mall; 
And such a fury from his arm has got, 
As from a smoking culverin 'twere shot.” 

Pall Mall Mallet

Pall Mall was played with a mallet, its head bound with iron hoops, and a box-wood ball that was struck down a course and then through a suspended hoop, the winner either taking the fewest strokes or managing the feat in a pre-determined number of strokes (similar to par in golf). 

The Game of Pall Mall

The target hoops were positioned at either end of the straight alley, or field, and play would continue from one end and back to the other, for a given number of times. The alley itself was contained by boards, to prevent the ball from running off and to prevent onlookers encroaching onto the playing area, and was covered in powdered cockleshells, pressed firmly into the ground (the ‘well-polished Mall’ mentioned by Waller). 

Playing Pall Mall at St James's

Pepys in his Diary, May 15, 1663, writes, 
I walked in the Park, discoursing with the keeper of the Pell Mell, who was sweeping of it, who told me of what the earth is mixed that do floor the Mall, and that over all there is cockle-shells powdered, and spread to keep it fast; which, however, in dry weather turns to dust and deadens the ball.” 

Offical Croquet Guide

Eventually, Pall Mall fell out of favour and the game developed into croquet, still played widely today.  The word 'mall' meaning a long, straight thoroughfare has since come to mean a shopping street, notably in the 'shopping malls' in the U.S.A.

A Rover - Croquet Principles and Rules - 1874

Oddly, the expression ‘pell mell’, meaning disorder or confusion, does not come from the rushing after the ball during a game of Pall Mall, but from the Old French pesle-mesle, a twelfth century term meaning a mixture or mingling, possibly a rhyming construction based on a word for a frying pan or a shovel.

A Croquet Party

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Thwarted Tactics of the Poisoning Parricide

               Miss Mary Blandy spent the early days of her incarceration in something more like a withdrawal from the world than the normal imprisonment that a suspected murderess might expect in the eighteenth century. She took her Hyson tea, played a hand of whist, walked in the Oxfordshire sunshine. 

Miss Mary Blandy in Oxford Castle

But the genteel façade began to be chipped away. News reached her that her father had died without making a will, unusual for a lawyer maybe, and she was the sole heiress to his fortune which, to her shock, amounted to something less than four thousand pounds. The promised dowry of ten thousand pounds, which had so attracted her Scottish nobleman, was a figment of the sycophantic attorney’s imagination. 

The Tryal of Mary Blandy - 1752

The Secretary of State heard whispers that there was  a plot being prepared to free the parricide and he sent orders to Oxford that a more careful watch should be placed on her. The garden walks came to a sudden end and shackles were riveted around her slender ankles. The tea-drinking and card games were substituted by chapel services and her only visitor was the prison chaplain. 

The Tryal of Mary Blandy - Two Shilling Folio edition

Rumours and speculations abounded – she had also poisoned her mother, she had poisoned Mrs Pocock, a family friend, she had spent her fortune bribing officials, she was still in correspondence with Cranstoun, she was secretly married to the keeper’s son, witnesses against her were ‘being taken care of’, she was a drunkard, she was an habitual user of profanities, she never attended church services, even that she had escaped. 

Concerns were aired that the servants, Gunnel and Emmet, might possibly succumb to the same fate as their former master, and an early trial was recommended. The town hall at Oxford was undergoing refurbishment and the University refused the use of Sheldonian Theatre, so the trial began in the hall of the Divinity School at eight o’clock in the morning of Tuesday March 3rd 1752. 

Hall of the Divinity School, Oxford

The indictment charged the prisoner with the wilful murder of Francis Blandy by administering to him white arsenic at divers times during 1751. The trial was remarkable as it was the first one of which there is any detailed record, in which convincing scientific proof of poisoning was given. The Crown case opened with the medical evidence from Drs Addington and Lewis, and Norton the apothecary, who presented proof that the arsenic was the cause of death, arsenic was in the gruel pot, and arsenic was in the packet that the witness had attempted to burn. 

The servants were called and gave evidence that they had heard Miss Blandy wish her father dead and that she had referred to him in less than daughterly terms. Her hurried, intercepted, note to Cranstoun was produced and read, witnesses from the Angel tavern were called and the Crown closed its case. 

Miss Mary Blandy

Then Mary Blandy took the stand but gave little evidence other than stating that she thought the powder ‘an inoffensive thing’ that she had given to her father to procure his love. The defence called its own witnesses, former servants who said that they had never heard Miss Blandy speak a word against her father. Edward Herne, the inattentive sentry and old flame, told how he had visited the house at least four times a week and had always found Mary to be a exemplary, attentive daughter. 

After thirteen hours in the courtroom, the jury consulted for five minutes without even withdrawing, and immediately returned a guilty verdict. Mr Baron Legge pronounced the death sentence on Miss Mary Blandy, who was then returned to Oxford Castle, stepping “… into the Coach with as little Concern as if she had been going to a Ball.” 

Miss Mary Blandy's Own Account - 1752

A flurry of pamphlets appeared, stating the truth of both sides, and Mary produced her own ‘True Account’ of what had happened. None of it made any difference. The date of the execution was fixed for Saturday April 6th but the University authorities objected that it was an unseemly thing for Holy Week, so the date was moved to the following Monday. 

Account of the Life of Miss Mary Blandy

At nine in the morning, Mary Blandy was led from her cell and, dressed in black crepe and with her arms tied with black paduasoy ribbons, carrying a prayerbook and two guineas for the hangman, she walked to the Castle Green. Before a silent, respectful crowd of over five thousand, she made a modest speech admitting her guilt and denying any involvement in any other deaths. She began to climb the ladder but stopped when five steps up and asked ‘for modesty’s sake’ not to be hanged high. She went up two more steps and stopped again, fearing that she might fall, a handkerchief was placed over her face and, with the prayerbook still in her hand, she was turned off the ladder. 

The Execution of Miss Blandy

After half an hour, she was taken down but no hearse or coffin had been brought, so the body was thrown over the shoulder of one of the sheriff’s men and carried away, immodestly exposing her legs to the gaze of the onlookers. She was laid in the sheriff’s house during the afternoon and then taken to Henley, where at one o’clock in the morning she was buried in the same grave as her mother and father in the chancel of Henley Parish Church. 

A Candid Appeal to the Publick - 1752

Her genteel departure came just in time, as a new law was passed later in the same year whereby those condemned for murder where to be hanged the next day but one after sentence was passed and then their body passed on to the surgeons for dissection or, at the judge’s discretion, hanged in chains. The case of Mary Blandy was followed greatly at the time although she almost forgotten now. 

Capt. William Henry Cranston

And what, you may ask, became of the Honourable William Henry Cranstoun? Well, when news of the arrest of his intended reached his ears, this officer and gentleman fled to Scotland and when a writ for his arrest was issued, he ran for the continent as quickly as his scrawny little legs could carry him. He sought refuge with a kinswoman in France and assumed her maiden name, Dunbar, but his arrival became known to officers in the French service who were related to his wife and when they vowed revenge for his shabby treatment of her, he scampered off to Furnes, a town in Flanders owned by the Queen of Hungary. 

There, in late November 1752, he fell ill with a mystery illness and on December 2nd he died, in great agonies, you may be pleased to hear. His goods, including his embroidered waistcoats, were sold off to pay his debts. On his deathbed, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and the death of so prominent a convert impelled the local clergy to arrange a magnificent ceremonial funeral in the Cathedral, with a procession and high requiem mass, all attended by monks, friars and the magistrates of the town. We can only assume that they were unaware of the true identity of their latest celebrity. 

Commodore Howe - or is it? Compare with the above portrait of Cranstoun.

In an interesting aside, in 1760, John Fuller published a three volume edition of The Naval Chronicle; or, Voyages, Travels, Expeditions. Volume Three included accounts of various prominent naval officers, illustrated with woodcuts of these eminent gentlemen, but when it came to Commodore Lord Richard Howe, who later became First Lord of the Admiralty, Fuller must not have had a portrait of Howe available, as he had a portrait of Cranstoun reworked and presented in his book as the image of the naval hero. 

Quite what ‘Black Dick’ Howe thought of his portrait when he was confronted with Fuller’s presentation of the odious Cranstoun as his own likeness has not made its way down to us. I do not expect that it was one of enthusiastic approval.