Archive for the Murder Category

Encounters with the Dead

Posted in Murder, Newspapers, Uncategorized with tags , , on 30/10/2016 by Craig Spence

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Encounters with the dead were common in pre-modern society. With death rates from disease and illness high most people would come face-to-face with the dead at some time or other. But such events mostly occurred in private or at least domestic settings, environments where the encounter could be managed and socially regulated. In the early modern metropolis however the chance of public viewing of violent or unusual deaths was ever present.

It would seem that Londoners were particularly keen to look into the face of death. They thronged to the fields around Tyburn to witness the last death throes of the condemned, or journeyed to the waterside at Wapping to celebrate the execution of pirates. But London presented other opportunities to connect with the dead. Those recovered from rivers and ponds were often exposed to public view in an attempt to provide an identity. In March 1730 the Daily Courant reported that ‘on Thursday last in the afternoon a man was taken out of the New River Head near Sadler’s Wells, who is supposed to have been murdered and robbed, by his pockets being turned out, and being cut and mangled very much; he was carried to Clerkenwell burying ground, to be seen openly, if that any person should know to whom he belonged.’ That, via word of mouth, crowds would have gathered to view the corpse is not unlikely.

On another occasion when the drowned body of a woman was discovered on the Thames shoreline in 1754 it drew an audience. In particular James Gould a bargeman set aside the possible protestations of his wife and child as he diverted their Sunday walk to get a closer look. As he later recounted at the Old Bailey; ‘Upon Sunday the 18th of November, as I, my wife, and child, were coming from Chiswick to Hammersmith we heard of a drowned woman; I was determined to walk down to see her, and walked as far as the mud would let me go; she lay in the mud and water, but over-hawling her very strictly I lifted up her head’ and by doing so he gazed directly into the face of death. Others waited their turn until several men had recovered the body of Elizabeth Webb and carried it to drier land before taking a closer look. Henry Smith and Robert Boyle helped to ‘threw her upon a piece of board and carry her up to the Black-Lion and laid her there; there were five or six of us carried her up’. Boyle also observed that ‘I believe there were a hundred people on the bank side at that time.’

In what was perhaps an even more macabre engagement with the dead, a house fire in 1687 drew a certain type of audience. A pamphlet published in recognition of the catastrophic event (A True Account of that Dreadful Fire which happened in the House of Mr Samuel Seaton) noted that ‘The bodies … were carried to a neighbour’s house; and there lay as affrightening spectacles to people, who flocked to see them’. One can readily imagine the press of men, women and children at the doors and windows of the house as they jostled to catch a glimpse, or a smell, of the charred corpses of the seven recently deceased inhabitants including Mr Seaton, his wife and their new-born child.

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The day a pint of beer saved a life in January 1730

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Newspapers, Suicide with tags , , , on 05/01/2014 by Craig Spence

Bad winter weather with bitter cold and thick fogs spread across London during January 1730. As a result there were several sudden deaths and accidental injuries. The Bill of Mortality for the week commencing 6 January shows only two sudden deaths: a child ‘found dead’ in the church yard of St Mary Magdalen in Bermondsey and another person reported as ‘murdered in the goal’ at St George Southwark. This last death was that of a newborn infant deliberately drowned by Sarah Townshend, the mother, who was at the time a felon ‘committed to the New Gaol’.

The following week’s Bill has a greater and more varied number of casualties. Published for the week commencing the 13 January the Bill reports six deaths:

1 killed accidentally by a fall at St Dunstan in the West;
2 drowned: one at St Mary Lambeth; one at St Martin in the Fields;
2 found dead: one, a girl, in the churchyard of Christchurch Spitalfields; one, a male infant, at St George in the East [Wapping];
1 hanged herself being lunatic at St James Westminster.

But of course there were also those who evaded death yet still received injury at this difficult time of year. The Daily Courant newspaper took great delight in reporting on Thursday 8 January 1730 that:

The same evening [Tuesday 6th], during the time of the prodigious fogs, a man mistaking his way, fell into the fleet ditch, by which accident he beat out one of his eyes, and was very much bruised.

Another man fell into the Common-shore [sewer] in King Street, Westminster; and a great many more accidents happened on the like occasion, both in the streets of London and Westminster; as also on the River Thames.

Perhaps the most interesting story of that edition is the one that refers to beer. While the labourer concerned received no injury it is his particularly close encounter with death, and escape, that made the event so newsworthy to the metropolitan readership:

The same day, a house pretty much out of repair in Bedfordbury fell down; a bricklayer’s labourer who was employed to pull off the pantyling to lighten it, had got off about 200 [tiles], and was gone to get himself a pint of beer being cold, when it fell down without doing any further damage.

This week in 1655

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 07/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London weekly Bills of Mortality for the week of 2nd January 1655:

1 Drowned at St Katherine by the Tower;
1 killed by a bull at St Saviours Southwark;
murdered – an infant found in the street at St John the Evangelist;
1 scalded to death in a brewer’s kettle at St Botolph Bishopsgate;
1 slain at St Andrew Holborn.

Clearly the most notable of these fatalities are the persons killed by a bull and scalded in a brewer’s kettle. The bull incident was actually quite a rare occurrence; during the period 1654 to 1735 only twenty-two people were killed by cattle within the area of the Bills. Given that somewhere in the region of 90,000 live cattle passed through the London markets each year during this period the death toll seems relatively light considering the number of workers and passersby who might have been exposed to the animals. Perhaps people were careful to stay out of their way – most of the time? The brewing fatality was however a relatively more common incident, the heady mix of alcohol, boiling liquids and industrial processes actually resulted in the small number of brewery workers being exposed to a higher risk of fatal accident than many other metropolitan occupations.

Welcome to the Bills of Mortality …

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Suicide on 19/12/2011 by Craig Spence

We are all interested in sudden violent death … whether we like to admit it or not. The daily news is full of it in every form; print, broadcast or internet. The hard truth is we want to know about human disaster and tragedy if only to reaffirm our own humanity. It is in some ways reassuring to note that  it has been so from the very beginnings of printed news media – during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Alongside the diplomatic and commercial information the early news-sheets recounted murders, executions and accidents (usually fatal) on a regular basis. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) printed serial publication to make use of such material was the London weekly Bills of Mortality; although not exactly a newspaper in the traditional sense it was certainly purchased, shared and read as if it were.

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths.   It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis.

My research has focused on the content of the weekly Bills from 1654 to 1735 (the period of their greatest accuracy); as a result I have collated information for 868 murders, 2,267 suicides and an astounding 12,394 accidental violent deaths. I hope over the coming weeks and months to take a closer look at some of these events – in the main the accidents and disasters. While I also aim, at various times, to consider wider aspects of early modern sudden violent death, risk, blame and response etc I intend to keep the pace going by taking an ‘on this day’ approach. Although I hope to post regularly please don’t expect me to post daily – weekly is much more likely!

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