Friday, 31 October 2014

Murder at Hindhead: The Curse of the Sailor's Stone

Although described by William Cobbet as "certainly the most villainous spot that God ever made," my own memories of Hindhead in Surrey are somewhat fonder. As a young girl I spent a lot of time visiting my maternal grandmother there, wandering across the Common, with my mother sharing the tales she had been told as a child. 

One that stuck with me was that of a terrible murder committed many years ago; a poor sailor brutally struck down, the site of the gibbet where his murderers were brought to justice, the stone erected to commemorate the event, clear in my mind all these years later. 

“The stone is cursed,” I was told firmly, “Anyone who moves it or does it any harm – well, bad things happen.”  

It was only many years later that I learnt the facts behind the rumours and murmurings. 

On 24th September 1786, an unnamed sailor stopped at the Red Lion Inn, Thursley, for rest and refreshment. Travelling on foot along the coach road, from London to Portsmouth to rejoin his ship at Spithead, it was a journey he was fated never to complete. 

Whilst enjoying his drink, our sailor made the acquaintance of three men; James Marshall, Edward Lonegan and Michael Casey. They were happy to accept food and drink paid for by the generous traveller, and the man was last seen alive leaving the inn with his three new friends, heading in the direction of nearby Hindhead. 

Later that day, a shepherd boy tending his flock on the Common spotted a ragged bundle on the ground in the distance. On closer examination he discovered it to be the unfortunate sailor, now stripped of his clothes and belongings and with his throat cut. The boy raised the alarm, and the three men who had accompanied the victim were apprehended a short while later, attempting to sell the dead man's belongings further down the road at an inn at Rake, Hampshire.

Six months later, Marshall, Lonegan and Casey were tried and declared guilty before the courts in Kingston. On 7th April, 1787, they were hanged on a gibbet in Hindhead, close to the scene of their crime. Along with drawing great attention from the surrounding area, the occasion drew the dubious boast that it was the only gibbet in the country at the time to have held the weight of three bodies. The unknown sailor himself was buried in Thursley Churchyard, where his grave can still be seen today. 

19th Century painting of the crime, artist unknown

The bodies were left in chains for several years, a grisly reminder and deterrent to anyone considering committing a similar crime. It is reported that the gibbet was damaged by a storm in 1790 but it is unclear how long it remained intact after that point, or exactly how long the bodies remained there. The main wooden post was still standing, however, in 1827. 

Hindhead Common was a location much feared even before the murder.  The route was indeed a dangerous one, with highwaymen and footpads waiting to relieve the unsuspecting traveller of their belongings and lives, with strange lights and unexplained shadows lurking to frighten even the hardiest soul who strayed there after dark.  In an attempt to counteract the negative associations with the spot, in 1851 a celtic cross was erected on Gibbet Hill, paid for by Sir William Erle. This did little to quell stories of figures looming in the gloom around the memorial stone, believed to be the ghosts of the three murderers, unable to rest. The murder retained a hold on the popular imagination and has been referred to by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, S. Baring-Gould's 1896 novel, The Broom-Squire, and was the inspiration behind a painting by J.M.W Turner.

Hindhead Hill, by J.M.W Turner c.1808
The gibbet can be seen in the distance. 

 A less stomach-churning reminder of the murder was a stone erected on the coaching road to mark the area where the murder took place, bearing the following inscription:

In detestation of a barbarous
Murder committed here on an
unknown sailor, on September
24th, 1786.
By Edward Lonegan, Michael
Casey, and James Marshall, who
were all taken the same day and
hung in chains near this place.
Whoso sheddeth man's blood by
man shall his blood be shed.
Genesis ix, verse 6

On the reverse of the stone is the later addition of: 

This stone was erected by order
and at the cost of James Stillwell,
Esq of Cosford, 1786. Cursed be the
man who injureth or removeth this stone.

The curse actually relates to local politics involved with the stone's location. In 1826 a section of the coaching road through Hindhead was moved, and an ongoing feud between the Turnpike Trustees and Mr Hawkins, Mr Stilwell's nephew began. The Sailor's Stone was renovated and moved to the side of the new road, whereupon, after a great deal of argument, it was returned to its original location at Mr Hawkin's behest. It was at this time that the "curse" was added to the back of the stone, along with some additional and long-since removed insults aimed at those who had moved it in the first place. In response to Hawkins' obstinacy, a replica stone was erected by the new road instead. This stone was abused and vandalised and although it is not known when, by 1889 there was again only the original stone remaining. It was returned to the new road, but moved for a final time to the original site in 1932, where it has remained since.  

But what of the curse? When the stone was moved to it's final resting place, opinion was divided.  Amongst all the rumours and hear-say however, there are some verifiable cases of  ill-luck for people involved with the moving of the stone.

Rupert Chandler, manager of a local garage, laughed at the curse and volunteered his employee, Charles Harris to help move the stone. Chandler died in January 1937 after a short, unexpected, illness.

Charles Harris himself broke his shoulder when he fell from a ladder, the injury so bad that it prevented him from working again.

An unnamed worker also died of a heart-attack a short while after helping move the stone.

Were there others? Or were these just coincidence, the story a convenient way to keep vandals at bay and discourage any further dispute over where the stone was to rest?

As for the identity of the poor sailor himself, Edward Moorey has posited that he was an Edward Hardman, brother to Hussar Samuel Hardman of Lambeth. He also provides the gruesome addition to the story that the bones of the middle fingers of the perpetrators were removed and turned into gold tipped toothpicks, mementos that remain in Hardman's family to this day.  

The Celtic Cross on Gibbet Hill

Monday, 27 October 2014

Prince Arthur's Vision: A Tudor Spectre

What better way to start Halloween week than with a ghost story? Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and ill-fated heir to King Henry VII, although not as widely known as his more infamous younger brother, has attracted an intriguing legend of his own.

One September day in 1501, Arthur, or so the story goes, was enjoying one of many visits to Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. After a day of hunting he decided to go for a walk along the riverbank, finding himself in the nearby village of Hassop. As evening drew on and growing tired, he paused to rest by an old stone cross. As he rested, the ghostly form of a woman appeared to him; dressed in white, and of spectral countenance, she told him that he would marry a foreign bride and that the girl would soon be a widow. With that she vanished, leaving Arthur to return to Haddon Hall, to be told that his intended Spanish bride had arrived at last in England.  

There are many variations of the tale. Some have Arthur sleeping, the encounter with the woman happening in a dream. Others locate the events within the grounds of Haddon Hall itself. There are also variations on whether Arthur is told of his bride's arrival or merely that he is to be married.  They all contain the same basic fact however; a ghostly woman telling Arthur of his impending fate. 

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire

Spectres aside, what truth does the story hold? Sir Henry Vernon of Haddon Hall was Governor and Treasurer to Prince Arthur between 1494 and the Prince's death, providing a link that would make visits to the hall a possibility. In Highways and Byways in Derbyshire, J.B. Firth upholds the tradition that Arthur spent much of his time at Haddon, though there is no mention of the Prince's supposed vision or a record of when exactly such visits took place. 

The dating of the tale, September 1501 is supported by what we know of Arthur's life. On 27th September 1501, Catherine of Aragon set sail on her second attempt to reach England, the first having been scuppered by bad weather back in August. This matches the news that Arthur's bride had set sail but not, as some versions state, that she had arrived in England itself. Catherine in fact arrived in October, and she and Arthur were married in London on 14th November, 1501, moving to Ludlow Castle where they were to start their lives together early in 1502. 

What of the cross that Arthur was supposed to have rested under? Whether he did or not, or whatever he saw there, there is a possibility that fragments of that cross may still exist today, resting in the churchyard of All Saints Church, Bakewell, not far from Haddon Hall.  

A leaflet entitled Look At Bakewell links Arthur's tale to the cross fragments in the churchyard, asserting that it was the one Arthur sat under when he had his vision. An excavation around the cross shaft at Bakewell confirms that it had been moved to the churchyard from its original setting, and there are assertions by many 19th Century writers that the cross had been moved from another location to the churchyard, although there is no indication of where it was moved from. In 2012 a geographical survey took place at Hassop Crossroads near Bakewell, and during this time it was ascertained that there was indeed an intersection of many tracks, possibly marking the original setting of the cross. 

The ghostly woman's words were destined, sadly, to come true. In March 1502,  Arthur was struck down with an illness that has been described as anything from tuberculosis to a form of the sweating sickness. Arthur died at the age of 15, on 2nd April, 1502, leaving Catherine a widow and thus fulfilling the last part of his mysterious vision. That his last words were “O, the vision of the cross at Hassop!” (or Haddon depending on which version you follow) is, however, unverifiable. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral in 1502 and his widow went on to eventually become the first wife of Henry VIII.

Arthur's tomb in Worcester Cathedral

Friday, 24 October 2014

Role Reversal: The Complaint of Elizabeth Williams.

Although the passing of the Witchcraft Act did not bring belief in witchcraft to an end overnight, it did mean that those accused and hounded by neighbours could now in turn bring their own grievances before the courts. A fascinating example of this process can be glimpsed in 1867 in the Somerset village of Wedmore, when Elizabeth Williams summoned Ann Davis for cutting her arm with a knife.

Williams told the court that on the 22nd June, she was passing Davis' house, when the other woman offered to sell her a flower. Whether Williams entered the cottage or not is unrecorded, but as the conversation progressed, Davis suddenly flew at Williams with a knife and cut her in three places on the arm.

Davis' justification, when questioned by the court, was that Williams was always “hagging her to death.” When probed further, she asserted that Williams was a witch and had, furthermore, caused her much harm. Not only had she killed her donkey and her cat, but she had also caused Davis herself to be thrown from a cart. She had even, Davis asserted, appeared at her bedside – when she had tried to grab the other woman however, Williams had, to evade capture, turned into a cat. It seems that Davis' husband, Jonathan, also shared his wife's opinions on Elizabeth Williams.

Ann Davis' defence of her actions contains many easily recognised elements from countless witchcraft accusations from the preceding two centuries. The appearance of a witch in the bedroom of a victim was a well-known way in which a witch could make herself a nuisance, with the ability of the accused to turn into an animal to elude capture also well documented. Injury to animals, both domestic and livestock, were common in such cases, often as a final addition to a long list of grievances such as those presented by Davis. Davis also duly admitted that she had scratched Williams, asserting the long-held belief that drawing blood would break the witch's power over her victim.

Did Davis truly believe her assertions? Or was it simply a convenient and familiar way of dealing with an ongoing feud or discord within the community? Elizabeth Williams is listed as a widow in the 1871 census, and although her husband Edmund is present in 1861, it is possible that he died prior to the incident with Davis. It may indeed have been that this removal of someone to intervene on Williams' behalf led to Davis feeling bold enough to act on feelings that had been building for some time.

Ann and Jonathan Davis were approaching sixty at the time of the case, while Elizabeth Davis was anything between fifty-five and seventy depending which census information is used. There is the possibility that Williams was actually Davis' sister-in-law; an Elizabeth Davis married Edmund Williams in 1848 with the same birth year as a Betty Davis who was Jonathan Davis' sister. If this were the case, then it adds another layer of intrigue to the story, a family feud perhaps sparking the animosity that led to Davis making such accusations and resulting in her scratching the other woman.

Wedmore Parish Church, where Elizabeth and 
Edmund Williams were married in 1848

Whether she truly believed Williams to be a witch or not, it was the victim who gained the sympathy of the courts in this case, and it is interesting to observe that the judge was utterly unsympathetic to Davis' views, remarking that Davis was best suited to the local asylum for harbouring and spreading such dangerous ideas. In the end however, no doubt in part to save the parish any further expense, Davis was bound over to keep the peace for three months instead.

The story was reported in newspapers across the county throughout July and August, making news in Manchester, Oxford, Hampshire and Liverpool before the Autumn. It appears that the Davis family moved house in the wake of the incident to another area of Wedmore, perhaps in order to limit any further contact with the woman they believed had bewitched them. 

A sad postscript to the case comes in a newspaper article of 18th February, 1876. It describes how a “pauper lunatic” named Elizabeth Williams of Wedmore had swallowed thirteen screws and was for a good while in danger of her life. This desperate act unintentionally parodies the common complaint by witchcraft victims of being made to vomit screws, pins and needles by their tormentor, reinforcing how, in the case of Elizabeth Williams, the "witch" had become the afflicted.

 It is unclear when Elizabeth died, but it is likely that she may never have left the asylum that the judge recommended for her former accuser.   

The Former Wells Lunatic Asylum where Elizabeth Williams was transferred in 1876.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Witches, Graces or Family Secret? Albrecht Durer and The Four Witches

Commonly referred to as The Four Witches, there is very little actually known for certain about this intriguing engraving by fifteenth-century German painter, engraver, print maker, mathemetician and theorist, Albrecht Dürer.  With four naked women, a monster of some description in the corner and bones scattered on the floor, however, there are interpretations aplenty of what Dürer had in mind when he created this work. 

Popular ideas include the four women representing either the Four Seasons or likewise the Elements of earth, wind, air and fire. The wreath-wearing figure has also been identified as Aphrodite, with the other three women cast as The Graces or Three Fates, the classical poses and the wreath lending weight to such a classical inspiration for the work. The idea that the engraving was created as a warning against discord, with the inevitable conclusion of hell and death, is also often cited, as is the belief that the figures are actually young women working in a brothel. 

The letters of "OGH" on the ball above the figures' heads have also received various interpretations depending on which theory one subscribes to, among the most common being:

Odium generis humani – Odium of the human race
Oh Gotte Hute – Oh God Forbid  
Ordo Graciarum Horarumque – Order of the Graces and Hours

Marcel Briton has put forward the arguably refreshing idea that there is no actual meaning to the engraving at all, hidden or otherwise, and is simply what it appears – a portrayal of four nude women!

The interpretation that interests us here and has led to the engraving's common title, is that it depicts three older witches welcoming a new member, (the younger woman on the far right of the picture) into their coven. The skull and bones beneath the feet of the women represent their connection to the devil and the malicious magic they intend to carry out on their unsuspecting victims, while the demon lurking in the corner reinforces the belief that witches were allied with the devil. The nudity of the women is also consistent with tales of witches dancing naked at their sabbats.  

Closeup of the demonic figure in the corner

The timing of the piece is also greatly significant, as, if the numbers on the ball of 1497 do indeed indicate the year of completion, it marks a period when witchcraft was a preoccupation throughout Germany. The Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull issued by Innocent VIII in 1484, gave permission to inquisitors to do whatever might be necessary to punish and correct those who had given in to the temptation of witchcraft. Inspired by the warnings of Heinrich Kramer, the bull confirmed the view that witchcraft had contaminated areas of Germany, urging local authorities to cooperate with the inquisition as it carried out the task of uprooting those who had signed a pact with the Devil. 

The vastly influential Malleus Maleficarum (or, in it's fully translated title, The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword) was first published in 1486. Although condemned by the Church three years later, it was a highly influential text, both at the time and in the later mass persecution of witches throughout Europe and beyond.

It has been posited, however, by Dr. Elizabeth Garner that the figures cannot be witches at all. She points out the fact that witches were not portrayed in the nude in the medieval period, and therefore would not have been recognised as such by the picture's intended audience. Instead she suggests an interpretation that the work is revealing a series of truths about the Dürer family and their connections, linking the engraving with the Dürer's status as crypto-Jews and the artist's work on the Apocalypse series of prints. Garner likewise argues that the demon is in fact a dragon, the lack of horns meaning it is unlikely to be a devil. It is also, she points out, the same dragon Dürer produced as part of his father's coat of arms in a work in 1490, again supporting the family rather than diabolical connection. 

Witches, by Hans Baldung Grien, 1508.
Apprentice to Dürer, the artist was one of the first to portray 
witches in the nude.

Whether witches or graces or something else entirely, Dürer's piece has inspired many copies and interpretations, from Austrian artist Adolf Frohner's vision (in which the women are portrayed in bras and garter belts) to the piece below by Ukrainian artist Olga Grichanok. 

Interpretation by Olga Grichanok

What do you think Dürer's four nudes represent? Have you come across a piece inspired by this elusive engraving? Comments are always welcome here are the library, as are artworks to add to the collection!

Monday, 13 October 2014

An Apple for Bread: The case of Jane Brooks

Today's story from the Library began on 15th November, 1657 in the small rural Somerset town of Shepton Mallet and ended a few short months later with the execution of local resident Jane Brooks. Elderly and at least at times in need, she and her sister were accused of doing great harm to a young boy named Richard Jones.

Henry Jones arrived home one day to find his son in great agony down his right side and unable to speak. When he finally recovered his speech, he told his father and cousin that an old woman had come to the door asking for bread; when he gave it to her, (a point worth noting, as usually in such accounts the injury is inflicted in return for a refusal of whatever has been requested) she in turn gave him an apple. After stroking him along his right side with her hand, she left, upon which he had fallen into the state in which his father had found him.

Old women from the village who might fit with Richard Jones' description, were rounded up and brought to the house in a makeshift identity parade. Among them were Jane Brooks and her elderly sisters. As they entered the house, the boy was once again struck dumb, a sure sign to everyone there assembled that these were indeed the guilty parties.

Upon seeing his son returned to his former state, Henry Jones attacked Brooks, beating her repeatedly until Richard recovered. What state Brooks was in at this point is unknown, but given her age and documented fragile state, it cannot have been a pretty sight. 

The story continued when, a week on, Richard Jones met Brooks' sister, Alice Coward. He again fell ill, seemingly in consequence of the encounter. Over the next few days Richard asserted that a hag visited him on several occasions; on one such visit Gibson, the cousin who witnessed the first case of the boy's illness, struck the apparition with a knife. At this, so the account goes, Richard Jones cried out,“Oh father, father, cousin Gibson has cut Jane Brooks' hand and it's all bloody!”

The twist in the tale is that upon being dispatched to Brooks' house, the constable discovered the woman with an injured hand, supposedly hurt in the exact same way that the apparition had been harmed by the knife wielding Gibson.

With this evidence against her, Brooks and her sister were duly arrested and went before the courts, evidence being given against them in front of the Justices at Castle Cary in December 1657. There the scandal grew; there were claims that Brooks and Coward offered Richard Jones money in order to keep silent (about what in particular is not specified) and when the money was produced and heated, the boy immediately returned to his afflicted state, recovering only when the coins had cooled.

Matters finally came to a head on 25th February 1658. The wife of Robert Iles claimed that, upon visiting their house, Richard Jones was lifted from the ground by an unseen force and transported a distance of three hundred yards, including over a stone wall, before being set down forcefully upon a doorstep. Either through the harshness or the shock, Jones was rendered unconscious. When he came to, Jones claimed that Brooks had grabbed his arm and lifted him through the air.

There were also other accounts of strange happenings; in one instance the boy was not where he had been left, discovered collapsed in another room with no idea how he had got there. He was also once found hanging in the air, his hands resting against the ceiling for quarter of an hour. Richard Jones made no secret of his belief that Brooks had lifted him up and pinned him there. To further compound Brooks' guilt, this feat was supposedly witnessed by no less than nine people.

Jane Brooks and her sister were housed in Shepton Mallet's House of Correction. Jane was finally condemned to death at the Chard Assizes and executed on 26th March, 1658. Alice Coward died in prison, whereas Richard Jones made a full recovery.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Witch that Wasn't

The passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1735 did not mean people immediately abandoned their belief in witches, a fact illustrated by a fascinating news article in the Western Gazette on 23rd October, 1874.

A few evenings since, two men, natures of Barrington, accompanied by a dog, were passing through this place towards their home, when their attention was attracted to what appeared to be a tremendous ball of fire a short distance ahead, performing fantastic motions. Sometimes it seemed to mount with lightening velocity into mid-air, and anon to descend and move in various directions on terra firma. For a few moments the men gazed with amazement at the vision. The dog was set on it, but seemed as much terrified as its owners, and would not budge an inch. The light all the time kept gyrating in the manner described.

What could it be but the torch of the terrible Winsham Witch? This conclusion filled the men with terror and they forthwith took to their heels and did not halt till they arrived at home, only now and then taking a hasty glance behind to see if the witch was following them.

In a day or two the adventure got wind in the neighbourhood, and children and timid people were so alarmed in the village that they could not be prevailed upon to move out after dark. It is said that one of the men was so terrified that he was confined to his bed for several days.

One day last week the incident was being related by a gentleman to some people who believed that they veritable witch had visited Whitelackington, when Mr Culverwell's shepherd, who was among the group of listeners, at once solved the mystery. Having occasion to visit his master's sheep on the momentous night, and it being very dark, he availed himself of a lantern, which the wayfarers transformed into a fire-ball in the hands of the Winsham Witch!

An amusing tale to say the least, but who was this Winsham Witch that inspired so much fear? The village of Whitelackington lies approximately six miles North of Winsham, Somerset, and if there were ever a woman convicted of witchcraft in either place, then the details have been long-since lost to us. Was she an inhabitant of the quiet rural parish from centuries past, the wife of one of the many agricultural labourers there, or perhaps a current resident who people quietly suspected despite the recent change in the law?  Was the witch even a "She" at all? 

Sometimes, all we are left with are questions; and sometimes, not knowing, is only the beginning.