Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.

Sepulchral Vagaries

06 21 captain backhouse tombToday is the anniversary of the death of Captain Thomas Backhouse who died on this day in 1800. In life, he was a soldier who served in Europe, India and the Philippines. But today’s post is not about his life. Today I am looking at unusual burials, and Captain Backhouse is my first example.

When Thomas Backhouse retired to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, he declared that he would “have nothing to do with the church or the churchyard”. Instead, he began to build himself a tomb. It was around eleven feet square, built of flint and bricks. The walls tapered to a pyramid and were finished at the top with a flat stone about three feet square. I assume that the tomb is now long gone, as this is the only picture of it that I could find. “Bury me there,” he said, “in my own wood on the hill, and my sword with me, and I’ll defy all the evil spirits in existence to injure me.” When the captain died, his body was placed in a coffin, along with his sword and stood on end in a niche in the wall. Presumably so the evil spirits didn’t catch him lying down. Then, the niche was bricked up. His body remained there, standing to attention, for seven years, until one of his sons returned from India and had his body removed to the churchyard.

This gave rise to a tale among the villagers that the old man’s body was guarding the property until his son came to take possession of it, and also that his ghost still haunted the mausoleum. There is a splendid tale about some boys who were out in the woods when they came upon the tomb. One said to another : “Jack, I’ll lay you a penny you dursn’t put your head into that window, and shout out, Old Backhouse.” The boy took the challenge. He thrust his head through the window and yelled “Old….” That was as far as he got. The boys outside heard the screams, they saw him kick and struggle, they saw that something had a hold of him and that he couldn’t get away. They all ran away, terrified.

This is what really happened. When Jack put his head in at the window, his first shout had roused an owl that had taken up residence there. The owl was also frightened, and it’s first instinct was to make for the only exit – the window. Jack, seeing it’s great pale face hurtling towards him, thought it really was the ghost of Old Backhouse. The window was of a Gothic design, pointed at the top. He had jerked up his head to get away and it had become lodged in the top of the window. So Jack was stuck in the window and the owl inside was flying round screeching and making occasional lunges at his face. Luckily, some men, working in a nearby field, heard the frightened yells of his friends and went to help him. They pulled him out. He was unconscious and had to be carried home. Luckily he made a full recovery, although for several days there was concern that: “his intellect was impaired”. Though he certainly never stuck his head in Backhouse’s tomb again, so maybe his intellect was improved if anything.

The other really weird burial I want to tell you about today is that of Reverend Langton Freeman of Whilton, Northamptonshire. He died on October 9th 1784 and, as this year long project of mine will be up in just over a month, I won’t be here to tell you about it then. So let’s look at him now. In fact, I can let him speak for himself about how he wanted his body disposed of. The following is an extract from his will:

“…first, for four or five days after my decease, and until my body grows offensive, I would not be removed out of the place or bed I shall die on. And then I would be carried or laid in the same bed, decently and privately, in the summer house now erected in the garden belonging to the dwelling house, where I now inhabit in Whilton aforesaid, and to be laid in the same bed there, with all the appurtenances thereto belonging; and to be wrapped in a strong, double winding sheet, and in all other respects to be interred as near as may be to the description we receive in Holy Scripture of our Saviour’s burial. The doors and windows to be locked up and bolted, and to be kept as near in the same manner and state they shall be in at the time of my decease. And I desire that the building, or summer house, shall be planted around with evergreen plants, and fenced off with iron or oak pales, and painted of a dark blue colour; and for the due performance of this, in manner aforesaid, and for keeping the building ever the same, with the evergreen plants and rails in proper and decent repair,”

All this seems to have gone ahead as he requested. I have this story, and the other from Robert Chambers ‘Book of Days’ which was published in 1864. He tells us that until relatively recently, the summerhouse was still surrounded by trees, but they had now been cut down. There was a hole in the roof and, two years before he was writing his book, some men had climbed in to have a look round. His body was still there and still intact.

I have stolen my title for today’s post from Robert Chambers. He has quite a lot to say on the subject. If you want to read about more unusual burials, you can visit Robert here. He will tell you about a farmer, named Trigg, who had his body encased in lead and set into one of the roof beams in his barn. Or Geoffrey de Manville, the 1st Earl of Essex, who could not be buried because he had been excommunicated. His body was taken by the Knights Templar. They put it in a lead coffin and hung it in a tree in their garden until they had received permission from the Pope to bury it. They buried it at a new church they had built themselves in the City of London. A cursory search of the internet tells me that he died in 1144, but the new church was not consecrated until 1185, so he was in that tree for a really long time. I don’t have a picture of the tree, but here is the church, which is still standing…

06 21 temple church

Good Riddance

05 14 john xiiSometimes, when I’m searching for a subject, I have to write about someone on the day of their death. Usually it’s because no one knows when their birthday was. But occasionally, just occasionally it feels more appropriate to mark the day that they left us. Today’s post is not about someone brilliant. It’s about someone completely awful. But his story is too outrageous to ignore. The other day I wrote about Pope Sylvester II and how people thought he was in league with the Devil. I said I thought that his reputation might have been ill deserved and that there were other Popes who were far worse. Well, today, I give you Pope John XII…

I’ll start with a bit of family background. His grandmother, named Marozia, had once been mistress to Pope Sergius III and together they gave birth to another Pope, Pope John XI, but that is a separate issue. Marozia later married Alberic I, who was a duke and they had a son, who became Alberic II. Alberic number one died and Marozia married his half brother, Hugh, who became King of Italy. Alberic number two was, for various reasons pretty upset and tried to overthrow Hugh at the wedding ceremony. Hugh escaped but Marozia was imprisoned for the rest of her life. Alberic number two became the self-styled prince of Rome. He was the father of John XII.

Alberic II made the Roman nobles swear that his son, then named Octavianus, would be made Pope the next time the situation became vacant. Then Alberic died in 954 and his son became the next prince of Rome. The following year, the Pope died and Octavianus was, as promised, made Pope as well. Being both a prince and a pope, and also rather young, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, he got a bit above himself. Actually that’s putting it mildly. He did what ever he wanted.

He had a lot of trouble hanging onto his lands and called in the help of a German king, Otto I. He had Otto crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But later, he went back on all his promises of loyalty to the new emperor. If you’re a prince, hanging onto your lands is pretty important, as I think I mentioned when I wrote about Machiavelli the other day. As a pope though, John XII was absolutely terrible. Among his many mistresses were one of his father’s concubines and his own niece. He had sexual relationships with both women and men. No one was safe. He was such an awful sex pest that female pilgrims were put off visiting the tomb of Saint Peter in case they were attacked by the Pope. He turned the Papal Palace into a brothel. And that’s not all…

Pope John XII was a drinker and a gambler. He drank toasts to the Devil. He invoked the names of Jupiter and Venus whilst playing dice. When he lost, he used money from the papal treasury to pay off his debts. He once ordained a ten-year-old boy as a bishop and ordained a deacon in a stable. While we’re talking about stables, he is said to have kept 2,000 horses which he fed on figs and almonds soaked in wine. Anyone who tried to criticise him was severely punished. He had a cardinal castrated, put out the eyes of his confessor and had an archive-keeper’s nose cut off.

Eventually, Otto called a council and asked John to defend himself against a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who threatened to depose him, then he ran away. Whilst he was gone, another Pope was elected, Leo VIII. But then, John returned, evicted Leo, maimed many of his supporters and beheaded sixty-three bishops and noblemen. Fortunately just as he was about to try and make things up with Otto, he died. Want to know how? A man caught him in bed with his wife and hit him on the head with a hammer.

05 14 benedict ixOddly, the Catholic Church later made his cousin a pope. And two of his nephews. And his great nephew, Benedict IX, who was also spectacularly awful. I can mention him as well today, as no one seems to know when he died. Which is unusual for a pope. Benedict also had a string of lovers, both men and women, but he also added a few animals into the mix. He was forced out twice, then abdicated after selling the papacy to his godfather for fifteen hundred pounds of gold. But then he tried to seize power again and was excommunicated. He was eventually replaced by Pope Damasus II, who’s reign lasted less than a month. It’s a pity Popes don’t often rule under their own name, because his given name was Poppo. Pope Poppo would have been a fantastic name.

Hen of Doom

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESFirstly today, I feel I must apologise in advance, as I have a completely awful person to tell you about. At least five humans and one hen will be seriously harmed in the tale I am about to tell you. Mary Bateman was a terrible woman with no redeeming qualities and she was hanged on this day in 1809. But her story is morbidly fascinating. This hen, however, is not the Hen of Doom. She’s my hen and her name is Lillian. She’s just been enjoying some dandelion leaves, which are her favourite.

Mary was born Mary Harker, at Asenby near Thirsk in North Yorkshire in 1768. She worked as a servant in Thirsk and then in York as a dressmaker. She seems to have left both jobs under a cloud, with suspicions of theft. In 1788, she moved to Leeds, which was then a rapidly expanding industrial town. She continued to work as a dressmaker but began to supplement her income with fortune telling. In 1792 she married a wheelwright called John Bateman. He’d only known her for three weeks. It wasn’t a very smart move on his part, but he doesn’t appear to have been a very smart man. There was the occasion when Mary went to his workplace with a forged letter bringing news that John’s father was on his deathbed. He rushed to his father’s side and was delighted to find that he was perfectly well. He was in for another surprise when he returned. Mary had sold all their furniture. Not long after that, he left again, to visit friends. When he came back, she’d sold all his clothes. John didn’t like his wife very much and he left her to join the army. Unfortunately, she followed him.

In 1799, he was demobilised and they returned to Leeds. There, Mary took up a new career as a ‘screwer down’. This means that she would find some credulous person and persuade them that there was an individual who wished ill on them, or make a woman believe that her husband was about to leave her for someone else. She would then offer, for a fee of course, to have them screwed down so that they would find themselves magically unable do harm or to leave. She frightened people into paying up and they often had to sell their belongings in order to do so. Mary did not claim to do the work herself. She told everyone she was just an intermediary for a Mrs Moore. Mrs Moore did not exist and neither did her victims’ enemies. No one really needed screwing to anything, apart from perhaps Mary Bateman.

By 1803, she was working in a shop that belonged to two sisters called Kitchen. When one of them fell ill, she brought medicine which she claimed came from a country doctor. The woman got worse and she died. Following this, the other sister and also her mother became ill, both were nursed by Mary and also died. There was no inquest and it was thought that they died of cholera, but Mary claimed it had been the plague. Everyone got frightened and their house and shop were locked up for a time. But when someone did eventually go in, it was found that all their belongings had been taken and the accounts were missing. Based on what I’m going to tell you about in a minute, it is quite likely that Mary poisoned them.


But first, I want to tell you about her hen. I don’t have a picture of either Mary or her hen, so here is Lillian again, with her friend Annis the duck.

In 1806, she claimed that she had a hen that had laid an egg with the words ‘Crist is coming’ written on it. She had the egg to prove it. She had been rather taken up with the antics of Joanna Southcott, had obtained one of her ‘seals’ and now rather fancied herself a prophetess of doom. She had been granted a vision which told her that the hen would lay fourteen such eggs and that the last one would mark the beginning of the Apocalypse. More eggs were laid, news spread and crowds turned up to see the miraculous hen. They were charged a penny a time for the privilege. Not only that but, like Joanna Southcott, she began to sell paper seals that would guarantee entry into Heaven at the End of Days. Fortunately, a sceptical doctor managed to get hold of one of the eggs and he saw that the inscription had been written in ink. Though you’d think the spelling would have been a clue as well. Authorities were notified and Mary was caught red-handed, shoving an egg up the poor hen’s bottom so that it could be ‘laid’ later.

Undeterred by the negative publicity, Mary continued her criminal career. She invented a new imaginary helper. A Mrs Blythe, who lived in Scarborough. Also in 1806, she met William and Rebecca Peruga. Rebecca was a nervous woman who believed she was possessed by evil spirits. Mary agreed that was definitely the case and offered the help of Mrs Blythe. Mary showed them the instructions that she had received from Mrs Blythe, explaining that the letters must immediately be burnt. Mrs Blythe first sent four guinea notes and gold coins which Mary was to sew to each corner of Rebecca’s bedspread. The Perugas must then, in exchange, send four guinea notes to Mrs Blythe, via Mary. Next, William was instructed to nail two horse shoes to the door. They later received further requests to send to Mrs Blythe: money, some cheese, china, silverware, tea, sugar and finally some bedclothes as the lady was now unable to sleep in her own bed because of the battle she was having with Rebecca’s evil spirits.

Then, another letter arrived, predicting illness in the Peruga household. To combat this, Mary asked them to give her half a pound of honey. Into it, she mixed a special medicine and also gave them powders which they were to mix into a pudding and eat. No one should eat it but them and if there was any left, they should destroy it. As all correspondence with Mrs Blythe was also destroyed, it was clearly Mary’s intention that they should poison themselves and destroy the evidence. Rebecca died on May 24th 1807. William survived, and began to get better once he stopped eating the puddings.

William decided to take a closer look at the notes and coins that had been sewn into his wife’s bedspread. He found only copper coins and cabbage leaves. He pretended that he wanted to buy another bottle of medicine from Mary, but he took a Constable with him. Mary was arrested and her bottle of medicine was found to contain a mixture of rum, oatmeal and arsenic. Finally, the law had caught up with her and she was hanged for murder on March 20th 1809 at York. Her execution was attended by around 5,000 people, many of whom still believed that she had supernatural powers and would be saved by some sort of divine intervention. She was not.

Her body was taken to Leeds Infirmary where is was put on public display at threepence a time. It raised thirty pounds for the hospital, so there must have been 2,400 visitors. That was not the end of Mary’s post-mortem career. Her body was dissected and a large part of her skin was tanned, cut into strips and sold as curios. Her skeleton was used for anatomy lessons and afterwards put on display at the Thackray Museum in Leeds. It was removed in 2015 and is now in the care of the University of Leeds.


A Warning From History

10 26 bluebeardUnusually today, I am celebrating someone’s death. Gilles de Rais was executed on this day in 1440 and, if the charges brought against him were true, the world was a better place for it. He was accused and found guilty of torturing and killing perhaps over a hundred children between 1431 and 1440. No one knows how many. I have no desire to go into the nature of these crimes, and beyond a certain point, I cannot do so, as many of the details were so shocking that they were stricken from the record.

What I can do is take a look at his increasingly odd behaviour that led up to the point where he thought it would be okay to lure children into his castle and murder them. De Rais was born into a wealthy family. His parents both died when he was ten and he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He inherited a great deal of wealth and acquired more through his marriage to Catherine de Thouars in 1420.

De Rais was a soldier who fought bravely alongside Joan of Arc and seems to have saved her life more than once. He was recognised for his valour following the siege of Orleans in 1429. He even officiated at the coronation of King Charles VII. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and, although he wasn’t present, he seems to have gone a bit wrong after that. The following year his grandfather died, leaving the sword and breastplate that should have gone to Gilles to his younger brother René. It was a protest against Gilles’s profligate spending of his fortune. It didn’t stop him because the year after that, he’d sold most of his property and was down to his last two castles.

By 1434 he had left the army to pursue his own interests. He built a Chapel of Holy Innocents, where he officiated wearing robes of his own design. He also poured a lot of his financial resources into a mystery play about the Siege of Orleans. The play had 140 speaking parts and required 400 extras. He also provided unlimited food and drink for his audience and lavish costumes that were worn once, discarded and made anew for subsequent performances. His family became increasingly concerned about his spending habits and gained a royal edict that forbade him from selling any more property and anyone else from doing business with him.

In 1435 he fled to Brittany and by 1438, according to witnesses at his trial, he had become involved with the occult. He was trying to use alchemy to summon a demon in the hope that it could restore his wealth. When the demon failed to appear, he was asked for, and happily provided, the body parts of a child as a sacrifice. He was arrested and tried in 1440 after he kidnapped and imprisoned a cleric. He was sentenced to be hanged and the burned along with two of his servants, but spared the burning part at the last moment.

His daughter Marie built a memorial on the site of his execution, which oddly became a place of pilgrimage for pregnant mothers who wished to pray for an abundance of breast milk. There have been efforts in recent years to exonerate Gilles de Rais and many have suggested that the charges were made up by his enemies. I am very wary of absolving anyone who may have been guilty of such horrific crimes. I also think it’s as well to be circumspect when looking at people who are apparently very public spirited, dress flamboyantly and enjoy the company of children.

10 26 fitcher's birdThe crimes of Gilles de Rais are often thought to be the inspiration behind the story of Bluebeard, a man who murders not children, but his wives and hides their bodies in a cellar for his subsequent wives to discover. Quite when or why it was decided that murdering wives was less of a problem than murdering children isn’t clear. It seems the same to me. It’s an extremely bloodthirsty story and it’s heroine is rather a passive character who is eventually rescued by her brothers. If you’re looking for a heroine with a bit more about her, have a look at Fitcher’s Bird, which clearly has the same roots as Bluebeard. She fools her murdering magician husband, rescues her sisters, escapes in disguise and lures him to his death with a decorated skull.