That Time God Was A Bit Weird

05 11 saint gangulphusToday is the feast day of Saint Gangulphus who died in 760. At first sight, he seemed rather dull. Gangulphus is one of those saints whose legend it has been difficult to track down. But he was certainly worth a bit of digging. Part of the problem is that he has a lot of different names He is also: Gengulphus, Gingulfus, Gongolphus, Gandolfus, Gengoux and possibly Jingo. Another difficulty is that, although Gangulphus was a very holy man, other people in his story were not; and the nature of their punishments have not lent themselves readily to art. He is the patron saint of tanners, shoemakers and horses. He is also the patron saint of husbands and is invoked against marital difficulties and adultery. Here’s why…

Gangulphus was, as I said, a very virtuous man. His wife however, not so much…

There are two miracles associated with the life of the saint. The first concerns a miraculous spring of water. Gangulphus purchased the spring in Champagne from a peasant. As a spring is not generally something you can wrap up and take away with you, the peasant thought he had a pretty good deal. He also thought Gangulphus was extremely stupid. So did his wife, when he got home and told her about it. But when the saint plunged his staff into the ground on his own land, beautiful, clear water poured out and the peasant’s spring dried up.

Whilst Gangulphus was away, buying magic fountains or preaching or something, his wife was having a bit of a fling with a clerk. When she protested her innocence, her husband wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt and decided God could judge her. This is where the second miracle comes in. He told her to put her hand into the miraculous spring water and she was scalded by it.

Neither the wife nor the clerk were in the least contrite and the clerk tried to cut off the saint’s head. He missed though, wounding Gangulphus in the thigh. He later died from his wounds. He must have been canonised pretty quickly because he had certainly achieved something of a cult status by 801 AD. There were reports of miracles occurring at his tomb not long after his death. Wikipedia tells us that his wife and the priest ran away and then died. I felt there was more to the story than that and after a bit of searching, I found out that God punished them in a really weird way…

The wife and the priest were so happy they danced for joy. After that for some reason the priest took himself off to the toilet and his bowels fell out. He then plunged, unrepentant, into Hell. The wife faired only a little better. When she was told that miracles were being performed by her dead husband she said ‘…if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb then I can work great wonders with my arse.’ These were the last words she ever said because from that day forth, whenever she opened her mouth to speak, all she could do was fart. Either that, or the farting thing only happened on Fridays. Which ever it was she didn’t have many friends any more.

05 11 head in wellIn England, his story was once best known from a collection of poems by Reverend Richard Harris Barnham called ‘The Ingoldsby Legends’. He rather expanded the saints murder and played down the punishments, but it’s still pretty good. In his poem, the wife and the clerk murdered Gangulphus and then cut up his body with sugar snippers. In case you’re picturing sugar tongs here, sugar snippers are are far less benign and very sharp indeed. You can see a pair at the bottom of this post. They cut off his long beard and stuffed it in a cushion and then hid his body parts around the estate. They dropped his head down a well. Then, a prince bishop, who was having a banquet, sent out a maid to draw water from the well. She drew up the saints head. She then ran back in to tell everyone and the head followed her, bounced onto the dinner table and demanded it’s legs. Suddenly, his legs were kicking at the window. They were followed by his other body parts which then reassembled themselves on the table. The saint’s body then performed appropriate miracles, according to which bit of his body you touched. Touch his toe, and you wound be cured of gout. Reach for the wound on his neck, and your sore throat would be gone. The only part of Saint Gangulphus that was not restored to him was his beard.

When his wife heard about the miracles, she didn’t believe it. She declared that her husbands body could no more perform miracles than the chair she was sitting on. But she was sitting on the cushion that was stuffed with the saint’s beard. The hairs of his beard immediately stood on end and poked out through the cushion like porcupine quills. They fastened the cushion to her bottom and it was stuck there for the rest of her life.

05 11 sugar snippers

Can’t Choose Your Family

04 18 possibly lucreziaToday is the birthday of Lucrezia Borgia, she was born in 1480 in Subiaco near Rome. She was said to be very beautiful, with golden hair that fell past her knees. There aren’t any contemporary paintings that we definitely know are of her, but of the likely candidates, the one on the right is my favourite. Historically, she has been seen as a dreadful person. A depraved incestuous poisoner and general worst person ever. You can find stories about how she carried poison hidden inside a ring, and how she attended a party at the Vatican where fifty prostitutes were made to crawl around on a floor that was strewn with lit candelabra and chestnuts (don’t know why). Although she was certainly a member of a very ruthless and power hungry family, she may have been completely innocent of the crimes of which she was accused.

Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of a Cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia, and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. This sounds like a pretty shocking thing to us, but it really wasn’t. It was quite normal for men of the cloth to have mistresses, they just weren’t allowed to marry. As with any daughter of a powerful family, her value was that she could be married off to someone who could provide them with political advantage. Rodrigo arranged for her to be married at the age of ten, but then he changed his mind and betrothed her to someone else. When she was twelve, her father was made Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, he could arrange a much more advantageous marriage for her and he broke of her second engagement. At thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza.

Two years later though, the marriage ceased to be of political advantage to the Borgia family. The easiest way to have got rid of him would have just been to have him killed, and it seems this is what Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare planned to do. But Cesare warned Lucrezia and she told Giovanni to leave Rome. Next, Alexander wanted their marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Giovanni was understandably upset by this and launched a counter attack. He accused both the Pope and Cesare of committing incest with his wife. It all got pretty nasty but Giovanni eventually agreed to be thought of as impotent if he could keep her huge dowry. It is possible that Lucrezia was pregnant at this time and later gave birth to a son. A child was certainly born in the Borgia family, but no one is sure of his parentage. The Pope issued two separate Papal Bulls. One claiming that Cesare was the father the other claiming that the child was his. There is no mention of the mother’s name, but it certainly fuels the rumours of incest. Lucrezia herself may have been having an affair with Alexander’s chamberlain, Pedro Calderon. It wasn’t very long before Pedro’s body washed up in the Tiber.

Her first husband was probably lucky to escape with his life. Her second, Alfonso d’Aragon was not so lucky. When his family fell out of favour he was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica and stabbed several times. This was not what killed him though. Lucrezia, who seems to have genuinely cared for him, was nursing him as he recovered from his wounds when someone strangled him. Suspicion fell very heavily in the area of one of her brother Cesare’s trusted servants.

04 18 lock of hairIt is not surprising that Lucrezia’s next prospective father-in-law, Ercole I d’Este, was a bit uneasy about the match. He had seen how badly her first marriages had turned out and he had heard the rumours of incest. In fact, he sent a spy to the Vatican to see what Lucrezia was really like. He received a report that she seemed like a sweet and lovely girl, who was not at all depraved. Also, a combination of a large dowry and a threat to unseat him as Duke of Ferrara helped secure her marriage to his eldest son and heir. Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este remained married until she died after complications in her last pregnancy. It doesn’t seem like they were in love as they both had loads of affairs. She had a long affair with her brother-in law. Also, in the Ambrosian Museum in Milan, there are a number of love letters that she sent to a court poet, Pietro Bembo, along with a lock of her hair. Lord Byron visited the museum in 1816 and declared them to be ‘the prettiest love letters in the world. He also made off with a strand of her hair. What remain is now encased in glass, to keep it safe from poets.

Lucrezia’s third marriage probably stood the test of time because her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI and her awful brother Cesare Borgia both died, releasing her from their machinations. Free to live her own life, she made an excellent Duchess of Ferrara. She was a patron of the Arts. She bought up marshy land and had it drained for agricultural use and she gave much of her wealth to fund the building of hospitals and convents. When she died, people were truly sorry.

04 18 rossetti's lucreziaSo, her evil reputation seems ill-deserved. It really began with rumours started by her spurned first husband and continued after the next Pope, Julius II, seriously fell out with her third husband. There was an incident where a bronze statue of the Pope was toppled and broken into pieces. Alfonso had the bits melted down and made into a cannon. Macchiavelli repeated the rumours as fact, so did a historian called Guicciardini. Then, in 1833, Victor Hugo wrote a stage play about her which got turned into an opera by Donizetti. Which is probably what led Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint this picture of her, cavorting with her father and brother.

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.


Suspicious Circumstances

02 16 felix faureOn this day in 1899, French President Félix Faure died. This is one of those events I was in two minds about mentioning, because someone dying is rarely good. But the circumstances surrounding his death, speculation about the circumstances and later, related story are morbidly fascinating. A word of warning, In today’s post, Faure is not the only one who will die in unusual circumstances.

Faure became President rather unexpectedly in 1895 after the previous President resigned. He was chosen as the least offensive candidate. France was, at that time, a fairly new republic and he felt he was being rather looked down on by the leaders of other European countries. He was a man who took great care of his appearance, often changing his clothes three times a day. He thought a special presidential uniform would lend him more gravitas on state occasions. What he wanted was a hat with white plumes, a blue coat embroidered in gold with oak leaves, laurels and pansies, with trousers to match. For evening wear, he would swap the trousers for white satin breeches, silk stockings and silver buckled shoes. Luckily, before he ever wore it, someone pointed out that it was all a bit much. They said it might make him look like he fancied himself as a dictator.

In 1897 he began an affair with Marguerite Steinheil, whose husband he had commissioned to paint his portrait. On February 16th 1899 she was visiting him at the Elysée Palace. The two of them were alone in a drawing room when the President’s aides heard screams. They entered the room to find Faure lying of the sofa struggling to breathe. He died later that evening and was found to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. There were soon rumours that Marguerite had been found half naked, that the president had one of his hands entangled in her hair and she had to be cut free. It is generally thought that he suffered his fit at a critical juncture while they were engaged in sexual activity and widely reported that she was fellating him at the time. A French newspaper was quick to report that: “Felix Faure passed away in good health, indeed from the excess of good health…”. The incident led to a lot of black humour and play on words involving the French word ‘pompe’. Mme Steinheil was dubbed ‘la pompe funèbre’. ‘Pompes funèbres’ means ‘the funeral care business’ but pompe funèbre means ‘funeral pump’. He also received the epitaph “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée” which means “He wished to be Caesar, but ended as Pompey”. Or, if you read it another way “He wished to be Caesar, but ended up being blown.”

In case you’re feeling a bit sorry for Faure, in 1898, he was asked to give a speech to the French auto-industry which was, at the time, the largest in the world. Here is what he said: “Vos voitures sont bien laides et sentent bien mauvais!” – “Your cars are very ugly and they smell very bad”. In case you’re feeling sorry for Mme Steinheil, this happened in 1908:

Her husband and her stepmother were both found murdered in her apartment. Her husband strangled, her stepmother suffocated. Marguerite herself was found gagged tied to the bed. She claimed that four people in black robes, three bearded men and a woman with red hair, had broken in, attacked them and stolen some jewellery. There were no signs of a break-in and Marguerite was tied only loosely. She later changed her story and said that it had been the work of a servant. A pearl from a necklace that she had reported stolen was found in his pocketbook. But it was later established that she had put it there. After that she tried to blame one of her husband’s models and then the son of her housekeeper., but both had alibis. A jeweller came forward to say that Mme Steinheil had sent him some of the stones that she claimed had been stolen to be reset. The judge called her stories ‘a tissue of lies’ and yet somehow, she was acquitted. No one could properly establish how or why she might have committed the murders. It was supposed that she may have had an accomplice, but no one else was ever arrested. Mme Steinheil moved to England under an assumed name and remarried. The murders remain unsolved.

Getting Away With Murder

Today’s post is about an unusual court case, and it starts with a murder that happened on this day in 1749 in Braemar, a remote area of Aberdeenshire. The victim was an English sergeant called Arthur Davis. This happened less than ten years after the Jacobite uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson to the deposed king, James II, had tried and failed to regain the throne from the Hanoverians for the Scottish royal house of Stuart. So it was understandable that a single English soldier, lost and separated from his regiment, might meet with some animosity from the highlanders.

No one knew what had become of Davis for almost five years, but in 1754, two men; Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain MacDonald were put on trial for his murder. It was known that Davis had on his person a fowling piece (a shotgun) and some rings which the two men were known to have among their possessions. It seemed that robbery was a likely motive for the murder.

But then the court heard evidence from Alexander MacPherson, a young farm labourer. MacPherson spoke no other language but Gaelic and needed an interpreter. His account of the murder had come from an unusual source, the ghost of the murdered man. He had been in bed in his cottage, when a figure appeared and asked MacPherson to follow him out of doors. Thinking it was his neighbour, a man named Farquharson, he did as he was asked. But once outside, the apparition explained that he was the ghost of Arthur Davis and asked him to go and find his mortal remains and bury them. He would find them, the ghost said, hidden in a place called the Hill of Christie, and he must take his friend Farquharson to help him.

The next day he had gone to investigate and found the bones of a human body with much of the flesh decayed, but he did not bury it. A few days later the ghost came to trouble him again. He was angry with MacPherson for breaking his promise. The witness asked the ghost who had killed him and he replied with the names of the prisoners at the bar. After that he had asked his friend to help him bury the body. When Farquharson was called to give evidence, he told the same story.

MacPherson’s story of the ghost was further corroborated by a woman called Isabel Machardie whose bed was in the same room. She had woken to see a naked figure come into the room. It had been stooped over and moved in such a frightening way that she had pulled the covers over her head. Unfortunately, even though there was other evidence against the accused, the appearance of a ghost in the testimonies cast an air of doubt over the proceedings. The defence questioned MacPherson on which language the ghost had used to communicate his information. He replied that he had spoken in perfect Gaelic. The council for the defence then pointed out that that was pretty good considering he was the ghost of an English sergeant. The jury found in favour of the defendants and they were set free.

It is possible that MacPherson was using the excuse of a ghost to impart information without seeming to personally incriminate his fellow countrymen. But that does not explain the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie, or the fact that the events referred to had happened three years before two men were formally accused in court.