The perils of being LGBT in Bridgerton era London

Molly houses, accusations of “sodomy” and moonlit encounters between politicians, soldiers, police and priests. The British capital – London – has played host to a very vibrant LGBT scene for over 300 years. In the decades before the popular Netflix series Bridgerton – set in Georgian England – there were plenty of gay men in London. And opportunities for illicit encounters.

But the likelihood of being discovered was high and gay men risked being robbed, blackmailed or worse.

Here is a legal case from 1732 that illustrates that point only too painfully…

The perils of being LGBT in Bridgerton era London

The Old Bailey website lists court cases at London’s central criminal court going back to the 17th century. And one case caught my eye in relation to this blog post. That was a robbery on 29 May 1732. John Cooper was the victim. After being unable to enter his lodgings near the Strand, Cooper had gone for a drink. While he was enjoying a beer, another man sat next to him and they both had three pints of gin and beer mixed together and heated. A vile concoction called “Huckle and Buss”. Cooper paid for all the drinks.

The other man, Thomas Gordon, then suggested they go for a walk. They ended up in Chelsea Fields and while while strolling through a secluded area, Gordon tripped up Cooper and held a knife to him. He then stripped Cooper of his coat, waistcoat, breeches and shoes plus their silver buckles. The hapless Cooper, not wanting to be left naked, asked to wear Gordon’s clothes – and he agreed.

It’s what happens next that shows how dangerous it was to be accused of being a homosexual. Cooper described the chain of events in court:

He ask’d me where I liv’d, and I told him. I suppose, says he, you intend to charge me with a Robbery by and by, but if you do, I’ll swear you’re a Sodomite, and gave me the Cloaths to let you B – r me.

Gordon realised that to silence Cooper about the mugging, all he had to do was allege that the victim was a ‘sodomite’. They walked back to Piccadilly where Cooper regained his composure and called for help to two passers-by. They agreed to restrain Gordon and take him to the courthouse in return for money. Cooper really wasn’t having a good day. But he agreed!

This was a time when you could literally drag your assailant in front of a judge and get punishment on the spot. But, the judge instead insisted that Cooper go and find a constable to formally charge Gordon before he would do anything. So off they went towards Marylebone but at some point, the two men who were supposed to be helping Cooper let Gordon go and then knocked poor Cooper to the ground.

Conflicting versions of what happened between Cooper and Gordon

He remonstrated – asking why they were now attacking him. And it seems they bought into Gordon’s version of events that Cooper was a “molly” (Bridgerton era gay man in London) who had tried it on with Gordon after getting him drunk and when the latter had objected, he had given him his clothes to silence him. So far from being robbed, Cooper had handed over his own clothes in return for Gordon’s silence. This was Gordon’s testimony in court:

We went into Chelsea Fields, and coming among some Trees and Hedges, he kiss’d me, and put his privy Parts into my Hand; I ask’d him what he meant by that, and told him I would expose him; he begg’d me not to do it, and said he would make me amends. I ask’d him what amends? He said he would give me all his Cloaths, if I would accept of them, and so we agreed, and chang’d Cloaths.

What undermines Gordon’s attempt to cast himself as the victim is that Cooper wouldn’t let the matter go. Indeed, he managed to track the thief down and have him apprehended again. This time Cooper was able to get a court hearing but things didn’t quite pan out as he might have hoped.

Yet another version of events came up in court, this time with Cooper giving Gordon his clothes as payment for sex. As Cooper was just a servant who needed to look presentable in his job, I find it hard to believe he would have given away what was probably his only suit to a stranger merely for one fling. Especially as Gordon’s clothes were described as pretty filthy.

There is another witness, Edward Pacock, who saw the two men “stripping among some trees” and exchanging their clothes “lovingly”. And there is where the story takes a very unexpected turn…

Cooper exposed in court as a drag queen

And now for the big reveal!

Because several female witnesses like Jane Jones, “a washer-woman in Drury Lane”, and Mary Poplet, who ran a tavern called the Two Sugar-Loaves on the same street, described Cooper as a very well known drag queen by the name of Princes Seraphina. In fact, Poplet didn’t know him by any other name. And in court, without any objection from the judge, they referred to Cooper as “she”, “the princess” and “her highness”.

Poplet gave a vivid description of Cooper:

I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curtsies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfaction of dancing with fine Gentlemen.

So, piecing the evidence together, we have two men from modest backgrounds drinking in a tavern in the small hours of the morning. Both men were well known in the area. Especially Cooper who was a drag queen by the name of Princess Seraphina. Cooper was used to borrowing clothes, from men but more so women, to attend balls and masquerades with the hope of picking up rich gentlemen. On the night in question, Cooper – in male attire – had a drunken fling with Gordon that went wrong when instead Gordon mugged Cooper for his (male) clothes.

It’s assumed that Gordon was heterosexual but he could just as easily have been a gay man in deep denial. And violent denial at that. An incensed Cooper set out to prosecute him in the knowledge this would lead to Gordon’s hanging. Later he seemed to have misgivings and must have been concerned that his own homosexuality and transvestism would come out in court. Well it did, but strange to say it never became the central issue.

Sexual fluidity in Bridgerton era London – but not an LGBT paradise

What the court case shows is a city where sexual experimentation was rife. Cooper the effeminate drag queen accepted as a woman by other women living and working along Drury Street. Gordon was a thug but also known to the same people and I detect a hint of almost maternal protection towards him. One female witness advised Cooper to make up with Gordon because many believed the exchange of clothes had been voluntary.

In the end, several residents of Drury Lane claimed Gordon was an ‘honest working man’ and the case against him was dropped. Cooper was lucky that the whole thing didn’t backfire on him. He no doubt drowned his sorrows at one of the masquerades in Vauxhall where he was a regular feature in full female attire. As an aside, one of his drag queen friends had just been transported (sent to work in the plantations of the Caribbean or to Australia) for counterfeiting masquerade tickets. A very harsh punishment!

Well, we will never known what happened among the trees and hedges in Chelsea Fields but what a fascinating story! And an incredible insight into LGBT life in London leading up to the Bridgerton era.

The mysterious death of Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe was the Quentin Tarantino of Elizabethan theatre. His plays were laced with ultra-violence and audiences often left shaken by what they’d witnessed on stage. And maybe it’s not surprising that this shocking playwright came to a grisly end. On 30 May 1593, Marlowe was murdered at a house in Deptford, south London. But are accounts of his death a tissue of lies circulated by enemies?

Marlowe should be as famous today as Shakespeare, his contemporary. And yet he’s eclipsed by the Bard. But in his own time, his plays packed theatres with their blood curdling scenes. One commentator has compared his work to the surrealist Theatre of Cruelty – a belief that in order to create impact on an audience, a drama has got to be a little bit nasty.

In his plays, when a character gets stabbed, he lingers on stage and discusses what he’s feeling. His famous dramatisation of the life of murdered medieval king Edward II has left us with all the graphic details of the hapless monarch having a red hot poker shoved inside him. I’ll spare you the details! But Marlowe doesn’t. To him, the violence was an essential part of the plot and a way of ramming home the moral of the story.

So when it comes to the untimely and violent death of Marlowe, plenty of commentators down the centuries have shrugged and said in so many words: he had it coming. As if creating violent fiction necessarily results in it leaping off the page at you. And Marlowe’s death has been variously ascribed to his drinking, whoring, alleged spying and his homosexuality. All convenient ways of trivialising a great talent – and almost excusing his murderer.

It’s often stated that the death of Marlowe was the result of a drunken brawl at a tavern called the Bull Inn. Marlowe and a friend, Ingram Frizer fell out over the tab – as we’ve all done at some point in our lives. Though without murdering one of our fellow drinkers!

However, this account is hotly disputed by The Marlowe Society, which says that there was no tavern involved. In fact, they claim, Marlowe was at a ‘respectable house‘ owned by a certain Dame Eleanor Bull having dinner. The other diners included the aforementioned Frizer and they all had links to Thomas Walsingham, a spymaster at the court of Queen Elizabeth the first.

Thomas was the cousin of the now deceased Francis Walsingham who created the queen’s spy network to protect her from assassination attempts orchestrated by the Pope and the King of Spain. Marlowe was undoubtedly keeping interesting company. And he was going to need help from people of influence because ten days before he’d been arrested on a charge of atheism. And this in itself is a bizarre story.

Another playwright and close friend, Thomas Kyd, had been arrested on the same charge after being found to be in possession of an ‘Arian’ tract. Arianism was an ancient heresy going back to the fourth century AD. While being stretched on the rack, Kyd screamed that Marlowe was the real heretic and that furthermore…..he’d stated that Jesus Christ was homosexual. In a document held today at the British Library, Marlowe also apparently joked that holy communion should be smoked in a pipe and that the New Testament was so badly written, he could have done a better job.

This document, known as the “Baines note”, is disputed with some seeing it as an attempt to damn Marlowe’s reputation. Though Marlowe seems more than capable of having uttered such sentiments. And he moved among people who saw themselves as being at the vanguard of a new movement that questioned tradition and divinely sanctioned authority.

So what’s the official account of Marlowe’s death? In the Coroner’s report at the time, it’s claimed a row broke out between Frizer and Marlowe over the cost of the dinner. Marlowe grabbed a dagger and in the heat of the moment stabbed Frizer. He then retaliated “in defence of his life” and struck the playwright just above the right eye, driving the blade in and killing Marlowe instantly.

Not many people believe the coroner’s account. For a start, the evidence came from three men described as ‘slippery’ by one modern expert. Frizer walked free and spent the rest of his life in Walsingham’s service. The owner of the house, Dame Bull, doesn’t seem to have been interviewed for her version of events. And while Marlowe may have been tense, as he contemplated his possible torture and trial for heresy, was he really about to start a murderous brawl over an unpaid bill?

One theory that carries weight is that Marlowe was involved in the queen’s spy network or at least had access to privileged information. He was about to face the rack and a public appearance in court. What might he say in those circumstances? As Shakespeare once noted, a man will say anything under torture. To silence Marlowe, did these rather shady characters lure him to a house in south London and finish him off?

Another view is that he was part of an underground group of freethinkers and humanists known as The School of Night led by none other than the intrepid Sir Walter Raleigh. These gentlemen were creatures of the Renaissance and foreshadowed the Age of Enlightenment. But not everybody in 16th century England thought being enlightened was a good idea – especially the church. Could dark forces have targeted Marlowe to make an example of him?

And then the boldest theory is that Marlowe wasn’t murdered at all. He was a valued espionage asset and had to be disappeared. The whole murder was concocted to make that possible. Some or other corpse was tossed into the unmarked grave while the playwright slipped abroad.

The great London tornado of 1091

Walking past Bow church yesterday in the city of London – deserted still because of Covid lockdown – I was reminded of another disaster that hit the British capital a thousand years ago. Because in the year 1091, a huge tornado ripped through London demolishing an earlier wooden Bow church and then smashing up London Bridge. It’s a forgotten natural disaster but at a time of pandemic and concerns about the impact of global warming, one certainly worth recalling now.

The United Kingdom is famed for its fairly clement weather conditions. We don’t tend to get hurricanes, typhoons and certainly not devastating tornados. But in the year 1091, a tornado did indeed hit London. At this time, the population of London was under 20,000 – not unprecedented for a medieval city but below its previous Roman height. And the city was mainly constructed of wood. So, the tornado wreaked havoc with the relatively flimsy constructions in its path.

London tornado hits St Mary-le-Bow

The church of St Mary-le-Bow took a direct hit. For many centuries, this church has been a key landmark in London. Traditionally, you can consider yourself a true Londoner if you’re born within the sound of its bells. Those bells came crashing down during the Second World War when the Luftwaffe bombed the centre of London and largely destroyed the church built by Christopher Wren in the seventeenth century. That had replaced a church destroyed in another disaster that hit London – the Great Fire of 1666. So, it’s a place of worship that has been levelled over and over by wind and fire.

The king of England in 1091 was William II, known as “Rufus”. He was the son of William the Conqueror and it was asserted that he was homosexual. His relationship with the church was fraught and no doubt it would have been claimed that this destruction was divine wrath over his conduct. William was eventually killed in a hunting accident. A rather suspicious incident where a courtier somehow managed to shoot his arrow directly into the king.

London tornado – first ever recorded?

It’s often said that this medieval tornado was the first ever to be recorded – certainly in Europe. But Irish historians dispute this. They point to a recorded tornado that hit a place called Rosdalla in Westmeath in the year 1054. The Vikings were in Ireland at this time and one of their chroniclers talks about the tornado lifting a greyhound into the air and then dropping it, causing the poor dog’s death.

Here is a photo I took of St Mary-le-Bow yesterday.

Tragic wedding party deaths in the London Blitz

The area of London I live in took a pounding from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz, which destroyed a fifth of London in the Second World War. At both ends of the long road I live on there were tragic deaths including an entire wedding party that had taken shelter from the Nazi onslaught.

Camberwell Green is a small park at the south end of the road I live on. On 17 September 1940, Sidney and Patricia Wright had just got married and were celebrating their reception at the nearby Father Red Cap pub, which is still there though sadly boarded up. Suddenly, the air raid siren went off signifying that enemy German planes were on the way to bomb that part of London.

Deaths at a wedding in the London Blitz

The groom, bride, parents and extended family including children darted outside and down into an air raid shelter – a tunnel under Camberwell Green. Unfortunately, the ground surface scored a direct hit by a bomb and the tunnel caved in. The bodies were recovered the following day.

The dead were Sidney and Patricia aged 21, their parents, Sidney’s five sisters aged between eight and nineteen and several guests aged between fourteen and fifty eight. This is the memorial below unveiled in 2007 at the exact spot where the bomb fell and the Father Red Cap pub today. Read on to find out what happened at the other end of my road.

That is tragic enough but these were not the only deaths in Camberwell, a district of south London, during the Blitz. In the first four months of the Luftwaffe bombing, just this one part of London endured 449 deaths in 1940.

London Blitz deaths in nearby Kennington

Walk along my road and at the other end you come to Kennington Park. And there you can see a stone slab with a poem by Maya Angelou. Behind it is a curious rectangular depression in the ground. This was once a “trench shelter” for people without gardens attached to their houses (three quarters of Londoners during WW2).

They were deep trenches with a concrete floor, timbers to create two walls and corrugated iron placed on top held down with earth to form an added layer of protection. Think of a First World War trench with a cover. Families might sit in these damp, smelly trenches for up to twelve hours while bombs exploded around them.

At just after 8pm on 15 October 1940, the long trench in Kennington Park took a direct bomb hit. The death toll eventually given was a staggering 104 people. The scene was horrific and again, I won’t go into the details but there was a struggle to identify the dead.

London Blitz deaths not publicised

As was often the case, in order to keep up morale, the government didn’t publicise these kinds of incidents. And that explains why a memorial was only put up in Kennington Park in 2003 and one on Camberwell Green in 2007.

The Maya Angelou poem that commemorates the London Blitz deaths reads:

‘History despite its wrenching pain cannot be un-lived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.’

Copyright photos on this page: Tony McMahon. Please credit if re-using.

London – which statues should be toppled?

We’re clearly about to have a wave of statues toppled across London. But if so, who should go and what should replace them?

Let me talk about which statues I think should go and surprise you with how many statues and memorials have been replaced or hidden away in London over the centuries. And then, let’s think about who we should be commemorating today with statues?

To me, the current situation is untenable. It doesn’t reflect the country we are and it often accentuates the worst of our past. Take Whitehall for example. Walk down it and it’s a parade of generals from top to bottom. You’d think Britain was a military-police state and not a civilian democracy.

We’ve had some great social reformers, inventors and artists but instead we celebrate Earl Haig. This is a man whose tactics in the First World War earned him the nickname “Butcher Haig”. And that was because of his cavalier attitude to casualties among his own men – not the enemy.

Get to the top of Whitehall and you’re in Trafalgar Square. I’ve got no issues with Nelson. He can stay up there on the column. But King George IV on horseback. This was the most reviled monarch of the 19th century. I’ve got Victorian era history books where the authors can’t bring themselves to say a kind word about him.

Contemporary satirists dipped pens in poison and lacerated him. He treated his own wife abominably. Built a palace at Brighton while men returning from the Napoleonic wars starved on the streets. Indulged every passion until he died a horrendously obese, self-pitying mess. So – he can go.

And then at the top of Trafalgar Square, there’s a diminutive statue to a king of little stature – James II. The brother of Charles II became king in 1685 and set about trying to return Britain to the Catholic faith but more perniciously, creating an absolutist monarchy based on that of Louis XIV of France.

If James had got away with this plan, Britain would have seen its democracy strangled in the cradle. Fortunately, parliament decided that James would not get his way and forced him from power. They brought in a Dutch prince who became William III.

And which statues have already gone?

What might surprise you is that London has been removing statues from view for a long time. Sometimes they go and come back again. So, here are some toppled statues that either disappeared or moved around.

For example, in 1888, a statue of General Gordon of Khartoum was unveiled in Trafalgar Square between the two fountains. Gordon was always a controversial figure whose handling of the 1885 Sudan revolt, that led to his death at the hands of rebels, was frequently questioned.

In 1943, the statue was removed to the Victoria Embankment and never returned despite a demand in parliament from Winston Churchill in 1948 to reinstate it. The statue remains in its current rather obscure location.

The statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square dates back to his reign in the 1630s. It was toppled under Oliver Cromwell and given to a metalsmith in Holborn called John Rivet.

He claimed to have melted it down and sold cutlery made from the brass. But after the Restoration of Charles II, Rivet revealed that the statue had never been destroyed but buried by him. And it went back on its pedestal where it remains today.

Then there’s the statue of Queen Anne in front of St Paul’s cathedral. It’s a copy of the 1712 original which was attacked several times. Given the queen’s love of a drink, somebody etched on to it: “Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan, left in the lurch; Her face to the gin shop, her back to the church”.

Other statues toppled include one of George I in Leicester Square and a large one of George IV, mentioned above, that once stood at Kings Cross. Sir Robert Peel stood for decades in Cheapside but was carted off in 1935 to the police college in Hendon.

Hyde Park corner was once graced with an enormous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. Queen Victoria hated it but while Wellington was alive, it couldn’t really be taken down. His house was nearby! But after he was dead, it was spirited away and is now to be found in far off Aldershot.

And who to replace them with?

I love history. And it’s not all about General Bufty-Tufty beating up the natives in Bechuanaland in 1879. Which is the impression you get from many of our statues.

History is about great social reformers, inventors, people who cured disease, architects and creative artists. Let’s throw up some statues to them and create a more balanced and nuanced picture of our past.

The missing head of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in England and brought about – in effect – a republic. That was more than a hundred years before France and the new United States did the same. But, after his death, the mighty Cromwell’s head mysteriously went missing.

After a bloody civil war, Cromwell imprisoned King Charles I and then had him executed by beheading in Whitehall. But maybe the king got to have the last laugh. Because whereas King Charles was reunited with his head in his grave, Cromwell’s head was to go missing for hundreds of years.

In 1911, The Reverend H R Wilkinson gave an address to the Royal Archaeological Institute and exhibited what he claimed was the head of Oliver Cromwell. How had it become detached?

After ruling England in the absence of a king and calling himself the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell died aged 59 in 1658. He was buried with due pomp in Westminster Abbey – much as a king might have been interred.

However, a year later, the brave experiment in republicanism collapsed and King Charles II – son of the beheaded king – took the throne. He immediately had Oliver Cromwell exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn. This was the gallows in London where common people dangled from a rope.

His head was then struck from his body and put on a pole. According to some accounts, his body was dumped in a hole under the gallows at Tyburn. But others say that friends of Cromwell took his abused carcass away and buried it in Red Lion Square, Holborn. Without the skull.

His impaled head was displayed at Westminster Hall right outside the Houses of Parliament. Unbelievable though it may seem, it remained there until 1703 when the mouldy head blew down during a big storm.

A sentry guarding parliament picked it up and took it to his home. Apparently he never confessed to having done this until he was on his death bed. Then his family sold the grisly object to a family called Russell although the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds attempted to make a rival bid.

The head of Oliver Cromwell then ended up around 1787 with an antiquarian dealer called James Cox who put it in the window of his Bond Street art gallery in 1799!

Cox even placed an advert in the Morning Chronicle on 18 March that year stating:

The Real Embalmed Head of the powerful and renowned Usurper Oliver Cromwell with the Original Dies for the Medals struck in honour of his Victory at Dunbar etc are now exhibited at No. 5 in Mead Court, Old Bond Street…”

Morning Chronicle – 18 March 1799

In 1812, the Cromwell head came into the ownership of the Wilkinson family and a hundred years later the Reverend Wilkinson was making his speech. If that really was the head of Oliver Cromwell, it was then buried under the floor of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, in 1960.

Highwaymen in the middle of London!

Highwaymen were those masked thieves on horseback with 18th century three-cornered hats who held up carriages. The most famous was Dick Turpin. We often picture them carrying out their robberies in the countryside but actually, they were often to be found in the middle of central London.

So let me introduce you to some of the most unbelievably audacious highwaymen whose cheek and daring will amaze you! They terrorised London but also gave people a rather cheap thrill.

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Isaac Atkinson

He operated around Lincoln’s Inn Fields about the year 1640. I worked at an office overlooking this large and beautiful square for ten years. One side of the square has been dominated by barristers and lawyers for centuries going right back to Henry VIII.

Atkinson, after being apprehended, said that his conscience was perfectly clear as he had only robbed lawyers – who were bigger rogues than himself. Well, I think we can all agree with that (except you lawyers of course).

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Dick Banff

We would think of Dick as more of a cat burglar than a highwayman. His name is also spelt Dick Bauff. He used rope ladders and hooks to rob the houses of rich merchants in Lombard Street – near the Bank of England.

As a young man, he was involved in one extremely violent robbery in his native Ireland alongside his criminal parents. They murdered the occupants of the house and seized the goods. After being caught, Dick was given leniency on condition that he agreed to hang his own parents!

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Tom Buckley

Also called Tim Buckley. You tend to find spelling mistakes in names either because the individual concerned was illiterate or census takers were just sloppy. Or some criminals operated under multiple names. Anyway, Tim or Tom held up people on Drury Lane – and that really was slap bang in the middle of London

Buckley developed something of a personal vendetta against a “stock-jobber” (somebody who worked at the stock exchange). This man had got Buckley arrested on one occasion and branded on the hand. Our highwaymen seems to have sought him out and relieved the stock-jobber of a whopping forty-eight Guineas.

Incredibly, the two men then met by accident in central London and the stock-jobber got Buckley arrested – again. The highwayman was sentenced to death but then somehow got a reprieve. After which….he went to Hackney and attempted to burn down the stock jobber’s house.

After going on the run to the Midlands, he was eventually caught and hanged in 1702.

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: William Cady

This highwayman found his victims in Hyde Park. One woman swallowed her own wedding ring to stop him getting hold of it. So Cady – who was a particularly unpleasant character – ran her through with his sword and then cut her open to get the ring.

Other London highwaymen included William Davies – “The Golden Farmer” – who only stole gold. Dick Low was the youngest highwayman aged just eleven! William Page used to dress in the height of fashion and hold people up around Grosvenor Square before being hanged in 1758.

The source for this blog is a book in my archive of material going back 300 years. The book in question is An Encyclopaedia of London, edited by William Kent and published in 1937. Here I am with it. I also used The Complete Newgate Calendar – also in my collection.

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani (pictured below) and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Tragedy as Jews expelled from England 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response:

He told them that they ought to cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.

Unfortunately for the judges, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

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The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.

One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.