Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Titus Andronicus in Egham

The anonymous Three Bloody Murders (1613) deals with three savage murders which offer little purchase for a satisfactory Christian moral. The main business of the pamphlet is to defend the character of William Storre, a Parish minister at Market Raisin, hacked to pieces by a young man from a wealthy family angered by his siding with the townsfolk in a dispute over the ownership of common land. The assailant succeeded in getting bail, absconded abroad, then his connections seem to have launched a sustained attack on the character of the murdered minister. He returned to London where his victim’s wife and children were living on charity, and tried to buy her off from an appeal against him, then slipped back abroad. This grim account, and the solemn reprinting of testimonies to the victim’s character, is the major business of the publication.

But it is the section
‘The Cruell Murder of a yong Maiden, committed by Elizabeth James, of the Parish of Egham in
Surrey, most strangely revealed by a dogge, and a dumb-woman’
that has long interested me. Years ago in the Bodleian Library, I did the kind of thing that you do on Google these days, and looked up my then partner’s name in the Bodley catalogue. My idle curiosity, scanning the early printed book, was quickened when I saw the full title page, for having got my teaching job at Royal Holloway, I was just about to move to Egham to live there with a young woman also called Elizabeth James. 20th century
Elizabeth was really rather unhappy with this coincidence. As I read quite regularly Sharon Howard’s excellent and hugely inclusive Early Modern Notes blog, this crime pamphlet recently came back to mind.

‘Let us look with wet eyes, and heavy hearts, upon the cruelty of Elizabeth James, a keepers wife of the Parish of Egham in Surrey…’

Elizabeth James’s victim apparently arrived at her house by chance: a pretty young wench, and handsomely apparreled’. This girl, never named, was possibly running away from home: the author reports nothing about her or where she came from. She begs to be taken in as a kind of working lodger till she finds service in the vicinity. The gamekeeper’s wife agrees to this, and is all kindness to her lodger at first. But the girl has a store of money with her, and bit by bit, Mistress James borrows from her, and gets the fine clothes too, and will make no restoration. The girl complains to the husband, who has an argument with his wife, and forces his wife to return all the money and goods. The next day, the pamphlet tells us, Mistress James dragged her maid by the hair into an inner room,drew her knife, and told her that now shee would be soundly revenged upon her for the hard words, and blowes, that she had received from her husband’. The girl begs for mercy, and says that she will leave without saying a word, but the other woman cuts her throat, cuts off her head with a hatchet, ‘then by the divell prompted still, to the very utmost of this most horrid impiety, she cut her poore wounded body into many small peeces, some of which she burnt, some broild, and some in the dead time of night, she buried in her garden.

The narrative says that when her husband returned, he just assumed that the girl had moved on of her own accord. Something like a Shakespearean ‘double time’ has operated, allowing Mistress James plenty of time for her dismembering, broiling, and the burial of body parts by night, before her husband returns. And life goes on, Mistress James preventing her husband from gardening in one particular bed, or it would have done so – but here the narrative has a surprise:

Thus, for a time, this bloody murther lay concealed, though to reveale it a poore dumb woman, that saw the cruelty acted, many times, and to many persons, by her signes, and dumb shews, so well as she could did labour her best to bewray it. But from all her signes, as pulling her selfe by the haire, drawing her hand ore her throate, stabbing her selfe (as it were) upon the breast, wringing her hands, weeping or any thing that she could doe, they could not gather any thing that they knew how to make any matter of’

The dumb woman vividly enacts the murder she has witnessed, but the stolid burghers of Egham ignore her. Either she only does this in Mistress James’s absence, or she ignores her too. Heavens only knows what they were thinking, if anything. Maybe the dumb woman was simply very bad at her ghastly charades, or had mental problems that made them accustomed to ignoring her strangenesses. In the end, heaven, trusty old heaven, intervenes, and a dog, digging in the garden for something to eat, one day comes into the house with the severed head, and deposits it in front of Goodman James, Mistress James, and some of the neighbours. It is hard not to think of this as the ultimate Egham dinner party, ‘most admired disorder’ in its suburban form. Prompted by this, the dumb woman falls back into her Lavinia act, and indicates where in the garden more remains can be found, the slowly-revolving mind of Goodman James at last delivers a thought, when he remembers how his wife had stopped him digging there, and they excavate the rest. The neighbours take Mistress James off to the Justice, and her trial follows swiftly, but not her execution, as she is pregnant, and must await her delivery before facing the gallows.

Taking this extraordinary story at face value, what we have is a report without any curiosity, into a community of oblivious inhabitants, who insist on living normal lives despite having the adverse evidence shrieking at them. Nobody asks any questions, nor does the narrative anticipate its readers having any questions about who heard and reported the words it assigns to the murderess and her victim. The dumb witness to the crime is locked up behind illiteracy and an astonishing lack of initiative. Whether the husband did or didn’t beat his wife hangs unresolved, is something of no importance. Did Elizabeth James act alone – a pregnant woman murder and dismember a younger woman old enough to be out in the world on her own seeking work? It is hard to imagine that the dumb woman hadn’t in fact assisted Mistress James in her butchery of the corpse, and the husband may have had a larger knowledge and role than his wooden behaviour suggests. What really drove Elizabeth James to her desperate crime?

This narrative seems to remind the writer of another 'dog finding a corpse' story, when a courting couple in Finchley, with another hungry dog in their company, find that the dog has discovered a corpse: ‘the eyes pickt cleane out of their places, and (as some say) the empty holes, were fill’d up with the dung of birds’. (‘Those are pearls, that were his eyes…’) Nobody can bear to approach the corpse because of the smell, and, because of its condition, mutilated before death and corrupted since, no-one can identify the victim as he lies for four days by the roadway. He is finally buried where he was found. ‘But here see the certainty of the sacred word of the Almighty; which says, that he that smites a man that he die, shall die for it, Exod. 21’, our author had reflected, when God sent that hungry dog digging in the Egham garden. But the author is stretching a thin membrane of piety over injustice, brutality, and horror, and it takes more than a divinely-directed dog or two to mitigate their unmistakeable forms.

At the end of his pamphlet, the author rallies after contemplating this murder of an unidentified victim by persons unknown: 'howsoever they do yet ly hidden from the eyes of men, from the all-seeing eye of the almighty God, they do not.' Citing a 'Reverend Doctor', the author affirms that 'there is an eye above us, that sees all we doe, an eare that heares all we say, and a booke, in which all our words and deeds are written'. Impeccably orthodox - but, heavenly records aside, when God is leaving hungry dogs to find corpses, the author has started, here and there, to write that book himself, telling us what Mistress James and her victim said to one another, categorically making her solely responsible: the insidious tropes of the omniscient author doing the work of the omniscient being.


Sharon said...

'Dog finds corpse' turned up in a 1595 pamphlet ("Two notorious murders, One committed by a tanner on his wives sonne..." - it's on EEBO) I used for teaching last year as well. I suspect it's a fairly common theme.

If you haven't seen it yet, you might enjoy this older post of mine.

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