Thursday, June 07, 2007

Buried alive in early modern England

It is hard, off hand, to think of many cultures as ill-served by their medicine men as early modern England, where catastrophically unhygienic, ignorant and violent medical interventions were the norm. Maybe in sentimental moments we might imagine that below the elite cultural level, cunning women and herbalists operated gentler and less drastic regimes. The practices of midwives, however, seem to have copied the worst propensities of male medicine. Maybe it takes deep and widespread ignorance to support an ignorant medical profession. In the benighted population at large, confronted by the unusual, horrible mistakes could be made.

In a line of morbid reading, I have been following up a horror which sometimes followed on from amateur misdiagnosis, that is, the cases of premature burial recorded in 17th century pamphlets. In writing about the case of Anne Greene
I did not mention the awful addition at the end of one of the pamphlets about her case (after being hanged, Greene was in her coffin and about to be dissected when she was heard to be alive and making noises). To his account, the writer “annexed another strange wonder from Ashburn in Darbishire, shewing how a young woman dying in child-bed, was buried, and delivered of a young son in the grave”.

(In: A declaration from Oxford, of Anne Green a young woman that was lately, and unjustly hanged in the Castle-yard, 1651).

This appalling anecdote has stayed with me since I read it. I do not believe that post-mortem parturition is possible (I am not minded to try any research about that), but the baby was heard crying in the grave, and had died before the exhumation of his unfortunate mother. ‘We come to seek a grave…’

Laurence Cawthorn was a young butcher, an epileptic and a drinker, who after the 17th century version of a late night (ending before 10pm), during which he had drunk a quart of ‘hot waters’, asked to be woken at the 17th century version of early, that is at 3am, as he had slaughterman’s work to do ahead of the succeeding market day (Friday, June 21st). But banging on his door had no effect, by 5am they had decided to get a smith to open his locked bedroom. There they found him apparently dead on his bed, still in the clothes he had worn the night before. According to the more lurid of the two pamphlets published in 1661 about his awful fate, his landlady disregarded the advice of the searchers (there to check that the death was not caused by the plague), and brow-beat her husband into having Cawthorn buried that same Friday afternoon. This pamphlet says that she wanted the man’s goods; the other, more sober pamphlet discounts this, and indicates that the searchers decided he had died of quinsy.

During the weekend after his burial (one pamphlet says it was on Sunday, the other, Saturday) poor Cawthorn regained consciousness in the grave. His coffin was just a yard below the surface, and ‘lamentable Screeks, sad crys and a rumbling noise’ could be heard from beneath the ground. A crowd gathered, and ‘some of them spoke to the Sexton to dig up the Grave’, but he told them he could not do so without authorisation. All Sunday night the local residents could hear continued ‘sad groans’.

Finally the grave was re-opened on Monday. Cawthorn was dead by then. He hadn’t just asphyxiated, in his traumatic struggle, demented by terror, he had ‘beaten himself to Death in the Coffin’. The first pamphlet was either written or even in print by the Tuesday:

An Exact relation of the barbarous murder committed on Lawrence Corddel a butcher who was buryed alive at Christ Church on Fryday last ... with lamentable screeks, groans, and horrid cryes made by him in his grave on Sunday night, and the sad, wounded, and mortify'd condition he was taken up in on Munday, June 24 : as also the examination and confession of his land-lord and land-lady ... before the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor of London by whom they were both committed to New-gate(1661).

Later, but still before the hearing, the other pamphlet appeared. ‘Murder’ has become ‘accident’, but the landlady is still seen as culpable. (Somebody had to be.)

The Most lamentable and deplorable accident which on Friday last, June 22, befell Laurence Cawthorn, a buccher in St. Nicholas Shambles in Newgate Market who being suspected to be dead by the two hasty covetousness and cruelty of his land-lady ... was suddenly and inhumanely buryed : together with the report of his moving of the body as it was carrying by the bearers to his grave, and the treating of his winding sheet with his own hands, and the lamentable shrieks and groans he made on the Saturday and Sunday following : as also the examination and commitment of his land-lord and land-lady by the lord mayor to the prison of Newgate (1661).

The case of Joan Bridges was just as frightful. She was a woman of a reasonably good reputation, who worked for a baker, but she was another drinker, and one morning after a drinking session in a Rochester ale-house she seemed to have died in her sleep. She was buried the next day. That night, dogs were seen digging at her grave, and a passer-by who saw this thought he heard ‘a very dolefull cry or noyse’. Her family are told, but did nothing. The dogs could not be beaten from the grave. So ‘the women of the Town gathered mony amongst themselves to take up the Corps’. Her awful final struggles are told in the title here:

A strange and wonderfull relation of the burying alive of Joan Bridges of Rochester in the county of Kent. Also, the manner if her tearing open of her own belly, the getting of the cloath off her face, and loosing of her feet in the grave, and that she was afterwards seen by above 500. persons. With a description of her life, and severall other circumstances very admirable, and exceeding remarkable for all sorts of people (1646).

‘The muffler which was tyed about her face was rubbed off, her nose by the low roof of her prison house was beat flat with her cheeks, the strings which tyed her toes together had torn the skin from the bone…’ The rest of it is worse. I suppose a dead person’s toes were (are?) tied together for ease of handling.

My image features the fantastically minimalist woodcut executed for the Joan Bridges pamphlet.


Decidedly Bookish said...

You know, that's going to stay with me for a long time. That truly is horrible. I can understand why people get cremated.

Adam Roberts Project said...

It's a pretty unambiguous title-page colophon, there, isn't it.

On the other hand, I've often thought the fear of being buried alive is actually the transference of a simpler, more basic fear: of being dead. Death, after all, is the box from which, no matter how we scrabble and shout, we cannot escape.

Decidedly Bookish said...

The comforting idea with death, though, is presumably that you don't know you're dead. One hopes that we don't suffer after death as one would suffer being buried alive, ie. that you're not there going, "Help! I'm dead! This is rubbish! Bring me back to life!" Death is only frightening whilst we're still alive.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Decidedly B.: you're right, of course that being dead won't bother us when we're dead. But as you point out it can bother us now, and that's what these stories are about.

DrRoy said...

I'm still horrified by the sexton refusing to re-open the grave. The great British workman! - 'Nothing to do with me ... more than my job's worth... alright when I left it'.