Category: England

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

Illustration from 1832 broadsheet “Execution of James Cook, and Hung in Chains at Le’ster for the Horrid Murder of Mr. Paas.”

The gibbet was a hanging iron cage used to display the corpses of criminals in 18th and early 19th-century England. To be thus “hanged in chains,” in the judicial jargon and thinking of the day, subjected the criminal to an extra measure of postmortem shaming and offered the general public a rather extravagant cautionary example. Naturally, this frightful spectacle also generated a fair measure of folklore, which we explore in this episode as a follow-up to our “Gallows Lore” show.

The gibbet was a relatively rare punishment reserved for the crime of murder, and only then used in particularly heinous or high-profile cases. Though it was sometimes employed before 1751, its use was more widespread thanks to The Murder Act instituted that year.  This bit of legislation offered this extra punitive measure in response to a sort of inflation of the penal code attaching the death penalty to increasingly minor crimes, such as acts of theft.

The Murder Act also designated anatomical dissection of the criminal body as an additional option for postmortem punishment, a fate actually much more common than the gibbet. Dissection may have been intended primarily to enhance physicians’ medical knowledge, but it also provided the surgeons with body parts and substances that could be sold off for other purposes. We make a grisly digression from gibbets to explore some of the ways the human byproducts of executions were made use of in folk-medicine, magic, and certain professions.

William Hogarth's "The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)" 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.
William Hogarth’s “The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)” 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.

Next, we get into the  details of the gibbetting process. Contrary to common understanding, the gibbet was not simply designed as a sort of narrowed human-sized birdcage.  It was an arrangement of customized form-fitting iron bands wrapping the limbs, trunk, and body, and connected with vertical cross-pieces.  The cage was suspended in a way that allowed it to rock freely in the wind, lending a sort of eerie animation to the corpse and thereby increasing the terrifying impact of these displays.

The horrific impression made by the gibbeted corpse is detailed in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, in a scene describing an encounter with a gibbet by the story’s protagonist as a child. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a few lavishly macabre paragraphs from the novel.

We follow this with another literary gibbet, one surprisingly found in a now-forgotten series of children’s books by Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family, published in three volumes between 1818 and 1847.

Then we hear a typical ghost story told of the gibbet, a tale set down in ballad form as “Old Grindrod’s Ghost,” which first appears in the 1872 collection Ballads, Romantic, Fantastical, and Humorous by the historical novelist William Ainsworth. The excerpt of the song heard is from the North-English band Pendlecheek.

actualgibbet
Jame Cook’s gibbet (see first illus) at the Leicester Guildhall museum.

While gibbettings drew huge crowd, the morbid fascination they popularly exerted lingered on in relics obtained from the gibbets as they fell to pieces over the years — in bits of bone, fragments of iron and wood that were carried off as mementoes. We examine cases of gibbet iron and wood recycled as novelty products, or even as structural elements in buildings, such as an old gibbet post serving as a ceiling beam in The Hare and Hound on the Isle of Wight.  There are a few ghost stories, and gibbet rhymes and riddles along the way.

Though the gibbet was relatively exclusive to England, the practice was inherited by its colonial states. From America, we hear of  a very demanding pirate gibbetted on a small island in Boston Harbor, and from Canada, a unique case of a gibbetted woman, Marie-Josephte Corriveau, hanged in chains in Québec City for murdering her husband in 1733.  Though her case was sensational enough for its time, her fame was greatly increased in 1851, when her gibbet was accidentally dug up and then acquired by P.T. Barnum for exhibition. In the wake of this, a body of folk tales sprung up, in which “La Corriveau” became a sort of witch or spirit — or beautiful femme fatal.

We close with a nod to the predatory birds that famously tear at the bodies hanged in chains. From Germany, we offer a bit of folklore on magic eggs produced by ravens who have thus dined, and from Scotland we hear a bit of the ballad, “Twa Corbies,” (two ravens or crows), which tells of the birds feeding not on a convicted criminal, but a slain knight. Included is a snippet of an excellent rendition of the song by The Cories.

La Corriveau by Henri Julien, illustration for “Les Anciens Canadiens” by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, 1861.
Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year

The Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666 is vividly portrayed in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which we’ll be examining closely in this episode.  As the text is quite entertaining (much more so than his better known Robison Crusoe) we’ll be hearing more extensive quotes from the material than usual, delivered as usual by our diligent reader Mrs. Karswell.

We begin with a look at the presumed connection between the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosie” and the Black Death. Though the facts here may not satisfy our desire for macabre secrets hidden in plain sight, we will find evidence for something similar in a children’s song we review at the show’s conclusion.  We hear a snippet of the song as rendered in the game Dead Space.

Defoe’s book occupies a strange place between history and historical fiction.  As Defoe was 5 years old in 1655 and the book was published in 1722, the story is technically a work of fiction.  However, the narrative is an excellent window into contemporary perceptions of the tragedy as well as treasure house of factual information.  Characters within the story are nearly all actual individuals. Particular events described have widely been corroborated in contemporaneous accounts. Particular dates and locations are also meticulously anchored in reality – so much so, that scholars have frequently treated it as a contemporaneous source.  Hints given in the text suggest that Defoe was in fact telling the story of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived through the Great Plague in London and shared a profession (saddler) with the story’s narrator.

plague pamphlet
Illustration from A Rod for Run-awayes, by Thomas Dekker, 1625,

Part of what makes the book so fascinating is Defoe’s meticulous cataloging of the way in which Londoners reacted to (and anticipated) the plague in terms of omens and astrological predictions and biblical prophecies articulated in pamphlets, broadsheets, and almanacs of the day. Here, the sighting of two comets over England as well as the biblical and numeric significance of the approaching year 1666 play a large role.  He also describes predictions of doom were also shared by visionaries and eccentric personalities on the city’s streets, such as those shared by the Quaker Solomon Eccles, known to Londoners as “Solomon Eagle,” a self-styled prophet who roamed the city with a pot of burning coals atop his head.

Solomon Eagle illustration
Illustration of plague prophet, likely Solomon Eagle, source unknown.

Defoe’s narrative also relishes some detail on the symptoms of the disease, the madness it brought upon those suffering from these symptoms, and the dreadful treatments offered by contemporary doctors.  We hear a number of passages describing these aspects, including horrific accounts of patient suicides and a lethal kiss offered by an insane victim of the sickness.

Also included in A Journal are extensive quotes from municipal edicts stipulating how the emergency was to be addressed.  From these descriptions we learn of the “Searchers of the Dead,” old women who roamed the city with red wands, prodding at corpses to determine which had succumbed to the disease, and of the watchmen posted at the doors of quarantined homes to ensure that those within (sick and healthy residents alike) remained incarcerated until the afflicted either recovered or was carted to the plague pits.  We also hear how these measures were defeated by more devious citizens.

Corpses, which were placed outside homes (or later those that simply fell dead in the streets), were picked up by “dead carts” preceded by a bell ringer.  Pickups and burial in the plague pits were only performed at night to avoid further distressing the citizenry.  He hear  a particularly dramatic description of the narrator’s visit to one of these pits and an encounter with a grieving loved one there  and his rough treatment by cynical drunkards in a tavern to which he retreats.

Unfortunately for Londoner’s the Great Plague was followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. While the death count from the plague had already begun to drop sometime before the fire, it was nonetheless commonly believed that this disaster somehow put an end to the epidemic or even, in some way, purified the city of its sickness. We hear a clip of the song “London’s Burning,” commonly associated with the 1666 fire despite its mentioning anachronistic “engines” sent to extinguish the flames.

Defoe’s Journal also includes another story related to a song.  It’s his retelling of a legend circulating in London at the time inspired by a story from Vienna.  It relates how a piper, a tavern entertainer, becomes grievously intoxicated and while passed out, is picked up by one of the dead carts and is deposited, while still unconscious, in a plague pit — thankfully awakening before earth is shoveled in.  The story was eventually turned into the Viennese song “Oh du lieber Augustin,” (Oh, my dear Augustine) in the 1800s, and attributed to Markus Augustin, a minstrel and piper, who lived through the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679. While it’s set to the innocent-sounding melody of “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie,”  the  grim lyric tells how the piper has lost everything to the plague,  like the city of Vienna itself.  But its cheery tune and the fact that the singer has lived to tell his story has made it an anthem of survival for the city —  and popular song throughout German-speaking lands.  We hear a snippet of the song rendered in period-appropriate style by Ensemble Unisonos.

We end the show with a custom mashup of “Oh du lieber Augustin” and the curiously similar dead-cart scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.
Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Our seasonal look at butcher lore begins with the slaughter of an immense ram as related in the centuries-old English song, “The Derby Ram” (AKA “The Darby Ram”).  In the lyric, a butcher and his boy assistant are “washed away in the blood,” giving us our episode’s title.  The song is roughly enacted in an old Christmas folk play from Derbyshire, “Old Tup” (an old local word for “ram.”)  We hear a montage of snippets of the song from The Kossoy Sisters, John Kirkpatrick, John Roberts, and Matt Williams.

A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.
A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.

While the 19th-century trend among folklorist to view mummer’s plays like this as vestiges of ancient pagan rites is no longer accepted, the notion does suggest our next topic: a Germanic emphasis on sacrifice during the month of November, which the Anglo-Saxons called Blod-monath (“month of sacrifice.”)  We look at the Scandinavian yuleblót marking the beginning of Winter and its connection to Freyr and his sister Freyja, both symbolized by boars or swine sacrificed in this rite.  Along the way, we hear Mrs. Karswell read a famous 11th-century account by the chronicler Adam of Bremen describing particularly spectacular sacrifices said to be offered in the ancient temple that once stood outside Uppsala, Sweden. We also touch upon the Anglo Saxon Modranicht or “Night of the Mothers,” which was celebrated on Christmas Eve.

Next we discuss the slaughter of swine, November’s traditional “Labor of the Month”among medieval peasantry.  Its aristocratic equivalent is the boar hunt carried out in November and December.  We have a look at the serving of boar’s head at Christmas among the nobility and  hear a snippet of the medieval Boar’s Head Carol as well as a whimsical tale told at Oxford supposedly explaining how the boar’s head custom arrived at Queen’s College.

November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500
November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500

The particular day most traditionally associated with the slaughtering of animals for the Winter (and the old day regarded as the beginning of winter) is November 11, St. Martin’s Day.  We hear of a strange St Martin’s custom associated with the slaughter of beef in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the 17th-century and of the magical use of blood from fowl slaughtered on this day in Sweden and Ireland.  Our “meaty” segment ends with a bit of the comic song “A Nice Piece of Irish Pig’s Head.”

A tradition in Lower Bavaria fixes December 21, St. Thomas Day, as the date for dispatching swine  and is associated with the appearance  a demon or ogre by the name of “Bloody Thomas.”  We hear a description of a cruel and/or amusing 19th-century prank played on children on this day.

Next we look at the legend of “St. Nicholas and the Three Schoolboys,” which has an unsettling connection to our gory theme.  A clip from a French song from the 16th century ‘”La légende de Saint Nicolas“” is included as is a story of the Alsatian bogeyman, Père Fouettard, an equivalent of the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht said to be related to this particular Nicholas legend.

From 14th century Scotland, comes the story of butcher from the town of Perth who famously turned to cannibalism. Born Andrew Christie, he is better known as “Christie Cleek,” from an old Scottish word for “hook,” an implement important in his grisly deeds.

We close the show with a look at Sawney Bean, Scottish leader of a incestuous cannibal clan believed to be a legendary reworking of the more historically based tale of Christie Cleek.

Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
All of Them Witches

All of Them Witches

This Halloween we have five stories of witches from all the way back to around 1125AD to the 1960s. Some of them are actual historic personage, some seem more purely folkloric.

It’s a somewhat longer episode for which I”ll provide somewhat shorter show notes here.  So, I won’t going into the details of each story, but just give a sketch of who we’ll be talking about.  Aside from all being witches, you’ll see another common thread; four of the five kept avian familiars: roosters, blackbirds, and jackdaws.

The first a 19th-century witch who’s become a part of Connecticut folklore — Hannah Cranna.  Though there are stories of her cursing neighbors from her life, the most interesting part of her tale begins with the details of her burial details, with which she was particularly obsessed.  The segment begins with a snippet of Mark Fry’s bit of folk-psychedelia “The Witch” — only because it happens to dovetail nicely with a story of Hannah told on an urban legends web page.

Our second witch was also very particular about her burial, but with a more clear-cut rationale: she wanted to prevent the Devil from claiming her soul (and body, it seems) upon her death. This is the so-called “Witch of Berkeley,” who story was first told by English chronicler William of Malmesbury all the way back in 1125.  It’s in his Chronicle of the Kings of England (as a sort of digression).

Our third witch, Molly Leigh, is also from England — North Staffordshire, where she died in 1746. Though she fit the witchy archetype of having both a quarrelsome personality and undesirable physiognomy, she was never tried or executed for witchcraft, despite some rumors of minor mischief, such as bewitching beers down at the pub.  Her story, like Hannah Cranna’s, focuses more on her afterlife exploits.  We play a snippet of a recent horror movie Molly Crows, which uses Leigh’s story as a springboard.

The fourth witch is our most modern: Sibyl Leek, who appeared on the scene in the 1960s during a wave of pop-culture.  While she claimed to be a descendant of Molly Leigh, her life seems to have been much more pleasant, centering primarily upon how to best position herself in the media spotlight.

Our final story is is quite an oddity.  The story of the self-confessed 17th-century witch, Major Thomas Weir, who became a fixture in legends of old Edinburgh.  This is our longest segment, and I’ll leave the rest for you to enjoy as Mrs. Karswell’s reads from our sources, ad the details as are suitably shocking.

From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

This time we look at the myths of British giants Gog and Magog, and a belief in biblical giants seemingly confirmed by giant bones dug from the earth.

We begin with a 1953 newsreel welcoming reconstructed figures of Gog and Magog back to the London Guildhall after the Nazi bombing of the city destroyed the originals. While Londoners may know the figures as those paraded in the Lord Mayor’s show each November, we also look at a more American perspective on Gog and Magog as figures representing nations allied with the Antichrist from the biblical book of Revelation.

A book quoted in the show.
A book quoted in the show.

Our next stop in the Bible is a verse from Genesis Chapter 6, speaking of “giants in the earth in those days,” (before the Flood).  The word “giant,” we learn, was chosen to translate the Hebrew “Nephilim.”  Our Genesis passage suggests the Nephilim are the offspring of angels mating with human women, and this notion is reinforced by apocryphal texts, such as the Book of Enoch, which dubs these fallen angels “Watchers.” We hear a snippet featuring kindly Watchers from Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film, Noah, which whitewashes the traditional understandings of the Watchers.

The word, “Nephilim,” we learn, literally means “fallen ones,” (“fallen” as in divine beings tainted by human hybridization.)  The suggestion that they are physically large comes from another Genesis story in which Moses sends spies to the land of Canaan in preparation for a Hebrew invasion and receives a report on “Nephilim” who in size compare to men as men do to grasshoppers.  We also hear some amusing stories of the biblical King Og, whose 13-foot bed is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy.

Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = "witness of the Deluge")
Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = “witness of the Deluge”)

Next follows a quick survey of the bones of prehistoric animals mistaken for the bones of biblical Nephilim (or St. Christopher, who was also believed to be a giant from the land of Canaan).  Bones of mastodons figures prominently as do the teeth of St. Christopher, though holy relics produces from beached whales and deceased hippopotami are also mentioned.  We also learn of the patron saint of hares, St. Melangell  (also somehow gifted with oversized bones) a dinosaur named after the human scrotum, and a prehistoric species of giant salamander mistaken for one of the Nephilim by 18th century naturalist Jakob Scheuchzeri, who figures into the early science fiction novel War of the Newts (represented with a snippet from a 2005 BBC radio drama). The  hoaxed 12th-century discovery of a gigantic skeleton of King Arthur at Glastonbury is also discussed.

We learn that Arthur turns out to be connected to the Cornish folktale of that murderous scamp “Jack the Giant Killer.” Referring to an 18th-century text, we run through the grisly episodes of this story (including a long-forgotten one including a female follower of Lucifer).  Not only does the original tale see Jack inducted to Arthur’s Round Table, but it seems the Cornish story is a retelling of a similar Arthurian story of the king slaying a giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy.  A strangely mirrored version of this site, St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall also was said to be home to a giant named Corineus, a figure that seems to be related to Cormoran, the first giant killed in “Jack the Giant Killer.”

19th-century "toy theater" figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)
19th-century “toy theater” figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)

Along the way, Wilkinson provides us some richly detailed passages regarding Arthur’s encounter with the giant of Normandy from the 15th-century telling in The Alliterative Morte Arthure.

On the border between Cornwall and Devon is a site known as “Giant’s Leap,” where another mythic Corineus was said to have killed a giant in the Geoffrey of Monmouth, pseudo-history of Britain, Regum Britanniae.  Monmoth’s fable tells of Britain being founded by Brutus of Troy, sent to the island by the goddess Diana, who foretells his victory over the indigenous giants there.  The last of these giants to die (as we hear dramatized in a reading from the text by Wilkinson) is hurled from the “Giant’s Leap” by one of Brutus’ soldiers — who happens to be named Corineus.  That giant’s name in the text is Gogmagog.

The rest of our story, getting from these two names to the two figures represented at the London Guildhall and Lord Mayor’s Show is a bit complicated.  It’s best listened to in the show, where you’ll also hear how the first offspring born on Britain were the product of exiled female criminals from Troy and incubi — another bit of the fable unfolded in Monmoth’s  Regum Britanniae.

 

 

 

#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers

#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers

This episode examines the Lambton Worm, a dragon legend that inspired works by Bram Stoker and Ken Russel as well as well as the curious role of milk plays that story and in superstitions surrounding witchcraft.

The show begins with Wilkinson and Ridenour reviewing a phone message from Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast, then proceed to briefly examine the 1989 Ken Russel Film The Lair of the White Worm, mentioning along the way his other film Gothic, which would be of interest to listeners.

Publicity image from the film
Publicity image from the film

Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, upon which the Russel film is loosely based, is sadly far from his best work, written late in his life during a time of ill health. The story revolves around an aristocrat, Lady Arabella March, suspected of harboring an ancient, monstrous creature within a well hidden on her estate.  While the novel is a bit of a muddle, it does contain some intriguing descriptive passages that Wilkinson reads for us.

A snippet of a song from Russel’s film, presented as a folk song telling the story of the local worm legend is played and revealed to be a slightly revised version of an actual 1867 ballad about the Lambton Worm of Northeast England.  The legend tells how John Lambton of Lambton Hall hooked a weird and highly inedible creature while fishing, discards the beast, and lives to regret it. Without giving too much away, the story also involves a bloody battle with a dragon, a witch, a curse, and a lot of milk.

From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell
From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell

The legend and song (which is written in the local Sunderland dialect) have become part of the identity of residents of County Durham and towns along the river Wear. In 2014, an entertaining symphonic retelling of the legend was presented in Durham Cathedral by The Durham University Brass Band, and we use a clip or two in the show. Most other clips are from one of two folk-play-style pub performances of the story by The Jeffreys and Hexham Morris.

We also look at a connection between the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm legend.

The peculiar fondness of dragons for milk is next examined, beginning with a number of other dragon legends from England, some medieval tales briefly mentioned, and even an American newspaper from the 1930s.

Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft

We then turn our attention to the “beastly sucklers” of the title.  These include various animals into which witches transformed themselves or created in order to steal milk (sucking it from livestock by night).  They are mlk-hares, the troll-cat, the troll-ball, and the Icelandic tilberi.

The show ends with a quick look at a couple other dragon ballads that also include witches, including the particularly strange “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” in which a king’s daughter is transformed into a mackerel then obstinately refuses to be transformed back.