Category: England

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The best known of the 18th-century Hellfire Clubs, one founded by Francis Dashwood, is largely remembered today because of the theatrical settings in which they were said to gather, namely a ruined abbey and a network of caves. The latter is represented in the 1961 period drama, The Hellfire Club, from which we hear a brief snippet (although other details and characters of the film are strictly products of the screenwriter’s imagination.)

Francis Dashwood was born into privilege, son of a Baronet, whose title and estate in Wycombe (in Buckinghamshire county, about an hour northeast of London) he inherited at the age of 15.  His various social connections  saw him appointed to various positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Postmaster General, but his  reputation in such roles was generally one of incompetence. This, however, was balanced by his peculiar genius for organizing social clubs.

We discuss two groups he founded before his “Hellfire” days, The Society of Dilettanti, and The Divan Club, both groups dedicated to exploring the culture of lands far from England: the first dedicated to the exploration of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, and the latter devoted to the lands of the Ottoman Turks.

Divan Club Dashwood
Dashwood in his Divan Club costuming. By Adrien Carpentiers.

Social groups such as these were referred to as “dining clubs,” though “drinking clubs” would likely be more accurate.  The Society of Dilettanti seems to have exhibited a particular devotion to “Venus” and “Bacchus” (polite jargon of the era for erotica and more drinking.)  The Dilettanti’s delight in forbidden themes expressed itself in certain “devilish” elements of club ritual prefiguring Dashwood’s “Hellfire” years.  In  some anecdotes about Dashwood’s travels abroad, told by Horace Walpole, we hear of some likewise impish and irreligious behavior.

In 1752, Dashwood turned his attention to his most famous creation. Actually, he never called it “The Hellfire Club”; instead it was referred to (among other names) as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe — a mocking reference to the Catholic saint of Assisi.  Dashwood had several portraits painted portraying him as a questionable monk, including this one by William Hogarth:

William Hogarth’s portrait of Dashwood as St. Francis.

(The image in the episode collage likewise represents Dashwood as St. Francis, this one from his Dilettanti years.)

After an abortive start holding meetings on his estate, Dashwood moved the group to the George and Vulture Inn in London, then in 1751, after leasing an old abbey 10 miles south of his estate in Medmenham, he relocated gatherings there, at which point, the group became known as  the Monks of Medmenham.

To supervise restoration of the abbey, Dashwood hired Nicholas Revett, a pivotal figure in the revival of classical Greek architecture in England, a movement, Dashwood embraced with uniquely idiosyncratic abandon.

We hear of a number of eccentrically pagan additions Revett added to Dashwood’s estate, and Mrs. Karswell reads a contemporary report on the dedication of a Temple of Bacchus on the grounds, complete with costumed fawns and satyrs. We also hear about the curious interest he took in Wycombe’s Church of St. Lawrence, hiring Revett to complete a restoration modeled on a pagan temple in Syria.  He also had an enormous golden ball added to the church steeple, one reputedly large enough to accommodate Dashwood and several Hellfire cronies, who would gather there to drink.

The Golden Ball added by Dashwood to St Lawrence Church.

As for rumors of sexual escapades attached to the club, we explore some clues provided a 1779 volume surveying London’s brothels entitled Nocturnal Revels.  While some of this may just be salacious rumor, the libertine law of Dashwood’s “order” was literally set in stone, carved over the entrance: Fais ce que tu voudras, (“Do what you will”.)

The phrase is borrowed from 16th century French satirist François Rabelais, himself a former monk who satirized the Church and society at large, in his series of connected novels Gargantua and Pantagruel.  In the former, Rabelais imagined a libertine monastery with the phrase inscribed over its entrance, an idea borrowed by Aleister Crowley in his imagining of an Abbey of Thelema (his religious system built around the concept of the will or thelema in Greek.)

While Dashwood’s primarily playful attitude clearly distinguished him from Crowley and other serious occultists, there were rumors of secret rituals practiced by an inner circle of the monks, as we hear in another description provided by Horace Walpole.

The inner circle of Dashwood’s group, known as “the Superiors,” was restricted to 12 members plus Dashwood, the number being either an irreverent reference to Jesus and his twelve disciples or the number in a witches’ coven.  The general membership  included a alarming number of elite figures, a half dozen or so Members of Parliament, prominent writers, poets, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Frederick Prince of Wales, the eldest (estranged) son of George II.  We also hear of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement with Dashwood.

Two particular members are discussed in a bit more detail: John Wilkes and John Montagu, whose personal feud spelled the end of the club and involved a particularly outrageous stunt said to have been perpetrated by Wilkes.

Wilkes was a radical politician whose published remarks on a speech by George III resulted in charges of libel and him briefly fleeing the country as an outlaw — an incident which endangered the Monks by his association.  His nemesis was John Montagu, better known as the Earl of Sandwich (and here we provide the origin story of that particular culinary innovation.)

At some point around 1750, Wilkes published obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man,”  called “An Essay on Woman,” one which targeted Montagu’s well known mistress Fanny Murray as its subject.  In revenge, Sandwich chose to read before Parliament particularly obscene passages from Wilkes’ satire, resulting in further charges against his rival.  Wilkes reciprocated by publishing further exposes of the group, generating further controversy ultimately leading Dashwood to close the abbey headquarters in March of 1776.

While there were serious political differences between Sandwich and Wilkes, the real cause of their hostility, so goes the story, lies in an absurd stunt referred to as “The Affair of the Baboon,” a detailed account of which Mrs. Karswell provides from an 18th century source.

Though there are no historical records documenting this, a strong tradition holds that after ending meetings at the abbey, Dashwood moved gatherings into a network of manmade caves on his estate (tunnels excavated for chalk).

This tradition is documented as early as 1796, when a diarist (Mrs. Philip Powys)  describes a visit to the caves, noting a hook for a chandelier, likely to have been the “Rosicrucian” chandelier, Dashwood elsewhere described. She also mentions an underground pool supposedly known by the Medmenham monks, as “The River Styx,” a large central chamber that became “The Banqueting Hall” and other small rooms nicknamed “Monks’ Cells.” A gothic facade fronts the caves.

Hellfire Caves Entrance

Throughout the 19th century, local legends of occult doings in the caves grew evermore fantastic, as we hear in a few quotes read by Mrs. Karswell. By 1951, a descendent of Francis Dashwood, Sir Francis John Vernon Hereward Dashwood, who had inherited the family’s West Wycombe properties, struck upon the idea of transforming the caves into a tourist attraction, advertising the tunnels as “The Hellfire Caves.”  Though ultimately successful, we hear some contemporary newspaper accounts voicing concerns by local residents and clerics about evil forces awakened from within the caves through these activities.

Our episode ends with a ghost story told of Francis Dashwood’s best friend and fellow Monk, Paul Whitehead, something involving removing Whitehead’s heart.

 

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Hellfire Clubs, Part One

Hellfire Clubs, Part One

The Hellfire Clubs of 18th-century Great Britain were gatherings of upper-class libertines dedicated to hedonism, blasphemous jests and taboo activities expressing a cultural and political opposition to the Church. They were also the subject of lurid rumor and legend.  In this episode and the next we attempt to tease out Hellfire Club fact from folklore.

We begin with a nod to the Hellfire Club of pop culture: a clip or two from a 1966 episode of the British espionage show, The Avengers,  which imagines a Hellfire Club recreated in swinging London.

As a bit of context to the discussion, we then consider 18th-century Britain’s mania for forming clubs and fraternal orders, including London’s Kit-Cat Club, Beefsteak Clubs, and the Calf’s Head Club, the last celebrating the execution of Charles I with stunts and feasts organized around a calf head representing that of beheaded monarch. We also take a moment to consider the “rake,”  (from the word “rakehell”) a distinctively 18th-century breed of aristocratic hell-raiser dedicating himself to womanizing, drinking, and gambling.  Hellfire Club members were drawn almost exclusively from this class.

Broadsheet representing London Hellfire Club ca 1721
Broadsheet representing London Hellfire Club ca 1721

History’s first Hellfire Club was founded sometime around 1720 by Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton.  His case seems to be one of the apple not falling far from the tree, as we hear of some outrageous incidents of church vandalism  in which is father, Tom Wharton, engaged.

While father and son shared anticlerical sentiments, young Philip’s rebellion against parental expectations allied him with the very Jacobites battled by his father, and resulted in a secret engagement to young girl beneath his class, as well as a stunt involving a bear cub.

Wharton’s connection to the Hellfire Club, (like what we know of the club itself) is extrapolated from rumors circulating in the popular press of the day.  We hear some examples of this, claims about “Holy Ghost Pie” blasphemy at taverns,  members serving diplomatic functions in hell, and the like.

However much the press tended to fictionalized the group, it was real enough to have drawn the ire of George I, who issued  an edict in 1721 against the formation and meeting of clubs dedicated to blasphemy.  Public opinion so strongly associated Wharton with such groups, that when the edict cae before the House of Lords (where he also served), he found it necessary to address the rumors, denying that they could apply to him, but at the same time voting against the measure.

Little mention was made of the Hellfire Club after this, and it seems Wharton redirected his interest to Freemasonry going on to become to Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England.  However, his obstreperous nature soon saw him booted from this organization. Thus inspired, he went on to found another order, the Gorgomons, one which instead of mocking the Church, ridiculed Freemasonry.  We hear a bit about that group from the text of organization a comical pamphlet illustrated by William Hogarth.

Dublin also was home to a Hellfire Club, founded in 1735 by Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, an English-born member of the gentry of Ireland.  More specifics are known in the case of this club, including core members (rakes all!) who are represented in a 1735 painting of the group meeting around a punch bowl.  The presumptive location of this scene would be The Eagle Tavern on Dublin’s Cork Hill, and the drink likely scaltheen, a milk-punch strongly associated with the club.

Dublin site
Montpelier lodge believed to have been used by Dublin club. Photo: Joe King

Because Parsons owned an old hunting lodge on Montpelier, a mountain on the outskirts of the city, it’s also commonly presumed the group gathered there.  While there’s no contemporary documentation confirming this, the romantic nature of the site all but demanded it be incorporated into the folklore. The building was in a state of partial ruin even in Parson’s day, and was constructed from stone quarried from an ancient pagan burial cairn on the hill.

We hear a few of the legends associated with Hellfire gatherings of Montpelier, including a longer tale of a devilish black cat related by Mrs. Karswell from the 1907 book, Sketches of Old Dublin.

The end of this Irish Hellfire Club seems to have had much to do with the vile reputation of a particular member, Henry Barry, 4th Baron of Santry.  We hear of the homicide charges leveled against him as well as of another murderous incident, which may be the stuff of legend.

We also hear of a sort of spiritual resurrection of Dublin’s club in 1771 under the ironic name, “The Holy Fathers.”  Despite the dark rumors swirling around this group, its founder, Buck Whaley was a popular character thanks to his larger-than-life adventures. We hear some tales of his extraordinary wagers and of the foolhardy journey that earned him the nickname, “Jerusalem Whaley.”

Though it’s not another Hellfire Club, we make a brief side trip to discuss, The Beggar’s Benison, an equally scandalous club —  and not just by 18th century standards.

Founded in 1732 in the Scottish town of Anstruther on the Firth of Forth, the Beggar’s Benison was a men’s fraternity obsessively devoted to sex, the sharing of erotic art and literature, dirty songs and toasts, and the presentation of frank lectures on sexual topics.  We hear the tale told of is legendary founding by a particularly rakish version of James V,  of the club’s rather shocking initiation rites, and of of the membership’s peculiar obsession with pubic hair.

We close with two tales detailing the ends of Philip Wharton of London’s Hellfire Club and Richard Parsons of Dublin — one tragic and the other comic.

Dublin Hellfire Club, James Worsdale, 1735

 


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Waxworks

Waxworks

The macabre feelings stirred by waxwork figures go far beyond their use in horror films, back to the Terror of the French Revolution, and beyond to their use as funeral effigies and in magic rites of popular Italian Catholicism and Roman-Etruscan witchcraft.

We begin with  a brief look at wax museums in horror cinema (going back to 1907).  The most famous example, 1953’s House of Wax, not only created Vincent Price as a horror actor, but pioneered the use of 3D.  It happened to be a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, coincidentally another technological pioneer thanks to the film’s use of Technicolor’s early 2-color process.  Offering a few more comments on horror films in this genre, we note some common themes: wax figures created over human remains, waxworks as uncanny, liminal presences, neither living nor dead (though being alive enough to kill you), and madness or death awaiting one who accepts the challenge to overnight in a wax museum.  All of these have historic roots reaching far beyond their cinematic iterations.

A final commonality is the presence of waxworks murderers and representations of historic villains and villainy, with a particular emphasis on the French Revolution.  Naturally, this brings us to a central figure in our story, Madame (Marie) Tussaud, whose name has become synonymous with waxworks.

Her story begins, however, not in France, but in Switzerland, where as a child she began assisting the wax modeler Philippe Curtius, whom her mother served as housekeeper.  Her move to France came when the Prince of Conti invited Curtius, his assistant and domestic to join an artistic circle he sponsored in Paris.

Through the Prince’s connections, Curtius and Tussaud entered elite circles, including the court at Versailles, this thanks to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, who sought out Tussaud as a mentor to help her create religious figurines in wax. When the Revolution broke out, Tussaud and Curtius were called upon to demonstrate anti-royalist sympathies by documenting the Revolution’s victories.  This meant crafting likenesses of heads that tumbled from the guillotine, to be carried on pikes or displayed on trophies. This could be particularly gruesome work given the empathy Tussaud had developed with contacts at the court, as we hear in a grim passage from Tussaud’s Memoirs, read by Mrs. Karswell.

Wax heads?
When Revolutionaries don’t have real heads, wax will do.

In 1804, when Tussaud accepted an invitation to display waxworks in London (and was later prevented from returning to France by the Napoleonic Wars), she brought with her Curtius’ concept of a discrete room dedicated to the infamous. His “Den of Thieves” became the “Chamber of Horrors” central to Tussaud’s fame in London and later the world.  The Victorian’s fascination with murder and executions discussed in our “Gallows” and “Gibbet” episodes was enthusiastically exploited by Tussaud, and we hear some amusing details and contemporary criticism of all this from the magazine Punch.

Tussaud was by no means to the first to display waxworks or even waxwork horrors in England. We have a look at some earlier innovators, including a “Mrs. Salmon” whose work illustrating some rather bizarre legends was shown on Fleet Street, a popular 18th/19th-century location for waxworks exhibitors once they had graduated from installing traveling displays at Fairs.

Charles Dickens gives us a taste of the life of traveling waxworks exhibitors in his 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which features and impresario named Mrs. Jarel clearly inspired by Tussaud.  We hear a passage from that and several more from an obscure 1896 non-fiction work containing a trove of information on the waxwork business in 19th-century England: Joe Smith and his Waxworks.  In particular, we hear more about the public’s hunger for murderers and how that is best accommodated.

Old Curiosity Shop
Mrs. Jarel schooling her waxworks apprentice in The Old Curiosity Shop

Our association of waxworks with the macabre also would seem to have to do with their historical use as funeral effigies. We have a look at the practice (dating to 1377) of crafting wax and wood stand-ins for England’s royal funerals and how their post-funeral display in the crypts of Westminster Cathedral by the 1800s had evolved into what might be considered England’s oldest wax museum. Along the way, we hear a strange anecdote of these wax monarchs showing up in the Piccadilly tube station and of similar effigies in France being treated like living humans in quite surprising ways.

Another forerunner of the wax museum can be found in Italian Catholicism, in particular, with the creation of votive offerings left at shrines to represent prayers that have been answered. A common form of these, representing relief from medical afflictions, are small wax models of the afflicted body part miraculously healed.  But wax arms, hearts, feet, and hands are only the beginning.  Full figures — wood and paper mâché bodies with wax heads and hands, and dressed in the wardrobe of the person commissioning the figure — once populated certain churches.

We discuss a few examples of this including the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation (the Annunziata) in Florence and The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace (Le Grazie) near the town of Mantua in Lombardy. The first no longer exhibits these figures but was described by a 16th century Dutch visitor as resembling “a field of cadavers.”  The second also features the taxidermied remains of a crocodile suspended over the sanctuary.

Le Grazie
Votive in Le Grazie: spared from execution! .

Scholars, including the art historian Aby Warburg, have commented on the similarity between these votive wax figures an figurines used in sympathetic magic. Illustrative of this: in Florence, when political tides changed, the removal of a disfavored person from the Annunziata would be referred to as a “killing.”

Connections with Etruscan magic, the source of magical practice and witchcraft belief in ancient Rome is also discussed in this context.  As are the Romans’ use of wax funeral masks representing the ancestors and a wax effigy created for the funeral for Julius Caesar, one which was partially mechanized and sported realistic wounds from his assassination. Perfect for a Chamber of Horrors!

We wrap up the show with a bit of later history on Madame Tussauds, a talking parrot, and a strange birthday party celebrated in 1969 by Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

 

 

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Books of cautionary stories for children were a popular Christmas gift in Victorian times. These tales of misbehaving children and the tragic consequences of their deeds, like the Krampus myth, served as not-so subtle reminders of parental expectations.

This episode consists mainly of readings by your host and Mrs. Karswell of these grim (and amusing) stories intended to be enjoyed along with a hot cup of cocoa, eggnog or the more dangerous adult concoctions of the season.

We begin with an example from Jane & Ann Taylor’s 1800 publication Original Poems for Infant Minds.  The Taylor sisters’ 1806 sequel to the book, Rhymes for the Nursery, happened to include a poem called “The Star,” providing the lyric to the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which we hear interpreted from a 2019 album called, naturally, Possessed Children: Creepy Nursery Rhymes.

From Taylor’s “Original Poems for Infant Minds”

We also hear a poem about a lad who embraces a hot poker as a toy, one from Elizabeth Turner’s 1807 collection The Daisy or, Cautionary Stories in Verse, adapted to Ideas of Children from Four to Eight Years Old 

Then we turn to the mother of all cautionary tales for children, known to many simply as “that scary German children’s book,” but actually titled Der Struwwelpeter, Merry Tales and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Written in 1854 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Der Struwwelpeter (“un-groomed Peter”) pairs charmingly awkward drawings executed by the writer himself with tales of children who play with matches, refuse to eat, suck their thumbs, torment animals, or commit other childish misdemeanors meet ghastly fates. 

Created for Hoffmann’s three-year old son as a Christmas gift, Der Struwwelpeter’s opening page identifies the book as one specifically to be given at Christmas, to well-behaved children exclusively. 

Struwwelpeter opening page

We hear a clip of this introductory poem set to music by the British punk-cabaret artists The Tiger Lillies, as part of their 1998 opera Shockheaded Peter.

Der Struwwelpeter went on to inspire all manner of imitations in Germany, England, and particularly in America.  We hear a few examples of these including one from the most famous volume inspired by this book, Max and Moritz, A Tale of Seven Boyish Pranks, written and illustrated in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch. 

 Our last author in this genre, one whose intent was actually to exaggerate and parody the pedantic tone of the Victorians was Hilaire Belloc, a friend of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.  His first book of this type, whimsically illustrated by his friend Basil T. Blackwood, was The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), followed a year later by More Beasts (for Worse Children). Longer, more dreadful stories appear in the verses of his 1907 book, Cautionary Tales for Children, Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years, from which we hear a number of fine examples.  Edward Gorey recognized a kindred spirit in the collection illustrating a version published posthumously in 2002.

Gorey illustration
Gorey illustration for Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales”

 

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

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)