Thursday, 27 November 2014

Sharkbait - snatched from the Jaws of Death, Sir Brook Watson (1735-1807), St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake

Worryingly the parish clerk at Mortlake was not sure if he was christening or burying the parishoners.
Brook Watson, was a wealthy and influential merchant who was an Alderman of London, an MP for the City for 9 years, Lord Mayor of London in 1786 and a director of the Bank of England. He was born in Plymouth in 1735, his father was a Hamburg merchant from Hull who according to some sources was unfortunate in business. He certainly left his son penniless and orphaned by the time he was nine and with no relatives in either Plymouth or Hull willing to take him in he was packed off to a distant relative called Levens who was living in Boston Massachusetts. By the age of 14 Brook has been sent to sea in a merchant vessel in which Levens owned an interest. It was whilst on this ship when visiting Cuba that the reckless young man decided to take a swim in Havana bay and was attacked by a shark. In later life Brook commissioned the American artist John Singleton Copley to commemorate the event in the celebrated painting ‘Watson and the Shark’ (now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington).

John Singleton Copley's celebrated recreation of the moment of Watson's rescue from the shark 

When Copley’s painting was shown at the Royal academy in 1778 it caused a sensation as can be seen in the following account from a contemporary newspaper:   

The following is the Narrative on which the very extraordinary Picture now exhibiting at the Royal Academy, painted by Mr. Copley and numbered 65, is founded:
BROOK WATSON, Esq; an eminent Merchant, now resident in the City of London, being at the Havana, when a Youth, in a Merchant-Ship, amusing himself one Day by swimming about it, whilst it lay at anchor, and being at the Distance of about two hundred Yards from it, the Men in the Boat, who were waiting for the Captain to go on shore, were struck with Horror on perceiving a Shark making towards him as his devoted Prey. The Monster was already too near him for the Youth to be timely apprized of his Danger; and the Sailors had the afflicting Sight of feeing him seized and precipitated down the Flood with his voracious Assailant, before they could put off to his Deliverance* They however hastened towards the Place, where they had disappeared, in anxious Expectation of seeing the Body rise. In about two Minutes they difference- covered the Body rife at about a hundred Yards Distance, but ere they could reach him, he was a second Time seized by the Shark and again sunk from their Sight. The Sailors now took the Precaution to place a man in the bow of the Boat, provided with a Hook to strike the Fish, should it appear within reach, and repeat its Attempt at seizing the Body. In less than two Minutes they discovered the Youth on the Surface of the Water, and the Monster still in eager Pursuit of him ; and at the very Instant he was about to be seized the third Time, the Shark was struck with the Boat- Hook, and driven from his Prey. This is the Moment the ingenious Artist has selected from the distressing Scene, and has given the affecting Incident the most animated Representation the Powers of the Pencil can bestow. Suffice it to say, in regard to the singular Fate of Mr. Watson, the Shark seized him both times by the right Leg ; in the first Attack, all the Flesh was stripped off the Bone from the Calf downwards; in the second, the Foot was divided from the Leg by the Ankle. By the Skill of the Surgeon, and the Aid of a good Habit of Body, after suffering an Amputation of the Limb a little below the Knee, the Youth, who was thus wonderfully and literally saved from the Jaws of Death, received a perfect cure in about three Months.


Sir Brook Watson in 1803
by Robert Deighton
Whilst the Cubans treated Brook and his damaged leg in hospital the merchant man on which he worked, sailed and left him stranded in Havana. Once he was well enough he managed to beg a passage back to Boston only to find that Levens had quit the place leaving him ‘friendless, penniless and a cripple’ as one account puts it. The landlady of the boarding house where he had lodged with Levens reluctantly put him up but immediately made arrangements get him off her hands by apprenticing him to a tailor. Luckily for Brook Captain John Huston of Nova Scotia was lodging at the house, took a liking to the spirited young man and offered him a place in his store in Chignecto. Canada at the time was divided between the English and French and there was constant tension between the settlers and the troops of the two nations that eventually erupted into open warfare. Brook soon showed himself able and intelligent and apparently barely handicapped by his missing leg. Working for Huston he became involved in victualing the British military and became a favourite of General Monckton the British commander. He soon demonstrated his bravery when a herd of British cattle crossed the river Missiquash at low tide and found themselves marooned at high tide on French held territory where they were likely to be impounded and lost forever. No one amongst the citizenry or soldiery was willing to risk crossing the river to try and get them back except one legged Brook. He stripped and swam across the river and, dressed just in his wet drawers, was rounding up the straying cattle to drive them back across the river when a party of French fusiliers appeared and demanding to know what he was doing on land belonging to the King of France. Hopping on his one good leg, dripping Brook told them that he had no business with the King of France or his land and his only concern was to take care of the English cattle. The admiring soldiers let Brook and the cattle return across the river unmolested.

Brook Watson in 1788 by
James Bretherton

In 1759, at the age of 24, Brook moved to London and set himself up as a Quebec merchant. He made himself hugely successful over the coming years and travelled frequently between Canada, America and London. He became one of the original committee of the Corporation of Lloyds of London in 1772 and served as chairman for 10 years. When unrest broke out in the colonies Brook remained firmly loyal to the British crown. It wasn’t always clear to those on the other side where his sympathies lay and the rebel William Dunlap called him a traitor and accused him of "ingratiated himself with many leading Americans, obtained as much information on their designs as he could, and transmitted it to his chosen masters." Returning from a trip to Canada in 1775 he was entrusted with the care of the rebel Ethan Allen who had been taken prisoner leading an American attempt to seize Montreal. Allen later wrote bitterly that he was “was put under the power of an English Merchant from London, whose name was Brook Watson: a man of malicious and cruel disposition, and who was probably excited, in the exercise of his malevolence, by a junto of Tories, who sailed with him to England ..."

Brook served as Commissary General to the army based in North America and commanded by Sir Guy Carleton in the 1780’s. When he returned to London he embarked on a political career that was to occupy him until his death, first as an Alderman, then as an MP and senior Government functionary. He had married Helen Campbell in 1760 but the couple had no children and when he died in 1807 there was no one to inherit the baronetcy he had been granted in 1803 for services rendered to his country. The title passed to his grand nephew by special remainder and his wife was granted a £500 annual pension by a grateful government. Debrett’s describes the crest of Brook’s coat of arms “Issuant from waves, a demi Neptune proper, crowned Or, mantled Vert, the dexter arm elevated, the hand grasping a trident Or in the attitude of striking, the sinister arm supporting a shield Argent, repelling a shark in the act of seizing its prey proper.” And on the shield itself the lower leg that Brook lost in Havana harbour over 50 years previously is represented by “a canton Azure charged with a human leg erect and erased below the knee proper.”

Brook Watson's coat of arms with his severed leg and Neptune defending him against a shark
 

Friday, 21 November 2014

The poet, the muse and the abortionist; Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery & Adelaide Foltinowicz (1878-1904)



When fin de siècle poet Ernest Dowson died Oscar Wilde wrote "poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was… I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was." When I called on him in Ladywell Cemetery only dandelions, ragwort and thistles were choking his rather modest grave. The memorial was restored in 2010 after a facebook campaign – the vase that would have topped the pedestal originally  was missing but a new stone was added at the foot of the grave inscribed with two stanzas from one of his best known poems:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Dowson was born at Lee in Kent in 1867, the son of Alfred Dowson, the owner of a dry dock at Limehouse but also the friend of Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Due to delicate health he had an irregular education which included 5 terms at Queens College , Oxford which he left in 1888 without taking a degree. For the next few years he combined working as a supervisor in the dry dock with writing poetry and immersing himself in the London literary scene. His poetry was, according to T.S. Eliot, the product of the most gifted and technically perfect poet of his age. On the literary scene he knew Oscar Wilde (to whom, unlike many, he stayed loyal after his trial and imprisonment), W.B. Yeats, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley and Paul Verlaine. As well as poetry he translated many French novels including Zola’s La terre and Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses. The memoirs of his friends painted Dowson as an archetypal  poète maudit of the fin de siècle, smoking hashish, swilling absinthe and roistering with professional ladies. In his Autobiographies Yeat’s said of him ‘sober he looked on no woman, drunk he picked up the cheapest whore.’ Ezra Pound, who only knew him by reputation wrote in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley thatDowson found tarts cheaper than Hotels.” Dowson himself didn’t help matters with remarks in private letters like “absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.”



In 1895 Dowson’s father died of an overdose of a sleeping draught of choral hydrate. The circumstances in which he died were ambiguous and many thought he had committed suicide. Six months later his mother left no room for doubt when she hung herself at the family home. Dowson was soon struggling to run the dry dock which he left in the hands of the family solicitors. They were extremely parsimonious with any money the business was making and Dowson found himself in financial difficulties and on a downward spiral of drink, poverty and ill health. In early 1900 the writer R.H. Sherard was drinking in the Bodega in Bedford Street when Dowson tapped him on the shoulder. Of late Dowson had generally been unkempt and scruffy but Sherard was startled at how ill he looked “it was if a being from the grave were standing by my side” he wrote later. Dowson told him a story of being driven from his sick bed by his landlord’s threats and demands for money. Sherard took him home to the upstairs half of a modest terraced house in Catford where he was living with his aristocratic wife Marthe whilst researching one of the journalistic exposes for which he was famous (published in 1901 as The Cry of the Poor). Dowson lived with Sherard for six weeks before dying in Marthe’s arms on 23 February. The funeral was held on 27 February and was described in a note by Herbert Horne one of his friends:

The Mass was said at the Catholic chuch in Lewisham, at 11 o’clock, and the body afterwards interred in Ladywell Cemetery in a triangular plot of ground just beyond the two chapels, which had recently been reserved for Catholics. The coffin-plate was inscribed: Ernest Christopher Dowson, Died 23 February 1900, aged 32 years. Beside his uncle, Mr Hoole, & a few relatives, Moore who collaborated with him, Sherard at whose house at Lewisham he died, & his wife, Jephson, Teixeira de Mattos, Mrs Plarr, Bennett, Swanton, Pawle & another actor friend & myself were present.



Dowson as sketched by Charles Edward Conder in the late 1890's.

Most definitely not present at the funeral was the woman Dowson had loved for over a decade, Ellen Adelaide Foltinowicz. Dowson first mentions Adelaide in a letter to his friend Alan Moore dated 7 November 1889; “I am dining to-night with Samuel at a Polish Pot au Feu in Sherwood St, Glasshouse St. Soho. I discovered it. It is cheap; the cuisine is fair; I am the whole clientele, and there is a little Polish demoiselle therein…..whom it is a pleasure to sit & look at.” The Polish demoiselle was 11 years at the time of this first meeting. Over the next two years after a day at the dry dock Dowson adopted a routine of starting his evenings in the Cock Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue with a glass or two of absinthe where he would jot verses on scraps of paper or meet friends.  At seven he would go to ‘Poland’ to dine where he would linger on after eating until the rest of the clientele, mainly Polish and French workmen, had gone. Once the restaurant was quiet Adelaide would join him at his table and they would chat or play cards until her mother called her to bed at 10 o’clock. Adelaide’s parents do not seem to have been alarmed by Dowson’s interest in their daughter. His feelings for the intelligent and vivacious girl gradually deepened but he was aware that his behaviour might be misinterpreted. In August 1891 the newspapers were filled with the grim details of the abduction of the 16 year old Lucy Pearson. Dowson’s reaction to the story was repugnance and horror “this beastly thing has left a sort of slimy trail over my holy places” he wrote to Alan Moore. Mistrust of Dowson’s motives is probably even stronger today than it was in the 1890’s.  Bernard Richards, in his entry for Dowson in the Dictionary of National Biography states that he “regarded his unsatisfied love” for Adelaide “as something like Keats's for Fanny Brawne. Through the letters and poetry there runs a strong current of paedophilia, which has an erotic strain; but it is tempered by a humane and romantic appreciation of the freshness and generosity of children not yet tainted by the manners of society.”

Dowson certainly developed strong romantic feelings for Adelaide which continued as she grew and lasted until his death. Some of his most famous poetry was directly inspired by his unrequited love.  In 1893 Adelaide’s father became ill; worried that he would lose her forever with the death of the father and the inevitable changes to the Foltinowicz household that would follow Dowson blurted out a proposal to the 15 year old. She said she was too young and could not even think about it whilst her father lay dying. The matter was never raised between them again. Dowson continued in his devotion even when she became engaged to another man, Augustus Noelte, a tailor who had once worked in her father’s restaurant. At the beginning of 1897 took a room above the restaurant in Sherwood Street to be close to Adelaide. She married Noelte on September 30 that year at the Bavarian Chapel in Westminster. Dowson could not bear to be there but he ensured that the ever dependable Alan Moore attended on his behalf and gave the happy couple his present. The Noelte’s moved to 30 Comeragh Road near Hammersmith and had two children, Bertha and Amelia born in 1899 and 1900 respectively. Adelaide’s mother, who was living with them, died in 1900 and the couple moved back to Sherwood Street soon after. She seems to have lost contact with Dowson by the time of his death in Catford.

 

Bromley Road, Catford in 1895 with St Laurence's church in the distance

Adelaide died three years after Dowson at the age of 25 on 13 December 1903. The cause of death was septicaemia due to an abortion carried out in June. She had never recovered from the procedure and must have suffered immensely over the six months it took her to die. Following an inquest into her death, a woman called Bertha Baudach, was arrested in January and charged with manslaughter. The Cheltenham Chronicle of 23 January 1904 carries the following account of her arrest:

Bertha Baudach, a German woman, living in Drumrig Street, Euston-Road, was charged at Marlborough-street Thursday, under warrant issued the 6th instancet. Mr. Troutbeck for Westminster, with the manslaughter of Adelaide Ellen a young woman, 19 Sherwood-street, W1, by means of an illegal operation. Detective Sargeant Clarke, of the C Division, deposed that on Wednesday evening, with Sergt. McArthur and another officer he went to 2 Euston-square, and there saw the prisoner in a back room on the ground floor, concealed behind some clothing hanging on the door. He explained why he was there, and told her she would be accused of manslaughter. She refused to leave her hiding-place, and when dragged from beneath the clothes struggled violently for about ten minutes with the three officers. An effort was made to read the coroner's warrant to her, but that could not be done, as she continued her violence. Eventually she had to be carried to a cab waiting outside, and was driven Vine-street. During the struggle she exclaimed, "Kill me! Let me die now. I would rather die than go with you and go through what I have been through before!" When the warrant was read she answered, ''All right. I have been to Bant, in Germany, and only came back yesterday." During the struggle a wig she wore with a view to disguising herself came off. The magistrate directed a remand.

Bertha had form. In 1894 she had had a narrow escape when she and another woman, Louisa Greenleaf, appeared at the North London Police Court charged with causing thedeath of Mary Jane Keen by performing an illegal operation at Bertha’s house in the Ball’s Pond Road. On their solicitors advice neither woman gave evidence and they were acquitted when the medical witnesses said they could not find any evidence that an abortion had been performed. The following year Bertha was back in court and this time she was not so lucky. This time the forty five year old was charged, along with Otto Huster (38) with ‘feloniously using a certain instrument with intent to procure the miscarriage of one Martha Elizabeth Cole.’ Martha Cole did not die but Bertha was found guilty and sentenced to five years penal servitude. Huster was given 12 months hard labour.

In March 1904 Bertha was charged with the manslaughter of Adelaide Noelte at the Central Criminal Court. There are few details of the case in the official ‘Proceedings of the Old Bailey’ apart from the names of the accused, the victim, the judge and the counsel for the prosecution and the defence. Instead there is a terse one line description “the case being one of causing abortion, the evidence is unfit for publication.” There had been some suspicion, according to a slightly fuller account of the trial in the News of the World, of a Joseph Kaiser who boarded with the Noelte’s, who helped nurse Adelaide once became sick and often gave her her medicine but there was not enough evidence to charge him. Bertha was found guilty of causing Adelaide’s death and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.


Late Victorian satirical postcard
 

Friday, 14 November 2014

As I wend my way to heaven I'll be full of Cherry Pie; David Jersey (1697-1755), St. Mary Magdalene, East Ham



The epitaph on the grave reads:
Here lieth the body of
David Jersey
Victualler of the Parish of
Wanstead who departed this
life 1 May 1755 Aged 68 years.
Also 4 Daughters of above
who all died young
Likewise here lieth beneath the body
of Ann Jersey, wife of the above  


David Jersey of East Ham married Anne Garrin of Barking at St Stephens, Coleman Street in the City of London on 6 July 1721. David Jersey, victualler, was the landlord of the George and Dragon a coaching Inn originally built in 1716 and serving as a staging post between the daily coach from Aldgate and the Essex coaches. Apart from what is recorded on his epitaph and in the marriage register at St Stephens we know very little about him.


One intriguing remnant of his life still remains in Wanstead. The coaching inn was demolished and rebuilt in 1903 and the name shortened to the George. Nothing remains of the old Inn except an old inscribed stone dated 1752 which was rescued and set into the wall of the new building. The stone is a memorial to a cherry pie that cost half a guinea (10s6d) on the 17 July “that day we had good cheer/ I hope to so do maney a Year.” Local legend has it that the stone commemorates a cherry pie stolen by a local workman who was fined half a guinea for his crime. As the minimum sentence for stealing a pie in 1752 was hanging or lifetime transportation to Van Diemen’s Land the story seems unlikely to be true. Another theory is that it may commemorate a monster pie festival similar to the Tollesbury Gooseberry Pie festival – Wanstead was famous for its cherry orchards in the eighteenth century.  But no one really knows why David Jersey wanted to immortalise a very expensive Cherry Pie.  

The memorial stone from 'The Old Inns of England Vol II' by Charles G. Harper (1906)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Reanimated, the shocking fate of George Foster (1769-1803)

The parish register from St Andrew's Holborn showing the baptism of baby Louisa Foster 

There were two baptisms at St Andrew’s, Holborn on 12 March 1802, both of them workhouse babies, from the parish workhouse on Gray’s Inn Lane.  Mary Beauchamp christened her son George, no father was present or recorded, and George and Jane Foster had their infant daughter Louisa baptised.  Louisa was the Foster’s fourth child; one had died in infancy and the other two had, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned in the Barnet workhouse. George Foster according to his employer, coachmaker James Bushwell, was “one of the most diligent men he had ever employed.”  In the harsh economic conditions at the start of the nineteenth century his diligence earned him 24 shillings a week in summer and 21 a week in winter but this was not enough to enable him to support his own children or to secure a regular place of residence. When not in the workhouse George Foster lodged, without his wife and children, in a house in North Row, Grosvenor Square though he often only slept there one or two nights a week. Jane Foster lodged with her mother when she could, in Old Boswell Court. George’s landlord did not feel that man and wife were on particularly good terms because Jane wanted the family to live together and George was not keen. George told one of his workmates that he “was determined not to live with her any more.” She often called at North Row looking for George and wanting money from him. Perhaps alcohol contributed to the families unsettled lifestyle; there is some evidence from their last day together that drink may well have played its part. Less than a year after the christening at St Andrews, George, Jane and baby Louisa were all dead.


Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'
On Monday morning 6 December John Atkins, a boatman on the Regents Canal, made a harrowing discovery, the ice covered body of a drowned baby had somehow wedged itself under the bow of his barge. He promptly informed the authorities and Sir Richard Ford, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street and so effectively London’s police chief, instructed him to drag the canal looking for further bodies. It took three days to find the corpse of a woman “close by the window of the Mitre Tavern” entangled in a submerged bush. The landlady and waiter of the Mitre both recognised the body as a customer from the previous Sunday afternoon who had drunk rum and porter in the company of a unknown man. No further bodies were discovered and George Foster was not taken into custody until after Christmas. He was interrogated by Sir Richard Ford himself and made the following statement:


The Mitre Tavern, opposite Wormwood Scrubs on the Regents Canal

‘My wife and child came to me on Saturday se’nnight, about eight o’clock in the evening, and slept at my lodgings that night. The next morning, about nine or ten o’clock, I went out with them, and walked to the New Cut at Paddington; we went to the Mitre tavern, and had some rum, some porter, and some bread and cheese. Before that we had stopped at a public house near the first bridge, where we had some beefsteaks and some porter; after which she desired me to walk further on by the cut, so I went with her. I left her directly I came out of the Mitre tavern, which was about three o’clock, and made the best of my way to Whetstone, in order to go to Barnet, to see two of my children, who are in the workhouse there. I went by the bye lanes, and was about an hour and a half walking from the Mitre to Whetstone. When I got there, I found it so dark that I would not go on to Barnet, but came home that night. I have not seen my wife nor child since; I have not enquired after them, but I meant to have done so to-morrow evening, at Mrs. Hobart’s. -- I came home from Whetstone that evening between seven and eight o’clock; I saw no person in going to Whetstone; nor did I stop any where, at any public house, or elsewhere, except the Green Dragon, at Highgate, where I had a glass of rum. My wife had a black gown on, and a black bonnet; the child had a straw bonnet, and white bed gown. My wife was a little in liquor.’

A Coroner's jury delivered a verdict of accidental death on Jane and Louisa Foster and George Hodgson, the Middlesex Coroner, later testified that he had viewed the bodies and had them examined by a surgeon and that on neither had either observed any sign of violence. Despite this George’s story was not believed either by Sir Richard Ford and he was charged with the murder of his wife and child. At the trial at the Old Bailey there were hints that Jane Foster may have taken her own life. The landlady of the Mitre reported that her parting remark on quitting the tavern had been “this is the last time I shall come here,” though she said this was not said despondently but more in a huff. Another witness, Sarah Goring in whose house the Fosters had lodged four years previously was asked if Jane Foster has “ever said any thing to you respecting her inclination or disinclination to remain in this world?” No she said, adding “I was very much surprised to hear she was in the work-house, because he was a very tender husband and a good father.” George’s employer and four other witnesses gave him a good character but his story of walking to Whetstone, more than 9 miles away from the Mitre tavern, in an hour and a half and of walking almost 20 miles in a little over three hours, was not credible. And why would he be lying? The only possible reason as far as the jury were concerned was to hide his guilt. They found him guilty as charged and he was condemned to hang and his body to be handed to the surgeons for dissection.

A hastily put together report by the Recorder of London recorded grounds for clemency in evidence not produced at the trial. The Rev. William Agutter, Chaplain of the asylum for Female Orphans in St George’s Fields, had written a letter to the Recorder “regarding a long consultation with Ann Arnold who was friendly with the dead woman. Arnold stated that Mrs Foster had parted from her husband and had gone into the workhouse. Mrs Foster and the child had since left the workhouse and were destitute. Arnold had told Mrs Foster to leave the child at the workhouse and obtain a nursing position, but she would not as the children 'were used so very ill.' Mrs Foster is stated to have said "If we die, we die together," and that "if something was not done for her she would put an End to her Misery." Eleanor Deker, who had met Mrs Foster at Arnolds, confirmed this statement and they both thought that 'Some mischief' would happen to Mrs Foster.”
Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'

In the week that George Foster went on trial Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani was astonishing polite London society with his demonstrations of the power of electricity. On 6 January 1803 the Morning Post reported:

Dr. Aldini, now in London, lately exhibited at the house of Mr. Hunter, some curious experiments on the body' of a dog newly killed, by which the company then present were exceedingly astonished by the powers of Galvanism. The head of the animal was cut off. The head and body were put beside each other, on a table previously rubbed with a solution of ammonia. Two wires communicating with the Galvanic trough, were then applied, the one in the ear, the other at the anus of the dead animal. No sooner had those applications been made, than both head and body were thrown into the most animated muscular motions. The body started up with a movement by which it passed over the side of the table. The head equally moved; its lips and teeth grinning violently. A curiosity has been expressed to have these experiments tried on a criminal newly executed. Dr. Aldini has communicated his discoveries, in an ingenious paper, to the Royal Society. He is soon to publish an English work on this subject.   

George Foster was soon to satisfy the curiosity to have the dead dog experiments carried out on a human being. Since his trial he had ‘he had scarcely taken the smallest nourishment’ and had been so troubled by his conscience that he had made a full confession to his crime and in response to questions would only say that “I ought to die.”  On 18 January at three minutes to eight in the morning he was brought out from Newgate wearing the same brown greatcoat and red waistcoat that he had worn through his trial and walked to the scaffold standing outside the debtors door at the Old Bailey. According to the Newgate Calendar after “passing a short time in prayer with Dr Ford, the ordinary of Newgate, the cap was pulled over his eyes, when the stage falling from under him, he was launched into eternity.” The calendar also reports that he ‘died very easy’ with the help of his friends who had stood beneath the scaffold with the express purpose of pulling on his legs to break his neck and cutting short his sufferings. What happened next was reported in full in the Morning Post of 22 January:

The body of Forster, who was executed on Monday last for murder, was conveyed to a house not far distant, where it was subjected to the Galvanic Process, by Professor Aldini, under the inspection of Mr. Keate, Mr. Carpue, and several other Professional Gentlemen. M. Aldini, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, shewed the eminent and superior powers of Galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eve was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life. This, however, was impossible, as several of his friends who were near the scaffold had violently pulled his legs, in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings. The experiment, in fact, was of a better use and tendency. Its object was to shew the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby re-kindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of Galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men, that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of great, and perhaps, as yet unforeseen utility.
Giovanni Aldini by William Brockedon (1830) in the National Portrait Gallery

Later rumour had it that the raised right arm and clenched fist had connected with the nose of Mr Pass the Beadle of Surgeons Hall who suffered such a fright that he returned home and died the same night. Aldini’s grisly but theatrical demonstrations were a great success though not everyone was impressed. The American Thomas G. Fessenden who was in London at the time wrote, under the pseudonym Dr Christopher Caustic, the “Terrible Tractoration: A Poetical Petition Against Galvanising Trumpery, and the Perkinistic Institution. Addressed to the Royal College of Physicians.” This includes the following lines about Aldini:

For he, ‘tis told In public papers,
Can make dead people cut droll capers
And shuffling off death's iron trammels,
To kick and hop like dancing camels !

To raise a dead dog he was able,
Though laid in quarters on a table;
And led him yelping, round the town,
With two legs up, and two legs down!
……..
And this most comical magician
Will soon, in public exhibition,
Perform a feat he's often boasted,
And animate a dead pig roasted!

With powers of these Metallic Tractors;
He can revive dead malefactors;
And is reanimating, daily,
Rogues that were hung once, at Old Bailey!

And sure I am he'll break the peace,
Unless secured by our police;
For such a chap, as you're alive,
Full many a felon will revive.

And as he can, no doubt of that,
Give rogues the nine lives of a cat;
Why then, to expiate their crimes,
These rogues must all be hung nine times!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The pills that cured all ills; James Morison the Hygeist (1770-1840), Kensal Green Cemetery


“One of the most remarkable mausoleums....... in Kensal Green is the tomb of James Morison the Hygeist; this the originator of the famed Morison's Pills medicine that was recommended with an assurance and hardihood that commanded success and riches. If the first dose failed the second was to be an increased quantum and the third a farther increase, and so on adding to the until the illness ceased - and cease it infallibly would one way or the other. I forgot how many men Mr Morison constantly employed in the manufacture of these pills;  they were, or are, in demand by this enlightened people by wagon loads These things always find their way across the Atlantic. In England a quack never fails unless he is untrue to himself, that is, if he be not sufficiently outrageous in his professions; let him promise and persevere in promising the impossible - let him screw his courage to that point and he’ll not fail; the yearly sum in advertisements alone by some of those venders of nostrums (the value of which they assert, and truly, is unknown and incredible) must be immense.
It seemed to me very bad policy to erect a monument at all to Mr Morison especially in this open manner; it should have been left to the public to believe, as they will believe anything, that his pills would ensure him an age running pretty considerably into another century.”
Henry Wood – ‘Change for the American Notes in Letters from London to New York by an American Lady.’ (1843)




Now almost completely forgotten James Morison was once a household name thanks to his Universal Vegetable Pills Nº1 and Nº2. The son of a Scottish laird from Bognie in Aberdeenshire, Morison studied at the University of Aberdeen and then trained for a commercial career at Hanau in Germany. At the end of his studies he lived and worked in Riga and then moved to the West Indies as a wine and spirit merchant. The tropics did not agree with him and after making a fortune he moved to Bordeaux where he met and married Anne Victoire, a Baron’s daughter from Alsace-Lorraine, at the relatively late age of forty. The couple had 5 children, 3 sons and 2 daughters. He seems to have gradually whittled away at his West Indian fortune and eventually had to return to Scotland. When he came to write ‘A Biographical Sketch of James Morison, the Hygeist, with the reasons that led him to the discovery of The Hygeian System of Medicine and The “Vegetable Universal Medicines”’ his successful mercantile career and successful family life was somewhat glossed over in favour of a self portrait which concentrated on “35 years of inexpressible suffering under the Medical Faculty.” At the age of 51 Morison summarised his life as “year after year struggling with disease, my speedy dissolution was often looked for, - my meridian of life passed - the powers and energy of life fast subsiding - my faculties impairing and sight becoming dim. I was fast descending to the grave….” and all because of constipation. For Morison all of life’s ills could be traced back to costiveness and the resultant poisoning of the blood that it caused.

In Aberdeen Morison experimented with various vegetable and chemical extracts and produced a pill which cured him of his chronic constipation. In 1825 be began to market his Universal Vegetable Pills in England. In 1828 he went into business with Thomas Moat a businessman from Devon and the two opened a grandiose building in the Euston Road to house The British College of Health, an organisation which dedicated itself to spreading the Hygeist philosophy and selling Morison’s Nº1 and Nº 2 pills. Morison detested the medical establishment and they loathed him in return. His pills were sold through a network of agents who were generally tobacconists, grocers and stationers rather than chemists or druggists. They were hugely successful – sales are estimated to have been worth a colossal £100,000 a year in the early 1830’s.


The Hygeists view of the meical profession; three learned medical men portrayed as the witches from Macbeth with Death waiting at the door
However things soon started to go wrong. In July 1834 Joseph Webb, proprietor of the London Coffeehouse in York and agent for Morison’s Vegetable Pills was indicted at York assizes for the manslaughter of a linen drapers  apprentice, Richard Richardson. The deceased had fallen ill on a Tuesday and been treated by Webb with large quantities of Morison’s Pill’s. By Saturday afternoon he was dead. A doctor had been called on the Saturday morning and he testified that in his opinion the deceased had died of small pox but that death had been accelerated by the use of Morison’s pills. No one quite knew what to make of a manslaughter case where the victim would have died anyway – after much legal argument the perplexed jury brought in a verdict of guilty against Webb but with a recommendation of mercy. 
This was followed in April 1836 by a case heard at the Old Bailey. Robert Salmon of Farringdon Street, London, tobacconist and agent for Morison’s Pills, was found guilty for the manslaughter of John Mackenzie, master mariner of Ratcliffe who had taken 75 Morison Pills in the 24 hours before he died.  And then a few months later in August of the same year an inquest was held in Hull into the death of Mary Rebecca Russell of Collier Street. She was “not an ailing woman” according to her husband though she did suffer occasionally from the ‘windy dropsy’.  It was a result of stomach pains and fever brought on by gravel and windy dropsy that she had taken 6 of Morison’s Nº 2 pills the previous week. As there was no improvement her husband sent for the local Morison agent, a Mr Thomas La Mott, who prescribed six Nº 1 pills to be followed that night by eight Nº 2’s As there was no improvement in the following days La Mott prescribed escalating quantities of pills until Mrs Russell was taking 80 pills a day. After just over a week on this regimen the concerned husband called a local surgeon who bled her, applied mustard plasters to her legs, shaved her head and smeared “stimulating lineament on the shaven part” and finally applied a blister. All to no avail; Mrs Russell died.  The attending surgeon and the surgeon who carried out the autopsy on Mrs Russell both concurred that death had been caused by the overdosing of Morison’s Pills and the jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter against Thomas La Mott.
"The Singular Effects of the Universal Vegetable Pill."
A greengrocer finds himself in an interesting condition
after a large dose of Morison's Pills. A contemporary satire. 
These much publicised cases rocked the public’s confidence in Morison’s Pills but Morison fought back against his critics taking out adverts in the papers to defend his agents, and paying their fines when they were convicted. In February 1837 he sued the editor and proprietor of the Weekly Despatch newspaper for libel after they alleged that the famous Vegetable Pills were noxious and poisonous and claimed that after the trial of Robert Salmon sales of the pills had plummeted to the point that Morison could no longer carry on his business and that the workmen at the pill factory had been forced to take strike action in order to receive their wages. They also claimed that Morison had been forced to flee the country. It was true that the Hygeist had moved to Paris in 1834 taking with him his second wife Clarinda and their young son and leaving his adult sons from his first marriage to look after the business. At a time when a murder trial could still be despatched in an afternoon the libel trial took three whole days during which time the court was packed with spectators. Morison’s barrister, Mr Kelly, opened his case by telling the jury that his clients “cared not what attacks were made upon, or misrepresentations were advanced relative to their medicines; but they complained of the insinuation ….. that they were in a state of insolvency—on that part, at all events, the verdict must be for the plaintiffs.”
Acting for the defendants Mr Serjeant Wilde spoke of his surprise “his learned friend had not called some witnesses to show the efficacy the pills.” According to newspaper reports the “learned Serjeant then proceeded to state that several deaths had taken place through the administration of these pills. Could the jury believe that any medicine could made that would be equally good for the infant in arms and for the decrepitude of age? The libel called the plaintiffs impudent scamps, and could any person who made such statements be otherwise described? They advised the pills to be given to the child at the mother's breast, and if the poor infant became worse, they said—‘You know the reason; you have not given a sufficient quantity of pills,’ and they forced the pills down the throats of their victims until death relieved them from their sufferings. How did the plaintiffs describe their medicine? They said it was good for the small-pox, rupture, piles, the cholera, dropsy, and every other disorder which the human frame was subject.” Witnesses were called from the Webb and Salmon trials to retell their stories. Mr Kelly countered by producing various obscure surgeons who testified to being users of Morison’s Vegetable Pills and who swore to the efficacy of the medicine.  The court took a particular interest in the purgative effects of the pills and witnesses were called on to give accounts of their bowel movements much to the hilarity of the crowded and boisterous public gallery. Kelly even managed to find one witness, a Mr Pearce, who told the court that he calculated that he had taken as many as 18,000 Morison’s Nº 1’s and Nº 2’s in the previous two years with no ill effects whatsoever. The Chief Justice enquired how much 18,000 pills had cost him and the witness responded about “£22…..and he thought them well worth the money.” The jury were not convinced. They retired at 6.30pm and at 8.15 returned to give their verdict: they found for the defendant on the first part of the libel “as to the deleterious nature of the pills,” and for the plaintiff “for the imputation of insolvency.” They awarded Morison £200 damages.

"Massa Doctor, you tink I get more wite for taking you pills?" 
"Decidedly Sir! about two thousand boxes will without doubt render you as white as a lily." 
Another contemporary satire.
Morison died at his home in Paris, 3 rue des Pyramides, on 3 May 1840. His body was brought back to England to be interred in his splendid mausoleum in Kensal Green. If there was ever any inscription on the mausoleum it has been either effaced or removed and there is nothing to indicate who lies inside. The Universal Vegetable Pill continued to sell strongly – in the decade after Morison’s death 828 million pills were sold and a further 1.5 million given away to the poor. The international reach of the business is shown by pill advertisements being produced in Chinese and Arabic as well as most European languages. In 1925 when the company celebrated its centenary it was still a family firm being run by a descendant of Morison’s.