I have a confession. I’ve been seeing another blog. Wait! I can explain!
Remember how last week I had Osama Bin Laden and some lovely academics in Leicester to thank for my return to blogging. Well I’ve been writing for them – the academics that is and they are all part of the University of Leicester’s brilliant Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse project.¹
I was fortunate enough to meet one of the team, Emma Battell Lowman, at the fascinating Corpses, Cadavers and Catalogues conference in London (beat that for a conference title). We bonded over a fascination with William Jobling of all things (the subject of last week’s blog for any newcomers). To cut a long story short, to my amazement I got invited to write for their project blog and meet the team. So it was, a few weeks ago, that I found myself racing down to Leicester in a rented Fiat 500 (of which more later) and racking my brains for all things gibbet and dissection related.
I had a fascinating few hours talking all things dissection and gibbeting with Drs Sarah Tarlow, Elizabeth Hurren and Emma Battell Lowman (3 members from a Project team of 11) all of whose work has been immensely helpful in my PhD. But the highlight was that they said they enjoyed my blog. I was genuinely bowled over by that. When I started, 2 and a 1/2 years ago, the thought that very well thought of academics would enjoy reading my ramblings would have blown my mind. So, I would like to say a very personal thanks to them and to others reading who very kindly got in touch to welcome me back to the blogging game after last weeks effort. It has had the duel effect of shocking me out of my 3 month stasis/writers block. So, if the blogs since my return have been awful, then you know who you have to blame!
Whilst I was down in Leicester I decided to make the most of my trip by exploring its dark criminal past. Given the subject of last weeks blog, I couldn’t have chosen a more apt location.
At the time of William Jobling’s gibbeting at Jarrow in August 1832 the punishment was almost unheard of, having fallen largely into disuse in the preceding decades. Indeed,many contemporary reports wrongly attributed his sentence as having been brought back specifically for his case. In fact, the punishment had remained in place all along. In truth, its alternative (dissection) had been the far more popular option for the authorities owing to its lesser cost, an increasing public abhorrence against public spectacles of violence on the body and a medical profession in dire need of bodies for anatomical instruction. However, despite the rarity of Jobling’s sentence and resultant gibbeting, his was not the last in the country. It was the penultimate. The ignominious prize of the last man gibbeted in England went to a man named James Cook and he was hanged and gibbeted at…yes you’ve guessed it….Leicester. Bloody Leicester win everything these days!
There are many remarkable details in the crime and execution of James Cook, but perhaps chief amongst them is how short a time his gibbet stood for. Indeed, in the short period Jobling’s gibbet stood on Jarrow Slake (just under four weeks), Cook was tried, sentenced, gibbeted and his gibbet removed. We will return to why later, but first it is important to get some details of the crime.
Before I begin I should mention that Cook’s crime is not one for the faint hearted so consider this your NSFW warning!
Cook, 21, was a bookbinder who had recently taken on the business of his deceased master and was working out of a yard on Wellington Street in Leicester (given what unfolds previous readers of the blog may be wondering if he was partial to a bit of Anthropodermic bibliopegy). One of his suppliers was a Mr Paas, a London based
“manufacturer of such brass instruments as are used by bookbinders.”
Cook was clearly struggling to cover his outgoings as he had ordered goods to the extent of 20l from Mr Paas and missed his credit repayment window.
(£20 -in 1830, £20 would have the same spending worth of 2005’s £989.80
The National Archives, “Currency Converter,” accessed October 5, 2016, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/results.asp#mid.
Paas wrote to Cook informing him he would be visiting Leicester in the forthcoming days and expected to collect his debt then. But Paas was to get far more than he bargained for on his trip North.
Paas arrived in Leicester on the 30th May, 1832. His first attempt to visit Cook’s premises had proved fruitless, but Paas planned to return the same evening. It was during this visit that Cook murdered Pass in a most brutal fashion. The nature of the offence combined with his attempts to cover it up and a legal blunder that let him temporarily escape, meant the crime
befitted the most imaginative of Victorian mellowdramas.
Ben Beazley, Leicester Murders (The History Press, 2012).
On the night of the 30th, Cook was seen attending a large fire in his workspace all through the night, stopping briefly to go for a drink at the Flying Horse Pub. He often used fires for his binding work and so his behaviour attracted little attention, save that he stayed up so late.
However, the following evening neighbours noticed what they thought was a fire in the workyard and one Mr Timson rushed to enter the premises.
*Here’s where people having a light lunch read may want to return to their Boots Meal deal.*
On entering the premises Mr Timson found that there was indeed a fire and it
extended far beyond its usual bounds, and a large piece of flesh was on the top of it burning.
Now, you may have cottoned on already as to the owner of the flesh, but for the sake of brevity I will skip somewhat down the timeline (the various machinations of Cook’s eventual recovery are utterly fascinating though and can be found in numerous places, for a detailed account see here).
Further investigations at the workyard a few days later led to the following grisly discovery,
In the chimney of his workshop was found all that remained unburnt or unscorched of the body of the unfortunate Mr. Paas. Two thighs and a leg, separated from each other and from the main trunk of the body apparently with great determination by a knife and a saw, were found suspended from a nail by a cord, in the chimney, about a yard and a half above the fireplace, evidently awaiting only the favourable opportunity when they too might be consumed, and so all trace of the murder be destroyed.
Cook was eventually recovered attempting to escape via ship from Liverpool (told you it was interesting, now go and read the full account for yourself -after this of course). He was sentenced to death and his body thereafter gibbetted.
His execution on 10th August 1832 was attended by vast numbers. The Leicester Journal reported that people from all the surrounding districts of Leicester had been “pouring in” since the “early hours of the morning.” Some 40,000 were estimated as being in attendance, chiefly comprised of the “labouring classes” who had,
“struck work for the day, in order that they might have an opportunity of witnessing the execution of this wretched criminal.”
Leicester Journal – Friday 17 August 1832
As was so often the case at executions in this period, the gruesome spectacle confronting the crowd failed to deter the hardened criminals for whom it was intended. The Leicester Journal reporting of the execution that
“It appears the light fingered gentry were on the alert, a gentleman having his pocket picked of his Pocket Book containing a variety of memorandums, &c. while standing very near the drop.
Leicester Journal – Friday 17 August 1832
Cook’s body was then taken to the junction of Saffron Lane and Aylestone Road and placed in a gibbet cage.
The macabre spectacle of the gibbet immediately drew vast crowds and as a result
considerable annoyance was felt by persons residing in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were, in consequence, made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning, instructions were received from the Home Office, directing the removal of the gibbet, and granting the remission of that portion of the sentence.
I visited this site last week and one irony of its location is that it sits almost in the shadow of the King Power stadium, home to the Premier League Champions Leicester City. Now if ever there was a symbol of the King’s Power it was surely the gibbet. Perhaps not as you may think though, as it was actually by an action of the King that Cook’s gibbet was removed.
ungibbetted by an order bearing the King’s sign manual.
Leicester Journal – Saturday 18th August 1832.
What was abundantly clear in both Cook and Jobling’s cases was that the gibbet had outlived its purpose. Its removal both legally and surreptitiously in the cases at Leicester and Jarrow were testament to a punishment that had outstayed its welcome. As such, although it was not removed until the Hanging in Chains Act (1834) it was never used again. The reason for this was perfectly expressed by this prescient piece in the Leicester Journal,
James Cook will be the last murderer that will be sentenced to be hung in chains, since no Judge can hereafter think of awarding the punishment to ordinary murderers while the most atrocious delinquent of that description has been ungibbetted.
Leicester Journal – Saturday 18th August 1832.
Special thanks are due to Max Munday and his lovely partner Rachel Taylor for putting me up/up with me for the night in Sheffield, en route to Leicester. For any North Easterners reading, Max is working on a fascinating project about the concept of Social Haunting, on which he’s running a workshop in Newcastle in a few weeks. (In fact it’s so fascinating that I’m told it’s full up!).
DISTRACTION 1: George Michael – Faith.
At the beginning of the blog I mentioned that my rental car was a Fiat 500. One of the many advantages of selling my car when I started my PhD is that when I need one I get to rent a brand new one that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. As I arrived at Newcastle Airport to collect my latest rental I wondered what my ‘wheels’ would be. Imagine my surprise when I came upon this.
Now, I’m a modern man but even I struggled with the size and colour of this car. However, when I hit the motorway I turned on the radio and was met with George Michael’s Faith. From that moment on I embraced my inner campness and blasted this song all the way down the A1. Perhaps it’s because of where I grew up, I went to school in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, and George Michael met Andrew Ridgely at the local school, Bushey Meads. I was even taught by Andrew Ridgeley’s Mum, lovely lady, but I never bought the fact that “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was about her.
Anyway, here’s the track for you to enjoy. Was going to try and do an academic link to George’s assertion that “I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body” and the historical practice of people trying to touch the criminal corpse after execution, but I won’t (alright I sort of did, so here’s a great article on it from the Criminal Corpse Project’s Owen Davies)
Distraction 2: Long Live King Richard
Leicester is of course now famous for another resident who long went without proper burial – Richard III. In her unkinder moments my girlfriend says my recent haircut makes me look like him (never cut long hair!). Amidst great pomp and ceremony his body was reburied at Leicester Cathedral last year, having been found in a nearby car park. I went to visit his tomb and what struck me more than the tomb itself was this sign
Who gets a selfie at a tomb!
“There’s me with the reburied body of Richard II”
It’s a subject for a blog in itself and probably will be soon, but for now I’ll just flag up one other Richard – Richard Herring. His RHLSTP Podcasts have been keeping me sane throughout the last few months. He does weekly (ish) podcast interviews with comedians that are Provocative and puerile in equal measure – perfect PhD escapism. He even plays a game called Desert Islands Dicks (not what you think) in which you have to name 7 Richard’s you’d take to a desert island with you. It’s much harder than you might think. My favourite Richard – not entirely sure on the historical accuracy of this- is King Richard in Disney’s Robin Hood, voiced by Peter Ustinov. His triumphant return to Nottingham, to replace the “phoney king” John, may be lacking in historical accuracy, but it makes for a great film.
Too late to be known as John the 1st
He’s sure to be known as John the Worst
they’ll call him the phoney King of England.