Saturday, 31 March 2012


    There are several ways that a body may raise after death and burial, one is if they had been murdered and are seeking revenge. Another is if they are a murderer and cannot rest, as if possessed by their evil deeds.
    Other ways of ensuring a restless demise would entail the practice of Witchcraft and of course committing suicide which was illegal under English law.

     “Felo De Se” literally means a “felon of himself” and was punishable by staking the unfortunate body in a grave dug at a crossroads. 
    There are many instances of this practice from all over the country, to qualify for a staking it had to be proved in court that the person was sane when they took their life, but why stake these bodies at all and why bury them at a crossroads?
    Some will argue that to stake a body speeds up the decomposition process this, however, seems a little odd because the fastest and least gruesome way of disposing of someone’s remains is by covering the body in quick lime (calcium oxide). 
    This highly caustic material will burn a corpse very quickly and it was used in the burial process particularly during the time of the Resurrectionists when the robbery of graves was a lucrative business. 
    A famous case of this was the burial of Dick Turpin at York. When robbers tried to steal his corpse it was retrieved, covered in quick lime and re-buried.
Body snatchers at work.

    I do not believe this practice was only to aid decomposition, the majority of cases in which there was a staking took place during the 17th to early 19th centuries. 
   This was the time of the Vampire epidemics in Europe. Even though here in Britain such fears were scorned by academics and the medical profession, but this was still a very religious time in Britain. 
    Unlike more modern times the reality of Heaven and Hell for the ordinary person was unquestioned and to kill oneself was a crime not just against the law of the land but also against God. So when it came to the Judgement day God would reject you and you would be damned to walk the Earth forever. 

    To stake someone to the ground would ensure that the remains could not walk and the reason this had to take place at a crossroads is two fold. One, the cross is a religious symbol and would contain the evil and two the spirit of the restless dead would be confused as to which direction to go.

    Of course this kind of treatment could not go on for long and in June and July 1823 amendments to the Felo de se law came before parliament spurred on by Lord Archibald Hamilton, Mr Brandling and Mr Knight. 
    The staking of corpses was immediately banned as was the custom of burying at crossroads, instead a discussion took place about handing suicides over to the Surgeons colleges for dissection, this was also abandoned.

      Finally it was decided that the corpse should be interred in a church yard, on the North side and only between the hours of 9pm and midnight, today there are no such restrictions.
    If the punishment of Felo de se worked and now the bodies of suicides can be buried without any preventive measure at all just how many undead and restless souls walk amongst us!

Cases of Felo de se.

    I suppose one of the most famous cases would be that of Maude Bowen in Gloucestershire, made more popular by the band Incubus Succubus on their “Wytches” CD, but here are a few other stories from the age of “Felo de se”;

    The first is set in Liverpool in 1680 when a farmer murdered his wife then drank her blood before killing himself, at the inquest the farmer was judged to be sane.
   His body was then buried face down at the crossroads of Rupert lane, Breck lane, Heyworth street and Everton road and a “huge” stake was driven through his heart, it is believed he is still there today.

    Betty’s ghost haunts Clack mill in Gloucestershire, in life her name was Betty Wilkins and in 1788 she was a servant to a miller. 
   On Tuesday 23rd September Betty died in agony, her stomach burned by arsenic, the inquest heard she had been pregnant but not by her husband who she had not seen for some time.
   The verdict was guilty of felo de se and she was buried at a near by crossroads with a stake through her heart, possibly at a site called Coffin Tyning. Other crossroads in this area have suspicious names such as Tucker’s grave and Webber’s grave.

    On the 14th August 1800 Charles Smith alias Jermiah Clay hanged himself in Giltspur compter in central London.
   He had been arrested for passing fraudulent cheques and had been concerned in illegal transactions in the lottery. 
   At the inquest many of Smiths friends and relations tried to influence the jury into believing him insane but to no avail. The inquest lasted until 9pm at which time the judge declared “the deceased should be buried at the crossroads at the head of the Old Bailey and a stake driven through the body”.
   As directed Charles Smith was staked and buried at the crossroads of Old Bailey, Hart row street, Giltspur street and Newgate street.

    And finally, the most famous case happened to able seaman John Williams who had served on the Dover Castle East Indiaman ship with a Mr Marr, in 1810 they both left the ship when it docked in London.
   Mr Marr opened a shop on the Radcliffe Highway during 1811 and he lived upstairs with his family, one night it was alleged that John Williams murdered Marr’s family and another family, seven people in all.

Williams was arrested but hanged himself before his trial. The inquest before J. Unwin esq returned a verdict of felo de se and so at midnight on 30th December 1811 John Williams body was processed by cart from Cold bath Fields to the crossroads of Cannon street and Cable street, pausing for a time outside Marr’s shop.

     At the crossroads in front of a huge crowd and 259 policemen Williams was thrown into a pit and a stake was driven through his heart, he was also covered in quick lime and buried. 

    Thomas de Quincey later wrote “and over him drives for ever the uproar of unresting London”. However, in 1911 the water board dug up this piece of road and disinterred Williams body, his bones went to an unknown destination but his arms went to the criminologist Professor Churton Collins.

    This article was very kindly published in “The Chronicles”, the magazine of the London Vampyre Group.

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