In the early 18th century, a woman called Mary Toft claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. In the heady gossip-ridden world of Georgian England, this story was taken up with relish. It dominated the gossip sheets in London. And even made its way to the ear of King George the First.
The king was so intrigued by the thought of a woman giving birth to rabbits that he sent his physician down to the market town of Godalming to meet Mary Toft. And not only was his physician convinced of her story, but helped to deliver a fifteenth rabbit. Then he wrote a book on the topic.
All of which made the king absolutely furious when he discovered the whole thing was a hoax. He fired his physician and Mary Toft disappeared into obscurity.
The aftermath wasn’t good for the medical profession. Doctors were ridiculed as dirty old men. And the fact that the king’s physician was Swiss-born opened the doors to some unpleasant xenophobia. Toft’s motives were interpreted as purely financial tinged with a complete absence of morals.
One cartoon of the day depicted Mary Toft held aloft by the lascivious male doctors enjoying an examination of her private parts. See that image below. The fact this ever gained any credibility is because of some very odd pseudo-scientific theories circulating at the time. One was the notion of ‘maternal impression’ – that a woman could alter what was in her womb through her thoughts and dreams.
Completely mad but these were the early days of modern science.
This is one of several bizarre stories I’m going to be investigating in a series on my YouTube channel called ‘Weird History Facts’ and I invite you to watch this episode below and enjoy!
The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.
Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!
At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.
If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.
This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.
While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!
The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.
It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!
A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.
The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.
Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!
It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.
The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?
A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.
The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.
Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).
So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.
If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!
Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.
London abuse against the French long before Brexit
There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!
The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).
At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.
He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.
The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists.
If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!
So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!
Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.
The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.
It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!
Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.
Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.
Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.
The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.
Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.
The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.
The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.
And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!
Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!
If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.
That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.
These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.
YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!
Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!
Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”
You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.
Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.
Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.
Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.
Observe the diseases killing Londoners: In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.
Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.