Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At the Earthing of a Felo-de-se

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AT THE EARTHING OF A FELO-DE-SE

FOR a period of three years or nearly, a harmless and quiet fellow - an odd jobber at carpentry - lodged at a common lodging-house in the neighbourhood of Whitefriars. Like all odd jobbers at a trade, his means of existence were by no means certain; but he was not a communicative man and whatever were his privations he kept them to himself, paying for his bed in the kitchen with a punctuality that won him the esteem of his landlord. He was an eccentric kind of man and had a great fancy for experimenting with firearms. It was not uncommon to hear him banging away of a night in his bedroom down below, but as there was nobody down there that he could shoot but himself this, amongst several other whimsies of his, was winked at by the people of the house on account of his general good conduct.
    One morning he was discovered horribly maimed and dead.
    That his death was the work of his own hands was beyond a doubt. It appeared that his curiosity concerning engines for the destruction of human life was not confined to guns and pistols It entered his fantastic brain that the guillotine was a machine worthy of his study, and he at once set about constructing one which should be an improvement on the upright posts and [-82-] grooved-knife contrivance as used in France. The cunning and ingenuity exercised by this poor fellow in bringing his new and improved guillotine to perfection is without parallel in civilized countries, the nearest approach to it being the skill displayed by certain African savages in trapping and slaying the hippopotamus. The engine of destruction the Bayeye brings against behemoth is called a "downfall," and is conrived in this manner:- An iron blade is fixed in a beam and the beam is hauled up by a bark rope over a limb of a tree that projects across a path the hippopotamus is known to perambulate on his way to the river; the bark rope is brought down and secured across the path under the grass, so that when hippo comes shuffling along he kicks the string, and the bladed beam is released, and comes plump down atop of the amazed brute's back.
    Success is not invariable. Sometimes the beam turns a sommersault in its descent, and does no more than expedite hippo's movements by catching him an ugly knock, and sometimes hippo will give a lurch to the left or right just at the wrong moment, and the blade will inflict but the merest scratch on his ribs.
    The device of the poor crack-brained jobbing carpenter was wonderfully like the Bayeye's "downfall." He procured a stone weighing thirty pounds or thereabouts, and he chipped it into shape so that it might "fall true." He suspended this stone by a string over a bar driven into the wall above the cupboard, against which his bedstead came. He sharpened a chopper; he bored a hole in its handle, and hinged it on to a screw taken out of his bedstead, securing it with a nut, so that the weapon might stand steady on the edge of its blade. He procured a form and placed a pillow on it, and taking a razor-blade in his grasp, laid his head down on the pillow, and immediately under the hanging stone. He brought over the chopper (the handle of which was secured to the jambs of the open cupboard door) 

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[-83-] and rested its sharp edge on his wind-pipe. He raised his hand with the razor-blade in it and cut the cord that held the stone, and down it came-not decapitating the madman, as he no doubt expected that it would, but merely indenting his throat to the depth of about an inch.
    Enough, however, to cause his death, and to occasion the summoning of a coroner's jury to investigate the matter and settle the manner of death the unlucky wretch had died.
    There were sixteen jurymen and the coroner, and the evidence laid before them was of the simplest sort. Nobody even suspected that he was "wrong in his head." The last person who conversed with him found him rational and in no way excited. So far from showing symptoms of insanity, he had always appeared a very sensible man indeed. As to the firing of pistols in his bedroom and that sort of thing, if every man given to such pranks were pronounced mad, pray how many sane men would be left in the world? Besides, look at the deliberation - the cool calculation and sound judgment that marked the performance? Could any madman construct a machine like it? Could any man, except in his sound and sober senses, have so nicely adjusted the hatchet and hung the stone that it should descend as true as a plummet? If you wanted motive, there was motive enough surely. In the self-murderer s pockets were discovered fifteen pawnbrokers' tickets for tools - indeed, it seemed that, hard pushed by poverty, he had parted with all his tools except the one he reserved for such fatal use. He owed some rent. He was steeped to the eyes in poverty; he had no friends; it was no use his looking for a job, since if he found one lie had no tools to do it with. All these matters pressed on his mind, and he resolved to make an end of it.
    Just as plain as here set down did the whole affair appear to the minds of twelve of the jurymen out of sixteen. The [-84-] minority were of a different way of thinking. Possibly it occurred to them that nobody but a man bereft of reason would dare dally with death as this man had. There is no greater coward than the sane man who slinks out of the world. lie invariably seeks sudden death-dodges over the threshold of existence in as little time as it takes to make a sweeping cut with a keen razor, or to pull a pistol trigger. lie does not loiter at the gate of the grim toll-taker, as did the unlucky jobbing carpenter, pulling bobbins and arranging pretty contrivances, as though preparing for the opening scene of a peep-show. He - the sane man urged by desperation to bring his miserable existence to a sudden end - might, at half-glance, as it were, take kindly to a scheme of the guillotine order, but by the time he had brought it to face him fully, he would of a surety take fright and run for his life; whereas, the madman, delighted with the progress made in carrying out the conceptions of his disordered brain, would grow madder and madder each moment, till, when the time came for his laying his head on the pillow and severing the string that held the heavy stone, he, in all probability, was as delighted as a boy for the first time in his life about to fly a kite or despatch a fire-balloon. Cool and deliberate! No doubt of it. Had any one been nigh enough to listen, it is not unlikely that they would have heard the poor maniac laughing pleasantly to himself; or humming the burthen of a funny song, the minute before his life slipped from him. However, the majority of the jurymen were of opinion that the suicide was in perfect possession of his senses to the very last, and there was no more to be said about it, except that as he had shown himself to be a felon of the very worst degree - a guilty wretch who by his own act had so offended Heaven that nothing but the prayers and intercession of all good men could save him from everlasting torment-such prayer and intercession should be denied him, and he should be flung into a hole at night-time, with no more ceremony than attends the throwing a dead dog [-85-] into a ditch. Law is law, there is no denying, and 4th Geo. IV., c. 52, and not twelve intelligent men of the present enlightened times, is responsible for the wrong if any exist; but one cannot help thinking that a law permitting a dozen cheese-mongers and tailors and butchers to ape the functions of the Last Awful Tribunal, and sentence a fellow-creature to ever-enduring punishment, cannot be too soon repealed.
    On this occasion, the law, as represented by its coroner, thought the verdict a very proper one, and, calling in its beadle, confided to him the responsibility of seeing that its dignity and majesty was maintained. It happened to be the first time that the beadle, who is a modest little man, and keeps a walking-stick shop, had ever been entrusted with a business so tremendous, and he was, not unnaturally, somewhat nervous over it. However, when it was explained to him that if he didn't take the matter in hand his churchwarden must, his fidelity overcame his qualms, and he undertook the commission, and at once put himself in communication with the undertaker, as the suicide had to be put in the ground that same night.
    "We shall call for it and take it up at half-past seven, I was informed," and was honoured with an invitation to "ride down with us." This however, I declined. It is unpleasant enough in all conscience to make a business jaunt to a graveyard, but to ride thither on a hearse at night - seated on the black, shiny roof; and holding on by the stumps that on ordinary occasions support the funereal plumes, was not to be thought of; especially as the journey was to Ilford, a dismal country road in part and ten miles from London. So I elected to go in a vehicle of my own choosing.
    They took "it" up punctually at the time appointed - Mr. Beadle and two men of the staff of the contracting undertaker who undertook the job. The box they put "it" in was composed of half a dozen unplaned boards scantily smeared with a [-86-] blackish pigment and roughly nailed together. It was scarcely of the ordinary coffin shape even, and being without plate or inscription might have been carted to a railway with other luggage without exciting particular attention. When "it" severed the string, it still retained in its grasp the handleless razor, and it would have been bundled into its hole still grasping it had it not let it fall while being hoisted into its box. The villanous and felonious article had no friends, not a single one. So, stowed in the hearse, and with the beadle, and the driver, and his friend perched on the box, the funeral party was complete.
    A pair of stout horses were attached to the hearse, and whirled it over the stones at a spanking rate, so that my coachman had some trouble at times in keeping it in sight - especially as it was so very black-horses, carriage, and men-and the moonlight but fitful, skulking behind cloud-banks sometimes for as long as two minutes together. I don't know how Mr. Beadle (being, as before hinted, a somewhat nervous man) found it on the hearse roof; with the felon's body within two planks' breadth of him, hurrying along the dark road, with the wind whistling across the bleak flat country. I know that I found it anything but satisfactory, and was not at all sorry to hear my man say, "I can see the Rabbits, sir; the Rabbits is the house where all these black jobs puts up for a freshener, sir."
    The Rabbits, a white and ghostly house, crouching back from the highway, is within a stone's-cast of the cemetery gate, and being the only "public" for a considerable distance, is much patronized by travellers returning from the melancholy duty of interring their friends. Likewise it is the resort of the servants of the Cemetery Company - the grave-diggers, &c., of whom there is necessarily a very considerable staff. It was about half-past nine when the hearse drew up at the Rabbits, it being thought in no way indecent, since the poor corpse in their charge was [-87-] merely a felo-de-se, to leave it outside the gin-shop a little whilst its custodians took a drain at the bar.
    This, after all, was fortunate. At the bar, imbibing rum, was a tall man, with a check shirt and clay-stained corduroys, whom one of the hearse party at once recognized as a grave-digger.
    "Here you are, then !" exclaimed the hearse driver.
    "Yes, here I am; what o' that ?" returned the grave-digger.
    "Well, you're all ready for us, I suppose ?" said Mr. Beadle.
    "Me ready? Ready for what? I've just come in for twopen'orth of rum after my supper, and now I mean to toddle home to bed."
    "What I d'ye mean to say that they didn't send you word down that we should bring you a job here to-night?" demanded Mr. Beadle, in alarm.
    "I mean to say we haven't heard a word about it," returned the grave-digger, decidedly. "There'll be no burying here to-night. There can't be everybody has gone home long ago."
    The poor little man with the majesty of the law to uphold, though fully armed with the awful authority of 4th Geo. IV., C. 52, was in a predicament. The grave-digger, having drunk up his rum, was buttoning his jacket, and would be off and abed before a policeman could be found to enforce the Act of Parliament for such cases provided; to drive the felo-de-se back to Whitefriars, or to take out the horses and stable the body for the night at the Rabbits, were courses equally objectionable. Mr. Beadle thought he would try severity.
    "Very good; then I shall lay it at the gate and leave you to answer for it."
    "You'll please yourself; I suppose," replied the cool gravedigger, lighting his pipe; "it's no business o' mine what you do with it."
    [-88-] The case was growing desperate,  4th Geo. IV., C. 52, was in jeopardy, and the law's majesty in danger of being outraged. As a private individual he never would have done it; but for the sake of his country's rulers, for the sake of the dignity of the Houses of Lords and Commons, and the safety of the lion and the unicorn, Mr. Beadle relented, and resorted to persuasion and entreaty, and finally the grave-digger yielded so far as to consent to ask permission of the lodge-keeper to pass "it" through. "It" was passed through without difficulty, and at a distance of more than a half mile from the entry, in the unconsecrated part, a hole was found. It was fortunate that at this time the moon struggled out of the clouds, otherwise there might have been some bungling, for, being but an amateur at felo-de-se burying, Mr. Beadle had forgotten all about the torches. Had it been pitch dark, with torrents of rain falling, the job would have to have been got through somehow.
    As it was, it was got through with neatness and despatch. The grave-digger was an old hand, and had his ropes about the box in a twinkling, and held one while the undertaker's men held the other. "Lower," said the grave-digger, and they lowered, and the box rested on the clay. Then the grave-digger threw a few shovelsful of earth on the box - enough to cover it - and replaced the planks over the hole, and we went away.
    "Why didn't they cover him in entirely ?" I asked.
    "What for? We couldn't spare a regular interment a grave all to himself; let alone one such as him," replied the grave- digger.
    "But surely you won't put another body over his ?"
    "Surely we shall," answered the grave-digger. "Not a Christian, you know," he hastened to explain - "one of them sects what don't care about being buried in consecrated ground. Why, what's the odds? He's as good as they are now anyhow, if he wasn'efore."
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And discussing kindred matters, the hearse bowled out of the cemetery, and once more we put up at the Rabbits, where the party invited the grave-digger to the social glass and the friendly pipe, and, the undertaker's men as well as the grave-digger being well versed in sepulchral lore, quite a jolly hour ensued, when, hey for London! with our noble work accomplished, and the law's majesty and dignity vindicated.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874
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