Friday, November 5, 2010

The Outcast Dead

Back to the topic of London. Back to the topic of its dead. The two, of course, are inextricably linked, in this city full of ghosts. Despite those ghosts, and the ever present weight of the past, we don't go a bundle for Halloween. Or at least we didn't when I was a kid. In recent years, it has become more popular, importing from the US the idea of trick or treat and kids bagging a swag of sweets. Harmless fun I suppose. I remember trying it once when I was young, and being greeted with a stern lecture on the iniquity of demanding money with menaces.

A few places enter into the true spirit of Halloween and invoke the dead. One being the wonderfully named Cross Bones Cemetery in Bankside, London, just behind Borough High Street. The picture above is taken at Halloween after a procession has made its way to the graveyard gates - the cemetery closed in the 1850s - and a ribbon tied in memory of those buried, or once buried there, The Outcast Dead as they have become known

It is a wonderful story. The age of the graveyard is unknown, but the place was first recorded in the 16th century as a last resting place for 'single women', an Elizabethan euphemism for prostitutes, whose sinful ways precluded them from a Christian burial in consecrated ground. The Bishop of Winchester allowed them to ply their trade because the area was under his jurisdiction and not London's, and the permissive area he controlled was known as the Liberty of the Clink, given its name by the notorious medieval prison ('Clink' is still used as a euphemism for jail over here). He licensed the brothels, and so the women became known as 'Winchester Geese.' When they died, some of sexually transmitted diseases, others of smallpox, turbercolosis and other common maladies of the time, they were buried in Cross Bones. As time passed, it wasn't just 'fallen' women who were buried there, but also paupers unable to afford a Christian burial. It was closed in 1853 after becoming 'completely overcharged with the dead' and then forgotten.

Excavations for the Jubilee line in the 1990s unearthed the cemetery and its inhabitants. Many were stillborn babies, or ones that had failed to live a week, while many more were infants under a year. Of the adult bodies the vast majority were women estimated to be 36 or over. Since the excavation, a local chronicler, John Constable and a team of fellow devotees have celebrated the graveyard and its denizens, the site of which remains unbuilt on, in writings and performances. Each Halloween they perform to an audience a mystery based on the life of Winchester Goose, followed by a walk to the memorial gates, which are then decorated with hundreds of ribbons and other garlands.

A celebration of the outcast in a city that was built and shaped by them.

There's a great audio slideshow here.


Dan - Friday


  1. I enjoyed that, thanks, Dan. On this island (Mykonos) they don't let the dead rest so long. The bones are dug up in 3-4 years, dusted off and put in a family church, or on a shelf in the back room of the cemetery.

  2. This is wonderful, Dan. History in the US is neither so old or so colorful.

    Of course, in every culture throughout time, it is the women who have been punished for prostitution, never the men whose money drive the market. It doesn't matter if it was women who did what they had to do to get some food and a dry corner of a room for their children. Now, the women on the street are risking their lives for drug money.

    Henry II was known to have a sense of humor. Regulating prostitution but not outlawing it might have been a joke he played on Eleanor.

    It is Guy Fawkes Day which leads me to the reason I became so enthralled by history. I was in the third or fourth grade when I read a book about Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots. How could anyone not be fascinated about a baby who became queen when she was six days old? Henry and his wives, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth who wanted to kill her but was afraid of introducing the concept of regicide, and the deluded Catholics who thought that Elizabeth would be easy to get rid of, all of it swirling around a woman who was a threat to Protestant England from birth - endlessly fascinating. Mary even blew up her own husband, maybe giving Guy Fawkes the idea of using gunpowder.

    The Tudors and the Stuarts comprise my favorite period of history followed by the Roman Empire, another group who knew a lot about killing off rivals and wives.


  3. Jeff, I suppose it saves space!

    Beth, not for nothing is prostitution called 'The Oldest Profession.'And throughout time, those women forced to turn to it to make ends meet have always been the most vulnerable and the most persecuted - by law, by the great and good (often some of their best customers of course) and by the crazed and the violent - Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, the list is many, just here in the UK.

    You won't be surprised to known that the Victorian era is my favourite, followed by the Edwardian. With you on the Romans - working my way currently through Robert Harris's novels set in Rome and they make fabulous reading.

  4. Dan, have you tried Lindsey Davis? Her Falco is quite funny. There are now twenty books in the series.


  5. Thanks for this story Dan. Did you see that I recently read/reviewed THE BLOOD DETECTIVE?

  6. Hi Dan,

    You find the most odd and interesting stories to write about.

  7. Thanks Susie. Sorry to have missed you at Bouchercon this year - couldn't make it. But I will stop by your discussion thread soon because I need some recommendations. Most of this year has been spent reading books for research, not so much for fun.

    And thanks very much Kerrie - I hadn't seen the review but have now and you're very kind!