BSAG revisited: The gruesome spires

· culture ·

[First published 21/03/2004]

Yesterday's Meet the Ancestors programme was an interesting exploration of some recent gruesome discoveries just outside the old Oxford Gaol. The old prison (next to the old castle mound) is being redeveloped (surprise, surprise) into a luxury hotel and apartments. Three of the old cells will form each of the fancy new en-suite hotel rooms. However, after watching the programme, I don't think that I would want to stay there, even if I had the money.

They got archaeologists in to check that there was nothing of interest in the area of the castle moat, only to find a number of human skeletons — I bet the developers loved that. Further investigations found a large number of bodies in mass graves in the old moat. Some of the bodies were dismembered or otherwise disrespectfully treated, and others were of children of about 12-16 years old.

This was odd because the moat was unconsecrated ground, and even the executed criminals were given a decent burial in consecrated ground within the prison walls. One of the bodies in the moat had the top of his skull sawn off, his face removed, and then the remains of his head forced inside the chest cavity — not what you might call respectful treatment of a human body. This seemed to be the work of medical students (dissection could only legally be performed on executed murderers), but it still didn't explain why they weren't reburied in the prison graveyard.

Just to add to the mystery, at about the time that the bodies were buried, there was an incident in the courthouse attached to the gaol. A man convicted of murder — and whose skeleton is rather creepily still on display in a museum in Oxford — cursed all of those involved in his conviction. A short while later, the upper crust of Oxford society started to run around the streets at night as if possessed by demons, and finally bled to death. In all, around 500 people died.

One mystery at least was cleared up; it seems that the victims probably died of a particularly virulent form of typhus spread by lice on one of the prisoners. So the convicted man probably did curse them, but not quite in the way they thought.

It was a fascinating but rather disturbing programme. They also uncovered the story of a woman hanged at the gaol for murdering her newborn child. At the time, they didn't use long-drop hanging (where you fall through a trap door and usually die quite quickly), and the unlucky executees died by slow suffocation. This woman took a full 30 minutes to die, and her friends even tried sharply pulling on her legs to hasten her end.

She was shipped off to the medical school for dissection, but when they opened the coffin, she started to breathe. The surgeons — somewhat taken aback, as you might imagine — immediately tried to revive her. Incredibly, she survived both the hanging and the surgeons' inept revival efforts, and as most people saw her miraculous revival as a sign from God that she was innocent, they graciously gave her another trial. This time they actually called the midwife present at the birth of the woman's child and asked her if she was sure that the child was murdered. It turned out that the baby was malformed and stillborn all along, so she didn't commit murder. She was released without charge, left Oxford (I can certainly understand that decision), and had more children. Apparently, she kept her coffin all her life as a reminder of her brush with death — no post-traumatic stress counselling in those days.

I learned a lot more than I wanted to know about the criminal justice system of the time, and I think the developers of the hotel are mad. I'm not superstitious, and I don't believe in ghosts, but I wouldn't feel at all comfortable staying in a place which had seen so much misery, and the painful deaths of so many people, for crimes that we would regard as petty today. Who could relax and enjoy the luxury in a place like that?