Spirit Photography

My mother in law is a Spiritualist. Every week, she goes to a meeting where a medium claims to pass messages to the living from the dead.* Some years ago, she was given a spirit photograph, which she showed to my sister in law, visiting from Australia. I peeked over her shoulder to see a photo of an electric cooker with scorch marks on one of the rings. “Look,” my mother in law insisted, “Joan swears that’s the face of her dead mother in there.”

Sister in law examined the photo with care. “Bit of elbow grease, some Jif and a Brillo pad will fix that”, came the tart reply. “All I can see is a filthy hob that wants a good clean.”

And there is the best illustration of the two opposing views when it comes to this subject. You either see something there, or you don’t.

Spirit photography has existed for as long as photography itself. The Victorians were great fans and had no problem with claiming that photographs showed images of deceased relatives – or strangers, come to think of it. Nothing has changed, as even the most cursory glance of the internet will demonstrate. The only question is – how true are these photos?

At this point, I find the truth to be entirely subjective and depend entirely on how much you believe in life after death. One thing I have noticed about my mother in law’s Spiritualist friends is that they all seem to be elderly. I wonder if they have reached an age where, faced with their own imminent mortality, they become desperate to believe that death is not the end. Consequently, any evidence to support this, such as a ghostly image in a photograph, very quickly becomes a symbol of hope.

On the other hand, non-believers or people at peace with their mortality tend to see thumbprints, double exposures, reflections, glare or dirty marks where “believers” see faces or people. If the mind wishes to see a pattern there, it will.

Another problem with spirit photographs is that they are very easily faked – again, any cursory glance at the internet will confirm this, but it was a point proven long ago with the Cottingley Fairies. In this era of computer manipulation, it is all too easy to insert a ghostly image of Great Auntie Edna into a much more recent photograph. What is seen is not always to be believed.

However, some of the older photographs do make interesting curios, especially if the cameraman has managed to get the ghost to pose.

* I say “claims” because (1) I’ve never been to one of these meetings and (2) I have no idea what these mediums do.


Romantic Mountaineering

I have just finished reading “The Stress of Her Regard” by Tim Powers, which has turned out to be an interesting variation on the well-worn vampire theme. Interestingly, Mr Powers has also taken the opportunity of bringing in the Romantic Poets, and suggests that their relationships with those of a vampiric nature brought with it the payoff of great poetry. I remain to be convinced of this, but it’s an entertaining thought nonetheless.

At one point in the novel, the reader is invited to follow Lord Byron and his party on an excursion through the Swiss Alps, with the ultimate aim of climbing the Jungfrau. Now I’ve never been to the Swiss Alps but I suspect that a certain amount of climbing gear would be useful; at the very least some protective clothing. But it seems that His Lordship has taken to the hills with nothing more useful than a flask of hock and his thick coat. It sounds unbelievable, and I’m sure it is, but…

At Victoria Station I found myself facing a poster advertising a new exhibition of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, one of whose best known works is this, The Wanderer Above The Fog:


This can’t be Lord Byron, surely! But it seems apparent to me that for the Romantics, going up a mountain with anything other than a pack mule loaded with bonbons and fine claret is really not the done thing.

Fore-Edge Paintings

“Oratory of a Pilgrim”, she read off the spine of one of the volumes.
Lucille almost grinned. “Sounds quite virtuous, doesn’t it?” She paused as if for dramatic effect. “Have you heard of a fore-edge illustration?”
Edith shook her head and Lucille took the book. “They are images hidden in the book’s fore edge, carefully dissimulated as a pattern until you bend the pages so…”
She bent the side of the book so that it curved, revealing a colourful painting of a Japanese couple in flagrante delicto – performing sexual acts upon each other.

Crimson Peak novelisation by Nancy Holder, p. 158.


In his latest film, Guillermo del Toro introduces the viewer to one of bibliophilia’s best kept secrets – the fore-edge illustration. It is only fair to say, however, that while quite a few of the illustrations were certainly erotic, landscapes, cityscapes and classical allegories were also popular scenes.

Even now, fore-edge illustrations are extremely rare; to have had a library full of them would have been expensive to compile but glorious to behold. It’s not something one would usually find in a mass produced hardback, and certainly not in a paperback. This is because producing a fore-edge illustration is a laborious process. The pages have to be tilted at a certain angle and held at that angle in a vice for the illustration – usually a watercolour – to be completed and dried. Without ruining the book, obviously. Consequently, they are most often found in limited edition, rare hide-bound, gilt-embossed volumes that in themselves cost a small fortune.

The craftsmanship that went into many of these illustrations is worthy of any miniaturist; some of the paintings are extraordinarily detailed and very finely done. The fact that they were hidden from all but the knowing eye means that, sadly, many have almost certainly been lost. I can only consider this a tragedy.


Was Lizzie Borden Epileptic?

The most recent Real Crime Magazine Friday lunchtime Twitter case dealt with Lizzie Borden and her role in the Fall River Axe Murders. It set out the facts as they are known and then linked into the Magazine’s review of the case, which can be found online at http://www.realcrimedaily.com/realcrimefriday. The facts, briefly, are as follows:

Andrew Borden and his second wife lived in a large house in Fall River, Massachussets, with Andrew’s two daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie. Andrew Borden was known to be miserly despite being a successful businessman; yet both his daughters were heavily involved in charity work and philanthropy. In early August 1892, New England was hit with a severe heatwave and something of a drought. In the early afternoon of 4 August, Lizzie Borden called down to Bridget, their maid, saying that her parents had been murdered. Both bodies had been attacked with an axe in the front parlour of the house. Although Lizzie was always the main suspect in their murders, she was acquitted by the jury and nobody else has ever been charged. The evidence given by herself and other witnesses was so contradictory, any conviction “beyond reasonable doubt” would have been impossible.

The question Real Crime Magazine asked its readers (and Twitter followers) was – why was Lizzie Borden acquitted?

I was led on Saturday evening to Angela Carter’s short story, “The Fall River Axe Murders” in which she, like Real Crime Magazine, assumed that it is generally accepted that Lizzie did murder her father and stepmother. Interestingly, she not only offers motive – the oppressive behaviour of her father and the callous attitude of her stepmother – but an explanation. For Carter suggests that Borden may have been epileptic.

She reinforces this by recounting an earlier episode where the Borden house was burgled while Mr and Mrs Borden were away. The intruder had rifled through Mr and Mrs Borden’s belongings, soiled on the bedlinen and painted obscenities on the mirrors and windows with soap. Some jewellery had been stolen (and was never found) and Mr Borden’s suits were sliced with nail scissors – which had also been used in an amateurish attempt to jemmy open the safe. This burglary, like the murder, was discovered by Lizzie – who, at the time, was standing in the room holding a bar of soap and no idea why.

Many of Lizzie’s friends were well used to her “little turns”, when she would suddenly seem vacant and distant without realising. These, to me, sound like some form of seizure, where the sufferer is conscious and ambulant but not in control of his or her actions. They are sometimes known as a “fugue” state, and it is conjectured that Lizzie was in such a state both when she committed the burglary and murdered her parents. This would explain the incriminating evidence against her, but also her complete lack of knowledge of the events.

Unless, of course, she was just an exceptionally good liar.

How Does Lady Macbeth Die?

It’s quite odd that, despite seeing at least three murders onstage, the deaths of the female characters – Lady Macduff’s murder in Act 4 and the death of Lady Macbeth in Act 5 –take place offstage and are referred to by other actors. Consequently we are told by Malcolm that she has committed suicide (we are earlier told by Seyton only that the Queen is dead) but he declines to say how.

Act 5, Scene 1 is a very telling scene if we are exploring the question of how Lady Macbeth meets her demise. The scene is, essentially, written through the eyes of her attendant and the doctor, who observe Lady Macbeth as she “sleepwalks” – although allowing for Shakespeare’s need for dramatic tension, a combination of sleepwalking, talking and obsessive compulsive disorder is what actually happens. It is apparent to the audience that Lady Macbeth is deeply worried about something. Of course, the audience already know of her complicity in the deaths of Duncan and Banquo and the exile of Malcolm, Donalwain and Fleance. It seems she also knows of the plot against Macduff, and the deaths of his wife and children. So she has a good half a dozen murders on her conscience. For a contemporary audience, that would be enough to grant a sleepless night – fears for one’s mortal soul were a very real concern for the average Tudor or Stuart. And this is before we account for the treasonous intentions behind the first murder and possibly very real concerns for her military husband.

The attendant reports to the doctor that Lady Macbeth is now afraid of the dark and insists on retaining the light. The audience will recall that the murder of Duncan back in Act 2 was committed in pitch darkness; Macbeth himself complained that he couldn’t see where he was going. Is it that she fears that someone will murder her in her bed while she sleeps in the dark?

Meanwhile, she goes through the motions of washing her hands; her speech explains that she believes they are coated with blood and this blood will not wash off. Many students are asked to compare this with her comment to Macbeth after Duncan’s murder that “a little water clears us of this deed”. The doctor correctly guesses that Lady Macbeth is guilt ridden and states that she has more need of “the divine than the physician” – the sickness is not to her body, which he can cure, but to her soul, which he cannot. Interestingly, in ordering the attendant to remove “means of all annoyance” from the presence of Lady Macbeth, he seems to be anticipating that she may harm herself, either intentionally or not, and is effectively putting her on suicide watch.

As we are later told, Lady Macbeth does indeed take her own life, itself a mortal sin, although I doubt very much by this time that any right-thinking audience member would hold out much sympathy for her hell-bound fate. But this does not address the question of how Lady Macbeth dies, and so we must speculate. I think there are two possibilities, both of which relate to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking:

1. She wanders off in her sleep and falls off a battlement/down the stairs/out of a window;

2. Later in Act 5, Macbeth gives the doctor an instruction to give Lady Macbeth all possible peace, i.e. to help her sleep. Perhaps the doctor was a little careless with the tincture of poppy seed and gave her an overdose?

I’m inclined to plump for the latter theory, mainly because of the discovery of Lady Macbeth’s body; Macbeth is onstage, dressing for battle when there is a scream offstage. Servants go to investigate and Seyton returns with the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. This is two scenes after the doctor has been instructed to help Lady Macbeth get some sleep, and does indicate to me that the good doctor has taken the law into his own hands.

Of course, I have no idea if this is correct, and I would be interested to hear any other theories. Ultimately, though, we will never know how Lady Macbeth met her end.


There’s a short section in Act 4 of Macbeth where Malcolm and Macduff, having fled Scotland, are standing around a church waiting for the English King to finish his service, unaware that part of his duties include touching sufferers of “the King’s Evil”. This was a popular name for a very nasty disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes in the neck (although some very rare cases are non-tubercular, over 95% of cases are).

It starts as a chronic, painless mass in the neck that gradually grows bigger and turns bluish-purple. It’s known as a “cold abscess” because there is no localised reddening or heat that one usually gets with an inflammation. It may also be accompanied by fever, lethargy and weight loss if it is tubercular in origin. It will also be quite infectious, especially if the lesions rupture and become an open wound. These days it is usually treated with high doses of antibiotics (surgical treatment carries a great risk of spreading the disease to other organs) but for many hundreds of years, a trip to the Royal Palace would have been the thing to do.

The idea that the touch of the monarch would cure the disease stemmed from the Middle Ages, and is a direct effect of the divine right of kings. It was believed that the anointed monarch was God’s representative on earth and, as such, the touch of the monarch bestowed the same grace and benefits as a divine blessing. The 1633 Book of Common Prayer even contained a ceremony for sufferers to be touched by the monarch, although it is reported that some kings and queens found it offensive to do so. Still, duty called, and the tradition continued until George I decided it was “too Catholic” and put a stop to it. Part of the ceremony included the gift of an “angel”, a gold coin valued at about 8 shillings – a lot of money for peasants to have at any one time.

Anyway, it’s interesting that this scene, although short – and leading up to a key moment for Macduff – illustrates so much about the nature of Macbeth’s reign. We spend next to no time in the English Court – I think this one scene is it – and yet these throwaway comments demonstrate that the English king had a divine right to be on the throne, unlike the murderous and usurping Macbeth. What would James I have made of this, being also James VI of Scotland? Well, he would have agreed with it since tradition had it that the monarchs of Scotland were descended from Banquo (Shakespeare also alludes to this in Act 4, with the third apparition produced by the witches), whom Macbeth has also murdered. Macbeth is never shown with any form of divine grace at all; and it’s strongly implied that if Macbeth had tried to cure scrofula with the Royal Touch, he would have caught it as well.

With the increase in immunocompromised persons – those suffering from cancer, HIV and so on – there has been a recent increase in cases of tuberculosis, so I suspect it will only be a matter of time before we see a resurgence in cases of scrofula. Should you, the reader, be so unlucky please do not bother to go to Buckingham Palace on the off-chance. A trip to the doctors would be much better for you in the long run.

The Snail in the Ginger Beer

Permit me, if I may, to set the scene for you. It’s a lovely hot summer’s day and you decide to stop off at a hostelry for a nice cold drink. Something lengthy with lots of ice to cool you down while you sit in the sun. The innkeeper brings you a glass containing ice, and a bottle of your chosen beverage. He pops the top and pours the drink… and floating in the top is a slug. Both you and the innkeeper are horrified. Rather than drink up, you rather unsurprisingly decide to start legal proceedings. But whom do you sue?

It’s rather hard to believe these days, but prior to the case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson in 1932, there was no clear cut rule that said the producers of goods had a general duty of care to the consumers of their goods that they are fit for consumption. By being heard in the House of Lords, the decision entered English law as well as Scots law, and is still considered good law today.

But what a story! Mrs Donoghue visited a café in Paisley, Scotland, with her friend, where they had snacks. She ordered a bottle of ginger beer, which arrived – with a glass – in an unopened opaque bottle, as was usual at the time. The café owner opened the bottle and poured some into a glass, which Mrs Donoghue partly drank before feeling unwell. On closer investigation, she claimed to have discovered a dead snail in the bottom of the bottle. It was apparent that the café owner was unaware of the existence of the snail, and so Mrs Donoghue issued a claim against Mr Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer who, in turn, denied any responsibility for Mrs Donoghue’s ill health whatsoever.

The case was heard in the Scottish Court of Sessions, and led to appeal after appeal before Mrs Donoghue finally won the right to be heard by the House of Lords, at that time still the highest Court in the country. The Law Lords who heard the appeal held that Mr Stevenson did owe Mrs Donoghue a duty of care and was negligent in not ensuring that his products were fit for consumption; consequently, he owed her damages. Mr Stevenson sadly died not long after this ruling and the executors of his estate settled the case with Mrs Donoghue out of court.

But all did not go well with the other people involved in this matter. Mrs Donoghue herself died of a heart attack in 1958, whilst resident in a mental hospital; Mr Minghella, the owner of the café where the fateful drink was taken, closed the café in 1931 and became a labourer. He died in 1970. Mr Stevenson’s factory was sold off by his family in the mid-1950s and was demolished a few years later.

It may very well be as a result of this case that many drinks are now in clear, translucent or only semi-opaque bottles (although drinks purchased in cans are clearly the exception that proves the rule); it is the manufacturers trying to ensure that there is nothing in their product that shouldn’t be – at least, when it left the factory. That said, it’s an excellent reason never to drink straight from a can. You never know what you might be sharing your lemonade with.

The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London

Some years ago, when I was a very small crime aficionado, I wrote to New Scotland Yard asking if I could make an appointment to visit their Crime Museum.  I received a very nice letter in response from the then curator, James Mackle, explaining that while he’d be happy to show me around, he felt that as I was only seven at the time, he’d be happier if I wrote again when I was a bit older.  I don’t think either of us expected the wait to be in the region of forty years – but that’s how things turn out sometimes.

This exhibition at the Museum of London displays only a part of the Crime Museum’s many exhibits and has been carefully curated to maximise public interest whilst minimising public offence – or speculation.  Any cases which remain unsolved or open are omitted from the galleries.  This has led to what I will later call “the 1975 Rule” and although I confess to finding it a little irritating, I quite understand the reasoning for it.  It is worth bearing in mind that some of the items on display relate to very recent events – certainly many of which I can remember quite clearly – and it is obvious that a great deal of care and consideration has gone into setting up the exhibition without causing unnecessary distress.

The very first item the visitor sees on entering the gallery is a 1996 Rover 826, painted white with the distinctive fluorescent yellow and red horizontal stripe down the side, surrounded by police crime scene tape.  This car would probably bring back memories for many people of a certain age; growing up on a South London council estate, the tell-tale “nee-naw” of the siren would inevitably be followed by tribes of children jeering at the “jam butties”, as these cars were known.  Happy days.

After a brief but fascinating history of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard in particular, which includes a lovely introduction into the creation of the Crime Museum itself, the visitor is led into the Victorian Crime section.  This would not be complete without at least a small reference to Jack the Ripper, and the reproduction of the “Dear Boss” letter as part of a wanted poster (Reward £100) was quite special.  The drawings and lithographs of some of the suspects gave a very human touch to a crime that has made itself a legend to London historians.

The exhibits generally are wide ranging and include the identity cards of a handful of prisoners, each of which include their measurements, distinguishing marks, a note of their crimes and interestingly, the sentences each received.  It is sobering when looking at these early mugshot photographs to reflect that some of these offenders received extensive custodial sentences when barely in their teens – usually for the theft of the equivalent of twenty pence.  It’s haunting, really.

Many of the exhibits in this section relate to crimes and criminals who are perhaps less well known than their twentieth century brethren – Charles Peace with his magnificent folding ladder being a case in point.  Sadly, this is a part of the exhibition that I can imagine some visitors rushing through, as it’s not well known and therefore not “interesting”.  It’s a dreadful shame, as this is a really interesting set of exhibits.  How else would you discover the wording of an execution order – or even that you could be executed for forgery in 1832?

In fact, I learned something here.  I had never heard of the Harley Street Mystery before now, yet it merited three exhibits in this section.  I still know very little about it, so my project now is to find out a bit more.  I hate not knowing these things.

Moving on from this room takes the visitor along a small corridor, one entire side of which is entirely dedicated to the work of the hangman.  It was fascinating to see the visible differences in rope thickness and drop length needed to accommodate the different physiques of the condemned.  I had some fun trying to work out which one was used to hang a woman – I got it horribly wrong, so perhaps that’s not a good career path for me.

On the other side of the corridor, alongside material featuring the trial of the Tichborne Claimant – a case I have never failed to find interesting – is an interactive sample of the Crime Museum’s Visitor’s Book.  Now this really was an eye-opener.  Whilst some entries are pretty understandable and almost to be expected, really – such as Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I would never have expected to see the names of a touring Australian cricket team and the cast of a Broadway show.  But there they were, alongside a former Prime Minister and the Governor of the Bank of England.  Remarkable.

The large exhibition room at the rear is the meat of the display, and is also where the impact of the curating decision is felt.  Twenty four individual cases dating between 1905 (The Stratton Brothers) to 1975 (The Spaghetti House Siege) are featured in some detail, featuring contemporary newspaper reports or Pathe newsreels alongside the sometimes grim exhibits. It was felt very strongly by the curators that no case after 1975 would be treated in this way to avoid upsetting surviving relatives, but also where possible, consent from relatives affected by the cases on display was sought and this is explained in the notice at the entrance to the room – please do take the time to read it.  This is what I call “the 1975 rule” and whilst I found it irritating – I would have liked to see, for example, something from Donald Neilson, the Black Panther – it is perfectly understandable and doesn’t detract in any way from the impact of the display.

Each of these exhibits, traversing the length of the right hand wall as you enter the room, is a case of historical or criminal importance, and they are very well labelled, identified and put into context.  Many of them are so well known – Ruth Ellis, Dr Crippen – that it is slightly like visiting old friends, but although some are less well known, they remain interesting and frequently gripping. And despite being forty, fifty, sixty years old, or even older, they are still able to provoke quite emotional reactions from some visitors.

Alongside these detailed examinations of key cases are themed displays, featuring exhibits used in the training of police officers.  It must also be pointed out that the 1975 Rule does not apply to these themed exhibits, so do not be surprised to find reference to the attempted Millennium Diamond heist in 2000.  Unsurprisingly, these displays take a much broader scope (although I did like the amount of detail in the Great Train Robbery section) and are considerably less specific.  That said, they really illustrated the amount of ingenuity and skill many criminals need to be successful at their chosen trade; and the espionage and counterfeiting sections, both quite large, really opened my eyes to just how clever these people can be.

Some of these themed exhibitions occupy island stands in the centre of the room, and I found these to be a little bit of a let down.  For a display that is visible on four sides, simply having the captions on one side is a little confusing and did detract from the enjoyment of the exhibits.  That said, they were extremely interesting, and the development of the Murder Bag from Sir Bernard Spilsbury to Sir James Cameron did seem to mirror the growth in the amount of stuff I have found in my handbag since becoming a parent.

At the far end of the gallery, and essentially the last display visitors will see before leaving the exhibition, is the terrorism section.  Now, in light of events in Paris which occurred the evening after I visited the museum, I have elected not to dwell on this section in any great detail, for obvious reasons; but the objects date from turn of the century Fenian bombs to the Downing Street mortars and a laptop computer found in a burned out car just after the 7/7 bombings in 2005.  It is all very powerful stuff and a display that does merit a very lengthy dawdle.

The Crime Museum Uncovered is a very well organised and generally well curated exhibition that will repay more than one visit.  It is surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking in places.  I was especially moved while standing in front of a burned out riot shield from the 1985 Tottenham Riots and trying to imagine how it must have felt to have been in a situation where your only form of protection is literally melting in your hands.  That said, it’s not perfect – no exhibition like this ever could be – but it was a very good mix of well known and lesser known crimes, all treated with the same meticulous respect and attention to detail.

If I have one quibble – and this reflects on my first paragraph – it would be the visitors.  On the day that I visited there were a number of toddlers and young children in the exhibition and some were becoming quite distressed, which did interfere with my enjoyment.  I do strongly think that exhibitions of this nature should have an age limit – it doesn’t have to be old, say twelve or thirteen – but it’s not an exhibition suitable for children.

Overall, was it worth waiting forty years for?  Very much so, and I expect I shall go again before it closes to the public in April 2016.  Once that happens, I fear I shall have to pen another letter to Scotland Yard – and see all the bits that I missed!