Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads

William_Wynne_Ryland_attempting_suicide

William Ryland, a forger, attempting suicide. He was later executed for his crimes, and would most likely have been interred in an ignoble crossroads grave.

Burial customs vary wildly across the long span of human history. From the mysterious bog burials of Northern Europe to Egypt’s elaborate tombs and mummification procedures, how a culture disposes of its dead can reveal much about its customs and values. This is true both of conventional, reverent burials, and of profane burials.

A burial is considered “profane” when the body of the deceased is somehow desecrated to show disapproval  of the person’s actions in life. One more modern example of a profane “burial” was when the bodies of the Nazi war criminals who were executed in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials were cremated and secretly scattered into a river. This was to prevent Nazi holdouts from using their graves as a kind of shrine, and it sent the clear message that society deemed their actions so abominable that it their punishment extended beyond the end of their lives.

Perhaps some of the strangest examples of profane burials comes from medieval Europe, particularly England. Lonely rural crossroads in England host a dark, sad secret. Many are the sites of profane burials, where the bodies of suicide victims were laid to an uneasy rest.

 

Suicide—A Crime Against God and Man

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas

In the modern world, suicide is viewed with largely sympathetic eyes. While a lot of stigma still exists around the topic, and there are certainly a lot of myths and misunderstanding around it, by and large the average person today has more sympathy for suicide victims than the average person in medieval and late medieval England.

In the medieval world, suicide was seen as a crime against God and Man. Thomas Aquinas, whose works profoundly influenced medieval theology, posited that suicide was sinful for three reasons. The first was that killing oneself violated the divine order: God gives life and takes life away, and taking your own life is taking that decision out of God’s hands into your own. The second reason was that suicide was a crime against society, because everyone belongs to a community and killing yourself does harm to that community. Finally, the act of suicide upends the natural law, because the natural tendency of living things is to try to preserve its own life, not lose it.

These ideas were reflected in the laws and customs of the day. Suicides faced spiritual consequences for their actions: they were denied a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground and posthumously excommunicated, which put their souls in jeopardy of being trapped forever in purgatory or worse being sent directly to hell.  They also faced legal penalties. Suicide was deemed a felony, a crime against the Crown. This is stemmed from the feudal system of early medieval England, where landless peasants swore fealty to lords, who in turn swore fealty to the king. Depriving ones lord, and ultimately thing king, of one’s labor by killing oneself was seen as theft,  and the Crown was in its rights to seek repayment in the form of the deceased’s property. It was common then for a suicide’s property to be confiscated by the monarchy, and for families to go to great lengths to conceal suicides to prevent this.

This situation led to a fairly complicated legal dilemma surrounding suicide. Suicides were tried posthumously, by jury (as an aside, attempted suicide was also a crime.) Suicide was considered a felo d se (Latin for “felon of himself”), but for a crime to be considered a felony, it had to be committed with malicious intent. Even medieval and late medieval people recognized the role of mental illness in suicide. While the level of sympathy varied depending on the time period, by and large suicides that were due to such things as severe mental illness and debilitating pain from physical illness were more kindly looked upon.  In the late medieval/early modern period, English law recognized the concept of non compos mentis (“not of sound mind”), although through most of the period the majority of suicides were ruled as felo de se.

Once a suicide was determined to have indeed been done with premeditation, the gruesome custom of a profane crossroads burial would commence.

 

Where Christianity and Pagan Folkways Collide

Once a suicide was deemed a felony, the body would be stripped naked then tied to a wagon and dragged through the streets to a crossroads far from town. There, in front of a crowd of witnesses, the body would be desecrated. This could be achieved in a variety of ways. The body might be laid in the grave north to south (Christians were buried East to West), face down, and then staked through the heart. The body might have been staked through the heart, then decapitated and the head placed between the legs. Some bodies were buried under a pile of stones, a very visible symbol for passersby.

Crossroads were also chosen because it was believed that the ghost of a suicide, who would come up out of their grave at night, would be confused by the choice of four paths and stay deliberating until dawn (but heaven help anyone who stumbled across them in the meantime!) Stakes were utilized to pin the spirit into place and keep it from getting out of the grave, and to deny them from rising up to meet God come Judgment Day.

The custom came from a collision of Christian thought and pagan folkways. Crossroads have long been a place where the walls of reality were thought to thin, where the spirit world could more easily bleed into our corporeal world. They were places for the spirits, for demons, and for things “outside” the community. Ancient cultures would often leave garbage and other unclean materials at crossroads. Burying the bodies of executed criminals at crossroads was also common, probably also for the practical reason that it would send a vivid message to any travelers on the road and make them rethink any nefarious doings they might be planning.

Suicides, then, were lumped in with murderers and other criminals and treated as such, although their crime was considered more heinous by medieval and early modern people than even murder, largely due to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning outlined above.

 

The End of Crossroads Burials

King George IV

King George IV

Crossroads burials continued straight through the medieval and early modern periods into the 19th century. The last known crossroads burial occurred in June 1823. Abel Griffiths was a 22 year old law student who killed himself after murdering his father. He was buried at a crossroads in the traditional manner. The crowd attending the spectacle held up George IV’s carriage. The burial was highly criticized in papers, and public outcry combined with pressure from the King led to the 1823 ‘Burial of Suicide Act’.

While suicide was viewed more sympathetically at that time, suicides were still buried on the north side of churchyards, with unbaptized infants, the excommunicated and executed criminals. Up until 1870, the government could still seize suicide victim’s property, and religious sanctions also continued. Suicide was a criminal act in England right up until the Suicide Act of 1961.

Society as a whole has come a long way when it comes to attitudes toward suicide, although there is still a lot of progress to be made. The graves of those poor souls who succumbed to suicide so many years ago still dot the English countryside, silent reminders of the superstitious past.

 

Sources:

Halliday, Robert. “Criminal graves and rural crossroads.” British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997. Retrieved from: http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba25/BA25FEAT.HTML

Kushner, Howard L. “American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration.” Rutgers University Press. January 1, 1991. Pgs 17-20

Laskey, Mark. “Rites of Desecration: Suicide, Sacrilege, and Profane Burial at the Crossroads.” Cvltnation.com. September 8, 2014. Cvlt Nation. September 26, 2015. http://www.cvltnation.com/rites-of-desecration-suicide-sacrilege-and-profane-burial-at-the-crossroads/

 

Estrogen, Espionage, and The Plot to Turn Hitler Into a Woman

"Adolf Hitler-1933" by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons -

“Adolf Hitler-1933” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –

In the struggle against Nazi Germany, the Allies pursued any idea that seemed like it would give them an edge over their enemy, no matter how ludicrous it might have seemed. Of particular interest was any plan that would eliminate Adolf Hitler. Allied planners believed—rightly so—that killing or incapacitating Hitler would be a blow that Nazi Germany could not recover from.

However, killing the dictator of a highly militarized and paranoid society would not be an easy task. So some plans focused more on embarrassing and discrediting the Nazi leader. Most of this took the form of propaganda, but the most bizarre was the plot concocted by the British OSS (the Office of Strategic Services) to feminize Hitler by slipping estrogen into his food.

Research on sex hormones was in its infancy, but estrogen was already in use in London as a part of sex therapy. The thought was that estrogen would curb Hitler’s aggressive tendencies, and make him more like his sister, Paula, who was a mild-mannered secretary. There was also some among the Allies who questioned the dictator’s sexuality, and thought that changing his hormonal profile would swing him more toward homosexuality. This was partially due to the rumor, since debunked, that one of his testicles was blown off during his service in World War I. At the very least, planners hoped that the hormones might cause his voice to increase in pitch, perhaps making him a laughing stock in his own country.

The reason why the estrogen would be introduced into Hitler’s food was because there were spies in British employ who could have access to the dictator’s meals. Hitler employed food testers, so a lethal poison could be easily discovered, but estrogen is tasteless and its effect would be gradual enough to slip under the radar.

Even in its day, this plan was considered a long shot. There is no real evidence that steps were taken to implement it.  This was far from the only strange plot considered during Word War II, but it is perhaps the oddest.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/8701034/Revealed-sex-hormone-plan-to-feminise-Hitler.html

https://books.google.com/books?id=tJkjWQINrOgC&pg=PA119&dq=hitler+sex+hormones&hl=en#v=onepage&q=hitler%20sex%20hormones&f=false

http://theweek.com/articles/482449/bizarre-plan-turn-hitler-into-woman

Mystery at Cladh Hallan: Who Were the Scottish “Frankenstein” Mummies?

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found. "Bronze Age Settlement - geograph.org.uk - 1340839" by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found.
“Bronze Age Settlement – geograph.org.uk – 1340839” by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Mummification of various forms is a remarkably consistent feature of many cultures across history. Sometimes this form of preservation comes with an elaborate religious practice, such as the Egyptian belief that mummifying the body and providing it with funeral goods it could use in the afterlife would ensure that the deceased would have happiness in the next world. In other cases, mummification occurred largely by accident, a result of unrelated rituals or perhaps murder. This is the case, it is believed anyway, for many bog mummies. Some were likely killed in ritual murders performed for religious reasons, while many were victims of accidents or more “run of the mill” murders.

Until recently, the mummies of Europe’s distant past fell into the category of accidental mummies. More and more evidence is coming to light that points to deliberate mummification, but with a bizarre twist unique to its time and place in history. Such evidence surfaced in 2001 at Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. A pair of 3,000 year old skeletons, one male and one female, were found buried in the fetal position. They showed evidence of preservation; it is believed that they were initially preserved in nearby peat bogs, before eventually being retrieved and buried in soil, where their bodies decomposed, leaving bones behind. One quirk of bogs is that they preserve flesh and soft tissues well, because they provide an anaerobic environment that prevents microbes from growing. However, bogs are bad at preserving bones because they are acidic, so most bog mummies are found with soft or nearly none existent bones. Clearly, the local people knew enough about the nature of the bogs to let bodies sit long enough to be preserved, but not so long that their bones turned to mush.

But these mummies contained one more secret, one that is bizarre and unprecedented in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Both skeletons were composites. The torso, skull, and neck of the male skeleton belong to three separate males. The skull, torso, and arm of the female skeleton also belonged to three separate people. Oddly enough, the skull on the female skeleton belonged to a male, and was added as late as 200 years after the body was first interred.

The people of Bronze Age Scotland left no written records, so the reasoning behind this bizarre practice is lost to history. Archeologists can only speculate. Perhaps the mixing of the bodies was a symbolic means of merging family lines and bringing together clans.

These composite skeletons are remnants from a dim period of history, where the rituals were strange and appalling to modern eyes. The next question is whether this practice was widespread, or if it was a quirk of this region of Scotland. No one knows for certain, because typically DNA tests are only done on one part of ancient remains to preserve the sample. A closer examination and sampling from more parts of ancient skeletons could reveal more composite bodies in the future.

Sources:

http://www.archaeology.org/issues/61-1301/features/272-top-10-2012-frankenstein-mummies

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120706-bog-mummies-body-parts-frankenstein-ancient-science/

Assassinating the Bosnian National and University Library

The nearly finished reconstruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Sarajevo, knihovna" by This image is a work by Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons user Aktron.When reusing, please credit me as: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.I would appreciate being notified if you use my work outside Wikimedia.Do not copy this image illegally by ignoring the terms of the license below, as it is not in the public domain. If you would like special permission to use, license, or purchase the image please contact me to negotiate terms.More of my work can be found in my personal gallery.cs en +/−cs en mk pl sr +/− - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -

The nearly finished reconstruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Sarajevo, knihovna” by This image is a work by Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons user Aktron.When reusing, please credit me as: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.I would appreciate being notified if you use my work outside Wikimedia.Do not copy this image illegally by ignoring the terms of the license below, as it is not in the public domain. If you would like special permission to use, license, or purchase the image please contact me to negotiate terms.More of my work can be found in my personal gallery.cs en +/−cs en mk pl sr +/− – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons –

Serbian nationalist general Ratko Mladic faced a massive army, numbering 1.5 million. The army didn’t threaten with bullets of the conventional type. Paper and ink can cut deeper than lead. At 10:30 PM, August 25, 1992 Mladic turned his artillery on the neatly arranged soldiers.

The Bosnian National and University Library burned.

People rushed in to rescue as many books as they could. Firefighters arrived, but General Mladic’s soldiers fired withering volleys from machine guns placed on the hills around the library. Antiaircraft shells rained down on fire hoses and engines. Under the barrage, citizens, soldiers, and firefighters were forced to retreat.

It looked like General Mladic’s assassination of the library succeeded.

The surviving firefighters and citizen book lovers were undaunted. When night fell, rescue efforts resumed. Though the library burned during the day, some books were saved at night. Paper fluttered like snow. This continued for several days, all the while Serbian soldiers threatened from the hills.

The Bosnian National and University Library wasn’t the only library on a hit list. Serbian nationals attacked libraries, museums, and archives throughout Bosnia. Their goal was to erase all evidence that ethnic purity was a myth. Bosnian culture came from a mix of different cultures and ideas, and this threatened the nationalist movement more than soldiers.

Libraries and other knowledge arks are commonly targeted during war. Books and ideas threaten often shaky foundations of revolutions. Nazi’s waged their own war on books and libraries. Even in the United States, libraries face challenges from people who feel threatened by ideas different from their own. Books are weapons and soldiers. Throughout history, institutions marked certain documents for assassination…along with their writers. Martin Luther’s tracts during the Protestant Reformation come to mind. If anything, the intellectual freedom Americans and other Westerners enjoy today is oddly historical.

 

References

Battles, Matthew. (2003) Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.