1662: A recipe for preserving severed heads

Thomas Ellwood (1639-1714) was an English Quaker, a friend of the poet John Milton and a significant author in his own right. Ellwood was born into a Puritan family but joined the Society of Friends in his late teens. He was twice arrested for writing inflammatory essays on religion and attempting to recruit others to Quakerism, and in late 1662 was thrown into Newgate prison for several weeks.

In his autobiography, published the year after his death, Ellwood recalled his experiences in Newgate, where he mingled with the scum of London: pickpockets, thugs and petty criminals. He remembered prostitutes being let into the prison on a regular basis:

“I have sometimes been in the hall in an evening and have seen the whores let in unto them… Nasty sluts indeed they were… And as I have passed them I heard the rogues and they [the women] making their bargains, which and which of them should company together that night.”

Ellwood also recalled his disgust at discovering the quartered bodies of three executed men stashed in a closet near his cell. He also witnessed their heads being treated by the executioner, so they could be put on display on a spike somewhere in London:

“I saw the heads when they were brought up to be boiled. The hangman fetched them in a dirty dust basket… he [and other prisoners] made sport with them. They took them by the hair, flouting, jeering and laughing at them, giving them some ill names [and] boxed them on the ears and the cheeks. When done, the hangman put them into his kettle and parboiled them with bay salt and cumin seed, [the first] to keep them from putrefaction, [the second] to keep the fowls from seizing on them.”

Source: The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood, by the Same, pub. 1715. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.