On this day 100 years ago, a New York newspaper announced the sad tale of May Gallick from the Bronx. May, aged 12, was under arrest in hospital after attempting suicide. What drove her to this desperate act? Teasing from her four year old brother:
In the late 18th century a Danish physician, C. M. Mangor, delivered a curious report to Copenhagen’s Royal Society. It concerned a series of “fiendish murders”, carried out by an unnamed farmer living near the capital. According to Mangor, the farmer had gone through three young wives in the space of a few years. Each wife had been in good health but died within a day or two of contracting similar symptoms.
The farmer’s own behaviour also aroused local suspicions. Six weeks after the death of his first wife he married a servant girl – but she lasted but a few years before falling victim to the mystery ailment, allowing the farmer to marry yet another maidservant. Eventually, in 1786, wife number three died from the same malady:
“About three in the afternoon, while enjoying good health, she was suddenly seized with shivering and heat in the vagina… Means were resorted to for saving her life but in vain: she was attacked with acute pain in the stomach and incessant vomiting, then became delirious, and died in 21 hours.”
At this point, Dr Mangor, then serving as Copenhagen’s medical inspector, arrived to investigate. He discovered the farmer had been poisoning his wives by “introducing a mixture of arsenic and flour on the point of his finger into the vagina” after sexual intercourse, a theory supported by Mangor’s postmortem examination:
“Grains of arsenic were found in the vagina, although frequent lotions had been used in the treatment. The labia were swollen and red, the vagina gaping and flaccid, the os uteri gangrenous, the duodenum inflamed, the stomach natural.”
The farmer was arrested and placed on trial. To prepare for his testimony Dr Mangor conducted a number of experiments on cows. “The results clearly showed that when applied to the vagina of these animals”, he wrote, “it produces violent local inflammation and fatal constitutional derangement”. The farmer, as might be expected, was found guilty; his punishment is unrecorded but it seems likely he was executed. The number of cows to die in the name of vaginal-arsenic justice is also not recorded.
In 1723, the mayor of Tenby, Thomas Athoe, and his son, also named Thomas, were apprehended and charged with murdering George Merchant. According to trial records, the two parties had quarrelled over the sale of some cattle. The Athoes also bore a grudge against George Merchant, who had “married a sweetheart of young Athoe’s”.
Seeking revenge, the Athoes tracked Merchant and his brother Thomas to a place called Holloway’s Water. Using “great sticks”, the Athoes knocked the Merchants from their horses and beat them viciously. They then fell into a frenzy of genital grabbing, George Merchant coming off the worst:
“Taking fast hold of [Thomas Merchant’s] privities, [Athoe Senior] pulled and squeezed him to such a violent degree that had he continued so doing a few minutes longer, it had been impossible for the poor man to have survived it. The pain he suffered is past expression, and yet it fell short of what his brother endured. Young Athoe… seized him by the privy members and, his yard being extended, be broke the muscles of it, and tore out one of his testicles, and calling to his father said ‘Now I have done George Merchant’s business!’ This horrible action occasioned a vast effusion of blood.”
As George Merchant lay dying, Athoe Junior caught hold of “the deceased’s nose with his teeth [and] bit it quite off”. Surgeons who examined Merchant’s body post mortem suggested that his wounds were “sufficient to have killed six or seven men”. The Athoes claimed to have acted in self-defence after being attacked by the Merchants, however, they produced no evidence of the aforementioned assault.
The Athoes were found guilty and transported to London. In July 1723, they were dispatched from a ‘hanging tree’ on the Canterbury Road, near present-day Walworth.
In 1456, a Hampshire man named Thomas Whytehorne was found hiding in the New Forest, arrested and convicted of several charges of theft. To spare himself from execution, Whytehorne agreed to provide the authorities with names of his accomplices, as well as other local criminals. He also offered to stand combat against anyone who disputed his accusations.
Whytehorne was a large and powerful man, so there were no takers – until he informed against a local boatman named James Fyscher. A devoutly religious man, Fyscher did not take kindly to being falsely accused of a crime. As a result, he invoked his right to trial by combat. The local lord agreed to Fyscher’s request and handed down a set of regulations for his combat with Whytehorne:
“[Both] must be clothed all in white sheep’s leather… They should have in their hands two staves of green ash, of three foot in length… and on the other end a horn of iron, made in the shape of a ram’s horn, the small end as sharp as might be made… If their main weapon is broken they must fight with their hands, fists, nails, teeth, feet and legs… They should make their foul battle upon the most sorry and wretched land that can be found about the town… They both must be fasting… and if they need any drink, they must take their own piss.”
The trial by combat took place in the town of Winchester. Accounts suggest that public opinion was firmly against Whytehorne, a career criminal who had a reputation for dishonesty. Nevertheless, Whytehorne’s strength won him an early advantage after he managed to break Fyscher’s weapon.
The magistrate stopped the trial and disarmed both men, leaving them to fight ‘tooth and nail’.The two men wrestled, punched and pinched for a considerable length of time, pausing several times for a breather. Then it turned particularly nasty:
“They did fight with both their teeth, such as the leather of their clothing and their flesh was torn on many parts of their bodies. And then the false accuser [Whytehorne] cast the innocent [Fyscher] down upon the ground, and did bite his private member, causing the innocent to cry out. And then with a new strength, the innocent recovered to his knees that took the false accuser’s nose with his teeth and put a thumb into his eye, that the appellant cried out and prayed for mercy, admitting that he had accused falsely against him [Fyscher] and 18 other men.”
According to a contemporary chronicler, Whytehorne was immediately hanged for making false accusations. Fyscher was cleared and released, though he was by now severely wounded. The only thing said of Fyscher’s fate was that he “went home, become a hermit and within a short time died”.
In the 14th century, as today, a wayward spray of urine could land a man in an argument or a fight. On New Year’s Day 1322 – ironically also the feast of Christ’s circumcision – a young man named Philip de Asshetidone was emptying his bladder when he was joined at the urinal by William, son of Henry atte Rowe:
“William… stood at the top of St Vedast lane, near Chepe, and made water into a certain urinal [but] he cast the urine into the shoe of [Philip] and, because the latter complained, the said William struck him with his fist…”
According to a coronial report, William picked up a baton dropped by Philip and:
“…feloniously struck the said Philip over the forehead, inflicting a mortal wound an inch long and penetrating to the brain so that he fell to the ground, and was thence carried by men unknown for charity’s sake to the said hospital where he had his ecclesiastical rights… He died at the third hour of the said wound.”
Three bystanders escorted William off to prison but his subsequent fate is not recorded.