Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

A strange post-mortem 1/2

On “a wet and windy day, 14th December 1929, in an upper room of St. Edmund’s College, Ware, Hertford,” Dr Sutherland performed “the strangest post-mortem examination I have ever made, or that anyone is ever likely to make”. This is the first of two posts relating to the autopsy.

On 24th June 1654 John Southworth, aged sixty-two, was arraigned at the Old Bailey for being a priest of the Catholic Church and “a false traitor to this Commonwealth of England.” He pleaded not guilty to treason, but acknow­ledged his priesthood—for which in point of fact he had already been imprisoned many times. His main work was in Westminster, and in 1636 he had appealed to the Catholics of England for money to help the Catholic poor, then stricken by plague, starvation and unemployment. By this appeal he raised over 800 gold crowns.

At the Old Bailey his judges now urged him to plead “not guilty” to the whole indictment. They told him they had no evidence that he was a priest, and that if he pleaded “not guilty” to the whole indictment his life would be safe. Yet he refused to deny his religion, and two days later sentence of death was passed. “You shall be taken back to the prison whence you were brought, thence you shall be drawne to the place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until thou art half-dead: your head shall then be cut off, and the rest of your members divided into four parts shall be fixed up at the four usual points of the city, and may God have mercy upon you!”

This meant hanging until suffocated, emasculation, evis­ceration, and finally removal of the heart, all these organs being thrown on a fire, after which the corpse was quartered into head, trunk and lower limbs. In the case of priests the right hand, the hand that is raised in benediction, was also amputated with the axe and burnt. If the executioner was merciful his victim would be unconscious from strangulation before being mutilated.

On 28th June 1654 John Southworth was “drawne,” or, as we would write, dragged face downwards on a hurdle from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, near the present Marble Arch in Hyde Park. I mention this because being dragged on a hurdle was distinct from being drawn after hanging. The Oxford Dictionary gives over two dozen meanings for the verb “to draw,” and one is to disembowel.

John Southworth’s executioner was not merciful. What happened after the hanging is described by a witness, Lorenzo Paulucci, Venetian Secretary in England, in a letter to Giovanni Sagredo, the Ambassador in France: “Then in a fashion worse than barbarous, when he was only half-dead, the executioner cut out his heart and entrails and threw them into a fire kindled for that purpose, the body being quartered, one for each of the quarters of the city.” [1]

The quartered body was sent overseas in a fishing smack by one of the Howards of Norfolk to the English College at Douay. One of the cervical vertebrae was retained as a relic, but this was subsequently lost. At Douay the body was embalmed, placed in a lead coffin, and kept in the chapel. Soon afterwards the coffin was removed to the crypt, be­cause in the countryside around Douay a cultus of John Southworth had arisen, and some maintained that by in­voking his prayers miracles had occurred. This cultus had not been authorised by Rome, and so the coffin was removed from public view in order that the practice might cease.

The coffin remained in the crypt until 1793, when war was declared between England and France. The College authorities had anticipated the subsequent visit of Revolu­tionary troops, and on the night of 4th May 1793, as measure of precaution, the body of John Southworth in its lead coffin was secretly buried in a field near the College. At the same time a plan showing the site of interment was prepared by one of the priests at Douay, Father Stout. The plan was lost, and for 134 years the remains of John Southworth lay in an unknown grave.

In 1927 a new road was being constructed across a field near the College, and on the 15th of July workmen dis­covered a lead coffin at a depth of five feet. The lead was corroded and the embalmed remains in the coffin were sodden. The remains were sent to the medical school at the University of Lille, where they were dried in a current of heated air and then X-rayed. The body was that of a man who had been drawn and quartered, and the X-rays showed that one of the cervical vertebrae was missing. Was it the body of John Southworth ? More than one man has been drawn and quartered, embalmed and placed in a lead coffin. More than one body might have lost a cervical vertebra. As there was no inscription on the coffin the identity of the body was not yet established to the satisfaction of the authorities in Rome. Then in England two months later the original plan made by Father Stout was found in the archives of the English Benedictines, and the site marked on that plan was the place where workmen had found the coffin.

To be continued – next post 1 November 2017.

[1] Record Office, Venetian State Paper (unbound), 1654.

One comment on “A strange post-mortem 1/2

  1. Pingback: Happy Christmas! | Dr. Halliday Sutherland

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This entry was posted on 1 November 2017 by in Blessed John Southworth.

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