Buried At The crossroads

Here’s a little extra for Hallowe’en, proving that old customs lingered on in some rural parts of England. It’s from the Bury and Norwich Post.

October 2nd 1783

There was an inquisition taken at Ballingdon in Essex near Sudbury on the body of Mr Harwood, a millwright of the place who on the day before poisoned himself by taking two ounces of arsenic, he remained in agony for five hours then died. The jury brought forward a verdict of self murder. On Sunday morning he was buried in the crossway with a stake driven through his body near the pound on Ballingdon Hill, agreeable to the sentence which the law thought proper to denounce on those who are guilty of this enormous crime.

Obviously some people in rural Essex still thought that the ghosts of suicides, unable to rest, would wander and bring mischief to the neighbourhood.

Here’s another similar burial a few years later, though without the stake. It’s from the same source.

September 19th 1787

There was an inquisition at Acton on the body of Edward Dove who was accidentally killed by the overturning of a load of barley. Also at Wortham on James Cooper who was found hanging in the hay loft. Self murder, the body was accordingly buried on the King’s highway.

Both go beyond mere burial in unconsecrated ground. I don’t know the source of the custom of burial at the crossroads or in the highway, but it’s quite ancient. In the mediaeval church, suicide was considered a heinous sin, so burial at the crossroads might have been linked to where gibbets often stood. A suicide was as much a murderer in the eyes of the church as any other, even if the person ‘murdered’ was yourself. It might also be that the shame of such a burial was designed as a deterrent to others.

As for the stake through the body, this suggests pinning the corpse, and thus the ghost, in the grave. In 2012, a skeleton was found at Southwell in Nottinghamshire with iron pins holding it down in several places. I’m not sure the idea of vampires existed much in England, so it was more likely a general notion of preventing malignant spirits from wandering than a specific against vampires.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to Buried At The crossroads

  1. jamesdhobsonuk says:

    Interesting to see that verdicts of felo do se were still reached in an era when they were becoming less common.I wrote about suicide recently too and was surprised by the “modern” responses on the later regency period


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