04 Aug 2008
It began with the best of intentions. The church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, in London was undergoing renovations, and among the plans was a memorial to be erected over the grave of John Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost” and other great works, who had died 126 years before. But first, they had to find the grave. Tradition had it that he had been buried in the chancel under the clerk’s desk, but was it true?
So they dug at the spot and found a leaden coffin, its outer wooden shell rotted away long ago and obviously of some antiquity.
Mission accomplished, right?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. What happened next was related in a pamphlet written by Philip Neve, an antiquary who was mad about Milton. He had been told that the coffin had been found, but it was only after it was too late that he learned of the ghoulish aftermath.
The night the coffin had been found, a group of men from the parish gathered at a pub in Beech Lane run by a Mr. Fountain, who was the parish overseer. Present were John Cole, the pawnbroker; John Laming; a surgeon by the name of Taylor; and William Ascough, a coffin maker. Cole broke the news about Milton’s coffin being found, and during the discussion (and drinking) that followed, a very good question was raised: How do we know Milton is in it? The custom of attaching an engraved plate to the coffin wasn’t used back in the 1670s, and anything written on the wooden box had been gnawed by worms long ago. Maybe there was something written inside the coffin, perhaps?
They probably drank on that thought for awhile, until someone said something like, “Perhaps we should find out.”
The motion carried, and the next day, the group reassembled at the church, with Ascough accompanied by Benjamin Holmes, an apprentice coffin maker. The coffin was still at the bottom of the grave, Holmes was charged with pulling it out and opening it. The lid was sealed, but groundwater had heavily corroded the lead, so with a chisel and mallet, he hammered at the lead until the upper half was forced open. For good measure, he also opened the other end.
Inside, the folds of the coarse linen shroud covered the body. Someone ripped it open, revealing a skeleton, its long hair still attached to its skull.
At that point, temptation reared its head. According to Neve’s account, the group fell upon Milton and plucked out the choice bits. Fountain, the guy who ran the pub, wanted Milton’s upper teeth, and when they resisted, “someone hit them a knock with a stone, when they easily came out.”
Laming, the pawnbroker, couldn’t seem to make up his mind; it all must have looked so good. He pocketed a tooth from the upper jaw and one from the lower. He handled the entire lower jaw, but decided against it and tossed it back into the coffin. He reached down into the shroud — one can imagine him plunging his arm into the dark reaches up to his shoulder — and came up with a leg bone that he discarded as well. He settled at last for the hair, which had been carefully combed and tied.
After they left, a gravedigger by the name of Elizabeth Grant took over. With considerable business acumen, she dragged the coffin under a pew. For a fee, she would like a candle, peel back the top and let the customer get an eyeful. She enlisted the help of some workmen to collect admission and keep an eye on the windows to make sure no one got in without paying. Business must not have been very good; she asked for sixpence at first, cut it in half, and then lowered it to twopence.
A few days later, news about Milton’s involuntary resurrection appeared in the Public Advertiser newspaper. Neve read the news and was horrified at these shenanagins. He went to the church and talked to everyone involved, and tried his best to rectify matters, buying back most of the remains and restoring them to the coffin.
But the damage was done. The news spread. William Cowper fired off “On the Late Indecent Liberties Taken With the Remains of Milton,” castigating as
Ill fare the hands that heaved the stones
Where Milton’s ashes lay,
That trembled not to grasp his bones
And steal his dust away!
But that wasn’t the end for poor Milton. After Neve’s pamphlet came out later in August, rumors spread that it wasn’t Milton in the coffin, but a woman. So Milton was dug up a second time and the surgeon in attendance examined the bones — what were left of them — and pronounced them to be masculine. Only then, was Milton, at last, allowed to rest.
Born: Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet, Field Place, Sussex, 1792; Saturday Evening Post, magazine, Philadelphia, 1821; Walter Pater, critic, essayist, humanist, London, 1839; William Hudson, author, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1841; Knut Hamsun (ps. Knut Pederson), novelist, poet, Lom, Norway, 1859; Robert Hayden, poet, Detroit, Mich., 1913; Anthony West, author, 1914; Rene Goscinny, comic-book writer, Paris, 1926.
Died: Hans Christian Andersen, children’s author, playwright, novelist, poet, memoirist, travel writer, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1875; James Welch, American Indian author, poet, Missoula, Mont., 2003.
Quote for the Day: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” — Walter Pater, who was born today in 1839