The supernatural signs that unmasked murderers in early modern England
People in the Tudor and Stuart periods believed that, while God could not prevent humanity’s greatest crimes, he could reveal their perpetrators via miraculous signs. Blessin Adams explains how any strange and seemingly supernatural signs – from bird attacks to bleeding corpses – led to convictions for murder
In or just before 1591, in the city of Salisbury, a young, unmarried woman named Alice Shepheard was horrified to discover she was pregnant. If exposed she would be branded as a “bastard bearer”, a “harlot” and a “whore”, who could expect no more than ruination and exile from her community.
Like so many women in her situation, she hid her pregnancy and gave birth in secret, with only her grandmother and a sympathetic midwife in attendance. Alice was delivered of a healthy baby boy, but to save herself she killed him and then buried his body in a shallow grave in a nearby churchyard.
For a time the infant remained hidden, until a passing dog caught the scent of decay and “with his feete scraped it up out of the ground” and “laid it open to the eye of each passenger”. The unearthed body was soon noticed and the hue and cry of murder went out. The midwife, “touched in conscience”, gave both Alice and her grandmother over to the authorities. All three women were tried at the next assizes and sentenced to death.
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Reports of the case made much of the “wonderous discovery” of the murdered child. The dog, it was said, was not simply an animal driven by instinct to dig up a corpse, but a divine messenger who had been sent by God to uncover the heinous sin. “See the will and wonderfull woork of almighty God to reveale this most wicked act,” wrote one pamphleteer, who warned his readers that, through such miraculous signs, God would not suffer murder to go unpunished.
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The miraculous justice of God
True accounts of murder in the early modern period were often embellished with stories of the strange and supernatural. It was understood that God sent signs to reveal secret murder, “sometimes by birds, sometimes by beasts, and sometimes by the apparition of the person murdered”.
Common belief held that the benevolent hand of God played no part in the methods and motives of murder, but in his outrage God worked against sin by delivering justice through miraculous means. Such beliefs were not limited to the pages of true crime pamphlets. Coroners looked for divine signs in the corpses under their view, such as bleeding wounds or blinking eyes, which supposedly occurred only when the murderer drew near.
So deep was the belief in wondrous signs that suspects were put on trial on the basis of such “evidence”, and murderers whose consciences were burdened by the guilt of their sins were moved by divine signs to give themselves up to the authorities.
Case #1: murderer Ralph Suckey
In 1658, a Norfolk gentleman named Ralph Suckey murdered a man who had “done him great injury”. There was no evidence linking Suckey to the crime, yet he was gripped by a fear of wondrous discovery. Murderers, it was believed, “standeth in dread of everie bush, beast and bird, he imagineth that every thing discovereth his evill, and many times it falleth out, that the silly creatures of the earth detecteth him”.
One day, soon after the murder, Suckey was walking to Burnham village when he became disturbed by a flock of crows, whose cawing and cackling he imagined to be reproofs and accusations. Four of the birds broke away and with noisy cries swooped over Suckey’s head. This “did affright” him so badly, and worked to “open the guilt of his conscience”, that he felt compelled to approach a bystander to whom he expressed “words of great suspition”.
Murderers, it was believed, 'standeth in dread of everie bush, beast and bird, he imagineth that every thing discovereth his evill'
Suckey was presented to a justice of the peace whereby he gave a full confession. He was later indicted at the Thetford assizes for murder. The presence of crows in a Norfolk field was entirely unremarkable, yet Suckey’s belief in wondrous discovery resulted in him attaching a dreadful significance to their natural behaviour – a significance that forced him to confess his crime.
Case #2: the ghostly messenger of Middle Row
In other, more dramatic cases, bodies were revealed by ghostly apparitions. Belief in avenging spirits, ghouls, demons and witches was commonplace for people in the 16th and 17th centuries, and reports of the supernatural would have been considered true. On 16 March 1679, at a house in Middle Row, London, a maidservant had been sent to fetch night-clothes from an upstairs bed room. As she entered the chamber she was confronted by the ghostly image of the previous tenant, who had been a midwife.
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Belching fire and radiating bolts of lightning, this terrifying spirit instructed the maid to dig under the tiles of the downstairs fireplace. This message from the dead was relayed to the master of the house, who was sceptical but nonetheless had the tiles lifted. There he found the diminished remains of two little children, whose bodies were “so dried that they be reduced to small substance”.
The bones were carried to the Cheshire Cheese pub to be viewed by a curious public, and by several surgeons who agreed the bodies were very old. No one thought to question the maid’s story of a ghostly messenger, nor did they consider if she had buried the infants under the fireplace. They only marvelled that “no secret can overpass [God’s] boundless wisdom, nor escape his sight”.
Case #3: the flayed corpse
Even the smallest of coincidences leading to the discovery of murder could be interpreted as divine. As one pamphleteer wrote, “heaven can and will send, if not the sun of plain proof, yet at least the glimmering light of circumstance, to the detecting of the most secret murder”.
In London, on 25 March 1684, the subtle directions of God, it was believed, led to the discovery of the partial remains of an unknown victim. Several boys were playing close to the Falcon inn, on or near Gray’s Inn Lane, when they accidentally struck their ball into a nearby pond. One of the boys, stirring up the water with a stick, was surprised to see some hair floating near to the surface.
Believing it to be a periwig, the boy attempted to coax this “prize” to the water’s edge, only to find the hair was attached to a “whole human skin” that had been “flay’d off, in all its proportions, with hair, brest, ears etc” intact. The discovery of the skin was in its own right a frightening affair. Hundreds of spectators came to view the gruesome remains, “not only the ordinary sort, but the gentry in their coaches”.
During the inquest it was agreed that the killer must have been a man of remarkable skill to remove the skin so precisely. Strange, too, was the “unusual and amazing” manner in which the skin was found. The corpse, it was said, would have remained undiscovered had God not intervened by redirecting a ball in play.
Coroners and “cruentation”
People in the 16th and 17th centuries did not have to look very hard to find divine meaning in the discovery of bodies; they enthusiastically attached the label of wondrous discovery to the smallest instances of happenstance. In fact, such was coroners’ faith in the verity of divine intervention that they sometimes sought to reveal the identity of murderers through a miraculous test called cruentation.
Writing in 1597, James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England ) described it thus: “For as in secret murder, if the deade carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer [murderer], it will gush out of bloud, as if the bloud wer crying to the heaven for revenge”. Such tests were taken seriously, and the “testimony” of bleeding corpses was considered sufficient to place suspects under arrest.
People in the 16th and 17th centuries did not have to look very hard to find divine meaning in the discovery of bodies; they enthusiastically attached the label of wondrous discovery to the smallest instances of happenstance
In 1688, one Phillip Stansfield was tried for the murder of his father, because the corpse seeped blood through the winding sheet when he laid his hands on it. In court, the prosecution relied heavily on the evidence of the cruentation test to press their case, while Stansfield’s council tried in vain to dismiss it as mere superstition. The jury were evidently swayed by the arguments of the prosecution and Stansfield was sentenced to death.
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It was considered good practice for coroners to force suspects to touch the bodies of victims. It must have been an incredibly stressful experience for those forced to undergo the test, for who knew what signs might appear on the corpse, and how those signs could be read by a coroner on the lookout for divine intervention. Many innocent people were condemned on the evidence of cruentation, and murderers terrified of exposure often gave themselves away by their reluctance to submit to the test.
Case #4: Lincoln, who hired an assassin to kill his own children
A case from the village of Warehorne, Kent, in 1590, illustrates how the cruentation test forced confessions out of murderers. There was a widower, aged around 50, who was simply named as Lincoln. He wanted to remarry, but was frustrated because none of the women he courted were willing to take on his four children. One night, as he was drinking with a friend, he complained of this problem.
Over the course of several more drinks, Lincoln persuaded his friend to solve the matter for him, by agreeing to kill the children for a hefty fee of 40 shillings and a “goode cowe”. One morning in November, Lincoln put his plan into action. He locked the three younger children in his house before taking his eldest son to the market in Ashford.
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By former arrangement, the hired assassin let himself into the family home where he cold-bloodedly murdered the children. After a while, Lincoln sent his eldest son home ahead of him, with the intention that the boy would find the corpses of his siblings. Once the discovery had been made, and the neighbours alerted, Lincoln burst onto the scene to accuse his son of being the killer, hoping that the boy would be hanged for it.
The murdered children lay in Lincoln’s house for three days before he could be bothered to bury them in his cellar. Five days later the coroner arrived and ordered the bodies to be exhumed for examination. The coroner noted that the children had been buried below the waterline of a ground spring, and the bodies, having been submerged in water, were “verie cleer and white”.
Lincoln sent his eldest son home ahead of him, with the intention that the boy would find the corpses of his siblings
During the inquest several suspects were ordered forward to touch the bodies. This line-up presumably included Lincoln’s eldest son (though his name was not mentioned in any surviving record). As the hired murderer drew near, “the woundes began to bleede afresh” and the bodies “sodainly received their former colour of bloude”.
What the coroner observed was the natural post-mortem haemorrhaging of bodies recovered from water, which he interpreted to be the blood of murdered innocents crying out for vengeance. Amazed by the damning sight of bleeding wounds, the assassin not only confessed his crime on the spot, but he also implicated the father for his part in the killings. They were both arrested, found guilty at assizes, and executed in Ashford on 27 February 1591.
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Discovery, penitence and salvation
Today, more than 400 years after Lincoln and his accomplice were put to death, it can be hard for us to understand why people in the 16th and 17th centuries embroidered reports of true crime with fantastical descriptions of divine beasts and furious ghosts. Yet such practices have to be viewed in the context of their faith. Our ancestors were devoutly religious, and these stories of mystical detection allowed them to reconcile the horror of murder with an unwavering belief in a compassionate God.
Christian narratives of redemption held that sin must be followed by discovery, penitence and salvation. By situating murder within this context, believers could be reassured that God played no part in the crime, but worked on the side of truth and justice. Murder will out, and, by this dictum, our ancestors trusted that the darkest of crimes would be illuminated, and avenged, by the divine light of wondrous discovery.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine