October 26th, 2020
The West London Museum of SpinesWith the plethora of Museums in the West of London, and the Natural History Museum at their forefront, it might be hard to imagine a palace of curiosities existing amongst the great titans of science and biology that rivals these hot spots in levels of intrigue and fascination. However, one such (that I know of) abode of the natural world exists with a rather odd specificity… The West London Museum of Spines. 3, Satherall Mews. Cast your mind back to the era before tele-mobiles and fax machinations, and you may remember a time in which the a-la-mode of communication was the written word, inked out by your very hand in order to convey messages of love and complaint in equal measure (though I hope not at the same time!). I would be completely sympathetic should you assume that letter writing has been the numero uno of interpersonal chit chat for as long as anyone can remember, or for the last few hundred years at least. Before letters it was probably large stone tablets or chiseled pieces of ceramic plate, lugged around the world to let people know their parking fines were overdue. Bear with me though, as I introduce to you (for the first time I guarantee) another form of conversing across distance that was popular with a very specific group in the late middle ages, and the remnants of which act as a rather chilling and gruesome reminder of the great lengths people will go to to get someone off their back. Imagine, if you will, the year 1612, perhaps not the most iconic of dates, not particularly well remembered for any major events. Trade in the ‘East Indies’ has kicked off to a booming start (with a shameful end), Shakespeare is the hot thing at the Theatre on the rough and dirty South Bank, and, importantly for us, the population of the UK (and probably beyond) is still rather superstitious about a concept called Witches. That’s right, suspicion of the unnaturally gifted runs deep through the hearts of the British people, some eighty years before the infamous events of Salem Massachusetts which we know and love toady. Witches could take any shape or size and it took particularly clever methods to uncover them, methods such as dunking. On the end of a long wooden arm a potential witch would be strapped to a chair and dipped into the water. The theory was that witches are extra buoyant and therefore float, (unlike regular humans) and so if the accused drowned, which witches could not, then they would have proved their innocence, their jubilant soul flying up to heaven on angels wings. If, however, they floated, they were charged with witchcraft and either hung or burned at the stake. Nasty way to go. Let’s jump back to today for moment… The details of being hung by the neck until dead, or burned alive I will not go into, rather I’ll leave that for you to find out about at some helpful, and optional, information stations at a museum hidden amongst some more prominent historical jewels. There you can read about some of the most famous and infamous executions to have taken place in the past centuries, in descriptive, but tactful detail. All of this rather uncouth history can be learnt about in the nondescript West London Museum of Spines- catchy! Perhaps the macabre nature of the institution explains its unknown position in the museums of London ranking board, but nevertheless, should you have a specific interest in this unholy method of seventeenth century SMS, your cravings may be sated at the WLMS. There they have on display various spines from various creatures over time. There are some animal which are mostly interesting for size comparison: the spines of small birds, the spines of some of the largest beasts that currently walk the earth, one fine specimen from the largest animal to have ever graced this good earth; the thick sweeping backbone of the blue whale. The animal display is merely a precursor to the vast collection of human spines, which brings me back to our good old 1612, four hundred years ago, when an unusual practice popped up after the Pendle Witch trial, as a result of which ten were hung. The story goes that after the bodies were taken down from the gallows and confirmed to be dead, they were given to a rather dodgy fellow who sold the cadavers on to the head of a medical institution based in Lancashire, who planned to practice his craft in secret, the public being generally mistrustful of things deceased (as we are today!). This man was Robert Johnson Prowd, and he was in contact at the time with another of his profession in the South named John Trevell Hatchins who was mightily interested in the specifics of witchcraft and its physical traits (think warts and long finger nails, but more medically inclined). Hatchins wanted the Pendle Witches but, being an unusually untrustworthy fellow, wanted reassurance he was getting the real thing from the North. To convince him of their supernatural origins, Prowd decided to exploit a superstition at the time which read that the bones of those endowed with witch craft were immune to injury by sword or knife. So, attached to the bodies which arrived at Hatchins’ surgery, was a letter, and I will leave you to decide, on visiting and viewing some of the more unusual specimens, what really happened in 1612… J. T. H., Here you will find the exact ingredients with which you will be able to concoct the alchemistic dream with which you have desired for so long to engage. As a method of clearly explaining their genuine nature, which I shall not put into plain words, I have endeavoured to make certain lacerations into the backs of each, thereby exposing their spinal cords, into which I have made sharp incisions. As we both rightly know, after much back and forth, for which I am most grateful, the very bones of certain folk are endowed with such energy as allows them the come back together in time shorter than should you or I take the like wound. On arrival, which I estimate to be not three days after I write this letter, you should find no such marks on the bones. Otherwise, Apologies. R. J. P.
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