One of the things I’m doing at the moment is browsing through nineteenth-century issues of the Gardeners’ Chronicle (online – God bless the Biodiversity Heritage Library!), cross-checking references to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. A lot of the material is predictable – notes on the Garden Syndicate reports to the Senate, short articles about developments in the garden, a researcher’s notes on earthworms – but occasionally something pops up which is truly bizarre. Take page 380 of New Series vol. 19 (1883).
The alleged crimes of 22-year-old laundress Sarah Malcolm (which, with her trial and execution, were recorded in the two rival papers, the London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, and in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and are summarised here) made her notorious in her day, not least because of the ‘brazen’ way in which she conducted her defence, and continued to protest her innocence even upon the gallows. (Her being a half-Irish Catholic will not have helped.)
Moreover, she was painted in her cell at Newgate by William Hogarth, genius and philanthropist, who is alleged to have said that ‘this woman, by her features, is capable of any wickedness’: a good story, but is it true? John Ireland (1742–1808: a Hogarth enthusiast and collector) suggested that if he made the comment at all, it was with the hindsight knowledge of her being found guilty of appalling crimes …
Hogarth followed his normal practice in producing prints based on the painting, but these were later hijacked by pirates who added gruesome or salacious details, such as the knife that did the deed (replacing the rosary in the original painting), and a particularly unpleasant version called ‘No recompence but love’, in which one of the priests who accompanied her to her death, the Reverend Mr Piddington of St Bartholomew the Great, chaplain to Newgate, is lampooned as having an inappropriate relationship with her. The development of the image can be shown in these examples.
The pages below which tell the story are taken from one of John Nichols’ ‘lives-and-works’ publishing jobs, The Genuine Works of William Hogarth, vol. 2 (1810). Nichols had published a life of Hogarth and a list of his works in 1781, and as disputes increasingly arose over the genuineness of some of the prints attributed to him, enlarged versions appeared in 1782 and 1785: these three volumes were published between 1808 and 1817. The Sarah Malcolm story appears in all the editions, and Hogarth also crops up frequently in Nichols’ Literary Anecdotes and Illustrations.
The lampoon in the Grub-Street Journal (for which, as it happens, John Martyn had been writing since 1730 …) cited above suggests that confession or repentance even at the last hour, will save Malcolm the ignominy of dissection ‘at Surgeon’s Hall’, a fate which Hogarth himself later depicted in his 1751 sequence, ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’.
But, of course, John Martyn was a physician – he actually began his medical practice as an apothecary – and though he may well have attended dissections, there is no evidence that he actually performed any (or indeed any surgical procedure) himself.
It was a rival publication, The Works of William Hogarth (2 vols., 1812), by Thomas Clerk, which ‘W.G.S.’ quotes in the Gardeners’ Chronicle. (Note that W.G.S. leaves out the salacious detail of the mystery man – thought by some to be Mr Kerrel, Malcolm’s employer – who kissed the body.) Clerk (whose account, as you can see, is mostly lifted direct from Nichols) has a footnote to the effect that the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1733 (which contains a really hideous distortion of the Hogarth image, ‘as near a resemblance … as this manner of printing will allow’) ‘erroneously’ said that she was buried in the churchyard of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.
But significantly, neither the GM nor the London Magazine – two contemporary accounts – says anything about the supposed dissection by ‘Professor Martin’.
The plot thickens further with the input of Walter Thornbury (1828–76), biographer of Turner, who in his Old and New London (1873), says that she was indeed buried (by special arrangement, as criminals had been excluded from the churchyard for 150 years) at St Sepulchre’s, but that: ‘The corpse of the murderess was disinterred, and her skeleton, in a glass case, is still to be seen in the Botanic Garden, Cambridge.’ However, Thornbury was well known for his taste in the ghoulish – Dickens, according to the ODNB, tried to steer him away from the macabre: ‘We must not have too many murders’ (letter, 10 July 1867) – and was not too careful about his facts.
Leaving the source of the dissection story to one side for the moment, is it possible to approach it from the Cambridge end? Thomas Martyn’s memoir of his father (originally published soon after the latter’s death) was reissued in 1830 as part of Memoirs of John Martyn, F.R.S., and of Thomas Martyn, B.D., F.R.S., F.L.S., Professors of Botany in the University of Cambridge, by George Cornelius Gorham, a grandson-in-law of Thomas, late fellow of Queen’s College, [sic!!!] Cambridge.
There is no account in the memoir of John Martyn carrying out any dissections – as mentioned above, it was not field in which he had any training or known experience. 1733 was a significant year for him, since on 8 February, ‘All opposition falling … before his superior merit’, he ‘was chosen Professor of Botany, by the unanimous voice of the University’. The only other mention of 1733 is as part of the period in which he was ‘engaged in the General Dictionary [a translation of Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, published between 1734 and 1741]; in which work, however, he was concerned no further than the three first volumes …’.
In any case, notoriously, there was no Botanic Garden at Cambridge in 1733, and although the Nichols/Clerk text says ‘afterwards’, it wasn’t until the 1760s, when Thomas Martyn (who was not a medical man) had succeeded his father, that the ‘old’ or Walkerian Garden, on what is now the New Museums Site, was established, at the instigation of Richard Walker of Trinity, who purchased the necessary land.
So, on the face of it, there is no obvious evidence to support this story. And yet, rumours persist … what about the ‘anatomy shed’ supposed to have been sited at the edge of the Walkerian Garden? What about the ‘Botanical Museum’ which gets a lot of mentions at the period – does this mean just the Martyns’ celebrated herbarium, or did it contain more Stuff? And if so, what happened to such Stuff when the Garden was moved in in the 1840s to its present site? Jane Magrath, who has written on Sarah Malcolm here, was told by the Botanic Garden in 1996 that it was ‘highly probable’ that the skeleton had been in the Garden, and ‘quite likely’ that it had been passed at some point to what is now the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where it now resides anonymously: but there doesn’t seem to be any proof – either in the accounts contemporaneous with Malcolm’s death, or in the history of the old and new gardens – at all.
The first Curator of the new garden, Andrew Murray (appointed by Henslow and Babington) made and published detailed plant lists covering the move: is there somewhere a note of all the odds and ends of the sort which any institution accumulates? Pamphlets fallen behind bookcases; ancient notepads full of indecipherable scribble; dusty empty box-files, kept because they might come in useful some day; the odd skeleton in a glass case … you can see how it might happen. But further investigation at both ends of the tangled web is clearly needed.