Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Milton's Teeth

I recently wrote about mistreatment of corpses after burial. Since then a couple of related items have come to my attention.

The first is J.H.M. Strube, "Cursed be he that moves my bones," in Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, edd. Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 33-59, a study of ancient Greek funerary imprecations, defined as "curses that are clearly and publicly written on the gravestone by the owner of the tomb (who does not conceal his identity) to warn any potential wrongdoer that evil will befall him in case he should violate the grave in defiance of the legitimate prohibitions to do so."

The second is a poem by William Cowper entitled Stanzas on the Late Indecent Liberties Taken with the Remains of the Great Milton. The poem itself is less interesting than the note attached to it:
This shocking outrage took place in 1790 whilst the Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, was repairing. The overseers (for the sake of gain) opened a coffin supposed to be Milton's, found a body, extracted its teeth, cut off its hair, and left the remains to the grave-diggers, who exhibited them for money to the public.
There is a contemporary account of this outrage available on the World Wide Web, A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton's Coffin in the Parish-Church of St Giles, Cripplegate on Wednesday, 4th of August, 1790, and of the treatment of the corpse, during that, and the following day, from which these are extracts:
Mr. Fountain told me, that he pulled hard at the teeth, which resisted, until some one hit them a knock with a stone, when they easily came out. There were but five in the upper-jaw, which were all perfectly sound and white, and all taken by Mr. Fountain; he gave one of them to Mr. Laming: Mr. Laming also took one from the lower-jaw; and Mr. Taylor took two from it. Mr. Laming told me, that he had at one time a mind to bring away the whole under-jaw with the teeth in it; he had it in his hand, but tossed it back again.
Elizabeth Grant, the grave-digger, and who is servant to Mrs. Hoppey, therefore now took possession of the coffin; and, as its situation, under the common-council-men's pew, would not admit of its being seen without the help of a candle, she kept a tinder-box in the excavation, and, when any persons came, struck a light, and conducted them under the pew; where, by reversing the part of the lid which had been cut, she exhibited the body, at first for 6d. and afterwards for 3d. and 2d. each person. The workmen in the church kept the doors locked to all those who would not pay the price of a pot of beer for entrance, and many, to avoid that payment, got in at a window at the west end of the church, near to Mr. Ascough's counting-house.
I guess the workmen in the church thought that "malt does more than Milton can / to justify God's ways to man."

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