‘Well, before the age of photography, her head was preserved in spirits and put on display for members of the public to identify her’
Three days after Christmas in 1836, PC Samuel Pegler was patrolling Edgware Road, when he was called to a flagstone that had been covering a large sack. Inside he found the nude torso of a woman, inclusive of arms, but without legs or a head.
In 1836 crime scene investigation was almost non-existent, as scientific developments had not yet been made. Police officers loaded the woman’s torso on to a wheelbarrow they got from a local building site and took it to Paddington Workhouse. A surgeon established the victim was above average height, middle-aged, and had no signs of disease. He also noted the mark of a wedding ring on her finger, and the victim had an unusual deformity that would have left her incapable of having children. Officer Pegler noted the body could have been there for several days. He recovered a cord, some cloth and bloodstained wood shavings that seemed to be connected to the sack.
Days later, a lock-keeper from Stepney found a human head blocking one of the sluice gates in the Regent’s canal. It had been sawn from its body and belonged to a woman aged around forty years of age. The head bruising over one eye and a torn earlobe.
Well before the age of photography, they preserved her head in spirits and put on display for members of the public to identify her. This had become a popular draw, but stimulated morbid curiosity rather than provide evidence as to her identity. Eight weeks later, a man found a sack containing a pair of legs in a ditch in Camberwell, and they appeared to fit the torso of the victim. The body was now complete, but the woman was still unidentified.
William Gay became concerned he’d not heard anything from his sister, Hannah Brown. He was unsure about recognising her from her head, but his sister had an ear injury from a pulled-out earring, and this was consistent with the head found by officer Pegler. Hannah Brown had been due to marry James Greenacre from Camberwell, but the wedding was called off by Greenacre, who accused Hannah of deceiving him by telling him she had savings.
The identification of the body was a breakthrough. When Greenacre was arrested, his new girlfriend, Sarah Gale, was found with Hannah Brown’s earrings, whilst one of Sarah Gale’s children’s dresses was patched with material matching the cloth found in Edgware Road.
After denying knowing Hannah Brown, Greenacre stated they were both drunk and killed her accidentally in an argument by hitting her over the head. Medical evidence used in the trial showed the many parts of the body fitted together. The evidence established Hannah’s throat had been cut before, and not after, death, and her stomach had contained no alcohol.
Greenacre was arrested, tried, and found guilty at the Old Bailey. In the trial they described how Greenacre had meticulously wrapped the head in a handkerchief, before disposing of it, and scattering the limbs elsewhere.
They hung Greenacre at Newgate on 2 May 1837. The case generated a huge public interest. Great crowds gathered at Newgate to see the hanging. Sales of memorabilia, such as mugs and flags, accompanied the spectacle. The executioner, the celebrated William Calcraft, was notorious for a short drop on the rope, meaning his victims took a longer time to die.
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