History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
The lure of horrors—Beginnings of the "Dead Room"—Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A., sketches a suicide—Burke and Hare—Fieschi's infernal machine—Greenacre—Executions in Public—"Free at last!"
Crime may be secret, but never secure.—OLD PROVERB.
IN citing the old aphorism that society itself creates the crimes that most beset it, we shall in no way be tempted to regard the popularity of the Chamber of Horrors as due to any desire on the part of the people to visit the place with the object of gazing upon the result of their own handiwork.
An inquiry into the motives that induce the public to visit this gloomy chamber scarcely comes within the scope of this work. But that a very large number do visit the place in the course of each year, and that they cannot be deemed to belong to any particular class, but represent, . without distinction, all classes of society, we may, of our own certain knowledge, aver without the slightest hesitation.
Were we, however, if only from an abstract point of view, to venture an opinion on the vexed question as to why so many have a leaning towards the seamy and sinister side of life, we should be disposed to consider that, apart from the allurement of the abnormal and the inclination to indulge a morbid curiosity, perhaps the chief influence serving to stimulate the mind of the public when a great crime has been perpetrated in a genuine concern that a serious outrage has been made on society, constituting a veritable menace to its security.
We have stated in a former chapter that Curtius, more than a century ago, had allocated a part of his Museum in Paris to models of men of ill-repute, and had named it the "Caverne des Grands Voleurs." How far this place approximated to the present Chamber of Horrors we cannot say, but it certainly must have created a precedent for the placing of the portraits and the relics of lawbreakers in a place separate and apart from the main and more reputable portion of the Exhibition.
In 1802, when Madame Tussaud crossed the Channel to establish her Exhibition permanently in this country, she did not., in all probability, find it easy to obtain an additional room for these figures, especially when touring through the provinces. Nevertheless, when she had to exhibit her models in the same hall, she undoubtedly differentiated, to the best of her ability, between the famous and the infamous by grouping the models of evil-doers in a corner by themselves.
When the Exhibition was opened in Baker Street, the Chamber of Horrors became a recognised feature of the collection. It was at first called the "Dead Room," although some designated it the "Black Room," owing to its sombre aspect.
Its chief exhibit at that time was the guillotine, surrounded by the impressions of heads that had been decapitated by it. Here also was shown the model of Marat dying in his bath, besides many other relics of the Revolution. Indeed, it might have been regarded as the nucleus of an historical museum dealing exclusively with the last days of the old French Monarchy. Even the walls were constructed and draped in imitation of the interior of the Bastille, the principal keys of which were shown therein as mementoes of unusual interest.
"Mr. Punch" made his début before the British public somewhere during the early forties, and, as already indicated, he took an early opportunity of referring to this part of the Tussaud collection as the "Chamber of Horrors," by which title it has been known ever since.
The number of persons visiting this extra room during these days was not great, except on those occasions when the business was galvanised into activity by the addition of a portrait-model of some unworthy being who happened for the nonce to figure largely in the public eye.
There came into our possession at a time beyond my memory a singular and valuable sketch, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, of the alleged murderer, Williams, as he appeared directly after he had hanged himself in Coldbath Fields prison.
Williams was accused of the murders of the Marr and the Williamson families in the East End of Lon-don under peculiarly brutal circumstances. These massacres, which were committed in December, 1811, caused an immense sensation, and inspired the remarkable monograph of de Quincey entitled Murder as One of the Fine Arts.
How Lawrence came to make such a drawing, and what induced so refined and dignified a person to interest himself in a subject so repulsive, it is difficult to understand. Although Làwrence had not then been elected to the presidency of the Royal Academy, he held a high position in society as the first portrait painter of his day.
We give an illustration of the sketch in question which is quite authentic.
Until 1823 it was directed that the body of a suicide should be buried in a cross-road and have a stake driven through it, and there can be little doubt that that of Williams was thus treated. It was not, indeed, until 1882 that an Act was passed putting an end to this barbarous custom.
This circumstance readily calls to mind Tom Hood's description of the fate that befell Ben Battle, the victim of Faithless Nelly Gray:
A dozen men sat on his corpse,
Of the characters that became, in course of time, suitable objects for the "Dead Room" we have neither the space nor the inclination to dwell upon, but a passing reference to two or three that helped to give the place its present distinctiveness may prove interesting.
The hideous crimes perpetrated by Burke and Hare, to which slight reference has already been made, took place about the year 1828, and the memory of those crimes was still fresh in the mind of the public when we opened in Baker Street; indeed, a matter of six years could not suffice for its obliteration.
The appalling revelation that it was not only possible, but easy, for one's neighbour to be decoyed away, put to death, and his body sold, without question, for a sum varying from £8 to £14, aroused a feeling of consternation throughout the country of a very real and lasting character.
The high prices paid for bodies required for dissection had begotten this terrible traffic. At least sixteen murders had been traced to these miscreants, but the evidence at the trial failed to answer the question "How many more?"
Burke was executed in January, 1829, on the strength of Hare's evidence, so that for nearly a century have the portrait-models of these two notorious criminals stood facing each other. There are to this day many visitors who, on catching sight of their for-bidding features, seem to recognise them, and make ready comment, without the aid of a Catalogue, on the leading circumstances associated with their nefarious careers.
The very first startling event that furnished a subject for the "Dead Room," when the Exhibition opened in Baker Street in 1835, was the attempt on the life of Louis Philippe, King of the French, four months later.
It had been the custom of His Majesty to review the Gardes Nationales and the garrison of Paris on each anniversary of the Revolution of 183o. For some considerable time the King and his Government had been growing very unpopular, and many warnings had been given him to desist from this military function; but, in spite of all advice, he persisted in holding the review.
The anniversary of the Revolution was on the 28th of July, and the King, followed by a numerous Staff, left the Tuileries at half-past ten on the morning of that day, accompanied by his three sons, the Ducs d'Orléans, de Nemour, and de Joinville.
In passing along the Boulevard du Temple—and, strange to say, when almost opposite the site of Curtius's old Museum—a noise was heard resembling an irregular musket fire. In an instant the road and pavement at the point where Louis had been riding was strewn with dead and dying men and horses, and amid the mêlée the King, slightly wounded in the forehead, stood alone by the side of his injured horse.
More than forty persons had been struck and nine-teen killed or mortally wounded. Among the latter was Edward Joseph Mortier, Duc de Trevise, the famous Marshal of Napoleon I.
After a few moments' suspense, attention was directed to a cloud of smoke issuing from the third-floor window of a house on the Boulevard. Herein was discovered a machine composed of a row of twenty-five gun-barrels so arranged as to cover the cavalcade as it passed the premises. It had been fired by a train of gunpowder, with the result that several of the barrels had burst on the discharge.
The room was empty, but from one of the back windows of the house the police caught sight of a man huddled up in a corner of the courtyard below. He was trying to stanch the blood , which was flowing from a great wound in his head. In spite of his injury, caused by his firing of the infernal machine, he had had the strength to stagger out of the room, seize a rope, secure it to a window, and by its means escape from the house.
The man turned out to be Giuseppe Fieschi, a rabid conspirator. Our model of him was added some weeks after the event, and, being placed by the side of an exact copy of the machine he had used, the man and his diabolical contrivance proved of considerable interest, a circumstance that substantially assisted to establish the Exhibition as a permanent London attraction.
This political crime was, however, soon eclipsed by one of a particularly sordid character committed much nearer home.
James Greenacre who murdered his fiancée, Hannah Brown, by striking her a fatal blow in a fit of temper, will ever figure as a criminal of a very curious type. Many a deed like that which brought him to the scaffold has occasioned but a passing interest. It was the means he adopted for the purpose of evading the consequences of his crime that aroused the excitement and indignation of the people. He dismembered the body, and deliberately distributed it in broad daylight to widely different parts of the Metropolis.
The discovery of the various parts of the body from time to time, the bringing of them together, and the final identification of the remains wrought up the public mind to a state of high tension, and after the culprit had been brought to justice many thousands visited the Exhibition to scan for themselves the features of his model which had been installed.
It will be remembered that we are dealing with a period when the extreme penalty of the law was exacted in public, a condition of things which lasted till 1868, when it was enacted that all executions should take place privately within prison walls.
The night before Greenacre's execution at Newgate (the 2nd of May, 1837) hundreds slept on the prison steps and round about the neighbourhood of the old gaol. Crowds spent the night in taverns and lodging-houses, indulging in unseemly revelry and ribald and drunken dissipation. Nor were the spectators all drawn from the lowest class; all classes were represented. Positions within sight of the drop fetched from five shillings to a couple of guineas each, and a first-floor room overlooking the scaffold commanded as much as £12, no small price in those days.
It is a grim story, but who has not been entertained by the account in the Ingoldsby Legends of the way in which "My Lord Tomnoddy" failed to witness the launching into eternity of a doomed fellow creature?
As the result of a happy thought from "Tiger Tim"____
"An't please you, my Lord, there's a man to be hang'd"
Tomnoddy invites a party of convivial friends to en-joy the scene, for
"To see a man swing At the end of a string, With his neck in a noose, will be quite a new thing."
Turns down the Old Bailey,
St. Sepulchre's clock strikes eight, and
God ! 'tis a fearsome thing to see
The clock strikes
Nine ! 'twas the last concluding stroke !
"Hollo! Hollo !
What was to be done'? The man was dead!
Referring back to the days before the advent of the daily illustrated papers with their portraits of all kinds of people, a very affecting story was once told by a well-known author.
It related to a very pretty and plaintive young woman who visited the Chamber of Horrors early on the morning that a certain criminal with many aliases was executed.
She was accompanied by her father, who, with his arm about her waist to steady her faltering steps, led her up to where the figure of the murderer stood. The poor woman remained gazing at it as though fascinated; then, with a nod, she burst out crying and buried her head in her hands.
Her father gently drew her out of the place, and as he did so whispered in her ear, "Free, my child; free at last!"
How the author came to hear of the incident we do not know, or was it one of those coincidences that somehow do occur?