Sir Richard Owen
Whilst this story has only a tenuous link to folklore proper, it is one which has haunted me since I first discovered it some years ago. And so I offer it here – make of it what you will.
Sir Richard Owen, born in Lancaster in 1804, was best known for his skills as a naturalist and paleontologist and, indeed, it was he who coined the word ‘dinosauria’. In his early years he trained as a surgeon and it is from this time that this story comes – a story which Owen himself enjoyed telling, gruesome as it was. Wikipedia’s entry on the man notes that Owen was known for his ‘driving ambition, occasionally vicious temperament, and determination to succeed’, which may go some way to explaining why this gruesome tale was one he was so fond of telling. It appeared in newspapers country-wide in December 1892, four days after he died.
“In his early days, when he held the post of surgeon to the prison at Lancaster, a negro died in the gaol, and a post-mortem well as an inquest were necessary. After the inquest, the young surgeon saw the body put in the coffin and the lid screwed down, to be ready for the funeral next day. Owen had at the time been already attracted to the study of comparative anatomy, and negroes’ heads were not plentiful ; so he made his mind up that this one should not be lost to the cause of science. In the evening he returned to the prison with a black bag containing a brick—from his official position he had no difficulty in getting admittance to the mortuary, where the coffin lid was unscrewed, and screwed down again. During this process the brick and the negro’s head changed places.
“The ground outside the principal entrance to the gaol has a considerable descent; and the time being winter, with snow and frost, Owen had scarcely passed out when he slipped and fell all his length—the bag went from his hand, and head tumbled out, and rolled down the paved way. He jumped up, caught the bag, and following the head clutched it just it finished its career into a small shop where tobacco was sold. Pushing it into the bag again, he vanished out of the shop with all the speed he was capable of.
“Next morning, when Owen was going to his usual duties at the prison, he was called in by the woman at the shop where the accident had occurred on the previous evening. She wished him to see her husband, who was very ill. He had had, she said, a fright the night before that caused him to look wild and dazed-like.
“The man, it turned out, was a retired sea captain, who had been in many adventures among the West India Islands, when many deeds were done that did not at that time require to be accounted for. Among these had been the killing of a negro in which he had a hand, and the transaction had left a touch of trouble on his conscience. After giving these details the old captain told of the horrible event that took place the night before. He was sitting in his shop, all was quiet, and it so chanced that he had been thinking of the negro, when suddenly he saw his very head roll into the shop in front of the counter, and it was followed by the Devil, all in black, with a black bag in his hand. The Devil snatched the head, and both disappeared through the earth like a flash of lightning. The description was perhaps not quite complimentary to the young anatomist, but it was satisfactory so far that it showed his identity had not been recognised.”
One can’t help but wonder about the man who told this horrible story so often during his life that it became his epitaph…