What flesh eatest thou? A missing child and a suspicious meat pie in 1645

Brodie Waddell

On 26 June 1645, as the war between the King and Parliament raged, John Coleman sat down at his lodgings in London to eat a meat pie. As he ate it, a strange thought occurred to him: ‘What flesh eatest thou’?

At that moment, even as he chewed, a flood of doubts and suspicions swept into Coleman’s mind. Why had his landlady made meat pies on a fast day? Why had the girl who delivered it to his room been acting so oddly? What had happened to the child who had been missing the previous evening?

The answers must have struck him like a blow, because suddenly ‘hee could eate noe moore’, verily believing ‘the Pye was made of a Childs flesh’. Pieter Claesz (c1630) Still Life with Pewter Pitcher, Mince Pie, and AlmanacAccording to his later testimony, Coleman then went out into the neighbourhood to try to learn more. Here he heard from several women that a child in a yellow coat had been seen wandering the streets on previous evenings and that a butcher’s wife had unexpectedly given the child bread and butter. A gentlewoman, it was said, was ‘almost madd for her chyld which was lost’.

Although Coleman’s testimony ends there, an incident six weeks earlier seems to reveal more. On May 13th, a crowd attacked Mary Hodges, saying that under her apron she had ‘sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young Children away’. Another group attacked Hodges on June 2nd, accusing her of being ‘a night walking whore’.

Then the story, like the pie, goes cold.

Fragmentary Truths

The mystery of the child’s flesh pie will never be solved. These witnesses testified before Westminster’s civic magistrates who wrote out their ‘informations’ and ‘examinations’ on loose sheets which have fortunately survived. The official legal proceedings were not so lucky. They disappeared long ago.

The main characters in this story will have to remain anonymous. Coleman never names his landlady – she is simply ‘a widdow woman’ living near the New Exchange. Nor does he name the other potential villain, the butcher’s wife who offered bread and butter to a stray child. My own suspicion is that the latter was Mary Hodges, also accused of trying to ‘tempt children away’ with alluring treats, but that’s far from certain. We’ll also never learn the names of the distraught gentlewoman or the wandering ‘Child clothed in yeallow’. All the alleged perpetrators and possible victims remain shadowy figures.

We will thus never find out if Coleman’s landlady was actually prosecuted or if Mary Hodges really did ‘entice’ children. And we’ll certainly never know if Coleman’s pie was really made with human flesh. Yet we can still learn something about our history through these fragmentary records. There may not be enough information to satisfy a judge, but the surviving documents nonetheless set the historian’s mind whirring. IMG_7233Commercialised Cannibalism

Coleman’s pie is the earliest example I have found of human flesh allegedly being sold as food. Although cannibalism, whether real or mythological, has a history stretching back tens of thousands of years, the commercialised nature of this incident makes it stand out.

The medieval and early modern world was teeming with stories of malicious cannibalism. Witches, Jews and savages were known to enjoy feasting on the flesh of Christians. There were also tales of unwitting cannibalism, probably drawing on the classical legend of Thyestes who unknowingly ate his three sons. In all such stories the foul act is motivated not by profit but by revenge, hatred or sheer bloodlust.

In contrast, the butcher’s wife and the landlady merely wanted to earn a few extra pence. Coleman reported that when he returned to the widow’s house after attending a sermon, he found that she had been baking and ‘hee barganed with her for one of the Pyes’. There is no hint of personal spite or passion in any of the alleged crimes. It’s strictly business.

Perhaps this fear of commercialised cannibalism only emerged in seventeenth-century London because this was a time and place where commerce seemed to be sweeping all before it. Thousands of cooks and victuallers supplied Western Europe’s largest city with its daily meals. The streets were packed with people selling ready-made food. In the huge markets, almost anything could be bought or sold. Why not human flesh?

By the eighteenth century, this trope was on its way to becoming firmly embedded in English culture. In 1718, a newspaper report quoted by Lindsey Fitzharris told the tale of two Lincoln apothecaries who sold the flesh of a hanged man to a local butcher, who sold it on to an inn-keeper, who inevitably made it into a pasty. A decade later, Jonathan Swift more famously made a modest proposal to offer the poor children of Ireland for sale at 10s. each ‘to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom’ as ‘excellent nutritive meat’.

The story had become common enough by the 1840s for Charles Dickens to be able to allude to the ‘many standard country legends’ about ‘preparers of cannibalic pastry … doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis’. Only a couple years later such tales would reach their zenith in a penny dreadful which first gave the world Sweeny Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the murderous pair who turned the barber’s unsuspecting customers into supplies for the pie-shop. This particular version proved so popular that it’s been turned into plays, musicals and of course films. Today we can still find the descendants of Coleman’s pie turning up in news stories and urban legends. hazeltonsweeney1The anxieties that drive our continued fascination with the possibility of unintentionally eating human flesh were already causing suspicions and accusations in the 1640s. John Coleman was probably very much like us in this respect. He worried that the shadowy economic transactions which brought food to his table might obscure a revolting crime, just as we fret about horsemeat contaminating our lasagne.

To lure a small child with sugar plumbs and buttered bread in order to murder it and bake it into a pastry may seem like an act so cold-blooded that it could only be fiction. Maybe, in 1645, it was. But such stories could circulate and be believed in seventeenth-century London thanks to a commercialised food industry that survives and thrives to this day.

38 thoughts on “What flesh eatest thou? A missing child and a suspicious meat pie in 1645

  1. I’ve posted my *rough* transcriptions/paraphrases of the three documents below. The originals can be seen at the London Metropolitan Archives or I can email photographs of them upon request.

    WJ/SP/1645/003: 26 June 1645, information of John Coleman before Sir William Ashton. Who informeth that yesterday being the fast day after he had been at a sermon at St Margaret’s Westminster, he finding himself not to be well in his stomach, which is not usual with him, went home to his lodging being at a widow woman’s house near the New Exchange and when he came home he found that she had made some pies, which she did not usual do on fasting days. And he bargained with her for one of the pies, and she sent it up into a room by her daughter, and this informant followed her. And when they came into the room, the girl said to the informant, Is this a veal pie, and the informant answered he knew not. Then she answered again, It seems you will eat any pie. So she went down, and this informant sat down and gave God thanks, and did eat and as he was eating it came into his mind, ‘What flesh eatest thou’?, which made him somewhat to doubt, and presently it came into his memory that the evening before, he being near St James’s fields heard a woman inquiring for a child, and also he remembered the words that the girl said to him when she brought up the pie, whereupon he could eat no more, and do really believe that the pie was made of a child’s flesh and hath some of it to show. And this suspicion and jealousy increased in this informant, whereupon he went to inquire further on it. And meeting with a maid named Ann Andrewe he asked of her if she knew somebody that had lost a child, she at the first said no, so they near going the one from the other but she turned back and told this informant that one day this week she saw a child in Covent Garden which went up and down the streets, and no parents did own it, which child was clothed in a yellow coat. And she, the said Ann Andrewe, further told the informant that she saw a butcher’s wife that goeth about take the said child into her house and gave it bread and butter and after sent it out to play. And the informant further informeth that he went and inquired as before of another maid that he met by accident near St James’s fields, and she told him that on Tuesday last about 10 a clock at night she heard a woman inquire for a child clothed in yellow and afterwards as this informant was going towards Queen Street he met with a poor woman who told him that she was told that a little before there was a gentlewoman almost mad for her child which was lost, And further saith not. [Signed:] John Coleman.

    WJ/SP/1645/004: 13 May 1645, examinations of: Henry Jones of Clement Danes, gent; Phillip Richards of Martins in the Fields, cook; Luce Richards his wife; Joan Black the wife of Charles Black of the same, smith; Rose Atkins the wife of William Atkins of the same, tailor. Jones saw John Sharp struggling with Mary Hodges in the channel and she was down. PR near White Hart Yard heard a tumult and saw Elizabeth Bell go to Mary Hodges and take up her apron saying, What you have sugar plumbs to tempt children away, and thereupon Mary Hodges rapt out an oath and struck Bell over the face and Hodges stuck her again. Luce Richards says Bell went to Hodges and asked her what she hath under her apron saying what have you sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young children away whereupon the said Hodges struck Bell. John Black says Hodges to avoid the tumult would have gone into a house the door being open to have shielded herself and that John Sharp went to Hodges and pulled her by the arm towards the common shore and down she was but who threw her down she knoweth not. Rose Atkins says Sharp led her down by the arm towards the common shore and turned her round and gave her a blow.

    WJ/SP/1645/005: 2 June 1645, informations of Thomas Medwell of Clement Danes, ironmonger, and William Jinkingson of Martins in the Fields, cook, and Margaret Tunee, wife of Robert Tunee, against William Lowe of the same, yeoman. Thomas Medwell says he saw Wililam Lowe pump Mary Hodges and whip her face and clapt his hand upon her hair whereupon this informant saying tis pity the woman should be so wronged the said Lowe replied she is a whore a night walking whore but further saith not. William Jinkingson says that he hearing a rumour towards Kiniger yard went from his house which is in Drury Lane to see the matter and coming found Mary Hodges all out dirty and a certain woman in a red waistcoat and two soldiers who he knows not strike her and pump her and further says that he heard the said woman in the red waistcoat say Hodges would have had one of her children had it not been for neighbours but as concerning Virgill Thatch that this deponent doth not remember that he did see him in the same uproar, but further says that he could not come near Hodges till after she had been pumpt and then coming to her she desired him to help her which he did accordingly and was immediately conveyed from thence unto Justice Whitaker and being let out at the back door was again assaulted. Margaret Tunee says that she saw the said William Lowe with the pump handle in his hands and pump upon her and then left the pump and went to her but what he did to her knows not and further saith not.

    • I found one more document at the London Metropolitan Archives related to Mary Hodges, possibily related to the incident in May 1645 (above). Why did a solider call Hodges ‘a Spiritt’? It doesn’t seem nearly as offensive as calling her a ‘whore’, but according to the OED ‘spirit’ could mean ‘one who kidnaps; an abductor’, which would make sense if she was suspected of kidnapping children.

      MJ/SR/0972/18: Oct 1645, to the Westminster JPs, the humble petition of Elizabeth Orme and Jane Orme her daughter, sheweth that your petitioners being now bound over to the quarter sessions ‘by one Mary Hodges who was taken & called by the name of a Spiritt by a Soldier passinge by the White Harte gate in Covent garden’ where your petitioner and her doughter hath many years sold fruit and behaved her self honestly and justly amongst her neighbours, not being burdensome in any kind to the parish. The said Mary Hodges bound your petitioners over for mere malice as many of her neighbours can and will testify. The humble request of your poor petitioners is that this honourable bench will be pleased to hear what your petitioners witnesses can alledge in the way of equity concerning her accusation, and your petitioners shall be ever bound to pray etc.

    • Thanks, Laura. It’s one that I’m sure other historians of 17th century London have come across before, and I’m almost positive that I heard someone mention it in a presentation at a conference some years ago, but I’ve never seen it written up, so thought it would be worth sharing. (Come to think of it, I should ask Vanessa Harding about it.)

  2. This is of course different (and there’s a long history of commercialising the Eucharist imagery), but have you come across Peter of Celle’s description of the monastic cell? ‘It is a market where the butcher sells small and large amounts of his flesh to God, who comes as a customer’. I found it via Mary Carruthers and I think it’s wonderfully creepy.

  3. On twitter, Dolly Jørgensen (http://dolly.jorgensenweb.net/) brought to my attention a much earlier case of ‘commercialised cannibalism’: the story of St Nicholas and the three clerks.
    It was popular in late medieval collections of saints’ lives and Karl Steel offers some details and analysis at ‘In The Medieval Middle’ (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2014/12/a-saint-nicholas-miracle-or-these-pies.html).

    The basic story is that three poor clerks (students) needed a place to stay and asked a butcher and his wife. The butcher invites them in, intending to kill and rob them. However, once the students have been killed, the butcher discovers that they don’t have anything worth robbing, so instead bakes them into pies to sell them. Saint Nicholas arrives, calls out the butcher for his crimes, and resurrects the students.

    Obviously the parallels aren’t exact, but they are pretty close, including the fact that the victims were specifically baked into pies to be sold. In other words, it was not just murderous cannibalism – it was profit-driven. In short, this is yet another case of an early modernist claiming a ‘first’, only to be politely corrected by a kindly medievalist. Thanks Dolly!

    • Thanks for passing that along, Leon. I don’t have access to the Somerset QS volume, right now, but I took a look at their online catalogue and found this:

      Q/SR/60/1: 20 Apr 1627, Information of Elizabeth Hedges of Tickenham, widow and William Hedges her son of the same place, who state that Bartholemew Ridley demanded lodging at her house, and then his wife Elenor and George Abraham and his wife also demanded lodging, putting Elizabeth Hedges in fear of her life, her son then asked the JP for protection and watchmen were put on guard but that they resisted arrest, stating they would ‘make pies of the body of the said Elizabeth Hedges’. JP: Rice Davis.


      People seem to be really obsessed with the idea of human flesh in pies, don’t they? I think with one more example I could probably call it a ‘trend’ and write an article on it!

  4. Hmm, maybe there was something about Somerset: I found a case from the Quarter Sessions from 1656, when a dispute over payment for hay descended into accusations of cannibalism:

    Information of Nicolas Cole of Alston Sutton in the parish of Weare: ‘that about six weeks [ago] telling Leonard Churchouse that he had overcharged Mr Henry Leister for some hay, he replied with oaths that the rogue (meaning Mr Leister) should pay him so much, for town’s people make him pay more than things are worth; and that the said Leister had killed a child while he was in the army and roasted it’.

    Maybe some parallels here with your case Brodie? i.e. the close connection between commercial deceit and cannibalism, and the Civil Wars context – perhaps the break down in order increased fears that the world ‘turning upside down’ involved humans eating each other?

  5. Pingback: The many-headed monster devours its 100,000th victim | the many-headed monster

  6. Outstanding! I’ve experienced a few misgivings here and there, but it’s always been the possibility of a cat or two. I did find what appeared to be a rat’s leg and foot in my portion of a meatloaf once. I still have difficulty with that dish.

  7. Ooh! A great post and accompanying pictures, just enough to let your imagination fill in the gaps! A great piece you’ve written here, I like the insinuation of the economic considerations- everything having a price, then a ‘true’ price- a brilliant read!!!!!!!!!

  8. Stories get circulated easily, a bit like a game of chinese whispers. But hey, even today in society we have a bunch or weirdos or mentally ill people who have practiced cannibalism. Ted Bundy enjoyed it and got locked up..many tribes practice it. So its a possibility the story is real. I mean Jack the Ripper was real right? Great blog post though 🙂

  9. I would’ve never come across this story at all if it wasn’t for WordPress. Thanks for the interesting tale

  10. You mentioned the fear of commercial cannibalism might of arose in London at this time because it seemed as though commerce was sweeping the city to the extent that the question “why not human flesh?” could be asked.

    Do you think the fear could have also arisen out of the fact that it was actually economically plausible given the growing level of desperation in the ready-made food market – in all markets for that matter – with revenue going down as costs were driven down by market competition? Human meat was free, and cut costs normally spent at the butcher’s. At least, that was always how I interpreted the reasoning behind Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett’s actions.

    Either way, such a great and interesting read, thanks for posting!

    • Good question, Mike. It is certainly possible that commercial cannibalism may have seemed ‘economically plausible’ at times in seventeenth-century London. The city faced real hardship during the civil wars of the 1640s and this was also near the end of a long period of harsh inflation in the cost of necessities. Although food prices weren’t as high in 1645 as they were at the end of this decade, it may still have been part of the reason why this story gained traction in the neighbourhood.

  11. The idea of accidentally eating human flesh is so disgusting I don’t want to think about it. Some food factories have been convicted of serving horse meat…..so I guess we never know. Thank God I don’t eat much meat! Great article, it’s nice to read a blog post involving history for once, not just whatever is currently a hot news story.

  12. It wasn’t uncommon in the Middle Ages for bakers to mix in ground acorns and tree bark to cheat their patrons. It doesn’t seem a far stretch to worry about the source of meat. A fabulously gruesome writeup that rings true even today. I sure as hell don’t trust the food industry 🙂

  13. Pingback: the many-headed monster is 10: looking back | the many-headed monster

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