In 1823, The Burial of Suicide Act was passed. This meant that from that point on, the remains of those who had committed suicide would be buried in a churchyard or in some other authorised place.
Before then, however, things were somewhat different. If someone had killed themselves, they were found to be guilty of felo de se (felon of himself), an archaic legal term that denotes that the victim had committed the illegal act of suicide. As suicide was considered as a crime against not just man, but against God himself, a very particular type of punishment was given to the perpetrator after death. They were buried in the centre of a crossroads with no religious ceremony.
The reasons for crossroads burials have long been speculated on. Perhaps it was the nearest resting place the deceased would get to any sort of religious symbol. Or more likely, because suicide was looked at as a crime against God, the crossroads would confuse the soul of the deceased and therefore keep them from entering a peaceful afterlife.
We know the crossroads burial tradition happened in Liverpool as there are several stories of it throughout history. Here are two of the more notable ones.
THE EVERTON VAMPIRE
In 1680, a local farmer murdered his wife then allegedly drank her blood before killing himself.
Due to the rather gruesome details of the farmer’s last acts before dying at his own hands, it was decided that special requirements were needed to ensure that he would not rise from his grave to feed upon the living.
He had committed suicide and was therefore guilty of felo de se. This was enough to guarantee that his corpse would not find rest in hallowed ground and would be buried at a crossroads, but the fact that he had supposedly drank the blood of his wife made things a little different for him.
A suitable site was selected (a crossroads, obviously) and a grave was dug. At night, so his dead body would not be touched by the warming rays of the sun, he was laid in the grave face down and what was described as ‘a huge stake’ was driven through his heart to prevent his undead corpse from digging itself out of its permanent resting place and terrorising the locals.
The site that was selected was the crossroads of Rupert Lane, Breck Lane (now Breck Road), Heyworth Street and Everton Road. There is no documentation to be found saying that the body of the farmer has been disinterred from where it was placed so the body may still be there. It is believed that he lies there still, awaiting someone to remove the stake from his heart so he may rise from his three hundred and forty year old earthy bed and feed once again – this time on the blood of the living!
THE MELANCHOLY TALE OF THOMAS COSGROVE
One most well-documented crossroads burials in Liverpool occurred in 1815 and is that of Thomas Cosgrave. It is less fantastical that that of the Everton Vampire, but no less interesting.
This is a transcript of the actual article about Cosgrave’s arrest that was printed in Liverpool Courier on the 23rd of February, 1815:
On Wednesday morning last, a man named T. COSGRAVE, who resides in a small court in Cheapside, Liverpool, has been observed for some time past to have been on very bad terms with his wife the neighbours having frequently heard them quarrelling, and she has often expressed a reluctance to go home, for fear of being beaten by her husband.
Between 6 and 7am on Wednesday, a man walking along Cheapside was surprised to see COSGRAVE standing at the end of the passage where he resides with no cloths on except his shirt and nightcap. On the man’s approach COSGRAVE immediately begged him to alarm the neighbourhood, saying, that he had just strangled his wife and cut his own throat. The man being much alarmed at this account, procured two other men to accompany him, and all three returned to the place and entered the habitation of COSGRAVE, whom they found lying on the bed beside his wife who was quite dead, they found her linen covered with blood, and also the blood of COSGRAVE, and the unhappy wretch having repeated the same account as before, a Constable was immediately sent for, and he was taken into custody without offering the least resistance or making any attempt to escape. The wound in his throat has since been sewn up, but he has not yet been pronounced out of danger.
On the Coroner’s inquest it appeared in evidence that the deceased Mary COSGRAVE and her husband retired to bed rather late the preceding evening, but neither of them were at all intoxicated, nor did those who had been with them observe any quarrelling or disagreement between them. Some neighbours, likewise, who live very near them declared that they heard no kind of noise during the night. Dr VOSE who had been sent for to examine the body, gave his opinion that the deceased had suffered death by strangulation, agreeably to the own account of COSGRAVE. All witnesses agreed that the prisoner had no symptoms of insanity, either in his words or actions, but conversed in a collected and rational manner. The Coroner after a long and careful investigation returned a verdict of wilful murder against Thomas COSGRAVE.
Cosgrove died from his injuries whilst awaiting final sentencing and was posthumously found to be guilty of felo de se. He was buried in the early hours of the morning at the junction of Marybone, Great Crosshall Street, Vauxhall Road and Tithebarn Street on Tuesday, March 3rd, 1885.
This article from the Liverpool Mercury, dated 10th March 1815 gives details of his interment:
Thomas COSGRAVE the unhappy wretch on whom a verdict of wilful murder was found for the murder of his wife, expired in the Bridewell on Tuesday morning a Coroner’s inquest sat on the body, who brought a verdict of felo de se. His remains were interred on Thursday morning following at 6am at the junction of four streets opposite the end of Marybone in the presence of a considerable number of spectators.
Mary, Thomas’s wife, was buried with full religious rites in the churchyard of Our Lady and St Nicholas on 17th February 1815.
BONUS FACT: As far as I am aware, there are no records of the removal of Thomas Cosgrave’s remains from his initial resting place, so there’s a chance that his corpse is still lying in the crossroads of Marybone and the other roads. Now that’s something to consider whilst you’re walking past the Superlambanana that stands next to the junction!
— Picture of the vampire is from Nosferatu, a film made in 1922
— Maps and street view photo c/o Google
By Chris Cannon of Hidden Liverpool
Chris is a local historian and tour guide that regularly visits schools and local history groups around Liverpool to talk about the rich history of the city. He has received five-star reviews for his interesting and informative walking tours of Liverpool. For more information, or to contact him, please visit http://www.hiddenliverpool.co.uk