Forensics and folklore: the theft of ‘human lard’ in nineteenth-century Clare

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Volume 20

Drumcliff graveyard, about a mile and a half outside Ennis, Co. Clare, where some boys made a shocking discovery on Sunday 2 May 1858. (Clare County Library)

Drumcliff graveyard, about a mile and a half outside Ennis, Co. Clare, where some boys made a shocking discovery on Sunday 2 May 1858. (Clare County Library)

On May Eve 1858 a fierce storm blew across the west coast of Ireland. On Sunday 2 May, some boys cutting through Drumcliff graveyard, about a mile and a half outside Ennis, Co. Clare, made a shocking discovery—a grave had been excavated, and a coffin that had been buried 7ft deep had been forced open. But it was no simple case of body-snatching or grave-robbery. In fact, it was a strange combination of both, for the corpse had been cut open and what the authorities called the ‘human lard’ or saill (fat) removed.The corpse was that of Ralph Westropp Brereton, known for high living—a reputation by no means incompatible with serving three terms as sheriff of Limerick. He was, one of his daughters would remember, a ‘bold, bad, handsome man’, which she attributed to his having spent some years in Paris. And there was sectarian tension in the family. His children by his first wife, who had been reared as Catholics, did not get along well with ‘the old step’, as they called Dilliana, his second wife, who was bringing up her own children as Protestants.Not surprisingly, Brereton’s widow and near relatives were ‘much grieved and shocked’ at the ‘frightful’ mutilation of the corpse, and the ‘gross’ outrage caused ‘a very strong feeling of disgust’ in the Ennis area. Dublin Castle offered a reward of £30 for information leading to the arrest of the thieves, and, locally, friends of the family also raised a reward. Neither reward would be claimed.

A nineteenth-century arsenic bottle. One theory was that Brereton had been poisoned and that his grave had been opened and an attempt made to remove the stomach in order to frustrate a feared exhumation and forensic examination.

A nineteenth-century arsenic bottle. One theory was that Brereton had been poisoned and that his grave had been opened and an attempt made to remove the stomach in order to frustrate a feared exhumation and forensic examination.

Forensics

Brereton had been suffering from heart disease, but his death had been sudden and unexpected. No inquest had been conducted, however, and now, finding that he had been ‘heavily insured’, the constabulary suspected that the intended target was the stomach and its contents, which may have been removed at the behest of agents of a Limerick or London insurance company to establish whether he had been poisoned. According to the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser, some ‘medical gentlemen’ who inspected the corpse remarked that ‘the stomach had been extracted, as if scientifically, from the body’. But it was not the stomach that had been removed—it was the ‘human lard’, the fat. For that reason it is surprising that agents of an insurance company should have been suspected at all, for the lard would have yielded no trace of poisoning to contemporary forensic scientists. Of course, even if the stomach had been taken, the constabulary’s focus on insurance agents would be incongruous, for if they had, criminally, removed part of the body they could scarcely produce it to contest a claim. A more obvious theory might have suggested itself—that is, that Brereton had been poisoned and that his grave had been opened and an attempt made to remove the stomach to frustrate a feared exhumation and forensic examination at the behest of the constabulary. This hypothesis was not, apparently, entertained. That those who practised forensic medicine—rather than those who might wish to frustrate it—were the constabulary’s first suspects reflects apprehension, even in police circles, about the widening use of autopsy in criminal proceedings. Forensic medicine was a new science, which sensationally established itself in the middle of the nineteenth century. Until the 1830s poisoning had been an almost undetectable means of murder. Deborah Blum, in her The poisoner’s handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York, has noted:
‘Until the early nineteenth century, few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. Sometimes investigators deduced poison from the violent sickness that preceded death, or built a case by feeding animals a victim’s last meal, but more often than not poisoners walked free. As a result murder by poison flourished. It became so common in eliminating perceived difficulties, such as a wealthy parent who stayed alive too long, that the French nicknamed the metallic element arsenic poudre de succession [inheritance powder].’
By the late 1830s scientists had succeeded in developing a test for arsenic. It was subsequently perfected and from the early 1850s arsenic testing was widely used in criminal investigation and prosecution. Thus many murder victims were now suffering the added indignity of having experiments performed on their cadavers.

May Eve remains ‘bonfire night’ in the city of Limerick, associated, as in times past, with ‘mischief’ and ‘tumults’ and the excessive consumption of ‘liquor’. Traditionally, May Day or Bealtaine was understood to be a period when supernatural forces were unusually active. (Limerick Leader)

May Eve remains ‘bonfire night’ in the city of Limerick, associated, as in times past, with ‘mischief’ and ‘tumults’ and the excessive consumption of ‘liquor’. Traditionally, May Day or Bealtaine was understood to be a period when supernatural forces were unusually active. (Limerick Leader)

Folklore

Within days of the discovery at Drumcliff the criminal investigation into the theft of the human lard took a remarkable turn. It was not forensic science, the constabulary came to suspect, but folk belief—to many, the antithesis of modern science—that lay behind the removal of Brereton’s fat. As early as 6 May, the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser had published a report of the disinterment and ‘frightful’ mutilation of an unnamed ‘respectable gentleman’s’ corpse. It noted that ‘there are several rumours afloat’ about the incident, which it would not be ‘prudent’ to publish. But one was ‘so ridiculous’ that it could not but mention it:
‘The superstitious amongst the peasantry imagine that the possession of a candle made from the lard of a corpse furtively abstracted from a cemetery is a safe-guard against all dangers, and a potent charm by which the butter of a farmer can be increased or diminished at the will of the possessor; and to this they attribute the exhumation alluded to, particularly as it is supposed it took place on last May eve, which was one of the most boisterous and inclement nights we have ever known at this period of the year.’

The reward notice posted two weeks later.

The reward notice posted two weeks later.

The Journal scoffed at this ‘ridiculous’ rumour. ‘It is not likely’, it surmised, ‘that any one would patiently delve through seven feet of earth to get at a corpse which had been so long interred, while they could find one of a more recent date, and nearer the surface.’ The authorities were not convinced. ‘[The] supposition of this outrage having been committed by any agents of the insurance companies has been given up for some days past’, Edward Blake, resident magistrate for the district, explained to Dublin Castle on 9 May, ‘and it is now thought to have been done by some persons to carry out a gross piece of superstition which is believed by many of the lower order of people, viz, that human lard if made into a candle w[oul]d enable a person having it and getting into a house, and lighting it, to rob it unseen and with impunity.’Two ‘folk’ explanations for the removal of the human lard were now being considered—that it was part of some ‘charm’ by which butter yields could be increased or decreased, or else that it was to be used to make a candle that would render the bearer invisible and allow him or her to rob houses unseen. The latter notion seems to be a variation of an old superstition that a candle made of the fat of a hanged man when clenched in a hand cut from the same corpse enabled the bearer to open all locks and to rob with impunity. This ‘hand of glory’ had featured in Gothic fiction and verse in the nineteenth century, including Scott’s The antiquary (1816), albeit with bear rather than human lard being used to make the candle. But it was the former explanation—that the lard was to be used in a charm to increase or decrease butter yields—which seems to have been taken more seriously, and, in this respect, the occurrence of the theft on May Eve or May Day was judged significant.Lá Bealtaine, or May Day, as the first day of summer, was a key date in the popular calendar. Indeed, May Eve remains ‘bonfire night’ in the city of Limerick, associated, as in times past, with ‘mischief’ and ‘tumults’ and the excessive consumption of ‘liquor’. Traditionally, Bealtaine was understood to be a period when supernatural forces were unusually active. It was—as the anthropologist Gearóid Ó Crualaoich has written of its counterpart Samhain, the beginning of winter—a time ‘when the otherworld is closer to the human social order and when otherworld powers, ancestral and fairy, present the greatest dangers to human life’.According to the folklorist Kevin Danaher, ‘So powerful were the preternatural forces abroad in the night between sunset on May Eve and sunrise on May Day that almost anything might be expected to happen. Dairy produce was especially vulnerable to the working of evil magic, and careful precautions were taken to guard against this.’ Danaher proceeds to quote, from Camden’s Britannia (1610), an account from a priest named Good who ‘about the yeere of our Lord 1566, taught the Schoole at Limerick’:

What five pounds of human fat looks like. There was an old superstition that a candle made of the fat of a hanged man when clenched in a hand cut from the same corpse enabled the bearer to open all locks and to rob with impunity. This ‘hand of glory’ had featured in Gothic fiction and verse in the nineteenth century.

What five pounds of human fat looks like. There was an old superstition that a candle made of the fat of a hanged man when clenched in a hand cut from the same corpse enabled the bearer to open all locks and to rob with impunity. This ‘hand of glory’ had featured in Gothic fiction and verse in the nineteenth century.

‘They take her for a wicked woman and a witch what ever shee bee, that cometh to fetch fire from them on May-day (neither will they give any fire then, but unto a sicke body, and that with a curse); For because, they think the same woman will the next summer steale awaie all their butter. If they find an hare amongst their heards of cattaile on the said May daie, they kill her; for, they suppose shee is some old trot, that would filch away their butter. They are of opinion that their butter if it bee stolen will soone after bee restored againe, incase they take away some of the thatch that hangeth over the door of the house and cast it into the fire.’
The beliefs recorded from Good, as Danaher notes, were widely remembered in rural Ireland into the twentieth century. Fire was not to be given out of a house on a May morning, and no honest person would ask for it: ‘Almost anything taken from the house or, indeed, any part of the farm at dawn on May Day could be used to steal the butter, giving the evil-doer a greatly increased quantity while the victims’ churn produced nothing but froth’.

 

The grave from which lard of the ‘bold, bad’ Ralph Westropp Brereton was harvested on May Eve 1858. (Clare County Library)

The grave from which lard of the ‘bold, bad’ Ralph Westropp Brereton was harvested on May Eve 1858. (Clare County Library)

Conclusion

The Clare Journal had estimated that, from the depth of the coffin, ‘five or six persons at least had been gathered to commit this outrage’. If that many were indeed involved in opening Brereton’s grave, there would have been grounds to hope that somebody might talk, and that the perpetrators would be brought to justice and, as the Journal put it, ‘held up to the scorn and reproach of an outraged people’. But if anybody talked, the constabulary never heard. And nobody ever stood trial for the theft of Brereton’s lard.The macabre incident in Drumcliff churchyard can be added to the reports of people being physically harmed in efforts to ‘put the fairy out’ of them—of which the now richly interpreted case of Bridget Cleary is the most notorious—as an example of the tenacity of fairy belief in post-Famine Ireland. Still, it may be that the authorities’ immediate reaction—suspecting the agents of insurance companies—is the case’s most striking feature, registering as it does an unease about the new science of the dead.  HI
Alun Evans is Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University, Belfast; Breandán Mac Suibhne is Professor of History at Centenary College, New Jersey.

Further reading:

D. Blum, The poisoner’s handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York (New York, 2011).A. Bourke, The burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story (London, 1999).K. Danaher, The year in Ireland (Cork, 2001).G. Ó Crualaoich, ‘The merry wake’, in J.S. Donnelly Jr and K.A. Miller (eds), Irish popular culture (Dublin, 1998), 173–200.

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