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Chapter 14: Crossbones Girl

By Paul Slade
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Cross Bones
Murder Ballads
Secret London

In May 2010, BBC television’s History Cold Case gave us our best character sketch yet of a real individual we know was buried at Cross Bones. Starting from an unidentified skeleton excavated there in the MoL’s 1993 dig, the BBC’s team slowly constructed a portrait of the person those bones represented. By the time they’d finished, the skeleton was someone with a confirmed gender, age, diet, likely job, health record and - perhaps - even a name. All but the last of these conclusions were firmly rooted in strict scientific analysis of the bones themselves and the undeniable facts this analysis produced.
The two women who led this work were Professor Susan Black and Dr Xanthe Mallett, both of Aberdeen University’s Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification. Or, as the programme’s narrator dubbed it: “Britain’s finest unit for forensic investigation”. The episode is called Crossbones Girl, it appeared in the programme’s first season and can be bought in the iTunes store for just £1.89. If you want to watch it for yourself before encountering all the spoilers below, I suggest you scoot on over there and buy a copy now.
The most interesting part of the programme for our purposes came in the final stages, when skeleton CW1211 was finally given both a name and a face. In order to see how the team got there, though, we must first consider their forensic findings:

Date of Death.
The skeleton was found very close to the surface at Crossbones, where the crowded conditions meant graves had to be emptied and re-used very frequently. This established the skeleton was interred there in the final few years before Crossbones’ closure in 1853. (118)

Features of the skull like its brow ridges and its mastoid bones (which are found behind the ear canal) are much more pronounced in men. The team found no sign of such prominence here and so concluded that the skeleton was female.

Age at Death.
An examination with the naked eye was enough to tell Mallett and Black that the skeleton’s arm and leg bones had not yet finished growing, which meant the woman must have been well below 30 when she died. A subsequent CAT scan showed she had very recent marks of fusion and childhood growth in her bones, allowing the team to refine their estimate to an age of between 15 and 19.

A simple measurement of the skeleton’s leg bones put the girl’s height at around four foot seven. “She’s tiny,” Black said. “Absolutely tiny.” A report from Dr David Green of King’s College in London, which provided much of the original research for Crossbones Girl, points out that even the average female convict in 1850 was nearly five inches taller than our girl. (119)

Social Status
Short stature correlates strongly with poor diet and the low earnings and lack of education that implies. Mineral analysis of the bones confirmed the girl had eaten very little meat, but relied instead on whatever cheap bread and vegetables she could get hold of. This tells us CW1211 scraped a living on the bottom rung of Victorian society – just like everyone else who ended up buried at Cross Bones.

State of Health: Rickets
The skeleton’s leg bones showed the characteristic bowing caused by rickets, a bone-softening disease associated with lack of sunlight. “The rickets would have stunted her growth and made her susceptible to a host of infections, especially those of the respiratory tract,” Green writes. “The smog that hung over London and often blocked sunlight from ever reaching street level meant that many children suffered from vitamin D deficiency, which accounted for the frequency of rickets.”

State of Health: Syphilis
The scars and pit-marks Black and Mallett could see all over the skeleton were textbook signs of advanced syphilis. The lack of telltale grooves in the skeleton’s teeth ruled out the possibility that CW1211’s mother had passed on syphilis while her child was still in the womb and this was confirmed by the fact that her skull had formed correctly in childhood. It follows that the disease must have been transmitted sexually. (120)

‘The pattern of healing suggests she was living with syphilis for a long time,’ Tucker said

Syphilis: Age when Infected.
The tertiary (third stage) syphilis shown in the skeleton develops anywhere from three years to 15 years after the first infection, though Mallett assumed a maximum ten-year term in CW1211’s case. Combine that with the age data above and we see that she could have been infected as young as five. One possibility is that she fell victim to a particularly vile Victorian superstition insisting that a man could cure himself of syphilis by screwing a virgin. In the underclass of Victorian London, that often meant a child. (121)

Part of the nasal bones on the skeleton’s skull had been eaten away by syphilis, which would also have left fluid-filled boils and scar tissue on the girl’s face. Dr Caroline Wilkinson was given the job of reconstructing the girl’s face on a computer screen and we’ll see the results of her work later.

Likely Source of Earnings.
Dr Patrick French of Guy’s Hospital was able to tell enough from the skeleton to diagnose gummatous syphilis, a condition that normally arises only after repeated infection. “The general view is that it’s probably re-infection with syphilis that causes gummata,” he said. “STDs, including syphilis, were strongly associated with prostitution at that time.” As the programme pointed out, about 20% of women in Victorian London resorted to street prostitution at one time or another and now it began to look as if our girl was one of them.

State of Health: Treatment
The skeleton showed the extreme tooth decay associated with mercury treatment – then the only measure doctors could offer against syphilis. Further analysis of the bones revealed almost six times more mercury than the typical skeleton would have contained at that time, which strongly suggests CW1211 managed to get some treatment for her disease – probably at one of London’s charity hospitals. “The pattern of healing suggests she was living with [syphilis] for a long time and I think it’s unlikely that it killed her,” said archaeologist Fiona Tucker. (122)

We’ll return to Crossbones Girl in a moment, but first let’s get ourselves up to date with the state of Southwark when she was born.