The second stage of the BBC’s Crossbones Girl investigation switched focus to Green’s research among the surviving documents and he begins this section of his report with a summary of what we know so far.
“Short in stature, bandy-legged and pigeon-chested, this poor young girl then contracted syphilis which, despite treatment with mercury, clung to her till her death,” he writes. “Whether the disease or the treatment killed her remains unknown: perhaps she was one of the many who died of consumption in that period, or perhaps she succumbed to one of the cholera outbreaks that plagued the area. Either way, she was in poor health for most, if not all, of her young life.
“This must have hampered her ability to earn a living and with her physical deformities and open sores, it would have been highly unlikely that she would have found work easily. If she turned to prostitution, she would have been one of many in the area who did so out of poverty rather than choice. Someone, however, paid for her treatment, so was she seen as a fitting object for charity, or did she have a benefactor who took pity on her situation?”
The girl’s bones had been found very close to the surface at Cross Bones, so Green focused on deaths in the ground’s final three years of use: 1851 to 1853. Only about 5% of the female deaths in London at that time occurred between the ages of 15 and 19 – our target group – and it was reasonable to assume that CW1211 had died in one of the five Southwark parishes surrounding Cross Bones. “Only 39 women aged between 15 and 20 were recorded in the death registers for the Southwark parishes of Christchurch, St Saviour’s, St Olave, St Thomas and St John between 1851 and 1853,” he writes. “If the woman in question was buried in one of those years, then it is likely she is one of those 39 individuals.” (129, 130)
Trawling though the surviving records from Southwark’s parish burial registers, hospital death books and workhouse registers, Green drew up a shortlist of candidates which included the following women:
Amelia Hurley. Died age 16. Buried by Christchurch Parish on May 14, 1851, in an unknown location. Lived first in Southwark’s Upper Swan Court and, later, in the parish workhouse. “She was from a very poor family, even by the standards of those living in the same court,” Green writes. “Her family would have been hard-pressed to bury her. Was this the woman who was buried in Crossbones Cemetery?”
Maria Leonard. Died age 20 in 1853. Recorded as a pupil at the School for the Indigent Blind in St George’s Circus, Southwark, just two years before her death. Lived then in America Street, a slum area only 300 yards from Cross Bones. “Blindness was often associated with syphilis,” Green points out. “Could this have been her?”
In the end, Green plumped for a third candidate and updated Xanthe Mallett on his conclusions as they sat together on-camera in the London Metropolitan Archive. “Here we have the Dead Book,” he told her, opening a large Victorian ledger. “The burial registers of St Thomas’s Hospital in Southwark. It’s a charitable hospital, it takes a lot of poor patients and if she died in the hospital then it may be that she’s in here.” He turned the pages as he spoke. “We looked at the ages of the people who died and here we have this woman called Elizabeth Mitchell.
“She’s aged 19,” Green continued, pointing out the figures column by column. “The date she was admitted: 5th of August, 1851. The date she died: 15th of August. She only lasted ten days there. She’s in the hospital in Magdalen Ward – that was a ward for women with venereal disease. And on the right-hand side is a column for medical remarks, cause of death: ‘Ask the physician. Came in for discharge and sores, died under physician’s care with pneumonia’.” (131)
Keen to ensure we’d appreciated the significance of this find, the programme’s narrator came in at this point. “Elizabeth Mitchell fits the profile of the skeleton,” he said. “Aged 19, she came to St Thomas’s Hospital ward for treatment of sores and discharge but died on the 15th of August 1851 of pneumonia. Next, David looks at the burial records of the parish of St Saviour’s, where the Cross Bones cemetery was located.”
Well, actually, no he doesn’t – the ledger we see Green consulting at that moment is clearly labelled “St Thomas’s, Southwark. Register of Burials”, not St Saviour’s. We’ll return to that discrepancy in a moment, but first let’s see what Green found inside. Turning the ledger’s pages, he reached August 22, 1851, then ran his finger down the column of names. He stopped at the name “Elizabeth Mitchell” and the note in its next-door column giving her last abode as St Thomas’s Hospital. “There she is,” Mallett exclaimed. “Number 2090, St Thomas’s Hospital, 22nd of August 1851, 19 years. Is Mr Day the minister?”
“Mr Day, the minister, he buried her,” Green replied. “So she went from the hospital and was buried by the parish. Her abode was St Thomas’s Hospital, so they didn’t know where she lived.” The most Green was prepared to say on camera was that Mitchell was “a possibility” as the Crossbones Girl’s identity and Mallett too was careful to acknowledge there was no certainty here. “Obviously, we’ll never know,” she told the team when next updating them. “But this does fit with her. She’s in the right [hospital] ward, she’s the right kind of age.” (132)
You can’t blame the BBC for wanting a satisfying conclusion to a programme which they’d invested so much time, money and effort in making – and if they’d really wanted to deceive us, then that shot of the St Thomas register’s cover would never have reached the screen. I didn’t even notice the discrepancy until my third viewing of the programme, but once I’d done so I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I contacted Green to see if he could shed any light. My question was this: Why would a woman who died in St Thomas Parish hospital, whose only known abode was in that hospital and whose interment is recorded in the St Thomas Parish burial register not be buried there too? If CW1211 really was Elizabeth Mitchell, then how did she come to be buried instead in the next-door parish of St Saviour’s, where Cross Bones lies?
“That bothered me too,” he replied. “I wonder if somewhere between the entry in the burial register and the actual burial, a change in burial place occurred? Elizabeth Mitchell fitted closest, though I have my doubts that it was her and without a very considerable amount of extra work, it would be difficult to prove anything more than a possible association.” (133)
It’s a little odd to think of parish officials filling in a burial register before the burial itself rather than afterwards, but given the chaos prevailing in Southwark’s poorest graveyards when Mitchell died, I guess we can’t rule it out. One possibility is that St Thomas Parish discovered at the last moment that Mitchell had some sort of family connection or history of residency in St Saviour’s Parish, which allowed St Thomas’s to unload the expense of a pauper burial on them instead. “Local officials were always careful to enquire whether or not their parish had the responsibility to provide for a pauper,” Green points out in his report. “And to do so meant inquiring into the circumstances of an individual’s settlement.” (134)
He cites the example of Joan Chick, a widow with five children who found herself in Hackney workhouse in March 1848. Hackney discovered that Chick’s late husband Thomas, who’d died 15 years earlier, had once lived in St George’s Parish, Southwark. Joan and her children had lived in Hackney ever since Thomas’s death, but the St George’s link was enough for Hackney’s parish authorities to unload the cost of keeping them on St George’s workhouse instead.
If St Thomas Parish was able to discover Mitchell had some history making her St Saviour’s responsibility rather than their own, then perhaps that would explain the sort of post-mortem move suggested here. Sadly, most of St Saviour’s settlement records have been lost or destroyed, so there’s no way of checking. But what does it really matter which name skeleton CW1211 answered to in life? We know quite enough about her from the forensic evidence alone to see the rotten hand life dealt her and none of that’s going to change whatever her name was.
The programme moved next to Dr Caroline Wilkinson, the member of Black’s team tasked with reconstructing CW1211’s face on a computer screen, using the shape of her skull to infer the muscle structure it once carried. “We all have the same muscles on our face, but each skull is a slightly different shape,” Wilkinson explained. “Once you model each of those muscles in place, you will automatically get a different face shape with different proportions, because it’s the skull that dictates the muscle structure.”
Her first move was to take a 3D laser scan of the skull and load that into her computer where the reconstruction work would begin. “We need to know more about these nasal bones because there’s quite a bit missing,” she told a colleague as they stared at the screen. “That would obviously have an effect on what her nose is going to look like.” Soon they were beginning to build a recognisably human face. “We have a database of pre-modelled muscles and we import each one and then alter it to fit the shape of the new skull,” Wilkinson said. “The skull dictates the muscles’ structure and the muscle structure dictates the overall facial appearance. Then we can look at features like the nose and the mouth and the eyes and the ears and position those from looking at the shape of the bone.”
The next step was to model the damage syphilis had done to CW1211’s face and again the skull gave Wilkinson all she needed to go on. Matching the lesions on the girl’s face to the marks they’d left on the bone beneath, she set about colouring and texturing them for a realistic effect. “Some of them would become transparent, so they’d be fluid-filled,” she explained as she worked. “Some of them will be more hard and scar-like.” Rather sweetly, she also went to the trouble of building a picture of CW1211’s face as it may have looked without the syphilis. “Obviously, we had to estimate some areas – the nose for example,” she said as the image above appeared. “But certainly the facial proportions will be accurate.” (135, 136)