Saturday, October 27, 2018

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Mother Damnable Accused Witch


Owing to a want of accord among historians, the searcher after historic truth in our own day can hardly be quite sure of the identity of the worthy lady who passed under the above enchanting title. To later generations the district of Camden Town—formerly a suburb of London but now a fairly central part of it—is best known through a public house, the Mother Red-Cap. But before controversy can cease we are called on to decide if Mother Red-Cap and Mother Damnable were one and the same person. A hundred years ago a writer who had made such subjects his own, came to the conclusion that the soubriquet Mother Damnable was synonymous with Mother Black-Cap whom he spoke of as of local fame. But in the century that has elapsed historical research has been more scientifically organised and the field from which conclusions can be drawn has been enlarged as well as explored. The fact is that a century ago the northern suburb had two well-known public houses, Mother Red-Cap and Mother Black-Cap. It is possible that both the worthy vintners who offered “entertainment for man and beast” meant one and the same person, though who that person was remains to be seen. The distinctive colour line of the two hostelries was also possibly due to considerations of business rather than of art. Red-cap and Black-cap are, as names, drawn from these varying sign-boards; the term Mother held in common is simply a title given without any pretence of doing honour to the alleged practices of the person whom it is intended to designate.

There were in fact two notorious witches, either of whom might have been in the mind of either artistic designer. One was of Yorkshire fame in the time of Henry VII. The other was of very much later date and of purely local notoriety. The two publicans who exploited these identities under pictorial garb were open and avowed trade rivals. The earlier established of the two had evidently commissioned a painter to create a striking sign-board on a given subject, and the artist had fulfilled his task by an alleged portrait of sufficiently fearsome import to fix the attention of the passer-by, at the same time conveying to him some hint of the calling of the archetype on which her fame was based. Prosperity in the venture begot rivalry; and the owner of the new house of refreshment, wishing to outshine his rival in trade whilst at the same time availing himself of the publicity and local fame already achieved, commissioned another artist to commit another pictorial atrocity under the name of art. So far as the purpose of publicity went, the ideas were similar; the only differences being in the colour scheme and the measure of attractiveness of the alleged prototype. From the indications thus given one may form some opinion—based solely on probability—as to which was the earlier and which the later artistic creation, for it is by this means—and this means only—that we may after the lapse of at least a century bring tradition to our aid, and guess at the original of Mother Damnable.

Of the two signs it seems probable that the black one is the older. After all, the main purpose of a sign-board is to catch the eye, and unless Titian and all who followed him are wrong, red has an attractive value beyond all other hues. The dictum of the great Italian is unassailable: “Red catches the eye; yellow holds it; blue gives distance.” A free-souled artist with the choice of the whole palette open to him might choose black since historical accuracy was a matter to be valued; but in a question of competition a painter would wisely choose red—especially when his rival had confined himself to black. So far as attractiveness is concerned, it must be borne in mind that the object of the painter and his patron was to bring customers to a London suburban public house in the days of George III. To-day there is a cult of horrors in Paris which has produced some choice specimens of decorative art, such for instance as the cafĂ© known as Le Rat Mort.

Such places lure their customers by curiosity and sheer horror; but the persons lured are from a class dominated by “Gallic effervescence” and attracted by anything that is bizarre, and not of the class of the stolid beer-drinking Briton. But even the most stolid of men is pleased by the beauty of a woman; so the sign-painter—who knows his art well, and has evolved from the ranks of his calling such a man as Franz Hals—we may be sure, when he wished to please, took for his model some gracious personality.

Now the artist of the lady of dark headgear let his imagination run free and produced a face typical of all the sins of the Decalogue. We may therefore take it on the ground of form as well as that of colour that priority of date is to be given to Mother Black-Cap. There is good ground for belief that this deduction is correct. Naturally the owner of the earliest public-house wished to make it as attractive as possible; and as Camden Town was a suburb through which the northern traffic passed on its way to and from London, it was wise to use for publicity and entertainment names that were familiar to north country ears. Before the railways were organised the great wheeled and horse-traffic between London and the North—especially Yorkshire which was one of the first Counties to take up manufacturing and had already most of the wool trade—went through Camden Town. So it was wise forethought to take as an inn sign a Yorkshire name. The name of Mother Shipton had been in men’s mouths and ears for about two hundred years, and as the times had so changed that the old stigma of witchcraft was not then understood, the association of the name with Knaresborough alone remained. And so Mother Shipton of Knaresborough was intended as the prototype of the inn portrait with black headgear at Camden Town. In the ordinary course of development and business one of the two inns succeeded and lasted better than the other. And as Mother Red-Cap has as a name supplanted Mother Damnable, we may with some understanding discuss who that lady was.

She was a well-known shrew of Kentish Town, daughter of one Jacob Bingham, a local brickmaker, who had married the daughter of a Scotch pedlar manifestly not of any high moral character as shown by her later acts and the general mistrust which attended them. They had one daughter, Jinny, who in wickedness outdid her parents. She was naturally warm-blooded and had a child when she was sixteen by a man of no account, George Coulter, known as Gipsy George. Whatever affection may have existed between them was cut short by his arrest—and subsequent execution at Tyburn—for sheepstealing. In her second quasi-matrimonial venture Jinny lived a cat-and-dog life with a man called Darby who spent his time in getting drunk and trying to get over it. Number Two’s end was also tragic. After a violent quarrel with his companion he disappeared. Then there was domestic calm for a while, possibly due to the fact that Bingham and his wife were being tried also on a charge of witchcraft, complicated with another capital charge of procuring the death of a young woman. They were both hanged and thereafter Jinny found time for another episode of love-making and took up with a man called Pitcher. He too disappeared, but his body, burned almost to a cinder, was discovered in a neighbouring oven. Jinny was tried for murder, but escaped on the plea that the man often took refuge in the oven when he wished to get beyond reach of the woman’s venomous tongue, to which fact witness was borne by certain staunch companions of Miss Bingham.

Jinny’s third venture towards happy companionship, though it lasted much longer, was attended with endless bitter quarrelling, and came to an equally tragic end, had at the beginning a spice of romance. This individual, whose name has seemingly not been recorded, being pursued in Commonwealth times for some unknown offence, had sought her aid in attempting to escape. This she had graciously accorded, with the consequence that they lived together some years in the greatest unhappiness.
At length he died—of poison, but by whom administered did not transpire at the inquest. For the rest of her life Miss Bingham, who was now old, lived under the suspicion of being a witch. Her ostensible occupation was as a teller of fortunes and a healer of odd diseases—occupations which singly or together make neither for personal esteem or general confidence. Her public appearances were usually attended by hounding and baiting by the rabble; and whenever anything went wrong in her neighbourhood the blame was, with overt violence of demeanour, attributed to her. She did not even receive any of the respect usually shown to a freeholder—which she was, having by her father’s death become owner of a house which he had built for himself with his own hands on waste ground. Her only protector was that usual favourite of witches, a black cat, whose devotion to her and whose savage nature, accompanied by the public fear shown for an animal which was deemed her “familiar,” caused the mob to flee before its appearance.

The tragedy and mystery of her life were even exceeded by those of her death. When, having been missed for some time, her house was entered she, attended only by her cat and with her crutch by her side, was found crouching beside the cold ashes of her extinct fire. In the tea-pot beside her was some liquid, seemingly brewed from herbs. Willing hands administered some of this to the black cat, whose hair, within a very short time, fell off. The cat forthwith died. Then the clamour began. Very many people suddenly remembered having seen, after her last appearance in public, the Devil entering her house. No one, however, had seen him come out again. What a pity it was that no veracious scribe or draughtsman was present in the crowd which had noticed the Devil’s entry to the house. In such case we might have got a real likeness of His Satanic Majesty—a thing which has long been wanted—and the opportunities of obtaining which are few.

One peculiar fact is recorded of Madame Damnable’s burial; her body was so stiff from the rigor mortis—or from some other cause—that the undertakers had to break her limbs before they could put her body in the coffin.

Article by Bram Stoker

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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