Whether or not you believe in ghosts, even the stories have their function.
Perhaps you believe the countless reports of a girl’s screams being heard in Farringdon Station since 1758, or perhaps you think there are a lot of scream-like sounds at a station, and a good story has a way of getting retold.
But whatever you believe, it’s a fact that people accepted pretty much without question that spirits hanging around got Anne Naylor’s murderers arrested, convicted, and hanged.
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Anne Naylor was 13 years old when she and her sister became apprentices at a hat-maker’s shop in Bruton Street, Hanover Square.
Orphaned at a young age, the sisters had spent their lives thus far in a workhouse. Around age 12, workhouse children were commonly sent out to apprenticeships in local businesses.
The Naylor sisters, along with three other girls, had the misfortune to be placed with Mrs Sarah Metyard and her daughter, also called Sarah but nicknamed Sally.
The Metyards were, to put it delicately, hideous people.
They were quick to anger, and sadistic in their punishments. The young apprentices were routinely beaten and starved.
Anne, who wasn’t quite healthy enough to keep up with the demands of the work, got the brunt of the abuse. Fearing for her life, she tried to escape.
The official report says, “Seizing an opportunity of escaping from her confinement, unperceived she got into the street, and ran to a milk-carrier, whom she begged to protect her, saying that if she returned she must certainly perish, through the want of food and severe treatment she daily received.”
“Being soon missed, she was followed by the younger Metyard, who seized her by the neck, forced her into the house, and threw her upon the bed in the room where she had been confined, and she was then seized by the old woman, who held her down while the daughter beat her with the handle of a broom in a most cruel manner.”
The punishments she received were as much to make an example of her to the other potential escapees as to discipline her.
They tied her to the attic door where she was forced to stand for three days straight (though she was allowed to go to bed at night), without food or water.
(Image: Matt Buck)
After three days, it was the other apprentices who noticed that Anne had stopped moving.
“The other girls, seeing the whole weight of her body supported by the strings which confined her to the door, were greatly alarmed,” says the official report, “and called out: ‘Miss Sally! Miss Sally! Nanny does not move.’ The daughter then came upstairs, saying: ‘If she does not move, I will make her move’; and then beat the deceased on the head with the heel of a shoe.”
Sally and Sarah’s attempts to wake her failed, even the gentler, perhaps more urgent, method of smelling salts.
But it didn’t work. They had killed her.
They tried a couple of ruses to cover it up – bringing a plate of meat to the attic for her dinner, as you might to a live apprentice (they probably brought her more food while she was dead than when she was alive).
They also left the attic and shop doors ajar and claimed she’d escaped again.
But of course, a corpse – even one hidden in a trunk – is a dead giveaway (pun not intended but also not edited out), and after two months Sarah and Sally began to panic as they realised the smell was getting worse and would surely alert someone.
They started by cutting up the body – on Christmas Day, no less – and wrapping the pieces in cloth. They kept back a finger to test the method of burning it in the fireplace, Sarah commenting that “The fire tells no tales.”
But of course a fire tells tales. Realising the smell would only be amplified by burning, they took her remains to Chick Lane – now the site of Farringdon Station – the intent being to chuck the body over a wall into the sewer.
They didn’t have the strength to make the throw, so they left her in the mud.
The remains were found by a watchman but weren’t investigated, because the coroner, Mr Umfreville, assumed the remains were from a body that had been snatched from a graveyard and dissected by medical students.
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Nothing to see here, folks, just chunks of human in a mud puddle, I’m sure it’s all perfectly innocent. Not even a fly-tipping charge.
Over the next four years, people reported hearing a girl’s scream. So many people, in fact, that it was simply assumed in the local parish that the place was haunted.
A young man shared this information with his girlfriend, who had recently moved in with him after a terrible fight with her mother.
And his girlfriend, one Sally Metyard, confessed that she and her mother had killed a girl and dumped her body in that very spot.
The boyfriend informed the authorities, being careful to downplay Sally’s role in the killing, on the frankly bold assumption that she would not be charged.
But she was charged, as was her mother. They were found guilty, and hanged.
The fitting thing about the punishment was that in 18th century Britain, only the bodies of murderers were allowed to be dissected.
The reason for that rule was that a sincerely-held belief in the prevailing Christianity of the time was that when the rapture came, there would be a literal rising of bodies from their graves, and that only intact bodies would be allowed into heaven.
So dissecting a body was part of the punishment; hanging robbed a person of their life, but dissection robbed them of their eternity. Which is just what they had done to Anne Naylor.
The Metyards must have believed this too. The report paints quite a picture of the day of their deaths:
“The mother, being in a fit when she was put into the cart, lay at her length till she came to the place of execution, when she was raised up, and means were used for her recovery, but without effect, so that she departed this life in a state of insensibility.”
“From the time of leaving Newgate to the moment of her death the daughter wept incessantly.”
“After hanging the usual time the bodies were conveyed in a hearse to Surgeons’ Hall, where they were exposed to the curiosity of the public, and then dissected.”