News from the Dead
On December 14, 1650, 22-year old Anne Greene was led up the gallows in Oxford. She had been charged with infanticide; after sleeping with her employer’s grandson, she gave birth to a child—one she insisted was stillborn—whose body had been found “covered…with dust and rubbish” in the outhouse where she delivered it.1 After praying and willing her remaining possessions to her mother, Greene dropped from the platform, suspended from the noose–but remained alive. Some of those gathered nearby tried to quicken her death to ease her suffering; “lifting her up and then pulling her down again with a sudden jerk,” the group was soon made to stop because the sheriff feared they’d snap the rope.2 One report describes a nearby soldier, monitoring the execution, inflicting “4 or 5 blows on [her] breast, with the butt end of his musket,” either in an act of attempted mercy, further torture, or both.3 Greene hung there for half an hour, after which her body was cut down, put into a coffin, and transported to a local surgeon for dissection.
Then she woke up.
According to Richard Watkins, author of one report detailing her resurrection, Greene began to “ruttle,” gasping for breath.4 Discovering her, an unnamed young man, “thinking to do her an act of charity,” tried to put her out of her misery yet again, “stamp[ing] several times” on her chest “with all the force he could.”5 Once doctors arrived, however, the plan quickly shifted from euthanasic to life-saving care; she was treated for her injuries and, after a month, made a full recovery.6 Not only did she regain her life—no small accomplishment, given everything she experienced—Greene also won back her liberty. In recognition of what everyone agreed had to have been a miracle, local law enforcement wanted to be sure they didn’t contravene divine justice. “Whilst the physicians were thus busy in recovering her to life,” Watkins reports, “the undersheriff was soliciting the governor and the rest of the justices of the peace for … [a] reprieve, that in the case she should … be recovered fully to life, she might not be had back again to execution.”7 It took coming back from the dead, but Greene was once again innocent in the eyes of the law.
Why would Greene’s resurrection have an effect on her legal status? Objectively speaking, nothing about the case had changed; her insistence that she had not murdered her child remained consistent before and after her death. The only change was in Greene herself: she had done the miraculous, returning to life under seemingly impossible circumstances. What I want to suggest is that it’s this transformation—from a living woman into a corpse and back again—that allowed Greene’s story to be heard by others in a way it wasn’t, perhaps couldn’t be, while she was alive—the first time, at least.
In early modern England, the idea that a corpse might have something to say for itself wasn’t entirely unheard of. It was a commonly held belief, for instance, that the body of a murder victim would bleed in the presence of its killer, in effect testifying after death on its own behalf.8 But exceptional cases like Greene’s highlight a discrepancy in the relative credibility of corpses and the living. For women, posthumous testimony could be more convincing than what they had to say in life. Being a corpse—even if only temporarily—was the only way for some women to be believed.
Greene wasn’t the only woman to defy death in seventeenth-century England. On December 27, 1680, Grace Ashburne, a young apprentice hood and scarf maker, died and was buried.9 Over the next four days, neighbors reported hearing Ashburne “groan and cry out in the grave,” leading her father to call for her exhumation. When her grave was opened, Ashburne was reported to be “not only warm, but breath[ing].” Her body “had a color as fresh as a rose, nay more fresh than can possibly be conceived.” Unlike Greene, Ashburne never regained consciousness; by all accounts, she was not alive, strictly speaking. But the remarkable state of her body meant that she was also not entirely dead; Ashburne, like the many incorrupt saints of history, entered into a nebulous third category of the miraculous dead.
While Ashburne didn’t exhibit the decomposition associated with a four-day-old corpse, her body did reveal something else: evidence of abuse. The anonymous author of the broadside describing her exhumation reports that Ashburne’s neighbors noticed that her mistress, Mrs. Beachcroft, had subjected her to many violent “blows (which might possibly [have] hasten[ed] her untimely end), though I shall not affirm it.” When Ashburne’s body was uncovered, the effects of those blows were now clearly visible: “yet on her arms she hath several bruises and a scar on her head, which was reported to have been given to her by her unkind master (through her mistress’s persuasion) some months before her death (as they would have it believed).”
After being examined by a jury and displayed to the public, (“at a penny a piece charge”) Ashburne was reburied. Her brief reappearance was enough to change the minds of her community about the cause of her death. The author of Ashburne’s story notes that, while her complaints of abuse were ignored while she was alive, her corpse provided undeniable proof. “For a truth, this I dare affirm,” they write, “the poor girl was abused, and many times hath in the hearing of several wished herself rather to be buried alive, than to live under such hard and severe usage.” Though too late to save her, Ashburne’s story was finally being heard.
While the circumstances leading to their deaths were different, both Greene and Ashburne suffered the same fate: both cried out to be believed while living, only to be ignored or, worse, dismissed as liars until after their deaths. Throughout the early modern period,10 one of the most common insults levied against living women was that of dishonesty; an attack on both their moral and sexual behavior, this accusation contributed to stereotypes of women as deceptive and unreliable.11 Women’s corpses, however, were seen as holding the promise of truth. Medical historian Katharine Park argues that, during the rise of anatomical dissection in sixteenth-century Europe, the female body, in particular the womb, became the “privileged object of dissection in medical images and texts.”12 This was because at the time, reproduction was clouded in mystery, described as “the secrets of women.”13 Paternity, conception, gestation: before dissection became commonplace, these things were fundamentally unknowable—except through the testimony of (dishonest) women. Women’s bodies, therefore, were seen as the objective balance to the subjective unreliability of their characters; their corpses could tell the truths they couldn’t.
Take Greene, for example. Before her execution, her version of events—that her child was stillborn, that she was innocent of the infanticide of which she’d been accused—was quickly dismissed. But after her resurrection, others began to look at her case with new eyes. Watkins, with almost frustrating composure, details the clear evidence against the charge.
[gblockquote]It will not be amiss to look back and take a review…. [I]t is evident that the child was very unperfect, being not above a span in length and the sex hardly to be distinguished, so that it rather seemed a lump of flesh than a well and duly formed infant. The midwife said also that it had no hair, and that she did not believe that it ever had life. Besides, her fellow servants do testify that she had certain issues for about a month before she miscarried, which were of that nature (physicians say) as are not consistent with the vitality of a child.14[/gblockquote]
Watkins’s precise, clinical language makes it clear both to his readers and to us that Greene suffered a miscarriage; there is physical evidence, corroboration from other witnesses, all confirming that Greene had been telling the truth. And yet, this overwhelming evidence is ignored in Greene’s initial trial. Like Ashburne, it isn’t until Greene becomes a corpse—until she becomes a physical, bodily object, not unlike the female bodies of the period’s many anatomical treatises —that she’s able to be seen as a source of truth.
Following her recovery, Watkins writes, Greene left to stay with friends in the country, “taking away with her the coffin wherein she lay as a trophy of this her wonderful preservation.”15 At the time of its publication, Greene’s story was heralded as a miracle. Her resurrection was a sign of divine providence, God’s justice stepping in where the world’s had failed. But the real miracle wasn’t defying death; the real miracle for Greene, I think, was finally that she was believed.
- “A Declaration from Oxford, of Anne Greene,” printed by J. Clowes, London, 1651, pp. A2r. Wing D585A, The Huntington Library. Accessed through Early English Books Online. All early modern spelling has been silently modernized throughout. Return to text.
- Richard Watkins, “News from the Dead, or a True and Exact Narration of the Miraculous Deliverance of Anne Greene,” printed by Leonard Lichfield, Oxford, 1651, pp. B1v. Thomason E.625, The British Library. Accessed through Early English Books Online. Digitized copy available courtesy of the Wellcome Library. Return to text.
- “A Declaration from Oxford,” A3r. Return to text.
- Watkins, B1v. Return to text.
- Watkins, B1v. Return to text.
- For a modern medical account of why Greene may have survived her ordeal, see Breathnach, Caoimhghin S., and John B. Moynihan. “Intensive care 1650: the revival of Anne Greene (c. 1628–59).” Journal of Medical Biography 17, no. 1 (2009): 35–38. Return to text.
- Watkins, B2v. Return to text.
- In fact, so common that this trope earns its place in the Aarne-Thompson Motif Index of folklore types: motif D1318.5.2, “Corpse bleeds when murderer touches it.” For more, see D.W. Atkinson “Magical Corpses: Ballads, Intertextuality, and the Discovery of Murder,” Journal of Folklore Research, 31 no. 1 (1999): 1–29. Return to text.
- “A Full and True Relation of a Maid Living in Newgate Street,” London, 1680. Wing F2315B, Harvard University Library. Accessed through Early English Books Online. Return to text.
- Not that much has changed since then. Return to text.
- For more, see Laura Gowing, “Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London,” History Workshop 35 (1993), 1–21. Return to text.
- Katharine Park, Secrets of Women—Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (Zone Books, 2006), 26. Return to text.
- Park, 26. Return to text.
- Watkins, B4v. Return to text.
- Watkins, B4r. Return to text.
Eileen Sperry holds a PhD in English Literature with a concentration in Cultural Studies. Her teaching and writing focus on early modern English literature, embodiment, and poetics. Her current book project explores death and decay in early modern lyrics.