“Keep off, you villain!” A Death-bed Struggle: 1870s

The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt, 1853, Tate Gallery

The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt, 1853, Tate Gallery

The facts connected with the death of Sarah Gladstone have been kept quiet, and away from the public, but have excited a very deep interest among the few medical men and others acquainted with them. There appears, however, no object in further secrecy. The unfortunate woman has been dead several weeks, and it is pretty well established that she has left no near relatives whose feelings need be considered in connection with the matter.

Sarah Gladstone belonged to that class of prostitutes called by the police “privateers.” Her home was a small room in a tenement building, which she kept furnished with great neatness and taste. It was never the scene of drunken revels or unruly gatherings, and, in fact, Sarah’s visitors were so few that it was often said she had some private means of her own.

A month or so ago Sarah was taken ill. The fact was first discovered by a young man, a clerk who was in the habit of visiting her. He went to her room late one Saturday night and found Sarah kneeling on the rug before the fire-place, her face buried in her hands, and weeping bitterly.

The young man states that he endeavored to persuade her to tell him what was the trouble, but that she seemed bewildered, and persisted in passionate entreaties that he should leave the room. Her agitation increased, and finally, fearing the sound of her voice would attract attention, he went away.

The following Sunday, feeling courteously interested in the state of the unhappy girl, he again went to her room. He found the door locked, and could gain no response to his knocks. On Monday evening he went to the same place. He knocked, and after waiting some time, she finally admitted him. He states that he found her the picture of misery. Her face was deadly pale, her eyes bloodshot with tears, and her movements indicated extreme weakness. The following is his report of the conversation that took place:

“You are sick, Sarah,” I said. “I will get a doctor, and you will be all right in a few days.”

“It’s of no use, Henry; nothing can save me. I’ve been called, and I must go. My strength is ebbing away fast, and by this day week I shall be dead. Be not sorry,” she continued slowly, as if talking to herself; “my life has been a bitter, bitter struggle, and I want rest. But, oh, God!” she cried, starting to her feet and walking up and down the room, wringing her hands, “why should he be the one to call me? He ruined me; he stole me away from happy Stamford, and made a wretched strumpet of me. He left me all alone with my dead child in the big city, and laughed at my prayers and tears. I heard he was dead long ago—shot himself down South—and I felt God had avenged me. But no, no! he has haunted me when dead as when alive. Curse him! curse him! my evil star. And now he takes my life. Curse him! curse him in hell! forever!”

She hissed those last words through her teeth with terrible emphasis, and sank on the sofa panting and exhausted. I left her for a short time and procured two of my medical friends, and returned to the room.

The remainder of the particulars connected with the girl’s death are gathered from the physicians who attended her. They stated that they found the patient in a state of extreme lassitude on their arrival. She seemed possessed with the idea that her death was approaching, and it was evident that she considered she had a supernatural intimation of the fact. She had been called, she frequently said, and then knew she must go. The physicians could detect no specific ailment, and treated her as they considered best in order to allay nervous and mental excitement, and to support the physical strength. On Monday and Thursday following she seemed better, but on Friday alarming and most singular symptoms were developed.

It appears that on this evening, when the two doctors visited Sarah together, they found the young man, Henry, in the room. As they approached the bed they observed a change had occurred in the patient. Her eyes shone with extraordinary brilliancy, and her cheeks were flushed with a crimson color. Otherwise, however, she appeared calm and self-controlled.

“Tell them, Henry, what I have told you,” she said to the young man.

He hesitated, and finally she continued:

“This poor boy, doctors, won’t believe me when I tell him I shall die to-night at 12 o’clock.”

Henry was weeping, and she said to him:

“Were you fond of me, really?—fond of the wretched girl of the town? Oh, Henry, God will bless you for your kindness and love to me.”

She continued to talk rationally and affectionately to her young friend until about 10 o’clock, when she closed her eyes and appeared to sleep.

The night was one unusually sultry and warm for April, and between 11 and 12 o’clock a thunderstorm broke over the city. Sarah had continued silent for over an hour, and except the whispering conversation of the three men the room had been quiet. A crash of thunder, which shook the building, startled her, and she suddenly sat up in bed. The physicians state that they approached and found her trembling violently.

She caught hold of the arm of Dr. ___, saying: ”You are a good, strong, brave man; can’t you save me? Why should a poor girl like me be persecuted in this way? I have been suffering all my life, and now I am dying at the bidding of this dark, stern man. Oh! save me, doctor! save me, for God himself has given me up.”

As she spoke, she clutched the doctor’s arm with desperation, and a fearful earnestness was expressed in her face. The young man, Henry, at this time, overcome by the scene, left the room. Sarah did not notice his departure, but continued to talk wildly of some coming peril. All at once, when the doctors were endeavoring to compose her and induce her to lie down, she turned her face toward the door and uttered a piercing shriek. In a moment she had become a raving maniac. Her eyes were fixed on the door as if they saw some terrible object there.

“So you’ve come,” she said; “you’ve come, James Lennox, to complete your work. But I’ve got friends now. I am no longer at your control. Oh, how I hate you, you bad, wicked, bloody-minded man! You ruined me body and soul, but now I’m free! Keep off, you villain.”

As she spoke she sprang out of bed and ran behind the physicians, muttering to herself. They put their arms around her and lifted her into the bed again. She resisted like a wild beast, and seemed to think herself struggling with a deadly foe. She heaped imprecations on the head of her haunting persecutor, and defied him, alluding incoherently to scenes in her past life. For more than half an hour she remained in this way, and then suddenly became quiet and seemingly composed. Her eyes closed, and she seemed asleep. Her breathing became regular, but very low and faint; she opened her eyes and smiled sweetly. She muttered: “It is almost morning;” and Sarah Gladstone died as the clock struck twelve.

The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world, John Francis, 1894

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil would dismiss this narrative as a first-rate scene from some stage melodrama were it not for the fact that this episode appeared in a number of newspapers between May and July of 1870, published as fact. It may, however, have merely been a lurid tale created by a bored journalist to spice up a dull edition. The notion that the ghost of someone familiar to the dying would “call” them away is well-known in folklore, although the preferred ghost would be a loved one, rather than an evil seducer.

This story contains all the standard elements of the Fallen Woman narrative: a Heartless Cad who engineered her Ruin, a dead child, villainous treatment by the Cad, and, ultimately, sickness and death. Even her neatness and taste could not save the poor girl. Mrs Daffodil would very much like to read a newspaper account of a Strumpet Triumphant some day; it would make a nice change.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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