On 26 June 1645, as the war between the King and Parliament raged, John Coleman sat down at his lodgings in London to eat a meat pie. As he ate it, a strange thought occurred to him: ‘What flesh eatest thou’?
At that moment, even as he chewed, a flood of doubts and suspicions swept into Coleman’s mind. Why had his landlady made meat pies on a fast day? Why had the girl who delivered it to his room been acting so oddly? What had happened to the child who had been missing the previous evening?
The answers must have struck him like a blow, because suddenly ‘hee could eate noe moore’, verily believing ‘the Pye was made of a Childs flesh’. According to his later testimony, Coleman then went out into the neighbourhood to try to learn more. Here he heard from several women that a child in a yellow coat had been seen wandering the streets on previous evenings and that a butcher’s wife had unexpectedly given the child bread and butter. A gentlewoman, it was said, was ‘almost madd for her chyld which was lost’.
Although Coleman’s testimony ends there, an incident six weeks earlier seems to reveal more. On May 13th, a crowd attacked Mary Hodges, saying that under her apron she had ‘sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young Children away’. Another group attacked Hodges on June 2nd, accusing her of being ‘a night walking whore’.
Then the story, like the pie, goes cold.
The mystery of the child’s flesh pie will never be solved. These witnesses testified before Westminster’s civic magistrates who wrote out their ‘informations’ and ‘examinations’ on loose sheets which have fortunately survived. The official legal proceedings were not so lucky. They disappeared long ago.
The main characters in this story will have to remain anonymous. Coleman never names his landlady – she is simply ‘a widdow woman’ living near the New Exchange. Nor does he name the other potential villain, the butcher’s wife who offered bread and butter to a stray child. My own suspicion is that the latter was Mary Hodges, also accused of trying to ‘tempt children away’ with alluring treats, but that’s far from certain. We’ll also never learn the names of the distraught gentlewoman or the wandering ‘Child clothed in yeallow’. All the alleged perpetrators and possible victims remain shadowy figures.
We will thus never find out if Coleman’s landlady was actually prosecuted or if Mary Hodges really did ‘entice’ children. And we’ll certainly never know if Coleman’s pie was really made with human flesh. Yet we can still learn something about our history through these fragmentary records. There may not be enough information to satisfy a judge, but the surviving documents nonetheless set the historian’s mind whirring. Commercialised Cannibalism
Coleman’s pie is the earliest example I have found of human flesh allegedly being sold as food. Although cannibalism, whether real or mythological, has a history stretching back tens of thousands of years, the commercialised nature of this incident makes it stand out.
The medieval and early modern world was teeming with stories of malicious cannibalism. Witches, Jews and savages were known to enjoy feasting on the flesh of Christians. There were also tales of unwitting cannibalism, probably drawing on the classical legend of Thyestes who unknowingly ate his three sons. In all such stories the foul act is motivated not by profit but by revenge, hatred or sheer bloodlust.
In contrast, the butcher’s wife and the landlady merely wanted to earn a few extra pence. Coleman reported that when he returned to the widow’s house after attending a sermon, he found that she had been baking and ‘hee barganed with her for one of the Pyes’. There is no hint of personal spite or passion in any of the alleged crimes. It’s strictly business.
Perhaps this fear of commercialised cannibalism only emerged in seventeenth-century London because this was a time and place where commerce seemed to be sweeping all before it. Thousands of cooks and victuallers supplied Western Europe’s largest city with its daily meals. The streets were packed with people selling ready-made food. In the huge markets, almost anything could be bought or sold. Why not human flesh?
By the eighteenth century, this trope was on its way to becoming firmly embedded in English culture. In 1718, a newspaper report quoted by Lindsey Fitzharris told the tale of two Lincoln apothecaries who sold the flesh of a hanged man to a local butcher, who sold it on to an inn-keeper, who inevitably made it into a pasty. A decade later, Jonathan Swift more famously made a modest proposal to offer the poor children of Ireland for sale at 10s. each ‘to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom’ as ‘excellent nutritive meat’.
The story had become common enough by the 1840s for Charles Dickens to be able to allude to the ‘many standard country legends’ about ‘preparers of cannibalic pastry … doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis’. Only a couple years later such tales would reach their zenith in a penny dreadful which first gave the world Sweeny Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the murderous pair who turned the barber’s unsuspecting customers into supplies for the pie-shop. This particular version proved so popular that it’s been turned into plays, musicals and of course films. Today we can still find the descendants of Coleman’s pie turning up in news stories and urban legends. The anxieties that drive our continued fascination with the possibility of unintentionally eating human flesh were already causing suspicions and accusations in the 1640s. John Coleman was probably very much like us in this respect. He worried that the shadowy economic transactions which brought food to his table might obscure a revolting crime, just as we fret about horsemeat contaminating our lasagne.
To lure a small child with sugar plumbs and buttered bread in order to murder it and bake it into a pastry may seem like an act so cold-blooded that it could only be fiction. Maybe, in 1645, it was. But such stories could circulate and be believed in seventeenth-century London thanks to a commercialised food industry that survives and thrives to this day.