Authors: James McCreet
It was not a crow that Alfred White saw taking flight from the railing of the Monument that gloomy London afternoon but a woman plummeting to her death.
Perhaps it was her black dress fluttering against the smoke-streaked sky that made him first see a bird. Or perhaps it was the curious trick of perspective that reduces a body when seen from two hundred feet below.
But whereas a bird rises or glides when it takes to the air, this was a dead weight falling soundlessly, impelled by nothing more than gravity and hopelessness.
It was the limbs that signified a person – arms not thrashing or reaching out to grasp the passing air, legs not wheeling for purchase or balance. She simply dropped: a limp silhouette beside the fluted column, turning slowly end over end as her bonnet came free and drifted away.
Alfred found himself unable to shout, unable to point. He was transfixed. She seemed to fall so slowly that he felt he could have served another customer with a cup of coffee from the copper urn, perhaps also buttering a slice of bread. He could have looked up and seen her still, descending – more like a spider on its thread than a body approaching death at unimaginable velocity.
His hand paused, holding out the change. His mouth stopped in the middle of a word. The business of Monument-yard rattled around him as it always did: ladies and gentlemen shopping, cabs and carriages passing, a dog yelping as it ran ahead of a group of boys. All was completely normal – for one second more, at least.
She did not fall unobstructed. One of the carved stone griffins atop the pedestal broke her fall around fifty feet from the ground, catching her foot and sending her wheeling madly so that one shoe was flung from the body. Her trajectory altered outwards and Alfred now heard the sound of her dress billowing madly against the air.
She crashed to the ground with a reverberating crack that filled the court as if it had been a dense bale of cargo tossed from the summit.
The impact echoed around the
of the buildings, causing every person passing there to pause. A moment of silence followed, during which two dozen Londoners looked and made the identical realization. Then a strangled yell that might have come from any one of them:
My G—! Someone has jumped from the Monument.
The utterer of the cry was also the first on the scene: Mr Jenkins, the attendant of the Monument. And what he found there beside the iron palisades around the doorway was a grisly sight indeed.
The supine body had partially struck the railings, bending them with the tremendous force of the fall. Her left arm was severed at the elbow but for a tenuous remnant of skin. Her right leg stuck out sideways from the hip at a most unnatural angle. A considerable pool of thick, dark blood had already spread out from the back of her head, and more blood had been forced from her eyes, nose and ears. As Mr Jenkins bent close to her, a single spasm animated the frail body and she was dead.
Though the condition of the corpse was quite hideous to behold, her face had been undamaged by the fall. Mr Jenkins extracted his handkerchief and tenderly wiped away the blood to reveal the peaceful countenance of an attractive woman most likely in her early thirties.
She was dressed tastefully in a black silk dress – no doubt her best – and wore good silk stockings. One black leather shoe remained. Her light-blonde hair had been thrown into disarray by the fall, strewn about and soiled now in the thickening gore. She wore a simple gold wedding ring.
‘Somebody fetch a surgeon!’ said one of the crowd that had already formed around the body.
‘She is dead,’ said Mr Jenkins. ‘She breathed only once. I . . . I took her money just a few moments ago . . . She smiled and commented upon the weather . . .’
People around him stared only at the body. Their expressions were of mixed horror and fascination.
‘We need a casket,’ said Mr Jenkins. ‘Who will go and get one?’
Nobody responded. The body was the spectacle and the single focus.
‘I say we need a casket.
Who will fetch one?
A voice of assent came from the rear of the group and a figure ran off to procure a receptacle for the body.
Meanwhile, the crowd grew, drawing people from the surrounding streets as the word went out. Upwards of two hundred people had congregated by the time the casket arrived: men, women and children staring first up at the brass-gilt flames atop the Monument, then following the path down with awed mutterings and pointed fingers to where the mangled corpse lay.
A shaken Mr Jenkins stayed close to the body, pulling down the dress as much as possible over the shattered limbs to cover the lady’s modesty. Recently arrived policemen jostled the people back from the puddle of blood and made a path through which the coffin bearers could pass.
And fascination followed the body even as it was borne to St Magnus-the-Martyr on Upper-Thames-street and then to the watch house at London-bridge. There, it was examined by a surgeon and then – presumably to attempt some dissipation of the crowd – it was left in the open box for the clamouring public to view as they filed through in their hundreds. Not since 1810 had someone leaped from the Monument, when Mr Lyon Levi had been the first to take his life.
A queue trailed from that watch house well into the afternoon, with constables ushering people in for a few minutes at a time so that they could peer into the box and look upon that gentle face. If they expected to see a broken and bloody body, they were disappointed. Her splintered bones and torn skin now carefully arranged by the surgeon, she was as peaceful as if she had passed away during her sleep.
Only after darkness had fallen did the Lord Mayor himself, visiting the site of the precipitation, give the order that the shameful exhibition of the body should cease. A rumour was abroad that the husband of the deceased, missing his beloved and hearing the news, had gone to the Monument and had approached his honour personally to make the request.
As one might expect, the inquest upon the following day generated a veritable phrenzy of interest. The smoky taproom of the Old Swan tavern at Fish-street-hill was so crowded that constables had to force people out before the jury of twenty-four local inhabitants could be settled and sworn for the address of Mr Bowes, the city coroner. What occurred subsequently would shock and amaze them all.
The first witness to be called was Mr Jenkins, the Monument attendant. A short and unassuming man, he seemed most perturbed by the proceedings and by the attention upon him.
The coroner – How did the deceased appear when she paid her admittance?
Mr Jenkins – She was quite composed. We exchanged views on the weather and she said that she feared the view would not be very fine. But she did like to make the ascent.
The coroner – Have you, then, known the deceased to visit the Monument before?
Mr Jenkins – Quite regularly. She would come perhaps every fortnight, whatever the weather . . . save strong winds of course.
The coroner – For how long did she pursue this habit?
Mr Jenkins – Upwards of a year in my experience.
The coroner – And did you not think it strange that someone would want to ascend even in poor weather and when there was little to see?
Mr Jenkins – Not at all, sir. It is only the tourists who complain of the poor views. The native Londoner expects to glimpse the city only through the smoke.
The comment raised a knowing laugh among those assembled there, and the coroner acknowledged it with a smile and a nod.
Mr Jenkins – I mean to say that there are many reasons to ascend, sir. The structure itself is of great interest, and some say that the upper air has medicinal properties.
The coroner – I dare say the air is less than medicinal when the breeze is from Southwark. But proceed – what happened after the deceased was admitted?
Mr Jenkins – She ascended, and the next thing I knew she had crashed to the ground.
The coroner – How long was she aloft?
Mr Jenkins – It is difficult to say. Perhaps thirty minutes, including the ascent.
The coroner – Is that period typical for visiters?
Mr Jenkins – It rather depends. Tourists are wont to return quickly if they are cold, or if the view is poor. The decea— the lady in question would often spend an hour taking the air.
The coroner – Were any other visiters aloft at the same time?
Mr Jenkins – Three gentlemen gained admittance shortly after the lady. They would have been on the viewing platform at the same time.
The coroner asked if the three gentlemen were present at the inquest and after a general hubbub it transpired that they were not.
The coroner – Did you see the gentlemen in question after the melancholy incident?
Mr Jenkins – I did not. My attention was occupied with the lady and with the gathering of people.
The coroner – Were they still aloft?
Mr Jenkins – No, sir. After the body was taken away, I ascended to find the viewing platform empty. Then I locked the doors early out of respect.
The coroner – So we may assume that the gentlemen you saw ascend left the Monument during the confusion after the fall.
Mr Jenkins – I suppose so. I did not see them leave.
The coroner – What did these gentlemen look like? We should bring them before this inquest at all costs.
Mr Jenkins – They were well dressed – not working men. They spoke civilly to me (or rather, one of them did) and paid the fee. I can think of nothing remarkable about their appearance. I see hundreds of people a day.
The coroner – Did you exchange any conversation with them?
Mr Jenkins – It is my nature to say a word or two to each visiter and I warned them that the aspect from the summit might not be worthy of the climb. The one who spoke thanked me for my solicitude but said they would ascend all the same because one of their number was in London for the first time.
The coroner – Did he appear to be a foreigner?
Mr Jenkins – The gentleman alluded to did not speak. He did not look particularly foreign.
The coroner – One final question, if you please. Did you find anything unusual when you ascended for the final time that day?
Mr Jenkins – I did.
At this revelation, a murmur thrilled around the room. Mr Jenkins must have felt his throat constrict at the attention on him. He willed his voice not to crack as he continued.
Mr Jenkins – I found a small Bible. Its pages were turned down at various pages and there was a note within. I handed both to the police.
The coroner – I have them here and will read the note aloud for the purposes of the inquest.
And here Mr Bowes cleared his throat. Only the barest noise could be discerned: the scrape of a shoe, a glass clinking in another room. The space might have been empty.
The coroner (reading) – ‘I cannot go on. This life has become so intolerable to me that I must end it. I pray forgiveness from those who love me, and from my Maker who has set the weight of sin against self-murder. May His grace fall upon others more deserving than I.’ It is signed ‘Kathleen’.