The gruesome fate of a murderous Chelsea Pensioner
28th October 2019
On this day in 1801 a Chelsea Pensioner was condemned to death for murder. But that was just the start of a truly macabre tale.
When current Chelsea Pensioner Ray Pearson answered a request for Chelsea Pensioners to sit for a painting class at the Royal Academy of Arts, he came across a grisly exhibit and uncovered a horrific tale that began in the Royal Hospital 218 years ago.
On 2 October 1801, the eminent surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue was called to the Royal Hospital following the murder of a Pensioner called Lamb by a Captain at the Hospital – an old Irishman called James Legg. Carpue saw an opportunity to fulfil a strange request from three artists from the Royal Academy who wanted to settle an artistic dispute. Sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway claimed that most depictions of Christ’s crucifixion were anatomically incorrect – but they needed a body to prove it. When Legg was sentenced to hang, Carpue claimed the corpse for a grisly artistic experiment…
“I saw the blood and cried out ‘Murder!’”
James Legg was tried for murder at the Old Bailey, on 28 October, just before Halloween. At the trial, John Forster, a fellow Captain and Chelsea Pensioner, reported how he discovered the crime:
“As I was coming downstairs I heard a pistol discharged; I then went into the room, and saw the dead man laying on his back alongside of his bed, and saw the blood running through his shirt; I stood in amaze, and did not know what to say; the prisoner was then in his own bedchamber, but he came out of it, and said, ‘I have done it’.”
The victim’s wife, who witnessed the event, explained how Legg had rushed into the room with two pistols, put a pistol into Lamb’s hand and challenged him to a duel. When he’d refused, Legg shot him:
“The prisoner then, after my husband had thrown the pistol away, rushed up immediately, and fired at him, as he saw him through the glass door. When he had done so, he looked at me, and said, ‘I have done it’; I saw the blood coming out of his breast, and I cried out, ‘Murder’. He fell directly; and expired; he endeavoured to call my name, but could not.”
The motivation for the crime was unclear, although testimony from Joseph Ryland, a tobacconist at the Royal Hospital, suggested he was mentally ill and a nurse in the Old Infirmary also observed in Legg “a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state”:
Legg, however, claimed he’d suffered “repeated insults” from Lamb and that “had he done as a soldier should do” and taken up the challenge of a duel, the murder wouldn’t have happened. He went on to say:
“He was a tyrannical tempered man, and not easy to deal with; from time to time he aggravated me so, and harassed my life so much, that I was driven to silence or moderate him.”
Despite Legg’s advanced age and defence of insanity, he was found guilty of murder and condemned to death.
“I mind this no more than I would entering the field of action”
On the following Monday, the Morning Post reported that “many thousands” came to witness the execution where Legg, and another prisoner were “launched into eternity”. Legg – whose “appearance was prepossessing, an open countenance, about six feet one inch high” was calm and showed no fear:
“When he was about to ascend the scaffold, he said, ‘I mind this no more than I would entering the field of action’. He afterwards shook hands with all around him and turning to his companion, who was weeping bitterly, said ‘Be a man and die with spirit’… Before they were turned off, Legg looked around, bowed to the populace, smiled and appeared quite unconcerned.”
Casting the cadaver
After Legg was hanged, Dr Carpue and the artists prepared to discover the exact effects of crucifixion on the human body. The surgeon recorded how he was taken to a temporary building where a cross was provided:
“The subject was nailed on the cross, the cross suspended… the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into. When cool a cast was made… and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.”
The gory procedure was not yet over. Carpue proceeded to remove all the skin and fat to reveal the muscle and made another plaster cast of the corpse. Although Carpue’s project was uniquely gruesome, the procedure was not uncommon at the time. Ecorchés – or flayed cadavers – in classical poses were used as models for teaching anatomy in medical schools and art academies. Following the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only bodies legally available for this procedure were those of executed criminals – like Legg.
Legg’s final resting place
The two casts attracted a great deal of interest and were displayed in Thomas Banks’s London studio for the crowds to view, before being moved to the Royal Academy for the edification of students and academics.
Over the following years, the two casts were displayed in various places – from a museum to a medical school. The first cast has not been traced, but the écorché finally made its way back to the Royal Academy and narrowly missed being hit by a zeppelin bomb in 1917. Today, it still hangs in the Royal Academy’s life drawing room.
A record of Legg’s body remains, but do the spirits of Legg and Lamb still haunt the Royal Hospital? We will be sharing some Royal Hospital Halloween ghost stories soon…