A Panicked Murder?

The chaplain wanted a confession. It was good for the soul. A condemned man would find it easier before the judgement of God if he went with an open heart. For those on the brink of eternity, facing execution for the most heinous crime of murder, there could be nothing left to contemplate but their eternal damnation. Maybe God will forgive them.

It was also good for the masses who, one day soon, would stand in the shadow of the gallows and watch the condemned hang. The confession of the damned provided the content for a broadside to be sold at the execution. A single printed sheet containing the details of the crime from the mouth of the one who committed it. The printer might add a rough woodcut of a generic hanging and a trite prayer–poem beseeching virtue. The onlookers could have a memento of their debased tourism, but one which was morally edifying and would ready them for their judgement before God.

At least that was the theory. But at several pence a copy the practice was rather better for the chaplain.

The chaplain might make £200 a year—several times his salary—from the published confessions of the condemned. It was certainly a perk of the job as Ordinary at Newgate Prison. The foul and vile creatures he had to spend his days in close communion with, to preach to, to minister to, his flock so to speak, were little reward themselves. It was only a few months ago that the previous chaplain had been found embellishing the confessions of his charges, making them juicier for public consumption and thus more fattening for his purse. The new chaplain, fresh in his office, was all too aware that he must get the words of the man himself.

So if it pleased Gerhardt Dromelius to speak, everybody would be better for it. He was guilty of murder, a jury of his peers — half English and half Dutch, befitting his origin — had deemed him so. His conspirators, Michael van Berghen and Catherine Truerniet, would not confess a thing more than they had already told the court. They forswore all knowledge of the murder til after the fact.

But would Dromelius speak? Would he explain what happened on the night of Thursday 13 June 1700? Or at least say how he came to be found with the bloody clothes of the victim?

Dromelius would speak, not of murder and his guilt, but rather of sodomy and his innocence.

St Katherine’s was a thick knot of streets in East London, sheltering under the ancient shadow of the Tower. Bound to the south by the Thames and the north by East Smithfield, it had once been the site of a medieval hospital — the Hospital of St Katherine, founded and owned by a succession of queens. Although the hospital’s royal status saved it from dissolution in the 1530s, by then its hallowed precincts were already being transformed into a densely–packed suburb of London. Houses and businesses crowded side by side, unplanned and unchecked. It was the beginning of a notorious slum which by 1700 over four thousand people would call home.

The attractions of St Katherine’s were not obvious on the ground. Mean little houses crammed together in narrow twisting streets — one with the frighteningly descriptive name of Dark Entry — sprinkled with brewhouses, butcheries, and burying grounds, and riven with open sewers which pulsed with the tides of the Thames. Yet sitting just outside the boundaries of the City of London it was also beyond the limits of the city’s regulation of trade. For those excluded from the guilds the area was a small scrap of commercial liberty.

The foreign settler understood the opportunity most of all. French, Dutch, Flemings, even a few Jews, came determined to nurture a livelihood in those streets. The newcomers with a trade enjoyed the freedom from guilds, others found whatever work they could. Some employed themselves as watermen, charging a few pennies — maybe half a shilling for a long journey — to take passengers up and down the Thames, or simply across, in their wherries; the river being a great highway for all traffic. Ironically, however, the Watermen’s Company’s jurisdiction reached far beyond London and even the self–made watermen of St Katherine’s were nominally under its view.

One such waterman, around seven o’clock on a Friday morning in early summer, went into the back yard of his house in Maudling’s Rents. He stared at the common sewer which crept southward between the houses and toward the Thames. He could see the toe of a boot, he was sure of it.

Grabbing the boot with the end of a hooked pole he raised it from the water, but as he did there also emerged a scarlet–stockinged leg. He called for help and with his neighbours pulled the body of a man from the sewer. Though still clothed from the waist downward, the head, chest, and arms were naked — and horrifically mutilated.

The man’s throat had been cut from ear to ear, so deep that the neck was almost sundered. One side of the head was smashed and bruised. The chest stabbed all over. And, most dreadfully, the hands were cut and shredded: the pitiful tokens of self–defence, the marks of a man who knew he was going to die.

Gapers flocked into the backstreet seeking to inliven the day’s drudge with morbid prying. While they swapped dread gossip and wild suspicions a few of the more useful looked about for signs of blood where the man must have been murdered; none were found.

Soon enough constables arrived on the scene to take control and begin the manhunt in earnest. But there was to be no great mystery behind this murder, for the crowd had already begun to pick up the threads of truth. One man came forward to inform the constables that he had met two local men, Michael van Berghen and his servant Gerhardt Dromelius, while walking near the common sewer at five o’clock that morning. Others swore that last night they had seen the murdered man drinking in van Berghen’s tavern just a few streets away; some had heard a commotion from the same in the early hours. A few testified that lights had stirred through the tavern’s windows all the long night.

The White Cross Tavern on East Smithfield was run by Michael van Berghen and Catherine Truerniet, his so–called wife. They and their servant Gerhardt Dromelius were all natives of Holland, foreigners like so many others in St Katherine’s. They were outsiders in England, and in London, but in this district they were just another houseful of misplaced people. Catherine’s parents had refused permission for her to wed van Berghen, and here they could at least be together. Such were the manifold lives which drove people to leave their homeland.

Early that summer morning, when the constables came to call at the White Cross Tavern they found van Berghen and Truerniet at home with the housemaid. Dromelius was absent, but otherwise everything seemed quiet and normal. The constables searched the house but turned up nothing, neither the missing clothes of the murdered man nor evidence of the murder itself. The floors had been mopped clean by the housemaid some hours earlier, but it was hardly suspicious — she would be expected to mop them every morning. Even a private house would be cleaned daily, how much greater the need for a busy public tavern.

But then, in the nook of a door, where the mop might barely reach, one of the constables spied a drop of blood. Only a little, but enough. Something had happened here. The three were arrested and immediately questioned on the whereabouts of the missing servant Dromelius. ‘Gone’. Van Berghen and Truerniet could or would not say where (indeed, van Berghen could barely speak English). They were sent to the magistrate in Whitechapel for further questioning.

Yet once again the constables would hardly be left long without a clue. Having heard that Dromelius was sought, a waterman came forward to tell that he had had him in the back of his wherry that very morning. Around five o’clock — just after he had been seen walking away from the common sewer with van Berghen — Dromelius had asked to be taken over to Rotherhithe on the south bank, only a little downriver. The constables gave chase.

Rumours would soon get abroad that Dromelius was seeking to contact the Dutch ambassador or some other notable among his countrymen, with a view to them helping him out of his predicament. But in truth Dromelius was a nobody. He was the drawer of the ale at the White Cross Tavern, his job being that drinkers never found themselves with an empty cup. Beyond van Berghen he had no patron, nobody from whom he could seek help. Now he was a suspected murderer all he could do was flee. Rotherhithe was as good a place to hide as any, away from the authorities of London, where he could wait for the next ship to Holland.

The ship would not come soon enough. The constables found Dromelius that evening lying low at an inn. In his room was a hamper full of bloody clothes. There could be little question now of his guilt, or at least his participation, and he too was taken away to stand before the magistrate with the three arrested earlier. He would be asked who the dead man was, how he was killed, and why the clothes were in his possession.

But back in Whitechapel the housemaid had already beaten him to the answers.

Oliver Norris came to London on business. Or rather, the young country gentleman came to London after he had seen to some of his father’s business in Epping, about fifteen miles north–east of the city. Meeting with friends in London he spent a good part of the day drinking and found, maybe to nobody’s amazement, that both he and the day were far too gone for further travel. After taking lodgings in Whitechapel he journeyed out into the fading light looking for another drink.

Why Norris chose the White Cross Tavern, or even why he was in St Katherine’s in the first place, is unknown. From Whitechapel it was only a short half mile drive to East Smithfield, but there were plenty of other taverns to choose. Riding in his carriage south along the Minories — the main street between his lodgings and van Berghen’s tavern — the way was studded with places to drink, many far more inviting and wholesome than the White Cross. As the road veered east at the end of the street, where beyond Little Tower Hill the great fortress haunched behind its moat, the streets narrowed unwelcomingly. This was not a reputable district, and maybe if Norris were not so drunk he would have taken the hint. Yet he turned up at the White Cross Tavern on the night of Thursday 13 June and resumed his binge.

After only an hour or so Norris seems to have had his fill and wished to return to his lodgings. Truerniet sent the housemaid to find him a coach, but she returned a few minutes later reporting she could find none. Norris then set off alone, and that was the last they saw of him. Whatever happened to him between stepping from the door of the White Cross Tavern and being found dead in the common sewer, they had no idea and no part. Or so they told the magistrate upon first being questioned.

But the housemaid hardly kept the line for a moment. She had barely done a thing wrong but for her silence and by breaking it now she could save herself. What did she have to gain by doing otherwise? Let the others hang.

The housemaid told how, when she was sent out to find a coach for Oliver Norris on that fateful night, her mistress Truerniet had secretly instructed her to come back without having searched and say there was none to be had. Norris had indeed then left the White Cross alone to set out for his lodgings in Whitehall. But he was soon back at the tavern, loudly complaining that his purse had been stolen and insisting that they were to blame.

Truerniet tried to calm the man for fear of passers–by hearing the argument, and invited him back inside with the suggestion that they might find some solution to his problem. Yet the argument only worsened, each side shouting and threatening. Though the housemaid usually stayed up late to complete her chores she was sent to bed early and saw no more of the events.

But she could still hear them. And after the argument had continued for a little while she heard a scuffle. And then silence. Some time later Truerniet entered the housemaid’s room but bid her to keep in bed and not come downstairs. Truerniet then dragged the housemaid’s hamper from her bedroom: the same in which Norris’s clothes would later be found.

In the morning the housemaid found that her cleaning chores had been done for her. Truerniet, who was not wont to clean the tavern herself, had mopped the floor in the night. Only a little bench was still dirty. Setting down to clean it the housemaid spotted drops of blood. She guessed what had taken place in the night. The housemaid never had a chance to perform her duty to inform on van Berghen, Truerniet, and Dromelius, as just a few hours later the constables called.

But now she had. And her words proved enough to convict the three and win her own freedom. They were sentenced to death.

Inside the bleak walls of Newgate Prison, Dromelius gave the chaplain what he sought and came forward with his own confession. He did it, he swore, he killed Norris. But it was without any foreknowledge or untoward act on the part of his master and mistress. Besides, it was self–defence, and Norris had brought it upon himself with the darkest and most wicked of sins.

Dromelius insisted that Norris was not left to walk home alone. It was clear he was drunk and van Berghen assigned Dromelius to accompany the guest back to his lodgings. It was all perfectly innocent. Indeed, it was a kind act.

Almost immediately after leaving the tavern Norris complained that he needed to use the privy. Dromelius showed him into a broken down building which backed on to the common sewer and indicated that he could relieve himself here. But then, to the utter disgust of Dromelius, Norris propositioned him.

Sodomy was maybe the most repulsive and detestable act known in Christendom. It degraded man and insulted God. It was a mortal sin to the Church and a capital crime to the state. Dromelius wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted nothing to do with Norris, who stood before him proposing that they should embrace one another and throw themselves into the fires of Hell.

Dromelius reached over and pulled Norris’s sword from his belt. They tussled and wrestled, rolling in the dirt, before Dromelius at last overcame Norris and wounded him with his own weapon. There was to be no sodomy now, the moral threat had been subdued. It was self–defence: a defence of his eternal soul.

Yet though Norris moaned and writhed on the ground, he still lived. There had not yet been any murder, and but for the quirk of fate there would not. It was only when Dromelius heard a watchman passing near that — out of sheer terror of being discovered — he slit Norris’s throat to silence his groans.

Van Berghen and Truerniet knew nothing of what had happened until after the fact. Dromelius had returned to the tavern and begged for help. Whatever their actions in covering up the crime and encouraging him to flee the country it was were no more than necessary so that their servant might not suffer for a crime he had not brought upon himself. It was, in all, a terrible course of events. But where did the guilt lie between the sodomist Norris and a fearful Dromelius?

So much for the story of Dromelius.

Yet for those on the brink of eternity truth was surely the only course. God could forgive those who repented in earnest. But those who dissembled were toying with the Almighty. The chaplain decided to force the issue and challenge Dromelius’s version of the murder.

If Norris was killed near the common sewer, why was no blood found at the scene? And why was blood found in the White Cross Tavern? And, most tellingly, why were there no stab holes in the clothes of Norris? Did he happen to take off his shirt before he propositioned?

Dromelius shrugged. It happened how it happened, and he spoke the truth. He took the chaplain’s accusations in his stride.

The chaplain further charged that he was intimate with his mistress. That far from being van Berghen’s wife, Truerniet was merely his lover, and she was also Dromelius’s. Furthermore, his whole story was concocted to place the guilt on himself and save her from the noose.

Dromelius confessed he was intimate with her but insisted that it had nothing to do with his story. He might beg God’s forgiveness for adultery, but no more.

And the sodomy? Which Dromelius had said was the only cause he fought and killed Norris? Was it true? Would he really befoul a man’s name?

Maybe fearful that he ought not defame a dead man, or knowing that the accusation was too much and too unbelievable, Dromelius yielded. It was not true, he admitted. He suggested Norris had merely attacked him in his drunkenness, nothing more. The idea that Dromelius had panicked and killed Norris over sodomy was, “pure contrivance to make my guilt appear less odious and abominable in the sight of the world.”

Michael van Berghen, Catherine Truerniet, and Gerhardt Dromelius were hanged on Little Tower Hill on Friday 19 July 1700.

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