"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Coffin of Henry Trigg; Or, Why It's Not a Good Idea to Turn Your Corpse Into a Tourist Attraction

A lot of people take the manner in which they will eventually be buried very seriously.  Some of them plan their funerals more elaborately than they did their weddings.  However, not even the Egyptian pharaohs were as fussy--or as weird--about the disposal of their earthly remains as an otherwise unremarkable man named Henry Trigg. 

Trigg lived in Stevenage, England in the early half of the 18th century, and did very well for himself.  He owned successful grocery and butchers’ shops, and held the honor of serving as warden of St. Nicholas’ church and general overseer of the parish.  He also owned considerable farmland.  Trigg never married or had children, so it would not be surprising if in his later years, he felt some regret that his prominent place in his community would die with him.  This desire to avoid being forgotten may well explain why he devised a way to insure a conspicuous posthumous place in Stevenage history,

After Trigg died in 1724, it is not too much to say the contents of his will created a sensation throughout England.  He opened with this novel declaration:

“I, Henry Trigg of Stevenage, in the county of Hertford, being very infirm and weak in body, but of perfect sound mind and memory, praised be God for it, calling unto mind the mortality of my body, do now make and ordain this my last will and testament, in writing hereafter following; that is to say, principally I recommend my soul unto the merciful hands of Almighty God that first gave me it, assuredly believing and only expecting free pardon and forgiveness of all my sins, and eternal life in and through the only merits, death and passion of Jesus Christ my saviour.”

Then came the fun part.

“And as to my body, I commit it to the west end of my hovel, to be decently laid there, upon a floor erected by my executor, upon the purlins; upon the same purpose nothing doubting but at the general resurrection I shall receive the same again by the mighty power of God; and as for and concerning such worldly substance as it hath pleased God to bless me with this life, I do devise and dispose of the same manner and form following.”  He added that his body must remain “upon the purlins” for a minimum of thirty years.

The executor of Henry’s will was his brother, the Reverend Thomas Trigg.  Thomas was reportedly less than delighted by his sibling’s eccentric taste in burials, but as refusing to comply meant forfeiting his share of Henry’s substantial inheritance, the instructions given in the will were followed to the letter.  Henry’s lead-lined coffin was lifted into the rafters of the barn behind his grocery shop, and the residents of Stevenage were left to gawk at the morbid sight to their heart’s content.

The coffin in 2016, via Wikipedia

Although Trigg’s will did not give a reason for his choosing such an unusual resting place, local gossip claimed it arose from fear of his mortal remains falling into the hands of bodysnatchers.  According to legend, one night Trigg and two companions were passing by a local churchyard when they witnessed a gang of grave-robbers busy at their grim work.  The sight so horrified Henry that he vowed to insure that his precious corpse would not meet a similar fate.

In 1774, Trigg’s former shop was turned into the Old Castle Inn, which remained in business until the 1920s.  His coffin had several close calls over these centuries.  In 1769, Trigg’s niece Ann left 40 shillings in her will for her uncle’s remains to be buried in a more conventional way.  However, by then his coffin had become such a popular local attraction that this bequest was ignored.  In 1807, a massive fire broke out in Stevenage that, by some miracle, avoided torching Trigg’s barn.  The old boy was obviously not a fan of cremation.

The Trigg barn, via Wikipedia

However, Henry faced other, even more undignified depredations.  When his badly eroded coffin was replaced in the early 1800s, the carpenter, as a souvenir of his interesting task, took one of Henry’s teeth and a lock of hair.  In 1831, the then landlord of the Old Castle Inn treated himself to a peep inside the coffin, and, it seems, bits of Henry as well.  When the East Herts Archaeological Society examined the remains in 1906, they found that no less than a third of the skeleton was missing.  Henry Trigg was probably resting in pieces all over England--an ironic fate for a man who reportedly so dreaded having his remains defiled.  Eventually, these sneak thefts left so little of the corpse that animal bones were put in the coffin as a substitute.

In 1999, Henry’s former shop became a branch of the National Westminster Bank.  At that time, his barn was renovated, with his coffin being temporarily relocated to an undertaker.  After the work was finished, Henry’s coffin was placed back in the rafters.  (Note: it’s questionable how much of Henry went with it.  Some reports say that when the coffin was removed from the barn, it was found to be empty.  Others state that the undertaker firm that briefly held the coffin buried whatever multi-species jumble of bones it then contained.  In any case, it’s clear poor Trigg came to a very undignified end.)

Strange burials and ghost stories go together like macaroni and cheese, so it’s little wonder that Henry’s spirit is reportedly far from quiet.  In 1964, the Arrow Smith Engineering Works occupied a building adjacent to Henry’s barn.  One day, a builder employed to do renovation work in the Arrow Smith building claimed to have seen the ghost of a man wearing old-fashioned, shabby clothes drift through the room and disappear through a brick wall.  In 1970, workmen converting the Old Castle repeatedly saw the apparition of a man dressed in a long striped apron.  A similar specter was later seen by employees of Arrow Smith.  To this day, it’s said that Henry Trigg haunts his former property, searching for his long-lost remains.

I can’t say I blame him.  As it turned out, he probably would have gotten more respectful treatment from the bodysnatchers.

1 comment:

  1. You'd think someone would have disposed of Trigg's remains after the "minimum of thirty years" had expired. Then again, no one seemed too scrupulous about having a corpse so near a grocery and/or butchery...

    (By the way, I am leaning to a way of disposing of my body that involves being put in the passenger seat of a car driven by a friend at high speed. Then he'll just open the door as he screeches around a sharp turn. I figure it will obviate the need for funeral expenses. Assuming they remove my i.d. beforehand.)


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