The Legend of Burwell Parchment Gaol
Burwell, Cambridgeshire, England, 1665
In the 17th century, the prison system in England existed primarily in a much different capacity than what we today know. In those days, Britain had little if any need for prisons. For the most part, a standard sentence for those guilty of criminal offenses was death. The innocent were simply set free. It was not until 1615 when Thomas More, writing in “Utopia” suggested imprisonment as punishment as an alternative to death and execution that other options were even considered. His suggestion seems relatively enlightened by today’s standards, but the fact is that there was simply nowhere to send the accused during that era. If anyone was incarcerated at the time, it was more likely due to owing a debt, rather than a criminal offense. Sounds good, but as prisoners of the time were required to pay for lodging and board, it was actually a fairly senseless practice.
The one commonality that prisons of the 1600s and those of today share are that the keepers of the facilities often possess personalities that thrived on cruelty, malice, and often sheer sadism. The old prison in the village of Burwell was no exception. Through precise and accurate historical records from this time period are sketchy at best, the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation show that there was a long stretch of time at the old Burwell Parchment Gaol where this was true. In the mid-1600s, the prison was predominantly populated, as were most similar facilities of the time, as a holding place for debtors. The staff, though, more often than not, still dealt out the same inhumane treatment to their charges as if they were common criminals.
The one unique characteristic of the Burwell Parchment Gaol, an odd one for the times, was that its incarcerated population was completely female. This came about from a combination of a severe downturn in the success of the mostly agricultural economy of Burwell, with a wave of various deadly and widespread diseases that swept Cambridgeshire in that day. If a farmer could not pay his debt to a partner or feudal lord, he was often locked away as punishment. Once locked up, disease often took the farmer’s life before his sentence had been completed. And as unfair as it may seem, the debt holder often replaced the man with his wife or another family member to fulfill the entire sentence. Due to the mores of the times, it was routinely practiced to keep male and female prisoners segregated, thus the population of the Burwell Parchment Gaol was completely female in the year 1665.
The inmates were for the most part poor, uneducated, and at the whims of a system that while highly unfair, was what was accepted by the people of the times as necessary and adequate. The one person that all of them had to suffer through, though, regardless of their imposed sentence was Tamara Hornsby. Tamara had been orphaned when she was just six and had been forced to find her own way in life with little to no family anywhere to rely on. She had lived with some distant relatives for a time, but the physical and sexual abuse she had to endure made her flee this situation before she reached her teenage years. She lived on the streets, begging and stealing to survive until she found irregular work at the newly opened Burwell Parchment Gaol distributing the meager meals that were provided, and cleaning out the prison cells the few days a month that this was performed.
Tamara soon was given more and more responsibility by the administrators due to her efficient work, and soon when one of the gaol keepers passed away, she was offered the new position. She readily accepted seeing this as a huge step up from slopping meals and cleaning out cells. Tamara took to the position quickly relishing the authority she held over those less fortunate than herself. She got better food and better clothing than the prisoners, and it was not long before she realized that she could get away with just about any form of treatment toward her charges that she cared to dole out.
The administrators gave her free reign to do as she saw fit, as long as the inmates were kept in line and did not cause them any additional worries, either financially or otherwise. Tamara, through a combination of a lack of proper maturation as a young woman and the enjoyment she gradually came to enjoy in the misery of others, soon became a terror in the facility. The long-time residents soon learned not to cross her or even look at her in any way that might be misconstrued as threatening or even challenging. The newer arrivals would make this mistake only once, finding themselves on the wrong end of the thick rod that Tamara use routinely when she suspected insolence….or when a prisoner even failed to move quickly enough for her.
The women who had been there long enough had learned not to even try and warn the new arrivals of what they might endure by perceived disruptive behavior. Even this little bit of intervention might earn them a lash or two, and with the foul conditions of the gaol, it was unwise to open yourself up to any wounds that might never heal once an infection set in. On a particularly bad day, Tamara would not limit herself to the rod….once she had struck her victim to the ground she might often follow that up with a series of unrelenting kicks and other punches if the fallen woman refused to obey or move quickly enough to her satisfaction.
The inmates cowered and looked away as she made her rounds, knowing their cries of pain and agony were falling on deaf ears of the administrators. For a long time, this went on unabated. It had just become the way things were. And it was not just the assaults that Tamara was inflicting that was making life miserable among the prisoners; it was the glee and enjoyment they could see in her eyes and on her face as she meted out her punishment. However, one day that all changed. In an unusual turn of events, a young teenage girl, Eleanor Simpton, found herself among the population of the Burwell Parchment Gaol. Her father had owed a significant debt to one Edward Larchmont in Burwell. Her father, as well as her mother and two brothers, were killed by one of the less virulent stains of smallpox that had touched Burwell.
Smallpox was typically much more widespread and contagious, but for some reason, this wave was relatively minor and Eleanor miraculously escaped its wrath despite having been the caretaker of her family as it took them down one by one. Regardless of her situation and destitution following her family’s demise, Edward Larchmont was insistent that she serve out the sentence that had been ordered for her father. Eleanor was inconsolable following the loss of her family as she was dragged screaming and wailing to the prison. Her protestations continued ceaselessly even after being incarcerated, and finally, Tamara could take no more of her disruption to her authority.
She made an initial visit to Eleanor’s holding cell to administer her usual dose of treatment that in almost all cases resulted in the desired effect of obedience and respect for her. However, in Eleanor’s case, despite her young age, she somehow refused to understand this, and within just a day, she was found dead in her cell. The official decree was that she had succumbed to disease, but all the other inmates were well aware that Tamara had simply beaten the poor girl to death. It was finally the breaking point for the other women in Tamara’s charge. Though none of them had ever had time to really come to know Eleanor well, they were outraged at what had happened, knowing it could have easily been any of them as well. The administrators were obviously blind and deaf to what Tamara had done to the girl, as well as how she treated all of the inmates on a daily basis. They had had enough and decide it was time to act….to stop just being her passive victims.
Under great secrecy and at great risk, the senior resident, Maureen Thompson, began to organize her fellow prisoners in a rebellion against Tamara. They obviously had no access to any type of weapons, but they slowly and resolutely began to gather pieces of stone and other fragments that were part of the natural erosion of the decaying old prison to fashion rudimentary ones. After a few weeks, Maureen thought they were ready. She got a pair of the women to lure Tamara into a darkened recess near the back of the facility. When she came stomping down the corridor to administer her standard dose of punishment for the uproar, Tamara found herself overwhelmed by the masses of angry and vengeful women who worked her over with a fervor and passion that might have seemed impossible based on their weakened physical condition.
When she finally showed no signs of trying to defend herself any longer, the women stood aside glaring at the broken and bloody body of Tamara. They discarded their weapons so as to hide any evidence of their attack and stood in a loose semi-circle around the dying woman. She had held such an iron grip on them and was such a malignant and malevolent presence in their lives, that they all wanted to stay present to witness her actual demise, somehow worried in the backs of their minds that Tamara was beyond being simply mortal….that she might somehow have this ability to survive this brutal and deadly assault. They waited as her breathing became more ragged and irregular and the flow of blood from her open wounds continued to flow into the dirt and straw of the floor.
Just as they were sure they were observing her final breaths, Tamara, with great effort, opened her eyes….just a slit….and lifted her head from the ground. The women drew back in fear and horror, gasping, sure that their tormentor would arise uninjured. But Tamara was all but finished. They relaxed a bit as she fought for breath, rivulets of blood now seeping from her mouth and dribbling over her lips and down over her rough cotton smock. She formed this evil and terrifying grin of malice on her face as she looked up and down the assemblage of her attackers.
“Do not think that you have seen the last of me, you pathetic animals…” Tamara wheezed out as she struggled harder and harder for breath, a spray of blood droplets decorating the dry hay where she had fallen.
The women, taken aback by her effort, lost their brief sense of victory and all physically drew back a step or two, wondering if this woman was supernatural in nature.
“I will have the last say in this, believe me. On a day and at a time when you least expect it….I will return. And I will have my revenge on each and every one of you.”
She looked into each of their faces directly as she now gasped harder for air. Tamara knew her mortal life was rapidly draining away, but the last look of horror and fear on their faces gave her one last bit of pleasure. She knew that superstition among the people of Burwell, in general, was strong, and she used this to instill a deep sense of terror into them.
“There is nowhere you can hide. There is nowhere you can go. Even in your sleep I will find you and will exact my revenge on each of you, ten-fold over to what you have done to me this day….”
With that last pronouncement, Tamara collapsed onto the ground, inert and to all the women, blessedly dead….finally. They wandered off and back to their respective cells, her words still ringing in their ears. Tamara might have been a lot of things: evil, vile, sadistic, cruel…..but the one thing she knew for sure was that the existence of superstition was strong…..to this she was correct. Over the next few months, all the women who had had a hand in Tamara’s death, one by one, had mysterious and unexplained deaths themselves. The folktales tell of suicide and women discovered that were found dead in their cells of no apparent cause. However, in all cases, the faces of each were twisted in fear and horror, nothing of the like which had ever been seen before or since.
The official historical record shows a wave of disease ravaging the prison and the surrounding areas of Burwell. It was true that a measles epidemic hit Burwell, but as the prisoners were well segregated from the town itself, this seemed an unlikely scenario. The oral history continued to report that the skin of the women was remarkably clean of the lesions left behind by the ravages of measles of the time as well. More importantly, the women who had not be involved in Tamara’s death seemed to have miraculously been unaffected, a point well concealed by the administrators as they shipped them off to other facilities quickly.
The administrators of the gaol, however, stuck firmly to the disease fable. The run of measles had nearly decimated the population of Burwell, including most of the debt holders that were responsible for the incarcerations. With an empty prison, and an abandoned village, they closed the prison following a hasty relocation of the survivors. Over the generations, the village of Burwell recovered and grew, but the legend of the Burwell Parchment Gaol remained a dark and mostly undiscussed part of the village.
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