It was many months before my uncle set before me the notes and data he had collected concerning the site of Taylor Wimpey’s cursed The Denizen development. Doctor Whipple was a sane, conservative physician of the old school, and for all his interest in the place was not eager to encourage young thoughts toward the abnormal. His own view, postulating simply a building and location with a markedly unsuitable ambience and orientation, had nothing to do with abnormality but rather was based on the ancient science of feng shui; but he realized that the picturesque legends that aroused his own interest, would in a young man’s fanciful mind take on all manner of gruesome imaginative associations.
The doctor was a bachelor, a white-haired, clean-shaven, old-fashioned gentleman, and a local historian of note, who had crossed swords with such controversial enemies of tradition as E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. He lived at the bottom end of Golden Lane, in Breton House on the Barbican Estate, a dwelling that rose eerily over the site of the old City of London mortuary. Around him in rooms crowded with bookshelves that had been specially contructed for him, were the relics and records of our ancient family, and innumerable books and papers with dubious allusions to the shunned site that was now home to The Denizen.
When, in the end, my insistent pestering evoked from my uncle the hoarded lore I sought, there lay before me a strange enough chronicle. Long-winded, statistical, and drearily genealogical as some of the matter was, there ran through it a continuous thread of brooding, tenacious horror and preternatural malevolence that impressed me even more than it had impressed the good doctor. Separate events fitted together uncannily, and seemingly irrelevant details held mines of hideous possibilities. A new and burning curiosity grew in me, compared to which, my curiosity about the fair sex was feeble and inchoate.
The first revelation led to an exhaustive research, and finally to that shuddering quest which proved so disastrous to myself and mine. For at the last my uncle insisted on joining the search I had commenced, and after a certain night in The Denizen he did not come away with me. I am lonely without that gentle soul whose long years were filled only with honor, virtue, good taste, benevolence, and learning. I have reared a marble urn to his memory in Bunhill Fields – the place in our neighbourhood that is home to the remains of William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. It would be a hidden oasis of peace in the heart of the inner city had it not been surrounded by ghost home developments that are considerably less cursed than The Denizen, such as The Featherstone.
The history of the site, opening amidst a maze of dates, revealed no trace of the sinister immediately after its use for a plague pit. The Denizen lies in the ward of Cripplegate and in the 1660s the Great Plague of London killed nearly eight thousand of the parish’s inhabitants; but not one of those who lived or worked in the brothel above the ancient Golden Lane plague pit fell victim to the black death during this dreadful outbreak. The site was outside the original City of London wall and for hundreds of years had been notorious for both its poverty and its brothels. Those thrown in the plague pit came from the great mass of the lumpen proletariat in the area, and it seemed possible the spirits of this ‘low end population’ were very particular about who they wanted living or working on this piece of land. They didn’t seem to mind the low ranking coppers who moved into Bernard Morgan House in the nineteen-sixties, and these included members of the notoriously corrupt drug squad. The spirits were in two minds about what was going on when nurses moved in and mingled with the police. Something strange must be noted. No woman who lived in Bernard Morgan House ever managed a live birth, those who became pregnant had only still-born children. And according to the records, when brothels stood there no child was born alive to any of the women who worked in them for hundreds of years.
Among the records that have come down to us, sickness occurred among the children born to bawdy woman Meg Evans after she began working at a brothel on the site of The Denizen in 1665. Her offspring Abigail and Ruth died within a month of their mother starting to work there. Doctors diagnosed the trouble as some infantile fever, though others declared it was more of a mere wasting-away or decline. It seemed, in any event, to be contagious; for Kim Carver, another prostitute who worked at the brothel, died of it in the following June. Eli Lawson, the madam in charge of operations, constantly complained of weakness; and would have returned to her native Yorkshire but for a sudden attachment to Daniel Pierce, who was hired to control the johns with his great strength. He died the next year – a sad year indeed, since it marked the death of Meg Evans herself, enfeebled as she was by the grief that followed the death of her children.
The widowed Sidney Evans never recovered from the shock of his wife’s death, and the passing of his surviving son Benjamin two years later was the final blow to his reason. In 1669 he fell victim to a severe form of insanity, and was thereafter confined to Bedlam. This was when Bethlem Royal Hospital was still at its original site just outside the City of London wall at Bishopsgate; a few years later the institution moved to Moorfields, closer to The Denizen’s Cripplegate location. Sidney’s maiden sister, Mercy Dexter, moved in to the Golden Lane brothel so that various family debts might be paid off. Mercy was a plain, raw-boned woman of great strength; but her health visibly declined from the time of her relocation. This was shortly after most of those working at the brothel left without coherent explanation – or at least, with only some wild tales and a complaint that they disliked the smell of the place. For a time Mercy became both its madam and sole prostitute, since seven deaths and case of madness, all occurring within five years’ space, had begun to set in motion the body of fireside rumor which later became utterly bizarre. Ultimately, however, she obtained new sex workers from out of town; Ann White, a morose woman from Royston in Essex, and a capable harlot from Bath named Catherine Low.
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It was Ann White who first gave definite shape to the sinister idle talk. Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from Royston, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions and the site of a notorious Rosicrucian cavern. As recently as 1962, members of the Royston community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace, and one may imagine the point of view of the same section in 1670. Ann’s tongue was perniciously active, and within a few months Mercy discharged her, filling her place with a faithful and amiable amazon from Newport in south Wales, Maria Robbins.
Meanwhile poor Sidney Evans, in his madness, gave voice to dreams and imaginings of the most hideous sort. At times his screams became insupportable, and for long periods he would utter shrieking horrors. Just what Mr. Evans cried out in his fits of violence, tradition hesitates to say; or rather, presents such extravagant accounts that they nullify themselves through sheer absurdity. Certainly it sounds absurd to hear that a barely educated Englishman often shouted for hours in a coarse and idiomatic form of French or that the same person, alone and guarded, complained wildly of a staring thing which bit and chewed at him. In 1772 the Catherine Low died, and when Mr. Evans heard of it he laughed with a shocking delight utterly foreign to him. The next year he himself died, and was laid to rest in Bunhill Fields.
By 1680 Mercy Dexter’s once robust frame had undergone a sad and curious decay, so that she was now a stooped and pathetic figure with hollow voice and disconcerting pallor – qualities shared to a singular degree by the one remaining harlot Maria. In the autumn of 1682 Maria gave birth to a still-born daughter, and on the fifteenth of the next May, Mercy Dexter took leave of her life as a brothel-keeper. The brothel was inherited by a distant relative. Martin Straight was a practical man and rented it out. He considered it an obligation to make the most of his property, and he didn’t concern himself with the deaths and illnesses which caused so many changes of tenants, or the steadily growing aversion with which the house of ill-repute was generally regarded. It is likely that he felt only vexation when, in 1704, the Corporation of London council ordered him to fumigate the place with sulfur, tar, and gum camphor on account of the much-discussed deaths of four persons, presumably caused by the then diminishing fever epidemic. They said the place had a febrile smell.
Straight’s son Peter and grandson Archer lived near Mortlake their entire lives and knew little of the shunned house of ill-repute other than as a nuisance almost impossible to rent out; perhaps on account of the mustiness and sickly odor of unkempt old age. Indeed, it never was rented after a series of deaths culminating in 1761, the details of which are now lost in obscurity. Martin’s great-grandson Harris, last of the male line, knew it only as a deserted and somewhat picturesque center of legend. He sold it to be bulldozed and replaced by a warehouse.