Death and decay are never far away in Angel Meadow, Manchester's Victorian hell-hole, a cholera-infested ghetto and industrial shanty town haunted by dead souls.
What ever happened to the head of John Brogan, a 3-year-old Irish boy interred in the paupers’ cemetery after dying of cholera in 1832? He was buried in a huge open pit, each cholera victim on top of each other. When his grandfather, John Hayes, discovered there was no name on the coffin he asked to see the body, to take a lock of his hair. The coffin was opened and the boy was there all right – but with no head! In place of the head was a brick wrapped in straw. The grandfather displayed the headless corpse to those who gathered, and the mob carried the body drained of blood to the hospital amid cries of “Burn the hospital!”
There they rioted, demolishing a hospital wall, broke windows, damaged beds, released patients, destroyed cholera vans and attacked the staff. It turned out that a 19-year-old medical student. Robert Oldham, had sawn off the child’s head, because, he claimed, that was where he believed cholera originated.
The head was subsequently found and placed back on the child and re-interred at St Patrick’s church where the priest had to tell the crowd that rumours that he had raised back to living someone who had died from cholera were untrue. Eventually John Brogan’s head was found and taken to Manchester (Old) Town Hall where it was sewn back on to the body.
John Brogan was lucky. Robert Campbell, a special constable, got off worse. The morning after the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819 a mob gathered outside his Angel Meadow home because they believed he had killed a child. They shouted: “The villain. Kill him! He fired his pistol from an upstairs window and escaped from the house with the mob in pursuit. They caught up and murdered him.
No wonder the doctor, James Phillips-Kay claimed parts of Angel Meadow were “the haunt of the lowest of the population. The stranger, if he dare venture to explore its intricacies and recesses is sure to be watched with suspicion, on every side is heard the sound of the axe or knife… ”