The busy crossroads where Oxford Street meets Tottenham Court Road has a grisly past. It was here, in 1761, that a bricklayer named John Duke was buried with a stake driven through his body.
Here's a press cutting, which was syndicated to several papers:
St Giles's Pound was a holding pen for animals (and sometimes criminals), located close to where Centre Point now stands, at the crossroads of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. The map below, from 1746, shows the probable location.
In former centuries, suicide was regarded as a serious crime. A crossroads burial with a stake through the heart was an occasional form of 'punishment' for those who had taken their own lives, particularly those who had also murdered. The idea, a throwback to ancient folklore, was to prevent the ghost of the deceased from returning, pinned down by a stake and trapped in indecision by the crossroads. It also served as a deterrent to other would-be suicides.
The most famous example was John Williams, the man accused of the Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811. He was buried, stake and all, at the East End crossroads where Cannon Street Road meets Cable Street. The last known example, another murder-suicide, saw an Abel Griffiths buried at a crossroads in 1823 where Victoria Station now stands. The practice was abolished later that year.
The burial near Tottenham Court Road is a rare example documented in the press. It is also unusual to hear of a crossroads burial so near to the centre of town — in this case, the closest major junction to the murderer's home.
We can find little else about the murder. It seems that Duke stabbed his wife in the breast following a trivial argument. Having been apprehended, he took his own life while under escort to the magistrate. He later died at Middlesex Hospital — now the Fitzroy Place development.
The exact location of the burial is unknown. Duke's remains were most likely found long ago, on one of the many previous excavations in the area. But who knows? Perhaps his stake-pinned skeleton still awaits discovery among the shafts and piles of the Crossrail development.
As a final note, this busy road junction — a former gallows site — has a long association with tragedy. In 1814, at least eight people were killed when a great vat of beer gave way on the site of the Dominion Theatre. In more recent times, 37 people were killed in a night club fire on nearby Denmark Place.
Story discovered in the British Newspaper Archive.