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Side Quest: Understanding Lancaster’s curious ‘eavesdropper’

Long before Lancaster became the most heavily surveilled city per capita in the United States with 169 cameras canvasing 63 percent of the town, there was a mysterious figure who would eavesdrop on your conversation…or more accurately remind you not to gossip. 

Perhaps more surprising is that this covert eavesdropping program has been in place since 1762. If you travel east on King Street, a block past the courthouse, it’s easy to miss the curious fellow spying on you. To find him, you have to look up as you pass the Demuth Museum.

You might want a pair of binoculars to get a good look at the second story eavesdropper.

History of Eavesdropping

The word eavesdropper has been in use for over a thousand years dating back to the 900s. It comes from the Old English word “yfesdrype,” which means place around the house where the rainwater drips off the roof. The meaning now as it was then is the same—someone listening to a conversation in secret.

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Medieval eavesdropper.

Beginning in the 1500s, carved faces were tucked into the “eaves” of ceilings as an architectural feature to serve as a reminder not to gossip because you never know who might be listening. The most famous eavesdropping figurines are found in Hampton Court Palace. King Henry VIII had these carved and painted figures added to the eaves of the palace’s Great Hall as a stern reminder to both staff and guests after he took ownership in 1529.

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Hampton Court Palace located 12 miles from central London on the Thames River.

Despite Hampton Court’s enormous size, privacy was at a premium. As such, Henry VIII was aware of everything in his court through his courtiers and servants. Henry did not tolerate loose tongues among long ears. Those who spoke freely often did to dangerous consequences. Traitorous words could easily result in hanging, drawing, quartering, or beheading. In the Tudor court, it was best to see nothing, hear nothing, and say nothing.

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Eavesdropping figures smiled down upon guests, reminding everyone of Henry’s omnipresence.

Lancasterian Eavesdropper

To visit the Lancasterian Eavesdropper, travel to 121 East King Street and lookup. The property is historic for several reasons. Built-in 1762 by German immigrant William and Elizabeth Bausman, it has the only known “eavesdropper” and the last surviving cut sandstone facade remaining in Lancaster City. The eavesdropper hangs from the corner of the cornice. The sculpted head gazes down at pedestrians from three floors up. This Georgian home definitely unique in an area dominated by brick buildings. A datestone can be seen between the two second-floor windows.

Bausman was prominent in Lancaster’s Colonial-era government and served as Chief Burgess (a position comparable to the modern office of the mayor) and also ran a tavern next door.

Constructed in the days before air conditioning, this unblinking fellow served as a good reminder that voices on the street could easily be heard from inside open windows, especially during the hot summer months. Imagine the conversations that took place this close to the courthouse.

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This “eavesdropper” serves as a reminder not to gossip on the street below. You never know who might be listening.

You can spot the eavesdropper figurine in the top center of the street view map above on the red second-story overhang.

Have You Seen Any Eavesdroppers?

If you know of any other eavesdroppers hidden around Lancaster, comment below with the location.

References:

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