10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths
- 25 December 2013
- From the section Magazine
Life in Victorian times was arguably considerably more dangerous than now, if the newspaper reports of the time are anything to go by, writes Jeremy Clay.
A recent BBC News Magazine piece set out the dangers within the Victorian or Edwardian home. But there were plenty of ways to come a cropper outside the home.
1. Killed by a mouse
An equation familiar to anyone who's sat through a few old episodes of Tom and Jerry. Women + Mice = localised uproar. It's a sexist old TV trope, of course, but it played out for real in England in 1875, when a mouse dashed suddenly on to a work table in a south London factory.
Into the general commotion which followed, a gallant young man stepped forward and seized the rodent. For a glorious moment, he was the saviour of the women who'd scattered. It didn't last. The mouse slipped out of his grasp, ran up his sleeve and scurried out again at the open neck of his shirt. In his surprise, his mouth was agape. In its surprise, the mouse dashed in. In his continued surprise, the man swallowed.
"That a mouse can exist for a considerable time without much air has long been a popular belief and was unfortunately proved to be a fact in the present instance," noted the Manchester Evening News, "for the mouse began to tear and bite inside the man's throat and chest, and the result was that the unfortunate fellow died after a little time in horrible agony."
2. Crushed by his own invention
Sam Wardell couldn't afford to oversleep. He was the lamplighter in the New York town of Flatbush in the mid-1880s. He lit the streetlights in the evening, and needed to be up early to put them out again at dawn. It wasn't a job for slobs.
And so, with the boundless ingenuity of the age, he hit on a neat failsafe. He took a standard alarm clock and supercharged it, adding a Wallace and Gromit-style embellishment to ensure he woke in time. First he connected the clock by a wire to a catch he fitted to a shelf in his room. Then he placed a 10lb stone on the shelf. When the alarm struck, the shelf fell and the stone crashed to the floor. Ta-da!
It worked perfectly, and perhaps would have carried on doing so, if Wardell hadn't toyed with the configuration. One Christmas Eve he invited some friends round for a party and cleared his room of furniture to make space. When they left, he dragged his bed back into the room. He was tired, and didn't pay much attention to where he put it.
At 05:00 the next morning, the alarm sounded. The shelf fell. The stone dropped straight onto the sleeping Wardell's head.
3. Killed by a coffin
Henry Taylor died an ironic death. He was a pall bearer in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, and was midway through a funeral when he caught his foot on a stone and stumbled. As he fell to the ground, the other bearers let go of the coffin, which fell on poor, prone Henry.
"The greatest confusion was created amongst the mourners who witnessed the accident," said the Illustrated Police News in November 1872, "and the widow of the person about to be buried nearly went into hysterics."
4. Killed by eating her own hair
The doctors were baffled. The patient was seriously ill, that much was clear, but they couldn't fathom the cause. So when the 30-year-old died, in a village in the English county of Lincolnshire, they asked her grieving relatives for permission to carry out a post-mortem. Whatever they imagined they might find, it can't possibly have been what they actually discovered - a solid lump, made up of human hair, weighing two pounds and looking for all the world like a black duck with a very long neck.
"This remarkable concretion had caused great thickening and ulceration of the stomach, and was the remote cause of her death," said the Liverpool Daily Post in 1869. "On inquiry, a sister stated that during the last twelve years she had known the deceased to be in the habit of eating her own hair."
5. Killed as a zombie
The funeral was in full swing when the lid of the coffin lifted, and the corpse began to climb out.
This was, needless to say, an unexpected turn of events. White-faced with fear, the priest and the mourners alike ran from the church of their Russian village and scattered to their homes, bolting their doors. The ghoul lurched after them, bursting into the house of an old woman who had not been quite so nimble with her lock.
As the priest collected his senses, he realised the rampaging corpse was actually a coma patient who'd regained consciousness. Too late. The peasants in his parish had plucked up their nerve, armed themselves with guns and stakes and set off for an exorcism. By the time the priest arrived on the scene, the zombie had been successfully returned to the other side, and the body thrown into a marsh.
6. Torn to pieces by cats
You know how it is. You get a cat, seeking companionship and amusement, and are rewarded with the occasional tea-time display of self-serving affection. It's charming, so you get another. And one more. Pretty soon, your home makes visitors' eyes sting. People stop calling by. You let your hair grow wild. You enthusiastically take up muttering.
In 1870, in Iran, a rich eccentric lady had cheerfully embarked on much this kind of path, breeding and buying cats to her heart's content and passing her days in an agreeable if malodorous blur of purrs.
Then disaster struck. A fire broke out, and as it swept through the house, the cats were trapped behind a door. Two maids were sent to free them, but the blaze had driven the beasts berserk. The instant the door was opened, they flew at the unfortunate young women, tearing, scratching and biting them in a frenzy. Their injuries were so severe, they both died.
7. Drowned by decorum
We all know the cliches. The Victorians were a bunch of hidebound, thin-lipped, punctilious, moralising, etiquette-obsessed fun-sponges who would reach for the smelling salts at the mere glimpse of a table leg. It's a wild generalisation, of course. But sometimes - to revert to another cliche - cliches are true.
Here's proof. In 1892, in Bermuda, a party of sailors were returning to their ship by steamboat, having been on shore leave in the capital. Sailors being sailors, there was a row. The row turned into a fight. One man went overboard. A marine began to strip off to save him, but was ordered immediately to stop by an officer who had spotted a boat with ladies on it nearby.
"The ladies in the boat manifested every description of sympathy with the unfortunate man," reported the Western Daily Press, "but seemed altogether opposed to the idea of an ordinary man springing into the sea unless duly and sufficiently attired in the garments which fashion rather than common sense has decided to be proper."
The increasingly frantic efforts of the sailor to keep afloat suddenly concentrated minds. The officer asked for volunteers. Five men at once leapt to the rescue, but the sailor had drowned.
8. Killed by a drunken bear
A quick quiz. You are offered a bear to keep as a pet. Do you:
a) Turn it down. It's cruel to keep a bear as a pet
b) Accept it. Perhaps you might teach it to drink booze too
In Vilna (now Vilnius), then in Russia, in 1891, there was a man who would have answered b). The bear was large but tame, but it had a taste for vodka. One day it bustled into a village tavern and grabbed a keg of vodka. The owner of the inn, Isaack Rabbanovitch, objected, and tried to snatch it back.
It would be an understatement to say this was an error. In the chaotic scenes that ensued the infuriated animal hugged to death the tavern keeper, then did the same to his two sons and daughter. The villagers found the drunken animal asleep on the floor in a pool of blood and alcohol, surrounded by its victims. The bear was immediately shot.
9. Laughed himself to death
Almost 80 years before Monty Python's Ernest Scribbler created the funniest joke in the world, farmer Wesley Parsons had a deadly gag all of his own. He was joking with friends in Laurel, Indiana, in 1893, when he was seized by fits of uncontainable laughter, and couldn't stop. He laughed for nearly an hour, when he began hiccupping. Two hours later he died from exhaustion.
10. Killed by a bet
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In the Spanish region of Navarre in 1879, two Frenchmen struck a bet to see which was the hardiest. The terms were these. After fasting for a day, they'd drink 17 glasses of wine each, then walk from Pamplona to a village six miles away. It was the height of summer, just to make it that extra bit more interesting.
As one was far younger than the other, they hit on a handicap system - for every year's advantage the twenty-something had over his middle-aged rival, he'd carry a pound of dirt. So off they went. Both lurching towards their goal - one staggering under the extra burden of 16lbs of earth.
They hadn't gone far, needless to say, when the wager took a dark turn. The elder man collapsed and died. The younger, reported the Manchester Evening News at the time, "escaped death only by the skin of his teeth".
Jeremy Clay is the author of Burglar Caught by a Skeleton.
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Illustrated Police News pictures provided by The British Library Board