Victorian Strangeness: The skeletons who fought to the death

Skull generic Image copyright Thinkstock

Some rather dramatic things happen at the theatre, but here author Jeremy Clay tells the singular story of the fighting skeletons trapped in a sealed chamber.

It had all the ingredients of a hit melodrama. An atmospheric setting. A terrible secret. Murder and mystery galore.

But although this tale seems tailor-made for the stage, it actually played out right above it. Up in the roof, to be more exact.

The timbers of the theatre in the province of Alicante were showing signs of decay back in 1867, so builders were called in and tasked with replacing them. Whatever fee they'd agreed on, it wasn't nearly enough.

When they ripped down the boards in the upper reaches of the playhouse, a narrow passage by the brickwork was revealed. And there, hidden away from view for years, stood a pair of skeletons in the tattered, shredded remains of their clothes.

For the startled workmen it was a nasty surprise, but the unexpected discovery of the bodies was something of a recurring theme in the 19th Century. It was an age of unprecedented construction, and with the ground being churned up like never before, skeletons popped up like ghoulish jack-in-the-boxes. In one particularly lurid case the remains of a postman were found bricked up behind a wall in North Carolina, his bag stuffed with letters half-a-century overdue.

But there was an extra twist to the creepy find in Alicante. When the builders conquered their shock, they took a closer look, and the story took an even darker turn.

The "two ghastly forms", as the Illustrated Police News described them, "were locked together in a last deadly embrace". One of the figures had a large knife buried deep in its chest. The handle was still gripped by the fleshless hand of the other, which had a broken blade in its own neck.

"It was evident from the position of the combatants that a deadly struggle had taken place in which the lives of both men had been sacrificed," said the paper.

So if the corpses fought to the death, how did they come to be sealed behind those wooden boards? Good question, and one that doesn't seem to have unduly troubled the Illustrated Police News.

But there was, at least, a clue to the identity of one of the victims/culprits.

Around 15 years earlier, the paper said, the theatre's carpenter had disappeared without trace. The very chap, in fact, who could have warned the owners they had a bit of looming trouble with the beams in the roof.

Discover more about what life was like in Victorian times and 10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths

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