10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths

A jealous woman fires at her former lover, mistaking a mannequin for a love rival. Picture: The British Library Board, Illustrated Police News, November 9, 1872  A spurned mistress mistakes a mannequin for a love rival: Illustrated Police News, 9 November 1872

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

Illustrated Police News

Picture from the Illustrated Police News
  • Inspired by The Illustrated London News, which was launched in 1842 and achieved high sales
  • Featured sensational and melodramatic reports and illustrations of murders and hangings
  • First published in 1864, The Illustrated Police News ceased publication in 1938

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.

A pall bearer is hit by a coffin. Picture: The British Library Board, Illustrated Police News, November 2, 1872

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

Women attacked by cats in a house fire. Picture: The British Library Board, Illustrated Police News, July 22, 1876

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

Hidden killers

Cosmetics containing Radium

The late Victorians and the Edwardians lived through a domestic revolution. Theirs was a bold and exciting age of innovation, groundbreaking discoveries and dramatic scientific changes, many of which altered life at home in profound ways – including some that were terrible and unforeseen, writes historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb.

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, 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

Bears, archery and bread were all responsible for documented deaths in Tudor England, according to one academic’s research. Oxford University historian, Dr Steven Gunn, scoured 16th Century coroners’ reports to reveal examples of some strange deaths, writes Sean Coughlan.

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”.

From The BBC


Local Victoriana: what’s a word worth?

I happened to be in my local parish church this week, it’s a good one to look around.

It’s very old and parts dating back to the 12th century.OK it is somewhat before our Victorian era but what it does have are plaques and monuments on the walls to the great and good (and wealthy probably).

Being a Christian myself I am fascinated to see how the Victorians lived out their faith, indeed some seemed to draw such deep strength from it and lived with such assuredness.

The Christian church in the Victorian Era changed, the middle classes who had become both wealthy and powerful through the industrial revolution and they like the landed gentry before them had their own value system of morals and conduct.

Catholicism was whilst generally accepted was very small and The Church of England was part of the old guard putting forward an aristocratic set of values which left this new class wanting more.

Of course nowadays some 40,000 denominations has grown from the protestant church but at the time a small stream of nonconformist denominations grew up. There was Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker, all of which survive in one shape or another today.

So buildings by these denominations were being erected in order to meet the demands of the now the quickly growing populations. All these new churches and in truth they pews were probably never all filled, but there was a revival of the Christian faith which can be seen in much of the literature of the time.

“But so far was this city church languishing for the company of other churches, that spires were clustered round it . . . It would have been hard to count them fromfrom its steeple-top, they were so many. In almost every yard and blind-place near, there was a church . . . ” Charles Dickens ‘Dombey and Son.

And these Church erected remembrances with many of these denominations. The one above I spied is in memory one Rev Alfred Williams M.A former Vicar of All Saints Church who ‘entered rest on April 26th 1877 aged 58 years’, it reads:

He was preeminently a man of strong faith, fervent prayer, spirituality of mind and indefatigable zeal. Endowed with a sterling manliness of character. Free from all fear of man, singleminded in his objects and aims, of an unflinching integrity of purpose and inspired with the constraining love of Christ and a desire for The Glory of God and the salvation of souls. He was ever most unremitting and loving in His self sacrificing labours for the good of all. 

What a wonderful thing to write about someone, if someone were to write half of that about me I would be well pleased!