5 truly bizarre Victorian deaths


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.