ANDREW GARVEY reveals some odd Victorian deaths – and a strangely gory little cavalcade of mishaps and ill-fortune they are too.
Suicide is never pretty. Beautiful corpses betraying no outward hint of the fate that’s befallen their enigmatically tragic owners are best left to bad teenage poetry.
Boiled to death
To cite just one particularly gruesome example, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser noted on Saturday 21st April 1883 that John Hey, a depressed night watchman, killed himself “under most extraordinary and terrible circumstances” at the brewery he worked in near Bradford.
During his Monday night shift, Hey had “partially divested himself of his clothing, removed the man-hole of a large boiler, and thrown himself into the water, boiling himself literally to death. The body when recovered was in a sickening condition.”
Tripped on his wooden leg
As reported in Northumberland’s Ainwick Mercury on Saturday 7th July 1883, something as straightforward as walking downstairs could be extremely, and graphically, dangerous.
In an “extraordinary fatal accident” Mr. John Peters, a china merchant, expired when his wooden leg “penetrated one of the stairs in a worn part, and the deceased was thrown violently back upon another stair, breaking his back. Death took place shortly afterwards.” Ouch.
Suffocated by false teeth
On Wednesday 25th May 1892, Westminster’s coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death in the case of PC Joseph Daniels.
Aged just 27, PC Daniels had, according to Reynolds’ Newspaper, been running “to the assistance of another constable engaged in conveying a prisoner to the station, but almost immediately fell and died. A post-mortem examination revealed the fact that the unfortunate man had been suffocated by a set of false teeth, which had been dislodged while he ran, and became fixed just above the larynx.”
Excited to death
A sad, but brilliantly reported, demise appears in the Thursday 6th May 1875 edition of the Bradford Observer under the heading ‘Extraordinary Death From Excitement’. To quote the story in full:
“Yesterday, an elderly man employed in a large ship-building yard at Dundee became terribly excited, in consequence of the annoyance of one of the boys. He foamed at the mouth and ultimately fell down. Before medical assistance arrived the poor man was quite dead. It is believed that he had in the passion ruptured some internal vessel.”
Beaten by a banjo
The Northampton Mercury of Wednesday 1st June 1894 detailed the facts in the violent case of visiting American military man General John Hewston and an unfortunate musician.
“An elderly gentleman”, Hewston was passing a trio of musicians outside a London inn when “he was molested, and it is stated that he was struck with a banjo.”
Doing the obvious thing in response, Hewston whacked the supposed offender, one George Bruton, with his umbrella. However, the rain-repelling instrument’s ferrule (pointy bit) “entered the man’s left eye” causing a wound that bled profusely.
After an emergency operation to remove the damaged eye, Bruton’s condition worsened and he “sank and died” the following night.
In his statement to the police, the ailing Bruton denied assaulting Hewston with a banjo, or anything else.
An inquest a few days later found Hewston guilty of manslaughter but a hearing at the Old Bailey later in the month threw the original verdict out, freeing the 70-year-old and leaving him to return home to consider what some several papers deemed a “melancholy misadventure.”