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.”
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