Mother Shipton’s prophecies

A very singular cause of death was revealed at an inquest held on the body of a child of ten years, named Kate Weedon, who resided with her parents at Hoxton.

It appeared that the girl had read the well-known prophecies of Mother Shipton, and had consequently become very much alarmed, the more especially as the present year was quickly drawing to a close.

She very frequently cried and talked about the world coming to an end in 1881. On returning from school on the 17th inst., she was weeping bitterly and speaking of Mother Shipton. Her mother told her it was all nonsense, but this had not the least effect upon her, and when she went to bed at half-past ten she was still crying and wringing her hands, saying she knew the end of the world would come in the night.

At about half-past three on the following morning the mother was awakened by hearing her cry, and on going to her bedroom found the child in a fit.

A doctor was immediately sent for, but his services were of no avail, and the child died two hours later. Medical evidence was to the effect that death was due to convulsions and shock to the system, brought on by fright. A verdict was returned accordingly.


The Taunton Courier, November 30, 1881.

10 bizarre Victorian-era deaths

1. Killed by a coffin


Henry Taylor died an ironic death. He was a pall bearer in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, and was midway when 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.”


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 street lights 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 5am the next morning, the alarm sounded. The shelf fell. The stone dropped straight onto the sleeping Wardell’s head.


3. 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 onto 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.”


4. Death by 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 tumour, 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. Drowned by decorum


We all know the clichés. The Victorians were a bunch of hidebound, thin-lipped, punctilious, moralising, etiquette-obsessed fun- sponges who’d reach for the smelling salts at the mere glimpse of a titivating table leg.

It’s a wild generalisation, of course. But sometimes – to revert to another cliché – clichés 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.


7. Torn to pieces by cats


You know how it is. You get a cat, seeking companionship and amusement, and are rewarded with the occasional teatime 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.


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 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 eighty 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 hiccoughing. Two hours later he died from exhaustion.


10. Killed by a bet


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. In 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 twentysomething 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 16 pounds 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.”

A curious race

In Brooklyn under the auspices of the “New York World,” a remarkable race recently took place.

The competitors were an elephant, a camel, a horse, a bicycle, and an autocar. The elephant and camel, exhibition animals were ridden by their keepers, the horse was ridden by a famous horseman, and the bicyclist was a sprint rider, and the autocar was driven by an expert.

The elephant and camel were both given a start of half a mile from the autocar, which was given an eighth of a mile by the horse and bicycle, the course being three miles. The elephant proved the victor, winning in 6min. 20sec., with the bicycle second, and the autocar third.

The Midland Daily Telegraph, May 22, 1899.

The beardless man

A St Louis woman waked up the other night and putting out her hand touched the smooth face of an unknown man. She jumped out of bed and screamed for help.

Her brother, who slept in the next room, entered, and not finding any matches, seized the intruder by the hair of the head, pummelled him soundly, expressing at the same time in the most vigorous terms, his opinion of a scoundrel who would be guilty of such an act. Then he dragged him into the middle of the room, thumped him, kicked him, and threw him out of the window into the yard below.

The neighbours, aroused by the noise, came in, and a light was procured. Nothing had been taken, and attention was directed to the miserable object who lay groaning in the yard.

It would, says the St Louis Republican, be useless to describe that face, with its nose spread all over the middle of it, one eye bulging out and the other closed up, both covered like an indigo bag, an open mouth, and a row of twisted teeth, much less to recognise it: but as the excitement slowly subsided and cool reason began to reign, a thought suddenly struck the wife that made her turn pale with horror. ‘Why it can’t be – it must be – yes, it is John! He has been to the barber’s!’

It was true, he had. He was her husband, and on his way home in the evening, feeling his long and heavy beard oppressive in the heat, he had it shorn. His wife was asleep when he crawled into bed, and he soon fell into a comfortable nap, from which he was rudely awakened to the experience above recorded.

She is now making the best poultices and chicken soup for him she knows how.
Supplement to the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, November 11, 1882.

Riot at a wedding

A Polish wedding which was celebrated at Hazleton, Pa., on Christmas Day, was the cause of some sensational occurrences before the close of the day.

Ill-feeling has prevailed for a long time between the Austrians and the Poles in the town, and after the wedding ceremony an attempt was made, it is alleged, by the Austrians to blow up the Polish party by dynamite.

The attempt failed, but a riot ensued, in which firearms were freely used on both sides. A dozen were shot, and many more received injuries from other weapons. It is believed that four will die.

The Herald, Tamworth, December 30, 1893.

Drunk for seven weeks

The discomfort attending a long sea voyage has been successfully avoided by an Englishman named Wren, who crossed the Atlantic the other day in a state of drunkenness so complete that he was unconscious of the fact that he had left Liverpool until some time after his arrival in America.

Wren, it is stated, “stepped out of Charity Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, on the 2nd inst. after one of the most extraordinary drunken frolics on record.”

He had, in fact, been drunk for seven weeks, and arrived in that condition at Cleveland in the early part of December. So hopeless was his state of intoxication that he was taken to the hospital where he remained for three weeks under medical treatment.

On regaining his consciousness his first request was for whisky, and this being refused, he asked where he was.

On being informed by the Sister of Charity who attended that he was in hospital, he named one near London, and said that he was supposed he was in that institution.

He was then told that he was in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, upon which he exclaimed, with evident surprise and emotion, “Good heavens! Have I crossed the Atlantic drunk?”

Letters since received disclose the fact that Wren, who had intended to come to Cleveland, where he means to reside in future, was entertained by his friends before his departure from Liverpool, and was actually put on board a steamship at that port drunk, in which condition he continued during the voyage.

His friends had considerately bought him a through ticket to Cleveland, but he says he recollects nothing from the evening on which the farewell festivity took place until seven weeks later, when he revived to find himself in Charity Hospital.

Wren, by his own account, previous to this backsliding, had for some years been a total abstainer.

The Edinburgh Evening News, January 22, 1879.