The end of the year

I spent the past year reading news from 1861—every week throughout 2011, I read the Sunday papers that had been published on that day one hundred and fifty years previously.

I’ve always enjoyed browsing old papers and stumbling across weird and horrifying stories that caused a brief sensation the day they were printed but were entirely forgotten by the next day, and I thought it might be worth taking a rather more structured approach, to see if anything interesting emerged. I thought—correctly—that setting up a blog to which I would post a few of the more lurid and flavoursome stories each week would lend discipline to the enterprise and keep it going if my enthusiasm should flag at any point. I decided not to comment on or edit the stories, as I had far too much other work to do, and in any case, one of the main pleasures of reading the papers is in their strange Victorian turns of phrase and melodramatic language.

After fifty-two posts, I’ve reached the end of the year and of the project. The American civil war started, the British Empire almost went to war with the United States and Prince Albert died at the age of forty-two, but I skipped most of those reports. Far more fascinating were the stories of thefts, muggings, murders, industrial accidents, lunatics and—the leitmotif of the year—poor young ladies being burned alive when their enormous crinolines caught fire.

The number of crinoline tragedies was quite shocking—as many as two or three a week during the colder months—and some of the stories were really quite awful to read, with women running screaming through their houses and into the streets, entirely engulfed in flames and suffering a lingering death over the subsequent days as a result of their appalling burns. What a nightmarish way to go.

I included the most noteworthy ones in the blog, but there were dozens more. I’ve pasted all the crinoline stories into a single post here but it’s probably best not to read them all at once.

The main lesson I picked up from the project—which might not come as a surprise—was that 1861 was a truly miserable, brutal and unforgiving year in which to be alive. Anyone who believes that society is breaking down in the 21st century or that our spirit is being stifled by the welfare state or health and safety legislation should spend a year reading Victorian papers, with their murdered babies abandoned in gutters, young men crushed by unsafe factory machinery, servant girls starved to death in wealthy houses and all the rest of the commonplace cruelty, and reflect on how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.

God save the Queen!


29th December 1861

AN EXTRAORDINARY CHARACTER

Eliza Durant, an attenuated woman, between thirty-five and forty years of age, but looking much older, was charged with drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Mr Fox, landlord of the Laurel Tree, Spitalfields, gave evidence of the woman having been guilty of the offences mentioned, the previous evening, in his house, and that he was compelled, from the hindrance to his business, to give her into custody.

In defence, Miss Durant begged, with much apparent truthfulness, to be excused this “once more,” on the plea that she would never transgress again; and also on the ground that she had passed sixteen consecutive Christmases in prison; adding, “My sister is going to buy me a new gown, and I shall have a number of presents for the novelty of being ‘out’ this year; one of which Christmas boxes you [the magistrate] shall have, if you let me go now.

Mr Knox inquired if anything was known of the defendant, and Harris, of the H division, spoke to her frightfully dissipated character and numerous imprisonments. This was perfectly true, for Walker, the guard of the prison van, has had her under his keeping more than one hundred and fifty times during the last twelve years.

She is known as Miss Betsy Durant all over the east end of London, and when locked up invariably amuses herself, and disgusts others, by tearing up her apparel. Such was the case on this occasion, but Bendal, the gaoler, prevented their entire demolition under threats of not allowing her a half pint of beer before she left, if she continue.

She left in the van singing “The County Gal” merrily, to take a further term of one month’s imprisonment and hard labour.

ANOTHER TERRIBLE DEATH THROUGH CRINOLINE

This afternoon, information was received of the death of Miss Sarah Wainwright, a young girl of fourteen years of age, who expired this morning at the City of London Hospital from the effects of dreadful injuries received through the igniting of her crinoline late last evening.

It appears that the unfortunate deceased, who was the daughter of highly respectable parents, residing at Stepney, was alone in a room when her dress caught fire at the grate and, her crinoline being very large, before the flames could be extinguished her whole body was almost roasted, the only part of her person which escaped unburned being her feet, which were protected by her boots.

She was immediately conveyed in a cab to the hospital, where she survived a few hours. Her limbs and arms were perfectly charred and how her life was preserved for even an hour seems miraculous.

ANOTHER FATAL CRINOLINE ACCIDENT

An inquest was held yesterday afternoon into the death of Sarah Williams, aged 31 years, the wife of a tailor’s cutter.

On Saturday evening last, the deceased was reaching a piece of paper which was behind a picture hanging over the mantel piece when her dress ignited, and she immediately became enveloped in flames.

She ran screaming down the staircase and was followed by a lodger. The flames were with difficulty extinguished, but not until her body and limbs were fearfully blackened and charred. She soon after expired.

The deceased had on at the time of the sad occurrence a very large crinoline petticoat. The deputy coroner remarked on the dangerous practice of such decorations, when the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.


22nd December 1861

THE MANSLAUGHTER OF A FRIENDLESS AMERICAN

Thomas Clarke, aged 34, was arraigned at the Stafford assizes on Tuesday, on the charge of killing and slaying Martina Christy, alias Jane Clarke, on the 25th or 26th of July last, in Wolverhampton.

The deceased was the wife of the master of an American vessel, who some time ago was sentenced at the Liverpool assizes for a long term of imprisonment for the manslaughter of a portion of his crew. She was a well-educated woman, and her relatives in New York are stated to be wealthy. She had, however, after the trial of her husband, taken to a dissolute life, and in Wolverhampton became the paramour of the prisoner, a man of forbidding appearance, and very ignorant, a pit-sinker. At this brute’s hands she was subjected to frequent and severe ill-usage, such as beating her with his fist, and thrusting her head against cupboards and doors, and causing a copious flow of blood from the ears and elsewhere. After one of these attacks, she became paralysed, and complained of a fearful pain in her head. She thought, she said, that he had permanently injured her brain. The post-mortem examination revealed a clot of blood upon the brain two ounces in weight, which had oozed from a ruptured blood vessel.

The deceased never recovered from the last beating she received, when the fiend continued his violence as she knelt upon the ground and begged for mercy, because she was without any friend in England.

The jury found the prisoner guilty. Baron Martin awarded him ten years penal servitude.

A CHILD STRIPPER

Elizabeth Johnson, 21, a savage and dissipated-looking woman, was indicted for stealing from the person of a child named Heandel a hat and clothes, value 10s. She pleaded guilty, and it was learned that she had been convicted before, her offence being robbing a young serving girl who had been taken ill in the street. Next, she had been convicted of stealing a child and cutting off its eyebrows so as to make it an object of pity. In this case, she also stripped a little girl, not more than five years of age, of her clothes and left her almost naked in the street. She had been repeatedly in prison for robbing children.

His lordship said it was a most atrocious case, and the prisoner must be made an example of. The sentence on her was three years penal servitude. As the prisoner was leaving the dock, she gave one of the witnesses a blow on the eye.


15th December 1861

OUTRAGEOUS ATTACK ON A WOMAN

A correspondent to the “Star and Dial” submits the following message:

“As my wife and I were passing the end of Mornington-crescent, in the Hampstead-road, last evening about five o’clock, some miscreant came behind us and, stooping down, threw a quantity of vitriol beneath my wife’s dress, inflicting very serious burns upon her legs, and nearly destroying her under-clothing, stockings and boots. Her ample woollen skirts—not distended by crinoline—received a portion of the burning liquid, and perhaps saved her life.

“I regret to add that the wicked perpetrator of this most wanton injury escaped owing to the suddenness of the attack, the darkness and the position he had selected at the corner of the crescent; but a glimpse was had of a big lad running swiftly in the shadow of the railings. I gave chase but found it hopeless, and the state of my wife, who was suffering great pain from the burns, compelled me to relinquish the pursuit.”

DEATH FROM CRINOLINE

Mary Ann Rowley, a young married woman, twenty years of age, died on Wednesday last from injuries she had sustained from burns.

The deceased, who is a collier’s wife, was wearing an extensive crinoline petticoat when she stooped down to take her baby up and her clothing came in contact with the fire. Almost instantly she was in a blaze. Neighbours used a wet towel and a blanket to extinguish the flames, but not before most of her clothing had been consumed, and she was severely burnt on the breast, arms, neck and other parts of her body.

The surgeon attended her daily but his efforts were unavailing and she lingered in a state of agonising suffering until she died on Wednesday.

ANOTHER CRINOLINE ACCIDENT

At Beeston, on Monday, an unfortunate young girl named Sarah Baker, who is in the employment of Mrs Page as a nurse-maid, was in the act of getting a pin from the chimney-piece when her ample crinoline brought her dress into contact with the fire and she was instantly in flames. Mrs Page, who was in the room, endeavoured without success to extinguish the fire, and was much burnt in the attempt.

The screams of the women brought the assistance of two men who were passing and were able to get the burning dress off.

The surgeon was called and the usual remedies were applied, but the girl received such serious injuries that she was removed to the General Hospital, where she now lies in a precarious state.

FLOGGING IN A SUNDAY SCHOOL

Great excitement has been occasioned in Chesterfield and Brampton by a case of cruelty to a boy named John Gascoyne, twelve years of age, by John Hallowes, the schoolmaster at St Thomas’s school.

In the school on Sunday, 24th November, the lad turned his head round and laughed at another boy whom he knew. The master came up and boxed his ears and hit him several times over the head. The lad said the master should “catch it” for what he had done, whereupon the curate of St Thomas’s ordered the lad to be flogged.

The lad was forcibly carried to a conspicuous part of the school and laid with his belly over a large stool. The master then got a stick and flogged the lad for a considerable time, amid his cries for mercy.

When the lad’s back was examined later by his parents, it was noted that every stroke of the stick had left its mark on the flesh, which the next day was a blackened mass.

The lad’s injuries were shown to a magistrate, who granted a summons. The case was heard on Saturday, and the charge was dismissed, with one of the magistrates remarking that such lads ought to be corrected.

CHARGE AGAINST A SCHOOLMASTER

Mr Sebright, master of the St Marie’s Roman Catholic school, Richmond-hill, was charged at Leeds Town Hall with assaulting William Dyson, a pupil, and beating him so severely about the head that, according to the boy’s mother, her son’s face was very much swollen and that “it was the colour of fire, it was so red.”

The magistrates said it was a very dangerous practice to strike boys on the head with undue severity, and fined Mr Sebright 20s.


Extra edition

If ever she whom the whole British race reveres as QUEEN and Mother had a claim to the loving sympathies of her true and loyal children, it is surely at this moment, when she is suffering from the pangs of a great and unutterable grief, a calamity that has come upon us so suddenly that we are stunned by the shock, and do not know how to realise it.

During the greater part of last week the minds of Englishmen had been engrossed with the absorbing question of probable conflict with America. But on the morning of Saturday last there came news from Windsor which filled us with a fresh anxiety that far surpassed the other. We cared not then what tidings the next mail might bring, we had lost all interest in the receipt of President Lincoln’s message.

That fell typhoid monster, whose wont it is to strike men down in the flower and vigour of their age, which bereaves the wife of the husband, the children of the father, who but lately was rejoicing in the full pride of manhood, the disease that but a few weeks since had cut off in early youth his Royal cousin of Portugal, laid its heavy hand on the husband of our QUEEN.

It was but on Saturday morning, 14th December, that we awoke to the danger. During the twelve next hours the lamp of life alternately flickered and waned, and late at night we were told that the worst had happened. Prince ALBERT was dead.

On that Sunday morning, which rose so bright and joyous under a blue sky that seemed to mock at our grief, men walked the streets with slower step than usual, and women greeted each other with tears in their eyes. When at every service in London the name of the PRINCE CONSORT was omitted from customary prayer and from the well-known petition in the Litany, when from the pulpit the preacher announced to his flock the tidings that many among them had neither known nor feared, every church became a house of mourning, and the Sunday in Advent was sadder than a Sunday in Lent.

Queen VICTORIA is a widow, and a nation puts on the weeds. She weeps for a great and irreparable loss, and the tears of a sorrowing people are mingled with hers. The dismal tolling of the bells of yesterday was but a faint symbol of a sympathy too deep for words or signs. The dart of death that has lacerated her spirit has sent an icy chill to every loyal breast, to every heart that beats with British blood.

If any consolation can avail our Royal Mistress, now suffering from a loss the greatest that can befall a woman, she will know now, if ever, how deeply she stands in the affections of her subjects.

It is with Royal as with private persons, we only realise their full value when they are taken from us for ever. All that he has done appears now in a brighter light; any injustice that may have been done him is now looked back upon remorsefully.

He is dead, but in his children he lives still. If our earnest hope be fulfilled, we shall recognise in future years, in the dignified bearing, the spotless life, the noble and generous careers of our English Kings, the pattern of he who is gone.


8th December 1861

MURDEROUS ASSAULT

A man named Bryant, belonging to Her Majesty’s ship Orpheus walked up to a stranger in Portsea on Friday night and said, “How would you like to lie under the green sod tomorrow?” With these words, he raised a large knife and stabbed the man in three places. Bryant was taken to the police station and was committed for trial by the magistrate.

SUICIDE BY STARVATION

An inquest was held at Birmingham Heath on the body of Joseph Smith, late an inmate at the workhouse, who died from starvation under the following circumstances.

It appeared from the evidence of Fanny Giles, nurse at the workhouse, that deceased had been under her care for the past month. Latterly, he had refused all nourishment and expressed a wish that he might die. He said that his father and brother had shot themselves and he intended to commit suicide. When out of the workhouse, he had applied to a chemist for poison, but was given an emetic only, and his design was not then carried out. The thought of death was uppermost in his mind and he was determined to destroy himself.

He died from exhaustion and want of nourishment on the 25th November.

BETTY BEWITCHED

Elizabeth Annand, a dirty little woman, was charged with violently assaulting Mrs Susan Eagle, under the following circumstances.

The complainant, the wife of a bird-shop keeper, at 40, Great St Andrew-street, said that on the previous night the prisoner came into the shop and abused and struck her several times about the head with her fist, and tore out a quantity of her hair. It was the third time she had so treated her.

Mary Gardner said she heard the prisoner ask for Mr Eagle, and being told that he was not at home she attacked Mrs Eagle.

Prisoner: “Mrs Eagle’s husband has bewitched me. He has been murdering all of us for some time while in our beds. He has set a spell on me. I am enraged to madness, and can’t live. I am bewitched. I live in Lambeth.”

Mr Tyrwhitt: “You will have to find bail. Whether you are crazed or not I cannot tell; but your conduct is dangerous.”

The prisoner, who is a strange-looking woman, was then ordered to find bail of £500.


1st December 1861

DEATH OF AN ARTIFICIAL FLORIST FROM POISON

On Monday an inquiry was held touching the death of Matilda Scheurer, 19 years of age. She was engaged as an artificial florist in the warehouse of M Bergerond, of Judd-street, Brunswick-square, and up to the time of her death she had been employed in artificial leaf-making.

Mrs Louisa Scheurer, a widow, mother of the deceased, deposed that she was present at the death of her daughter on the previous Wednesday morning. On the Thursday her daughter was taken ill and complained of a pain in the side and intense thirst. She was seized with vomiting and the refuse of the stomach was of a greenish colour. She had been ill several times before, and complained of pains in the stomach and sickness for the last year and a half. She was in the greatest pain until she became insensible, when death put an end to her sufferings.

Mr Paul, surgeon, of 23 Burton-crescent, Kew-road, deposed to knowing the deceased well. He had attended her four times within 18 months while suffering under the same effects. She had on those occasions recovered under his treatment. He had made a post-mortem examination, and found the body of a greenish yellow colour. The eyes were also of that colour. The nails were very green, and the countenance was of a particularly anxious character. The lungs gave presence of arsenite of copper, the liver being highly impregnated. The stomach was much inflamed, with bunches of gangrenous ulcerations. The cause of death was acute inflammation of the mucous membrane of the stomach, produced by the inhalation of the arsenite of copper.

Mr Paul explained that the artificial leaves that the deceased was engaged in making were made of wax, and that, while wet, emerald green powder was sprinkled upon them. He then produced a small glass tube for the inspection of the jury, into which he had placed from four to five grains of the emerald green used for the leaves, and on applying it to the spirit lamp by the aid of a blow pipe, he found at the lower end of the tube a deposit of metallic arsenic, and at the upper end arsenious acid. The powder was as light as magnesia, and as easy blown about, and the inhalation of the above mentioned quantity was quite sufficient to kill an adult.

Mr Paul said he had had several cases of similar character, eruptions on the neck and face being the usual appearances. A sister of the deceased had died under the same circumstances, and was sent to the hospital, where she was treated for fever. Now that he had discovered the real cause of the affliction, he should for the future recommend as an antidote the administration of the hydrate peroxide of iron. He never before had a fatal case.

M Bergerond said he employed 98 girls in his establishment, and for the purpose of their preservation he had suggested the wearing of masks, but it was objected to by them as producing excessive heat.

The jury then returned a verdict in accordance with the medical testimony.

APPALLING ACCIDENT AT EDINBURGH

At ten minutes past one o’clock on Sunday morning, one of the immense piles of building characteristic of the High-street of Edinburgh suddenly and without a moment’s warning fell, burying a great number of people in the ruins. The house was situated on the east side of the High-street, about halfway between North-bridge and the ancient building known as John Knox’s house. To the front of the building showed seven stories, and in the rear there was an additional story, owing to the sloping character of the ground.

Like most of the houses in that part of Edinburgh, the destroyed building, which was one of the old wooden houses of the sixteenth century, masked by a more modern stone front, has seen many vicissitudes of fortune and from the being the residence of nobles has descended in the social scale until it has reached the humblest class, nearly every room giving shelter to a distinct family. The immense block of building was thus densely populated, and it is estimated that not less than 100 people must have dwelt in it.

On Saturday afternoon, the occupant of one of the shops on the street floor observed a slight break in the plaster and a deflection of the roof, and immediately sent for a builder to examine the structure. A temporary prop was inserted and after examining the upper stories of the house without discovering signs of a general depression the builder concluded that the flaw was merely a local one, and no further steps were taken. Within twelve hours, however, the whole house fell inwards and collapsed with a fearful crash.

The work of excavation is still going on in the ruins of the fallen building. The total of the dead is now thirty-two, but more are expected to be found.

Many remarkable escapes were made, and one or two instances occurred of preservation of life under almost miraculous circumstances. A young man, named Adams, was carried down by the falling wall and deposited on the pavement on the opposite side of the street with only slight bruises. Just before the accident, a police sergeant was passing the building when his attention was attracted by a slight scuffle on the other side of the street and he crossed over just in time to escape the avalanche which might have crushed him to instant death. A little boy was extracted by the firemen, after about five hours’ digging for him in the morning, and the little fellow was heard to encourage the efforts in his behalf by calling out, “Heave away, my lads; I’m no deid yet.”

The catastrophe created an immense sensation in Edinburgh on Sunday, and the terrible event was referred to in all the pulpits. Never before in the history of the city has there been such a prodigious loss of life from a domestic accident. The lack of municipal supervision which the disaster indicates is the apparent cause of the calamity.

Mr Charles Dickens, now in Edinburgh, has been actively interesting himself in the unfortunate matter.


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