Strangely Enough – Fantastic Deaths and Where to Find Them

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.

George Bernard Shaw

Archived newspaper collections are fantastic resources for those interested in obituaries and epitaphs. A particular motif is the ‘strange death’ series common to a vast swathe of newspapers, covering everything from animal-related fatalities to enigmatic acts of fatal criminality. Curiously terse in nature, these odd notations prove that the rich tapestry of life is amply represented in the multiplicitous diversity of death. Occasionally, lengthier versions would be produced, often containing excerpts from the transcripts of coroners’ proceedings. Beneath the veneer of gallow’s humour and almost fetishisation of curiosity, such tales have their very own sense of peculiar tragedy, even as they advertise themselves to us with macabre appeal. In this post, I will present an assortment of these odd, unexpected and, ultimately, wretched demises, finding that, paradoxically, there often exists more of life in the irrevocable grasp of death’s end.

I begin with a piece in the Aberdeen Evening Express of the 16th June 1886, presenting a case of deathly coincidence, proving that we should think twice before invoking the divine power of God in entreaty:

STRANGE DEATH.

‘A singular affair is reported from Greenville, Michigan. James Martin served notice of ejectment upon Abraham Van Horn, a Crystal township farmer, claiming the title to Van Horn’s farm. A few years ago the farm was sold to Van Horn by Mrs Lydia Lyons who said, when Van Horn expressed doubt about the clearness of the title, that she “hoped God would strike her dead if the title was not all right.” When Van Horn was served with notice of ejectment he went to Greenville and consulted a lawyer. The latter advised him to call on Mrs Lyons about the matter, and toward noon Van Horn visited the woman at her home, She heard him through, and then dropped to the floor dead.’

Death by misadventure in the form of an encounter with murderous poultry is the surprising meat of this next unfortunate demise (The Scotsman, 27th August 1929):

‘The child was sitting at play in his father’s garden when he was suddenly attacked by a big cock, which pecked him so furiously that he died a few hours later.’

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The China fowl – Shanghae, Cochin, and “Brahma. (1874) (14582281449)” by Fae is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the West London Observer of the 7th January 1927, it is made clear that there are more fatal consequences to dancing than simply having two left feet:

NEW YEAR DANCER’S DEATH

UNUSUAL INQUEST THEORY

‘Collapsing in her sister’s arms early on Tuesday morning, Lillian Florence Goose, 34, shop assistant, of Mendora Road, Fulham, was dead when a doctor saw her.

At the inquest at Hammersmith yesterday (Thursday) medical evidence showed that deceased, who had complained recently of a pain in the side, died from shock and peritonitis, following internal obstruction.

Mrs Chainey, the sister, said deceased was dancing on New Year’s Eve.

Dr. Ross, in answer to a question by the Coroner, said it was possible that the exertion of dancing brought about the trouble.

The Coroner, in recording a verdict of “Death from natural causes,” said it was very likely that the woman brought on the rupture by the exertion of dancing.’

It is often said that ‘smoking kills’ but it appears the latter’s reach extends far beyond the noxious fumes of its cancerous miasmas. The following is taken from the Western Daily Press of the 2nd December 1931:

BLAGDON FARMER’S STRANGE DEATH.

‘The remarkable cause of a Blagdon farmer’s death was disclosed at an inquest held by Mr W. G. Burrough, Coroner for North Somerset, who was found lying dead at a foot of a hayrick he had been cutting on Saturday last.

Medical evidence showed that death was caused by the stem of Watts’s tobacco pipe penetrating his windpipe. Watss probably struck the edge of the haystack with his pipe during his fall.

A verdict of “accidental death” was recorded.’

As children, we are commonly warned by parents and guardians not to talk whilst eating. This cautionary excerpt in The Scotsman of the 18th June, 1908 proves that there is indeed truth in the truism:

LABOURER’S STRANGE DEATH. – ‘At Gillingham, Kent, yesterday, a labourer named William Baldock, aged 36, was on his way home from work, when he attempted to put a large piece of raw beef in his mouth. A companion commented upon the strange proceeding, when Baldock replied he could eat anything. The act of speaking, however, caused him to swallow the meat, which stuck in his throat. A doctor was summoned, but death from choking ensued despite all efforts to relieve the man.’

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“History_of_Inventions_USNM_11_Tobacco_Pipe” by Animalparty is licensed under CC by 2.0

Incidents surrounding those suffering from mental health conditions and often confined to institutions were a especial source of fascination, albeit transmitted in a manner lexically unpalatable to our contemporary tastes The following example is drawn from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the 27th November 1894:

STRANGE DEATH OF A LUNATIC.

‘A lunatic’s strange death has been investigated by Coroner Roumieu, at Brookwood Asylum. The deceased, George Stevens, was a native of Guildford, and had been confined in the County Asylum 11 years. During the temporary absence of the foreman of the painter’s shop, deceased took some green paint, which contained arsenic, mixed it with water, and swallowed it. Just before he died he stated that a “voice told him to drink the green paint, so as to get to Greenland’s icy mountains.” The jury found that the man did not drink the pain with the intention of committing suicide.’

Strange death reports also frequently invoke supernatural and mysterious elements, demonstrating that the fondness of the Victorians for eerie happenings extended well into the twentieth century. In The Scotsman of the 27th November 1929, there is reported a case of the the unearthly and unexplained on the Hebridean island of monastic tranquillity, Iona:

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“Iona. Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeath” by Pamla J. Eisenberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

IONA MYSTERY.

Woman Visitor’s Strange Death.

UNCLOTHED ON HILLSIDE.

‘A remarkable story of the death of a woman comes from Iona, the historical island off the West Coast of Scotland. The woman, Miss Nora Emily Fonario, of Mortlake Road, Kew, London, was found dead on a lonely hillside last week. Her unclothed body was lying on a large cross which had been cut out of the turf, apparently with a knife which was lying nearby. Round the neck was a silver chain and cross.

Miss Fonario, who arrived in Iona during the summer, disappeared on Sunday, November 12. She was a woman of extraordinary character. Mrs Varney, her housekeeper at Kew, told a reporter yesterday that Miss Fonario, whose father is an Italian doctor, did not believe in doctors, and was always “curing people by telepathy.”

“If people would not let her heal them she would moan and cry piteously, but she was otherwise cheerful and happy,” said Mrs Varney. “Once she announced her intention to fast for 40 days, but was persuaded to give it up after a fortnight.

“She dressed in a long cape-like garment made by herself, and never wore a hat. Several times she said she had been to thefar beyondand had come back to life after spending some time in another world.”

WEIRD STORIES

A letter she sent to Mrs Varney last week stated:- “Do not be surprised if you do not hear from me for a long time. I have a terrible healing case.”

Occasionally, it is stated, Miss Fonario went off into trances and would remain in that condition for several hours. Her death was apparently due to exposure.

Among weird stories now in circulation in the island regarding Miss Fonario are mysterious remarks about blue lights having been seen near the body, and of a cloaked man.

A number of letters, said to be of a strange character, have been taken possession of by the police, who, it is also stated, have them on to the Procurator-Fiscal for his consideration.

Miss Fonario had been heard again and again to express hatred of Italy and Italians, and her hostility to them was carried so far that she refused to meet them.’

Such published accounts were not concerned with human beings alone. In this brief aside from the Cornishman of the 8th September 1898, a bovine catastrophe is made the subject of consternation in news from the village of Constantine:

STRANGE DEATH OF A COW.– A cow, the property of Mr. John Williams, Sevorgan, Constantine, was put into a small meadow of clover to be milked; and left there for about an hour. Afterwards turned into the road, in a very short time she died.

Cow_Drawing

“Cow_Drawing” by Fae is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So recognised was this journalistic trope that certain governmental organisations even subjected the phenomenon to statistical review. The Hampshire Telegraph of the 30th December 1938 furnished the following overview, drawn from the work of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in Canada:

6,000 STRANGE DEATHS

MEN MORE UNLUCKY

Reuter telegraphed from Ottawa on Saturday:-

More than 6,000 people in Canada lost their lives in strange deaths during the past 12 months, according to a report published here by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics:

People died getting into bed, getting out of bed, getting into the bath, getting out of the bath, from insect bites, and from taking the wrong medicine.

Four hundred children under four were killed by accidents. They fell into boiling water, wells, or open fireplaces, or were medicines supposed to be administered externally.

Older children also died through freak causes. A girl set her celluloid comb down on a stove after combing her hair and died in the ensuing blaze. A young boy playing with a cigarette-lighter set his clothes on fire and died from the burns.

Another boy heeding his mother’s call to dinner slid down the bannisters to death.

Men were more likely to be killed than women, according to the report. At least two-thirds of the accidental deaths occurred to men.

Explosions claimed the lives of some, while others were shot by their friends when hunting.

A large number fell through ice into the rivers beneath and several fell from high buildings while cleaning the windows.’

A further useful genealogical source for fatalities unusual and outlandish are parish records, providing information on burials (in addition to births and marriages) prior to 1837, when civil registration proper began. These handwritten documents, sole records for the significant milestones of the lives of individuals, were originally mandated by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General to Henry VIII, before the practice was refined by a directive of Elizabeth I. Characterised by gaps, errors and considerable variation in detail, these entries nonetheless provide a wealth of knowledge as regards the demises of those within the bounds of the parish. Deaths perceived to be of particular note for their idiosyncrasy and irregularity received, in many instances, a fuller representation, sometimes even in narrative form. The following, taken from the 1757 registers of Melling in Lonsdale, a parish in Lancashire, perfectly illustrates the literary flourish employed by clerks when faced with the dire, miserable and downright unfortunate:

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Image by A Grave Announcement

The mystery in these records is often not so much in the odd manner of death itself, but in the strangeness surrounding the circumstances of the fatality and its unresolved nature, as seen here in the 1852 parish register of burials at St Mary the Virgin in Walney, Barrow-in-Furness (1744-1858):

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Image by A Grave Announcement

The fascination with death in all its forms, literally a necrophilia (in, of course, its broader sense as a human psychological trope, rather than as perverse pathology) has ensured that, even today, there exists a continuing and widespread preoccupation with the outlandish and singular expiration. Such a phenomenon forms part of the cultural establishment, identified and discussed by the late theologian and feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen, former Professor of Religion, Culture and Gender at the University of Manchester. In her work Foundations of Violence (2004), Jantzen argues that Western culture and Christianity’s compulsive fixation on the aesthetics and rhetoric of death, manifesting itself in violence and destruction, has led to deadly postmodern consequences which ought to be disrupted with a newfound ethos of beauty and desire:

‘From militarization, death camps, genocide to exploitation, commodification and the accumulation of wealth, from the construction of pleasure and desire to the development of terminator genes, from the violence on the streets to the heaven-obsessed hymnody of evangelical churches, preoccupation with death and the means of death and the combat with death is ubiquitous. It is a necrophilia so deeply a part of the western symbolic that it emerges at every turn…our language is full of metaphors of war, weaponry, violence and death.’

In the end, reading and engaging with these extraordinary incidences of the freakish and the fantastic, beyond the gallows humour and the terse evocations of the somehow mundanely bizarre, reinforces and reaffirms our own sense of existence, forcing us to simultaneously face and shake off the inescapability of mortality – in this way, the weird keeps us alive.

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“Death and the Antiquaries” by Arallyn! is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Coming Alive in the City of the Dead (Part 1 – ‘Wee Willie’ Miller)

What a lesson in the tawdriness of all our worldly wealth and earthly ambition does a visit to the old Necropolis afford.’

Glasgow Herald, 14th October 1892

On a balmy July afternoon, I found myself on the path meandering its way towards the summit of the Glaswegian Necropolis. Towering above the cathedral, this spectacular array of funerary monuments is a striking fixture in the skyline of the city. On this day, the weather was capricious and temperamental.  In one sphere of the sky, the clouds loomed low, glowering menacingly. Elsewhere, wispy cumuli drifted shapelessly across the cerulean heavens.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Upon entry, I passed through a pair of gilded cast iron gates, a beautifully formal way to make one’s acquaintance with a Victorian cemetery.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

After crossing the so-called ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (designed by Glaswegian architect David Hamilton in 1833 in a homage to its Venetian namesake, and traversing the covered stream of the Molendinar Burn, colloquially known as ‘The Styx), scene of many a sombre funeral procession, I took the left path away from the façade of the imposing central archway that divides the route into its two branches. The hill began to ascend, a steep climb but not breathlessly so, the sinuous roaming of its path lined with a miscellany of sepulchral stones, and the layout, lacking a scrupulous and exacting blueprint, charmingly organic. More than 50,000 souls have found their final resting place in this location, and it is difficult not to feel like something of an intruder into their eternal peace when traversing these streets, bringing the land of the living to the city of the dead.

The foundation stone of the Necropolis was laid in 1826, its inaugural interment taking place in May 1833. This occasion was the burial of ‘the Jew Joseph Levy,’ a sixty-two year old quill merchant who had been struck down by cholera. The expanse chosen for the city of the dead had formerly been the Merchants’ Park, an area once bedecked with needled firs, and followed by the languid gestures of planted willows and elms. The transformation of this tract into a place of rest, proposed by John Strang, Chamberlain of the Merchants’ House, was entrusted to a competition launched to find the best design. The work of the winner, David Bryce, was amalgamated with that of four other entrants by the judges and George Mylne was appointed as Superintendent to oversee the execution of the proposed outline, a schematic inspired by the Parisian garden Necropolis Père Lachaise. This spirit of collaboration, of resources combined, can be felt in the eclectic conglomeration of the stone requiems to the dead that came to ordain the place, the finished product a visual representation of our own collective cultural memory, a history no longer merely peopled by the forgotten dead.

As I ambled along the track, my attention was drawn to a rather well-kept monument. Despite not serving as the largest or most imposing of the reliquaries, the obelisk seemed to loudly announce its presence. Its grey surface was speckled and pockmarked, like skin chapped by the wind. The man’s face carved in relief was quietly reflective, seeming to look away from the hill itself and gaze across Glasgow at the city he had left behind. The memorial was crowned by the engraved emblem of a harp and laurel wreath, Apolline tokens of creative endeavour, symbolising the man’s literary craft. Monumentalising a staunch Glaswegian, whose work has taken on global importance, resonating across the decades, in inspecting the monument it seemed as if I could hear the famous verses being spoken, that masterful Scotch dialect crying in the wind: Wee Willie Winkie runs though the town…

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Image by A Grave Announcement

I am speaking, of course, of William Miller, a literary giant, whose death, wretched and in penury, saw the man consigned to the oblivion of an unmarked grave in Glasgow’s Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs later rectified by his friends and admirers in financing this lapidary ode to the great man. The inscription reads:

To the Memory of William Miller

The Laureate of the Nursery

Author of Wee Willie Winkie

Born in Glasgow August 1810

Died 20 August 1872

Born in the Bridgegate area of Glasgow, a formerly prosperous merchant district then experiencing a slum-like decline, William Miller spent most of his formative years in the East End of the city, coming of age in the village of Parkhead. Plagued by ill health as an adolescent, he was unable to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a surgeon and settled instead for life as a wood-turner, undergoing an apprenticeship in that skill before achieving great expertise in the intricate craft of cabinet-making. As a youth, he published a number of pieces in various newspapers which, sadly, do not survive. His first poetic appearance was in Whistle Binkie: Stories for the Fireside, a compendium of songs edited by Mr David Robertson in 1841. It was the publication in this volume of the nursery song Wee Willie Winkie, however, the grumpy figure personifying sleep, that brought him fame and admiration, although at first it was received with mixed opinions by Robertson’s friends. To settle the dissent, he dispatched the manuscript to Mr Ballantine of Edinburgh (who had himself contributed much to the publication) who asserted, according to the Perthshire Advertiser on the 29th August 1872) that:

“There is not at this moment in the whole range of Scottish songs, anything more exquisite in its kind than that little Warlock of the Nursery, “Wee Willie Winkie.”

This achievement eventually commanded the attention of such literary connoisseurs as Lord Jeffrey, founder of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Such notice notwithstanding, William Miller abnegated the kind of literary relationships which were based upon patronage, choosing to hone his craft at home when the honest labour of the day was done. Indeed, such was the hardship he underwent as a consequence of his trade that it was reported by the Glasgow Herald on the 6th February 1846 that the Countess of Selkirk, an admirer, had transferred to the poet the sum of two pounds following a period of ill-health in which he was unable to work:

“We learn that the Countess of Selkirk has transmitted to Mr David Robertson of this city, by the hands of the Rev.Mr Underwood of Kirkeudbright, the sum of £2, for behoof of William Miller, the author ofWee Willie Winkie,” &c.; her Ladyship having been impressed with a favourable opinion of the poet from having perused his Nursery Rhymes. Mr Miller is so much improved, that he is now able to pursue his occupation of a wood-turner.”

The widespread recognition of this talented literary craftsman all took place before William Miller had even published a collection of his works. In fact, this did not occur until 1863, when, prevailed upon by a number of friends, he circulated the volume Nursery Songs and other Poems, an enormously popular offering at the time. This treasure trove was dedicated ‘to Scottish mothers, Gentle and Semple…not fearing that, while in such keeping, they will ever be forgot.’ It included the original Scots version of ‘Wee Willie Winkie,’ a rhyme anglicised very soon after its publication:

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“Wee Willie Winkie” by Thoth, God of Thor is licensed under CC by 2.0

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the toon,

Up stairs and doon stairs, in his nicht-goon,

Tirling at the window, cryin’ at the lock,

Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?

Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye coming ben?

The cat’s singing grey thrums to the sleeping hen,

The dog’s spelder’d on the floor, and disna gie a cheep,

But here’s a waukrife laddie that winna fa’ asleep.

Onything but sleep, you rogue, glow’ring like the mune,

Rattling in an airn jug wi’ an airn spoone,

Rumbling, tumbling round about, crawing like a cock,

Skirlin’ like a kenna-what, wauk’ning sleeping fock.

Hey, Willie Winkie – the wean’s in a creel,

Wambling aff a bodie’s knee like a very eel,

Ruggin’ at the cat’s lug, and raveling a’ her thrums-

Hey, Willie Winkie – see, there he comes!’

Wearied is the mither that has a stoorie wean,

A wee stumple stoussie, that canna rin his lane,

That has a battle aye wi’ sleep before he’ll close an ee

But a kiss frae aff his rosy lips gies strength anew to me.

In that same volume, we revel in the jubilant celebrations of Hogmanay, commemorate a marriage, wonder at the effect of a sudden flurry of money in the form of an inheritance, list the virtues of ‘my poor old coat,’ and are introduced to the figure of Jack Frost, the hoar-breathing rover whose advent betokens the arrival of spring.

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“Jack-frost” by Polylerus is licensed under CC by 2.0

In November 1871, an ulceration of the leg forced William to cease his trade. Despite the increasing frailties of his body, his mind remained as sharp as ever and he continued to write and disseminate poetry, works which appeared in publications such as The Scotsman. Learning of his condition as an invalid, The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 1st March 1872 urged its readers to furnish monetary contributions ‘for this deserving old poet:’

WILLIAM MILLER THE POET.

“Perhaps the most delicious nursery song that has been written by a modern minstrel for the delectation of the “bairns” in these northern regions is the song of “Wee Willie Winkie.” We are sorry to hear that the writer of it has for a long time past been an invalid, and that he is in poor circumstances. William Miller has a strong claim on the public for some help to smooth his declining years. He is now upwards of sixty, and at his advanced age, afflicted as he is with serious disease of the limbs, there is no prospect of his ever being able again to resume work. By trade he is a wood turner, and he resides in Glasgow, of which city he is a native. One who knows him says that his heart seems still young, his mind still vigorous; but he feels his position irksome and his spirit galled that he cannot now, as formerly, earn by the swear of his brow the bread of independence.”

The following July, he repaired to Blantyre, hoping that the town’s airs – the settlement was 8 miles from Glasgow – would reinvigorate him. The sojourn proved futile and he was soon returned to his son’s house in the city, having suffered a paralysis of the lower limbs. He passed away, destitute, at the age of 62 on the 20th August, 1872.

The poet subsequently received a number of obituary notices in the newspapers lamenting the loss of this Scottish talent. The account below, in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August, 1872), reports the grim news:

DEATH OF WILLIAM MILLER, THE POET

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. He was born in Glasgow in August, 1810. He was early apprenticed to a wood turner, and by diligent application to business made himself one of the best workmen of his craft; and even in his later years there were few who could equal him in the quality of his work. It is, however, as a poet that he is known to fame. In his early youth he published several pieces in the Day and other newspapers; but from the fact that no record of these productions was observed, it is impossible to know when they issued from his pen. The first thing that brought him into public notice was the publication of the nursery song “Willie Winkie.” The MS. of this song was sent to Mr. Ballantine in Edinburgh, who gave it unqualified praise, as being the very best poem of its kind that he had ever seen. This led to the publication of the poem, and it at once attracted a large amount of attention. This was followed by a number of other pieces of a similar description, all of which were received with great favour, and led to the author’s acquaintance with Lord Jeffrey and other gentlemen of literary tastes. The best of his nursery songs which have obtained for him the well-earned title of the Laureate of the nursery were all written before he was 36 years of age; but it was not till 1863 that, at the request of several friends, he collected together and published a small volume, entitled “Nursery Songs and other Poems.” It had a wide circulation and has earned for the author a reputation that will never decay.”

Most fulsome in its praise of the deceased was the sketch authored by Robert Buchanan in the St Paul’s Magazine (reproduced here in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August 1872), emphasising the global appeal of William’s work – songs now sung from Canadian Manitoba to the sonorous banks of the great Mississippi river:

“St Paul’s Magazine for July contained a notice of Wm. Miller, written by Robert Buchanan, who only knew the subject of his sketch through his writings. He had expressed a desire to make Wm. Miller’s acquaintance, and had arranged to call on him on his first visit to Glasgow, but the death of the poet has prevented that wish being gratified. In the article alluded to Mr Buchanan says – “No eulogy can be too high for one who has afforded such unmixed pleasure to his circle of readers; who, as a master of the Scottish dialect, may certainly be classed alongside of Burns and Tannahill; and whose special claims to be recognised as the Laureate of the Nursery have been admitted by more than one generation in every part of the world where the Doric Scotch is understood and loved. Wherever Scottish foot has trod, wherever Scottish child has been born, the songs of Wm. Miller have been sung. Every corner of the earth knows ‘Willie Winkie’ and ‘Gree Bairnies, Gree.’ Manitoba and the banks of the Mississippi echo the ‘Wonderfu’ Wean’ as often as do Kilmarnock or the Goosedubs. ‘Lady Summer’ will sound as sweet in Rio de Janeiro as on the Banks of the Clyde.” Again – ‘Few poets, however prosperous, are so certain of their immortality. I can scarecely conceive of a period when William Miller will be forgotten; certainly not until the Scotch Doric is obliterated, and the lowly nursery abolished for ever. His lyric note is unmistakeable – true, deep, and sweet. Speaking generally, he is a born singer, worthy to rank with the three or four master-spirits who use the same speech; and I say this while perfectly familiar with the lowly literature of Scotland, from Jean Adams to Janet Hamilton, from the first notes struck by Allan Ramsay down to the warblings of ‘Whistle Binkie.’ Speaking specifically, he is (as I have phrased it) the Laureate of the Nursery, and there, at least, he reigns supreme above all other poets, monarch of all he surveys, and perfect master of his theme. His poems, however, are as distinct from nursery gibberish as the music of Shelley is from the jingle of Ambrose Phillips. They are works of art – tiny paintings on small canvas, limned with all the microscopic care of Meissonier. The highest praise that can be said of them is that they are perfect ‘of their kind.’ That kind is humble enough; but humility may be very strong, as it certainly is here.'”

The news of William Miller’s expiration spread beyond Scotland. The Christchurch Times of Hampshire included a brief notation in its edition on the 31st August 1872:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, William Miller spent his earliest days in the village, and thereafter resided in Glasgow.”

Similarly, the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 10th September 1872 reported on the event:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, he subsequently resided in Glasgow. He was author of Wee Willie Winky [sic] and other well-known rhymes.”

William Miller was interred in an unmarked grave near the main entrance to Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs over which a great clamour arose, with friends and supporters condemning the inglorious and wretched resting-place of this immortal poet. A campaign was even spearheaded by the Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, a plea to its readership which descended into sniping bitterness against the merchant class for their perceived meanness in the strength of their donation, as can be seen in the edition on the 29th July 1872:

“There has been a great deal of writing in favour of the proposal to get up a testimony for William Miller, the “laureate of the nursery,” writer of “Wee Willie Winkie” and other immortal lyrics. A brief appeal of our own was not fruitless, provoking at least one handsome subscription, that from Mr Thallon of London; but we regret to say that the merchant princes of Glasgow are contributing (if they contribute at all) on a scale which does not say much for their appreciation of poetry. The great firm of Messrs J. and W. Campbell & Co., one of whose members gave 200 guineas to the Norman Macleod Testimonial, gives to the poor old poet the munificent sum of – twenty shillings! Messrs J. Tennant and Co. also give a pound. In fact a pound seems to be the maximum subscription. And the bard, besides being a genuine poet, has been all his days a decent, hard-working, God-fearing man – paying his way, and even when laid aside by illness asking nobody to help him – nay, so independent in spirit that he begged his friends to make no appeal on his behalf. To this true poet and true man, in his day of trouble, when he can no longer work for his bread. The merchant princes of Glasgow throw a contemptuous trifle which would not keep them in brandy and soda for a day. On the whole, we should prefer to see them give nothing.”

The proposed monument was eventually erected by public subscription through such calls for contributions.

William Miller’s reputation remained that of a consummate and skilled poet throughout the 19th century. Indeed, The National Dictionary of Biography (Vol.13) spoke of the man as follows:

“He has an easy mastery of the Scottish dialect; his sense of fitting maxim and allegory is quick and trustworthy, and his lyrical effects are much helped by the directness and simplicity of his style.”

It was particularly the cultural influence of William Miller’s most famous creation, the figure of Wee Willie Winkie, that had a sizeable impact. Indeed, the character was immortalised further through Rudyard Kipling’s inclusion of the figure in his 1888 Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories, and, in 1937, an eponymous adventure film starring Shirley Temple was made for the big screen.

Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie_and_other_stories“Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie”
by University of California Libraries
is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The German-American painter Lionel Feininger unveiled the cartoon strip “Wee Willie Winkie’s World” in the Chicago Tribune on August 19th, 1906 and this continued in print until February 17th, 1907. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnights Children, includes the character “Wee Willie Winkie,” a minstrel, in homage to William Miller’s creation.

In 2009, Glasgow City Council unveiled a tribute to the poet at his former dwelling, 4 Ark Lane in Dennistoun, erecting a bronze plaque on the wall of the Tennent’s Brewery which now sits on the site of William Miller’s house. A blue plaque in the Trongate also serves as a quirky tribute to his most famous creation, declaring that ‘Wee Willie Winkie was spotted here in his nightgown’ in 1841.

It is clear that, even now, William Miller’s pyjama-clad figure still urges children to get into their beds and sleep as a nursery song learnt and replayed the world over, one of a number of figures invoked by parents at bedtime, such as Germany’s Das Sandmännchen and Denmark’s Ole Lukøje.

In the Beginning…

To the solemn graves, near a lonely cemetery, my heart like a muffled drum is beating funeral marches.

Charles Baudelaire

Nothing says more about the land of the living than the world of the dead. Those we have left behind inspire and inform the progression of our lives, quietly inhabiting the dusty recesses of the earth, sleeping that final sleep, their voices silenced. Yet they call to us, demanding that their tales be told and that their memory never die. Where their stones tattoo the earth, their epitaphs bewail the frailty of human existence and urge us to live as though we shall too be dust. It is up to us to also keep them alive.

In this blog, my intention is to combine graveyard visits with the consultation of archives to introduce readers to, or refresh readers’ memories of, the stories of those who have passed on. My starting-point will be the monuments themselves, as we can tell much about the manner in which an individual lived from the manner in which he died. In addition, I will explore attitudes towards funereal rituals across the centuries, making particular use of newspaper collections to divine the changing nature of  post-mortem custom. As social history and genealogical record, the study of grave monuments and their associated rites is a rich resource, bringing the past, literally, to our finger-tips. As it is said, ‘in the midst of death we are in life.’

In Petronius’ Satyricon, a 1st century AD hodgepodge of acerbic satire and monumental epic, Trimalchio, the freedman host of an ostentatiously lavish dinner-party, orders the sepulchral stone he has commissioned for himself to be brought out and laid upon the table. The monument is the crowning glory in a series of actions designed to render the man’s house as a living and breathing land of the dead. Indeed, comestibles and expiration were not uncommon bedfellows in Roman society; banquets were commonly held in honour of the deceased and images of such commensality appeared frequently on funerary monuments. Trimalchio’s own monument is the ultimate act of self-representation, a caricatured musing on the right way to die, transforming this achingly luxurious feast into the occasion of his own funeral. Such continuous references to the end serve to remind both his guests and the reader(s) to live in the moment:

ergo uiuamus, dum licet esse bene (Sat. 34.2)

So let’s live, while we can do it well.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Latin epitaphic inscriptions in the Roman period were often characterised by the manifestation of this same sentiment:

Primae / Pompeiae / ossua h{e}ic / Fortuna spondet multa / multis praestat nemini uiue in dies / et horas nam proprium est nihil / Saluius et Heros dant

(CIL_1.1219)

Here lies Prima Pompeia’s bones. Fortune promises much and does not bestow much to any. Live day by day and hour by hour as nothing is yours. Salvius and Heros offer this as a gift.

Manlia L(uci) f(ilia) Sabi[na] / parentem amaui qua mihi fuit [optimus] / parens uirum parenti prox<i=U>m[um amplius] / ita casta u{e}itae constitit rat[io meae] / ualebis hospes u{e}iue tibi iam m[ors uenit]

(CIL_12.1836)

I, Manlia Sabina, daughter of Lucius, loved my parent best by virtue of being my parent, I loved my husband only as second to my parent. The account of my life was therefore established as spotless. Farewell, stranger. Live, for death is coming for you also.

Epitaph_des_Marcus_Caelius

The Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, a centurion killed in the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9BC.  
“Epitaph des in der Varusschlacht umgekommenen Centurios Marcus Caelius und seiner Freigelassenen. CIL XIII 8648 = AE 1952, 181 = AE 1953, 222 = AE 1955, 34” by Agnete is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Such epitaphs are vital pieces of grave information, furnishing details of the dead, acting as a memorialising tool and forming a method of communication with the living. A particular feature of Roman epitaphic inscriptions, as seen in the first example above, was the direct apostrophising of the passer-by in a fashioning of dialogue between the living and the dead:

Rogat ut resistas hospes te hic tacitus lapis / dum ostendit quod mandauit quoius umbram tegit / pudentis hominis frugi sum magna fide / praeconis Oli Grani sunt ossa h{e}ic sita / tantum est hoc uoluit nescius ne esse uale / A(ulus) Granius M(arci) l(ibertus) Stabilio / praeco

(CIL_12.1210)

Stranger, this silent stone asks you to stop, while it shows to you what he, whose shade it covers, entrusted it to show. Here lieth the bones of Aulus Granius the auctioneer, an honourable man of great fidelity. No more. It was his wish for you to know this. Farewell.

In the western world, this epitaphic habit could be found throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 19th and 20th centuries. Contemporary epigraphic markers on gravestones, however, are now characterised by their brevity and simplicity, lacking the literary flourishes of their predecessors. These poetic renderings of inscriptions honouring the deceased have themselves died out. Nonetheless, we read a grave as if it writes only to us, always bearing in mind the sentiment of that famous Latin funerary motif:

quod fuimus estis, quod sumus uos eritis

quod tu es ego fui, quod ego sum tu eris

quod sumus hoc eritis, fuimus quandoque quod estis.

What we were, you are, what we are, you will be,

What you are, I was, what I am, you will be

What we are, you will be, we were once what you are.

Any comments or suggestions are welcome.