In Meow-moriam: Victorian Pet Funerals in the Newspaper Archives

In 1899, the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (Dogs and Other Domestic Animals Cemetery) was officially opened on the Ile des Ravageurs, near Asnières, a north-western suburb of Paris. Designed in the style of an elaborate necropolis, with imposing Art Nouveau entrance-gate in marble and an array of ornate, neo-classical monuments, many beloved pets went on to be entombed there.

Dog_cimetière

Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques by Brito MA is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Forget Père-Lachaise, this zoological cemetery even hosted the remains of famous animals such as Rin Tin Tin, the male German Shepherd rescued by American Corporal Lee Duncan from a World War I battlefield at St. Mihiel. The dog became an international superstar after starring in twenty-seven motion pictures.

rin tin tin

Poster for the American Film ‘Where the North Begins’ (1923) by We Hope is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When Rin Tin Tin passed away in 1932, his owner, struggling to finance an appropriate funeral for his companion, sold his house and used the funds to repatriate the animal’s body to his native France in a poignant expression of the bond between owner and pet. Finding his final resting-place in the area of the cemetery reserved for dogs alone, Rin Tin Tin lay buried amidst a host of other stones inscribed with such epitaphic asides as Voltaire’s ‘Le chien c’est la vertu, qui ne pouvant se faire homme, s’est fait bête (the dog is virtue – unable to be a man he made himself a beast),’ and the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine’s verses ‘mets ton coeur pres du mien. Et seul pour nous amers, amons nous, pauvre chien (place your head near mine, as none remained to love me, so let us love each other, my poor dog).’

Rin Tin Tin

©Paris Adele

There were, of course, more than just notable canines laid to rest at Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques. A leisurely wander around the site’s environs reveals a veritable menagerie of honoured creatures: cats, horses, monkeys, sheep, fish and hens. It is clear that the commemoration of animals had become an important facet of how we conceptualise our relationship with the dead, and, deceased, they were often accorded funeral and sepulchral accoutrements equal to, or even exceeding, those assigned to kin. Indeed, another renowned canine, the Skye Terrier Greyfriars Bobby (1855-1872), a pet whose loving devotion towards his deceased owner in spending the rest of his life sitting on the latter’s grave ensured that the dog himself was accorded similar obsequies to those of his master, receiving burial within the same churchyard. Whether apocryphal or historical fact, the enduring nature of the story speaks to something in the human condition, forcing us to reflect upon how we conceptualise mortality and to enter into the dialogue between animal and man. Indeed, the commemorative statue in Edinburgh, its nose stroked for luck by visiting tourists, is an excellent example of the need to monumentalise the relationship between animal and man. 

Greyfriars-bobby-edin - Copy

Statue of Greyfriars Bobby by Michael Reeve is licensed under CC BY 2.0

320px-Greyfriars_Bobby_Headstone - Copy

Bobby’s Headstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard by Stephen Montgomery

During this late nineteenth-century period in which the Parisian animal cemetery was born, pet funerals became all the rage, a sepulchral fad found not only amongst those in Europe, but also in the United States. Indeed, in 1881 the Hyde Park Dog Cemetery in London opened its doors, receiving animals for interment, crowned by miniature headstones, until 1903.

Hyde Park Dog Cemetery.jpg

Hyde Park Dog’s Cemetery by Leonard Bentley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The site was subsequently followed in 1896 by New York’s Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, the oldest and largest in America. The latter burial ground now contains the remains of over seventy thousand animals.

Hartsdale

Entrance to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery by SteveStrummer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite the presence of former pets inhumed relatively cheaply in ‘common graves’ on sites such as the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, the bestowal of these resting-places upon treasured pets was, more often than not, the preserve of the elite and well-heeled, individuals who often chose to mourn their loss by means of complex and elaborate funeral ritual, proceedings involving the use of the myriad trappings of the dead. Indeed, it was widely reported in 1901 that a young Parisian woman spent 6000 francs on a monument erected for her pet pug. Such activities were frequently documented in local and national newspapers, where the tone taken was one of a whimsical look at the endearingly odd, an approach simultaneously exuding a marked poignancy, conveying the sense of powerful fascination often felt by those present, drawn into the unexpected through the familiarity of funeral ceremony marking the passing of the dead. Such accounts carefully relate the opulence of these affairs, noting in detail the appearance of coffins and tombs and the disjunctive nature of the seemingly anthropomorphic rendering of the pet in state. In 1897, for instance, the 26th of June edition of Pearson’s Weekly narrates an American woman’s loving remembrance of her deceased Skye terrier, events for which money was clearly no object.

HER DOG’S FUNERAL.

The other day an American woman doctor gave an unusual dog funeral to her Skye terrier, that died after a career of fifteen years. She had the dog embalmed, and he lay in state for one whole day until the crowd became so large and unruly that the door had to be closed.

The coffin was made by his mistress’s own hands. It was covered with white material and trimmed with ribbons. It rested on a large pedestal, at the foot of which was a vase filled with roses, which was placed on the dog’s grave.

The dog’s head rested upon a pillow of white crépon, edged with lace and surrounded by flowers. The funeral took place in the afternoon. Interment was in the rear of Baltimore cemetery, where a tombstone will be erected to the animal.

The splendour and grandiosity of such occasions is seen again in this account in the Edinburgh Evening News of the 11th of December, 1879, detailing the caprice of human behaviour, rather unsympathetic to the feelings of the bereaved owner:

…to furnish a rich cloth-covered casket, with velvet trimmings and solid silver plate and handles. The interior of the casket was to be lined with white satin and silk trimmings. All this was for a dead dog belonging to a wealthy family up town. The animal had been nursed and taken care of for the past 20 years. The dead animal lay in the casket wrapped in a mantle of white satin, with white silk ribands around the neck. The remains were taken to a cemetery close to New York and put into the family vault. Six carriages, containing the friends of the dog, followed the remains to the cemetery. What next?

Sometimes a tale of canine burial, embarked upon with an air of underlying contempt, as above, took a moving turn, steeped in pathos, as seen in a report from New York in the Shields Daily Gazette of the 18th of October, 1900:

A New York paper thus describes the funeral ceremony which obtained in connection with a pet dog named Booby, belonging to a Mr Seeberger. The latter, it was said, had a coffin made by a local undertaker, and arranged funeral ceremonies with a procession and band. The coffin, covered with flowers, was placed in a child’s express wagon , drawn by two of Mr Seeberger’s boys. Otto Clanberg and Eugene Branenstein walked beside the waggon as pall-bearers. At the grave the coffin was lowered into the ground as the band played “The Watch on the Rhine.” Adolph Schnackkenberg delivered an oration in which he eulogised the dead dog and his many excellent traits. While the grave was being filled Mr Seeberger wept. He said he felt as bad as if he had lost a child , for Booby was a dog faithful and true.

Sandy Gravestone.jpg

The grave of Sandy at Kilkenny Castle, whose owner was Arthur Butler, the 4th Marquess of Ormonde and his wife Ellen Stager (© Reddit)

Such need to celebrate canine fidelity and dedication underscores the following account, taken from the Daily Gazette for Middlesborough of the 11th of December, 1879:

A DOG’S FUNERAL.- New York has just witnessed a strange funeral. A Mr Wilmarth of that city had for twenty-three years owned a large Newfoundland dog which some long time ago saved his wife from drowning, and upon the animal the aged couple, having no family, lavished all their affection. At length the dog died from fulness [sic] of days, whereupon an undertaker was ordered to make a coffin for it , and to place upon the casket a silver plate. The remains being thus decently packed, two carriages escorted them to Greenwood Cemetery, where in the Wilmarth family plot the dog was buried. A headstone is now to be set up over the place detailing the virtues of the faithful creature departed , as a monument of its worth and a record of its owner’s gratitude.

That the deployment of such ceremonial flair particularly in regard to man’s best friend  was an apt reflection of the zeitgeist is made clear in this brief report from the Gloucestershire Echo twenty years later (22nd of March, 1899):

Dog’s funerals form the latest American fashionable craze. On Tuesday a Mrs Leach, of New York, held a funeral with a hearse and two coaches. The well-known financier, Mr Pierpont Morgan, whose bulldog had a glass eye, also gave a funeral. Something of a scandal occurred recently, when a Mrs Fish endeavoured to bury her dog in Long Island Cemetery. The pastor successfully opposed the interment.

Arrangements were not only made as far as the pet’s body was concerned. At the very beginning of the twentieth-century, the Dundee Evening Post (29th May, 1901) relayed the news that a distinctive commemorative practice had developed in the pet bereavement world, emerging from the ritualistic behaviours surrounding elite deaths:

It is now the custom in fashionable society to send around death notices of pet dogs on black-bordered paper which read about like this: –

“Overwhelmed with grief, we inform you of the departure of our dearly-beloved and faithful Loulon. His earthly remains have been interred in the Necropole Zoologique of Asnières. We beg for your true sympathy.”

These commemorative acts were not the preserve of dogs alone. In the Ross Gazette of the 15th March, 1894, the account is presented of a London cat funeral organised by an unnamed ‘lady of distinction:’

A CAT’S FUNERAL.

In certain circles in Kensington deep interest has been taken in the funeral of a cat belonging to a lady of distinction. It may be questioned if a pussy has ever had so solemn a burial. Except that the church did not lend its sanction, the function was conducted quite as if it had been the interment of a human person of some importance. A respectable undertaker was called in and instructed to conduct the funeral in the ordinary way; the body was to be enclosed in a shell which would go inside a fine oak coffin. There were the usual trappings, including a plate on which was inscribed the statement that “Paul” had been for 17 years the beloved and faithful cat of Miss -, who now mourned his loss in suitable terms. The coffin, with a lovely wreath on it, was displayed in the undertaker’s shop , where it was an object of considerable interest and not a little amusement.

Dewey

©Paul Koudounaris

A similar account in the Shepton Mallet Journal of the 24th of February, 1899 informed readers that a wealthy American woman, distraught at the demise of her beloved cat, had decreed that the animal should be interred within the grounds of the country club she attended. The owner’s status is clearly visible from the site of her New York address:

A CAT’S FUNERAL.

The funeral of a £1,000. cat, which is mourned by a wealthy mistress has taken place at the Long Island Country Club. The cat’s owner was Mrs. Peter Adams, of No.254, Madison Avenue, New York City. The body was shipped to Superintendent Tuthill , of the club, encased in a costly coffin with silver trimmings and green satin linen. With it came the request that the cat be buried in some quiet part of the club grounds. The request was complied with. The cat had been a pet of Mrs. Adams for many years, and was a pure Angora.

Perhaps rather more eccentric in nature are the reports of lavish avian entombments, commonly involving pet parrots. The below account in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of the 20th of April, 1935 relates the funeral of such a bird, charmingly depicting the other animals belonging to the family as ‘attending’ the service:

OTHER PETS AT PARROT’S “FUNERAL”

Giles, a Brazilian parrot, has been in the family of Mrs Dyer, wife of Captain A. J. Dyer, of the King’s Head Hotel, Romford, for nearly 70 years.

Now he has died.

He has been buried in the garden adjoining the Romford Bowling Green. A spray of white narcissus marks the spot.

Giles had four favourites – two dogs and two cats.

When the parrot was being placed in its grave it was noticed that all four animals had followed the funeral possession from the house and were looking on.

woman-parrot-vintage-illustration.jpg

Woman with Parrot by Karen Arnold is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sometimes the animals succeeded in making their escape from the deathly proceedings. This jaunty (and rather traumatic) note on the intended burial of a pet parrot with its deceased mistress in the Daily Mirror (2nd of May, 1938), recounts the bird’s escape, protected by the opposition of church officials to zoological ceremony:

Parrot “Escaped” Own Funeral, Sent Wreath

Leicester church officials would not permit the burial of a parrot with its mistress , Mrs. Mary Pollard, on Saturday, which had been her dying wish. So it escaped death – and sent a wreath of tulips.

Mr. Pollard told the “Daily Mirror” yesterday: “My wife begged me to kill forty-year-old Dexy and bury them together, but the thought of it nearly broke my heart. Now I shall continue to keep him as a pet.”

Elsewhere, the trend was often met with a sense of hostility surpassing the playfulness customarily underlying such accounts, particularly as regards the involvement of liturgical practice. A stark example of this attitude can be seen in the following piece, documenting a canine demise in Romania in the 22nd of May edition of the Hull Daily Mail in 1899:

DOG FUNERAL. 

BUCHAREST, May 18.

In Bucharest a day or two since a favourite dog belonging to a man living in the Strada Acvila died, and the loss seems to have turned the man’s brain.

As a last tribute he decided to give it the “rites of the Church,” and in all seriousness and grief has the dead dog clothed in a splendid dress and then laid out on an elaborate catafalque, constructed according to the custom of the Greek Church, and surrounded with flowers and candles, and incense burning!

A squad of gendarmes, however, arrived, and entering, seized the dog, which was taken away and chucked on a rubbish heap, and the catafalque, etc., overturned and thrown into the yard.

This example, printed in the South Wales Daily News on the 12th of December, 1879, is another example of such mockery, manifesting a palpable antipathy towards the entombment of pets. Dripping with sarcasm, the writer barely attempts to conceal his criticism of the proceedings:

A DOG’S FUNERAL. 

An American genius has managed to spend a good deal of money on a dead dog, who must now be worth more than a living lion. This animal has been fashionably buried in a  “casket,” or coffin, as the English say in their patois – a casket with solid silver handles and plates. The interior of the casket was lined with white satin and silk trimmings. The lamented hound was carried to his long home on the casket, covered with a mantle of white satin. Six carriages full of sincere mourners followed him (or her) to a New York cemetery, where he was laid in the family vault of his master. We are not informed, but can easily believe, that his owners engraved R.I.P. on the casket, under the impression that these letters mean “Respected in the parish.” Daily News.

faithful dog

‘Faithful Dog’ by Natalie Maynor is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the aftermath of the Victorian era and the changing nature of Britain’s status on the world’s stage, there arose more ‘exotic’ accounts of such ceremonies. Bound up with the problematic discourse of empire and the reductive dichotomy at play between East and West was a tenor of journalistic report relaying the details of the commemorative efforts surrounding the deaths of monkeys in India, themselves important sacred symbols of religious and cultural beliefs patronisingly dismissed in these accounts as incomprehensible quirks or uneducated practices. Such pieces were clear attempts to perpetuate the supposed cultural preeminence of the empire on which the sun never sets, written in such a way so as to titillate the reader, denigrating non-western religious acts to the realm of ‘barbarian’ stereotype. For instance, this article in the Gloucestershire Echo of the 11th of March, 1926, reports on this kind of simian passing and interment amongst a number of other smaller items on Empire and Imperialism:

FUNERAL OF MONKEYS. 

Quaint Scene in Mysore. 

Twenty-five wild monkeys have been poisoned by some unknown person in a village near Mysore. Orthodox Hindus venerate the monkey, and the incident is regarded as an outrage to religious beliefs. The bodies of the monkeys (says a correspondent of the “Morning Post”) were dressed in funeral garments and carried in solemn procession through the principal streets of the city to the cremation ground, where they were disposed of with Shastric ceremonial.

Hanuman_springt_uber_den_Ozean_c1720_large.jpg

The Hindu monkey god Hanuman leaps over the ocean (© Museum Rietberg Zürich; Photo: Rainer Wolfsberger)

There are countless other examples of the practice of animal entombment preserved in the local and national newspapers of the nineteenth, twentieth and, indeed, the twenty-first centuries, testament to the widespread nature of the phenomenon and the growing need for the extension of commemorative ritual to those beings whose quiet loyalty and fidelity is so much a component of the human experience for a large number of people. Indeed, the preservation of memory in regard to deceased pets can be traced back thousands of years, a well-attested incidence in the ancient world. Not only did an archaeological dig in 2017 in Egypt uncover the remains of an animal cemetery in which dogs, cats and even monkeys were buried, but the Roman poet Statius, writing in Book 2 of his collection of occasional poetry, the Silvae (circa AD93), dedicates a poem to the eulogy of his patron Atedius Melior’s parrot (psittacus eiusdem), a bird in receipt of a sumptuous send-off:

Yet he is not sent to the shades ingloriously: his ashes steam with Assyrian spice, while his fragile feathers smell of Arabian incense, and Sicilian saffron. Unwearied by slow ageing, he mounts the perfumed pyre, a brighter Phoenix.

(2.4)

silvae

Statius’ Silvae (© Oxford University Press)

Ultimately, the emergence of such monumentalisation has the effect of exposing the problematic dichotomy between animal and man, vividly demonstrating that we cannot subject to demarcation the intrinsic need to perpetuate memory as neatly as we might think. Rather, we are enmeshed within the universality of beings that characterises existence, putting one in mind of the French author Colette’s pithy aside:

‘Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.’

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

The Peasants are Revolting: Samuel Holberry, Mary Cooper and the Sheffield Uprising

IMG_4822

Image by A Grave Announcement

It was an unusually cold Monday morning for early September when I, having found myself in Sheffield for the day, decided to see for myself the Victorian splendour of Sheffield General Cemetery. I set off in the magnificently tree-lined Nether Edge, a prosperous borough raised aloft in the southern part of the city, both looking down into the cavernous valleys of the urban sprawl and gazing away at the distant countryside of the city’s hill-studded environs. I made my way along a good number of such arboreal boulevards, espying a church or two amidst what seemed like  marshalled battalions of terraced dwellings, disappearing placidly into the horizon.

The cemetery itself is located in the neighbouring area of Sharrow, bordered by the aptly named Cemetery Road, along which I myself travelled, and edged on the other side by the indolent waters of the Porter Brook. I did not enter through the impressive neo-classical gatehouse, although, upon seeing this later, I was inevitably reminded of a Roman triumphal arch, a portal through which bodies would pass, overpowered by Death’s parading victory, in a final journey of silence. Rather, I myself passed through the so-called Egyptian Gate, gazed upon by twin ouroboroi – etymological tail-eaters – serpentine rings formed by coiled snakes with tails in their mouths, symbolising unity, eternity and a kind of cyclical balance. A winged sun surmounted the design, a pronounced symbol in the iconography of the Ancient Near East.

The site of the cemetery is spread across a quarried hillside, interspersed by a number of footpaths, both formal and informal, in what is now, I am told, a Grade II listed park. The presence of buildings manifestly influenced by Greek and Egyptian architectural styles attests to the grandeur and magnificence of the scope of the design – not merely a fine cemetery this, but a veritable Necropolis – a real life city of the dead.

IMG_4772.JPG

Image by A Grave Announcement

Opened in 1836, this Nonconformist cemetery holds over 87,000 burials, formerly serving as Victorian Sheffield’s main repository for the disposal of the dead. Rampant overcrowding, rife disease and paltry conditions in the churchyards of Sheffield had necessitated the construction of a burial site away from the dense congestion of the city itself. In 1834 a private enterprise, the Sheffield General Cemetery Company,’ was established with committee and shareholders, and the concern immediately began to gather funds for the project through public subscription. Their activities were reported in the press, as seen here in the Yorkshire Gazette of the 3rd of May 1834:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY.- A meeting

of the shareholders in this undertaking took place on Monday,

at the Cutlers’ Hall, T.A.Ward, Esq., in the chair. It

was stated, that £26,400 was already subscribed, but that

£25,000 would be amply sufficient to carry the object of the

society into effect. It was agreed, that the committee should

select a piece or several pieces of ground, and submit the choice

to a future meeting.

The requisite land was procured for £1900 and work soon commenced on the site. Designed by the Sheffield architect Samuel Worth and assisted by the horticulturalist Robert Marnock who superintended the layout, progress was rapid, aided considerably by the fact that the stone necessary for construction could be quarried from the very site itself. The first vault was sold on the 1st of January, 1836, and, amidst predictions of the cemetery’s imminent completion, the transaction was heralded with enthusiasm in the edition of the Sheffield Independent released on the following day:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY. – We understand

that the first and only finished family vault was sold

yesterday. It is calculated to contain about twenty coffins

in so many separate compartments, all neatly built with

stone and bricks. The ground and buildings are now

assuming a very imposing appearance, and it appears

probable that early in the Spring, the whole will be

completed.

As the year advanced and the business of the cemetery gathered momentum, directors of the cemetery were appointed and adverts placed for individuals to serve as employees, as seen here in the Sheffield Independent of the 28th May 1836, calling for a Sexton and Gatekeeper in residence:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY           

Wanted, a Steady, Active Man, who is married, to fill the Situations of SEXTON and GATEKEEPER, at the Sheffield General Cemetery. A Person who understands Gardening will be preferred. He will have a Residence, rent free, on the premises. Applications, with Testimonials of Character, addressed to the Directors of the Cemetery, must be presented at the Offices of Mr. JOHN WILLIAM SMITH, or Mr. GEORGE WELLS, Sheffield, on or before the 6th of June next. – Post letters to be paid.

The first burial was that of Mary Ann Fish, the wife of a book-keeper, having sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. Indeed, once ready to receive those to be interred, the cemetery had placed official advertisements in local newspapers. This extract, from the Sheffield Iris on the 9th of August 1836, announces the site’s readiness to bury the dead, a proclamation issued under the name of the Reverend William Thornhill Kidd of the Sheffield parish Eccleshall Bierlow:

Sheffield General Cemetery.

MINISTER AND REGISTRAR,

The Rev. William Thornhill Kidd.

This beautiful Place of Sepulture, whose picturesque

and architectural attractions are so well

known to the Inhabitants of this Town, arranged

upon a plan admirably adapted to the purposes for

which it was designed, IS NOW READY FOR

THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD. Vaults of

almost every description and size, and finished in the

most complete manner, may, by an early Application,

be purchased upon reasonable terms; and Graves, in

various situations, the most open or the most secluded,

are also disposable to the choice of the Public.

In this place, in an alleyway lined with crooked tombstones, I stumbled across the final resting place of one Samuel Holberry, the name faintly familiar, the epitaph lengthy and full-hearted:

img_4963.jpg

Image by A Grave Announcement

SACRED

to the Memory of

SAMUEL HOLBERRY.

WHO AT THE EARLY AGE OF 27 DIED

IN YORK CASTLE, AFTER SUFFERING

AN IMPRISONMENT OF 2 YEARS AND 3

MONTHS, JUNE 21st, 1842.

FOR ADVOCATING WHAT TO HIM APPEARED

TO BE THE TRUE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE OF

ENGLAND.

VANISH’D IS THE FEVERISH DEAM OF LIFE:-

THE RICH AND POOR FIND NO DISTINCTION HERE,

THE GREAT AND LOWLY END THEIR CARE AND STRIFE,

THE WELL BELOVED MAY HAVE AFFECTIONS TEAR.

BUT AT THE LAST, THE OPPRESSOR AND THE SLAVE

SHALL EQUAL STAND BEFORE THE BAR OF GOD;

OF HIM, WHO LIFE, AND HOPE, AND FREEDOM GAVE,

TO ALL THAT THRO’ THIS VALE OF TEARS HAVE TROD.

LET NONE THEN MURMUR ‘GAINST THE WISE DECREE,

THAT OPEN’D THE DOOR, AND SET THE CAPTIVE FREE.

ALSO OF SAMUEL JOHN, HIS SON WHO

DIED IN HIS INFANCY.

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS BEREFT WIDOW.

I wondered why I felt such a twinge of recognition upon scanning these words, and I pondered too about the identity of the grieving widow, nameless, her own exertions unmarked, compelled by injustice to erect this monument to her lost husband, an appeal to martyrdom and an attempt at post-mortem exoneration. A subsequent search brought my ailing memory back to life: Samuel Holberry, the Chartist activist, organiser of the Sheffield Uprising and champion of democracy. Grievously ill-treated at the end, his death stands as a testament to governmental misconduct and penal brutality in a demonstration of the barbaric treatment of one whose very existence was devoted to the advocation of political rights for the people. I vowed to look into his life and, in doing so, to attempt to restore the selfhood of that unnamed widow.

SamuelHolberry01-320 (1)

Bust of Samuel Holberry (Photo by River Sheaf)

Samuel Holberry was born in the small village of Gamston, Nottinghamshire in 1814, and was baptised on the 21stof November in that same year. His father John was an agricultural labourer, working on the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, and had married his mother Martha Simpson on the 19th of December, 1793, in Grove, also in Nottinghamshire. Martha and John had nine children in total, of whom Samuel was the youngest. He grew up working on the land, watching over livestock and scaring off birds, jobs typical of child workers at the time, whilst receiving some basic schooling, before achieving the position of labourer like his father.

Gamston.jpg

‘Gamston Village and Church’ by Roger Reach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Samuel, however, was restless and unsettled, making the decision in March 1832 to leave the area and enlist, following in the footsteps of his brother. Being only seventeen at the time, he was forced to lie about his age, joining the ranks of the 33rd infantry and subsequently serving in Ireland and Northampton. It was during his time in the latter that he became politically sensitive – the town was a bastion of radical activity and had considerable ties with the NUWC, The National Union of the Working Classes, a group comprising those who rejected the 1832 reform bill as unrepresentative of the rights of working people and retained links with the unions. Such political activism in Northampton came to be a preserve of the shoemakers with whom Samuel himself came to associate.

In April 1835, Samuel bought himself out the army, moving to Sheffield where he began working as a distiller, following a brief period as a barrel-maker. It was here that he met Mary Cooper, born in 1816 to John and Ann Cooper, labourers of Oakes Green, Attercliffe, Sheffield. Mary and Samuel soon established a relationship. In 1837 the pair were  separated, however, as Samuel was made out of work and spent some time in London, before returning to marry Mary on the 22nd of October in that same year, and settling in Sheffield. Despite joining the Sheffield Working Men’s Association towards the end of 1838, driven by his desire to extend the political rights enshrined within the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act, he did not yet announce himself as an active Chartist.

This latter movement had arisen from the People’s Charter, centring itself upon ‘a charter of rights for all,’ and, in particular, promoting mass enfranchisement. Authored mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and introduced in Glasgow in May of 1838, it laid out six features of Chartist ideology deemed necessary for electoral reform: universal suffrage, no property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members and vote by secret ballot. Both Mary and her husband became increasingly involved in these Chartist aims and objectives and began to engage in a number of peaceful protests.

peoplescharter2-large.jpg

‘The People’s Charter’ by the Working Men’s Association is licensed under CC by 2.0

The rejection of the Chartists’ strategy of moral resistance in 1839 after the failure of the above petition gave rise to a fractious leadership, riddled by division and dissent over the future of the movement. With some local leaders advocating a physical response, an initial uprising took place in Newport in Wales (the Newport Rising), but was swiftly suppressed, hamstrung by its own lack of proper planning. In this climate of insecurity and increasing anger, Samuel and Mary became involved in calls for more radical action, with Samuel spearheading proposals for an armed rebellion and appropriation of key settlements throughout the region. It was in this climate of discord and disunity that the Sheffield Rising was conceived, the event for which Samuel and Mary would become almost national celebrities.

With Samuel now in a leadership position alongside other prominent Chartists, more extreme plans began to be take shape. There was talk of seizing control of public buildings in Sheffield, namely the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, with the aid of firepower and explosives. The houses of magistrates would also be torched. Before such proposals could come to fruition, however, the group was betrayed by the Rotherham landlord of the Station Inn, James Allen, on the 11th of January, 1840. Both Samuel and Mary, in addition to a number of their fellow activists, were arrested for conspiracy. Police officers Atcherly and Wilde had entered a dwelling owned by Samuel on Eyre Lane close to midnight, finding Holberry reclining in bed, fully clothed except for his stockinged feet, illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a bedside candle. According to the Northern Star of the 21st March 1840, the conversation proceeded as follows:

‘Are you one of the people called the Chartists?’ said Wilde.
‘Yes.’ replied Holberry.
‘This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.’
‘Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.’

Whilst Samuel and his associates were held in custody, Mary was released, remaining tight-lipped throughout her interrogation. As Gammage (1969:173) notes, ‘Mrs. Holberry, a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.’

Unrepentant, Samuel openly admitted his intentions to the police and swore that he would die for Chartist principles. Undeterred, the authorities admitted him for trial at Sheffield Assizes, charging Samuel with seditious conspiracy. A reporter for the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of the 18th January 1840 described Samuel (and, elliptically, Mary in attendance) as follows:

Samuel Holberry: a very tall, well formed, and muscular young man, with much of the appearance and manner of an itinerant showman.

Mary Holberry: his wife.

Samuel’s importance both to the Chartists and the case itself can be seen in these opening remarks of the prosecuting Attorney General in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of the 20th March, 1840:

‘In regard to Holberry, it will be proved that he was a leader, and attended the class meetings; that he attended a meeting at a place called Fig Tree Lane, where the delegates used to attend, and that he attended likewise a meeting held in Lambert-Street, where the details of the plan were arranged. He was, I may say, the contriver of the scheme.’

During the course of the trial, the plans of Holberry and his associates to foment disorder by using force were laid bare. In this extract from the Northern Star on the 21st March, 1840, the testimony of Chartist Samuel Thompson revealed the extent of Holberry’s proposed charge:

‘He said we must all be at the Town Hall and the Tontine [Hotel] by two o’clock, as they must be the places to be first taken. The classes were to come up to take these places, one man first from every class, then two, and the whole body. Exactly as the clock struck two they were to rush into the Town Hall and Tontine, and take possession of them. Boardman said he could bring about fifty, and I said I could bring about fifty … If they got the Tontine, they were to shut the gates, and barricade them with the coaches inside. When they got into the Town Hall, one party was to occupy the floor, and the others were to go above. We then began to talk about the ‘cats’, the instruments to lame the horses, and it was proposed to throw them in Snig Hill, leading from the barracks, and they were to be thrown at the corner of the Town Hall and the Albion. Holberry said that he and eighty-three picked men were to go after the soldiers when they were called out and fire the straw chamber. One of them was to do it by climbing the spout and throwing a fire-ball in it. That, it was said, would set fire to the Riding School. The ones and twos who came up were to assassinate all the soldiers and watchmen they met … Holberry said in the event of their being baffled, they must ‘Moscow the town’.’

Unsurprisingly, it was as a result of his own candour as regards his offences that Samuel received a guilty verdict (along with twenty-nine others – six were acquitted) and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Sent to the gaol at Northallerton, he was illegally placed upon the treadmill, a form of punishment banned by the government in 1902 forcing the prisoner to walk  for extremely lengthy periods as a means of powering equipment or producing some kind of energy. Samuel also underwent what was termed the ‘silent system,’ a combination of stringent diet, extended periods on the above machinery and solitary confinement.

Coldbath-fields-treadmill-mayhew-p306.jpg

‘Prisoners Working At The Tread-wheel, And Others Exercising,’ by Henry Mayhew & John Binny is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whilst confined in that place, Mary was only able to visit her husband once, afflicted by grief at the death of their only son in October 1840. Indeed, she had suffered a breakdown and was supported by the National Charter Association. She was, however, a continuous advocate on Samuel’s behalf and wrote a number of letters to him in prison, often enclosing care packages filled with requested items. In this epistle, held in the Sheffield Archives, Mary lists such articles, including here a comb and a brush and two stocking needles:

Indeed, during his incarceration, Samuel received many other letters from supporters and associates, of which fifteen (including that above) survive in the collection of the above-named Sheffield Archives.

Following Samuel’s move from Northallerton Gaol to the hospital at York castle in September 1841, his already fragile health seriously deteriorated. On the 21st of June 1842 he succumbed to inflammation of the liver, brought about by the devastating advance of tuberculosis. The appalling state of the conditions in which Samuel had been imprisoned was revealed in the aftermath of the furore surrounding his death, when the House of Commons requested copies of all the correspondence relating to the prisoner between the Home Secretary and the prison authorities. In  reading these dispatches, it is clear that those involved in his care were well-aware of Samuel’s disproportionate suffering. Such missives were published at length in the newspaper, as seen here in a selection from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of the 30th of July 1842:

Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated July 6, 1842, for a copy of all communications that have passed between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the authorities of York Castle, from the beginning of September, 1841, to the present time, relative to the state of heath and death of Samuel Holberry.

Whitehall, 16th September, 1841

Gentlemen- Secretary Sir James Graham having deemed it expedient to give directions for the removal of Samuel Holberry from Northallerton Gaol to the York Castle, there to undergo the remaining term of his imprisonment, I am directed to request you to call upon the surgeon of the latter prison to pay constant and particular attention to the prisoner’s health, and to report theron to Sir James Graham from time to time.

I am, &c.,

(Signed) S.M.PHILLIPPS

The Visiting Magistrates of York Castle

[…]

Samuel Holberry, the Chartist prisoner in York Castle, is suffering from severe pain in the left side, the effect of chronic inflammation of the left lobe of the liver, extending to to [sic] the stomach, and, perhaps, the colon, which, from his having had former attacks, I believe to be organic disease. His digestion is very bad, and he is very weak; and I consider him to be in great danger. I am of an opinion that his symptoms have increased, and his health has been impaired, of late, by the length of the confinement, and the great anxiety of mind he appears to have suffered since his imprisonment.

(Signed)

                                                                                                                GEORGE CHAMPNEY.

Surgeon to the York Castle

7th June 1842.

York Castle, 21st June, 1842.

SIR, – As the gaoler of this prison is unavoidably absent at the Insolvent Sessions at Wakefield, I have to report the death of Samuel Holberry, the Chartist, who died this morning rather suddenly.

Such were the sympathies for his widow Mary Cooper in the aftermath of his death and such was the outrage at his fate, that a rousing call to obtain support for Mary was published in the Chartist Northern Star of the 16th July 1842, entitled ‘AN APPEAL TO THE CHARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN, IN BEHALF OF THE WIDOW OF SAMUEL HOLBERRY:’

BRETHREN.- We appeal to you in behalf of the widow of one of nature’s nobles, who has at last fallen a martyr for the rights and liberties of mankind. Samuel Holberry is no more, but oh could his dungeon walls find tongues to describe the anguish they have witnessed, the painful agony they endured, and the acute torture of his mind, when bursting the portals of a prison’s gloom, his soul left its clay tenement,without the kind assistance of a fond wife to minister to his wants, or to close his dying eyes. Who can pourtray [sic] the agony of his sufferings?…

Brethren, that wife he has left for your protection.

Sister democrats, do you do your duty. Your sister, though young in years, has drunk deeply of the cup of affliction. It is for you to administer the balm of consolation – to sympathise with the afflicted, and to comfort the heartbroken…

Sheffield has promptly and nobly come forward to assist in the good work, and to our townsmen we return our thanks for their hearty and generous sympathy so well proven upon this melancholy occasion. To the Chartists of York we also return our warmest thanks for their timely and patriotic aid, and to our brother democrats in other parts of the country who without waiting for this appeal have already commenced collecting monies for the support of Mrs Holberry. We have purchased the ground where the  remains of the martyr repose, and intend to erect a plain monument over the grave. To accomplish this, and secure for the widow a maintenance for the future, we expect the cooperation and assistance of every Chartist in the kingdom…’

The ensuing funeral on the 27th of June 1842 was a very public affair, attended by between 20,000 to 50,000 people who lined the route of the procession from Attercliffe all the way to Sheffield General Cemetery. The cortege was led by a band of musicians playing Pleyell’s German Hymn and festooned with a large black banner, on one side of which read ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ and on the other ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it, saith the Lord.’ All the funeral trappings of an affluent send-off were present, most notably the elaborate hearse and the mourning coaches. On the name-plate of the coffin itself was the following inscription: ‘Samuel Holberry, died a martyr to the cause of democracy, June 21, 1842, aged 27.’

Once the line had reached the burial plot, a hymn composed especially for the occasion was sung, ‘Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!’ by John Henry Bramwich, a Chartist hymn writer from Leicestershire:

Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!

Shall they who dare defend the slave

Be hurled within a prison’s gloom,

To fit them for an early grave!

Shall victim after victim fall

A prey to cruel class-made laws?

Forbid it, Lord! on Thee we call,

Protect us, and defend our cause!

In vain we prayed the powers that be,

to burst the drooping captive’s chain;

But mercy, Lord, belongs to Thee,

For Thou hast freed him from all pain.

Is this the price of liberty!

Must martyrs fail to gain the prize?

Then be it so; we will be free,

Or all become a sacrifice.

Tho’ freedom mourns her murder’d son,

And weeping friends surround his bier;

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

Oh! may his fate cement the bond

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise, raise the cry, let all respond,

Justice, and pure and equal laws.

Those assembled were then addressed by George Harvey, a National Charter Association leader, in a speech which served as a call to arms, vowing that Chartists will ‘annihilate forever the blood-stained despotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots, and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.’ Samuel was also commemorated throughout the nation by local Chartist meetings, his sacrifice lauded and confirmed.

Samuel Holberry’s Sheffield legacy lives on. In 1998, the Holberry Cascades were named in his memory, located in the Peace Gardens next to the Town Hall.

Holberry Cascades

‘Holberry Cascades’ by Derek Harper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This designation was also marked with a plaque, asserting that Holberry ‘gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England – a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all.’ There could be no more fitting tribute to the struggle and activism of the man.

Holberry Plaque

‘Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield’ by Chemical Engineer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As for his widow Mary Cooper, she continued to campaign alongside the movement until it was disbanded in the 1850s. She had remarried a widower, Charles Pearson, in 1845 who worked as a publican. Three children subsequently followed. The first was named Holberry in homage to Mary’s first husband, in what was also a powerful reminder of her own duty and sacrifice in pursuit of the Chartist cause.

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edn. (1894), 173, 175, 213–16

R. Hutchins, ‘Holberry, Samuel (1814-1842)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), pp.

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.’

The_China_fowl_-_Shanghae,_Cochin,_and_Brahma._(1874)_(14582281449)

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.’

History_of_Inventions_USNM_11_Tobacco_Pipe.png

“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:

4048843777_b6f7cc0b85_z.jpg

“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:

Melling in Lonsdale 1757 Burials.jpeg

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):

Walney Parish Burials 1852.jpeg

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.

7006376997_c9298a699f_b

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