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:
‘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.’
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.’
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:
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 the ‘far beyond’ and had come back to life after spending some time in another world.”
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.
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:
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):
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.