9 astonishing deaths reported in Victorian newspapers

The British Newspaper Archive is a treasure trove of forgotten history. Here, Jeremy Clay, author of The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton, unearths a series of extraordinary deaths from the Victorian press…

Man visited by an apparition on his death bed (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The corpse that stood up and danced

Marion Hillitz’s dancing days were behind her. So too, alas, were her breathing ones. At least, that’s what the doctors believed.

On a Saturday night in June 1878, in the Virginian hospital where she’d stayed for several months in the care of nuns, Mrs Hillitz died.

She was a popular patient; wealthy too. But all that could have been done for her, had been done. And so, according to the customs of Richmond’s Hospital of the Little Sisters of the Poor, she was wrapped in a shroud, and laid out in the parlour.

The good sisters, who had watched faithfully by the bedside, were gathered mournfully by her body when the clock struck midnight.

Suddenly, her sunken eyes seemed to flash, and the blood rushed to her wan cheeks. “As though imbued with superhuman energy,” reported the Edinburgh Evening News, “the dead body rose up from its resting place, which was draped with a black pall, emblematic of mourning, and spoke to the affrighted watchers, saying, ‘I am not dead yet, but I will die soon’.”

Cue consternation. Mrs Hillitz then reportedly danced around the room, singing and shouting as the thunderstruck nurses stared in disbelief.

“As soon as the nurses recovered from their fright, they placed the old lady in bed, where she lingered until about nine o’clock, when she again apparently died,” said the Evening News.

“The affair has created the most intense excitement, and thousands of persons visited the hospital.”

 

An actor stabbed to death during a play

It was the performance of a lifetime: a stage death that oozed realism. The crowd applauded, the curtain came down, the theatre cleared.

But as they drifted away from London’s Novelty Theatre that August night in 1896, the audience wasn’t aware just how realistic the final act had actually been.

“The exigencies of the play demanded that the chief villain should be stabbed,” reported The Yorkshire Evening Post, “and this operation was so realistically carried out that the instrument employed – unhappily an actual dagger of particularly sharp quality – penetrated the breast of the unfortunate gentleman.”

The unfortunate gentleman was Temple E Crozier. His killer was his friend, a fellow member of the cast of Sins of the Night. “I did it,” Wilfred Franks told the police. “It was an accident. It is a terrible thing.”

The play was a sensational melodrama of greed, murder and revenge. Crozier played the part of Ramez, a dastardly Spaniard who seduced and killed Abimahad, the sister of Franks’ character Pablo. In the final act, the plot called for Pablo to drive a knife into Ramez, exclaiming “now my sister is avenged”.

Everything had been going just fine until that moment. Alive to the risks of wielding a blade, Franks had calculated exactly where he needed to stand for his dramatic lunge to be believable but safe, and hadn’t budged in the scene. But Crozier leaned in. Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered too much if Franks had used a harmless stage knife from the theatre's props department. Unfortunately he used his own – a sharp and slender stiletto with a jewelled handle.

The actor stumbled, turned twice from the blow and fell on his back with the dagger sticking in his chest.  “Don’t worry, I’m alright,” Crozier told his unwitting killer.

Three surgeons were speedily on the scene, but to no avail. “Deceased moaned and expired,” concluded the Evening Post.

 

A man choked by a billiard ball

As stunts go, it left a little to be desired. But it was Walter Cowle’s party piece, and he was going to stick to it.

The 24-year-old was in the pub with his pals in November 1893, when talk turned to the tricks they could perform.

Eager to show off, Walter asked the landlord of the Carlisle Arms in Soho for a billiard ball, then placed it in his mouth with a flourish, and closed his mouth.

Ta-da!

Uh-oh.

“He evinced signs of choking,” reported the Grantham Journal. “His back was slapped and his head held down, in the hope that the ball would fall forward and out of his mouth. It did not, however and Cowle was at once conveyed to Middlesex Hospital, where he was found to be dead.

“It was only when the post-mortem examination was made by Dr Sidney Bulke, resident surgeon, that the ball could be extracted.”

His friend told the inquest he’d seen him do the trick dozens of times before, without any mishap. The coroner, rather superfluously, pointed out that sticking a billiard ball in your mouth to impress your mates was “silly and dangerous.”

 

Animal revenge

In Jaws the Revenge, a Great White Shark hunts down the family of the man who killed its relative. Preposterous, you may think, and pretty much everyone who saw it would agree with you. But the plot, ludicrous as it may be, is not entirely without parallel in the animal world.

In 1894, a stablehand in the Welsh village of Dyserth, near Rhyl, came to an unpleasant end when he was kicked to death by a horse.

His employer, said The Citizen, “at once got rid of the brute”. Not just that, but as a display of goodwill, he hired the son of the dead man as a groom.

“News has come to hand that the son has himself been kicked to death by the foal of the mare that kicked his father to death,” reported the paper in March the following year.

 

The condemned man who bought more time

Robert Blanks didn’t have long, the court had seen to that. It may have been little more than a legal lynching, but the verdict stood. Blanks would hang.

It was a spring day in 1899 when he was led to the gallows in Maysville, Kentucky. But before he drew his final breath, Robert Blanks was determined to squeeze every last remaining second out of what was left of his life.

First he made a speech from the scaffold. It lasted 40 filibustering minutes. Then he requested that all those present at his execution bid him a personal goodbye. Each and every one of them, in a crowd that numbered more than 1,000.

When there were no more farewells to be made, he asked for a collection to be held on behalf of his poor family.

“The sheriff then told him to get ready for death,” said the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, “but he begged fervently for still more time, which he occupied in praying on his knees, and afterwards singing hymns.”

Tired of the shilly-shallying, the sheriff tried to place the black cap on Blanks’ head. He tore it off. Back on it went. Back off it came. Three more times they struggled with the cap before Blanks was finally pinned down.

As the noose went round his neck and the trapdoor fell, reported the Evening Telegraph, Blanks yelled his frantic last words. “Wait a minute…”

 

The father killed by joy

It was the news he had been longing for; the words he’d prayed to read. His son was safe.

There was the evidence, at last, in his hands: a letter with a Bloemfontein postmark, telling Peter Kitchen that his lad was alive and well.

Some time before, his son – a member of Armley Ambulance Corps in Leeds – had signed up for service in South Africa with No 9 Field Hospital. The year was 1900. The second Boer War was in full swing. Nothing had been heard from Kitchen’s son for a long while.

Like any parent, Mr Kitchen, who was in his 80s, was beside himself with worry – until that day. From then on in, he wouldn’t have a care in the world.

“Mr Kitchen was so overcome with joy on at last receiving news of his son’s safety that he expired without warning,” reported The Edinburgh Evening News.

 

The man murdered by a monkey

It was the clown who found him. When Signor Rovelli missed his cue for the big finale in the show, the circus joker went to see what was up.

What he discovered that night in Mexico was far too gruesome to be mollified with a comedy honk of the horn.

Rovelli was seated in his chair, with his menagerie of performing dogs and monkeys around him. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. His dogs whined pitifully at his feet. In the corner, one monkey was brandishing a razor.

“He had evidently fallen asleep,” said the Illustrated Police News in September 1876, “and while in an unconscious state, one of the monkeys had become possessed of his master’s razor, which [it] drew across the throat of the sleeping man.

“It is said that the acrobat had been seen to behave very cruelly to his monkey on many occasions, as the latter, from some cause or other, would not do as his master wished, and at times, when Rovelli was shaving, he used to go up to the monkey, razor in hand, threateningly, and imitate the movement of cutting himself. This was a most imprudent thing to do.”   

As they say: monkey see, monkey do.

 

The girl who worried herself to death

Thirteen words. That’s all it took to kill Kate Weedon. Thirteen words strung together in a sinister rhyming couplet.

Poor Kate was a worrywart. Like a moth drawn to a flame, the 10-year-old Londoner began reading the prophecies of 16th-century soothsayer Mother Shipton, and was quickly fixated on two apocalyptic lines:

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one

It was already 1881 – the tail end of the year at that. And as the days passed, she became more and more anxious.

One day in November, Kate returned home from school in floods of tears. “Her mother told her it was all nonsense,” reported the Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “but this had not the least effect upon her, and when she went to bed at half-past 10 she was still crying and wringing her hands, saying she knew the end of the world would come in the night.

“At about half-past three on the following morning the mother was awakened by hearing her cry, and on going to her bedroom found the child in a fit. A doctor was immediately sent for, but his services were of no avail, and the child died two hours later.”

An inquest found death was due to convulsions and shock to the system, brought on by fright. An entirely needless dread, at that. Almost 10 years before, the author Charles Hindley had admitted to fabricating the prophecy – to liven up his 1862 book on Mother Shipton.

 

The servant who died re-enacting the death she had just witnessed

Some folks are wise, and some are otherwise, observed the author Tobias Smollett. Proof, if it was required, was to be found in Widnes in 1881.

On an October evening that year, a wholesale draper named Birchall asked an employee called Hague to go to his lodgings and fetch his four-chambered revolver, which he intended to hand as a gift to a policeman who was leaving for Australia.

When Hague got the house, he contrived to shoot himself through the mouth while examining the gun.

When a neighbour hurried to the scene, a servant picked up the revolver to show what had happened. “The firearm again went off,” said the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, “and shot her through the mouth. Both are dead.”

The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton, published in paperback by Icon Books, is now on sale. Find out more here.

You can follow Jeremy Clay on Twitter @ludicrousscenes, and read more at www.ludicrousscenes.com

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