1794: Two sweeps, aged 8 or less, die in the same chimney


sweepcirca1891

Histories of Victorian Britain are filled with tragic stories of young chimney sweeps. Recruited at age four or five and apprenticed to so-called ‘master sweeps’, these young boys endured long hours, horrendous treatment and atrocious working conditions. Chimney sweeps usually worked in the pre-dawn hours, after flues had cooled and before morning fires were lit. With hands and knees they were forced to shimmy up dark narrow flue spaces, packed thick with soot and debris. Regular inhalation of this soot caused many young sweeps to contract respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis. Some also acquired an aggressive form of testicular cancer, colloquially known as “soot wart” or “sooty balls”. Thomas Clarke, a Nottingham master sweep, told an 1863 inquiry:

“I have known eight or nine sweeps lose their lives by the sooty cancer. The private parts which it seizes are entirely eaten off, caused entirely by ‘sleeping black’ and breathing the soot in all night.”

Workplace accidents posed a more immediate danger for chimney sweeps. The English press of the late 18th and 19th century contained dozens of reports of the deaths of these ‘climbing boys’. Some fell from roofs or down chimney structures; others become lodged in flues and suffocated; a few were roasted alive after being forced up still-hot chimneys. One of the more tragic incidents occurred in Lothbury, near the Bank of England, where two young sweeps were sent into a baker’s chimney, one from each end:

“The [first] boy reported that the chimney contained a great deal of rubbish… not answering his master’s call, suspicion arose that he was either sulky or in a dangerous predicament. A stone in the cellar was accordingly taken up and the boy [was] found dead. The master called to the [second] boy who answered him by saying that he was so jammed in that if immediate relief was not given he should die, and this unfortunately was the case… The whole of this happened in ten minutes… Both the lads were very young and small, the oldest not more than eight years.”

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 95, 1804. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1852: Drunk zookeeper dies from cobra bite to the nose


In October 1852 Edward Horatio Girling, an employee at London Zoo, died after being bitten by a five-foot cobra. A post mortem on Girling’s corpse showed the cobra had bitten him five times on the nose. One of these bites had penetrated to the nasal bone and bled profusely. Girling was rushed to hospital by cab, a journey that took 20 minutes. While in the cab his head swelled to “an enormous size” and his face turned black. Once at hospital Girling was given artificial respiration and electrical shocks. Neither was successful and he died 35 minutes after arrival.

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A report on the inquest into Barling’s slithery demise

After ascertaining how Girling died, an inquest investigated how he had come to be bitten in the first place. Early press reports put it down to a homicidal serpent. One suggested the cobra had bitten its victim him with “murderous intent”, another had it lunging from the shadows while Girling was delivering food to the enclosure. It did not take long for the inquest to discover that Girling was responsible for his own demise. One of Girling’s work colleagues, Edward Stewart the hummingbird keeper, testified at the inquest. He claimed to be passing by the snake enclosure with a basket of larks when he saw Girling inside. Apparently showing off, Girling picked up the ‘Bocco’, a mildly venomous colubrid snake, by its neck. According to Stewart:

“…Girling then said ‘Now for the cobra!’ Deceased took the cobra out of the case and put it inside his waistcoat, it crawled round from the right side and came out at the left side… Girling drew it out and was holding the cobra between the head and middle of the body when it made a dart at his face.”

Stewart and other witnesses also testified that Girling was drinking ample quantities of gin at breakfast time. A zookeeper named Baker told the inquest “he believed that the deceased was intoxicated”. It was also noted that Girling had little if any experience with venomous snakes; he had only recently started working at the zoo after employment with the railways. Unsurprisingly the coroner found that Girling had died as a “result of his own rashness whilst in a state of intoxication”.


Source: The Daily News, London, October 23rd 1852. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. This content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

64 AD: Suicide by toilet brush


Seneca the Younger (c.4BC-65AD) was a political figure, playwright and philosopher in the early years of the Roman Empire. He was born Lucius Annaeus Seneca in Spain, the son of a prominent historian and orator. Seneca returned to Rome as an infant and spent several years studying and battling ill health. He followed his father into politics, obtaining a magistracy in his early 30s. Seneca found public life frustrating but his Stoicism helped him tolerate the problems of imperial politics. Many considered Seneca dangerous because of his significant intellect. He also became embroiled in imperial intrigues and spent several years in exile. In 49AD Seneca was recalled to Rome to tutor the teenaged Nero. When Nero became emperor in 54AD Seneca was retained as his political advisor. Working with the unstable and increasingly tyrannical Nero took its toll on Seneca’s health, as well as his reputation. In 62AD he retired to his country estate, with Nero’s blessing, and returned to writing.

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Suicide by xylospongium… let’s hope it was clean.

Three years later Seneca was implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero. Though probably innocent, he was ordered to commit suicide. Seneca accepted this fate without challenge or complaint. He had written about suicide not long before, hailing its positives and outlining situations when taking your own life was an acceptable course of action. According to Seneca, suicide was morally justifiable if you were impoverished, crippled, terminally ill or insane. Living in the relentless grip of a tyrant was another justification, allowing one to “burst the bonds of human servitude”. In his Epistles Seneca gives a working example of such a case, a Germanic slave who took his own life after years of mistreatment. While alone in the lavatory, the slave suicided by shoving a xylospongium (a sponge on a stick, used to wipe down toilet seats and possibly soiled backsides) down his own throat:

“In a training academy for gladiators who work with wild beasts, a German slave, while preparing for the morning exhibition, withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood tipped with a sponge, devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it down his throat. Thus he blocked up his windpipe and choked the breath from his body… What a brave fellow. He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate.”

Seneca took his life by slashing his wrists in several places. Though intended to be quick, his death was slow and lingering. Many historians consider Seneca’s suicide to be the Roman equivalent of the death of Socrates.


Source: Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, No. 70, c.64 AD. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1687: Duke dispatched by gangrene in his privities


George Villiers (1628-1687) was an English courtier, politician, writer and, later, the second Duke of Buckingham. His father, also George Villiers, was a favourite (and according to some, a bisexual lover) of King James I. Villiers senior was stabbed to death shortly after the birth of his son, who was then raised in the royal court alongside the future Charles II. Young George was sent to study at Cambridge but was bored by lectures, being spotted by Thomas Hobbes “at mastrupation, his hand in his codpiece”. Villiers sided with the Royalists during the English Civil War, later joining Charles II in exile. He returned to England in 1657 and participated in the Restoration, serving in Charles’ court and on the Privy Council. His political career was marked by scandals, intrigues and feuds. Two notable incidents were a hair-pulling brawl with the Marquess of Dorchester on the floor of the House of Lords, and a 1668 duel where Villiers shot dead the Earl of Shrewsbury. Villiers had been having an affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury; he later caused public outrage by moving the countess into his own home and living in a virtual menage a trios.

Villiers retired from public life in the late 1670s and retreated to his Yorkshire estate. He died in April 1687. The official cause of death was a pneumonia contracted while hunting in cold weather – however a letter written by Lord Arran, the future Duke of Hamilton, suggests a more colourful end. According to Arran he called on Villiers and found him dying of gangrenous private parts:

“He told me he was on horseback but two days before… He told me he had a mighty descent [and had] fallen upon his privities, with an inflammation and great swelling. He thought by applying warm medicines the swelling would fall and then he would be at ease. But it proved otherwise, for a mortification came on those parts, which ran up his belly and so mounted, which was the occasion of his death…. I found him there in a most miserable condition.”

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George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

Even though he remained conscious and alert, Villiers’ doctors gave him but a day or two to live. They asked Arran to break the news to Villiers, who received it stoically. He deteriorated rapidly and passed away at 11 o’clock the following night. Villiers was interred in Westminster Abbey, his funeral a somewhat grandiose and overblown affair, given his tumultuous and controversial political career. Having expired without a legitimate heir, Villiers’ ducal title died with him and his estate was broken up and sold. His wife Mary died in 1704 and was interred alongside him in the Abbey; their graves are presently unmarked.


Source: Letter from Lord Arran to the Bishop of Rochester, April 17th 1687. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1699: Scottish baronet dies after “pissing hair”


George August Eliott, later Lord Heathfield, who had no trouble with hair-pissing
George August Eliott, later Lord Heathfield, who had no trouble with hair-pissing

The Eliotts were Scottish landowners who fielded several British parliamentarians during the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially Royalist, the clan Eliott retained its holdings and influence after the Civil War. One of their number was Sir William Eliott, who became the family patriarch and second baronet when his father Sir Gilbert died in 1677. Sir William lived a full life, marrying twice and fathering seven children (eight according to some records). When Sir William himself died on February 19th 1699, he was in the care of two prominent Scottish physicians, Sir Archibald Stevenson and Dr Archibald Pitcairne. According to their report, given to Dr John Wallace, Sir William died from an enlarged bladder stone. His last weeks were spent “pissing hairs”, followed by the torturous ritual of having them tugged out of his urethra:

“The hairs he pissed… which were a great many, and some of extraordinary length, did grow out of that [bladder] stone, because when the hairs would hang out at his penis, as they did frequently, to his great torment, [the physicians] were obliged to pull them out, which was always with that resistance as if plucked out by the root.”

The source of these miscreant urethral hairs was revealed after Sir William’s death, when Stevenson and Pitcairne performed an autopsy. They reported that:

“The stone… taken out of his bladder was about the bigness of a goose egg. The stone was hard and heavy, and for the most part covered over with a scurf [scaly texture], not unlike the lime mortar of walls, and in the chinks of the scurf there were some hairs grown out.”

Sir William’s grandson, George Augustus Eliott, joined the army and became one of the more successful commanders of his age, fighting with distinction during the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolutionary War and the Siege of Gibraltar. Sir William’s descendants still occupy the Eliott baronetcy, now onto its 12th incarnation, and the ancestral home of Stobs Castle.


Source: Letter from Dr J. Wallace FRS, October 25th 1700. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.