Category Archives: Death

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

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 young sweeps 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 2019-23. 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.

After the bite, 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.

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 2019-23. 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

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

Seneca the Younger (c.4 BC-65mAD) 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 became embroiled in imperial intrigues and spent several years in exile.

In 49 AD, Seneca was recalled to Rome to tutor the teenaged Nero. When Nero became emperor in 54 AD 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 62 AD he retired to his country estate, with Nero’s blessing, and returned to writing.

Three years later, Seneca was implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero. Though probably innocent, he was condemned and 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 own 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 2019-23. 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, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

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 later sided with the Royalists during the English Civil War, 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.

Villiers’ 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.”

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’ 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 2019-23. 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

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 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1498: French king dies in squalor after bumping head

french king
France’s Charles VIII

Charles VIII (1470-1498) was a French king of the late 15th century. The eldest son of the conniving, reclusive and unpopular Louis XI, 13-year-old Charles became king in August 1483.

Contemporary chroniclers described the young prince as pleasant and likeable (he was later dubbed “Charles the Affable”). But a few more critical writers suggested he was too flighty, impatient and ambitious to make a wise monarch. Charles was also physically ungainly, an attribute that may have contributed to his death. According to the court official and chronicler Philippe de Commines,

Charles died in his 28th year – after bumping his head while rushing to watch a game of tennis:

“On April 7th, being the eve of Palm Sunday, [he] took his queen by the hand and led her out of the chamber to a place where she had never been before, to see others play at jeu de paume [real tennis] in the castle ditch. They entered into the Haquelebac Gallery… known as the nastiest corner of the castle, crumbling at its entrance, and everyone did piss there that would. The king, though not a tall man, knocked his head [on the door frame] as he entered.”

After spending some time watching the tennis and chatting to courtiers, Charles apparently collapsed. According to Commines, the king was attended by physicians who insisted he not be moved. Instead, the ailing monarch was laid on a makeshift bed made of timber slats, where he spent his final hours of life:

“It was around two [PM] when he collapsed and he lay motionless until eleven at night… The king was laid upon a crude bed and he never left it until he died, which was nine hours later… Thus died that great and powerful monarch, in a sordid and filthy place.”

Charles VIII died without issue, having lost three infant sons and a daughter to illness in the previous four years. The French throne passed to his cousin, Louis of Orleans, who became Louis XII and ruled for 17 years. As was customary for the time, the new king also married Charles’ 21-year-old widow, Anne of Brittany.

Source: The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton, vol. 2, 1497-1501. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1758: Man dies from Spanish fly and “furious lust”

spanish fly
The Spanish fly – not really a fly and not specifically Spanish either

In the days before Viagra, medieval and early modern Europeans relied on a number of natural sexual stimulants. One of the most effective – but also most notorious – was ‘Spanish fly’, a substance produced by crushing green blister beetles into a powder.

The active chemical compound in ‘Spanish fly’ is cantharidin, which is produced by the beetles as a defence mechanism. If ingested by humans it causes itching and irritation around the body but particularly in the genitalia and urinary tract of men.

Scores of European doctors prescribed cantharidin for sexual dysfunction and a range of health issues, without fully understanding its workings or dangers. There are several historical cases of cantharide medicines producing satyriasis (excessive sexual lust) or priapism (permanent erection). One case from the mid 18th century apparently proved fatal:

“A doctor in Orange named Chauvel was called to Caderousse, a small town near his home, in 1758. There he saw a man suffering from a similar disease. At the doorway of the house, he found the sick man’s wife, who complained to him about the furious lust of her husband, who had ridden her 40 times in one night, and whose private parts were always swollen.”

Dr Chauvel’s investigations subsequently revealed that the overly excited man from Caderousse was dosed up on a cantharide potion:

“The husband’s evil lusts came from a beverage similar to one given him by a woman at the hospital, to cure the intense fever that had afflicted him. But he fell into such a frenzy that others had to tie him up, as if he were possessed by the Devil… While Dr Chauvel was still present a local priest came to exorcise him, while the patient begged to be left to die. The women wrapped him in a sheet damp with water and vinegar until the following day…”

On their return the following day the patient’s “furious lust” had abated – but only because he was dead. From Chauvel’s description it is unclear whether he was murdered, mutilated after death – or perhaps died during a bizarre act of auto-fellatio:

“…He was dead, as stiff as a corpse. In his gaping mouth, with teeth bared, they found his gangrenous penis.”

Source: Pabrol, Observations Anatomiques, 1762. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1746: Hanged man found alive, “pissing in the chimney”

Unless carried out by a skilled executioner, hanging can be an unreliable method of capital punishment. History abounds with stories of hanged persons who survived the ordeal.

In a text on the mechanics of drowning, 18th century physician Rowland Jackson described several documented cases of failed hangings. In Aremberg in the Rhineland, a local merchant named Landthaler was hanged from a tree and swung “for a whole hour” before being cut down. He was discovered to be alive and complained of nothing other than sore eyes and toe-tips.

In Cologne, a hanged robber was brought back to life by a passing servant – and then repaid the favour by trying to steal the servant’s horse. A similar tale occurred near Abbeville, Picardie, where a miller took a hanged thief home and nursed him back to life – only for the thief to burgle his house.

In all three of these cases the victims were returned to the gallows and hanged again, this time successfully. More fortunate was a hanged man described by Mr Falconet, a “gentleman of strict probity and candour”. According to Falconet his family had a “foolhardy coachman” who:

“…falling into a quarrel at Lyon, killed a man, and being apprehended on the spot was forthwith condemned to be hanged, which sentence was accordingly put into execution. The surgeons of the town, having obtained his body in order to make a skeleton, brought it into a surgery where they left it upon a table. But when they came next day to dissect it, they were surprised to find the man not only alive, but in good health, and pissing in the chimney – for the want, as he said, of a chamberpot. This man had stood in no need of remedies… the circulation of the blood had not been so long suppressed that it could of its own accord restore itself.”

Source: Rowland Jackson, A Physical Dissertation on Drowning, &c., London, 1746. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1322: Urine spill leads to fatal assault in London

In the 14th century, as today, a wayward spray of urine could land a man in an argument or a fight. On New Year’s Day 1322 – ironically also the feast of Christ’s circumcision – a young man named Philip de Asshetidone was emptying his bladder when he was joined at the urinal by William, son of Henry atte Rowe:

“William… stood at the top of St Vedast lane, near Chepe, and made water into a certain urinal [but] he cast the urine into the shoe of [Philip] and, because the latter complained, the said William struck him with his fist…”

According to a coronial report, William picked up a baton dropped by Philip and:

“…feloniously struck the said Philip over the forehead, inflicting a mortal wound an inch long and penetrating to the brain so that he fell to the ground, and was thence carried by men unknown for charity’s sake to the said hospital where he had his ecclesiastical rights… He died at the third hour of the said wound.”

Three bystanders escorted William off to prison but his subsequent fate is not recorded.

Source: Calendar of Coroners Rolls for the City of London, 1300-1378, roll B43. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1740: Test a corpse by stuffing garlic up its nose

Jean-Jacques Winslow was a French-born English physician of the early 18th century. Little is known of Winslow’s medical career, however, his main hobby horse was death, especially the prevention of premature burial.

According to Winslow, his interest in this subject was personal: he had been a sickly child who was twice declared dead and once prematurely entombed. In 1740 Doctor Winslow published a lengthy treatise titled The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments. In it he suggested that the only truly reliable sign of death was the onset of putrefaction. He also urged physicians and undertakers to complete a rigorous series of checks on ‘corpses’, to ensure they were truly dead:

“Irritate his nostrils by instructing into them peppers, snuffs, salts, stimulating liquors, the juice of onions, garlic and horseradish, or the feathered end of a quill, or the point of a pencil. We must also rub his gums frequently and strongly with the same substances… Spirituous liquors ought also to be poured into his mouth, where these cannot be had it is customary to pour warm urine into it… Stimulate his organs of touch with whips and nettles. Irritate his intestines by means of clysters [enemas] of air and smoke. Agitate his limbs by violent extensions… and if possible, shock his ears with hideous shrieks and excessive noises.”

Winslow’s book went on to describe several survivors of premature burial, such as the case of Anne Greene, as well as some victims with less happy endings. No information is available about the date, cause or veracity of Winslow’s own death. But thanks to Winslow’s writings – not to mention some creative input from Edgar Allan Poe and others – the issue of premature burial remained a popular if somewhat macabre fascination, well into the 19th century.

Source: Jean-Jacques Winslow, The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments, London, 1740. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.