Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Strange Victoriana 'Wonders of the Victorian era' by Jan Bondeson

strange-victoriana-1 The 'White Gorilla', from the IPN, 6 February 1886 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

In April 2011, after the publication of my book Queen Victoria’s Stalker, it was to be featured in Fortean Times magazine. When submitting the feature, I suggested to the Editor of this magazine that perhaps I should also contribute a series of short articles featuring sensational stories and startling Victorian images from the ‘worst newspaper in England’ – the Illustrated Police News. This idea was acted upon, and the readers of the Fortean Times were treated to a monthly dose of medical freaks, ghosts and hermits, curious dogs, weird animals, strange performers, and assorted historical mysteries and oddities. Dog-Faced Men are exhibited on stage, the doctors congregate around the bed of the Sleeping Frenchman of Soho, Miss Vint demonstrates her Reincarnated Cats, and scantily dressed Female Somnambulists tumble from the roofs. From the spectral world, we have the Haunted Murder House near Chard, the Ghost of Berkeley Square, the Jumping Spectre of Peckham and the Fighting Ghost of Tondu. The White Gorilla takes a swig from its tankard of beer, eagles come swooping from the sky to carry off little children, and heroic Newfoundland dogs plunge into the waves to rescue drowning mariners. In late 2015, I made arrangements to have this curious collection of weird Victoriana published in book form, and the present volume is the result of these exertions; I think it is a fine gallimaufry of Victorian eccentricity and freakishness, and wish it many readers.

strange-victoriana-2 A retelling of the legend of the 'Lady with the Ring', from the IPN, 7 May 1904 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

A favourite subject of the Illustrated Police News was the danger of apparent death and premature burial. Horrid stories of moving corpses, fingernails scraping against the coffin lid, and skeletons found in terribly contorted positions, abounded in its pages. In December 1901, Donna Maria Galvago made it to the first page of the Illustrated Police News, after she had revived inside her coffin just when it was to be buried. In 1904, there was a sensational story emanating from the Vienna correspondent of the Daily Express: Helena Fritsch, the young daughter of a wealthy farmer in Egerskeg, Hungary, was buried with great pomp, with a number of valuable rings on her fingers. The evening the same day, the graveyard sexton heard a knock at his window: he was horrified to find that it was the girl he had helped to bury. It turned out that two thieves had dug down to the coffin and cut three of her fingers off to steal her rings; the pain had roused her from her death-like cataleptic trance, and she had climbed out of her coffin and rejoined the rest of humanity.

strange-victoriana-4 Ratting in the Haymarket, from the IPN, 24 December 1870 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

In Victorian times, the ‘sport’ of ratting enjoyed considerable popularity. In this sleazy pastime, a number of rats were put into a rat-pit, and then an angry terrier dog was released. Bets were made how many rats the dog could kill within a certain amount of time, or how long it would take for the animal to kill twenty or a hundred rats. There was turmoil among the Manchester Ratting Fancy after an unprecedented match in 1880: Mr Benson’s fox-terrier ‘Turk’ was matched against Mr Lewis’s monkey for £5, in a twelve-rat match.

strange-victoriana-5 The amazing Ratting Monkey, from the IPN, 7 September 1880 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

Since the monkey was an unknown quantity, and the dog a formidable ratter, Turk was the favourite, although much betting took place on either side. After the dog had killed the twelve rats in very good time, the monkey was put into the rat-pit. Mr Lewis handed it a hammer, which the clever primate made good use of, bashing the rodents’ heads in with alacrity and winning the match with time to spare. As the Illustrated Police News expressed it, “One may talk about a dog being quick at rat-killing, but he is really not in it with the monkey and his hammer. Had the monkey been left in the ring for much longer one would not have told his victims had ever been rats at all – he was for leaving them in all shapes.” Several months later, it was still debated whether the rules of ratting should be amended to exclude monkeys wielding blunt instruments.

strange-victoriana-6 A frenzied father pursues an enormous eagle that has taken his little son, from IPN, 7 August 1869 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

In Victorian times, avian abductions were taken quite seriously. What worse fate would there be for a little child that to be carried off in the remorseless talons of an enormous eagle, and then to be torn to pieces and fed to the hungry eaglets in the eyrie? The earliest child-snatching eagle to make an appearance in the Illustrated Police News is from August 1869: several French newspapers could report that near Mount St Gotthard, a little boy between three and four years of age had been taken by an eagle. The boy’s father, a carpenter named Fonari, who had been repairing a house nearby when the eagle struck, pursued the bird up in the Alps, armed with a hatchet. He managed to strike the bird some heavy blows, inducing it to descend, and then seized hold of the child, which was not injured in any way, beyond the fright. In May 1904, the eighteen-month-old daughter of a Sutherlandshire crofter disappeared from the family cottage. At first, it was thought that she had been taken by gipsies, but a gamekeeper found the mangled remains of the child in a crevice in the mountains. Both eyes were missing, and the body showed signs of having been fed from by birds. It was immediately presumed that an eagle had swooped down and taken the child. The Illustrated Police News cleared the first page and published two thrilling illustrations of the eagle snatching the child away, and the terrible discovery on the crags. But after the coroner’s inquest pooh-poohed the idea of an eagle playing any part in the child’s abduction, the newspapers lost interest.

Microsoft Word - Document2 Lois Schick, the Boy Moore and other players in the case, from the IPN, 30 October 1886 (Strange Victoriana, Amberley Publising)

In June 1886, a cheeky-looking young lad, who gave his name as Dick Schick and his age as fifteen, was employed as errand-boy by a respectable Burlington Arcade glover. Soon, items of clothing began to disappear from the shop, and Dick became a suspect. An anonymous letter accused another boy of the thefts, but after this individual had been dismissed from his job, the pilfering continued. When the anonymous note was compared with some of Dick’s handwriting, they were an excellent match. The police raided the Schick lodgings and found some of the missing garments, along with forty pawn tickets for other items of clothing. This was not the only noteworthy discovery of the day, however; when examined by a doctor, ‘Dick’ turned out to be not just a Schick, but a ‘chick’. The twenty-year-old Miss Lois Schick had successfully masqueraded as a fifteen-year-old London errand-boy for nearly a year. She was charged with theft and sentenced to eight months in prison, with hard labour. After serving her time, this daring Victorian cross-dresser disappeared without trace, perhaps to start a new life as ‘Dick Jones’ in some London suburb.

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Jan Bondeson's new book Strange Victoriana is available for purchase now.