The unrivalled collection of newspapers held by the British Libraryhave been trawled by journalist and author Rona Levin for a book which brings together some of the strangest human-interest stories written in newspapers. Levin’s eclectic selection spans two centuries of writing, finding stories that gripped the nation up to 285 years ago.
Comic, Curious & Quirky: News Stories from Centuries Past reveals the often bizarre drama behind life’s trials and tribulations in a world long before the days of health and safety and a multitude of other regulations. Many of the stories unfold some all-too-predictable disasters, making unintentionally hilarious copy, especially for those who enjoy the misfortunes of others. It also shows that readers of yesteryear had as much interest in the grizzly and macabre as today, as well as in scandal and gossip about royals and celebrities, sharp-clawed critical reviews, and a love of animal antics.
Stories uncovered include:
- A performing bull – The X Factor star of its day: “The beast jumps over hurdles and through hoops, lies down at the word of command, walks on his knees, and finally allows himself to be carried out of the ring in triumph on the shoulders of a number of men.”
- Spitting image – and a revolting description of a royal cadaver: Upon the death of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (mother of France’s Marie Antoinette), surgeons cutting open the body “were astonished to find much fat and viscous matter which is attributed to Her Majesty having accustomed herself, from her youth, never to spit”. (It would be unthinkable to imagine newspapers of today reporting similar detail about a royal).
- One of the most pretentious descriptions of a death (by his physician): “Lord Tennyson has had a gloriously beautiful death. In all my experience I have never witnessed anything more glorious. There was no artificial light in the chamber, and all was darkness but for the silvery light of the moon at its full. The soft beams of light fell upon the bed and played upon the features of the dying poet like a halo of Rembrandt’s.”
- An eco-friendly solution for cheap accommodation – building papier-mache houses: “The framework, flooring and doors are made of timber and the rest from paper. They can be taken down and re-erected in a few hours.”
- The exceptionally blundering sea captain who, transporting slaves, decided to arm them to help fight off pirates, with predictably disastrous consequences.
- A particularly horrible suicide of a young miner who flung himself “in a state of nudity” head first into a glowing furnace filled with 50 tons of molten iron.
- The absent-minded woman who died, also making her family seriously ill, after cooking mutton in the same pan she’d previously used to heat up arsenic for a rodent problem.
- The most likely man to blame for the custom of adding service charges to bills, having written such a proposition in a vividly descriptive letter to a newspaper in 1768 about the abusive staff he encountered: “I speak of bred and licensed beggars, which you meet at every inn, when no sooner is the bill called for, but the setters prick up their ears, and scamper to obstruct the avenues of retreat.”
- The bizarre recommendation by a doctor for a rest cure – scrubbing floors on all fours – claiming “charwomen enjoy it”.
- The most ridiculous fashion trend – the wearing of false latex ears, in front of their own, by ladies who thought their real ones “too coarse”.
- A devilishly dangerous job: “Such is the danger and frequent loss of life in effecting the illuminations of the dome of St. Peter’s during the Holy Week, that the workmen invariably receive absolution previous to entering upon their employment.”
- A very drunk driver of a horse and cart careering through slippery streets in Wigan with an uncovered ton of gunpowder and found to be carrying a box of Lucifer matches.
- Probably the longest and most boring book title of all time: “A System of Divinity, in a course of sermons on the First Institutions of religion; on the Being and Attributes of God; on some of the most important Articles of the Christian Re ligion in connection; and on the several Virtues and Vices of Mankind, with occasional discourses. Being a compilation from the best sentiments of the polite writers and eminent sound divines, both ancient and modern, on the same subjects, properly connected, with improvements; particularly adapted for the use of chief families, and students in divinity, for churches and for the benefit of mankind in general.”
The book also highlights how historical newspapers were surprisingly explicit in terms of gory descriptions, far more so than today’s would allow, with sentences such as “his body was found stretched on the bed, and his brains lying in different parts of the room” or “when the balloon reached the earth his leg was found to be completely severed, being attached by the tendons only.”
Author Rona Levin commented: “It has been utterly engrossing to be able to step back in time and gain insight into the social mores, preoccupations and sensibilities of society over the two centuries covered in the book. The stories all struck me in some way as being quirkily strange or amusing, although sometimes, admittedly, for all the wrong reasons. In that vein, as well as entertaining the reader, I hope the content will also be thought-provoking, serving to reflect on human life and remind us that we get the press we deserve.”
Comic, Curious & Quirky: News Stories From Centuries Past will be published by the British Library on September 25, priced £10, hardback. ISBN 978 0 7123 5772 2. Available to purchase in shops and online.
Rona Levin is a communications specialist with over 30 years’ experience in journalism and PR. She has worked on newspapers, teletext news services and Sky News.