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The man killed by his own coffin... ...the woman saved by a lobster and other weird-but-true tales.


WE may think the distant past was all in black and white but in fact it was full of stories so colourful they put today's sensations in the shade.

Fatal corsets and coffins, lifesaving lobsters and the man who invented tipping in restaurants are just a few of the weird and wonderful tales uncovered by author Rona Levin, who spent hours sifting through the British Library's digitised collection of newspapers from the past 250 years.

Here's our round-up of favourites from her new book Comic, Curious and Quirky: News Stories From Centuries Past...

Dining with death This poisonous tale begins with a Mrs Shaw, wife of Thomas Shaw, mercer and draper, boiling a leg of mutton for her family's dinner.

Trouble was, she used "a saucepan which had some days previous been used to boil arsenic for the purpose of destroying vermin," said the Northampton Mercury on September 11, 1830.

She and a young man who was unwell ate some of the broth before she remembered what the pot had previously been used for.

"The unfortunate woman lingered in great pain until Saturday evening, when she expired.

"The young man, to whom part of it had been sent, discovered its poisonous quality and threw it from his stomach." He survived.

Grave error A man of 53, fearing he would die early, bought a coffin "of polished rosewood, lined with white satin, and trimmed with silver" which he left balanced upright in his home.

But as reported by the Leicester Chronicle, on August 30, 1856, he accidentally stumbled into it one evening, making the coffin topple over and kill him.

Fashion victim Dorothea Posthelwaite, the eldest daughter of a highly respectable and wealthy New Town merchant, died suddenly at a ball given in her father's house, reported the Illustrated Police News, on June 25 1870. While dancing with a young gentleman to whom she was engaged, she turned pale and gasped spasmodically for breath, tottered, and then fell. A doctor declared that Miss Posthelwaite had died from following the fashion of "tightlacing" her dress.

Kiss of death While celebrating the Royal Wedding of the future King George V in the village of Hale, near Farnham, Surrey, in July 1893, a young man named Windibank was playing the parlour game "kiss-in-the-ring".

According to the Liverpool Echo, having "run after and kissed a girl," he fell down and died in minutes and "this melancholy occurrence caused much consternation".

What an ass When fellow villagers in Middleton threatened to drag him before local magistrates for cruelty to his donkey a " half-fellow named James Driscott" agreed to serve a penance, said the Illustrated Police News on January 22, 1876.

"The donkey was placed in the cart, and its owner, with the collar round his neck, was constrained to drag his fourfooted servant through the village.

"The ensuing scene was described by a local reporter as being the most laughter-moving one he had ever witnessed."

Big heads Science was trying prove that class really matters. On April 22, 1842, the Cork Examiner eported that "the majority of the heads of the higher classes in London are above the medium dimensions, whilst among the lower classes it is very hard to find a large head."

Conked out A No Nose Club, founded by "an eccentric gentleman", invited those who had lost their nose "as a consewitted quence of syphilis" to meet together every month, according to an article in the Leeds Times on October, 18, 1873. It reported that the group met for a year until its founder died "and the flat-faced community were unhappily dissolved."

Hard labour The wife of a "respectable" Hertfordshire innkeeper had safely delivered her 30th child at "not more than 43 years age" said the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette on April 24, 1851.

All right on paper Readers of the Leeds Intelligencer were told the latest trend was for "papier-mache houses" in a report on July 23, 1853. The article said the main benefit was that "these buildings can readily be taken down, and re-erected in a few hours" and added that man from Australia had bought some as an investment.

Just a dirty dog A soldier had his boots "dirtied by a poodle dog rubbing against them" while walking past a bridge in Paris, reported the Northampton Mercury on April 28, 1832. Seeing a shoe cleaner on the bridge nearby, he went and had the dirt cleaned off.

Then he saw the dog do the same to another person... and was shocked to discover the owner of the dog was the shoe shiner who "confessed that he had taught the dog the trick in order to procure customers for himself ".

Escape claws The Edinburgh Evening News told of a woman who had an unusual pet - a lobster. She claimed she'd bought it for her dinner and left it in water in her kitchen in the article published on February 8, 1875. After falling asleep, she "sprung up" after a sharp bite on her foot from the lobster.

She realised her kitchen was on fire and she would have perished but for the life-saving lobster, which she kept "out of gratitude".

To have and to old The "remarkable marriage" of a man aged 96 and "a smart spruce-looking damsel of 28" was reported in the Dunfermline Saturday Press on August 10, 1867.

Servant's photo finish The Countess Wyanoff of St Petersburg married her own footman after she found him "impressing a passionate kiss on her photograph" reported the Yorkshire Evening Post on March 24, 1899.

Instead of firing him, she "threw her arms round his neck, kissed him, and assured him that his love was returned."

Fine dining A regular diner in restaurants across England, known only as RW, complained about lowly members of staff begging and suggested leaving them a tip instead wrote the Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, in January 1768.

This man is believed to be the person who started the practice of tipping waiters.

Comic, Curious and Quirky: News Stories from Centuries by Rona Levin (British Library) is out now.


GRIP OF DEATH Macabre illustration of killer corset
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 7, 2014
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