10 Cautionary Tales For Children from an 1831 Book

Yale Digital Library
Yale Digital Library / Yale Digital Library

The Book of Accidents is so well-intentioned. In fact, the (very brief) introduction claims that "If generally studied, it will save the lives of thousands, and relieve many families from the long and unavailing misery."

Those intentions were not only good, but probably served a social need at a time when mortality rates saw almost 300 out of every 1000 people dying before the age of 10. Even now, this advice is good (though parents probably wouldn't give their kids a book like this today). But now that we've given the gravity of the topic its due diligence, I think we can all agree that the absurd drawings paired with deadpan descriptions of morbidity are, well, a little silly.

1. Playing with horses

In the engraving we see a little innocent who had been engaged in gathering locks of fresh grass and giving them to her papa’s horse. After employing herself in this way for some time, she carelessly took hold of his tail, unconscious of the danger that she was in, until the horse, by kick of one leg, laid her lifeless on the ground.

Or, how to get your kid to stop asking for a pony.

2. Crossing streets

Here is a miserable little girl who attempted to cross the street as a cartman was passing with a heavy load. The horse knocked her down, and now she lies under the wheel, where she will be crushed to death in spite of the efforts of the man to stop his horse.

The entry goes on to caution that jingle-less sleighs in winter are particularly lethal.

3. Playing with candles

One little girl has set the bed-curtains on fire, and the other her hair; and both are in great danger of being burnt to death, unless some one grants them speedy assistance.

True story: I once had a friend whose hair caught on fire while she blowing out birthday candles. She was not burnt to death. But probably a good idea to stick to clip-on flashlights around bed-curtains.

4. Scalded at the table

Little children who can just reach to the top of a table, often endeavor to drink from the spout of a tea-pot; and in consequence scald their mouths and throats and die miserable deaths in a few hours.

Whoa! How hot is this tea?

They are both standing up: and one of them is using her little paddy to obtain a lump of sugar, when she should make use of the tongs that are in the bowl; the other, in attempting to pour out a cup of hot tea, poured it upon her little bosom, and scaled herself very severely.

These offenses seem like they should be separated by more than a semicolon. Severe scalding and fingers in the sugar bowl are not issues for the same sentence.

5. Throwing stones

What a sight is this! We see that one has already received a severe bruise on the face, and is crying in a most doleful manner, as the blood gushes from the wound. What a delight they appear to take in hurling the rocky missiles at the wounded boy!

Is this where Shirley Jackson got the inspiration for The Lottery?

6. A boy drowning

Here we have a picture of two little boys who went out one afternoon to bathe; one of them ventured out too far, and we see him on the point of sinking, extending his arms towards his brother, in hopes of being rescued from a watery grave. What sorrow rests upon his countenance, as he thinks of loving parents, kind friends, and affectionate brothers and sisters! But we hope he will be saved, and prove a useful member of society.

Somebody save that potential future useful member of society!

7. Falling out of a window

What feelings of pity run through us as we behold the situation of this poor girl! In another moment she may be dashed upon the rocky pavement below, to be picked up by her parents as a mangled corpse.

Setting aside the unnecessarily graphic caption, it looks like she was pushed, to me.

8. Troubling the cook

The writer knows of a little boy who was very fond of being in the kitchen, that he might see how Johnny-cakes and pies, and all such things were made, and from his talkativeness occasioned considerable trouble. In the absence of the cook for a short time, what should he do but go and sit himself down into a kettle of boiling hot water! His screams soon brought his mother, and with difficulty his life was saved.

Not to cast doubt on the writer or anything, but was that really the result of his talkativeness or was that detail just thrown in there to fear-monger young readers into piping down?

9. Tumbling down stairs

The little girl was playing about at the head of the stairs, and though frequently cautioned by her mother of the danger and carelessness of so doing, yet she heedlessly neglected the charge, and the consequence was, that one of her feet slipped off the first step, and down she came headlong, crying and bawling in the most dreadful manner, and alarming all the inmates of the house. She was picked up terribly bruised and conveyed to bed, where she remained many days in a suffering condition. At length she recovered, and never after was she known to neglect the prudent caution of her parents; but became a pattern of obedience to all the children in the neighborhood.

This was written by her mother, wasn't it?

10. Climbing trees

Never climb trees for any purpose whatever … Children live long and happy who take warning, and obey the cautious instructions of their experienced and affectionate parents, who are constantly devising means conducive to the happiness of their children.

This whole thing was just one long guilt trip about how if you don't listen to your mother you'll die a horrible, gruesome death and make the poor woman so despondent when all along she was just trying devise means conducive to your happiness.