7 Very Victorian Ways to Die

A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."
A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."

In the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was seemingly around every corner. A glass of water, a beautiful dress, or a brightly colored piece of wallpaper could all spell your doom. Poor sanitation, dangerous working practices, and widespread poisons meant that even those in their prime of life were not immune to sudden death. Thankfully, today's scientific advances—and better regulation—have massively improved life expectancy, although some of these dangers still lurk.

1. Flammable Fashion

In the 1850s and '60s, the trend for huge crinoline skirts boomed. These large structured petticoats covered with fabric gave the impression of a voluminous skirt, whereas previously, the look had been achieved by wearing numerous layers of skirts, which was both hot and cumbersome. Crinolines became popular in part because they were light and easy to maneuver.

There was, however, a downside to their design—crinolines, often made of diaphanous materials such as silk and muslin, were highly flammable. Numerous newspapers reported on the scores of women who had the misfortune to get too close to a naked flame. Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, died in 1861 after her dress went up in flames when a lighted match or small piece of paper fell on her. Longfellow himself attempted to extinguish the flames, but his wife's skirts were so flammable it proved impossible to save her life. Another sad example was Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, who in 1867 is said to have pulled the classic teenage move of hiding a cigarette from her father behind her back and inadvertently set her dress ablaze.

Newspaper reports abounded with editorials on the perils of flouncy fashion, and offered various solutions (sometimes perhaps in jest). The Tablet in 1858 recommended, “We would … suggest that every lady wearing a crinoline, should be accompanied by a footman with a pail of water.” Needless to say, this was not a practical solution, but trends soon moved away from crinolines and the threat of fire lessened.

2. Opium Overdoses

A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)
A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)

Quieting fractious babies has always proved a challenge, but in the 19th century a seemingly wonderful solution was offered: opium. Tinctures of opium, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, were widely used as method to soothe sickly or teething infants. Although it might seem horrifying by modern standards to drug children into listlessness, in the 19th century opium was an extremely popular medicine and, before the days of aspirin, was commonly used as a painkiller and sleeping aid.

Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular among working-class mothers who often had to return to work soon after the birth of a child. It became not uncommon to dose babies with Godfrey’s to make sure the child remained in a stupor until the mother returned from work. Unfortunately, accidental overdoses were frequent—in 1854 it was estimated that, in Britain, three-quarters of all deaths attributed to opium were of children under 5 years old. Fortunately, better regulation has meant that children’s medicines are now tightly controlled today.

3. Cholera Contamination

Many of us take it for granted that we can turn on the faucet and drink a glass of clean water. However, in the 19th century, as the populations in Europe and America ballooned and increasing numbers of people moved to cities, the infrastructure struggled to cope. Many slums had open sewers in the streets and an unreliable water supply, and communal wells and water pumps were often contaminated with raw sewage. This meant that water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhus became rife.

The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century originated in India, but with the growth of global trade networks it soon spread around the world. A pandemic around 1832 ensued when the disease reached Britain and America for the first time. Several other pandemics swept the world, killing 23,000 people in Britain in 1854 alone. Physician John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London's Soho that year, and traced the cause to a single water pump that was located near a cesspool. The pump was removed, and cholera cases dropped dramatically. As scientific understanding of the spread of water-borne diseases improved, public water supplies were cleaned up, and the last documented cholera outbreak in the U.S. was in 1911.

4. Arsenic Poisoning

A jar of poisonous Paris Green
Chris goulet, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Colorful green wallpaper was the height of fashion in the Victorian era, largely spearheaded by pre-Raphaelite artists and designers. The green pigment often used, known as Scheele’s Green, had first been developed in 1775 by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the key to its vibrant shade was the use of arsenic. Although arsenic was known to be poisonous if eaten, at the time it was thought to be safe as a color pigment.

In 1862 an investigation was carried out after several children from the same family sickened and died within weeks of each other in Limehouse, London. Dr. Thomas Orton investigated the case and concluded that the children had been poisoned by the arsenic in their bedroom's green wallpaper. Arsenic coloring was also used for dresses, hats, upholstery, and cravats. The poison was sprayed on vegetables as insecticide, and even added to beer. Restrictions on its use in food and drink were only added in 1903. Today, historic houses have had their arsenic wallpaper removed, and arsenic-dyed clothes in museum collections are generally kept safely behind glass.

5. Fatal Factories

By the 19th century, rapid industrialization across Europe and America had led to thousands of factories producing everything from fabric to munitions. Numerous adults—and children—were employed in these factories, providing ample opportunity for death and injury.

The cotton factories of Manchester, England, for example, could kill you in a number of ways. First, the air was thick with cotton fibers, which over time built up in workers’ lungs, causing breathing difficulties and lung disease. Then there were the whirling, grinding machines that might catch your sleeve or hair, dragging you into the loom. Children were employed to clean under the machines and retrieve dropped spindles because their small size allowed them to move about under the moving machines—but a trip or a loss of concentration often proved fatal. The huge number of accidents and deaths in factories eventually led to increased regulation—reducing working hours, restricting child labor, and making the machines themselves safer.

6. Sudden Spontaneous Combustion

Some Victorian scientists believed that alcoholism could cause spontaneous combustion. This idea caught the public imagination, and the theory was used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to explain the death of the drunken rag and bone man Mr. Krook. In Victorian accounts, the victims were typically overweight and were heavy drinkers, and their bodies had seemingly burst into flame, leaving only their legs intact. Needless to say, the threat of spontaneous combustion was soon seized upon by the temperance movement, who used the supposed link to alcoholism to scare people away from the demon drink.

For example, The Anatomy of Drunkenness by Robert Macnish (1834) described the various types of drunk and devoted a whole chapter to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Macnish recounted a number of case studies, including that of Mary Clues—an inveterate drinker who was found almost entirely incinerated excepting one leg, while the room around her was more or less undamaged. Despite the widespread discussion of spontaneous combustion in the Victorian era, it's now generally considered highly unlikely if not impossible. Modern forensic science has in part explained the phenomena through the “wick effect,” wherein a body on fire produces melted fat that seeps into the clothes, causing a long, slow, self-contained burn that may look like the result of spontaneous combustion—but almost certainly began with an external source.

7. Pestilent Pox

Smallpox has been around for over 12,000 years. Europeans brought the disease to North and South America in the Age of Exploration, killing up to 90 percent of indigenous populations. Smallpox was still prevalent in the 19th century and killed about 30 percent of its victims. Those that survived were often blinded or badly scarred by the virulent pustules. To give some idea of the scale of fatalities, in just one year, 1871, over 50,000 people died of smallpox in Great Britain and Ireland alone.

In 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox appeared to be immune to smallpox. This led Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine. As with many new developments, it took a number of years for vaccination to catch on, but once it did the incidence of smallpox began to fall. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease exterminated—the first virus ever to be completely eradicated world over—thanks to a sustained program of vaccination.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

16 Facts About Squirrels for Squirrel Appreciation Day

iStock
iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 16 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. Squirrels can jump really, really far.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
iStock

In one study of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet.

2. Squirrels are very organized.

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
iStock

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A 2017 study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. Squirrels are also forgetful, and that forgetfulness helps trees grow.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
iStock

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. Squirrels help truffles thrive.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
iStock

The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. Squirrels are one of the few mammals that can sprint down a tree head-first.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. Several towns compete for the title of "Home of the White Squirrel."

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. Squirrels could aid in stroke research.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
iStock

Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. Squirrel fur may have spread leprosy in the Middle Ages.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
iStock

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. Squirrels are more powerful than hackers.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. Squirrels can heat up their tails to ward off predators.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. Squirrels help scientists determine whether a forest is healthy.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. Squirrels can lie.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. Squirrels used to be America's most popular pet.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. The mere sight of just one squirrel could once attract a crowd.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. In the 19th century, squirrels were tasked with teaching compassion.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

16. Squirrels used to hate tax season, too.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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