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)Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

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

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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