The Mysterious Case of the Skeleton in the Cylinder

Liverpool Evening Express
Liverpool Evening Express

Around 1941, the Germans dropped a bomb on a street in Liverpool, exposing among the rubble a watertight metal cylinder about 6.5 feet long. For several years it lay on the side of the street, more or less ignored. People used it as a bench, kids played on it, and nobody thought it was anything particularly unusual—until one day somebody took a look inside.

Liverpool had been the most heavily bombed British city outside London during the Blitz. Much of the city was destroyed, and amid the chaos, the explosion on Great Homer Street seemed just like any other. Rubble had been cleared away by American soldiers in bulldozers, who left behind some larger chunks of debris, including the aforementioned cylinder—which went largely ignored until July 13, 1945.

On that day, a group of children managed to break part of the cylinder open and peer inside. What they saw inside likely chilled them to the core: a corpse.

The police were alerted, and the cylinder was opened fully to reveal the skeleton of a man who, many locals presumed, had perished in the bombings a few years earlier. Curiously, however, the man was dressed head-to-toe in clothing much more suited to the Victorian era and lying on some sort of cloth. He also still had a few strands of hair attached to his skull, which was propped up on a makeshift pillow formed of a brick wrapped in burlap.

Rumors, speculation, and confusion surrounded the first few days of the discovery, with local newspaper the Evening Express stating that “at the present stage there did not seem to be any suggestion of murder. It was quite possible that the man was of the ‘queer’ type and had crawled into the cylinder to sleep. He may have been dead 20 years.” (In this context, queer likely meant somebody with a mental illness.) The mystery deepened a few days later, when the coroner, one Mr. G. C. Mort, announced that along with the body they had discovered two diaries (sadly illegible), a postcard, and a rail notice, all dating from 1884 or 1885, as well as a well-worn signet ring, a set of keys, and an undated receipt from a T. C. Williams and Co.

An investigation by the coroner showed that T. C. Williams and Co. had been a local paint manufacturing company that operated from the 1870s until 1884, when the company fell into financial ruin and closed for good. Its owner, Thomas Cregeen Williams, was declared bankrupt in 1884. Creditors were asked repeatedly to come forward and stake their claim to his assets, but by 1885 Williams had disappeared. Local papers announced the mystery solved—but the coroner wasn’t so sure. Williams had a son, born in 1859, and some believed that it was actually his body in the cylinder. This theory was ruled out when the investigation found the younger Williams buried in a cemetery in Leeds. Meanwhile, the elder Williams’s whereabouts remained unconfirmed.

As outlandish as it may seem that a body could lay undiscovered in residential Liverpool for 60 years, as far as the police were concerned, that appeared to have been what happened. On August 31, 1945, the official inquest recorded an open verdict, meaning the death was deemed suspicious but without an obvious cause. According to the Liverpool Evening Express, the coroner said it was "impossible to find the cause of death, which he believed took place in 1885.” Although the body in the cylinder has never been officially confirmed as that of T. C. Williams, this still stands as the prevailing theory.

But what of the cylinder? And how did the body end up in there in the first place? According to an official from the Home Office in 1945, the cylinder seemed to be part of a ventilation system (no traces of paint were found inside, ruling out any chance of a freak paint manufacturing accident). Was T. C. Williams sleeping in the vents of his old factory to hide from the creditors, and had he succumbed to deadly fumes? (The cylinder was found about a mile from the factory, but the bombs and bulldozers might have moved it.) Did he, as one theory put forward by the blog Strange Company suggests, fake his own death using this body as a decoy while making a break for America? Being that Liverpool was a major port city in the 1880s, it’s not logistically impossible, if perhaps a little farfetched. We might never know for sure. Perhaps the answer is still lying at the side of a road in Liverpool somewhere, just waiting to be noticed.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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