The Burglar Caught By a Skeleton by Jeremy Clay is a collection of stories from circa 1900 extracted from tabloid and newspaper articles of the day. The title of the book is also the title of one of the many selections offered in this collection of “Singular Stories from the Victorian Press.” The author has done reporting of what has been published and cautions that some items possibly have been exaggerated so it will be up to the reader to evaluate some details of possible vintage “fake news.”
There is nothing to review as far as content critically. These anecdotes are works of reporting, so I will only examine the structure of the novel. Jeremy Clay explores fifteen topical themes in 247 pages. The language used is the vocabulary of the time, and this might be of interest to students of the History of the English Language. I will select my favorite example from each of the fifteen themes and provide a short paraphrase or quote of essential points using present-day English. I will provide a credit for each selection so the skeptical reader will be able to find the original report. Some reports are truly mind-boggling.
I rated this at four Amazon stars within its genre, which is reporting. I did not give it five stars despite my interest in some bizarre reported incidents because of formatting. Some pages ended with a headline, and I had to scroll back several times to get an idea of the “headline” that introduced the article. In a preface to the book, note the author’s comment on headlines, the ways they were, or were not, used.
Animals ***** A miner named John Hanes left off shaving with a straight razor to check on a disturbance in his back yard, leaving his three pet monkeys alone. The father of the two young monkeys picked up the blade and nearly decapitated the younger two, then slashed his own throat. Hines returned to his room to find the two young monkeys dead; the father died two days later. Reported 20 March 1890 in The Royal Cornwall Gazette. (p.27).
Love, Marriage, and Family***** A Protestant clergyman wanted to perform a marriage ceremony for his daughter but became so ill a few days before the wedding that several around him assured him he would die before the scheduled wedding. He recorded his part of the ceremony on a phonograph and spoke the critical words at the wedding. Reported September 5, 1900, by The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Louisiana. (p.44).
Food and Drink ***** Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management offered advice on whether a drunk man should be hung by his heels. Her advice: It was better to stick him in a bath and tickle his nose with a feather. (p. 55).
Health and Medicine ***** An incredible medical discovery was Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, which promised to ‘assuage pain of every kind’ from toothache to cancer. Another doctor provided a testimonial saying that nine doses had cured him of diarrhea. Perhaps the mixture of chloroform, tincture of cannabis and laudanum made the doctor not care about the sickness as he chose instead to enjoy the nine doses. (p.71).
Coincidence and Luck ***** Mr. Thomas Ellis and his friend Mr. John Kester were both in declining health and near death. Kester sent a message to his friend saying that he would soon meet him on the “other side” of death. One hour after the news, both were dead. “They were born on the same day and hour, and died on the same day and hour, aged seventy-five.” (p. 91).
Sport, Hobbies, and Pastimes ***** Several members of a boat club committed to a long-distance canoe trip. The journey would begin at midnight bound for a distant neighboring town. After rowing until dawn, the rowers discovered they had failed to weigh anchor and were never more than a few feet from their starting point. (p.99).
Inventions ***** An American invented a tapeworm trap. Housed in a capsule, the afflicted would fast a few days before swallowing the medicine. A small string leading from the capsule would attract a hungry tapeworm which would detect food inside the capsule. The tapeworm would pull on the line; the spring-loaded capsule would open, the tapeworm would try to extract the food and be trapped when the jaws of the capsule closed. The patient would then pull on the end of a different string to pull the capsule out of his body, much like fishing. Rinse and repeat. (p. 116).
Life and Death ***** Brooklyn Dr. Park was observing undertakers carrying the body of his wife when Mrs. Park sat up completely conscious. The shock, along with other illnesses caused Dr. Park to die immediately. (p. 118).
Superstition, Belief and the Supernatural ***** Mother Shipton, a well-known predictor of the future, forecast that the world would end in 1881. Kate, a 10-year-old girl, read and believed the prophecies. Kate even knew the night it would happen. She told her parents and went to bed. In the early morning hours, Kate had a fit, a doctor was called, and Kate died two hours later. The power of belief in superstition was durable. (p. 159).
Crime and Punishment ***** A woman in France wound up in court when she refused to pay for a glass eye. She claimed that it did not help her see at all and that she had been tricked into believing false expectations. (p. 180).
Wagers ***** In a political wager, Henry Winsted of Indiana, promised to engage in a butting match with a full-grown ram if Mr. McKinley was elected,; while should Mr. Bryan be the victor, John Burns, of the same town, would drink three pints of hard cider while standing on his head in a barrel. (p. 193).
Accidents and Disasters ***** A man who did not trust in banks withdrew his life savings and concealed the money in a drawer in his home. All the notes were eaten away by mice. There was a happy ending. (p. 202).
Fashion and Clothes ***** An outbreak of rheumatic fever that left the fondly regarded Princess Alexandra (Scotland) lame. As she was a trend-setter, fashion-conscious women in the capital were soon to be seen affecting a hobble. Boot makers even designed special boots to induce healthy citizens to appear afflicted. (p. 211).
Arts and Entertainment ***** An operatic star, Mlle Hading, during a performance in Paris was pelted by thrown cabbages, potatoes, and similar missiles. It was said that Mlle. Hading had captivated the husband of the amateur pitcher. (p. 223).
And Finally, … ***** A shower of meat lasting two or three minutes fell on Benicia, California in 1851. There are multiple explanations as to the origin of the meat. (p.236).
What Happened Next? ***** This section is reserved for the author to go back to several incidents described in the book and follow up to answer the question, “Where are they now?” The answer is a very satisfactory wrap-up, which should please readers as they discover not everyone died, not every event had a tragic ending. (p. 244-247).
I found this collection of oddities a fascinating Saturday morning read. Perhaps the examples from each section will encourage others to explore the weird reporting at the turn of a distant century reported in this collection. Does such reporting occur today? The question is almost rhetorical.
This collection is available as a free read with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.