Strange and Terrible Deaths in the 1800s

There were many strange and terrible deaths in the 1800s and among them is a story from 1879 about a poor woman roasted alive in her carriage. It all began when Mrs. Honora Lacy left her home in Chester County. She was traveling to Wilmington, Delaware to buy a large quantity of cotton, straw, and other items. She threw her purchases in the bottom of the carriage and as she was returning home the articles on the floor caught fire. According to newspapers the fire started because there was “probably … friction matches [on the floor] … and the movement of her feet ignited them.”[1]

strange and terrible deaths - The Runaway Coach

“The Runaway Coach” by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

Before she realized her carriage was ablaze the fire reached her skirts. At that dreadful moment the horse realized what was happening and took flight. His sudden dashing only increased the intensity and ferocity of the blaze. “The inside cloths, curtains and woodwork of the carriage were swiftly attacked by the flames, and it tore along while its wretched inmate was literally roasting to death within.”[2]

Fortunately, a black man was in the area and stopped the frightened horse, but there was little hope that Mrs. Lacy would survive. “Her clothes were still burning when the animal was checked, and she fell down by the roadside in expressible agonies, burned, it is said, to a crisp from head to foot. To add … to the horror of the situation the afflicted victim lived for ten hours afterward and was conscious up to the moment of her death.”[3]

Another of the strange and terrible deaths happened that same year in Sheffield, England. James Haley, a scissor grinder at the Don Cutlery Works, had just given 9-year-old Elizabeth Parkin a bundle of scissors and watched her leave with them across her arms. He turned back to his work and then suddenly heard a scream. When he turned around, he saw Parkin was being twisted round an axle shaft. Apparently, “as she went past the shaft which connects the steam engine with the machinery, and which was revolving very rapidly, … [the end of the shaft] caught against her clothes and whirled her round with terrific violence.”[4]

Haley immediately ran to her assistance and began screaming to the engineer to turn off the machine. There was a lot of blood and Haley couldn’t do anything as the machine was still operating. He yelled again and it was about that time that the engineman killed the engine. In the meantime, two other workers, Thomas Beatson (a razor grinder) and William Snape, came running. With the machine now off, they pulled Larkin out. Unfortunately, it was too late, the little girl was dead. They reported her torn clothes were fastened to the shaft and her head was “fearfully smashed.”

England was also the site of another sad death in 1886. This time it involved a worker at the Ansley Hall Colliery in Warwickshire. Thirty-two-year-old Edward Toone and two other colliery workers were filling trucks. After doing so they proceeded to descend the shaft thinking that all the trucks had landed. They were almost out when they heard some trucks rattling down. According to the Leicester Journal:

“The other men squeezed themselves against the wall, there being no manhole near, but the deceased started to run to the bottom of the incline. Before he reached it, however, the descending trucks struck him, and carried him to the bottom with terrific force.”[5]

It was reported that Toone was literally “smashed to atoms.” An inquest was held the next day and it was estimated that the trucks probably descended at a rate of 100 miles an hour and with nowhere to go and no way to protect himself Toone’s fate was sealed. Thus, the jury examining his death returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”

In Eufaula, Alabama in 1858 a slave was engaged in cleaning out a well belonging to his owner. He had almost finished the job when the curb, which was an old, caved in, and completely covered him. Others in the area quickly came to his aid, and their help would have been successful if “a sudden and rapid flow of water into the lower part of the well, … [had not] soon occasioned his death by drowning.”[6] But it was worse than that because the Richmond Dispatch reported:

“While in this condition, concealed from view, he conversed with those who were vainly endeavoring to help him, until the rise of water checked his utterance.”[7]

English newspapers attributed one tragic tale of death in the 1830s to a case of fright. A 9-year-old boy named James Driscoll, who was said to be a fine, intelligent child, stole three farthings from his mother. When she discovered the theft, she decided to punish him by putting him in a vault under a church on Lime Street where he was kept for two days and one night. When released, it was reported the 9-year-old had undergone a “remarkable change.” According to his parents, he seemed “scarcely conscious of existence or recognition. His physical powers were equally depressed.”[8] In fact, his parents became so concerned about his behavior they took him to the London Hospital.

Doctors examined Driscoll and reported that he was sometimes sane and other times insane. When questioned about his experience in the vault he would shriek, appear frightened, and say, “There she is ― there is the lady in white! ― I told them they would kill me when they put me in there.”[9] After such an outburst he would then relapse back into a state of indifference and cry out to God asking pardon for his sins until he finally “wasted away and died a complete skeleton.”[10]

Another of the strange and terrible deaths in the 1800s happened in 1865 and involved a man boiled alive in beer. He was 26-year-old Robert Dewhurst, a resident of Preston in Lancashire, England. He was engaged in brewing some beer at the Prince Arthur public-house around four in the afternoon and while emptying some of the liquor into a cooler, he accidentally fell into the boiler. At the time it contained a large amount of steaming liquor and as no one was around, “the poor fellow was in scalding liquor, thoroughly helpless, for a considerable time.”[11] He was eventually discovered and removed from the piping hot beer, but his injuries were extensive. Witnesses reported that the damage was so extensive his flesh easily peeled off his body in huge strips. A doctor was called but it was no use as he died later that evening.

In Boston in 1884 there was a report of a shot being fired a mile away that killed a 24-year-old woman named Mrs. Melvina Butler. She was standing by her kitchen stove at 9:00am removing some freshly baked pies from her oven and “as she leaned over to lift them up a bullet came crashing through the window and buried itself in her left breast. With a stifled shriek she threw up her arms, leaped into the air and fell upon the floor. Five seconds later she was dead.”[12] The medical examiner did an autopsy and discovered her rib had been fractured by the bullet and he pronounced that she had died from shock and internal bleeding.

A bullet hole in the window was discovered. It was a pencil width wide and it was “conclusively shown that the ball must have come from the navy yard, which is over a mile away across the channel.”[13] It was then determined that Private John C. Murray, a sentry, fired a shot in the direction of the house over the head of river pirate to warn him away. Apparently, Murray had no idea there was any problem until he was arrested for killing Mrs. Butler.

Comprehensive view of the Boston Naval Ship Yard. Author’s collection.

One cruel and unnecessary death happened in 1832 and involved an intoxicated English women named Usherwood. She lived on Exmouth Street in Paddington and was leaning out of a second floor window with her ten month child in her arms. According to the Morning Advertiser she let the child fall and the child was “caught on the spikes of the area railing, two of them passing through its body, one just under the back part of the ribs, and the other between the shoulders.”[14] The child was removed with much difficulty, carried to the hospital, and of course, soon after died.

The same year that Samuel Clemen’s (Mark Twain’s) daughter Susy died was the same year that another death made the front page news in New York. The accident happened in Brooklyn and involved a 2-year-old toddler named Edward Sullivan. He was instantly killed when he fell from the fourth story window of his home one sunny afternoon in June. The tragedy was made worse by the fact that about four years earlier another son, Joseph Sullivan, had also fallen out a window and died. According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Edward had climbed up to the window sill while his mother was trying to quiet a 6 months old baby in a front room. In some way the latch on the shutters became unfastened. Only a scream warned the parents of the fall of their little boy. [The father, Matthew] Sullivan rushed to the yard about fifty feet below, and picked up the mangled body of Edward. The skull of the child was crushed. {An] ambulance surgeon … responded … but the victim … died just as the physician arrived.”[15]

Strange and terrible deaths - boy climbing onto a window sill

A picture of a boy climbing up onto a window sill. Author’s collection.

Another of the strange and terrible deaths reported in the nineteenth century occurred in 1890 and involved a cat and a Black man named David Stokes. He lived in Danville, Virginia and according to The San Francisco Examiner, a stray cat entered Stokes’ house, and he tried to drive it out. The animal refused to go and so he threw a piece of wood at it. The cat suddenly became furious and sprang at Stokes and fastened its teeth into his wrist. He could not shake it off and others that came to his assistance could not get the cat to loosen its grip until its head was cut off. Unfortunately, Stokes soon became sick and although hydrophobia never developed, he gradually worsened and died.

Another death was not exactly strange, but it was terrible and this time a dog died instead of a person. James Cummings, a well-to-do farmer in Saco, Maine, owned a huge bull mastiff. It had always behaved well until in April of 1892 when it became mad. Cummings saw that the dog was frothing at the mouth and when it charged him, he realized he would be killed if he didn’t act quickly. He had no weapons but was extremely powerful and fought the dog off.

“The brute wore a strong leather collar, and Cummings caught him by this before he could bite him, and held him by the throat with the other hand, keeping the brute in this position for nearly ten minutes. It was a difficult task, but Cummings knew it was a case of life or death with him, and did not remove his death grip on the animal’s throat until several minutes after he ceased to struggle. The plucky farmer escaped without a scratch.”[16]

After cable cars became popular in California there were plenty of strange and terrible deaths such as the one that happened on 23 August 1888. It involved 56-year-old O.P. Grant who was employed as an oiler for one of the eight original San Francisco cable car companies called the Sutter Street Railroad Company. According to reports, “[Grant] was lying on the track with his head in a manhole, when he was struck by one of the company’s cars.”[17] Both his legs were broken and bruised, and he died soon after. When the case went to trial, the company was not found to be at fault because Grant’s death was ruled an accident with the “jury recommend[ing] that in the future all workmen employed on the tracks … be ordered to keep from between the tracks while cars are passing.”[18]

strange and terrible deaths - SF Cable car

San Francisco cable car. Author’s collection.

Another unfortunate accident happened in 1868 in a borough in London called Islington. Fourteen-month-old Florence Ada Howelett was toddling about the living room while her mother was nearby. Without the mother noticing, the child picked up a black lead pencil lying on chair. Howelett suddenly fell and let out a slight scream. The mother rushed to her and picked her up and then to her horror discovered the pencil wedge in the side of one of her eyes. A physician was immediately called and it took great force to remove the pencil. Unfortunately, that was about all that could be done for the child. She died soon after from inflammation of the brain. A postmortem was then held that showed:

“The … pointed pencil had passed the upper part of the orbit, penetrating into the interior lobe of the brain, half an inch beyond the brain, and then became fixed inside the skull. There was a large quantity of matter extending under the brain.”[19]   

Ten years later, in 1878, an equally horrible death happened in Sacramento, California. A young lady who lived on Elderberry Street was engaged to a taxidermist. She jilted him and a few days later met him while on the arm of her new bow while they were walking her beloved sky terrier. The taxidermist was upset and reproached her for her perfidy. A slight altercation broke out and the terrier fearing for the safety of his mistress sprang at the discarded lover, who then beat him to death with his cane.

Shortly after the event the taxidermist appeared to regret what had happened. He contacted his ex-fiancée and claimed that he wanted to set things right. He offered to stuff her sky terrier and leave the U.S. forever. She agreed and received the stuffed terrier as the taxidermist promised just before he left for parts unknown. Soon after his departure she noticed that attached to the dog’s collar was a tag that read, “Don’t scorch its tail.”[20]  

“Day after day the puzzled young woman racked her brains over this legend. … She at once concluded her old love had become crazy … All the same, however … it was not long before she did light a candle and hold it within an inch of deceased pet’s caudal appendage.”[21]

What followed was unimaginable. It seems the taxidermist had concealed in the body of the stuffed dog a pint of nitroglycerin and the fuse extended through the tail. Thus, when his ex-fiancée lit the candle near the fuse an explosion occurred. The only “piece of the girl which could be found … lover No. 2 now carries round in his locket, while the villain of the tragedy has fled to foreign lands.”[22]


  • [1] Essex County Herald, “Burned to Death in a Carriage,” June 20, 1879, p. 1.
  • [2] ibid.
  • [3] ibid.
  • [4] The Nottinghamshire Guardian, “Horrible Death,” September 30, 1858, p. 7.
  • [5] Leicester Journal, “Colliery Accident,” April 23, 1886, p. 3.
  • [6] Richmond Dispatch, “Horrible Death,” August 16, 1858, p. 1.
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] Carlisle Journal, “Extraordinary Case of Death by Fright,” September 26, 1835, p. 2.
  • [9] ibid.
  • [10] ibid.
  • [11] Merthyr Telegraph, and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales, “Boiled Alive in Beer,” November 25, 1865, p. 3.
  • [12] The Lancaster Examiner, “Shot by a Sentry,” September 10, 1884, p. 2.
  • [13] ibid.
  • [14] The Morning Advertiser, “Shocking Accident,” September 28, 1832, p. 3.
  • [15] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Fell to His Death,” June 11, 1896, p. 1.
  • [16] Chattanooga Daily Times, “Choked a Dog to Death,” April 18, 1892, p. 1.
  • [17] The San Francisco Examiner, “Our Juggernauts,” September 30, 1888, p. 10.
  • [18] ibid.
  • [19] The Ipswich Journal, “A Remarkable Fatal Accident,” December 26, 1868, p. 12.
  • [20] “A Horrible Tragedy,” Public Weekly Opinion, 20 August 1878, p. 1,
  • [21] ibid.
  • [22] ibid.

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