Tag Archives: Historical Tidbits

This Week in 1844: News from America!

From The Illustrated London News, 18 May 1844: 

The city of Washington, the seat of the American Government, has just been the scene of two events of a very opposite character – the signature of the treaty for the annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States, and the delivery of a Message by the President in communicating this treaty to the Senate; besides an affray in the House of Representatives, and the attempted assassination of one of its members.

This bit of juicy news was run by a number of British newspapers with reference to the New York Sun. What happened was that a brawl broke out between representatives during the discussion of a bill: Mr. Wright from Kentucky made a pass (and yes, that would be a physical pass…) at Mr. Rathbun from New York and both proceeded to hit upon each other. While the rest of the representatives tried to separate the two men, one William S. Moore, who had for some weeks tried in vain to obtain a claim from the government, tried to enter the house, was hindered, and proceeded to shoot at the representative from Ohio. He missed this man, but wounded another instead.

The whole affair was referred to a committee of five for investigation, with instructions to report a Bill for the punishment of offences committed within the House. At the solicitation of friends, Mr. Rathbun and Mr. White shook hands amid the applause of the House. Thus that affair ended.

Murder, Mayhem, & Earl Grey

Today I’ve been hunting down murderers (in between supervising language tests). Historical murderers, that is. Those who killed gamekeepers in the mid-1840s (the tensions in rural communities over the strict enforcement of the Game Laws and the ensuing murders of several gamekeepers form the background to “Falling for a Scoundrel”). As I was scanning several old newspapers, I was struck by the peculiar selection of news they were reporting.

There were short snippets on dreadful accidents, horrid murders, and grisly suicides — and I couldn’t help thinking that even respectable looking newspapers rather relished the gruesome details, as this bit from the Bristol Mercury (30 December 1844) shows:

DETERMINED SUICIDE AT CHISWICK — On Christmas day, the following determined act of suicide was committed at Chiswick. About a quarter past one o’clock, a man, named Hugh Griffith, a grocer, carrying on busieness in the Devonshire-road, Chiswick, cut his throat with a razor, and nearly severed his head from his body. Medical assistance was immediately sent for, and several surgeons were promptly in attendance, but life was quite extinct before they could arrive.

The sheer number of suicides I found mentioned across several newspapers in the months between September 1843 and January 1844 is quite chilling, especially since I was not looking for that particular kind of news. Together with the many reports on poaching (poaching was met with drastic punishments) and on the murders of several gamekeepers, the snippets on suicides tell of the desperation of the poor in rural areas and paint a chilling picture of their situation.

The juxtaposition of these kind of news items with other local news is rather curious, to say the least. In columns on “Local Intelligence” you can find news about murders and suicides right next to things like this:

A Rev. Tractarian at Oxford has married — to the consternation of his co-celibiates.

(Bristol Mercury, 30 Dec. 1844)

or like this:

The Earl of Yarborough has returned from Town to Brocklesby Hall for the season. The noble lord’s fox hounds had a splendid run on Tuesday morning: it lasted an hour and forty-five minutes, and was pronounced the finest of the season.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)

or like this:

FIRST FRUIT FROM SEVILLE. — The swift sailing vessel Waterwitch, Grant, arrived at this port yesterday in seventeen days, from Seville, with a cargo of fine Seville China Oranges, imported by Mr. Sprait, and which, as appears by advertisement, will be sold by Mr. Stamp, on Tuesday next.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)

And whole column ends with:

HEALTH OF EARL GREY. — We are glad to learn (December 25) from our Alnwick correspondent that Earl Grey continues no worse, his lordship had passed a good night, and upon the whole continues rather better.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)

Historical Tidbits: Victorian Theatricals

In the 19th century people were terribly fond of amateur theatre (well, they didn’t have TV *g*) and staged plays in their drawing rooms. But there were also larger-scale amateur productions, for example the production of Bulwer Lytton’s costume drama NOT SO BAD AS WE SEEM Dickens organized in aid of the Guild of Literature and Art, a charitable fund for artists and writers in need. Among the actors was Sir John Tenniel (yup, I found this tidbit while doing research for the PhD project). The whole thing was staged in the library of Devonshire House and eventually premiered before the Queen.

As you can imagine, such an important amateur production could result in rather trying rehearsals. And thus, Dickens whined,

My legs swell so, with standing on the stage for hours together, that my stockings won’t come off. I get so covered with sawdust among the carpenters, that my infants don’t know me. I am so astonishingly familiar with everybody else’s part, that I forget my own. I roar to the troupe in general, to the extent that the excellent Duke (who is deaf) thinks in the remoteness fo his own little library that the wind is blowing hard.*

Tee-hee! 🙂

* quoted in Rodney Engen. Sir John Tenniel: Alice’s White Knight. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1991. 28.