30 October 2013



Jeremy Clay. The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton and Other Singular Tales from the Victorian Press. Icon Books, 2013.

Varla Ventura. Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires and Other Creatures of the Night. Weiser Books, 2013.

Varla Ventura. Among the Mermaids, Facts, Myths and Enchantments from the Sirens of the Sea. Weiser Books, 2013.

If you enjoy Jon Bondeson’s column in Fortean Times looking at the bizarre and sensational stories that filled the pages of the Victorian newspaper The Illustrated Police News, you’re likely to enjoy Jeremy Clay’s collection of retrievals from the depths of newspaper archives. The Illustrated Police News is represented here (most of the illustrations in the book are from that source) but provincial and overseas papers form the bulk of the little gems collected here.
Curiously very few of the incidents seem to have taken place where the newspapers were published.

The stories are a remarkable mixture of the humorous, the bizarre, the terrifying and sometimes the sad and moving. We read of the Parisian lady who refused to pay for her glass-eye as she could not see through it as well as her other eye; the wonderful powers of cocaine in curing hay fever; Father Christmas catching fire in the Peterborough Infirmary; the comfort of a good strong corset in deflecting a bullet, and indeed the secrets of the Canadian whisky corsets; how to find a dead body using a loaf of bread, and the earthquake prophecy that caused panic in London’s Irish community.

We learn of the criminal activity of the era, which outdoes anything spread across today’s sensationalist tabloids in both curiosity and cruelty. The Great Garrotting Panic is the equal of any contemporary tabloid-led scare, and the Dundee Courier and Argus's 1889 story of a binge-drinking Chelsea ladette would have today's Daily Mail absolutely raging with moral indignation. Even in the more right-wing press I’ve not heard of any of today’s Liberal Democrats being accused of celebrating an election triumph by barbecuing a dog then eating it, but this seems to have been what happened after the Liberal candidates won election for school board places in West Bromwich in 1880. 

The sheer lawlessness of much of the Victorian era is laid out very explicitly here, but those who offended community standards often met swift and uncompromising punishment. A man in Coleford in the Forest of Dean, was seen attacking his wife and threatening her child. While some neighbours ran to fetch the police, local women took more direct action. They stormed into his house and then, in the words of the Gloucester Citizen of August 16th 1878, “in a manner unmentionable to ears polite, these Amazonian women administered the punishment so familiar to English boys, and in no respect less severe or mortifying in its consequences.” After further humiliations he was allowed to leave “a sadder and wiser man”.

There are also tales of death and destruction - the Victoria Hall tragedy in Sunderland when nearly 200 children were killed in a rush for prizes at a show; forty people drowning through broken ice on Regent’s Park lake - which lead one to think that Health and Safety going mad might not be such a bad thing after all. This is an ideal little present for ‘dipping into’ which at the same time reveals some amazing insights into the way our quite recent ancestors lived - and died.

The banshee and mermaid books are nice little productions which are obviously aimed at the gift market. You can tell this because they are printed in brown ink (for the banshees) and blue ink (for the mermaids). They are also decorated with whimsical drawings and old woodcuts.

Lest that seems to trivialize them I have to say that both are interesting and informative little volumes, being anthologies of stories and reports of the supernatural entities. They includes extracts from the works of scholars and folklorist like Sabine Baring Gould and William Butler Yates and their accounts of banshee curses in Ireland, to present day investigators like Linda Godfrey who seeks out - with remarkable success - werewolf reports across middle America.

There are perhaps fewer direct accounts of sightings in the Mermaids book, and more poetry and folklore, but I do wonder, now that werewolves seem to have re-established themselves as experience-event Fortean phenomena whether we are due for a revival in mermaid sightings. If so this book will give a few tips to future investigators. And both books will look very attractive sticking out the top of a Christmas stocking. - John Rimmer

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