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March 27th 1899

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Tragical reporting

Victorian Scotland had the reputation of being obsessed both by respectability and by religion. It was also, in a reversal of present day attitudes, preoccupied with death but rather unwilling to talk about sex. Whether or not Victorians were engrossed with thoughts of their own demise (and the hereafter), they were certainly fascinated by the violent deaths of others. Local newspapers are full of such stories from all quarters of the globe.

“Burned to death in molten steel.”  The story relates how four men in Pittsburgh met “with a horrible end”  when a ladle of molten steel upset and they were enveloped in the contents.

“Singular suicide in a church”  tells the story of a man in France who doused himself with paraffin and then entered the church while the service was in progress. He sat down and ignited the paraffin and “burned himself to a cinder.” 

Nearer to home there is “Tragedy near Edinburgh. James Healy, Midlothian miner, fired two shots at his wife’s face injuring her slightly. She escaped from the house and he followed. When a policeman appeared he fired in his own mouth and dropped dead at the officer’s feet.”  The report concludes rather unnecessarily, “The pair lived unhappily.” 

The Strathearn Herald catered for the more gruesome interests of their readers by listing the best deaths of the week in a long column headed “Tragical Occurrences.”  This could, in many cases merely record a fatal heart attack such as “The Rev Henry Lewis, retired Congregational minister, dropped dead while attending at the Baptist Chapel at Chelmsford on Sunday.” 

Suicide was a fairly common occurrence. “John Groat, a pilot, seventy seven years of age committed suicide by hanging, on Tuesday, in his house in Arbroath Road, Dundee.” 
Or “On Thursday morning at Festiniog, Wales, David William, shoemaker, cut his wife’s throat and then committed suicide in the same fashion.” 
Or “Mr Edward Dunnerdale, manager of the London and Midland Bank at Burnley, committed suicide on Tuesday. The clerks heard a shot in the cellar and found Mr Dunnerdale lying dead shot through the mouth and a revolver lying on the floor. He had been depressed for some time past.” 

The Strathearn Herald tended to go for quantity rather than quality and with a weekly list of twenty or more “Tragical”  deaths the majority tended to be rather mundane affairs. In any case there was no attempt at investigative reporting; the bare facts were mentioned, no doubt with the comforting assurance that there would no doubt be plenty of new revelations to fill the paper in the weeks to come. (“Four persons choked to death in beet pulp.”  “Horrible death of old woman.”  “Four girls burned to death at a bazaar in Leeds.”  etc. etc)

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