10 Bizarre Deaths by Victorian Fashion

victorian fashion daily mail

Guest post by my Italian friend, artist Giulia Bia. Check out her art at https://www.saatchiart.com/giuliabia)



The Victorian and Edwardian eras were marked by great inventions: the bicycle, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb are just some of the revolutionary items that saw the light in this period.

This fever for new things influenced also fashion: original pieces of clothing were invented (e.g: the crinoline) and other classics were given a new twist (e.g: flexible and elastic sanitary corsets).

But innovations weren’t always a blessing: many fashionable items could easily kill. For example, it is estimated that fires ignited by crinolines killed at least 3.000 women between the late 1850s and the late 1860s (LINK 0)

Let’s begin our journey through the perils of Victorian and Edwardian fashion by making acquaintance with some of its victims.


10) Death by crinoline


Have you ever wondered what kept the skirts women used to wear during the Victorian era so puffed and voluminous? It was the crinoline, a large cage worn under dresses and made, in the 1850s, of spring steel hoops connected by cotton tapes. The crinoline was so popular and so loved by women of all social classes that Punch, the famous satirical journal, coined the term “Crinolinemania”.

Apart from preventing women to climb buses and passing through narrow doorways, to name just a few hindrances, the crinoline had a dangerous drawback: due to the circumference of their skirts, women didn’t notice they were too close to fires, and their dresses, made mainly of silk and muslin, ignited easily. The oxygen circulating under the skirt literally added fuel to the fire.

Two of the most famous victims of crinoline’s tendency to burst into flames were Emily and Mary Wilde, illegitimate daughters of Sir William Wilde and Oscar Wilde’s half sisters. During a ball in their honor at Drumaconnor House on Halloween Night, 1871, Emily’s crinoline caught fire while waltzing past the open fireplace. Mary run to help her, but her crinoline started to burn as well. Badly burnt, the sisters passed away after long days of unbearable agony.


9) Death by corset


In the Victorian period, the debate on the effects of the corset on the female body was all the rage: some claimed that it enhanced posture, made women appear more ladylike and refined, while others pointed out its detrimental effects, such as difficulty breathing, compressed lungs, fractured ribs, displacements of internal organs.
Though much of the clamor stems from the practice of tight lacing, the corset claimed at least one victim: Mrs Mary E. Halliday, resident of Niagara Falls, who died suddenly in 1903 without any apparent reason. During the autopsy, two pieces of corset steel were found in her heart, but the coroner had no idea how they had entered the body.

Mrs Halliday must have been a woman of great temper, though, because it seems none of her relatives ever heard her complain of any freak accident that might have explained the strange finding.


8) Death by high collars

high collar2

Not only women were subject to the perils of fashion: men’s lives were threatened by the so called “father killer”, the detachable high collar connected to the shirt by studs. Its nickname might be explained by the fact that it was so stiff it could easily cut off the circulation.

Because of his high collar, Mr John Cluetzl suffered a death so bizarre it could compete for the Darwin Awards. According to the New York Times of September 15, 1888, the man had a few too many and fell asleep on a bench. His head dropped forward on his chest and his collar chocked him, causing asphyxia and apoplexy.

Another victim of this unsuspected trap was some William F. Dillon who, in 1912, was choked by his own collar after an attack of indigestion.

7) Death by children’s clothes


Not even children were safe from the dangers posed by their clothes, especially if they were made with flannelette, a kind of cotton fabric with a fluffy surface introduced in England in 1885.

Flannelette was cheap and kept the wearer warm: that’s why it was used to produce mainly nightgowns and children clothes, especially for the lower classes. Like many other fabrics of the period, though, it was highly flammable.

Its risks were well described in an article of the New York Times published in 1902:

“Flannelette lights up very quickly, and the wearer finds himself enveloped in fierce flames in an instant. The slightest contact with any burning substance instantly sets it blazing, and the flames spread over the whole surface in a few seconds”.

According to the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle of July 1905, an unnamed boy of 2 years old was burned to death while wearing a flannelette nightshirt. He was playing alone in a room when his mother heard terrible cries. When she rushed to see what was happening, she found him wrapped in flames. Despite the prompt aid, the boy died the day after.


6) Death by stockings


In the good old days, when clothes were washed, colors ran freely in the water. That’s why the dyes were fixed with every possible nefarious substance, from arsenic to prussic acid, to picric acid to mercury. These substances rubbed off on the skin and penetrated it, aided by sweat and heat. Consequences ranged from mild (blisters, swelling, rashes) to extreme (death).

Stockings were no exceptions, and reports on “death by stockings” are numerous. One of them is about Harry V. Chapman, a 9 year old boy who died in 1883 after the coloring of his black stockings entered a wound on his foot. According to the article, “the foot and leg were swollen to twice their natural size at the time of death”.


5) Death by tutus


In 1809, John Heathcoat patented a machine capable of producing an imitation of pillow-lace, called “English net” or “bobbinet”: the modern tulle was born. It was sheer and shiny and, because of its extremely light weight, it was frequently layered and starched to add more volumes to the garments. The main drawback? Starch is highly flammable.

Tulle was used to create dancers’ skirts, called tutus, because it allowed free movement and didn’t add weight to their physical exertion. According to Alison Mathew Davis, professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, Toronto, “Marie Taglioni’s performance of La Silphyde in 1832 cemented the aesthetic of the so called ballet blanche and led to a great abuse of white gauze, tulle and tarlatane”.

Perhaps the most famous victim of tulle was British ballerina Clara Webster, who died in 1844 during a performance of The revolt of the harem at the Drury Lane Theater, when her skirt came too close to the unprotected sunken lights on stage and caught fire. She was rescued by the stage hands, but died a few days later because of the burns she had sustained.


4) Death by comb


First called parkesine, celluloid gained its current name in 1870 and soon became a sensation because it was cheap, easily moldable and could be used as a substitute for the more expensive ivory, horn and tortoiseshell. A lot of items were produced with celluloid, such as toys, billiard balls, vanity sets, razors, jewelry. It was all well and good until celluloid combs began to explode and reap victims.

Celluloid is extremely flammable because it is composed of cellulose nitrate and camphor; many newspaper of the turn of the century warn men and women about its extreme danger.

One Stockdale Snyder (yes, it was his real name), respected citizen of Wilson, Pennsylvania, lost his life in 1910 while holding a celluloid comb over a small stove to burn the hair stuck in the teeth. He just wanted to care for his “long gray beard”.
It also seems that quite a few factories that produced celluloid combs tended to explode; one of them was in New York. The explosion caused the deaths of Charles Bouffard, head of the comb company, and his wife, and it burned down other shops around the factory. It was 1906.


3) Death by flower wreaths


It is a well-known fact that, in the Victorian period, arsenic was everywhere: wallpapers, curtains, candles and particularly clothes and accessories were saturated with this most dangerous poison, that gave everything a very appreciated bright green color.
Artificial flower wreaths were ticking arsenic bombs too: braided in women’s hair, they could cause rashes and blisters, but it was the poor women who made them who had it worse.

A victim of arsenic poisoning was 19 years old Matilda Scheurer, who died a horrible death in 1861. Her job was to make artificial flowers and dust them with arsenic-laced powder, that she inhaled continually and ate with every meal. Soon she was sick, vomited green bile, convulsed; her nails and the white of her eyes turned green. She died in great pain after days of agony.

Her death raised consciousness about the danger of arsenic dyes and many philanthropic organizations denounced the horrifying conditions flower makers were forced to work in.


2) Death by hobble skirt



Probably one of the most vituperated feminine garments of all times, the hobble skirt was a long skirt whose hem was so narrow to hamper a woman’s stride. According to lore, the “prototype” of the hobble skirt can be traced back to Mrs Hart O. Berg, who had the honor to share a flight with Wilbur Wright. To keep her skirt from blowing in the wind, she tied a rope at its bottom and, after the landing, she was seen hobbling around until she removed the rope.

The hobble skirt saw its heyday during the Edwardian period and found its timely end around 1915, when women started to lead an active social life, but not without leaving some victims on its wake.

Apart from being constantly mocked in the press, the journals of the early 1900s are rife with reports of freak accidents and deaths caused by the hobble skirt. For example, Miss Ida Goyette met her maker when she tried to step over a locked gate on a bridge while wearing a hobble skirt: she tripped and plunged in the river below, drowning.

Another woman was trampled by a bolting horse at the Chantilly race course in 1910 because the tightness of her skirt prevented her from running away.


1) Death by shoes



During the Victorian and Edwardian era, mauve was a particularly beloved color for women’s shoes. Before its introduction in 1856, mauve and shades of purple were virtually unheard of, and it’s probably because of this that the first synthetic dye, mauveine, took the world of fashion by storm. Alas, mauveine was highly toxic, its main ingredients being aniline, an extract of coal tar, and other poisonous substances.
Apart from mauve dyes, another element that made shoes a potential hazard was shoe polish, made with nitrobenzene or aniline, both very toxic chemicals. If the shoes were worn before the polish was completely dry, the effects ranged from fainting to turning blue.

Let’s close this short review on the dangers of fashion with a semi-happy ending:  according to Le Petit Parisien of September 15, 1905, Jean Elias, a 19 year old man, had brought his yellow shoes to the cobbler to have them dyed. (LINK 20) To give them a glossy black polish, the cobbler used aniline, and its effects soon showed up. After wearing his newly colored shoes, Jean felt suddenly ill and was rushed to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in very serious conditions.

Though there is no follow-up of the story, we can assume the young man recovered, as there is no mention of his death in the local newspapers.




























Book review. Ted Lewis : Get Carter. (2013 Allison & Busby Limited)

If you’ve never seen the Michael Caine film based on this book, you’re missing out on a British film classic. If you haven’t read this book, however, you’re missing out on even more.

After his brother dies under suspicious circumstances, Jack Carter returns to his hometown to find out what exactly happened. Jack himself narrates the story in a cold, calculating manner, giving the delicious revenge yarn that much more of an edge. This is not a sentimental guy prone to cliched monologues – Jack Carter is a machine with a job to do.

Saying more about the plot would be a bad idea, since this is very much a plot driven book. Author Ted Lewis paints sceneries perfectly with a few sentences, and the Jack Carter character is just as intriguing in the book as he is in the film. The book adds to the story, giving some more background to the tale, particularly with relation to the relationship between the Carter brothers.

There is plenty of crime literature out there nowadays, not to mention gangster films. Get Carter was a major building block in creating the modern crime genre, and upon reading it you notice just how much Lewis’ style and the tale he weaves have inspired what we see on the big screen and read in crime novels today. I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino studied this book before embarking on his career of writing deliciously nasty, übercool characters and dialogue.

Read the book first, then see the film. Comparing the differences between the two adds a whole new layer of fun to the experience.

Lost at sea

An opening narration from a Finnish television show about missing persons called Kadonneet stated: “For Finns, cruise trips represent a welcome disconnection from everyday life, a reach towards one’s dreams.” While there’s an element of dramatization evident there, the point is nevertheless spot-on: when Finns want to take a break from the mundane and the arcane, cheap cruises offer a valid option to be considered – and they’re very popular, indeed.

I live in a city with a port where cruise liners come and go every day, returning from the Sea and taking off towards it again and again and again. Regardless of the weekday, there are always customers heading towards the check-in, dragging their bags behind them. These liners also offer a very popular place for companies to hold seminars and conferences.

Alcohol plays a huge part in all this, as can be guessed. For many travelers, it’s as though the normal rules and regulations controlling the social dynamics of shame, guilt and hesitation no longer apply once the ship takes off from the shore, and many passengers will drink themselves half to death. Perhaps the faceless, disinterested sea surrounding the ships and their jolly customers inspire people to let go of their inhibitions – “who cares? We’re in the middle of the sea, accompanied by total strangers!”

Be that as it may, besides being platforms for fun, these cruises will also occasionally provide the setting for tragedies. Several people have gone missing from these cruises over the years, and it seems like the most obvious explanations (-> “got drunk and fell off the ship” or “committed suicide”) don’t always add up.

Here are three people who mysteriously vanished from Finnish cruise liners.


  1. Timo Suikkanen

Timo Suikkanen

One of the great rites of passage for a Finnish young man is walking out of the gates of the army barracks after your time of service is over. Military service is mandatory in Finland, and thus constitutes an experience that unites men across generations and social classes.

The year was 1998.

Timo Suikkanen was a 40-year-old construction foreman, married with children. His son had just entered this club of “military reserve”, and the occasion called for a celebration. His boy had decided that the celebration would entail a cruise with his army buddies. Like most Finns, his son knew that things could occasionally get pretty rowdy on these trips, so he asked his father Timo to join the group as a kind of overseer, a safe adult who would make sure no one got lost or hurt.

The irony is merciless – at some point in the night, as the ship is sailing through the dark vastness of the Baltic Sea, Suikkanen disappears completely. The last sightings of him are made by other passengers, who see him wondering around the pubs and shops of the liner. His last known words are directed at one of the young men from his son’s posse: “Where could buy a rose for my wife?”

Once his son realized he couldn’t find his father, he asked the staff at the ship’s info center to speak a public announcement through the ship’s speaker system, asking passenger Timo Suikkanen to staff. No response.

The police investigated the circumstances as well as humanly possibly. Security camera material was combed through, other passengers were interviewed, et cetera. Nothing. Suikkanen was not known to be suicidal at the time, nor is there any indication that he was more drunk than the average passenger on the ship.

As of 2017, we know next to nothing about the circumstances of Mr Suikkanen’s disappearance.


2. Niku Patronen

niku patronen

There are few things sadder than the shattered dreams of a young mind. What’s the purpose of dreams if the universe never evens plans to give you a shot at making them come true?

In 2006 Niku Patronen was a 19-year-old young man who had just graduated from a vocational school. In addition to his graduation he had been blessed with good news recently: he had just received information that a ticket to a cruise had become available after another passenger had canceled his trip. That meant he would not have to stay behind – Niku would be able to join his group of friends who had already booked their tickets.

At some point in the evening, the group was joined by two ladies. The group of lads lacked the necessary English skills to make headway in impressing the ladyfolk, but words are rarely needed in these contexts; everybody was there to have a good time, and that was all they needed to knew about each other. 

After his friends deicded it was time to head to the cabins for some shoteye, Niku followed the ladies to their cabin, telling his friends that he wanted to get the women’s email addresses before parting with them for the night. He was caught by the ship’s CCTV system following the women in one of the ship’s long hallways.

And that was it. The last sight of Mr Niku Patronen.

The aforementioned ladies apparently got off in the Stockholm port, leaving the ship and possibly taking some important answers with them; they were never reached for questioning.

The police investigators in Turku, the precinct assigned to investigate the vanishing, have no new substantial leads in the case. 

In an interview with the television show Kadonneet (“The Missing”) Niku’s mother remembered the last words she had said to her son before he had taken off for the cruise: “älä hävitä ittees” – “don’t lose yourself”. 


3. Niko Arkke

Niko was a 24-year-old student of construction when he disappeared mysteriously on the night of 18th October 2003. 

He was last seen in the ships’s night club, accompanied by several girls. He was having a good time dancing and laughing with them.

Then, without a single substantial clue as to why or how, he simply vanished. Nobody saw him anywhere near the ships’s fringes, readying himself for a jump into the icy darkness, nor did anyone hear him fight with another passenger and lose, paying the proce by being thrown overboard by a jealous, bodybuilding alpha male. 

He was just there one second, and gone the next.

The girls he was dancing with were never reached for questioning.


So what exactly happens to these people? 

It’s of course easiest to just say they all suddenly decided to commit suicide. Never mind the fact that not a single one of them had ever previously expressed a single suicidal impulse – they just suddenly “got it into their heads” to do it, perhaps overcome by some sudden surge of cosmic loneliness and purposelessness one can only catch from the ocean air…

Or maybe sometimes the world demands a bit more of an effort from those of us left behind wondering and asking questions. 

For example, who’s to say that just as women are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, men couldn’t occasionally end up experiencing the same fate? Niku and Niko, for example, were both good-looking young men in a vulnerable position: drunk and surrounded by the attention of women, far away from home. But who were these women? Why were they not reached for questioning? Finland is a small country, and information about any out-of-the-ordinary crime or other event will quickly reach most of the population. Same goes for Sweden, the touching point of cruise liners taking off from Finland. Why did they decide not to talk? 

A few years ago a comment such as “I think the governments of the world are conducting mass surveillance” would have elicited a roar of laughter and suggestions to wear a tinfoil hat. If you say that out loud now, most people will just reply with a laconic “oh yeah, that Edward Snowden thing.”

And think about it: how realistic is the explanation that what was going on in the heads of these people when they disappeared was  something like this: 

“Yeah! Ladies, partying, good times, friends, yeah yeah yeah – suicide. Must kill myself.”

One thing is for certain, though: the sea will not tell.