Everyday Heroes

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Postman’s Park in the City of London, an array of ceramic tiles honor ordinary people who died saving the lives of others:

Elizabeth Boxall
Aged 17 of Bethnal Green
Who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse
June 20, 1888

David Selves aged 12
Off Woolwich supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.
September 12, 1886

James Hewers
On Sept 24 1878
Was killed by a train at Richmond in the endeavour to save another man

The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was conceived by painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts in 1887, but only four tiles were in place at his death in 1904, and even today two of the five planned rows remain empty. The most recent tile, the 54th, was added in 2009. The full list is here.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

“The Dead Alive in the Biograph”

A pathetic incident in connection with a biograph scene occurred in Detroit, Mich., March 17th last. A view made at the occupation of Peking was being flashed across the screen. It represented a detachment of the Fourteenth United States Infantry entering the gates of the Chinese Capital. As the last file of soldiers seemed literally stepping out of the frame on to the stage, there arose a scream from a woman who sat in front.

‘My God!’ she cried hysterically, ‘there is my dead brother Allen marching with the soldiers.’

The figure had been recognized by others in the audience as that of Allen McCaskill, who had mysteriously disappeared some years before. Subsequently Mrs. Booth, the sister, wrote to the War Department and learned that it really was her brother whose presentment she so strangely had been confronted with.

“Photography,” Popular Science News, October 1901

Exit Strategies

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The guillotine was originally offered as a humane method of execution — but rumors circulated that a sudden, clean decapitation did not always kill the prisoner. In 1905 a Dr. Beaurieux examined the just-removed head of Henri Languille:

I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions — I insist advisedly on this peculiarity — but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks. I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again. … It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement — and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

Perhaps hanging is easier. From the Quarterly Review, September 1849, quoted in Notes and Queries, July 4, 1874:

An immense number of persons recovered from insensibility have recorded their sensations, and agree in the report that an easier end [than hanging] could not be desired. An acquaintance of Lord Bacon, who meant to hang himself partially, lost his footing, and was cut down at the last extremity, having nearly paid for his curiosity with his life. He declared that he felt no pain, and his only sensation was of fire before his eyes, which changed first to black and then to sky-blue. These colours are even a source of pleasure. A Captain Montagnac, who was hanged in France during the religious wars, and rescued from the gibbet at the intercession of Viscount Turenne, complained that, having lost all pain in an instant, he had been taken from a light of which the charm defied description. Another criminal, who escaped by the breaking of the cord, said that, after a second of suffering, a fire appeared, and across it the most beautiful avenue of trees. Henry IV. of France sent his physician to question him, and when mention was made of a pardon, the man answered coldly that it was not worth the asking.

Express

Politician and amateur theologian John Asgill raised some eyebrows in 1700 — he claimed that Christians needn’t die to enter heaven. In his resurrection, Christ had broken the Law of Death, and God had sent a chariot of heaven to collect him directly. The faithful could simply follow him — dying was no longer necessary:

I shall not go hence by returning unto the Dust … But that I shall make my Exit by way of Translation, which I claim as a dignity belonging to that Degree in the Science of Eternal Life, of which I profess my self a graduat, according to the true intent and meaning of the covenant of Eternal Life revealed in the Scriptures. And if after this, I die like other Men, I declare my self to die of no religion.

The Irish House of Commons expelled him for blasphemy, and he died, distinctly earthbound, in a debtors’ prison in 1738. Daniel Defoe wrote, “When Men Pore upon the Sacred Mysteries of Religion with the Mathematical Engines of Reason, they make such incoherent stuff of it, as would make one pity them.”

(From Philip C. Almond, Afterlife: A History of Life After Death, 2016.)

“Man Killed by His Own Coffin”

On Saturday night last, a man who resided in Twenty-ninth-street was killed in a most singular manner. The following are the peculiar circumstances, as far as our reporter has been able to learn them — for, in consequence of the opinion entertained concerning his relatives by the deceased, who was a man of considerable wealth and respectability, they have made great effort to keep the particulars from the public ear. It appears that nearly a year ago the deceased, who was fifty-three years of age, became strongly impressed with an idea that, when he should die, the parsimonious disposition of his relatives would lead them to put him in a cheap coffin, while he had a strong desire to be buried in one of polished rosewood, lined with white satin and trimmed with silver. Soon after this strange idea got possession of his mind, he discovered an elegant coffin in one of the principal warehouses, which suited him. He purchased it for $75; had it sent to his residence at nightfall, and stowed it away in a small closet adjoining his bed-room, where it remained until the time of the accident. How it occurred is not known to a certainty, for the first intimation the family had of the lamentable occurrence was from a servant, who, on going to call him to breakfast, found the door wide open and the deceased lying upon the floor, dead, with his coffin at his side. She screamed, which soon brought the family, and on raising the body the skull was found crushed in upon the brain. He was discovered about 8 o’clock yesterday morning, when, to all appearance, he had been dead several hours. On examining the closet, a bottle containing a quantity of sherry wine was found, and as Saturday night was excessively warm, he is supposed to have gone to the closet in order to procure the wine to use with some ice-water he had on a small table by his bedside. It is thought that he must have sought for it in the dark, and by some mistake upset the coffin, which stood nearly upright. Becoming sensible that it was falling, he probably made an effort to get away, when he fell, and the outer end struck his head with sufficient force to fracture his skull and cause almost immediate death. The inquest will be held with all possible secrecy. The unfortunate impression of the deceased concerning his relatives is a sufficient reason for withholding the names of the parties.

New York Times, July 28, 1856

Motivation

wyoming state penitentiary all stars

Felix Alston, the baseball-obsessed warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, wanted his prison’s team to be the best possible. So in 1911 he told his players that so long as they kept winning they would receive stays of execution.

The All Stars were murderers and rapists sentenced to death; they entered and left the field chained together in irons. But in 1911 death sentences were usually carried out within a few months, and the warden’s offer apparently had a strong effect: Between March 1911 and May 1912, the team won 39 of their 45 games.

It couldn’t last. The state supreme court justice who helped arrange the stays (and profited by his bets) came under increasing pressure to carry out the sentences, and when star shortstop Joseph Seng was hanged on May 24, 1912, the team’s winning streak came to an end. In the months that followed, one player escaped, five were hanged, and five were gassed to death. By 1916 the team was a memory.

Noted

From the New Ulm [Minn.] Weekly Review, 1886, on a recent surge in U.S. suicides:

The reasons assigned for some of the suicides are silly in the extreme, and some of the methods employed uniquely horrible. One woman killed herself because her mother did, and another because she had a pimple on her nose. … One young woman killed herself because her parents would not allow her to become a Mormon, and a New Yorker shot himself because he hadn’t a nickel to put in the collection box at church. … Several persons died in incalculable agony by jumping into fiery furnaces, and others saturated their clothing with kerosene oil and set it on fire. Still others clumsily sought death by crawling back and forth through barbed-wire fences, entailing great suffering, until they died from exhaustion, and others drove spikes through their brains. Shooting was the most popular method employed, with poison a good second. The most unique example was that of a man who impaled himself on his wooden leg.

“The Dyspeptic’s Suicide”

Mr. Beauclerk said [to Samuel Johnson:] Mr. ——–, who loved buttered muffins, but durst not eat them because they disagreed with his stomach, resolved to shoot himself; and then he eat three buttered muffins for breakfast, before shooting himself, knowing that he should not be troubled with indigestion; he had two charged pistols; one was found lying charged upon the table by him, after he had shot himself with the other.

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

Tempting Fate

What remained of the Tenth [Massachusetts] departed from City Point, on the James River, on June 21 [1864], for the return to Springfield and Northampton. But before leaving Virginia, on June 20, Sgt. Maj. George F. Polley, who was originally in Brewster’s company and had just reenlisted, carved his name and the inscription ‘Killed June –, 1864’ on a piece of board torn from a cracker box. After participating in the ‘goodbye’ rituals with his comrades and sharing an awkward amusement with them about his carving, Polley was struck flush by an artillery shell and killed. In his diary, brigade member Elisha Hunt Rhodes recorded this incident in his matter-of-fact style. Polley ‘showed me a board on which he had carved his name, date of birth and had left a place for the date of his death,’ reported Rhodes. ‘I asked him if he expected to be killed and he said no, and that he had made his head board only for fun. To day he was killed by a shell from a Rebel Battery.’ The last act of the Tenth before boarding the mailboat for Washington, D.C., was to bury Polley.

— David W. Blight, When This Cruel War Is Over, 2009