The hidden dangers of a Victorian Christmas

Narrative accidentIn the last (I promise) of my trilogy of Christmas disasters, here is a warning of the dangers of festive decorations. This Christmas tree-related incident from 1849 was documented in The Household Narrative, the almanac published by Charles Dickens between 1850 and 1855.  In the section tastefully entitled ‘Accident and Disaster’, Dickens reports the following incident: 

An accident, fortunately not serious in its results, occurred on the evening of the 7th at the residence of W. O. Bigg, Esq., of Abbot’s Leigh. There was a large party at the house, and during the night a “German Tree” about five feet high, with its branches covered with bon-bons and other Christmas presents, and lit with a number of small wax tapers, was introduced into the drawing-room for the younger members of the party. While leaning forward to take some toy from the tree, the light gauze overdress of one young lady, Miss Gordon, took fire, and blazed up in a most alarming manner. One of the lads present, whose quickness and presence of mind were far superior to his years, with much thought and decision threw down the young lady, and folding her in a rug that was luckily close by, put out the flame before it had done any serious damage beyond scorching her arms severely.

Using real candles on Christmas trees was commonplace for many years, and the cause of many a conflagration. Elaborate – and flammable – Victorian dress made this practice particularly hazardous.

A Christmas tree was also – allegedly – the cause of a serious injury reported in The London Lancet in 1856:

The subject of it was a young lady, about twenty-four years of age, in good health at the time, but not strong, surrounded by every comfort that wealth could bestow, living well, and taking a fair amount of daily exercise. I was first consulted after a large chronic abscess had formed behind the right mamma, but not affecting the mamma itself. This was attributed, and, I believe, justly, to long continued exertion of the arms above the head in dressing a Christmas tree.

The young woman sought medical assistance, and the surgeon Samuel Solly operated:

The abscess was opened, pressure was applied, and a careful, tonic plan of constitutional treatment adopted, change of air, carriage exercise, etc, but still the sinus would not heal…With the assistance of my friend Mr. Martin of Reigate, I first made an opening at the lower extremity of the sinus… I next dilated the upper mouth of the sinus sufficiently to insert my finger, and then feeling a small portion of carious sternum at the upper part, and at the lower, a similar disease of the third and fourth ribs, I removed the softened bone, in both places, with the gouge, and from this time the case went on well, and the sinus rapidly healed. My only source of regret in the treatment of the case was, that I had not adopted this plan earlier; but one naturally shrinks from a formidable operation on a delicate, sensitive female, even with the assistance of chloroform. 

Ouch. And Christmas trees aren’t the only decorations you need to be wary of. Today it is well known – or ought to be – that holly berries are poisonous. In 1858 this fact was little known, as demonstrated by a case published in The Medical Times and Gazette.  An 11-year-old boy was admitted to King’s College Hospital in serious distress:

From the statement of his friends, it appears, that on Christmas eve 1858, the boy amused himself by eating a large number of red holly-berries. Soon afterwards he began to vomit, and severe convulsions came on, which seemed to exhaust him very much. Indeed their violence was so great, and the consequent exhaustion was so alarming, that on Christmas-day his friends believed he would certainly die. Once he lay so still that he appeared not to breathe, and on holding a mirror before his mouth there was no evidence that respiration was going on, and those about him thought all was over. As a last resource, they poured a little wine into his mouth, which he swallowed, and, after taking a considerable quantity he gradually began to revive. 

Giving large amounts of wine to a patient believed to have been poisoned is not recommended.  Finally, if the Christmas decorations didn’t kill you in Victorian England, there was a chance that the dinner would. The Medical Times and Gazette reported the inquest into the death of one Mr Marshal George Harrison in 1871:

Poisoned by eating turkeyThe deceased was taken ill on December 29 last—it was supposed in consequence of something of a poisonous nature in the turkey of which he partook on Christmas-day. Mrs. Harrison, two daughters, a son, and a friend were also seized with vomiting, but all recovered, with the exception of the deceased, who died on January 4. The viscera of the deceased, and portions of the turkey, sauce, catsup, and some water, were sent to Mr. Rodgers, London Hospital, for analysis. In his report of the result of the examination to the coroner, he says that, after very careful analysis, no mineral or irritant poisons were discovered.

I find it interesting that in 1871 there seems to have been no notion of food poisoning caused by a pathogen, which very probably killed the unfortunate Mr Harrison. Having ruled out deliberate poisoning, Mr Rodgers declared himself perplexed:

In his experience he had met with a case equally singular, where a person had died after partaking of goose, and the symptoms in that case were identical with those observed in the present instance. He could come to no other conclusion than that the turkey was poisonous in its nature, like the goose referred to, and that the death of Mr. Harrison was attributable to no other cause. Verdict—“Death from, natural causes.” 

In conclusion: Christmas trees, decorations and dinner are all potentially lethal. You have been warned.

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