Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A new kind of wilful murder


I make no apology for reproducing some facts from the newspapers, for once; nor for earnestly—I wish I might be allowed to say, peremptorily—desiring the attention of the readers of Once a Week to these facts in their collected form. I do so for a purpose eminently practical.

It is a common thing to hear women say that they are tired of the abuse of crinoline: and it is almost as common to hear men say that there is no use in declaring their opinion of the present fashion in dress, as the women have shown very plainly that no considerations of self-respect, no regard for the convenience or feelings of others, no appeal to either sense or sentiment has any effect in regard to a fashion in dress which, instituted by an Empress, has enslaved her whole sex, except the very few who cannot surrender their self-respect even under a prevalent mania. All this is very true: but I think there may be some hope that a glance over the domestic tragedies disclosed by some of the Coroners’ inquests of the past year may possibly hasten the change of fashion which, of course, must come sooner or later. It is too late now for my countrywomen of the present generation to regain the position they held in the respect and confidence of men before this perilous and selfish madness carried them away. It is too late for society and for households to forget the sacrifices imposed on all their members by the unreasonable and ungenerous indulgence of a fancy in dress on the part of women whose proper business it is to promote the comfort and safety of home and of society. It is too late to repair the mischief done to the women of the working classes by tempting them to extravagance and affectation in the pursuit of a masquerading mode of dress. It is too late now to help the bereaved parents who have lost the dutiful daughter, to console the sorrowing widower, or to save the many motherless children in the country from the consequences of the loss of a parent in infancy. The victims of this perilous fashion cannot be brought to life again; nor is there any rational comfort which can be offered to those who mourn them: for of all deaths none surely are so shocking to the feelings of survivors as those which proceed from a dangerous fashion in dress. If the Coroner’s jury, in the case of Dr. Allen’s cook, “could not separate without expressing their disgust and horror” at the cause of her death, what must be the feelings of husbands, fathers, and orphaned children at having their home made desolate by such a frailty as compliance with an absurd fashion in skirts. The folly and crime of the past are irreparable; but I cannot help hoping that the evidence, if presented in groups of cases, may fix the imagination and the conscience of some women who are superior to the ordinary levity and shallowness, and childish wilfulness which are in this case as bad as malice and cruelty could be. Some few women of my acquaintance have throughout had the courage and firmness to resist the prevalent mania; and knowing this, and witnessing the effect of their virtue on the feelings of their neighbours of both sexes, I see every reason to hope that there may be more who can be startled into reason and conscience by a display of a few facts in their right order.

Before me lie the details of some of the deaths by crinoline, which have been inquired into by Coroners’ juries within a few months. They are not nearly all the cases that might have been collected by any one on the look-out for them. They are a mere handful, preserved on account of something remarkable in them, or from their following each other, at certain periods, in striking succession. On a recent occasion, Dr. Lankester declared his belief that at least six deaths per month occur in London from burns through the wearing of crinoline, while deaths from machinery are also frequent. At another inquest he said that “deaths from wearing crinoline were now so common that many are never reported in the public journals. If every fatal crinoline accident were reported, the public would know of them, and then crinoline would soon be abandoned.” My instances must therefore be considered a mere sample of the evils caused by this detestable fashion within the last few months.

The most interesting class to us all is probably that of the wives and mothers.

The wife of an engineer, Mrs. M. A. B——, was on a visit to a friend on Notting Hill when she met her death at the age of twenty-eight. She reached for something over the mantel-piece, and her skirt went into the fire. She was carried to St. Mary’s hospital, and immediately died there.—This was the way in which the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews perished lately. The suffferer and her daughter were from America; and probably there was the exaggeration in the style of dress which is usual in that country. She was standing before the fire when her skirt touched the bars. She ran out upon the stairs, after setting on fire the drapery round the fire-place she had left. Her screams will never be forgotten by her child, or any who heard them. Before night she was silent for ever.

More deaths are caused by the skirt catching fire behind than in front. It was but the other day that a poor young collier’s wife, M. A. R——, was stooping to her baby’s cradle, when her large hoop drove her dress behind against the bars. Then followed the useless endeavours of neighbours, with their blankets and wet towels; useless in these days, because the hoops prevent any effectual compression of the dress, and admit air within the burning garment. The poor babe has lost its young mother. She lingered through several days of agony, and then died at the age of twenty.—In another case a little boy of ten appeared at the inquest on his mother, and told what he had tried to do to save her. Her skirt went into the wood fire behind, without her being aware of it. The boy squeezed her clothes, and knocked out some of the flames with a stick. When a man came in to help, the boy called the neighbours: but in a minute or two she was seen in the road with her cotton-dress in flames, the canes preventing their being put out. There was a piece of steel hoop also left in the road. “For mercy’s sake! for mercy’s sake! put it out!” she cried, till she fell: but not till she fell could anything be done. She was just thirty-three,—old enough to have dressed herself more wisely.—The same thing happened to Mrs. R——, when she was standing with her back to the fire, in the midst of her little children. Stooping to look at something they wanted to show her, she struck her skirts against the bars. She, too, rushed into the open air; and the neighbours in this case, too, could only burn their hands without saving her. She was young; but who can replace her to her children?—A young wife comes next on my melancholy list. She had been married only a few weeks: and her husband was in the house. He had left her busy at the oven, and presently heard shrieks from the kitchen. She wore a large crinoline, and as she passed the fire-place her dress caught. Thus perished the bride of one-and- twenty.—There was another younger still,—only eighteen. She was dressed in muslin, widely spread out; and, on crossing the room, she whisked her flounces against the grate. She died on the stairs; but she had set two rooms on fire; and her husband, being called home, had to work at extinguishing the flames, while she lay dead. This was the case which drew the severest rebuke from Dr. Lankester.—Another of his grave remonstrances was called forth by the case of a widow who kept a tavern, and sat up at night to post the books. She, widow as she was, was a slave to the fashion; and she seems to have set her skirts on fire while undressing near a candle which was placed low. She died at noon next day.—Another lady, a young mother, escaped only through the fact of her dress fastening in front, all the way down. She was caressing her child by the fireside, when the little creature cried out that mamma’s gown was on fire behind. She gathered her skirts about her, and ran to the kitchen, where she desired a servant to hold her clothes tight, while she tried to get out of her cage. She unfastened gown and petticoat, and threw them off,—the under petticoat being burned to ashes, leaving only the steel apparatus. Her hands were much burnt; but she escaped with her life.

Are any of my readers complaining already of the monotony of these stories? They must hear more; but they may remember, perhaps, the two ladies who not long ago, and within a few days of each other, were crushed out of life, and out of all human semblance, by their skirts catching in the shaft of a mill. Here is a break to the sameness: but what an alternation it is! Shall we ever forget how one of those victims was seen, within a few minutes of being torn to pieces, gaily walking down the village street, with some friends and her son,—all elated at the new machinery being set to work that day. She was near her confinement; and due care seems to have been taken of her: but no care will constantly avail when the dress is out of the sphere of sensation of the wearer. No mind can be incessantly awake to the danger. Thus, after caution and warning, this victim’s wide-spreading dress was caught, and all was presently over.

If further variety is asked for, there is the case of Mrs. B——, who was about to enter an omnibus in the Euston Road when a passing mail-cart caught her apparatus of steel and cane, and dragged her a considerable distance. She was carried home with a dislocated wrist and a compound fracture of her leg. Such cases have been frequent; and children and gentlemen have often suffered from them, by being entangled in the trammels of the ladies they are walking with.

There are, besides, many accidents to children and others, by being pushed,—not only into ditches, and from the causeway into the road, but from boats and gangways and jetties into the water, and from the side pavements of London under the wheels of waggons or of cabs. Before me lies a published letter from a London surgeon, who declares that there are many more accidents from the hoop than any but men of his profession are aware of. He had just been called in to a case which grieved his heart. A pretty child of three and a half was dreadfully scalded because the parlour-maid, while carrying the urn, hissing hot, caught her foot in the steel cage of a young lady seated near the sister in whose lap the child was sitting. The maid stumbled forwards, and the urn shed its boiling contents over the poor child. Who would have slept that night, or for many nights, after having worn that hoop? Who would ever have liked the seashore so well again after witnessing the fate of the young lady who was disembowelled by the snapt steel hoop of her petticoat? “Take me to my mother!” was all her entreaty when people gathered round her, to ask her if she was hurt. Striving to the last to conceal what had happened, she could only cry—“Take me to my mother!” The widowed mother received her only child with a fatal gash across the abdomen; and thus the poor lady lost her only child,—her support and comfort in life!

The next class is that of the young ladies. Of the gay young creatures who, a year ago, were looking forward to a sunny life in this happy world, how many are now mouldering in the grave,—sent there through the torture of fire!

Torture indeed! S. W——, a girl of fourteen, who “wore a very large crinoline,” was alone at the time; and all we know is that the burning began with her skirts. The poor thing was “roasted” all over, except her feet, “which were protected by boots.”—E. C—— was visiting Mrs. W——; and another young lady was in the room, when she caught fire by poking her skirt against the bars. “O! put it out!” she cried, as they all do. She was rolled on the ground, and wrapped round with woollen things; but the hoop spoils the received methods of extinguishing such a fire. She died in the Infirmary; and the Leicester Coroner declared at the inquest that the “absurd expansion and profusion of the dress now worn by females, had occasioned more fatal accidents than he had ever before read or heard of.”—M. C——, aged fifteen, was sitting by the fire with another girl about her own age, when she stood up to reach something from the mantel-piece. Of course her dress touched the bars, and in a moment the flames were rushing over her head.—There was one younger still whose fate seems to me more piteous than almost any. Little J. B——, aged ten, had taken pains to dress herself for school, and had put on the fatal present just received from a cousin—a crinoline. “O mother! I was lacing Freddy’s boots by the fire,” was the explanation she gave. She was stooping down to her little brother’s feet when the new petticoat thrust itself into the fire. The foreman of the Coroner’s jury strongly condemned the fatal fashion; and the jury agreed with him: but they were too much afraid of “the sex” to put their judgment on record in the newspapers. Who, of the whole sex, would like now to have been the giver of that fatal gift?

Many of the young ladies’ cases arise from their dressing their hair before the glass with their extended petticoats on. The act of raising the arms to the head is sure to stick out the skirts in one direction or another; and we find, therefore, that several have perished in this way when the glass was within several feet of the fire-place.

M. A. L——, living with her parents in lodgings near London, rushed screaming out of her bed-room,—the flames reaching above her head. The landlord was on the stairs; and he did the best that could be done, at great risk to himself; but she died that night, from burns and the shock together. She had stooped before the glass, and so thrust her skirt against the bars of the grate. She was a fine healthy girl of seventeen.—Miss M. J—— combed her hair with her face to the fire, and perished in the same way, except that her skirts caught fire in front, instead of behind. Both these young ladies died in Guy’s Hospital, where the doctors must have long ago seen enough of the burnings of women to have a very strong opinion about the fashion of crinoline. Perhaps they may be fond of quoting, as some other doctors are, the saying of old gentlemen from India,—that we English have made a great outcry against the Suttee in India; but that we burn more women in twelvemonths by slavishness to fashion than the Hindoos do by their superstition. One morning last winter, M—— died of burns received since midnight, by her having hung up her gown upon a peg before she took off her crinoline petticoat. She had set her candle on a box at some distance; but the act of reaching brought her clothes against the flame, and she was dead before the observances of the day began.

A good many people say that all this sacrifice of life happens because ladies will not insist on their muslins being dressed with a preparation which would render them non-inflammable. They are saying so now about Mademoiselle Emma Livry, who was burned almost to death on the stage of the Grand Opera at Paris, the other day, during a rehearsal of “La Muette de Portici.” They say so about Miss C——, who was a guest at Lord Monteagle’s, at Mount Trenchard, when she set herself on fire by reaching to a window-curtain, and igniting her hanging sleeve. (Another perilous fashion!) They say so of the case of Miss E. M. S——, who was dressing for dinner after a wedding, in the same week, and, stooping to a trunk, set her sleeve on fire. Both these young ladies died; and it is alleged that they, and the crinoline victims, could have escaped, if their muslins and gauzes had been dressed with starch duly prepared. It may be so: but I should be sorry that more lives should hang on the question which will happen first,—the going out of wide petticoats or the general introduction of non-inflammable starching. Let the laundresses of empresses, princesses, peeresses, and prima donnas extol the life-saving property of the starch they use: but how long will it be before the ordinary starch is superseded by any new article in the laundries of the great middle class, and the kitchens of cottages throughout the land?

This brings me to the class of victims which, I own, interests me the most.

I wonder whether the Empress of the French, who is responsible for the introduction of the fashion;—whether our Queen, who is, it seems, not supreme in the world of English fashion;—whether the high-spirited young ladies of the aristocracy, who conceal their slavery to the mode under an air of wilfulness, ever cast a thought towards the humbler orders of their own sex, whose lives they put in peril by their caprices. I can fancy these ladies laughing at the cautions, and resenting or despising the remonstrances of their friends of the other sex on this particular matter, and claiming to be the sole judges of what they shall wear. I have seen some of them enjoying the opportunity of defying opinion, and of proving that they dress to please their own notions, and not men’s taste. I have known the extent of daring to which some middle-class ladies will go in spending more money on their skirts than they have warning that husband or father can afford. I have long ago perceived the recklessness with which they throw away, in this case, the prestige of their sex, which it will take generations to repair. Of all this I am fully aware. I see how the habitual politeness of well-bred women gives way when the question is of incommoding their neighbours by their dress. From knocking my furniture about when they come to see me, to cutting my shins with their sharp steel in a throng, and allowing me and their other acquaintance of the order of gentlemen no room at the dinner table, or at church or the theatre, they give pain and do mischief without remorse or regret. All this I know; and perhaps I hear more of the consequences to their repute than they do: but what I yet want to know is, whether they have any sense of responsibility for the sacrifice of life they have caused in the class of maid-servants, and of schoolgirls who are to be maid-servants. It is no doing of theirs that deaths do not happen in that way in factories. The mill- owners have very properly taken the matter into their own hands; and the crinoline must be left outside the walls. But there is no such general rule in kitchens, servants’ halls and schoolhouses; and dozens of young women of the working class perish yearly, because of the circumference of the ladies’ dresses.

As for me, I took my part at once in my own house. In the kitchen no hoop or crinoline is permitted; and this is easy to enforce, because in the parlour nobody desires to wear either. The servants must do as they choose out of doors; and if they annoy fellow-worshippers at church, I cannot help it: but I will not have my family fires made and my family dinners cooked by women so dressed as to invite destruction by burning. What I want to know is whether the responsible women of this country ever think of this class of their sisters; whether they are unaware that the same feelings which make them imitate empresses and princesses in style make our servant-maids imitate ladies? I want to know whether the slavery is more degrading and absurd in one rank than in another; and whether the sense which should despise it ought to be expected among maid-servants while ladies are incapable of it? I want to know whether any lady in England really expects the cottager’s wife to go buying patent starches, used in royal laundries, in order to render safe her child’s cotton frock for school, or Molly’s calico petticoats, when she goes to be scullion at the Squire’s? If ladies are still burnt by the dozen in muslins and gauzes, are housemaids and cooks to be scolded for being burnt in calico and print?

Enough! A few illustrations, and I have done.

Servant-maids have not the benefit of the now necessary training in sailing about, with skill and grace, in houses not built with a view to the present mode of dress. They preserve a greater simplicity of manners; but they are in more danger of accidents. I like to have to guard neither my flower-pots and china from my guests, nor my guests from my fire-bars: and I certainly prefer the carriage and manners of a waiting-maid who can move swiftly and deftly about my drawing-room to those of any lady in a barrel whoever enters it. Further, I prefer the cheerfulness of a handmaiden who never needs to think of danger within my walls to the levity of damsels who, when I catch their skirt in its sweep of the bars, thank me carelessly with the observation, “I have no wish to be a victim to crinoline.” From some comments which reach me from without, I am satisfied that other people,—well-bred persons of both sexes,—are under the same impression. If it exists, wherever there is opportunity to note such a contrast, and where we all mentally pronounce vulgar the death of a poor scullion or chambermaid who perishes by crinoline, what ought those ladies to feel who have tempted their humbler sisters to their death, and who then despise them for it?

On a Sunday morning, M. A. E——, a nurse, was busy at the kitchen fire, when her hoop turned upon a fire-bar. (She was certainly no pupil of Florence Nightingale.) She was instantly wrapped in flame.—A nursemaid,—a young creature of sixteen,—E. L——, was stooping down to look at a picture in a new book which one of the children wanted to show her, when her skirt went into the fire behind, and she was on fire all over. She rushed into the garden, where two men put out the flames. Whether she died we know not; but there was no expectation of her recovery.—That a woman who had been forty years cook in one family should die such a death seems strange; but there are certainly ladies in the peerage as old as M. F—— who wear crinolines. This woman was kneading her dough very vigorously, with her back to the fire, when the action drove her petticoats against the grate; and, after a day and night of agony, she died.—M. A. W—— was preparing dinner for her master, a London physician, one evening between five and six, when her crinoline caught fire. She rushed into the street, where there were plenty of hands to tear off the burning fragments, wrap her in rugs, put her into a cab, and take her to the Westminster Hospital. She was burned all over; and it was at the inquest on her body that the jury expressed their “disgust and horror” at the wearing of crinoline by domestic servants.—S. B—— was a nursemaid, in the service of Mrs. P——, who was in the nursery when the poor girl thrust her hooped petticoat into the fire in reaching for a pin from the mantel-piece. Her mistress was much burned in trying to help without doing much good; but two men rushed in from the road, and put out the flames—too late.—One Sunday, a servant girl of nineteen from Pimlico was allowed to spend the day with her friends; and she went dressed in muslin. On her return she struck a light with a lucifer, which she threw down, forgetting that her muslin skirt interposed between it and the hearth. Her master took her to St. George’s Hospital as soon as her burning clothes were torn off; and there she lingered for some days, and died.

Some of these domestics were “much regretted.” I trust there may be more to regret them now that their cases have been thus grouped, and the responsibility for their fate brought home. It is said that the ladies of Austria have begun the opposition to crinoline, in the name of their sex, very smartly. They will countenance no theatre where it is worn. Of course we may conclude that they do not wear it themselves. There are Englishwomen who never have worn or countenanced it. There must be more capable of the requisite courage, if once convinced of the reality of the call for it. A few hundreds of such sensible and resolute women in any country would presently reduce the leaders of fashion to change their mode. How many more of my countrywomen will be burnt alive, crushed, disembowelled, or drowned before this is done?

From the Mountain.