Accidents and other catastrophes: As reported in the newspapers of the time

By James O’Hanlon

There is nothing I desire more to be informed of, than of the death of men: that is to say, what words, what countenance, and what face they show at their death…Were I a composer of books, I would keep a register, commented of the diverse deaths, which in teaching men to die, should after teach them to live.
Montaigne, Essays

A trawl through the Ulster Historical Foundation’s comprehensive database of graveyard inscriptions will unearth many colourful names: Nicholas de Lacherois Crommelin, Baptist Hogsett, Narcissus Batt, Pietro Nabucco, Espartero Jones, Ringham Bingham, Carberry O’Fey, Bartholomew Romanville, Patrick Coraboo. On the surface they would appear to be more at home in a Victorian melodrama than an Ulster graveyard, but delve a little deeper and you will find they lived their incident packed lives cheek by jowl with their more mundanely monikored contemporaries.

History from Headstones Online attempts to offer a window on the historical past by seeking out the more noteworthy, outlandish or bizarre stories gleaned from the final resting places of our forebears; and thereby encouraging everyone to value church graveyards and cemeteries as repositories of folklore and local history. Its aim is to convey the sense that every life has a story to tell, even if it is a life lived outside the spotlight of fame, notoriety or calamity.

Each graveyard inscription, be it lyrical or prosaic, gives only a brief snapshot of a life. All deaths have a private or familial significance but some have a more public resonance. This essay deals with those benighted souls whose sudden and violent deaths were recorded by the newspapers of the time. The intention is not to awaken prurient or voyeuristic interest, rather to convey the truism that behind every graveyard inscription is a life lived to the full or as in these examples, brutally truncated.

These accounts offer an insight into the changing, and sometimes sadly unchanging, social climate of the country: the increasing industrialisation of Ulster that wrought its own havoc upon the working man and woman; the sporadic sectarianism that brutally and often haphazardly claimed new victims; the advent of the locomotive and the automobile that changed the landscape of the country, facilitated the movement of population and the increase in business, but in return extracted a heavy price in human life. The newspapers reflected these developments with matter of fact, and occasionally, lurid or macabre descriptions of drownings, shootings and accidents.

The following stories have all been gleaned from contemporary accounts in the Belfast News Letter or Belfast Telegraph. They are framed in the occasionally arcane language or unusual sentence construction of the time. They flesh out the story behind individual graveyard inscriptions taken from our database. You will encounter a Portuguese sailor hanged at Carrickfergus, a man drowned attempting an heroic rescue on Christmas Eve, the death of a young man playing football, an unparalleled railway disaster, and the members of one Ulster family who fell at Waterloo, Ladysmith, Flanders and Burma.

Why not do a spot of historical sleuthing yourself? Choose a graveyard, note down some arresting inscription, the name, date and manner of death, and check out the background in the newspaper sections at your local library. A treasury of local history awaits you.