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Sunday 15 June 2014

Victorian Strangeness

Those of us with a penchant for Retro-Forteana have plenty of regular features in Fortean Times to keep us entertained. There’s the excellent “Blasts from the Past” series from Theo Paijmans, there’s Barry Baldwin’s “Classical Corner” (sometimes too retro even for me), and then tucked away at the back of the magazine there’s Jan Bondeson’s “Strange and Sensational Stories from the Illustrated Police News”.

The Illustrated Police News, despite its official-sounding name, was a sleazy Victorian tabloid that was once voted “the worst newspaper in England”. Jan Bondeson’s series has been highlighting the IPN’s more Fortean stories for three years now, ever since FT274. As that first article (which is available online) explained: “For the Fortean enthusiast, the IPN has a good deal to offer. Just like Charles Fort himself, the newspaper’s editorial staff sifted an enormous amount of newspaper copy from Britain, Europe and the United States in their search for dastardly crimes and sensational stories. When there were no recent murders, curiosities of other kinds were pressed into service: ghosts, freaks and hermits, strange deaths and premature burials all featured over the years.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and no less venerable an institution than the British Broadcasting Corporation has recently begun to follow in the footsteps of Fortean Times. Earlier this year the BBC website started a weekly feature called “Victorian Strangeness”, which draws heavily on the Illustrated Police News as well as other late 19th century tabloids.

The stories picked up by the BBC aren’t so much Fortean as just plain bizarre. The latest instalment, for example, starts with an irate man walking into the office of a leading medical journal carrying a newly severed human leg. That sounds like the opening of a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery... except that if it had been written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the situation would have had a less mundane explanation!

Other good stories that have appeared recently include the ship that was taken over by a menagerie of animals (11 May), the man bludgeoned to death by a clockwork automaton (24 May) and the grave-robbing monks of Sicily (31 May). But perhaps the most Fortean story was one that appeared back in April, recounting the havoc caused by an escaped circus lion (pictured above). Of course, Britain is still crawling with out-of-place big cats – a few lions, but mostly pumas and panthers – but these days they’re clever enough to behave in a suitably elusive way (see Big Black Cats: Physical or Paranormal?). They only allow themselves to be glimpsed tantalizingly from a distance – they don’t leap through windows and attack civilians the way they used to do in Victorian times!

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