Wednesday 29 September 2010

Black Beetles

Readers may remember this recent post about The Mysteries of London. It contains one of the goriest passages in the penny dreadful, which details a mother proposing to blind her children. Reynolds took things from the press of the day, and I've just found the original of that very scene:

The Times of 30 June, quoting the Reading Mercury, has the following: “A Monster.—A day or two since, a gentleman travelling along the road near Colnbrook, had his attention attracted to the screams of a child in the care of a tramping woman, who had with her, two other children totally blind.  The cries of the child were so distressing, that he insisted on knowing the cause; but; not getting a satisfactory answer, he forcibly removed a bandage from its eyes, when, horrid to relate, he found these encased with two small perforated shells, in which were two live black beetles, for the purpose of destroying the sight.  The woman was instantly seized, and given into custody; and, at the magistrate’s meeting, at Eton, on Wednesday last, committed for trial.  There is too much reason to fear that the wretch produced the blindness of the other two children, by similar means.”  This was rendered into a street ballad.

Is it true? I don't know; but it was reported in the press (Friday, Jun 30, 1843 in the Times). The book in which I discovered this gem is Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria's Reign and, although little more than a collection of news clippings compiled in 1903, not a bad read in itself.


See this link ...
(many thanks to the commenter below)

But is it a genuine case or a fantasy? ... still digging ... my guess is still urban myth, as I can't find a fuller account anywhere in the British Library newspaper databases; combined with the unknown place name in the ballad ... but I could yet be proved wrong.


  1. Oh - I feel quite sick after reading that! Am in Windsor so will ask any local historians.

  2. I think it's probably an urban myth. The lack of names is suspicious in itself; and the protracted method seems calculated to turn the stomach of the reader, rather than be actually (forgive me) an efficient way of blinding someone. But if you learn anything, I would love to know!

  3. More on this, including the name of the woman involved and an account of her trial:

  4. Many thanks for this ... I'm still inclined to think it's a fake, but I'm looking ... I've updated the post!

  5. I think you'd be hard pushed to find a British beetle that could eat human flesh.

    In the insect world, "carnivorous" means something quite different to what we would know as "meat eating"

    A carnivorous beetle eats small grubs, and the rotting flesh of small dead mammals etc, not humans. Theur jaws simply would not be strong enough, nor would they recognise human flesh as a food source.

    This has penny dreadful written all over it for me, the fact that they do not even know the gender of the child, let alone when it was born or any other basic facts suggests it was never seen by anyone.

    I think we have Sweeney Tod syndrome happening all over again!