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“Suffocated While Drunk”: A forgotten Victorian death on the eve of the Great Blizzard of 1888.

blizzard of 1888

One hundred and twenty-six years ago today, on March 11, 1888, one of the largest blizzards ever to hit North America began its icy assault on the eastern seaboard. As my professional academic research involves environmental disasters in the past, particularly weather-related ones, I naturally did some research on the Blizzard of 1888. It’s an interesting story, but while scanning the New York Times for the first day of the blizzard I came across this strange article, which is both sad and illuminating of Victorian society at the time. It describes an unfortunate occurrence that happened in Brooklyn on March 10, the day the first snowflakes began falling on New York. Here is the article verbatim.

“SUFFOCATED WHILE DRUNK” A BROKER AND AN UNKNOWN COMPANION ASPHYXIATED.

Henry C. Parker, a produce-broker, having an office at 32 Front Street, this city, returned to his room in Mrs. Hanks’s boarding house, at 358 State Street, Brooklyn, at 6 o’clock yesterday morning, accompanied by a strange young man. A servant at work in the kitchen saw the two men enter, and observed that they were both intoxicated. This was the normal condition of Mr. Parker and 6 AM was his usual hour of returning, so this girl paid very little attention to him. The two men retired to Mr. Parker’s room and the door was locked.

At 1 o’clock in the afternoon a servant detected the odor of gas in the hall and informed Mrs. Hanks. A locksmith opened the door of Mr. Parker’s room and discovered that gentleman and his unknown companion dead in bed. The room was full of gas, issuing from the jet in the wall, the stopcock of which was turned full on. The dead men presented every appearance of having died from inhaling gas. They were undressed and had retired to bed as though to sleep. There was no indication of an attempt at suicide. The only explanation is that both men were so intoxicated that they had left the gas turned on.

Late yesterday afternoon, Parker’s wife, who lives at 64 Fort Greene Place, and with whom he had not lived for some time, called at the house, identified the body, and had it removed to the house of Parker’s sister, Mrs. Mary Woodbury, at 60 Cariton Avenue. She said that she had never seen his companion before, and no one in Mrs. Hanks’s house knew him. There was nothing about him to reveal his identity and no money in his pockets. He was 25 years old, of medium height, and dressed in dark clothes. In one pocket were two little red cards, such as are used in gambling houses to certify that the holder has purchased poker chips. They had “$5″ printed on them, and in one corner was the address 221 Butler Street. There is a vacant lot where the house of that number is yet to be built. The body of the unknown man was taken to the Morgue.

In Parker’s pockets were $30 and papers showing that he had an interest in his mother’s estate to the amount of $2,000, and that he belonged to an organization known as the Portland Club. He was 37 years old, and was at one time a member of the Produce Exchange and well off. Drink caused his fall and his subsequent separation from his wife. He has a brother Charles Irving in Wyandotte, Kan. The two were formerly associated in business in this city.”

After the blizzard the 25-year-old companion was identified: Hubert Doyle, a janitor at the Portland Club.

To modern eyes it’s very obvious what was going on even though the writer of this article was probably very careful to avoid suggesting anything improper. Parker was most likely gay. He got drunk, picked up Hubert and took him to the boarding house to have sex. They were too drunk to notice the gas was on full blast. During the act or after it they fell unconscious, whether from their drunkenness, the gas or both. They never woke up. Gas leaks such as this were a common occurrence in the Gilded Age.

The sad result of this ill-fated hookup was probably barely noticed at the time, as the newspapers were then full of news about the blizzard. I’m not sure there is any broader meaning attached to this forgotten Victorian death, but it caught my eye when I saw it.

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