Five bizarre biographies

“You can’t go wrong with the DNB: there’s a story on every page” Jeremy Paxman

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He’s not wrong. One of the best things about your library card is that it gives you free access to the 55 000 life stories on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) web site.

As well as being a who’s who of the great and the good the DNB also includes an intriguing assortment of charlatans, chancers and eccentrics. Here are five of the strangest entries we’ve come across:

Horace De Vere Cole

This practical joker’s c.v. included impersonating the Emperor of Abyssinia, having a Tory MP arrested as a pickpocket and giving out theatre tickets to bald men, whose pates, seen from the dress circle, spelt out a very rude word.
He was excluded from Who’s Who on account of the answer he filed under ‘recreations’, an answer we’re far too polite to repeat here.

Jedidiah Buxton

A farm labourer from Derbyshire, Buxton never learned to write but could perform astounding feats of mental arithmetic. He was invited to London to display his talent to the Royal Academy, and as a treat was later taken to see a performance of Richard III, to which he paid no attention other than to count the words spoken by the actors. Local legend has it that he calculated the exact date he would die.

Daniel Lambert

The most corpulent man of his time, weighing in at over 50 stone, Mr Lambert quite literally made an exhibition of himself at the end of the eighteenth century.

Spring-heeled Jack

In the autumn of 1837 a host of incidents were reported from villages around London involving a mysterious figure who appeared, always after dark, chiefly in the forms of a bear, a man in armour, or the devil himself, and either frightened or attacked people by lacerating them or, more commonly, tearing at their clothing with his talons. His most usual target was young women. But who was he – did he (or she) even exist? Or was this simply a case of mass hysteria?

Elizabeth Parsons

This very naughty girl used her ventriloquism skills to impersonate a ghost called ‘Scratching Fanny’ whose notoriety was such that even the Duke of York was among the visitors drawn to her house to witness the phenomenon.

To read more about these, and everyone else who’s made any kind of impact on British life, use your library card to access the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online.

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