Strange But True: British Newspaper Reports About Murcia From 1775 Onwards

During the past 200 years or so, a great many British journals and newspapers have carried reports about Murcia. Some of these reports have been brief ‘fillers’ about a range of sometimes weird and wonderful subjects, while other articles have been in much more depth and covered topics such as murders, poisonings and historical excavations.  A selection of the more intriguing reports are included below: 

Large golf ball sized hailstone courtesy of iam cootis
Large golf ball sized hailstone courtesy of Iam Cootis

Natural phenomena such as lightening, hailstones and earthquakes have always been a favourite topic: Mulhall’s Dictionary of Statistics, for example, explained that on 13th May 1775, the inhabitants of Murcia were bombarded with hailstones the size of oranges, weighing over twenty ounces (equivalent to over half a kilo). These Murcian hailstones did, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the hailstones which hit the French residents of Languedoc in 1844, which reportedly weighed eleven pounds (nearly five kilos).

During August 1859, a range of British and European journals and newspapers carried news that an active volcano had erupted in the mountainous interior of Murcia, not too far from settlements near Orihuela. All the Madrid journals and newspapers carried the story and as a result, British and American news outlets carried the same details. In reality, however, no such volcano existed and the story was a hoax – ‘fake news’ in the modern parlance. 

Animals and accidents (even if rather tragic ones) have been a favourite newspaper filler for a long time. In 1949, English language newspapers around the world carried brief accounts about a three-month old albino cockerel, resident on an unnamed farm in Murcia, had grown a horn on each side of its head and used these unusual appendages to attack other fowl and animals on the farm. Although journalists besieged the farm for further details and a glimpse of the aggressive cockerel, what became of the albino fowl is unclear. 

Olympia_Monica_Electric_S_Portable_Electric_Typewriter courtesy of Tangerineduel
Olympia Monica Electric S Portable Electric Typewriter courtesy of Tangerineduel

Far more serious than the affair of the errant cockerel was the accident which briefly seized the attention of British and Irish newspapers during 1997. Although computers were increasingly used during this period, electric typewriters still dominated many offices in Murcia, the UK and throughout the world. In May 1997, the Dublin Evening Herald recounted the story of a 27 year old secretary who worked at an office in Murcia City. Presumably the secretary had tired, swollen feet and she decided to rest them in a bowl of water while she worked at her desk. Sadly, she switched on her electric typewriter with her feet still in water and was instantaneously electrocuted. Whether or not the woman survived this rather tragic accident, in an era before health and safety requirements were so universally important, was not reported upon by any of the newspapers concerned.

Auto-da-fé_of_the_Spanish_Inquisition__in_a_church by B Picart (Wellcome Images)
Auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition in a church by B Picart (Wellcome Images)

During 1870 British and Irish newspapers became very interested in the history of false teeth. Early in 1870, Spanish archaeologists launched excavations in Murcia at the site of executions carried out by the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition in Spain ran between 1478 and 1834 and was at its peak in the fifty years between 1480 and 1530, when perhaps 2,000 executions were carried out around the country. During its Murcian excavations, archaeologists uncovered the remains of an Inquisition victim with a set of false teeth made entirely of silver. How these silver false teeth had survived was a question which certainly interested British journalists and the Devizes & Wiltshire Gazette of 14th July 1870 was inspired enough to place the ‘Murcian silver teeth’ within an historical timeline which included the wooden and ivory false teeth of Ancient Egypt and the false teeth of Ancient Greece and Rome. 

Dark secrets of murder and poisonings were always a favourite topic for salacious newspaper columns across Europe and events in Murcia during the 1930’s were certainly of interest to editors across the continent. On 8th August 1933, for instance, the Londonderry Sentinel reported on the grisly events in Jumilla, earlier in the year, when a 16 year old girl was observed (by her father) kissing her boyfriend at a dance. The father subsequently dragged his daughter home and beat her to death, allegedly because she kissed someone to whom she was not engaged to be married. What became of the father is unknown, though the matter was of obvious interest to British readers, because it said much about the subservient position of women and girls in traditional Spanish society at the time. 

Two years later, in 1935, British news outlets were much intrigued by the news that polluted bread had led to over 5,000 cases of poisoning reported in seventeen villages across Murcia. In December 1935, the Belfast Telegraph reported that one death by poisoning had already been recorded and one man had committed suicide after finding out that his wife and two daughters had collapsed after eating the polluted bread. The motive for the mass poisoning was eventually discovered by Dr Ballester, a doctor from La Aljorra, a village just northwest of Cartagena. Ballester was visited by a huge number of patients, who all presented the same symptoms of a swollen mouth, black gums, vomiting, violent stomach cramps, back pain, joint pain and dizziness. Ballester later found out that all his patients had bought bread from the same source. This bread was analysed and was found to contain a 6% mixture of barium sulphate and carbonate of lead – a highly dangerous concoction. The culprit turned out to be an avaricious baker, who had mixed 30 tons of the chemical barium sulphate with his flour in order to reduce costs and thereby increase his profit margins. 

Adrian & Dawn L Bridge