Victorian Strangeness: The man who hoped to die in a railway crash
- 21 June 2014
Author Jeremy Clay tells the story of the man who rode the trains, hoping for a disaster.
Money. Property. Land. Heirlooms. Whatever the mourners were hoping to inherit when they first gathered for the reading of the will, they were to be sorely disappointed.
Shock. Disbelief. Dismay. Indignation. That's what they got instead. The man they grieved, who had never given them so much as a penny while he breathed, stayed true to the habit of his lifetime.
He'd left everything - the whole kit and caboodle - to his killer. It wasn't a ghastly coincidence, nor the tell-tale sign of murderous greed, but a heartfelt gesture of thanks - appreciation for a job well done.
Mr Railing had had a premonition, an unshakeable sense that he was going to die before his time. Not just that, he was tormented by the idea the end would be violent.
Rather than sit and wait for the Grim Reaper, he decided to actively seek him out. And the most agreeable way of finding him, in that calamity-punctuated age, was to catch the train. Repeatedly.
So that's what he did, according to the reports in the Victorian press. Mr Railing headed this way and that in Britain and the continent, fervently hoping the next arrival at each platform he set foot upon would be the express service to oblivion.
"There was not a station where he was not known," said the Royal Cornwall Gazette in the autumn of 1854. "All the conductors were familiar with him. He had narrowly escaped death several times. Once he was shut up in a car under water; another time he was in the next car to the one that was shattered, and he described with the greatest enthusiasm those terrible accidents, when he saw death so near without being able to obtain it."
Discouraged by these frustrating shortcomings of British and European railways, he made for America, which had developed a promising line in lethal mishaps too.
"He made excursions on the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Ontario, the Niagara," said the paper, "but notwithstanding their frequent explosions, he returned with whole skin."
A disheartened Mr Railing - who was either aptly named or a gin-soaked journalistic flight of fancy - came back home. And it was here, somewhere in the south of England, on an unspecified date, where he finally got his wish. He was crushed under a railway carriage.
After the funeral, his will was opened, along with a can of worms. "I give and bequeath all my goods, present or future, moveable or immovable, to that railroad company on whose road I have had the happiness to meet with death, that blessed deliverance from my terrestrial prison," his ashen-faced relatives heard.
And that's where the story ends. His family were going to appeal against the will on the ground of insanity, added the Gazette, "but it is probable that the railroad will win the suit, in spite of the proverb that the murderer never inherits from his victim."
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.