Updated: Jun 18
At first, I thought it was just an urban legend from London. But the story turned out to be completely different from what it seemed at first sight. Here is a sad, and at the same time a bit romantic tale from the letter of Charles Dickens to Cornelius Conway Felton:
“… Perhaps you don’t know who Dando was. He was an oyster-eater, my dear Felton.
He used to go into oyster-shops, without a farthing of money, and stand at the counter eating natives, until the man who opened them grew pale, cast down his knife, staggered backward, struck his white forehead with his open hand, and cried, ‘You are Dando!!!’” He has been known to eat twenty oysters at one sitting, and would have eaten forty, if the truth had not flashed upon the shopkeeper.
For these offences he was constantly committed to the House of Correction. During his last imprisonment he was taken ill, got worse and worse, and at last began knocking violent double knocks at Death’s door. The doctor stood beside his bed, with fingers on his pulse. “He is going,” says the doctor. “I see it in his eye. There is only one thing that would keep life in him for another hour, and that is—oysters”
They were immediately brought. Dando swallowed eight, and feebly took a ninth. He held it in his mouth and looked round the bed strangely. “Not a bad one, is it?” says the doctor. The patient shook his head, rubbed his trembling hand upon his stomach, bolted the oyster, and fell back—dead. They buried him in the prison yard, and paved his grave with oyster-shells.
Who would be ready to believe that? However, this is a true story.
Edward Dando was born on 11 February 1803 in Southwark (in the south of historical London), to John and Francis Dando. We know that Edward was studying to be a hatter, but he never became popular in London. By the age of
20, Dando was quite well-known in the British capital for his tricks. His pièce de résistance was to eat twenty-thirty dozens (240–360 pieces) of the best oysters with bread and butter, drink beer or brandy, and then say to the pub owner that he didn’t have any money to pay for it all. And that he promised to pay next time, while meanwhile he could whistle a beautiful tune to brighten the mood. Of course, furious pub owners would take Dando to prison or beat him up hard right on the spot. While most often they would do both. But nothing could stop Dando. As soon as he left prison, he would go to oyster sellers again and again.
If there were no oysters, he could eat any other food. London newspapers were writing about Dando’s «feats» all the time and warned the sellers from fish stores and pub owners against him.
The Morning Post from 04.01.1831:
The Morning Chronicle за 02.04.1832:
‘CAUTION TO SHELL FISH DEALERS, PUBLICANS, &c. – DANDO THE OYSTER-EATER, ABROAD’
In summer 1832, Dando from London, where everyone seemed to know him really well by that time, went to the county of Kent, hoping to eat some oysters there in his usual manner. But in the newspapers all across the county the warnings and the descriptions of a «celebrated oyster-eater» were already published. In particular, it was said that he was 29, five feet seven inches tall,
lame in the right leg, had brown hair and pale complexion. And that most often he was wearing a prison uniform.
(Once Dando was asked about the way he would dress. He said that there was nothing strange about it, since all of the garments he was wearing were picked up in prisons: “The jacket came from Brixton, the waistcoat . . . was bestowed to me at a similar establishment at Guildford; and the trousers I know I acquired by hard servitude in your Middlesex House of Correction.”)
Of course, during his short stay in Kent, Dando was in prison several times, and as soon as he got back to London, he was committed to Middlesex prison once again.
In the prison Dando fell sick with cholera, was taken to a hospital and died on 29 August 1832. He is buried on the cemetery of Saint-James Church in Clerkenwell.
That is the story of a strange oyster eater. Who was that guy, really? A thief? A prankster? A crazy lover of oysters, who was ready to tolerate being beaten so hard for his favourite dish? Nowadays Edward Dando would most probably be referred to as a performance artist.
On the morning of 30 August 1832, The Morning Chronicle published a necrology with a heading » Dando used to pride himself that he was no thief». Whether it is truth or just an artifice of the newsmen, the «oyster eater» himself assumedly thought that he was fighting against double standards in the society, and in court actions he often claimed: “Why, some men live in great extravagance and luxury, owe money and cheat their creditors, yet they are still considered respectable and honest. I only run into debt to satisfy the craving of hunger, and yet I am despised and beaten.”.
Oh yes, those oyster stories can lead you to strange places…