What they believed: This is a classic example from a book called Pith by a Londoner called Newton Crosland:
"In October, 1857, about 1 o'clock in the day, I was going from my office to sign an export bond at the Custom House, Lower Thames Street, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. I was in my usual satisfactory state, of health; my mind was occupied with merely common-place ideas; the traffic in the streets was going on with ordinary monotonous activity, and nothing was apparent there to wake in me the slightest trepidation, when, just as I was crossing Great Tower Street, I was seized with an unaccountable panic. I conceived a dread that I might be attacked by a tiger, and the idea of this horrible fate so haunted me that I absolutely began running in hot haste, and I did not stop until I found myself safe inside the walls of the Custom House. Anything more contemptibly absurd than this apparently causeless fear could scarcely be imagined: a merchant in the streets of London in danger of a wild beast!
The possibility of such a disaster seemed to me to be so ridiculous, the moment I thought about it, that I laughed at myself for allowing so foolish and morbid a fancy to take possession of my mind, and I really considered that I must be fast becoming stupidly nervous. The feeling of apprehension soon, however, passed away, and wonder at my own weakness became predominant. The next morning I took up the Times newspaper, when to my utter astonishment, I read that at precisely the same time when I felt the crazy fear, a tiger had actually escaped from its cage while it was being conveyed from the London Docks, seriously injured two children, and had, to the terror of every observer, ferociously misconducted himself in the public street of Wapping about a mile, as the crow flies, from the spot where I was passing."
The following passage occurs in the Times on Oct. 27, 1857:
"Frightful Occurrence. Yesterday afternoon, about 1 o'clock, as a cattle van was conveying from London Docks a Bengal tiger, the door gave way and the animal bounded into the road, encountered a little boy, sprang upon him, lacerating him in a frightful manner, &c."
Why they believed it: What's interesting is not so much the story, but the wider belief system into which it fits. Newton Crosland was actually a keen defender of Spiritualism - which had begun in the middle of the century in New York. The movement believed that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living: the above story was a symptom of telepathy. It soon began to absorb mesmerists into its ranks. Many famous and renowned people joined - not least Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes author.
The chatter around telepathy also inspired by fiction, from the clones stalking Dickens' guilty characters to the most famous tale, Jekyll and Hyde, where the outward respectability and inward lust of the character symbolises the hypocrisy of the age. Stevenson's story had its roots in growing uncertainties about the darkness that lay in the subconscious of every Victorian.