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Dear Matt:

My boss says that Queen Victoria died by being crushed by a horse in an unusual kind of "riding accidentl" He says she had a stallion rigged up I some kind of a hoist for Her Majesty's personal pleasure; apparently the hoist broke, causing the horse to fall on the queen. I can't find any historical reference to this incident, and an English-born lady in the department thinks he made it up. Is it true?

-- Mr. Ed, La Jolla

In that little ménage a trios, Ed, you seem to be the only one with his hoist rigged up right. Your boss finishes out of the money, and so does your English friend. The story is a old standard. Been around for decades. Maybe centuries. He did take some liberties with the case of characters, though. For Queen Victoria of England, let's substitute Catherine the Great of Russia. Now at least we have the correct rumor, but the facts in the story aren't any more true.

Not that Catherine didn't have a legendary love life. She is even said to have had a squad of, well, ladies-in-waiting, I guess, who auditioned potential boyfriends for her. When she got bored with one she'd bounce him out of the palace and send for a new recruit. But this was just a relaxing pastime ad a break from the pressures of life as a land-grabbing 18th-century czarina.

Catherine died at 67 of a stroke, apparently unrelated to suitors or stallions. Victoria was 82 when she succumbed to the general infirmities of old age-- in continual pain, unable to eat, barely able to breathe, with bouts of facial paralysis and too weak to sit up. Hardly in a mood to entertain herself with a bedroom full of exotic hardware and farm animals.

Victoria was pleasant, if a bit dim. Catherine was a tough-minded, clever, feisty, and powerful woman, just the kind most likely to become the subject of outlandish rumors. A king could be as bawdy and imperialistic as he liked and people thought nothing of it. But a queen like Catherine would inspire rude stories that would live two centuries beyond her. That's life in the queen business, I guess.

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