Featured

The Victorian Book of the Dead Blog

victorian book of the dead AMAZON

Thanks for joining me! This blog is about the popular and material culture of Victorian death and mourning, some of which is shared in my book The Victorian Book of the Dead. The blog will consolidate posts on mourning and death from two of my other blogs: Mrs Daffodil Digresses and Killer Budgie at hauntedohiobooks.com. I will also occasionally post on other funereal topics or share unique excerpts from primary sources. Some posts will be grim, some will be humourous, some grewsome, as the Victorians said.  I will warn readers that I have a reprehensible penchant for treating the subject of death as entertainment.

If you have questions about Victorian mourning or comments, please do get in touch at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mortui viventes docent.

Taking Pictures of the Dead: An Interview with a Photographer: 1882

A lone grave on the battle-field of Antietam, Alexander Gardner, 1862 https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646938/

For “Camera Day.”

[Originally published on 22 September 2013 https://mrsdaffodildigresses.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/taking-pictures-of-the-dead-an-interview-with-a-photographer-1882/ ]

A first-hand narrative from a photographer of the dead and how he came to such a vocation. This past week was the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, where this photographer had a grim experience.

GHASTLY PHOTOGRAPHIC EXPERIENCES.

[Sunday Mercury.] I’ve been engaged in taking pictures of the dead for twenty years or more, was the remark of a photographer of Philadelphia, as he arranged his camera to photograph the first corpse ever brought to a Philadelphia gallery for that purpose. A little coffin or casket was under the sky-light in a slanting position, supported by two chairs, and in it was the body of a fair-haired child, whose peaceful, smiling expression, despite the ghastly pallor of death, make it appear to be in tranquil sleep. The head lay in a perfect bed of flowers, and the waxen hands clasped held a spray of mignonette and two delicate tea rosebuds. The sun, shaded as it was by curtains, threw a bright glare over one side of the little dead face, leaving the other half in shadow. The tube of the camera was brought to the proper focus on the silent subject, and in a few seconds the negative was ready to go into the “dark room” and be prepared for printing in its chemical bath. No one was in the place except the proprietor, a solemn-faced undertaker and your correspondent. This is the first time, said the photographer, as he critically examined the negative, that I have ever been called upon to picture the dead in my own place, but this case was such a peculiar one that I could not refuse, although it would undoubtedly draw away custom if it were known. People have a foolish horror of death, you know, and would actually be afraid to come if they thought I had dead bodies here. It only took a moment, and there was really nothing awful about it. The mother, poor soul, will have something to look at and cry over now, and the speaker stopped, as the undertaker had turned the last screw in the lid of the coffin and was preparing to carry it out to the hearse again.

THE CAMERA ON THE BATTLE-FIELD.

My first experience in photographing the dead, resumed the photographer, as the hearse rattled away from the door, was on the battle-field of Antietam. It was a warm September morning, three days after the great fight. I had a boy with me to assist in preparing the chemicals. He only worked for an hour. With boyish curiosity he went poking about, and picked up an unexploded shell. He was then on the bank of the creek about half a mile off. I never knew how it happened, but the bomb exploded, and almost blew him to pieces. A little darkey came up to where I was waiting for the boy’s return, and completely unnerved me by shouting: “Say, boss, de red-headed gemmen has done gone and blowed hisself up wif a shell!” He was a bright, intelligent boy, and I felt his loss keenly, but I pressed the negro boy into service, and went to work.

It would be useless to go over the scene of that carnage again; to tell of the ghastly after-sights of that awful fight which made so many widows and orphans. I was nervous and excited, and you can depend it did not tend to quiet my nerves when I unwittingly planted one leg of the camera stand on the chest of a dead Union drummer-boy. By some means he had been partly buried in a patch of soft soil. Nothing was visible but the buttons on his blouse and one foot. I changed my position rather hastily. A “dark room” was improvised by hanging army blankets from the limbs of a low tree; and after taking four negatives, I packed up my traps and started for Philadelphia. It was a slow and dangerous journey, but I made it in safety, and went to work printing pictures. They sold like wildfire at fifty cents and one dollar each. I was nearly two thousand dollars in pocket in less than two weeks, and determined to repeat the programme after the next big battle. It came with Fredericksburg. My anxiety to get a view of the field after the retreat of the Union army led to trouble. I was captured by three Confederate stragglers and taken down the Rappahannock in a rowboat. They suspected me to be a spy, I suppose, and the photographic apparatus merely a blind. At any rate the valuable camera, chemicals, glass and everything else were dumped into the river. I was taken before General Lee, personally, and charged with being a Union spy. No explanation availed anything; it was not even believed that I was a photographer. One of General Lee’s staff—I think his name was Murray—proposed that I should be tested. An aide-de-camp galloped off and procured the necessary apparatus, and I photographed the rebel general and his entire staff, on a day cold enough to freeze the words in a man’s mouth. The officers were evidently impressed with the idea of my innocence. A short consultation followed, and then General Lee himself said to me: “Sir, it appears that you are simply engaged in earning a livelihood, and, I believe, honestly. You are at liberty.” I was blindfolded, put back in the boat, and landed within twenty miles of where Burnside had his winter quarters. From that day to this I never knew where I was. Here is the picture of Lee and his staff, and the photographer exhibited the faded likeness, which had probably saved his life.

FRIGHTENED BY A SUPPOSED CORPSE.

After the battle of Gettysburg, he resumed, it became very common for photographers to go to the front. They all appeared to be making money, and I finally made up my mind to try it again. The three days’ fight at Spotsylvania Court House was the last battle-field I ever saw, or want to see again. I arrived there before General Grant had driven the enemy into Richmond. Many of the dead had been removed, but there were still many bodies on the field—enough, in fact, to make a good picture, I thought. I never took it. After getting the best site to have the sun on a half-dozen dead soldiers and two abandoned cannon for the central figures of the picture, I covered my head with the cloth and brought the tube to bear on the group. I had just got the proper focus when a most startling incident occurred. I saw the arm of a supposed dead man lift high in the air and then fall. The day was mild, beautiful and sunny. Everything was as still as death, except the faint booming of a far distant cannon. I dropped the cloth and ran forward to where the dead soldiers lay. There was not the least sign of life in any of them. Decomposition had set in, except in one of them, a dark-haired young man wearing the gray uniform of the Confederacy. He was dead, to all appearance, and a ragged bullet-hole in his forehead precluded any other idea. Thinking it was only imagination, I went back to the camera to make another attempt. No sooner had I lifted the cloth to put over my head than I saw the arm lift up a second time. There could be no mistake. Again I approached the dead men, and looking first at the young man who seemed to have met death later than his companions, I plainly saw a tremor in his fingers. Quickly I bent over him, and placing my hand on his forehead found it clammy and cold. He was not dead, but dying. I spoke, and his eyelidstrembled in a sort of unconscious recognition of the presence of the living. I heard a faint flutter of the breath, and saw the shadow of a smile hover for a moment about the lips. Then came a long-drawn sigh, a weak gurgle in the throat, and the soldier boy was dead.

I opened his coat. An old-fashioned daguerreotype of a gray-haired lady, a pack of cards and a Catholic prayer-book I found wrapped up in a small Confederate flag. On the fly-leaf of the book was written, “Henry Barnes MacHenry. From his mother.” The poor fellow had evidently lain where he fell for two or three days, suffering from the tortures of hunger and thirst. Earlier attention might have saved him. The incident, simple as it may seem to you, frightened me. I went home, and for a year devoted myself to regular photography.

A GHASTLY KIND OF BUSINESS.

Business grew dull, and I got poor. The war had just about ended, when one day, when pushed to my wits’ end for money, I was struck with an idea which I have followed out successfully ever since. The death columns of the morning papers were carefully gone over, and when the funeral was advertised from an humble neighborhood I was usually sure of a five dollar bill. I visited the houses and offered to photograph their dead. Out of a dozen visits I would probably get one job. In a couple of years my reputation grew, and now I am almost as frequently sent for as the minister. Only last May a messenger came from a West Philadelphia family for me to photograph their dying father.

When I got there he was too far gone and I had to wait. Half an hour after the old gentleman had breathed his last, and before he became stiff, we had him sitting in a chair, with his eyes held open with stiff mucilage between the lids and brow, and his legs crossed. He made a very good picture. I once photographed two children—sisters—who had died the same day of diphtheria. They were posed with their arms about each other’s necks. An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward. Another time I took a picture of a dead man who had been scalded to death. It was a full-length photograph, and an artist was engaged to fill out the burns on the face and then make a copy in oil. For that piece of work I got $50, and I think he got no less than $500.

TAKING THE DEAD FROM THE TOMB.

I recall an instance, continued the photographer, which is probably the most remarkable thing ever related. Two young men came into my place in the winter of 1874 or 1875, I forget which, and said they wanted a photograph of their dead father, whose body was in the family receiving vault awaiting interment in the spring. They cautioned me that their step-mother was violently opposed to having her husband’s body taken from the vault for such a purpose, and that she daily visited the place of sepulture to prevent any such attempt. It was agreed that I should engage a couple of men to assist in taking the body out, and another to keep watch for the widow. We went to the vault early in the morning to avoid the woman, who usually made her visit after twelve o’clock. It took some time to get the body properly posed against the side of the vault, and then it began to drizzle. We threw a horse blanket over the coffin and retreated to the shelter of a tree. About noon the sun came out, and I hurriedly prepared to secure the negative. The camera had just been placed in position when our sentinel came running breathlessly in, with word that the widow was nearly at the entrance to the cemetery gate, a quarter mile distant. It did not take a moment to restore the corpse to the coffin, screw on the lid, and carry all back to the vault. I packed up my kit, and with the two men got out of another gate. Four months after that one of the sons came to me with a most remarkable story. He said his step-mother had lost her reason. When the dead man’s body was exhumed in the spring in the presence of the widow, she insisted on having the coffin opened. The corpse was found partly turned over and the lining of the coffin disarranged. The widow went into hysterics, under the impression that her husband had been buried alive. The stepsons tried to reassure her, and finally confessed that they had authorized the taking up of the body to have it photographed, but the explanation came too late. The woman’s reason was affected, and she could not understand that in our haste to escape we had turned the corpse on its side.

Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This gripping narrative contains several popular themes of the era: dying Civil War soldiers, post-mortem photography, and burial alive. The mistaken placing of the tripod on a drummer boy’s corpse, the “dead” soldier’s moving arm, and the descent into madness of the obviously disliked stepmother are thrilling touches. And it is always useful to get a professional’s tips on how to make a dead body seem alive using common household items.

This excerpt and more on post-mortem photography may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

For a piece on the myth of standing post-mortem photographs see this post, Dead Man Standing.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

One Widow’s Folly: 1909

Parisian mourning chapeau, 1909

ONE WIDOW’S FOLLY.

She Squandered on Extravagant Dress What Little Money She Had, But She Knew Her Business.

The West Side woman was smiling with so much amusement that her companion insisted on knowing.

“It’s the story of a little woman I know. She was first mentioned to me as an object of charity, as her husband drank and they had three children. I gave her clothing and helped her in every way I could, and so did a number of other persons. A few months ago her husband died, and to the surprise of all concerned he left a life insurance of $1000. it was the only creditable thing he had ever been known to do. I could not help feeling that conditions would be better for the widow than they had been for the wife. I asked my husband if he did not think she could open a small shop of some kind in her neighborhood and thus make the money support her and her children. He said she certainly could if she had any gimp, and that we would do anything we could to help her that direction. I spoke to a number of her neighbors and friends about it, and all thought the idea was excellent. I also spoke to the widow in regard to it. and she seemed pleased, but she didn’t do anything about it. Several times I referred to it and said my husband and I would help her to get started; and her friends also talked with her as to what would be the best kind of business for the neighborhood etc, but she-just smiled pleasantly and didn’t make a move to open a shop. Of course, we couldn’t take her money by force and put it into business for her; so we simply had to wait to see what she would do. She had never been one of the active sort.

“To our distress, she began to squander the money right and left on mourning clothes for herself. I was perfectly shocked at such extravagance and implored my husband to interfere, but he said we couldn’t do a thing.

“‘It docs seem.’ I said to him, ‘as if somebody of intelligence ought to save such a woman from her own folly and lack of judgment. That money will soon be gone, and then she and her children will again be objects of charity.’  

“He told me I’d better drop the matter and not worry myself about it, and I made up my mind that If she should come to grief I really could not again undertake to help her.

“She didn’t come to grief. She looked so swell in her new mourning clothes that a big, lumbering greenhorn of a fellow fell in love with her and has married her and her three children. He is some sort of a mechanic and makes a great deal more money than she could make in any kind of a shop she would be likely to run, and my husband grins every few minutes about what he calls her ‘business judgment.’ 

The Boston [MA] Globe 1 August 1909: p. 53

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Widow’s Wedding Dress: 1870s-1916

half mourning wedding gown purple and black2

The other bride wore black, being, as Virginie explained to us, a widow carrying the mourning for her defunct husband up to the last possible moment—a touching devotion to his memory, is it not?

The New York Times 26 August 1877: p. 3

AT A WIDOW’S WEDDING

Etiquette Which Governs This Highly momentous Event.

Etiquette governing the wedding of a widow has been recently reorganized and temporarily, at least, is finding high vogue among certain great ladies who are making second matrimonial ventures. The widow’s engagement ring is now a peridot, which in reality is an Indian chrysolite, and a deep leaf-green in color. The peridot ring is set about with diamonds, and when it arrives the lady gives her first engagement ring to her eldest daughter and her wedding ring to her eldest son.

One week before the wedding a stately luncheon is given to the nearest and dearest of the old friends of the bride to be. After the engagement’s announcement, she appears at no public functions. At the altar her dress may be of any subdued shade of satin. To make up for the absence of veil and orange blossoms, profusions of white lace trim the skirt and waist of the bridal gown en secondes noces. Even the bonnet is of white lace and the bouquet is preferably of white orchids. An up the aisle the lady goes, hand in hand with her youngest child, no matter whether it is a boy or girl. The little one wears an elaborate white costume, holds the bride’s bouquet, and precedes the newly married pair to the church door. Where there is a large family of children and a desire on the widow’s part for a trifle more display than is usually accorded on such occasions, all of her daughters, in light gowns and bearing big bouquets, support their mother to the altar.

An informal little breakfast now follows the ceremony. Such a breakfast is scarcely more than a light, simple luncheon, served from the buffet, wound up by a wedding cake, and a toasting posset, but the bride of a second marriage does not distribute cake nor her bouquet among her friends. Her carriage horses do not wear favors, either, though shoes and rice can be freely scattered in her wake, and, to the comfort and economy of her friends, she does not expect anything elaborate in the way of wedding gifts. N.Y. Sun.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 27 May 1896: p. 5

Subdued colours and muted joy seem to have been the order of the day for most second marriages. Travelling costumes covered a multitude of sins.

SECOND MARRIAGE

What Fashion Prescribes for a Widow’s Bridal Gown.

The Revolution in Etiquette Which Permits White Silk and Orange Blooms to a Widow Who Stands Before the Altar for the Second Time

A change comes o’er the spirit of our dreams. There’s nothing short of a revolution in progress in the etiquette of second marriages.

The color gray, it is against its deadly zinc tones that the arms of the rebels are directed.

Powerful has it been to avenge the spinster on the pretty widow who dared to lead a fresh captive in chains.

I’d wager three yards of pearl gray silk that more than one bridegroom has felt the love glamour fading into common light of every day before the subdued tones, the decorous reminiscent festivities of a second marriage…

I’d wager three yards again the Hamlet’s mother stood up with the wicked uncle in a pearl gray gown frightfully trying to her complexion and that bad as he was he repented the murder when he looked on her. She had no bridesmaids, of course. There were no orange blossoms, and she hid her blushes under no maiden veil. She still wore the ring of her first marriage, and when they came to the proper point in the second ceremony, his fingers touched it, reminding him of ghosts, as he slipped another just like it to be its mate on the same finger. She wore a bonnet probably and thoroughly correct cuffs and collar. It’s possible that she avoided comparisons with the gayeties of her first wedding by eschewing distinctly bridal robes altogether, and gowning herself from head to foot in travelling costume. Unless she had the genius to seek this refuge she was all in half tones, not sorrowful, but as if having emerged from grief, she was yet unable to again taste joy….A traveling dress as a costume for a second marriage saves too many embarrassments as to questions of toilet to fall out of favor these many years. A widow who remarries wears or does not wear, as she chooses, her first wedding ring at the second ceremony. Two or three years ago she usually retained it. Now she oftener takes it off.

[The balance of the article discusses wearing white and bridal flowers in defiance of Mrs Grundy as well as the toilettes of some recent widow-brides.]

Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 17 February 1889: p. 12

black and violet mourning wedding gown c. 1850

WIDOW’S WEDDING LORE.

It may not be well known, but there is a peculiar etiquette attaching to the ceremony of a woman’s second wedding.

It is possible for her, should circumstances permit, to marry as often as she chooses, but only once in her life is she allowed to carry orange blossoms. This is when she stands at the altar for the first time. On the same principle, it is not correct for a widow to wear white at her second marriage ceremony. Cream, grey, heliotrope—indeed, any color she prefers—is permissible.

The bride of experience also should never wear a long bridal veil with or without a bonnet. Neither is she allowed to wear a wreath on the short veil which etiquette permits her to don. She may, however, carry a bouquet, but this should not be composed of white flowers. It is considered better taste for her to match the colour of her wedding-gown with the floral decorations.

The “bridesmaid” of a widow also is not called a bridesmaid, but a “maid of honor.” Her duties, however, are exactly similar to those of the former, though her title is different.

Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette 19 March 1913: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

There was a heated controversy over whether widows were ever entitled to wear white en secondes noces. Some said, “yes,” while banning the veil and the orange blossoms (1889); others said only heavy white fabrics such as velvets and brocades were acceptable (1889); while others delicately suggested pale, half-mourning colours (1916).  As we have read above, the “deadly zinc tones” were not universally pleasing. This gown, however, sounds quite lovely:

A widow’s bridal-gown, of palest violet satin trimmed with sable. An infinitesimal toque of silver passementerie and ivory satin is worn on the head. Demorest’s Family Magazine January 1895: p. 186

The most sensitive point of etiquette had been settled by the early 20th century:

Above all [a widow] should not wear the ring of her first husband. That should be taken off and locked away. The second happy man doesn’t want to be reminded of Number One more often than is necessary. Wanganui Chronicle 9 August 1913: p. 4

For more on etiquette for widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is also available in a Kindle edition.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Potato Bugs, Cow Paunches, and Peaches: Indirect Poisonings

In my well-thumbed files of strange deaths, there are a number of curious poisoning cases. These are not the humdrum “I-mistook-Rough-on-Rats-for-sugar” stories of the harried housewife or careless servant nor the plausible tales of strychnine bought to exterminate vermin—unwanted stepchildren, for instance, or inconvenient spouses. No, these are more subtle, and to my mind, more interesting “indirect poisonings.”

They come in three flavors: animal, vegetable or mineral. Animals are by far the most numerous. We begin with an article by a dog-loving journalist. The baby seems to be an afterthought.

DOG POISONING

(Fort Wayne News-Sentinel)

Out in Spokane Washin., one of those sneaking beasts in human form, whose milk of human kindness has been curdled with the venom of a cancered soul, set out some poison for a dog the other day. The dog found the bit of food that had been poisoned and took the bait. In his agony, the poor creature crawled to his little pal, a 19-months-old child, and licked the baby’s hands. The baby put his hands to his mouth and got some of the poison and was soon in the throes of excruciating pain. At the moment when these lines are written, the baby is hovering between life and death. All this ghastly tragedy because some beast unworthy of the association of dogs had vented his sinister and unnatural spleen upon society. If nothing else will avail to withhold these perverted pusillanimous caninophobiacs from throwing out poison for dogs, let them reflect upon the Spokane case and consider the possibilities of death to human beings which may result from the death of a normal human being’s animal friend. But will a dog hater be much worried about what can happen to a baby? Hammond [IN] Lake County Times 27 February 1930: p. 4

Cow’s milk was often a hazardous commodity. There are too many cases to count of persons killed or driven mad by cows ingesting poisonous plants. [In The Headless Horror, for example, there was a case of an Ohio village in the grip of a witch mania from poisoned milk.] In this snippet, the culprit is supposed to be a snake, but one wonders….

Pittston, Pa., June 18. Eighteen persons were seriously poisoned here yesterday, by milk taken from a cow supposed to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. Evening Star [Washington DC] 18 June 1878: p. 1

Cows also might prove a more direct hazard, especially when the victims were groping around in bovine intestines.

SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Death of Two men from Poison Received in Handling the Intestines of a Dead Cow

Woman and Boy Dangerously Ill.

[From the New Albany Ledger.]

On Thursday of last week a very remarkable and terrible case of poisoning occurred at Tell City, Perry county, resulting in the death of two men, the probable  death of a woman, and the serious illness of a little boy ten years of age. The circumstances of the case, as we learn them from E.E. Crumb, Esq., of Cannelton, are about as follows;

On Wednesday night the cow of Dominic Friant died very suddenly. On the next day (Thursday) Mr. Friant determined to open her and examine as to the cause of her death, suspecting she had been poisoned. He called to his assistance his wife, a little boy of ten years, and Mr. Joseph Sporcey. Upon cutting open the paunch of the cow, small pieces of pewter and a silver spoon were found in it; and each of the parties named pushed their hands into the paunch and felt among its contents for other pieces of the spoons than those already found.

On Friday morning, when the persons arose from bed, they found their hands and arms much swollen and broken out with large red blotches. The swelling continued to rapidly increase and spread until it covered the entire upper part of the bodies of the victim. Medical assistance was summoned, and everything possible done for the relief of the sufferers, but all was of no avail. Mr. Friant died on Saturday, Mr. Sporcey on Sunday, and Mrs. Friant was still dangerously ill on Tuesday and it was thought would die. The little boy was out of danger at last accounts.

The physicians gave it as their opinion that the unfortunate victims took the poison from the cow’s paunch into their systems by absorption, as there was no abrasure upon the skin of either of them. The case is one among the saddest and most singular we have ever been called upon to record. The Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 13 July 1870: p. 3

Rats were a favorite animal culprit. They could be found in a domestic setting.

Apples Poisoned by Rats

Poison placed in a grocery cellar at Bucyrus, O., to exterminate rats was dragged by them over a lot of apples. Loren Haman bought some of the fruit and his whole family is sick. Ethel, aged 5, died in great agony. Many other purchasers of the apples suffered—New York World Marion [OH] Daily Star 16 February 1899

Or they could be found operating on a grand, public scale.

The National Hotel Sickness Again.

The Editor of the New York Scalpel makes the following statement in regard to the mysterious sickness at the National Hotel, Washington.

We have a patient from the immediate vicinity of this hotel—a very common-sense man and a housekeeper—who assures us that his premises were overrun with rats from the hotel; dozens of them might be seen at almost any hour of the day in the yard—indeed, they were so numerous as to be incredible, and a man from this city was sent for to poison them. He did so, and what he used it is not very probable he told. Those ingenious philosophers are not apt to communicate their secrets. The rats all disappeared. My patient tells me not one is visible on his premises, and they were in numbers so incredible, that he would not venture to say; but we know, for we have been there and seen them in the hotel-yard. He had a servant who had been employed at the hotel, and she told him, that it was known to all the other servants, that a great number of dead rats were taken from the water-tank, which was used for cooking and other household purposes! This was published at the time, and is doubtless true; for a rat’s instinct, after eating arsenic, will lead him to the top of a house to get water; and nothing is easier than for them to get in a water-tank. No other person than those who ate at the hotel were affected, although that sewer opens directly before the room, and under the doors and windows of a telegraphic office, where sixteen gentlemen are constantly operating. It by no means follows that all who ate of the food should be similarly affected; all did not die, and some ate mostly perhaps of dishes that did not require so much of that filthy water in their preparation. Some drank much strong coffee, and coffee is an antidote—in short, some had stronger constitutions, and many are still suffering.

No doubt, the proprietors of the National Hotel felt disgraced at the discovery of the filthiness of their premises; and no doubt the committee felt sore at our letter—it had too much common-sense in it; but we can’t cure committees—never. As for the hotels at Washington, they are the most disgraceful and filthy holes that humanity ever vomited in; and if our business again leads us to Washington, which it often has, and probably will, we will either live out of town in the suburbs, or carry some food with us. Such filth as we have there witnessed, we never wish to see again. We should not have been surprised to have found a rat entire in a hash or a pie.

Whilst reading the proof of this article, we find a very learned paper in the American Medical Monthly, by the excellent Dr. Hall, of Washington — a gentleman who is admired by all who know him — designed to prove the miasmatic character of the disease. The last paragraph is as follows: “One thing, however, jostled my theory, and has staggered me a good deal, and that is, that many persons who partook of but a single meal were seized! Could the miasma have affected or adhered to food? The water of the house I drank copiously without any ill effects.”

Dear Doctor, they never gave you that water to drink; it was a little too filthy for drinking; as the poor woman said, who wished to settle the stomachs of her guests, when they rebelled at their breakfast, her eggs were “not fresh enough for boiling;” so she fried ’em.

So far as regards the power of concentrated exhalations from sewers to produce disease of the bowels, no one doubts it; Heaven knows every physician in a large city is abundantly convinced of its power; but it acts chiefly on children, and in connection with teething; the dysentery of our summers is chiefly admitted to be caused by heat, and is dysentery and nothing else; that this National Hotel epidemic should have been confined solely to one house, and have produced the set of symptoms it did, without a specific or material poison acting on the stomach and its appendages is absurd. Arsenic, mechanically diffused from the decayed rats, and slowly acting on the stomach, is sufficient to account for all the symptoms. The Highland Weekly news [Hillsboro, OH] 9 July 1857: p. 1

See this link for more on this sensational case. [Thanks to Strange Company for the link.]

Fatally Poisoned by Impure Water.

Findlay, October 19. Miss Hattie Wade of Mount Cory, died of a strange malady just two weeks after her mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wade, the two cases showing the same symptoms. Investigation shows the cause to have been poisoning, due to the use of drinking water from a well in which a poisoned rat had been drowned. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 20 October 1883: p. 6

We are, of course, reminded by both articles above of that tragic case where a young woman tourist drowned herself in the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Everyone knows that snake venom is still lethal for a long period after a snake’s death. Apparently it maintains its lethal qualities even in another animal’s body.

SNAKE POISON.

It is stated that the blood of an animal bitten by a venous snake assumes poisonous properties. Frank Buckland on one occasion having seen a rat bitten and killed by a cobra, dissected off the skin to examine the wound. Having discovered the two minutes punctures made by the poison fangs, he scraped away with his fingernail the flesh on the inner side of the skin which he had removed. Unfortunately, he had shortly before been cleaning his nails with a penknife, and had slightly separated the nail from the skin beneath. When he had completed his rapid examination of the rat he walked way, characteristically stuffing the skin into his pocket, (what strange things, alive and dead, did those pockets often contain!)

He had not walked a hundred yards before, all of a sudden, he felt as if somebody had come behind him and struck him a severe blow on the head, and at the same time experienced a most acute pain and sense of oppression at the chest, “as though a hot iron had been run in and a hundred weight put on top of it.” He knew instantly from what he had read that he was poisoned. Luckily he obtained ammonia and brandy, but was ill for some days. “How virulent, therefore,” he says, “must the poison of a cobra be! It had already been circulated in the body of the rat from which I had imbibed it at second hand.” From the account that he gives, however, it seems at least possibly, if not probable that some of the poison was hanging about the wound unabsorbed, and had thus entered his system directly and not, as he believed, indirectly. Murray’s Magazine. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 18 April 1889

I have a note in my files to the effect that “Charles Drury, taxidermist of Cincinnati was poisoned by rattlesnake head on specimen he was preparing,” but I cannot find the citation.

Tainted poultry has also been responsible for many food poisonings, but not for the same reason as in these two cases. Another reason to avoid Thanksgiving.

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.

Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.

The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.

As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.

The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.

The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.

All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.

Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1

Did this young man die of anthrax poisoning? It is said that people who sorted wool or worked with animal bone, bristles, or hides were susceptible to inhalational anthrax. The wonder is that it didn’t kill more people.

A SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Jas. Francis McLean, whose singular poisoning was yesterday referred to, was employed in the morocco factory of James. S. Barclay, on Piano Street, Newark, N.J., where imported skins are tanned. Last Wednesday he was engaged in the handling of some Russian hides that were in the process of tanning. While his hand was still wet, he rubbed a pimple of his chin. On Thursday night he was taken ill, and on Friday morning he complained of chills, and his throat was slightly swollen. He continued to grow worse, the swelling extending upward to the forehead and half way down his chest. The swelling affected his breathing and he suffered intense pains. A consultation of physicians was held and the conclusion was reached that the young man was afflicted with a malignant pustule. All efforts to save his life proved unavailing, and on Saturday evening he died, partly from strangulation and partly from nervous prostration. These pustules arise generally from the infusion into the blood of virus from diseased animals, and the skins of animals who had died with disease are said to have communicated the poison months after their slaughter. [N.Y. Times, 6th.] Evening Star [Washington, DC] 7 June 1878: p. 3

Then we have the animal that is man. There are a surprising number of stories of people dying or becoming ill from human bites.

A DYING MAN

Bit His Wife’s Finger and her Life is Despaired Of.

Tiffin, O., March 25. Mrs. Elizabeth Atkinson lies at the home of her parents in this city in a critical condition, the result of being bitten by her late husband while he was in the throes of death. The deceased by W.H. Atkinson, a man high in  railroad circles in Cleveland. He died in that city last week of Bright’s disease, and his body was cremated. While his wife was administering to him just before his death, he seized her little finger in his teeth and in his delirium lacerated the flesh badly. She accompanied the ashes of her husband here, and a few days later the injured hand began to swell, until now her entire arm is swollen to twice its natural size, and she suffers excruciating agony.

It is believed that blood poisoning has resulted and that the woman’s life is in danger. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 March 1902: p. 1

A letter from Portsmouth, Ohio, written by a lady to her husband in this city, makes mention of an extraordinary circumstance. A short time ago a young lady was bitten by a dog. Hydrophobia manifested itself on her, and while confined with the disease she bit her sister, who was waiting on her. The sister was soon attacked by the same disease and bit the mother. All three were alive at the last account, but were all raving mad, and there was no prospect of their recovery. Louisville Journal.Standard [Clarksville, TX] 8 October 1859: p. 2

While insect bites also could be or turn poisonous, this is an unusual story of insect toxicity. Any explanations?

At Piqua, Ohio, last week, Rev. W. L. Fee picked a quantity of potato bugs off his vines and placed them in a tin can; then pouring boiling water into the can, he stood over it to watch its Christian effect on the enemy, but soon became very ill and it was concluded the vapor had poisoned him. Cleveland [OH] Leader 2 June 1871: p. 3

Our final animal entry circles back to dogs in a seemingly unlikely case of indirect poisoning.

Singular circumstance. A Baltimore paper states, that a girl died recently in Virginia from having biten [sic] a thread with which she had sewn up a rent made by the bite of a mad dog, in her apron. Ohio Monitor [Columbus, OH] 29 June 1831: p. 2

Stories of indirect vegetable poisons are more rare.

Mr. John Thomas, residing at No. 2233 B street, visited the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in company with some friends, on Sunday last, and while there weeded some grass from the flowers on a grave. On arriving home he discovered a poison had entered his skin, completely covering his body with a mass of putrid corruption. The doctors in attendance say they are unable to determine the natural of the poison. The Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, PA] 29 may 1871: p. 8

Singular Case of Poisoning

From Our Jacksonville correspondent we learn of a strange poisoning case. J.M. Dille, a citizen of Richhill township, while cleaning off some ground for the plow, recently, and burning brush with which was mixed some mercury vines (rhus radicans?] and other poisonous vegetation, inhaled some of the smoke of the burning mass. This, singular to relate, acted upon the lungs like poison upon the external surface, and soon produced serious sickness. Mr. Dille is now lying in an almost hopeless condition from the effects of the poisoning. Waynesburg Republican. Washington [PA] Reporter, 27 May 1874: p. 1

A curious case of tobacco poisoning is reported from Brooklyn. A child purchased a cake at one of the refreshment stands in Prospect park. After eating a small portion of it, he was taken with nausea and vomited freely. A physician being summoned declared that the child was suffering from tobacco poisoning, and, on examination, tobacco was found scattered through the cake. This accident indicates the necessity for some sort of supervision of the bakeries, as there is but little doubt that the subordinate workmen are not of the most cleanly habits possible. Chicago Medical Review Denver Medical Times, Volume 2, Issue 3 1883

Indirect mineral poisonings are even rarer (although there have been suggestions that lead leached from pipes or ceramics brought down the Roman empire.) but I find these to be some of the most interesting.

A bartender was believed to have rheumatism, but the doctor suspected that he was suffering from lead poisoning.

One point in his history was suggestive, and that was the fact that he was accustomed to drink a good deal of what he termed “soft stuff,” [i.e. soft drinks] being a total abstainer, yet compelled to drink something when “treated” by his customers. The bottles containing these beverages were closed with old-fashioned lead stoppers and the carbonic acid gas dissolved in the beverages made them much better solvents of lead than uncharged fluids. Eliminative treatment led to quick recovery of the patient and proved the correctness of the diagnosis. Medical Record, George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, Vol. 74, 1908

I have previously written about the perils of poisoned stockings. Here is one more.

Cincinnati, March 18. Last Saturday Louis Mosser, purchased a pair of stockings. He wore them Sunday. Monday morning he was unable to leave his bed, and to-day the physician, who has been in constant attendance, considered his case very precarious. His feet and legs are swollen two or three times their natural size and give him the most intense pain. The stockings were dyed a cardinal red, and it is supposed the coloring matter must have contained poison. The Highland Weekly News [Hillsboro, OH] 24 March 1886: p. 2

And finally, watch out for peaches.

The Granada (Mi.) Register of the 19th ult., says the family of G. Morehead, residing near the Yazoo Pass, were recently poisoned (as is supposed) by eating peaches which had been dried upon a painted scaffold—‘the acid of the peaches, combining with the alkaline and other properties of the white lead, probably producing a poison like sugar of lead.’ Mrs. M. and two of the children died. The other members of the family recovered. Boston [MA] Traveler 2 December 1842: p. 2

My alter-ego, the murderous Mrs Daffodil, has a penchant for what one might call “indirect murder,” never resorting to direct violence, but allowing circumstances or other people to do her dirty work. The cases above seem to be accidents, but contain some useful details. Mrs Daffodil is taking notes.

Any other indirect poisonings? Is the book-page poisoning from The Name of the Rose strictly a fictional creation? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who does not lick her fingers when turning over the leaves of a book.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Gloomy Coffin-Makers Go on Strike to Recover their Cheerfulness: 1903

The Coffin Maker Has a Just Kick.

Because the employees of two of the largest coffin factories in New York feel that they have the same right to laugh and be merry, in spite of their daily toil, that is given to the majority of mankind, they are out on strike. A thousand workmen have laid aside their tools and say they will not take them up again unless they are assured of a nine and one half-hour workday and a three-hour day on Saturday. They have been toiling among the coffins for ten hours six days a week. The more sensitive of the workmen complain that it makes them gloomy and melancholy to fashion tenements for the dead ten hours a day and right up to quitting time on Saturday. The somber associations of the coffin factory, they assert, are not easily got rid of, with the result that they do no recover their cheerfulness and attain a frame of mind to enjoy their leisure until late on Sunday, which curtails their pleasure and renders them undesirable associates for their friends. “A fellow can’t help thinking of his own end when he is hammering these dead boxes together, a striker is quoted as saying. “You get in the habit of wondering who is going to occupy the coffin and often you have a notion that it will be yourself. We’re not a gloomy lot naturally; all we want is an opportunity to be cheerful out of business hours.” The striking coffin makers will have the profound sympathy of professional joke writers, usually the most solemn and serious-minded of men. The right of the coffin maker to appreciate and enjoy the humor of the comic supplements in the Sunday newspapers is a sacred one, and if his hours of toll paralyze his power of laughter he has a perfect right to strike or choose another occupation, say undertaking. It is not, however, the usual thing for men to take seriously the duties with which they are most familiar. Only a short time ago an undertaker in a nearby city gathered up and put together the horribly mangled remains of a man who had been dashed to death by a fall over a cliff 500 feet high. While he worked he whistled, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And the majority of those, who day after day are thrown in contact with death and suggestions of the dark and narrow house speedily lose the innate sense of fear and awe that controls those who seldom contemplate the common end of man.

Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 25 June 1903: p. 4

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Readers with an curiosity about matters mortuary may find the following post on the girl shroud-makers of New York to be of interest. The young ladies, who seem a cheerful lot, mention the coffin department and how quickly they became used to working with these reminders of mortality. The article was followed by a discussion of shrouded spectres: shrouded ghosts and superstitions about the habiliments of death. You will also shudder at a recent post on phantom coffin makers as an omen of death.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Other stories of funerary workers appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Great War Mourning Band with Gold Star Suggested: 1918

1918 Gold Star Mothers. Group portrait of (left to right) Mrs. Anna G. Dorian, Mrs. Amos E. Vaughan, Mrs. Lee W. Sosthein, Mrs. Oscar Vogl, and Mrs. Edgar J. Curtiss wearing dark arm bands with light stars on them and standing in Grant Park in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois. Buildings and automobiles along South Michigan Avenue are visible in the background. Text on image reads: Gold Star mothers in W.S.S. sage. Chicago History Museum

MOURNING BAND WITH GOLD STAR SUGGESTED FOR MOTHERS

Those Whose Sons Sleep in France Must Wear Honor Badge.

To avoid the widespread use of mourning in the United States, as the war goes on, the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense has recommended to American women insignia that shall take the place of mourning for solders. It is a black arm band, 3 inches wide, with a gilt star for each member of the family who has died in the service. President Wilson has indorsed the recommendation. Dr. Shaw, chairman of the Woman’s committee, said:

“The desire to avoid the usual symbols of mourning on the part of large numbers of those who have lost their loved ones in the country’s service is highly patriotic and to be commended. The constant reminder of losses and sorrow must tend to depress the spirits of the people and to develop a feeling of hopelessness and despair not in keeping with the supreme sacrifices which our army of fighting men and toiling women in the field of action are making.

“If our soldiers can face death with cheerfulness, if they can spring forward to their fate with shouts of victory and exult in that for which they die, shall we cast a shadow over their triumph and go about garbed in mourning when they have died so gloriously? Doubtless, as they awaited their doom, many manly hearts ached with homesickness and longing for those who were left behind, but they knew that if the battle was to be won it could not be with regrets or repining. While the heart ached, the face was bright, the voice cheerful, the spirit undaunted. So we, too, must meet our fate, whatever it may be, in the same spirit and show to the world that as our men can die bravely, women can live bravely.

A badge was suggested by many who felt it our duty to emulate the example of the British women an wear no mourning, yet who desire to honor our dead. To meet this demand and to secure uniformity, the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense adopted, and the President approved, a black band 3 inches wide upon which shall be placed a gold star for each member of the family lost in the service of our country, and which shall be worn on the left arm.

Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 16 June 1918: p. 7

A standard arm-band furnishes an excellent substitute for the wearing of black. It has all the objectionable features of black removed and still serves the purpose of indicating that a death has occurred.

Arm-Bands Are Advocated

Patents for a standard arm-band have been applied for. This arm-band consists of a black background symbolizing the black war-cloud with the blue sky beyond. A torch indicates the blazing path of national attainment and a lyre symbolizes the rejoicing at valor and sacrifice, while the dove of peace hovers over all. These bands are to be made in the colors of the Allies.

The Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense has suggested an arm-band with a gold star for the death of each member of the family in service. President Wilson has given his approval of the suggestion in the following letter made public by Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, chairman of the committee:

“My Dear Dr. Shaw: Thank you for your letter of yesterday. I do entirely approve of the action taken by the Women’s Committee in executive session, namely, that a 3-inch black band should be worn, upon which a gilt star may be placed for each member of the family whose life is lost in the service, and that the band shall be worn on the left arm. I hope and believe that thoughtful people everywhere will approve of this action, and I hope that you will be kind enough to make the suggestion of the committee public, with the statement that it has my cordial indorsement. Cordially and sincerely yours, WOODROW WILSON.” In an explanatory statement on the subject the Women’s Committee says:

The action of the committee at this time is prompted by a feeling on their part that we should determine beforehand the attitude we are to take toward the inevitably growing death roll of the defenders of our country. The wearing of such insignia will, they feel, express better than mourning the feeling of the American people that such losses are a matter of glory rather than of prostrating grief and depression.

For a long time the Women’s Committee has been receiving letters from women urging some such action on their part. The determined avoidance of mourning by English women has been much commented on and praised. One woman. who advocates this step has four sons in the service one of whom has already been killed. She wrote recently: “I know the costliness of such supreme glory and sacrifice, and have felt both the selfish temptation to hide my pain behind a mourning that would hold off intrusion and the inspiration and stimulus of keeping up to my gallant son’s expectation that I should regard his death as a happy promotion into higher service. Patriotism means such exalted living that dying is not the harder part.”

The insignia which has been chosen by the Women’s Committee is of a kind that can readily be made at home out of whatever material can be procured. The band is to be black and 3 inches wide—the stars gilt, and one for each member of the family who has lost his life in service. These stars may be gold, of gilded metal, or satin, or of cloth. The design will not be patented, and the insignia will never become a commercial article.

Dry Goods, Volume 19, July 1918, p. 5

For a more detailed examination of the Gold Star mourning band history, see “The Use of Women’s Grief for Political Purposes in America During World War I,” by Linda L. Morgan

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Grandmere Jeanneton: 1884

“GRANDMERE JEANNETON.”

I was smoking my after-dinner cigar and reading Figaro on the esplanade in Strasbourg, when I was accosted by an old woman who inquired in French for the nearest photographer. She wore the common dress of the Alsatian peasant, and her dusty shoes indicated a long foot journey, but under her linen head-dress fell her white hair round a face that, sunburnt and wrinkled and wearing traces of recent tears, yet was so beautiful in its expression of tender goodness and touching resignation not unmixed with a certain pride, that I involuntarily addressed her as “Grandmere,” and forgetting that I had promised a friend to await his arrival, offered to guide her to her destination.

On the road she told me her simple story. She was a widow, and lived prior to the French-German war with her married son in a village, fifty miles from Strasbourg. They were well-to-do peasants before the enemy invaded their little village; but one morning they woke to find the Prussians encamped in their fields and making themselves perfectly at home. More troops arrived the next day and the following, until the quiet village was a big camp, where the enemy heaped up the stores needed for the siege of Strasbourg.

One dark night the camp was alarmed and a magazine containing among other stores a considerable quantity of powder was found on fire, and there was no doubt that it was the work of the inhabitants. Accordingly the next morning six of the most prominent or most patriotic of the inhabitants were brought before the Prussian commander, and after a short examination that proved nothing, without further trial, were shot in the square in front of the village church. The widow’s son was one of the six victims, and his wife, who became frantic with grief over his death, was the next morning found lifeless on his grave, thus leaving her infant son to the sole care of his grandmother.

The old woman now centered all her hope and all her affection in the little boy, and as he grew up she was fully repaid, for he loved his grandmother with an intensity often found in children who die young a love that was alone equaled by his veneration of his dead parents, his adoration of “la belle France” and his hate of the Prussians, for the old woman, who loved her country dearly, and never forgot that her husband fell fighting for it at “Solferino,” and that her son was killed by its enemies, instilled, perhaps unconsciously, both feelings in his young breast.

One day, when the boy was 10 years old, a Prussian official who inspected the village school was struck with his beauty and serious air, and addressed a question to him in German respecting his parents. “The Prussians killed them,” answered the boy in French. The official colored, and in a rebuking tone asked the boy why he didn’t speak German. “Because it is the language of my country’s enemies,” answered the boy fearlessly.

The official ordered him in arrest, and he was shut up in a chamber above the school-room, where he remained until night, when he boldly leaped from the window to the ground and, as he fell in a thick copse, escaped unhurt. The boy now fairly flew to his grandmother’s house, but as he was afraid of being seen and brought back to the school if he followed the road, he crossed in through the fields behind the village.

It was in the harvest and the grapes were ripe, so old Martin, the owner of the choicest grapes in the village, kept watch with a loaded shot-gun over his precious treasures. Softly he walks over the field behind the wine-press, when he hears something force its way through the grapevines. He stops and cocks his piece. He will now catch the thief who robs him of his biggest grapes. The moon is behind the clouds, out he sees the outline of a person running fast through the vines. “Halt!” he commands but the person never heeds him. He raises his gun–a flash–a scream–a fall of a body among the grapes, and when the old man arrives on the spot, he finds instead of the supposed grape thief a little curly-haired boy whose life is fast ebbing away with the blood that flows out and mixes with the crushed grapes; his black eyes are already fixed and glassy and it is with a faltering voice he whispers: “Give my love to grandmother and tell her– father! mother! I am coming”–his hands grasp the vines tighter, he raises himself to a sitting posture, the moon coming from behind the clouds shines on the wine leaves in his curly hair, a cry rises in his throat: “Vive la belle France!”–he sinks back, his eyes closed, and the orphan boy is gone.

“And it was me–me alone–who murdered him,” complained the grandmother when she concluded her tale. Her eyes were dry, but the muscles round the corner of her mouth worked convulsively and there was a great sob in her throat. “It was all my fault, the result of my unforgiveness; holy Mary have mercy–” and the old woman ran the black beads of her rosary through her fingers, murmuring her prayers.

We arrived shortly after at our destination, the atelier of a French photographer, with whom I was slightly acquainted. I introduced my companion to him, and he, after offering her a seat, addressed some questions to her about her picture. She looked at him with wonder, and finally replied that she only wanted a picture of her boy. “Ah!” said the photographer, “a little boy, very good, where is he!” A tear dimmed the old woman’s black eye, and for answer she pointed up to heaven. “Oh!” exclaimed my friend, “dead! I do not like to photograph dead bodies, but still as monsieur brought you here I will make an exception; when did your little boy die?”

“When the grapes ripen he will have been gone a year,” replied the grandmother.

“But, my dear,” began the photographer, perplexed, when I interrupted him, and taking him aside told him the old woman’s story and how she had walked fifty miles on her old legs to procure a likeness of her dead grandchild.

“But, my dear fellow, what can I do? I am grieved, upon my word I am; but what would you have me do? I can’t photograph angels!”

A noise of romping children was now heard and two boys, about 8 and 10 years old, came running into the atelier, crying at the top of their voices: “Oh, papa, voici!”

“Hush, children!” said the parent, “go away; I am busy,” and the happy boys disappeared laughing in the next room. A sudden idea struck me and turning to the old woman, who looked wistfully at the door through which the boys escaped, I asked her if she had kept any of her little boy’s clothes. “Indeed I have, monsieur!” she answered. “I have kept everything belonging to the little dear,” and opening a bundle she carried with her she continued: “Here is the best dress and (her voice sunk to a whisper) the last I ever saw him wear.”

I now took the photographer aside and made him acquainted with my plan for “photographing angels,” and after obtaining his promise of carrying out my instructions I persuaded the grandmother to leave her grandson’s clothing in the atelier and follow me to an inn, where I left her to the care of the buxom hostess.

Two days after the photographer sent for her and on her arrival handed her a picture at sight of which the old woman began crying freely. “My boy! my own darling boy! It is the clothes I spun every thread of myself and his pretty curly hair but why does he cover his face so? Won’t he look at me?” she asked suddenly, looking up from the picture that represented a little boy kneeling in a chair with his folded hands before his face.

“Oh!” remarked the photographer, “he is saying his prayers.”

“Yes, yes, I know! he is praying for his poor old grandmere. Oh, my darling boy!” and the great tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. “God and our lady bless you, messieurs!” said she when she grew calmer. “I am now going to pray by my boy’s grave until I follow him;” and refusing all aid for her trip home, but pressing her newly found treasure fast to her brave old heart, “Grandmere Jeanneton” left us.

As to the picture, our readers have of course all guessed that the photographer dressed his oldest boy in the poor peasant boy’s clothes; and who would not practice such a deception to see the tears that rolled down Grandmere Jeanneton’s aged cheeks?

The Argos [IN] Reflector 25 December 1884: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil was formerly in service in the household of Mrs Marrowfat, the society medium and shudders at the impostures by which that clever lady enriched herself at the expense of the desolate and sorrowing. And yet, somehow, Mrs Daffodil cannot bring herself to condemn the photographer who gave such consolation to the aged Grandmere who had lost everything.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Corpse Was Loose: 1875

After “A Respectable Funeral,” cartoon by John Leech

Shuckers Wouldn’t Take The Coffin

Over in Wilmington, the other day, a man named William D. Shuckers died. It seems that there was another man in the city bearing precisely the same name, and when the death was announced, a good many of his friends thought he was dead, and they resolved to go to the funeral.

On the day of the funeral the living Shukers also thought he would go, partly for the purpose of ascertaining how it felt to participate in the obsequies of a man named Wm. D. Shuckers. He took up a position in the vestibule, and just as the mourners were about to come out, a friend of his, named Jones, saw him. The first impulse of Jones was to rush through the kitchen, and climb suddenly over the back fence, but he controlled himself, and after poking Shuckers in the ribs with his umbrella to determine positively that he was not a ghost he remarked:

“Shuckers, what on earth are you doing here? Why ain’t you in your coffin?”

“Coffin!” exclaimed Shuckers; “whad’d you mean? What do I want with a coffin?”

“Mr. Shuckers, you know you are dead. Why they got up this gorgeous funeral for you, all these carriages and pall-bearers and things, and the clergy-man’s just been paying you splendid compliments that any dead man might be proud of.”
“But I tell you I am not dead. I’m as much alive as you are.”

“There is no use your arguing the point, Shuckers; the occasion is too solemn for controversy. But if you have any consideration for the feelings of your bereaved family, who are weeping like mad up stairs, and for the undertaker who is waiting inside there with the screw-driver, you will go and get into your coffin and behave. It’s indecent to carry on so at your own funeral.”

“Jones, my boy,” said Shuckers, “you have mistaken—“

“No, I’m not mistaken. You’re dead—technically dead—anyhow. It has been announced in all the papers, your relations have gone into mourning, the Board of Trade has passed resolutions of regret, the sepulcher has been dug up there in the cemetery, and the undertaker has gone to considerable expense to inter you comfortably. Now, go and lie down, won’t you?”
“Hang the undertaker!” said Shuckers. “No, I’ll not go and lie down. I’ll see you in Kansas first.”

“Now, see here, Shuckers, I came here to attend your funeral, and I’m not going to be baffled by any unseemly conduct on the part of the corpse. Oh! You needn’t look at me. Either you get back into that coffin, so’s the lid can be screwed on, and the procession can move on, or I’ll put you in there by force. If inanimate remains like you can go scooting ‘round in this incendiary manner, we’d soon have the cemeteries unloading, and the unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.”

Then Jones called the undertaker, who knocked Shuckers down with a cane, and held him until he explained, and until the scared undertaker recovered his equanimity, which left him at the bare suggestion that the corpse was loose. Then the funeral moved on to the cemetery, and Jones went home, while Shuckers proceeded to an alderman’s office to swear out a warrant against the undertaker for assault and battery. He intends to change his name to Duykinch.

North Star [Danville VT] 9 April 1875: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Unseemly conduct on the part of a corpse, indeed! The newspapers were full of stories of persons reviving on the very brink of their own graves as well as dire mistakes being made over the identification of corpses and the startling return of people thought dead. Such reports were a kind of precursor to to-day’s popular “Zombie” and “Walking Dead” entertainments. It is no wonder the undertaker was shaken: a loose corpse would have cast aspersions on his professional abilities as an embalmer.

There is a barbed pleasantry about the American political process in that remark about “unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.” Voters’ rolls were often compiled by taking a stroll through a cemetery with paper and pencil and the votes of the dead were enlisted to put a favoured candidate in office. Naturally, such things never happen in England….

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Spiritual Telegraph

For “Morse Code Day.”

In the early days, the dead were enthusiastic early adopters of those new-fangled technologies, the telephone and the telegraph. I’ve written of a shape-shifting boggart who called at the Cape Town telephone office to speak with a switchboard operator, of the dead Mr. Miller, who had an assistant ring up a friend who had just attended his funeral, and the Rev. Dr. Richard R. Schleusner and his Temple/Church of Modern Spiritualism, where, rather than communicate through old-fashioned rappings, the spirits spoke via wireless.

Today I’ve borrowed the title of the Spiritualist newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph (1852-1860) to dash off a few stories of spirit communication via the telegraphic instrument. The first story is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.

A WEIRD EXPERIENCE

A TELEGRAPHER’S REMARKABLE MESSAGE FROM A SPOOK

DOTS AND DASHES OVER AN INSTRUMENT WITH

NEITHER WIRES NOR BATTERY

A STORY TOLD BY A MAN WHOSE VERACITY IS VOUCHED FOR

A FRIGHTENED OPERATOR

One of the wildest, weirdest stories of the supernatural that has ever come under the experience of mortal man is told by R.H. Field, the Big Four telegraph operator at South Side station.

Mr. Field is a very intelligent and conscientious man, and he relates his fearful experience with a candor and earnestness that almost make one believe it in spite of its extreme improbability.

“I have been a telegraph operator for twenty-two years. I have told my story to at least a hundred people, and I have never met one yet who would believe that it was an actual fact. I know that it will be a severe test on your credulity, but my experience is Gospel truth. I want you to understand that I have never, and do not now, believe in the supernatural. I have never attended a spiritualistic séance in my life, and am rather inclined to accept the philosophy of Colonel Ingersoll.”

Mr. Field was quite reluctant about telling his story for publication, but finally consented to do so. He is an entertaining talker, and related the great event of his life with an ease that showed that he had told it before. “It was several years ago,” he began, “when I was much younger than I am now. I was assigned to night duty at a little station called Evansburg, in Pennsylvania, on the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad. I hadn’t been around the world very much, but flattered myself that I had a good deal of mechanical genius. The office was in charge of an old fogy sort of a fellow named Jones. The telegraph instrument got out of adjustment, and I knew something about repairing it. Jones suggested that I take to my home an old-fashioned relay box and fix it up.

“Glad of the opportunity to show what I could do I carried the box to my boarding house one morning and put it on a shelf in an old cupboard and went to bed intending to fix it after my sleep was over. I had been in bed but a few minutes and had not got to sleep when, to my surprise and astonishment, the armature, or what is otherwise known as the lever, on the instrument began ticking. I was perfectly amazed and thought there must be some mistake. To satisfy myself that I had not been carried away by my imagination, for the ticking was faint and subdued, I got out of bed and with fear and trembling opened the cupboard door. I took the instrument in my hand and it continued to work. I put it on the table, but the sound it made was unintelligible. I turned the spring so that there would be less resistance, and then, in as clear and perfect Morse as I ever heard, the invisible person, spirit or whatever it was wrote:

“‘Do you get me?’”

I was so overcome that I involuntarily answered, ‘Yes,’ without putting it on the instrument. The unknown heard me, for again, in the beautiful writing, it continued.

“‘Thank God, at last! My name is Charles Blake. I am an old timer. My parents, who reside in Mount Pleasant, Ia., have lost me. They don’t know what my fate has been. I want you to write to my father, Homer Blake, at Mount Pleasant, Ia., and inform him that I died at Shreveport, Tex., of yellow fever, on’–. I have forgotten the date, but it was several years prior to the date of this communication. I was frightened to death. My hair stood on end. My boarding house was two miles from the telegraph station, and there was no battery nearer than the station, and there was no telegraph wire of any kind in that vicinity. I was a little dubious about the communication, from the other world or somewhere, I will not undertake to say. Before venturing to write to Homer Blake as directed I picked up a Western Union tariff book which I had in my room to see if there was such a town as Mount Pleasant, Ia. I found that there was such a place, a fact that I did not know before, and that it was located on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.

“To satisfy myself and not be taken in, I wrote a letter to the postmaster at Mount Pleasant and asked him if he knew of anyone in that vicinity named Homer Blake and to give me what information he could without telling him what I wanted it for. A few days later I received a reply, and I have his letter somewhere among my effects, in which he said that Homer Blake had lived in Mount Pleasant some years before, but that he had moved away, to what place he did not know. Blake, he informed me, had two sons, one of whom, Charles, was supposed to be dead, and the other was a grain merchant in the far west.”

“Did you not pursue your investigations further?”

“No, I did not. The truth is I was scared to death. I worked that wire for eighteen months. Every time I took off the relay it made the same peculiar noise and worked in a sputtering sort of a way, and to show that there must have been some hidden or occult force it crossed the other wires. Every once in a while I used to ask Jones if he heard the noise, and he laughed at me. He never believed my story, although the reply from the postmaster at Mount Pleasant somewhat staggered him. I was actually so afraid to take the relay off that my hair used to stand on end, and I never had any further communication with the hidden force that called itself Charles Blake. I shall never forget that experience as long as I live. People look so incredulous and are so apt to believe me a crank when I tell it that I never relate it any more unless I am asked to do so.”

Mr. Field lives with his wife at South Side. He is well known in this city and has the reputation of being a truthful and sensible man. There is no doubt in the world that he sincerely thinks that he was talked to on that old instrument without wire or battery, and he declares most solemnly that it could not have been a matter of fancy.

This article first appeared in the Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer, 31 July 1892: p. 17. This version appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 September 1892: p. 6

Colonel Ingersoll was Robert G. Ingersoll, 19th-century lawyer, orator and agnostic, dubbed “the most noted of American infidels.”

How much of this next story is actually the result of misunderstood technology? Or was it an early form of EVP?

Barre Excited Over “Electric Ghost”.

Barre, usually staid and phlegmatic, is greatly excited over an “electric ghost,” which has made its appearance at the railroad station and refuses to depart, says a Barre dispatch to The New York World. It has attracted the attention of several prominent railroad men and electricians and each has a theory for a series of sounds that still mystify the investigators.

The “ghost” made its appearance one night when C.A. Brown, a clerk, was alone in the office containing the telegraph instruments, safe, and various articles of furniture. He was quietly at work balancing his books when he heard a voice over his shoulder. Several words of French were spoken and Mr. Brown looked up. No one was in the room and the clerk investigated every nook and cranny to ascertain whence the voice came. He was unsuccessful, but while he was hunting he again heard the voice, this time in English, but indistinct. He located it, and a chill crept up his spine as he made the uncanny discovery that the words came from the metal relay box connected with the telegraph instrument. The instrument was working at the time and the clerk admits to having been well frightened.

For five minutes the one-sided conversation was kept up, and Mr. Brown made out enough to understand that some one was talking of a business deal. Answers to questions put by the voice could not be heard, and altogether it sounded like a telephone conversation. However, as no telephone was in that part of the building, the sounds were not connected with that instrument.

The clerk was so upset that when A.A. Stebbins, his chief, came in, he made no reference to the matter. Soon after he went out Stebbins got a scare that made his hair rise. He was almost leaning on the relay box when a voice shouted “Hello!” almost in his ear. A rapid conversation followed, but he was too frightened to take note of what was said. As he was afraid of being laughed at, he kept his own counsel until the next day when he and Mr. Brown heard the same voice. They then compared notes and quietly called in the head lineman.

The lineman thought a telegraph wire had become crossed with a telephone line, but this proved not to be the case, and F.W. Stanyan, the general superintendent of the road, who has had twenty years’ experience with telegraph equipment, was notified. He made a careful investigation and was at a loss to account for the phantom voice. While he was making his investigations he heard two voices emanating from the box. They spoke of different subjects and had nothing in common. Part of the time whole sentences were plainly spoken and other times only a word or two was distinguishable.

The story got about town and many persons have listened to the sounds. Among the number were many spiritualists, who are of the opinion that the messages are sent from another world. Expert electricians believe that the sounds are the result of some undiscovered law in the field of electricity, and that this law can be worked to advantage when the cause is discovered.

St. Albans [VT] Daily Messenger 8 June 1905: p. 3

It was convenient that the witness in this story had been a telegraph operator. If she had not, she might have identified the sound as the clicking of the Deathwatch Beetle.

MESSAGE FROM THE BORDER.

I would like to relate an incident in connection with the death of my mother, which occurred nine years ago and the facts of which I am positive of.

“My mother’s only sister lived in Denver, Colorado, and she had not been apprised of her serious illness.

“We sent her a telegram about 9 A.M. on the morning of her death, which she received about noon. Upon her arrival here, two days later, we asked her, if the news had been a shock and she told us that on the morning that mother passed away, she sat down to sew, but could not keep her mind upon it. She then heard the click of a telegraph instrument, the sound apparently coming from a closet in the room. As she had been a telegraph operator in her younger days, she realized it was a call and going to the closet, listened. It stopped as suddenly as it started and she sat down again. The call was repeated twice after this and each time she went to the closet to listen. She was then convinced it was news she would receive and inside of thirty minutes, a boy rang the door bell and delivered the message announcing the death of my mother.”
I had no reason to doubt her statement for there had always been a sort of mental telepathy between these sisters, separated by so many miles.

Dayton [OH] Daily News 17 January 1914: p. 7

While the first part of this last story suggests a practical joke, it quickly slides into a folkloric tale of a Palmer Lake lineman, who is still on the line and not only wants to tell someone how he died, but to get that damned telegraph pole off his chest.

Please give the Kansas Democrat the entire bake-shop for the following:

“A ghost telegraph operator has been having a picnic with the boys on the Colorado circuit. At a certain hour every night call comes along over the wires for “AZ.” Now, there being no AZ”, and the call being regularly repeated, the officials were somewhat at loss to account for it. The superintendent, however, answered the call, and asked what was wanted. Back came the message in a jiffy, with “rush” prefixed. This was all well enough in its way, but no one could read the message when it was received. After much time, and ciphering, the ghost was telegraphed for the key. This he immediately gave–one to three read backwards. The message was then read, which stated that many years ago a telegraph operator had been killed on the continental divide, near Palmer Lake; that a telegraph pole ran right into his grave, and the end of it was resting on the breast of the corpse. He could not rest in his grave until he had informed somebody how he had died. This was indeed a strange affair. And upon the threat of the ghost operator of raising hades with the wires every night, till they hunted him up, and verified his statement, a search party was organized. Three linemen stopped at the divide, picked out the probable pole and sat down to eat their lunch, before commencing to dig. In a minute they were paralyzed. Right before them stood the ghost operator with a ‘ticker’ in his hands. He jumped up to the wires, sent a message into Denver and then vanished. The linemen dug, found the grave, and when they returned to Denver they found that a message had been received there mentioning their arrival, that the ghost was satisfied, and that both he and Gould’s servants could now rest in peace.”

Coldwater [KS] Enterprise 28 March 1891: p. 3

To be Relentlessly Informative, “Gould’s servants” refers to Jay Gould’s controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company.

While we still hear stories of telephone calls from the dead and even the occasional text or e-mail message, somehow the Dead do not seem to be fully taking advantage of Instagram or Twitter.

Other stories of ghosts on the wire?

— . – .-.  .—

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.