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The Victorian Book of the Dead Blog

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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.

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

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.

Widowed: A Study from Life: 1909

North Carolina Digital Collections

Widowed:

(A STUDY FROM LIFE.)

“Ere y’are, Mum. Shoreditch, Liverpool-street, Banks.”

The yellow bus crossed Cambridgeheath-road, and pulled up with a jerk in front of the big public-house at the corner. A little group stood on the pavement waiting. The widow was in the middle of it. ‘Enery and Hallice stood grasping the glossy new crape of her dress with one hand. In the other they carried a sugary mass, as they took occasional bites and sucks. Around were three or four sympathising friends whose faces were as red as the widow’s, and who formed the chorus.

They formed quite a party on the top of the bus after they had climbed up the narrow stairway—a process which took so long that the driver delivered two or three vicious slashes on the near side windows, and desired to know whether they thought he was driving Black Maria.

“For shime, young man,” said one of the chorus, “and her so full of trouble. Dessay your old bit o’ crackling wouldn’t be sorry if she was in the same boat.”

The driver grunted something that was inaudible, and the widow pulled out a cotton handkerchief with a black border about two inches deep all round it. But peace was restored when another of the chorus produced a flat bottle, the contents of which caused the driver to gasp as he tilted upwards. And the bus rumbled along City-wards over the cobbles of Bethnal Green-road.

The conductor came up with tickets. He, too, was introduced to the flat bottle, which brought to his face an expression of sympathy worthy of the occasion. ‘Enry took the tickets when they had been punched, and put them in his jacket pocket, after a little difference of opinion with Halice as to their ownership, which was brought to a close by a slap and a shake given impartially to each by the widow, coupled with an inquiry as to whether they; desired to lose their pore mother as well as their father.

“What you’ve got to do is to bear up, and take a little drop of something,” said one of the chorus.

The widow agreed. “Well, they can’t never say as I didn’t put pore ‘Enry away respectably,” she remarked. “The undertaker said he was robbing his wife and kids when he did it for twelve pun fifteen.” “

“And brought out his new ‘erse,” said one of the chorus. “Some them wreafs cost a tidy bit,” she went on, pensively.

The widow threw out a reflection on the character of the boiled leg of pork which had formed part of the funeral baked meats, but the chorus all rushed in to its defence.

“I never eat a better,” said one.

“Well, pore ‘Enry would never have off eating it when we had one a sundays,” said the widow. “Give ‘im that and a bit o’ pease pudden, and he always used to say as he wouldn’t say thenk yer to dine with the King.”

“He seemed a nice young feller, that insurance man,” ventured one of the chorus, who desired to lead up to a discussion as to the amount of the insurance money.

“Well, I oughter a had £150,” said the widow, “but the foreman came round and said, ‘Take £l4, and never mind no lawyers.’”

 A glance of intelligence passed over the faces of the chorus, who began to inveigh against the greed of them insurance companies. Then one ventured a remark on the fact that you could do things as they was right to be done on a figger like that.

By this time the bus was threading the traffic across Great Eastern-street, and one of the chorus, who was more of a thought reader in the face than the others, opined that the only thing to do was to bear up.

“‘Ave a few friends in now and then,” she said; “don’t sit alone and mope.”

She was gallantly backed up by the other members of the chorus, and she proceeded to remark on the noise of this part of London, which always does make your head ache.

The chorus agreed. Someone suggested a little drop and rum and peppermint was one of the finest things for a headache caused by street noises. Another remembered that she knew a barmaid at the Cock and Magpie, just out of Norton Folgate, and she hadn’t seen her for a month o’ Sundays.

The bus stopped and the widow got up and made ready to descend. She was reminded that they wasn’t near the bank yet.

“I must have a little something,” was the reply, “or else I shall drop.”

There were murmurs of sympathy, and the whole party descended opposite the turning which led to the Cock and Magpie.

“Pore dear, you must bear up,” were the last words we heard as the conductor rang the bell.

“Be a bit of mopping before the old man’s money is blewed,” he remarked pensively.

Timaru [NZ] Herald, 27 November 1909: p. 1

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Pinched Ashes

The Urn

A report of a vile, “ashes for cash” scheme sent me to my files on early cremation to look for vintage stories of  purloined cremains.  It was surprising that, while corpses were often held for ransom or replevin, similar stories about ransom demands for ashes were extremely rare. Perhaps this was because fewer Victorians were cremated, yet there were plenty of stories of stolen ashes.  Let’s fire up the retort and look at some of these cases of ashen bodysnatching. There is quite a variety in motives and mysteries.

In most of the ash-theft cases, it is obvious there was a more mercenary motive.

HIS ASHES STOLEN.

St. Louis Girl Carried Reminder of Dead Sweetheart in Ring.

St. Louis, Dec. 15. Miss Cora Evelyn asked the police to locate a robber who stole from her $250 worth of jewelry, including an unusual ring. This ring contained the ashes of her former sweetheart, according to her statement. He was Charles Patterson who died in Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago.

After his body had been cremated, Miss Evelyn says she procured a small quantity of his ashes, which she had placed in the setting of the ring, behind a transparent film. Her reason for this, she said, was to have near her always, some forcible reminder of her dead sweetheart. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 15 December 1910: p. 9

Today, of course, you can purchase pretty glass lockets in which to keep a pinch of the loved one’s cremains ever near, but in 1910, the ring  was freakishly unusual. In the 19th century the “correct” mourning accessory would have contained the hair, rather than the ashes, of the beloved.

Thefts of bronze urns and grave markers for scrap-metal sale are commonplace even today. One wonders if that was the motive here.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

The police of Newark, N.J., were asked yesterday to investigate the theft of a bronze urn containing the ashes of Henry Rundel Center. The urn bore the name of Center and the date of his death, November 19, 1909. Mrs. Catherine Center, widow of Henry Rundel Center, occupied an apartment at 176 Third street. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., and left the apartment in charge of a friend. The friend discovered several articles were missing, among them the urn. A sneak thief robbed the apartment. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 29 March 1918: p. 24

Other stories are simply a comedy of errors:

HUSBAND’S ASHES LOST.

Comedy of mixed bags.

An American widow who is so devoted to the memory of her late husband that she always carries his ashes with her was revealed by a curious mistake at the Pittsburgh station of the Pennsylvania line.

Mrs Mary White, of Chicago, who had been spending a holiday with friends at Pittsburgh, left her portmanteau at the station cloakroom while she was saying good-bye. At the same time a mechanic named James Robinson, who was going to seek employment at New York, left a similar valise containing his tools at the same station. Robinson was the first to call for his bag, accepted the one handed to him, and started for his 21 hours’ journey to New York.

Here his quest for work was successful. “But I can’t begin,” said Robinson; “they’ve given me the wrong valise at Pittsburgh and my tools are left behind.” An examination of his luggage disclosed the fact that the valise he had brought contained some woman’s wearing apparel and a sealed copper urn, to which was attached a coffin plate engraved, “George Shires White, died 1910.” There was also a Civil War medal which had belonged to Mr White. At the same time the stationmaster Chicago was telegraphing throughout the Pennsylvania line: “Wanted, a lady’s valise containing memorial tagged with the name of White; lady very anxious.”

The bags were exchanged as speedily as possible, and Mrs White explained to the Pennsylvania officials that she was never able to bring herself to inter her husband’s ashes after his cremation. She kept them with her, and it always seemed as if he himself were still her companion. Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1911: p. 5

In this story, the ashes were removed by police-impersonators probably under the guise of public health concerns. If they just wanted her trunk, how did they know there were ashes in it—did the recently widowed Mrs. Rankin mention it to the desk clerk?

DEAD HUSBAND’S ASHES STOLEN FROM WIDOW

Trunk Stolen From Hotel Room Contained Remains of Man

Cincinnati, Ohio, July 29. The disappearance of a trunk from her room in the Bremen Hotel, Twelfth and Bremen streets, containing the ashes of her husband, John Rankin, 47 years old, who died June 25, was reported to police late yesterday by Mrs. Bertha Rankin.

She told detectives she was informed police had ordered the trunk to be removed. No such order was issued through the Police Department, she was told. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 July 1916: p. 7

Sometimes the thieves, spooked by what they’d done, abandoned their loot.

ASHES OF HUMAN BODY STOLEN FROM DENVER OFFICE, UNOPENED URN IS LEFT AT BAKERY SHOP

Human ashes stolen Monday night from the offices of the Denver Crematory association, 100 First National Bank building, and abandoned by the thieves in a bakery at 1955 Curtis street, were returned to the crematory by the police Thursday.

As a result of conflicting instructions from relatives of the dead man—Jesse J. Haller of Mancos, Colo.—the disappearance of the ashes was not known to officials of the crematory association until the urn containing the ashes was returned to the crematory. At the downtown office of the association it was thought the ashes had been scattered in Riverside cemetery, in accordance with instructions given after Haller died here. Operator Rice of the crematory at Riverside thought the ashes had been sent to Mancos in accordance with instructions given to him by a brother last Sunday.

“It is the most mysterious happening I ever heard of,” declared President W.D. Pierce of the crematory, Thursday. “When we received Mr. Haller’s body, we were instructed to cremate it and scatter the ashes.

BODY CREMATED WEEK AGO

“The body was cremated March 24 and the ashes were locked in a steel vault at the cemetery. On Sunday, a brother appeared at the crematory and instructed Mr. Rice to ship the ashes back to Mancos. Mr. Rice sealed the ashes in an urn and brought them in to our office Monday night. The office force was gone when he arrived, and he placed the urn in a roll-top desk, locking the desk.

“The next morning we noticed that the desk would not lock, but [The rest of the story doesn’t appear or is illegible.] Denver [CO] Post 30 March 1922: p. 1

Here’s the rest of the story:

Thieves Steal Man’s Ashes, But Police Recover Them.

After having passed thru a peculiar chain of circumstances, including interment in a steel vault in the Riverside cemetery, theft from the office of the Denver Crematory association offices, abandonment in a Denver bakery and finally being turned over to the police, the ashes of J.J. Haller of Mancos, Colo., whose body was cremated on March 24, are to be shipped today to Mancos, where they will be laid in what is intended as a final resting place.

The almost unprecedented theft of human ashes was discovered yesterday when an urn containing them was returned to the Crematory by the police. The theft, which evidently occurred on Monday night, had not been noticed because of conflicting instructions from the relatives of the dead man.

Stolen from Desk.

The body was cremated on March 24, and the ashes locked in a steel vault in Riverside cemetery. Instructions from one source directed that the ashes be scattered in Riverside cemetery but a brother of the dead man, living in Mancos, gave instructions that the ashes be sent to him.

Joseph C. Rice, assistant superintendent received the latter instructions on last Sunday, so he took the urn containing the ashes to the downtown office of his company. He placed the urn in a rolltop desk and locked it. On Monday morning the urn was gone, but because of the misunderstanding that existed the possibilities of a theft was not considered.

Abandoned in Bakery.

Upon the return of the urn to the crematory association yesterday by the police, it was explained that the urn had been left in a bakery shop by two boys who said they would return for it. When they did not come to claim it the baker took it to the police station where it was opened and its contents discovered. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the boys left the urn with the baker without knowing what it contained or whether they opened it and learned of its contents before abandoning it.

A telegram asking reasons for the delay in the shipment of the ashes was received from Mancos yesterday, so the ashes will be shipped today.

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 31 March 1922: p. 3

Recently I read of a donation to a thrift store of a bottle labeled “Dad’s Ashes.” Perhaps the bereaved are simply absent-minded, leaving “Dad” or, as in the following story “a carpenter” in the wrong place.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

Urn Taken From Railway Carriage Is Hastily Abandoned in Tram Car by Surprised Crook.

Berlin, April. 30. Strange objects have been left behind in public conveyances, but it is not often that deliberation or forgetfulness abandons anything more incongruous to workaday traffic than the urn containing the ashes of a carpenter, which was found yesterday by a conductor in the corner of a Cologne tram car.

The incident proved to be even odder on investigation than it had appeared at first sight, for it turned out that the vessel had been stolen from a railway carriage, evidently under the impression that it contained something to eat or drink, while its legal owner was conveying it home from the Maience Crematorium. On discovering that he had embarrassed himself with the incinerated remains of a carpenter, the thief had hastened to get rid of them by leaving his burden in the train. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 15 May 1910: p. 4

Did the thief think the urn was a thermos?

Then there are the truly mysterious thefts, hinting of nameless uses for the ashes.

ASHES STOLEN FROM A GRAVE

The Discovery of the Outrage Causes a Sensation in Raleigh

Raleigh, N.C., May 26. A distinct sensation has developed here among a wide circle of friends of the family at the discovery that the grave of Miss Mattie Oettinger, in Oakwood Cemetery, has been opened and her ashes stolen away. The ghouls had cut off the turf and dug down into the inner cell, where the urn was placed. On replacing the roof a mistake was made, so that the earth sifted through, causing a depression of the grave. This and the withered turf led to the discovery.

Miss Oettinger was a daughter of the late Isaac Oettinger, and died in New York about more than a year ago. The remains were cremated and brought here for burial in the family lot. Every effort thus far has failed to reveal any clue to those guilty of the crime. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 27 May 1906: p. 5

Towards the end of my search, at last I located a single instance of “ashes for cash.”

KIDNAP ANCESTRAL ASHES FOR RANSOM

Berne, Switzerland, Oct. 1. Thieves broke into a crematory situated in Bienne near Berne, a few nights ago, and stole a few sepulchral urns containing the ashes of members of wealthy families.

Prominent families of Berne and Zurich are receiving letters offering to return the urns for a consideration varying between 2,000 and 4,000 francs, according to the financial standing of the owners.

The police hope to lay a trap for the ghouls.

Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne WY] 1 October 1902: p. 4

And, finally, the lust for murderabilia formed the motive for the theft of a murderer’s cremains.

MURDERER’S ASHES STOLEN BY MORGUE SIGHT-SEERS

Visitors to Allegheny County’s Dead House Carry Away Dust Mementoes

Pittsburgh, Pa., Jan. 3. The ashes of Steve Rusic, whose body was first to be cremated in the county crematory, after he had been hanged in the county jail yard for murder, have slowly disappeared from an urn in the morgue building, where they have been on view since February, 1911. Curiosity-seekers are accused of carrying away the ashes until about half a handful remains.

The theft was discovered today when Deputy Coroner John Moschell noticed that the urns, containing the ashes of persons cremated, had been disturbed. Rusic was hanged for the murder of Salvarro [Mary] Domboy at her home in McKees Rocks January 15, 1910. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 January 1917: p. 2

Mrs Garvarro Domboy was shot by Rusic as she lay in bed with her husband and baby. Some papers reported that this was because she refused to accept the man’s attentions; others because she had ended their love affair. Did the curiosity-seekers think they could use the ashes for some kind of charm or did they merely want a grim and sooty souvenir?

Any other ashes-for-cash stories? 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.

The Undertakers’ New Year’s Dinner: c. 1902

COFFIN ON THEIR TABLE.

Grewsome New Year’s Dinner of Jovial Undertakers.

Three or four years ago there was an undertakers’ New Year’s dinner in certain north of England town. The guests all drove to the rendezvous in mourning coaches and attired in full regulation somber clothes.

On entering the dining room they found it draped in black and decorated profusely with artificial and other wreaths. Even the tablecloth was adorned with a broad black border, and in the center of the table there was a miniature coffin filled with choice flowers.

The guests, however, did not fail to enjoy themselves, for the dinner was a good one, well served and to everybody’s liking. When the chairman rose to propose the toast of the evening, “Health to ourselves and prosperity to our business during the new year,” he was greeted with a storm of applause, albeit the latter part of the toast would not be received with much enthusiasm in an ordinary company.

During the evening appropriate songs, such as “The  Gravedigger,” “Down Among the Dead Men,” ‘I Took His Measure,” and similar cheerful ditties, were excellently rendered. Pearson’s Weekly.

Springville [NY] Journal 3 January 1907: p. 2

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Silent Ones: 1882

Christmas Eve at the Grave, Otto Hesselborn, 1896 http://pl-bild.se

THE SILENT ONES.

Noel! Noel!

Thus sounds each Christmas bell

Across the winter snow.

But what are the little footprints all

That mark the path from the churchyard wall?

They are those of the children waked tonight

From sleep by the Christmas bells and light.

Ring sweetly, chimes!

Soft, soft, my rhymes.

Their beds are under the snow.

Noel! Noel!

Carols each Christmas bell.

What are the wraiths of mist

That gather anear the window pane.

Where the winter frost all day hath lain?

They are soulless elves, who fain would peer

Within and laugh at our Christmas cheer.

Ring fleetly, chimes!

Swift, swift, my rhymes!

They are made of the mocking mist.

Noel! Noel!

Cease, cease, each Christmas bell!

Under the holly bough,

Where the happier children throng and shout.

What shadow seems to flit about?

Is it the mother, then, who died

Ere the greens were sere last Christmastide?

Hush, falling chimes!

Cease, cease, my rhymes!

The guests are gathered now.

—Edmund Clarence Stedman. 1882

The Oakes [ND] Times 22 December 1910: p. 7

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Rector’s Ghost: c. 1815

St Peter’s Church, Dorchester

Since the season of holiday decorating is upon us, let’s start the month of December with a tale of two church officials trying to enjoy a well-earned cup of cheer after decorating St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.

THE RECTOR’S GHOST

In the ancient town of Dorchester, Dorset, one Christmastide (I cannot fix the exact date, but it was not earlier than 1814, and might probably have been the following year), a rumor arose that a ghost had appeared in the old church of St. Peter’s to the clerk and sexton. They were both dreadfully frightened, and the former, I think, insensible for a time. The spirit was said to be the Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, the late rector, who died in 1813.

The story reached the ears of the then rector, the Rev. Henry John Richman, a learned and intelligent man, genial and kindly (I have the pleasantest recollections of him). The action be took in this affair was attributed to his eccentricity, in which he certainly gave proofs in regard to some other matters. He had an invalid wife and sister-in-law, both very nervous; so, to avoid annoying them, he examined the clerk and sexton both together, and apart, at the house of my aunt. I was quite a child then, but can just remember the whispering and excitement, and the men being shut in with the rector. The particulars of the story I heard afterward.

It was the custom in Dorchester, on Christmas Eve, for the clerk and sexton to decorate the church, not in the artistic fashion of modern times, but with large bunches of holly and mistletoe stuck about indiscriminately. Afterwards they gave the church a good cleaning for Christmas Day. On this Christmas Eve, the clerk and the sexton, after locking the doors of the church in order to prevent the intrusion of curious persons, busied themselves, as usual in Christmas preparations until the winter day drew to a close, when they sat down, on a form in the north aisle, to rest from their labors.

Then it was, as they told Mr. Richman, that the temptation came upon them to take a glass of the Sacramental wine, which kept in the vestry. After obtaining wine, they became aware that someone was sitting between them on the form. There had been no sound of steps, and the figure passed neither, but seemed to grow upon the seat. They both recognized the later rector, or “Old Master,” as they called him: he had the old familiar look and dress. He turned with a stern countenance from one to the other shaking his head in his peculiar way, but did not speak. The sexton, Ambrose Hunt, was able to say the Lord’s Prayer; Clerk Hardy was utterly unable to utter a word, and shook with extreme terror. The spirit after a while rose, and retreated down the aisle, turning round occasionally with the same awful look. He seemed to melt or vanish over the family vault, where his body lay. I never heard any explanation, except a surmise that somebody concealed in the church, and dressed like the late rector, frightened the men, but the “somebody” was never discovered, and I believe the other good rector believed the men’s story.—

Lucia A. Stone.

Shute Haye, Walditch, Bridport, Eng.

Spiritual Scientist February 1878: p. 19

So many details turn this into an M.R. James story: “no sound of steps,” “turning round occasionally with the same awful look,” and melting into the family vault.

The Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, who died 12 June 1813 and was succeeded by his curate, Mr Richman, was Rector of St Peters for 32 years–no wonder he was called “Old Master.”

While I can’t find a Clerk Hardy in the online parish records, Ambrose Hunt and Thomas Hardy are listed as witnesses at a number of weddings conducted by Mr Richman. I wonder if there is any link to the novelist Thomas Hardy, who, with architect John Hicks, helped restore St Peters in 1856-7? Hardy’s father, also named Thomas, was a violinist in his village church choir and a stone mason. It would hardly be a stretch, since the novelist was fascinated by the supernatural, to find that his father had met the rector’s ghost. But perhaps the name was a common one in the area.

Thoughts on the Hardy genealogy in relation to this tale?  Or of newer visitations from the Rector? Some modern lists of haunted sites say that he angrily comes back when theft or damage is threatened to St Peters.  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You can hear a reading of the original story on the Boggart and Banshee Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, Buzzsprout, Amazon, etc. etc.

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 new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Tickled to Death over her Christmas Gift: 1897

M.H. Rice Monumental Works, Kansas City, Missouri, 1898

ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE

He was a genial-looking, bald-headed man of 59, but when he heard us talking about Christmas gifts he sobered up a little and said:

“I am also going to take advantage of the occasion to make a gift. Ah! poor Mary!”

“What’s the matter with Mary?” asked one of the drummers.

“Mary was my wife, sir. She has been dead these five years.”

“Oh! that’s it? Please excuse me. I thought perhaps you were speaking of a sick or crippled child.”

“You are excused. Yes, Mary was my first wife, and she was a treasure. She will not know that I am making her a Christmas present, but I shall do it as a matter of duty and love. It is in the baggage car ahead.”

“Isn’t that rather queer to make a Christmas gift to a dead person?” asked the drummer after a silence lasting a minute or two.

“I think it is,” was the reply, “but it must serve to show that I treasure her memory. It cost $25, and stands four feet high. I do not think I could have got a more suitable gift. If she could speak I know that she would express her great satisfaction.”

“Might I ask the nature of the gift?” was the cautious query.

“Oh! certainly. It is a fine Italian marble headstone to mark Mary’s grave. I hope to have it set up on Christmas eve.”

“You–you have waited five years to get that headstone?”

“Yes, sir. I have been busy getting married twice again and burying a second wife, and have Just get around to it. Next Christmas I shall present the other one with a similar Santa Claus gift. I think the idea original and unique, don’t you?”

“No, sir!” stiffly replied the drummer, as he rose up.

“What’s the matter?”

“I am, going out for a smoke, and I had as soon tell you that I think you are a blamed mean man! I suppose you’ll buy your third wife a coffin for a Christmas gift won’t you?”

“No, of course not. No, sir, I wouldn’t do such a thing as that. I’ve already selected her gift”

“And may I ask what it is?” sneered the drummer as he moved away.

“You may, sir–you may. I have bought a lot in the cemetery and had the deed made out in her name, and she’ll be tickled half to death over it!”

Los Angeles [CA] Times 19 December 1897: p. 41

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

“We brought the funeral to your own door:” 1910

https://collection.maas.museum/object/76876

THE ODDEST FUNERAL

The queerest funeral I ever heard of occurred in a neighboring village. It was the child of a very odd couple. The mother of the child was seventeen years old when she was married to a man of almost sixty. He was poor and crippled and prematurely old. It was a strange mating. She was not a refined girl. She had no opportunity to cultivate refinement. Her people were unrefined and illiterate. She went to work at a farm house and there met the man whom she married a year later. He was employed on the farm, so they returned to the farm and resumed their residence there as they had been living previous to their marriage.

Hired help on the farm do not have much spare time, and they soon begin to think that all the world is just as busy as they are, and I suppose it was this idea in the mind of the young mother that suggested the odd funeral for their dead child. The baby lived to be three months old. It never had been well and strong. ‘The father wanted to have a funeral and hearse, but the bereaved mother said it would be expensive; and, besides this, everybody was so busy, it being housecleaning time, that they would not want to knock off; to attend the funeral of such a little [one.]

“But I want our friends to see poor little Jimmy before he is laid away in the cold, dark grave, so we’ll borrow the horse and buggy and go to town and get a little white coffin and we’ll bring it down to the farm and put our dead baby in it, and tomorrow, John, you and I will take Jimmy in the buggy and go around to all our intimate friends and call them to the door to see the corpse. We won’t get out of the buggy at each house, because it is no longer fashionable for the mourning friends to get out of the carriage at the cemetery.”

John agreed to this, so they drove to town and purchased the little coffin, and on the way back they stopped at many houses to notify the friends that their baby was dead. John drove and the wife and mother held the little box on her knee, very often breaking down and weeping bitterly. In her own peculiar way, she felt very badly. Next morning the parents started out for the burial ground near the mother’s old home, six miles away. Had they driven directly to the cemetery and buried the child’s body it would not have, appeared so strange, but it was late in the afternoon by the time they arrived at the burial ground. It was pathetic, yet ridiculously strange and absurd. They would drive up to a friend’s door, and in her peculiar, shrill voice would call out:

“Hello, Misses Jenkins, Mrs., Jenkins! Come here! Oh, there you are–good morning, Mrs. Jenkins! We are going to bury our baby today and we thought you would like to take a last look at dear little Jimmy. We knew you all were so busy and could not take time to come to the funeral, so we brought the funeral to your own door.

“Don’t the little darling look sweet! And just to think that we must lay him in his little grave and never see him again! I thought you would want to see him, just because you were my friend before I was married, and because you have a baby of your own sleeping out under the sod, where the moonbeams fall so silently during the night, and the birds and the sunlight come in the morning, and the snow comes in the winter and hides the place for months, so that we may forget the little body wasting away to dust.”

Then they would drive on to another street and stop in front of a house and call out the inmates to see little Jimmy, and discuss death and bereavement and the coming resurrection and the celestial crown. The father never said a word, but allowed his wife to do all the talking, as she had done all the planning and arranging the funeral. Out in the country a friend induced them to stop and, eat dinner, placing little Jimmy’s body in the parlor. Several of the neighbors hearing of this, sent their children over to look at the dead child, and the mother took much pleasure in showing the corpse, even though a fresh fountain of sorrow opened at each exhibition.

It was late in the afternoon when they drove into the cemetery, where a number of the mother’s old time friends had gathered to await the arrival of the funeral. They had been there several hours, and some had gone home before the arrival of the coffin.

Here the little white box was opened for the last time and the dead, face fondled by the mother’s coarse hand before the coffin closed for all time. Then the sexton lowered the child into the little narrow grave, and the father led the weeping mother from the place.

Some people look upon the affair as ridiculous in the extreme, but it appears so only because it is a new departure, That mother felt just as badly as though the baby had been hauled to the cemetery in a white hearse, and she and her husband rode in a closed carriage. It came as near to being a private funeral as their circumstances would allow, but it will hardly become fashionable.

Jake Haiden [Jacob Huff] “The Philosphy of Jake Haiden” column for the Reading Times and “Faraway Moses” articles in Pennsylvania Grit

Reading [PA] Times 25 August 1910: p. 4

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.

The Inconsolable Grief Department – Shopping for Mourning Goods

 

mourning for families Jay's warehouse 1880s
1888 advertisement for Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse, London

FASHIONABLE MOURNING. THE HABILIMENTS OF GRIEF,

FROM A COMMERCIAL POINT OF VIEW.

On the occasion of a recent visit to London, whilst I was debating with myself over the breakfast things as to how I should spend the day, I received by the post a letter deeply bordered with black, evidently a messenger of affliction. I tore the white weeping willow upon a black background which formed the device upon the seal, and read the contents. It proved to be an intimation from a relative of the sudden death of her brother-in-law, and a request that, under the circumstances of the sudden bereavement of the widow, I should undertake certain sad commissions relative to the articles of mourning required by the family. I at once set out upon my sad errand.

I had no difficulty in finding the maison de deuil to which I had been referred. It met me in the sad habiliments of woe; no vulgar colors glared from the shop windows, no gildings amazed with its festive brightness. The name of the firm scarce presumed to make itself seen in letters of the saddest gray upon a black ground. Here and there heads of white set off the general gloom of the house-front, like the crape piping of a widow’s cap. The very metal window frames and plates had gone into a decorous morning–zinc having taken the place of what we feel, under the circumstances, would have been quite out of the character: brass.

On pushing the plate glass door, it gave way with a hushed and muffled sound, and I was met by a gentlemen of sad expression, who, in the most sympathetic voice, inquired the nature of my want, and, on my explaining myself, directed me to the Inconsolable Grief Department. The interior of the establishment answered exactly to the appearance without. The long passage I had to traverse was paneled in white and black borderings, like so many mourning cards placed on end; and I was rapidly becoming impressed with the deep solemnity of the place, when I caught sight of a neat little figure rolling up some ribbon, who on my inquiring if I had arrived at the Inconsolable Grief Department, replied almost in a tone of gaiety, that that was the half-mourning counter, and that I must proceed further on until I had passed the repository for widowsilk.

Following her directions, I at last reached my destination–a large room draped in black with a hushed atmosphere about it as though somebody was lying invisible there in state. An attendant in sable habiliments, picked out with the inevitable white tie, and with an undertakerish eye and manner, awaited my commands, I produced my written directions. Scanning it critically, he said: “Permit me to inquire, sir, if it is a deceased partner?” I nodded assent. “We take the liberty of asking this distressing question,” he continued, “as we are extremely anxious to keep up the character of our establishment by matching, as it were, the exact shade of affliction. Our paramatta and crapes give satisfaction to the deepest woe. Permit me to show you a new texture of surprising beauty and elegance manufactured specially for this house, and which we call the inconsolable. Quite a novelty in the trade, I do assure you, sir.”

With this he placed a pasteboard box before me full of mourning fabrics.

“Is this it?” I inquired, lifting a lugubrious piece of draping.

“Oh, no!” he replied, “the one you have in your hand was manufactured for last year’s affliction, and was termed, ‘The Stunning Blow Shade.’ It makes up well, however, with our sudden bereavement silk- a leading article–and our distraction trimmings.”

“I fear,” said I, “my commission says nothing about these novelties.”

“Ladies in the country,” he blandly replied, “don’t know of the perfection to which the art of mourning genteelly has been brought! But I will see that your commission is attended to to the letter.”

Giving another glance over the list, he observed; “Oh! I perceive a widow’s cap is mentioned here, I must trouble you, sir, to proceed to the Weeds Department for that article–the first turning to the left.”

Proceeding, as directed, I came to a recess fitted up with a solid phalanx of widow’s caps. I perceived at a glance that they exhausted the whole gamut of grief, from the deepest shade to that tone which is expressive of a pleasing melancholy. The foremost row confronted me with the sad liveries of crapen folds, whilst those behind gradually faded off into light, ethereal tarleton, and one or two of the outsiders were even breaking out into worldly features and flaunting weepers. Forgetting the proprieties of the moment, I inquired of the grave attendant if one of the latter would be suitable.

“Oh! no, sir,” she replied with a slight shade of severity in the tone of her voice; “You may gradually work up to that in a year or two. But any of these,” pointing to the first row of widows’ weeds- -are suitable for the first burst of grief.”

Acquiescing in the propriety of this sliding scale of sorrow, I selected some weeds expressive of the deepest dejections I could find, and having completed my commission, inquired where I could procure for myself some lavender gloves.

“Oh! for those things, sir,” she said, in the voice of Tragedy speaking to Comedy, “you must turn to your right, and you will come to the Complimentary Mourning counter.”

Turning to the right, accordingly, I was surprised, and not a little shocked, to find myself amongst worldly colors. Tender lavender, I had expected; but violet, mauve, and even absolute red, stared me in the face. Thinking I had made a mistake, I was about to retire, when a young lady, in a cheerful tone of voice, inquired if I wanted anything in her department.

“I was looking for the Complimentary Mourning counter,” I replied, “for some gloves; but I fear I am wrong.”

“You are quite right, sir,” she observed. “This is it.”

She saw my eye glance at the cheerful colored silks, and with the instinctive tact of a woman guessed my thoughts in a moment. “Mauve, sir, is very appropriate for the lighter sorrows.”

“But absolute red!” I retorted, pointing to some velvet of that color.

“Is quite admissible when you mourn the departure of a distant relative. But allow me to show you some gloves?” and, suiting the action to the word, she lifted the cover from a tasteful glove box, and displayed a perfect picture of delicate half-tones, indicative of a struggle between the cheerful and the sad. “There is a pleasing melancholy in this shade of gray,” she remarked, indenting slightly each outer knuckle with the soft elastic kid as she measured my hand.

“Can you find lavender?”

“Oh, yes! but the sorrow tint is very slight in that; however, it wears admirably.”

Thus, by degrees, the grief of the establishment died out in tenderest lavender, and I took my departure deeply impressed with the charming improvements which Parisian taste has effected in the plain, old-fashioned style of English mourning.

The Christian Recorder 19 September 1863

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For more about the Byzantine conventions of Victorian mourning see Mourning Becomes Elective. For a look at a strange garden party at the London home of the Duke of Sutherland, promoting funeral reform and wicker-work coffins, see Wicker Man. The story “Crape” in the neo-Edwardian collection A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales , tells of the revenge exacted from beyond the grave by an aunt determined to be “mourned relentlessly.” For further reading, see Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

The piece above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.

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.

The Imperial Russian Children See the Angel of Death: 1903

Princess Elisabeth’s tomb, watched over by an angel. She died 16 November, 1903.

SAW DEATH ANGEL

Apparition That Appeared to Royal Children.

Story Related by Governess of Russian Princesses

Czar and Czarina Believe Supernatural Figure Really Was Visible.

Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse had a very pretty little daughter by his first wife, Princess Victoria Melita of Great Britain and Coburg, now married to Grand Duke Cyril of Russia. This little girl’s name was Elizabeth, and on account of her beauty and sprightly cleverness she was a universal favorite and the only tie between her parents after the estrangement, F. Cunliffe Owen writes in the New York World.

While staying with her uncle and aunt, the present czar and czarina, at their picturesque country seat in Poland, she succumbed when seven years old to poison—ptomaine poison, according to some, but according to others drugs conveyed into food or drink by the Nihilists for the purpose of taking the life of Emperor Nicholas.

A remarkable account of the affair is given by an English woman of the name of Miss Eager [Eagar], who, after spending a number of years in the service of the emperor and empress of Russia as the nursery governess of their young children, published on her return to England, with the full authority and approval of their majesties, a volume entitled, “Six Years at the Court of Russia.” [Six Years at the Russian Court, M. Eagar, 1906]

According to her, little Princess Elizabeth, or “Ella,” of Hesse was taken ill one afternoon or night and died before the following morning. Between nine o’clock and ten o’clock two of the little girls of czarina, who were sleeping together in a room adjoining that of their seven-year-old cousin of Hesse, suddenly alarmed everyone within hearing by the most frantic screams.

When the empress, Miss Eagar and the doctors rushed in they found the two little grand duchesses standing up on their beds, shrieking and shaking with terror. It was some time before they could be soothed, and then they related that they had seen a man with flowing robes and huge wings in their room. While they were still talking the eyes of both children suddenly dilated with terror, and both pointing in the same direction, they cried: “Look! Look! There he is again. He has gone into Ella’s room. Oh! Poor Ella! Poor Ella!”

Neither Miss Eager nor the czarina, nor yet the physicians, could see anything. But a few moments later Princess Ella suddenly sat up in her bed, crying: “I am choking. I am choking! Send for mamma!” Three hours afterward the child, who had immediately after the cry for her mother fallen into a state of coma, passed away, in the absence, of course, of her parents.

Miss Eagar expressed her firm conviction that the little grand duchesses had seen a supernatural apparition and that the apparition in question was the angel of death. That the czar and czarina shared her impression is shown by the fact that they had authorized her to publish the story in her book, as well as by the circumstance that she retains their favor and good will and is in receipt of an annuity from them for the remainder of her days. Truth [Erie, PA] 29 July 1916: p. 5 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine [1895-1903] was regarded by all who knew her as too angelic for this world. Her parents, Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, were divorced in 1901. She was a particular favourite of Queen Victoria and was very close to her father, especially after the divorce. Her father never got over her death.

There were rumours at the time that Princess Elisabeth had been poisoned by food meant for Czar Nicholas–one story suggested bad oysters; another claimed the child was poisoned by soup which the Czar gallantly passed to the Princess saying, “Ladies first.” Typhoid was the official explanation. The Imperial children’s nurse, Miss Margaretta Eager left her post with the family, perhaps for political reasons, during the Russo-Japanese War and received a pension from the Russian government until the Revolution put an end to it. She was haunted by the deaths of the Imperial family for the rest of her life.

Frederick Cunliffe-Owen was a former English diplomat and writer. He and his wife, Marguerite, were well-connected with many of the royal houses of Europe and it is possible that he heard this story from Miss Eagar with more detail than she gives in her memoir.

Grand Duchess Marie was four years old and Grand Duchess Anastasia was only two when Princess Elisabeth died. They were known as “The Little Pair” (in contrast to “The Big Pair:” Olga and Tatiana) and slept in the same room.  While it seems certain that the young Grand Duchesses saw something unusual, this is what Miss Eagar published about the incident: 

Presently the two little Grand Duchesses, Marie and Anastasie, began to scream, and I ran into their room ; I found them both standing in their beds looking terribly alarmed. They told me there was a strange man in their room who had frightened them. Now the rooms were in a suite, and they could be entered only from the dining-room, or from the second bedroom, and this bedroom in its turn could only be entered from the room in which the little Princess lay ill. It will therefore be seen that no one could have entered their room without our knowledge. The doctor and the little Princess’s own faithful servant-man had been in the dining-room all night.

I thought the night-light might have thrown a shadow which frightened the children into thinking there was someone in the room. I therefore changed its position, but still the children were afraid, and said he was hiding over by the curtain. I lit a candle, and taking little Anastasie in my arms, carried her round the room to prove to her that there was absolutely nothing to frighten her. The doctor came in and tried to soothe Marie, but it was useless; she would not be soothed and Anastasie refused to return to bed, so I took her in my arms and sat down to try to comfort her. She buried her face in my neck and clung to me trembling and shaking. It was dreadful to me to see her in such a fright. The doctor being obliged to go I lighted a candle and left it on a little table close to Marie’s bed, and sat down near it, that I might be beside both children.

Marie kept talking about the dreadful person, and starting up in wild horror every now and then. The doctor came in and out, and told me the strange doctor had come and had given the little sufferer an injection of caffeine; her heart seemed stronger and he began to have hope.

When next Marie began to talk about the mysterious stranger I said, “A strange doctor had come to help Dr. H. to make cousin Ella quite well, and perhaps he might have come to the door in mistake, or you might have heard him speak, but there is no one in the room now.”

She assured me that the stranger was not a doctor and had not come through that door at all, and did not speak. Suddenly she stood up and looked at something which I could not see. “Oh!” she said, “he is gone into cousin Ella’s room.” Anastasie sat up on my knee and said, “Oh! poor cousin Ella; poor Princess Elizabeth!” [The child died very shortly after this, as Miss Eagar describes.] Six Years at the Russian Court, M. Eagar, 1906

Miss Eagar does not mention robes or wings (although these may be noted in an edition of Miss Eagar’s memoirs of which Mrs Daffodil is unaware), but she was an Irishwoman even though trained as a nurse, and it is possible she may have confided those extraordinary details to someone verbally, while being more reticent in print. Certainly the Czar and Czarina were firm believers in supernatural manifestations and apparitions.

Marguerite Cunliffe-Owens was a writer of aristocratic tittle-tattle for the papers and “historical novels” about the crowned heads of Europe, with titles like The Martyrdom of an Empress and Snow-Fire: A Story of the Russian Court.   She used the pseudonym La Marquise de Fontenoy for these intimate and incendiary revelations. Anything was possible in the mystic atmosphere of the Russian court, but one suspects that the suggestion of an angel came from her purple-inked pen.

For another story of a shrouded personification of Death, see this post.

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.