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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.

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The Goat Ate the Crape

goat

A GOAT ATE THE CRAPE

What Has Caused Hard Feeling Between the Walshes and the Travises.

[Philadelphia Press.]

John Walsh’s billy-goat is making a great furor in his part of the Twenty-sixth Ward. Mr. Walsh lives at 111 Snyder avenue, and the goat has a home of his own in the back yard. The animal is at home at nights, but he wanders where he will in the day-time. His appetite is omnivorous, and he has even been known to devour a big piece of looking-glass with pleasure. The neighbors say that he gives them more trouble than their own children. He has just brought a series of bad actions to a climax by eating a big string of crape off Mrs. John Travis’ bell-knob at 1105 Snyder avenue. Mrs. Travis, it is understood, is to enter suit against the owner of the billy-goat to obtain damages for the loss of the crape. Lawyers hold that Mr. Walsh is clearly liable in damages for the depredations of the goat, and that besides the value of the crape itself, Mrs. Travis may perhaps recover for the pain to her feelings caused by seeing the goat devour the crape under her own eyes.

AN AUDACIOUS GOAT.

The crape was hung out in memory of Mrs. Travis’ son, a bright and good boy of nine years, who died on Friday. Neighbors who were looking at the billy-goat say that the sight of the crape gently swaying in the wind seemed to surprise the creature at first, then to attract him. The goat hopped over hesitatingly; then, apparently satisfied that there was no danger, he began gently to nibble the soft cloth. His appetite grew, as Shakespeare says, with what it fed on, and when he had eaten quite as far as he could reach with comfort he gave the remnant a tug and pulled it down from the bell-knob.

Mrs. Travis, attracted to the door by a gentle jingle of her bell, appeared sad and tearful, expecting to greet a sympathizing friend. It was only natural that after a shock of surprise her feelings should undergo a change as she saw Mr. Walsh’s bill-goat calmly chewing the remnant of the crape on her doorstep.

She endeavored to chase the audacious goat away and save the rest of the crape. But though the goat hopped away gaily enough, he carried the crape with him and swallowed the last shreds just as a little girl shied out of a gateway and gave him a whack on the back with a broom-handle.

Mrs. Travis thinks that the crape was worth at least $5, and her lawyer in entering suit will feel justifiedd in adding several hundred dollars more for the shock to Mrs. Travis’ feelings. The defense of the claim will raise an interesting question. Mr. Walsh holds that the crape, having already fulfilled its purpose as a sign of mourning, has no appreciable value, except perhaps considered as food for the billy-goat. Besides, it will be contended the crape did not belong to Mrs. Travis at all, but was borrowed from a neighbor, and, therefore, Mrs. Travis has no claim on the billy-goat’s owner.

DEFENDING THE GOAT

Mr. Walsh was not at home yesterday when the reporter called, but Mrs. Walsh said that she was sorry for what the billy-goat had done. “He is really a good goat,” said she, “and wouldn’t harm any body, although some people have taken a prejudice against him. But, then, it is hard for a goat to please everybody. I am very sorry for what has occurred and I have done all I could to alleviate Mrs. Travis’ distress by attempting to buy her some new crape. I tried half a dozen stores, but could not get the material. Then my husband, who has been out of work for a long time, tried to square things by offering Mrs. Travis fifty cents. What more could we do? Besides, anyhow, Mrs. Schenk, 1103 Snyder avenue, owned the crape, and Mrs. Travis borrowed it from her.”

Mrs. Schenk said that the crape did not belong to her either. She had borrowed it from a friend, whose name she could not recall, and had lent it to Mrs. Travis. Mrs. Travis herself did not have any thing more to say.

The goat which has made so much trouble was bought some two years ago by Mrs. Walsh’s little boy Johnny from Farmer Isaac Brown, who has a truck farm down on Long Lane. It coast $2. It was a refractory creature from the beginning , and the only way that little Johnny could get it home was by carrying it. Mrs. Walsh does not intend to give up the billy-goat, and if a suit is brought she and her husband will fight it to the bitter end.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 July 1887: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Crape on the door knob” unequivocally signified death to the 19th-century audience. Those who saw it moderated their behaviour, knowing that the streamers marked a House of Mourning. There are stories of persons who dreamed of crape on the door, only to suffer a bereavement; and, in the sad case below, it is said that the sight of crape on the family door so shocked a young man that he died.

CREPE ON THE DOOR

Shocked Coppinger and He Died a Week After His Father’s Demise

Alton, Ill., December 15. William H. Coppinger, the twenty-one-year-old son of the late Senator John W. Coppinger, died here to-day, one week after his father’s death, from shock, caused by the sudden realization of his parent’s demise.

Young Coppinger was studying for the Catholic priesthood at Niagara University, Buffalo, N.Y. While home on a visit he took a trip to St. Louis, and was summoned to Alton by telegraph. On arriving, and seeing crepe on the door, he fell into a swoon. The shock caused cerebral meningitis, from which he died.

The Coppinger family is one of the most prominent in the Mississippi Valley

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 December 1900: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil is sceptical; perhaps he was sickening on his journey home and the crape merely furnished the final blow. Mrs Daffodil is not aware of any causative link between crape and cerebral meningitis, although perhaps that is why superstition dictated the removal of all crape from the home after the end of mourning.

Both of these stories are found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available for purchase at online retailers (or ask your library to order it) and for Kindle.

 

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.

Summer Mourning: 1857-1910

what the young French widow wears as a summer mournng bonnet
Summer mourning bonnet for young French widow, 1898

Women readily exchange their winter garments for those suitable to summer; but, under circumstances of mourning, they are cruelly compelled by custom to move about under a load of black crape. It is to liberate them from this misery that the present article is written.

Many widows suffer from nervous headache in consequence of night-watching, anxiety, and grief; and this form of headache is converted into congestion of the blood-vessels of the head by exposure to the sun in black bonnets and dresses . There are numerous instances of widows remaining within doors for months together, to the great injury of their health, rather than endure the misery of sun broiling.

The remedy is very simple.

Let summer mourning become customary. Let light-coloured clothing be worn, trimmed with thin black edging.

There is such an article as white crape; but it indicates slight mourning. Either white crape should be worn as summer mourning, or small-sized black edging to light-coloured dresses; and bonnets should be introduced into general use for the purpose.

The Sanitary Review, and Journal of Public Health, 1857: p. 287

If in summer a parasol should be required, it should be of silk deeply trimmed with crape, almost covered with it, but no lace or fringe for the first year. Afterward mourning fringe might be put on.…. Collier’s Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information, Nugent Robinson, editor, 1882

Summer or winter, there was no consensus as to whether children and infants should go into black.

Though it is the custom to put children into black on the death of either parent, no crape is used on their gowns or coats or hats; and in summer they wear white with black ribbons. Children under ten do not wear black for any other relative. Young girls, even when in deep mourning, are permitted to wear white in summer, with black belt, tie, &c.; and for evening dress they can wear white. It may seem anomalous, but white is much deeper mourning than grey; the idea being to wear “no colour” and to attract as little notice as possible. Etiquette for Every Day, Mrs Humphry, 1904

THE MAGPIE CONTRAST

A Pretty Black and White Combination for Her Who Wears Second Mourning

The magpie contrast, which is the name given to the effect when black and white are brought together, is revived with great favor for the summer girl who is entering the second stage of mourning.

A near, but none the less dainty, magpie contrast is here portrayed. The toilette is developed in white dimity traced in swirling design. The tracery is of black silk somewhat raised, giving the effect of the new needle cord, which is seen in many of the nonwashable summer goods.

The skirt is gored to insure a smooth fit over the hips, and the fullness is underfolded at the back. It is sewed upon a waistband of black mourning silk ribbon which necessitates no other belt. Bands of the ribbon in a narrower width than the belt extend halfway down the sides of the skirt. These are caught by a rosette or ribbon or left to fly to the winds, the latter mode being more generally adopted because of its summery effect.

The bodice is made with a yoke of open work, through which narrow mourning ribbon is run. The sleeves are plain trimmed with bands of ribbon and their conjunction with the bodice is concealed under a double ruffle of the dimity. They are tight fitting and neatly trimmed with bands of black silk.

The collar is a soft band of linen finished with a black bow tie and the sailor is a jaunty affair in milk white leghorn finished with a mourning band.

Helen Gray-Page.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 6 June 1899: p. 3

THE SUMMER MOURNING VEIL

So great is the dislike for a summer veil that many are leaving it off, though others feel more comfortable if the mourning hat or bonnet is properly veiled. For such head dress, the bonnet or hat proper is covered with ordinary black crepe, though the face covering is a very thin black chiffon. While these hats signal woe to the whole wide world, nevertheless they are graceful and to many quite becoming. The shapes are quite different from what they once were and some are really very artistic, though not noticeably so by any means. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 25 June 1908: p. 8

For the ordinary run of people, the most serviceable dress is of black voile, and the changes may be rung with the woollen, silken, or cotton makes of it, according to the means of the purchaser. Black cotton voile will be used later on for half-mourning frocks, and it is a fabric that will probably be responsible for some of the most attractive frocks all the summer through. There are plenty with striped effects and floral patterns—black and white, white and black, grey and white, white and grey, to say nothing of all the varying hues of mauve and lavender—but such are not orthodox for immediate wear. New Zealand Herald, 2 July 1910: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Nothing is more trying for the bereaved than the burden of bombazine and crape in midsummer’s heat. Not only is the costume excessively warm, but perspiration often causes the black dye to stain the face beneath the veil, a distasteful and unhygienic situation. There were few alternatives if one wished to be “correct.”

When His Majesty King Edward VII died in 1910, his successor, King George V, thoughtfully shortened the official mourning period.

The King’s kindly thought in shortening the period of mourning by a full month will be greatly appreciated, not only by those who would have had to buy a complete summer outfit of black, but more by the tradespeople whose large stocks, bought months ago, would have presented only dead loss.

Full mourning now is only to last until June 17th, and half-mourning may end on June 30th, so that there will be little hardship in putting off the donning of summer finery for so short a time out of respect for the memory of the late King. New Zealand Times 6 July 1910: p. 11

White mourning was one possibility for the summer mourner, if one did not mind controversy:

“White” Mourning

All-white crepe is now advocated by a New York fashion writers for widows during the summer. She says: “For a summer outfit for a young widow gowns trimmed with white crape, made of white crape, hat with a long white crape veil, a white crape parasol and everything to match, is immensely smart, and, be it added, very becoming.” Imagine such a thing! The uninitiated would surely wonder what a woman so attired was trying to impersonate. She would seem a cross between a bride, wandering about without her bridegroom, and a tragic actress doing Lady Macbeth off the stage.

The aforementioned New York writer of fashions must be possessed of a sense of humor which is, in vulgar parlance, “a dandy.”

There are widows to-day who do not wear mourning as is mourning at all, but at least they do not make themselves conspicuous in a bizarre costume like that described.

The white mourning costume is never likely to be popular until women lose their ideas of appropriateness altogether. Charlotte [NC] Observer 1 July 1903: p. 7

A woman, who is in “second mourning,” hit upon a dainty idea for her summer clothes. She is wearing white this summer, but instead of the inevitable white shoes, she’s “gone in” strongly for gray shoes and stockings—silver gray—and is wearing exquisite belt buckles of silver as the only other note of color about her costume. The silver and white effect is stunning.” The Indianapolis [IN] Star 1 July 1905: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil will add what is perhaps the most vital hint on summer mourning. She has shuddered at white underthings under black voile and can vouch for this statement:

All the sheer black materials may be used, but black muslin or cambric underwear should be worn beneath them, for nothing is uglier than black over white. The San Francisco [CA] Call 10 July 1910: p. 20

One may read more about “correct mourning” in The Victorian Book of the Deadwhich describes, among other abominations, a mourning bathing suit.

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 Old Wife’s Kiss: 1883

elderly man in white post mortem
Elderly man in white. c. 1840-60 https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/post-mortem/pQGZAGorRZtlZw

THE OLD WIFE’S KISS.

The funeral services were ended; and as the voice of prayer ceased, tears were hastily wiped from wet cheeks, and long-drawn sighs relieved suppressed and choking sobs, as the mourners prepared to take leave of the corpse. It was an old man who lay there, robed for the grave. More than three-score years had whitened those locks, and furrowed that brow, and made those stiff limbs weary of life’s journey, and the more willing to be at rest where weariness is no longer a burden.

The aged have few to weep for them when they die. The most of those who would have mourned their loss have gone to the grave before them; harps that would have sighed sad harmonies are shattered and gone; and the few that remain are looking cradleward, rather than to life’s closing goal; are bound to and living in the generation rising, more than in the generation departing. Youth and beauty have many admirers while living,—have many mourners when dying,—and many tearful ones bend over their coffined clay, many sad hearts follow in their funeral train! but age has few admirers, few mourners.

This was an old man, and the circle of mourners was small: two children, who had themselves passed the middle of life, and who had children of their own to care for and be cared for by them. Beside these, and a few friends who had seen and visited him while he was sick, and possibly had known him for a few years, there were none others to shed a tear, except his old wife; and of this small company, the old wife seemed to be the only heart-mourner. It is respectful for his friends to be sad a few moments, till the service is performed and the hearse is out of sight. It is very proper and suitable for children, who have outgrown the fervency and affection of youth, to shed tears when an aged parent says farewell, and lies down to quiet slumber. Some regrets, some recollection of the past, some transitory griefs, and the pangs are over.

The old wife arose with difficulty from her seat, and went to the coffin to look her last look—to take her last farewell. Through the fast falling tears she gazed long and fondly down into the pale, unconscious face. What did she see there? Others saw nothing but the rigid features of the dead; she saw more. In every wrinkle of that brow she read the history of years; from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health, it was all there; when those children, who had not quite outgrown the sympathies of childhood, were infants lying on her bosom, and every year since then—there it was. To others those dull, mute monitors were unintelligible; to her they were the alphabet of the heart, familiar as household words.

Then the future: “What will become of me? What shall I do now?” She did not say so, but she felt it. The prospect of the old wife is clouded; the home circle is broken, never to be reunited; the visions of the hearthstone are scattered forever. Up to that hour there was a home to which the heart always turned with fondness. That magic is now sundered, the key-stone of that sacred arch has fallen, and home is nowhere this side of heaven! Shall she gather up the scattered fragments of the broken arch, make them her temple and her shrine, sit down in her chill solitude beside its expiring fires, and die? What shall she do now?

They gently crowded her away from the dead, and the undertaker came forward, with the coffin-lid in his hand. It is all right and proper, of course, it must be done; but to the heart-mourner it brings a kind of shudder, a thrill of agony. The undertaker stood for a moment, with a decent propriety, not wishing to manifest rude haste, but evidently desirous of being as expeditious as possible. Just as he was about to close the coffin, the old wife turned back, and stooping down, imprinted one long, last kiss upon the cold lips of her dead husband, then staggered to her seat, buried her face in her hands, and the closing coffin hid him from her sight forever!

That kiss! fond token of affection, and of sorrow, and memory, and farewell! I have seen many kiss their dead, many such seals of love upon clay-cold lips, but never did I see one so purely sad, so simply heart-touching and hopeless as that. Or, if it had hope, it was that which looks beyond coffins, and charnel-houses, and damp, dark tombs, to the joys of the home above. You would kiss the cold cheek of infancy; there is poetry; it is beauty hushed; there is romance there, for the faded flower is still beautiful. In childhood the heart yields to the stroke of sorrow, but recoils again with elastic faith, buoyant with hope; but here was no beauty, no poetry, no romance.

The heart of the old wife was like the weary swimmer, whose strength has often raised him above the stormy waves, but now, exhausted, sinks amid the surges. The temple of her earthly hopes had fallen, and what was there left for her but to sit down in despondency, among its lonely ruins, and weep and die! or, in the spirit of a better hope, await the dawning of another day, when a Hand divine shall gather its sacred dust, and rebuild for immortality its broken walls!

Gems for the Fireside, Otis Henry Tiffany, 1883: pp 244-246

 

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 Last Word: Coffin Plate Capers

our darling coffin plate2
The Last Word: Coffin Plate Capers. Detail of a funeral wreath with “Our Darling” coffin plate. Former eBay listing.

 

I once bought an “Our Darling” coffin plate (in original box) as a birthday present for a friend who collects post-mortem photographs. It was in beautiful condition and the box offered reassurance that this was new-old stock, literally, “deadstock” rather than resurrected grave-goods. All the same, the birthday girl eventually got rid of it, saying that there was “something,” “attached” to it.

Many of our ancestors had no compunction in keeping coffin-plates taken directly from a coffin as a memento of a loved one. The plates, which might be made of many different types of cast or hammered metal such as brass, polished tin, pewter, silver-plate and even solid silver, were engraved with the name and dates of the deceased and sometimes with an emblem or short motto like “Baby” or “At Rest.” The inscriptions were almost always reported in newspaper reports of the funerals of the good and the great. The plate might be left on the coffin, to be buried, or  might be removed by the undertaker before the burial and given to the family.

Our darling coffin plate
Our Darling coffin plate with wreath and child’s hand outline. Former eBay listing.

He had the coffin-plate framed, resting gruesomely on a bed of black velvet, and hung it against the wall in the moldy-smelling best room. Frequently, as he was about to retire, he went creaking in, shielding the lamp with his palm to gaze on the relic and sigh a mournful sigh… [tells the visiting parson;] “I ordered extry-coated plate so I can scour when it gits tarnished.” “Mournful” Mullen, Holman F. Day. Our Paper, Massachusetts Reformatory, 26 January, 1907

Alternatively a duplicate coffin plate might be engraved as a memento, or, as in the case of those discarded veterans’ tombstones, so recently in the news, a defective coffin-plate might end up in the wrong place, causing no end of trouble.

UNDERTAKER EXPLAINS COFFIN-PLATE MYSTERY

Mr. Schilling Says Two Plates Were Made, One Being Defective—Body to Be Exhumed.

The mystery surrounding the finding on a vacant lot in Northeast Baltimore of a coffin plate bearing the name of Conrad Kraft was cleared up yesterday afternoon. Undertaker George Schilling, Alsquith and Monument streets, reported to Lieutenant Wellener, of the Northeastern Police Station, that while the plate for the coffin was being engraved a mistake was made in the figure 3. It was not until the plate had been placed on the coffin that the defect was noticed, and the family ordered it to be removed. This Mr. Schilling did, replacing it with a perfect one. The defective plate was returned to the workshop and thrown among a lot of rubbish. Here is remained until last Friday, when it was removed to the “dump” with other refuse by one of Mr. Schilling’s employes. As Mr. William H. Watts was walking across the dump to his home he noticed the plate shining out from a lot of other stuff, and after reading the inscription took it to the Northeastern Police Station.

Mr. Schilling noticed the account of the finding of the plate in The American, and visited Mrs. Kraft and explained the circumstances in which it was lost. Mrs. Kraft did not seem to be perfectly satisfied, and yesterday stated that she would have the body exhumed. Baltimore [MD] American 28 November 1903: p. 16

our babe
Our Babe silver coffin plate. Former eBay listing.

There was a certain amount of controversy about the taste and propriety of displaying a family coffin plate. In the early 1900s it was seen as a nearly obsolete article of mourning apparatus and, at least in popular fiction, a description of a framed coffin plate (on a black velvet background) signaled to the reader that the story was set in an old-fashioned or rural home. The custom seems to have lingered on in the United States primarily on the East Coast or New England states. This story is from a New York home.

“That’s the plate,” explained the laundress.

“But I thought,” said the visitor, “that coffin plates should be left on for—“ She was going to say “for purposes of identification,” but thought better of it.

“Most people do leave ‘em on,” explained the proud possessor, “but it was so pretty, I wanted it. I’m going to have it framed in one of them deep frames soon as I can afford it, and hang it in the parlor. It’ll be awful pretty. I want a wreath of white roses set about it, an’ a big black velvet bow put at the bottom of the wreath.” Jonesboro [AR] Evening Sun 10 January 1905: p. 2

 

 

coffin plate trade card
A trade card for a chaser of coffin plates. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3056672&partId=1&searchText=coffin&images=true&page=1

 COFFIN PLATES

A sign is conspicuously displayed on one of the principal streets of this city bearing the announcement, “Coffin Plates Framed Here.” Pray tell us, Mr. Editor, what you would do with a framed coffin plate. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 23 June 1874: p. 2

Some suggested that the practice of keeping a coffin plate was too morbid to countenance.

“How about photographing the dead?” “We discourage it altogether. It is a ghastly process, and is suggested by minds insane with grief. It would be just as wise to keep the coffin plate or a bit of the shroud as a memento of those who are gone. The Boston [MA] Weekly Globe 26 June 1883: p. 6

And doctors had to be particularly sensitive about such décor.

There is another so-called ornament that has been seen in a country doctor’s office; it is that awful reminder of death that adorns the grim and somber, dank and chilly country parlor or best room too good for daily use. It consists of a black glazed frame in which the coffin-plate of some deceased relative is conspicuously displayed on a black ground surrounded with stiff wax flowers. The very thought of it suggests wailing and gnashing of teeth, and it’s too funereal an object for the doctor’s use. One might just as well go the whole figure and set up a coffin, Chineselike, in the corner, or keep a stock of coffins on hand, to be thrown in as a premium, to soothe the feelings of the afflicted, in case the doctor isn’t successful in snatching a victim from the grasp of death. Besides, a coffin-plate is a sort of card of introduction to whom it may concern, in the hereafter, and to take it from the coffin, is, in a sense, a sacrilege, a deprivation of rights. “Medical Bricabracology,” Leon Noel, The Philadelphia Medical Journal, Vol. 4, 2 September, 1899

This 1905 article describes the custom as something eccentric and quaint.

GLOOMY BRIC-A-BRAC

Coffin Plates Once Used as House Ornaments in Maine.

In New England 100 years ago it was by no means uncommon for people to provide their coffins long before their death and keep the same in their houses, where they could see them every day. It was perhaps a custom having the same purpose and significance as the skeleton at the feasts of the ancient Greeks, to remind the living in their hours of levity of the seriousness of life and the certainty of death.

This was not the idea, however, of a man named Lindsey, whom people now living in Leeds may remember or at least have heard of. He built his own coffin many years before he died and used to keep it in a chamber of his house. He used it generally to keep beans in. It was a very find coffin, made of mahogany and nicely finished and polished. Mr. Lindsey made it with his own hands and gave as reason that if he left the task of providing him with a coffin to his sons it would be just like them to put him in a hemlock one. Perhaps the boys did not relish the implication. At any rate, they did not like to have the coffin about the house and took it away one night and threw it into the river. It was found several miles below, considerably broken and battered as it went over the rips, and old Lindsey heard about it, drove down and got it and was finally buried in it.

Another queer custom that prevailed in this section of Maine down to a comparatively recent date was that of removing the plate for the coffin after the funeral and just before the body was lowered into the grave and keeping it in the best room in the house among the ornaments and bric-a-brac. The writers saw one of these grewsome exhibits on the mantel of a Lincolnville parlor not more than twenty-five years ago, and we shouldn’t be surprised if quite a number of them could be found in the old houses throughout Maine. Bangor News. Prescott [AZ] Morning Courier 2 May 1905: p.1

father and coffin plate broken wheel funeral flowersA
Funeral wreath for “Brother” with coffin plate and photo of deceased. Private Collection

But coffin plates could also be functional as well as decorative. They provided proof of relationships and might be used as an informal type of death certificate.

OFFERS COFFIN PLATE AS EVIDENCE HE IS WIDOWER

Providence Man Astonishes Immigration Board.

Does a coffin plate constitute conclusive proof that Philip O. Turcone is a widower?

Turcone evidently believes the plate made a profound impression yesterday when he fished it from his clothes in presence of a board of penal inquiry at the immigration station. He had come from Providence, where he is employed as a carpenter, to claim Raffaela Pirone as his intended bride. The girl arrived from Italy on the Cretic a few days ago and had been detained on a medical certificate as afflicted with a disease of the eye. When the board interrogated Turcone he said he was a widower. The board asked for proof that his wife is dead and he flashed the coffin plate before their astonished gaze with the statement that he is an advocate of preparedness.

Miss Pirone’s case is one that usually gets a deportation order from Washington because her physical affliction is ordinarily contagious. She will appear, however, and Turcone stands ready to pay expense of hospital treatment. Boston [MA] Herald 27 October 1915: p. 9

Many coffin plates were rather substantial, so it took a special kind of resolve to carry one to court in one’s stocking.

USES COFFIN PLATE TO PROVE HIS DEATH

Colored Woman Takes It From Her Stocking for Evidence in Probate Court

New Haven, Jan. 27. A nickel coffin plate from her husband’s coffin was the novel proof of his death, submitted by the widow, Mrs. Joseph Trent, colored, in the local Probate Court today. Trent died recently in New York, leaving real estate in this city. The widow appeared in the court today, and after expressing her wish to probate the estate here, pulled a marriage certificate from her pocket, exclaiming, “This shows you that I was married to him.”

Then, producing the nickel coffin plate, which she took from her stocking, she continued, “This shows you my husband is dead.”

The evidence was accepted and her application placed on file. Boston [MA] Journal 28 January 1910: p. 3

1884 masonic coffin plate
An 1884 coffin plate designed for a Mason.

For this family with the custom of collecting coffin plates, the mementos were cherished for the tale they told of a long and distinguished lineage.

COFFIN PLATES IN THE PARLOR

A QUEER CUSTOM LIKELY TO SURPRISE STRANGERS TO CONNECTICUT HOUSEHOLDS

Milford, Sept. 16, 1889. A stranger calling at the residence of Mr. Thaddeus Smith, on Brad street, one of the oldest and most respected inhabitants of Milford, is likely to be surprised while sitting in the parlor to see a queer oblong silver plate lying on the centre table. At first the caller may think it is a door plate. On closer inspection he will find that is bears an inscription to the memory of the venerable Mr. Smith’s daughter, and is nothing less than a silver coffin plate. It lies on the stand among hymn books, photographs albums, card cases and other drawing room trinkets. None of the Smith family ever refers to it unless the subject is mentioned by a caller. Then they describe, in tones of affectionate tenderness, the many virtues of the daughter that was so dear to them. The coffin plate occupies in that household much the same place of veneration that an urn with the ashes of the dead holds in the houses of the advocates of cremation.

Singular as the custom may seem, there are many New England homes, especially in this part of Connecticut, where coffin plates of dead relatives or cherished friends are kept as mantelpiece ornaments or on the centre tables in the parlor. One family in New Milford is said to have a collection of no less than fourteen brass, silver, and plated relics taken from the coffins of dead members of the family, reaching down to within fifty years of the founding of the colony two centuries and a half ago. The oldest of this rare collection of coffin plates bears the name and date of the birth and death of one of the original settlers of New Haven colony. It is black and discoloured by the lapse of time,   but the family would as soon think of parting with it as they would of losing the family Bible, which contains the genealogical records of the entire race.

An amusing story is told about the coffin plates collected by a Stratford family. There were nine or ten of them in places of honor about the parlor of the old-fashioned farmhouse. Some years ago an irreverent burglar entered the house at night, and seeing the glittering mementos of the dead decorating prominent pieces of furniture in the room dumped them all into his booty bag, and together with the silver knives and forks and what other portable household effects he could conveniently carry, made his exit unmolested. Great was the consternation of the easy going farmer and his family when they awoke the next morning to find that their dining room silverware had been carried off, but they were shocked beyond expression when they discovered the rape of the coffin plates, which could not be replaced at any cost.

They were proportionately gratified a day or two later to receive a box by express, in which were packed all the missing coffin plates. With it was a note in a rough hand, which said.

“Here is your coffin signboards. I have found they wasn’t much but German silver in them, and that ain’t my line. You’re welcome to ‘em, and thanks for your silver in spoons, which I’ll keep. Merry Christmas.” New York [NY] Herald 18 September 1889: p. 13

Coffin plates were considered by some to be a sacred relic. Hence the outrage at this miserly widower:

Another instance of this despicable quality [meanness], bordering on sacrilege, has been told to us. A man who had just married his second wife, and was brushing up his house, so as to have it in keeping with such an event, took the coffin-plate of his wife to an engraver, and wanted to know how much it would cost to erase the inscription thereon, and put in its place his own name, so that he might use it for a door-plate. The original cost of the plate, inscription and all did not exceed one dollar! This is an actual fact; and all the parties reside in Springfield. Springfield Republican. Main Cultivator and Hallowell [ME] Gazette 13 February 1847: p. 1

Strangely, coffin plates were occasionally used as a forum for protest. For example, William Abson, who was accused of poisoning his wife, killed himself in prison, leaving instructions that on his coffin plate should be inscribed: “I am innocent of that for which I lose my life.” New York Herald 23 March 1861: p. 8

The Charles Becker case , where a former police Lieutenant was convicted and executed for the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal, was one of the most notorious examples of getting the last word:

Becker “Murdered,” Says Coffin Plate

Widow of Ex-Lieutenant Puts Blame on Whiteman

Latter Doesn’t Believe the Story.

New York, Aug. 1. A silver plate bearing the inscription “Charles Becker, Murdered July 30, 1915, by Governor Whitman,” was placed tonight on the coffin containing Becker’s body, by direction of his widow. The plate is four by seven inches in size and the letters in script are an inch high. It is securely fastened. Becker’s body is to be buried tomorrow.

He Doesn’t Believe it.

Albany, N.Y., Aug. 1. “I cannot believe it,” was Governor Whitman’s sole remark tonight when told of the plate on Charles Becker’s coffin.

Plate Removed.

New York, Aug. 1. The police, it was announced tonight, had had removed from the coffin of Charles Becker a silver plate placed there by his widow on which was inscribed the charged that the former police lieutenant, electrocuted Friday, was “murdered by Governor Whiteman.” Mrs. Becker was informed that the inscription was a criminal libel on the governor and was prevailed on to permit its removal. Macon [GA] Telegraph 2 August 1915: p. 6

The coffin plate also had a more discreet function:  to ensure the safety of graveyard personnel.

A CURIOUS FACT

In leaden coffins it is customary to make a number of holes, underneath the coffin plate, to give egress to the gases, which would else, by their accumulation, first bulge and then burst the coffin. When this precaution is neglected, considerable danger ensues to the grave diggers, who have on many occasions been seized with asphyxia, or even killed on the spot, by the poisonous gases emitted from a suddenly burst coffin. To escape these hazards, they not unfrequently ‘tap’ the coffins, and let out a jet of gas, which being ignited, burns from ten minutes to half an hour. Schenectady [NY] Reflector 8 February 1850: p. 6

Has anyone ever seen evidence for this illuminating practice,  like scorch marks on old lead coffins? Could such gases be harnessed today as a source of energy?

Coffin Amelia
The Coffin of HRH Princess Amelia, showing the beautiful coffin furniture, including a coffin plate. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=1612960923&objectId=3587418&partId=1

 

And, finally, just as visions of tombstones and phantom funerals presaged death, so did dreams and visions of highly-specific coffin plates.

A Cincinnatian dreamed three years ago of seeing a friend’s funeral, and that friend has since drank himself to death with cheerful regularity, dying on the date seen on the coffin-plate of the vision. This they call a prophecy, out there. Jackson [MI] Citizen 26 July 1870: p. 5

And this, from England:

SINGULAR STORY.

The death of Mr. F. H. Wiggin, proprietor of the Northumberland Arms, Bermondsey, took place on Thursday morning, the 8th inst. Mr. Wiggin retired to bed the previous night in his usual health and spirits, but at 5 o’clock in the morning he ruptured a blood-vessel, and in six hours he expired from exhaustion. It seems a remarkable presentiment of his death was made known to him two months previously, when, to amuse his children, he drew upon a slate a coffin, and wrote an inscription, a verbatim copy of which was inscribed on his coffin plate on his interment, as follows:—”Frederick H. Wiggin, died October 8th, 1868, aged 40.” This sketch and inscription he showed to his wife, and others who happened to be present. The remains of the deceased, who was much respected, were, on Monday, taken from London to Horton, for interment by the side of his father’s grave.—Daily News, 19 October. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. III, 1 November, 1868

Have you ever seen a coffin plate? Or framed one as a parlor ornament? 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.

A Father’s Anguish: 1827

our darling lamb coffin plate.JPG

In honour of Father’s Day, a post in a sombre and very different vein from our recent forays into bridal phantoms and follies. It has been suggested by some historians that high childhood mortality made parents indifferent to their infant losses. While 19th century families tended to be large ones, few were untouched by the death of a child. This piece poignantly expresses a universal anguish, which even at this remove, arouses our sympathy.

 “There are a thousand impressions which we receive during our earthly pilgrimage, and which at the time are interesting, and often deep and solemn. But as soon as they have gone by, and we return to the active pursuits of life, they gradually become less and less vivid till they are wholly gone. All can look back to such events, and they seem like pleasant or troubled dreams; and all wish that they had something to recall the circumstances of the scenes, so that they could live them over in all their detail. It is for this purpose I now write these pages, that when one and another event shall have partially obliterated what now seems as if it could never be forgotten, I may recall it to my own mind and feelings, and to those of my dear wife. For her eye and mine alone I write.

“Our dear little boy was born at sunrise, October 6th, 1827. Mrs. Todd had been remarkably well and active since our marriage, and probably his premature birth was owing to her over-exertion. At his birth, none seemed to think he could live but a short time; but with great exertions he was made to revive. He was small, but promised, humanly speaking, to do well. He soon opened his eyes, and began to notice sounds and objects of sight. For a week we had no fears concerning him, and enjoyed as much as parents could enjoy. When I went out, I hastened home to see my dear child lie in his mother’s arms, and, at the sound of my voice, open his dark-blue eyes and turn them toward me. We began to talk of a name, and in my own mind I had begun to form many little plans concerning him.

“As we had been married not quite seven months, the enemies of religion at first made a great noise about it, and threw out a multitude of stories; but as it was well known that I had not been out of Groton for eight months previous to our marriage, and as Mrs. Todd’s character stood far above all suspicion, the stories only buzzed a while through the region, never disturbing us, and never injuring us in the least.

“On Saturday, the little boy being a week old, we weighed him again, and found that he had lost. Here I first began to fear that he would not be spared to us. Still, he seemed well, and his nurse appeared to have no fears concerning him.

“In the afternoon of the same day he was evidently sick, and we began to be alarmed. Every thing was done for him which could be. That night he rested pretty well.

“Sabbath morning he was evidently very sick—appeared to have something like fits—and during breakfast he turned so black as greatly to alarm his mother; but from this he soon recovered. I was obliged to leave at half-past ten o’clock, to go into the pulpit. I left the child in his nurse’s arms, and tears in the eyes of his mother. I endeavored to conceal my fears and feelings, and went into the pulpit with a heavy heart. As soon as possible I was at home, and found the child worse, and his mother greatly distressed. It was then evident that he could not live. When I really came to the conclusion that he must die—our own sweet boy, our first-born, must die—it was almost insupportable. As we then came to the conclusion that he must leave us, we determined to give him formally to our covenant-God in baptism. I immediately wrote a note to our friend, Mr. Chaplin, requesting him to bring his venerable father down to baptize our dying child. Mrs. Todd’s dressing-table was placed before her bed, the baptismal font was placed on it, and the family stood around the room. The child was in the arms of the nurse. The venerable old man, Doctor Chaplin, prayed with deep feeling and great appropriateness. I was kneeling by the side of the bed and holding my dear Mary’s hand, while we both wept, and endeavored to give our child to God. The prayer ended, I took the dear babe in my arms and presented him to Doctor Chaplin. The old man was eighty-four years old, upward of six feet high, silver locks, and the most venerable person I ever saw. Our child was eight days old, fair, well-proportioned, and seventeen inches in length. Striking contrast, indeed! He was solemnly baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by the name of John William— the former name being his father’s, and the latter that of his friend. The bell rang for meeting while the ordinance was administering, and I was obliged to go again into the pulpit, expecting to find my child a corpse on my return. I walked alone to meeting, with my eyes flowing. It was an agony which I can remember, but can not describe. On entering the pulpit, I felt somewhat composed: attempted to read that beautiful hymn beginning,

“’It is the Lord, enthroned in light/Whose claims are all divine/Who has an undisputed right/ To govern me and mine.’

“Immediately a thousand inexpressible feelings rushed through my heart. I choked, hesitated, faltered, wept, and sat down after reading one stanza. The audience felt for me, and very many wept. I preached as well as I could, hardly knowing what I was about, and again hastened home, and again found our dear child alive.

“It was now toward night, and he continued to have spasms, in which he would turn black, groan, and seem to be in great pain. I sent immediately for a physician, who put him in warm water, and he revived; but it was only for a time. During the whole afternoon the nurse held him in her lap without moving. In the evening, hoping it would endanger Mrs. Todd less, I had him removed into my study. He was carried out, and it was the last time his weeping mother ever saw him alive. I was in and out of the study during the evening, but was for the most part with my wife. At ten o’clock he had an awful spasm. I went in, and was told he was no more. I gazed at him: his beautiful little features were all composed and set, and it seemed as if Death had indeed now set his seal. All hope was cut off, all doubt removed. I returned to my dear Mary, and was obliged to tell her our first-born was no more. She burst into grief the most passionate, and it seemed as if her very frame would  be crushed under the burden. We spake but little: it was, that God ruled; that our dear boy had gone to his bosom; that we trusted he would be among the angels, himself an angel; and that we should meet him again beyond the shores of mortality. I then knelt by the bed of Mrs. Todd, and we prayed, our right hands joined, and we committed and gave ourselves away to God.

“At eleven o’clock I left Mrs. Todd and went into the study; and here was the most severe trial I was called to undergo. I found the child was not dead: he had revived, and was now in great agony; it was the agony of death. He was in the arms of Miss Chaplin, his eyes open, his arms thrown out, his little fists clenched, and every muscle brought into intense action. They dared do nothing to relieve the little sufferer. I immediately gave him paregoric, and anointed his chest with warm olive-oil. His pains were less intense after that. As he lay with his eyes open, I spoke to him, called him ‘ John;’ he turned his head and bright eyes toward me with an expressiveness that I shall never forget. I do not pretend he knew me or my voice; but it was such a look as a dying child might wish to leave with his father, if he could choose. I sat without turning my eyes from him for an hour, and then returned to inform his mother that he was still living. I did not see him again alive; for he ceased to breathe soon after the Sabbath was over. I never saw such suffering before; and it seemed as if God had indeed cursed our race, and had most awfully written his displeasure with sinners on the features of our dying boy. Mysterious system! that such a child should suffer so intensely! But ‘clouds and darkness are round about Him,’ which we trust will one day all be rolled away.

“Early on Monday morning I opened my study door. The room was solitary, the windows open, and the cold winds of a chilly morning were sighing through the shutters. The room was in perfect order. In a corner, near my book-case, were two chairs, and a white cloth between them. I went slowly and lifted the cloth, and there lay my sweet boy, pale as the cloth which covered him; the beautiful white robe of the grave was upon him; his little hands were folded on his bosom; he was dressed for the coffin. Never did I see a countenance so beautiful. Every part was well-proportioned and perfect. His dark-brown hair was parted on his forehead under his cap. It seemed as if death never could gather a fairer flower. I stood over him for a long time, and, if possible, loved my boy more in death than in life.

“For fear of injuring Mrs. Todd, we had rather a private funeral, that afternoon, at half-past three o’clock. There may have been fifty present, all of whom seemed to feel for us. The good old man was our pastor. He talked well to us: they sung a hymn, and he made the prayer. The little creature was put into a mahogany coffin, with a plate on the top with the following inscription: ‘John W.Todd, who died October 15, 1827, aged nine days.’ Without any parade or bell, he was carried in a chaise, and I rode alone in my chaise, and saw him softly laid in Doctor Chaplin’s tomb, in the very spot where the good man himself expects to lie. When that event takes place, I intend to have him placed beside the old man’s head, or on his breast, that in the morning of the Resurrection they may rise together. It seemed to be his wish to have him entombed there, and it was gratifying to us, for it seems as if even the grave would be sanctified by his remains.”

Years afterward he wrote:

“I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!”

John Todd: the story of his life told mainly by himself, edited by John Todd [son], 1876

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The Rev. John Todd, minister and author, was born in Rutland, Vermont, 9 October, 1800 and died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 24 August, 1873. His mother, whose mental state was tenuous at best, became a hopeless lunatic after Todd’s father was badly injured in a carriage accident just before his birth. The accident prevented his father from practicing his profession of doctor and the family slid into poverty. After his father’s early death, the family was dispersed. Todd was sent to live with his Aunt. Somehow he acquired an education and was graduated from Yale in 1822. He spent the following year in teaching, then entered Andover theological seminary, and in 1827 was ordained a minister of the Congregational church in Groton. His autobiography was edited by his son, also named John Todd, and is full of affecting incidents and charming anecdotes. His unsettled youth made him a kindly and indulgent father.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which is also available for Kindle.

You will find more stories of fathers, kindly, heartless, and ghostly at Saturday Snippets.

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.

Enough Rope – The Hangman’s Rope in the Press

 

 Enough Rope: The Hangman's Rope in the Press Double gallows for Jackson and Walling, convicted of the murder of Pearl Bryan.
Enough Rope: The Hangman’s Rope in the Press Double gallows for Jackson and Walling, convicted of the murder of Pearl Bryan.

What is it about hangings and hanged men that so fascinates the human race ? The Hanged Man is one of the Major Arcana cards in the Tarot deck. Hangmen’s ropes are believed to be a cure for sore eyes (Cornwall), fits and headaches (Pennsylvania), and ague (London). In Russia, a hangman’s rope brought luck to gamblers. A rope from a suicide was specified to treat epilepsy in Pennsylvania and India.

The hand of a hanged man could be used to make a thieves’ Hand of Glory or cure warts, goiter or cancer. The blood of the hanged had medicinal properties as we saw in a previous post.

As I was researching the notorious decapitation of Pearl Bryan at Fort Thomas, Kentucky and the subsequent trials and convictions of her murderers Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling for The Headless Horror*, I ran across the following article reporting on the ropes for the murderers’ executions:

 THE ROPES MADE

A PECULIAR MARK OF IDENTIFICATION UPON EACH.

The ropes with which Jackson and Walling are to be hung have been completed and delivered over to Sheriff Plummer. Each rope is 23 feet in length, and they were made to order in about a week’s time from the giving of the order. They were made by Frank Vonderheide., the Main Street cordage dealer, and most of the work was done by Mr. Vonderheide himself. They are made of what is known as silver finish flax sewing twine, there being four strands of 110 threads each, or 440 threads in all. A peculiarity about the two ropes is that the one intended for Jackson has one red thread in all of the four strands, while that made for Walling has one black thread in all of the four strands. This thread was run in the ropes by the order of Sheriff Plummer, who desires to keep them separate and easily identified from each other. The four red threads in the one and black threads in the other give the ropes a peculiar appearance, and serve to intensify the realization of the direct preparation for the grewsome event. It brings out the uncanny aspects of the manufacture of a strong and pliable rope that is the best and most perfect product of a ropemaker, and yet that has but one brief use to serve in the world, that is to be accomplished in a second—the taking of a man’s life.

George W. Ward, of George W. Ward & Co., the cordage dealers, had a piece of the rope on ‘Change yesterday. Mr. Ward furnished the raw material from which the threads and ropes were made, and no little interest was aroused by his exhibition of the object.  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1897: p. 12

Of course the executioner would want to know which rope was assigned to which prisoner—it was a point of professional pride to carefully calculate the weight of each prisoner and the drop so that the execution would go smoothly. Jackson and Walling were hung on a single gallows where a lever opened both traps simultaneously. However carefully the ropes were made, someone miscalculated: Instead of breaking their necks, Jackson and Walling strangled to death.

I began to find other notes on hangmen’s ropes in other sensational murder cases. The materials, quality, and pedigree of the ropes seemed to be a subject of absorbing interest to the public, judging from how often they appeared in the papers and the care with which these minute details were reported. For example, sheriffs might have strong opinions about the quality of their cordage or be superstitious about either using an entirely new rope to ensure a successful hanging or using an old rope that had previously hung a notorious criminal—perhaps to humiliate the person being executed.  Let us put on our black caps and examine some random yet representative notes on the specifications for hangmen’s ropes and the superstitions surrounding them. And may the Lord have Mercy upon our souls….

The geographical origins of a rope’s hemp seemed to be a way to further demean the prisoner.

The Worcester Spy mentions that “a hangman’s rope made two years ago of South Carolina hemp, to hang Jeff. Davis with, was forwarded from Worcester, Mass., to Washington, on Monday. It was made by Mrs. Parmenter, a daughter of Capt. Peter Slater, who, it will be remembered by our old residents, was the builder of the first rope walk out of Boston ever established in Massachusetts. The maker of the rope wishes to have it speedily used.” Janesville [WI] Daily Gazette 6 June 1865: p. 2

The rope for the execution of [Abolitionist John] Brown, says the Baltimore Patriot, was made in Kentucky by a Kentuckian, expressly for the purpose, and sent to Gov. Wise, who accepted it. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 5 December 1859: p. 2

A three-inch European-made Manila rope shall always be used for executions. The Punjab Record, Volume 24, 1890 [Was this a matter of trade protectionism, a jibe at the doomed prisoners, or an Imperialist insult to the rope-makers of India?]

Some law officials preferred a new rope so as to ensure a smooth hanging, while others treasured historic ropes.

 A Hangman’s Rope

The rope which was used to-day in the execution of John Henry Young is just an ordinary hemp rope, but a wonderful story of tragic interest would be revealed, could it but speak. Nineteen times has one end been knotted around the gallows beam, and nineteen times has the noose been placed around the neck of a condemned criminal.

This rope is the property of W.A.  Stewart of Cleburne, ex-sheriff of Johnson county. Mr. Stewart had the rope made in St. Louis in 1898, to be used in the execution of John B. Shaw, a white man. The rope was made by a German and was hand-twisted, the very best quality of hemp obtainable being utilized in its manufacture. The rope is eighteen feet long and cost Mr. Stewart $12.50. The noose made to go around the neck of Shaw has never been changed. – Houston Post. American Citizen [Kansas City, KS] 26 May 1905: p. 3

The rope for the execution was borrowed from Sheriff Julian, of Howan County, and has been used on several previous occasions for the purpose it performed today. [from an article entitled “Hammons and Moore Hang, Two Executions in One Day. J.W. Hammons Hanged at Winston-Salem for Murder of His Wife–/Ashton Moore, Sampson County Negro Rapist, is Hanged at Clinton”] Charlotte [NC] Observer 3 September 1905: p. 1

Double hangings were rare enough to elicit comment in the papers, like an article headed “Drew a Pair. That’s What the Hangman’s Rope Did in Pennsylvania,” which describes two men hung successively with the same rope. It was coupled with another article about a hanging of a double murderer where the rope broke on the first try, was mended, then successfully hanged the prisoner. Albuquerque [MN]Morning Democrat  21 February 1890: p. 1

Sheriffs could be a finicky lot about their hangman’s ropes.

 ROPE COMING

Sheriff Bogue places an Order for Rope for the Execution Here September 14.

Sheriff Bogue placed on order while in Chicago for the rope to be used in the execution of Ira O. Jenkins September 14. The quality of rope he wanted was not to be obtained in Chicago, but it was sent for and is expected to reach here in a day or two. It is the same kind that was used in the execution of J.W. Cole, and the best rope for the purpose that is manufactured. The sheriff still has on hand two pieces of the rope with which Cole was executed, one of them not having been used, but he wants a new rope for this execution, so that there may be no possibility for an unsuccessful execution. Bismarck [ND] Tribune 4 September 1900: p. 3

Phelps and Bailey executions

Sheriff Martin will select the rope for the execution within the next few days and have it well stretched before used. He has several samples of rope of different sizes in his office. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 7 July 1899: p. 4

Drawing Near, William Eubanks Preparing to Meet His Death

The rope for the execution has been purchased by Sheriff McDougall, and it is now in process of preparation for use. It is unusually large five-eighths inch, because of the great weight of Eubanks, about 200 pounds. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 16 January 1891: p. 3

There seems to have been a certain hierarchy in rope-makers as evidenced by the comment in the article on the Cole hanging: “the best rope for the purpose that is manufactured.” And if you found yourself all thumbs when trying to knot the rope, you could even order a pre-tied noose for an extra fee.

 Manufacture Hangman’s Ropes.

There is in St. Louis a firm of rope makers and dealers, doing business on North Main street, that has a side line that it does not advertise. It is the manufacture of hangman’s ropes. The firm sells as many as 100 of these ropes annually.

The price of the rope, with the nooses ready for use, is $5. The ropes are hand made and of hemp, and one of the employees of the firm’s North St. Louis rope walk ties the knot. A few weeks since the sheriff of Madison county, Il., had a man to hang at Edwardsville. He bought a rope that he thought would answer the purpose.

The tying of the knot he found, however, to be a more difficult matter than he imagined, and he went to St. Louis to have the noose made. The ropemaker charged him $2.50 for tying the knot. Rural Collaborator.Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 17 April 1892: p. 13

HE MADE HANGMEN’S ROPES

For More Than Fifty Years, Godfrey Boger Supplied Nooses.

Philadelphia Telegraph.

Godfrey Boger, 2251 North Fairhill Street, who for over fifty years had been the maker of the hangmen’s ropes, was buried recently in American Mechanics’ cemetery. He died at his home, aged 75 years, disproving a superstition among cordage workers that a “necktie maker” enjoys a short life. [I haven’t found this bit of folklore anywhere else.]

Boger, who was employed at the Edwin H. Fitler company’s works, at Tacony, made all the ropes used in executions in this state and in various parts of the country. Boger never witnessed an execution, although he often had been invited to attend. Of all the gibbet ropes that Boger turned out but one broke and in that case the parting of the strands was caused by friction against a sharp-edged pulley above the scaffold.

No charge is ever made by the Fitler firm for the hangmen’s ropes, only the expressage being charged to the county ordering them. A member of the firm said today that there is no particular reason other than custom for not charging for the ropes. The hemp used is imported from Italy and great care is taken in twisting the strands.

Boger had been engaged in this grewsome occupation since he was 19 years old. He took great pride in his work. Beaumont [TX] Enterprise 18 July 1911: p. 6

Then we have the gibbet rope as talisman. Naturally something so valuable encouraged counterfeit cordage.

Hangman’s Rope as a Talisman.

The popular pocket piece just now in this city is a piece of hangman’s rope. If all the hangman’s rope were taken from the pockets of superstitious St. Louisians, they would form a rope of considerable length. The five hangings recently taking place in this city have brought out again the superstitious that hangman’s rope is a sure cure for rheumatism, consumption, heart disease, apoplexy, and everything else. The rope is a sure cure for all the ills that flesh is heir to, if properly applied and adjusted; but that is not the way that  great many St. Louis men and women look at it.

In the police stations nearly every prisoner who is searched carries a bit of rope and a great number of private citizens treasure up the ghastly hempen mementoes. Every tramp carries one, and in the alleys frequented by the colored populace there are yards of rope with which Ellis and Ward were executed. The supply is not yet exhausted and half an inch of the execution rope sells for the phenomenally low sum of five cents. A gentleman with whom a reported had a conversation stated that a very nice lady had asked him for a piece of the rope. She was handsomely dressed, and pretty, too. With recklessness he promised to procure her a piece, not thinking she was in earnest. He met her again. She asked for a piece of rope. He straight-way proceeded around among his friends, but could not get any genuine. He had to have a piece for that lady, however, and the brilliant idea struck him that he could give her any piece of twisted hemp .She would never know the difference. He gave her a piece of the frayed and broken clothes-line, saying that it was a strand of the rope and she put it in her purse and went away happy. Several parties have been selling the rope about town and taking in the gullible people. St Louis Republican. Ackley [IA] Enterprise 4 March 1882: p. 2

Or the rope could be a hoodoo. Lynching ropes were particularly potent charms.

 A Veritable Hoodoo

Strange and Eventful History of a Piece of Hangman’s Rope.

             A couple of evenings ago a young man named Tollman, who lives near Ellenwood, dropped in at the police station and gave a reporter there about an inch of the white plow line with which the negro who poisoned the Burks family was lynched. Mr. Tollman was present at the inquest the preceding day and had there secured the relic.

The plow line was in three strands, and some hours later the reporter separated one of them and gave it to Call Officer Beavers. A negro who happened to be in the station at the time begged a strand for himself. He said a piece of plow line with which a man has been hanged makes a formidable hoodoo, and if the plow line is white the efficacy of the hoodoo is doubled. The reporter accordingly gave him one of the two remaining strands and wrapping the other in tissue paper put it in his pocket.

Now for chapter 2. As Officer Beavers was going home yesterday he thought to attach the string to his watch guard for safe keeping, and in so doing dropped the watch and broke it so badly that is its doubtful if it will ever run again. He put the bit of plow line in his pocket and inside of two hours barked his shin on a chair, got a cinder in his eye, spilled a bottle of ink on his pants, and had a counterfeit dollar passed on him. He then threw the hoodoo on the back of a negro who was splitting wood in the yard, and before the man struck a dozen more blows he cut his little toe off.

The reporter’s first misadventure was to break a pair of eyeglasses he prized highly and a little while later he tore up a lot of “copy” by mistake and had to write it all over again. This was Monday night. Yesterday he took the hoodoo string to the dining room of his hotel and quietly stuck it in the folds of the apron of the waiter who attended him. A few minutes later the darky fell down the kitchen stairs making an unearthly clatter. And dropping the fatal talisman. He picked it up and instantly suspecting witchcraft put it down the back of another waiter.

This victim, all unsuspicious, loaded a tray with meals for six and went up to the dining room. At the head of the stairs he caught his foot and fell sprawling, breaking every dish on the tray and scattering beefsteaks, potatoes and miscellaneous eatables all over the apartment. Somebody informed him of the hoodoo, and he put it in the stove.

The possessor of the third strand has not yet been heard from, but if he gets run over, falls out of a window, breaks a leg or meets with some kindred adventure, it will occasion no surprise. Atlanta Constitution. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 21 November 1893: p. 7

The notion of a used rope crops up in this ghost story about a suicide’s rope from Toledo, Ohio. You’ll find the entire true tale in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. It’s the sort of thing you couldn’t sell as fiction—it would be too implausible.

A GHOST ON THE BRIDGE

THE DEPARTED SPIRIT THAT PATROLS A TOLEDO BRIDGE AT MIDNIGHT

Toledo, Ohio, December 27. One of the Cherry Street bridge-tenders said to me the other day:

“The Enquirer has caused an ‘l of a row around this bridge. Since it published an account of Meyers’ ghost haunting it, thousands of people have haunted me with questions about it. I do not know whether it is Meyers’ ghost or his son’s, but there is some mighty strange goings on around the west end of this bridge. I have seen it myself, but, Lord knows, I don’t know what it is. I never went near enough to find out.”

I hunted up Detective Louie Trotter, who gave me a more detailed account of the affair than I had been able to get elsewhere. He said: “I have heard the new bridge was haunted, and I know the old one was. It was like this: Some of the boys who live on the East Side were going home from duty one August morning in 1882. When we reached the first pier I was horrified to see the body of someone hanging there. It did not take us long to cut the corpse down and we found it was Pop Meyers, as he was familiarly called. His face was just as pleasant as if he were selling a pair of shoes to a customer. There was not the least sign of pain, and his wide-open eyes were looking rather expectantly up the river. He had evidently put on a new shirt, collar, and necktie, and was well dressed, except that he had no coat or shoes on. Well, we carried him home and found some letters which plainly indicated that his mind had left his body. His son, who had brought so much care on the old man’s mind by his dissipation, begged us to give him the rope with which his father had hanged himself. ‘I want it as a reminder,’ he said, ‘of my father.’ Well, some way he obtained the rope, and with it, shortly afterward, ended his life at the identical spot, with the same rope. It was not long after this that the report got around that Meyers was walking the bridge at night, carrying a rope and looking longingly up the river. I investigated the affair and found it was true something was haunting the bridge. The ghost was dressed just as Meyers was on the morning that I cut him down. The old bridge was carried away, and the story was forgotten. The first night the new bridge was opened late wayfarers were badly frightened by a phantom walking slowly along in his bare feet, making no noise as he softly trod the planks. That’s all I know about it. Officer Kruse states that many people have recently told me they had seen Meyers’ ghost patrolling the bridge, rope in hand, after midnight.”  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 December 1884: p. 13

*The last chapter in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales covers the paranormal history of Pearl Bryan and her murderers. For an admirable account of this case see http://www.planetslade.com/pearl-bryan.html.

Recently I received some fascinating information from Kelley Wood-Davis:

I stumbled on your blog from 19 Jan 2013 while doing some research on my ancestor, Jacob Bupp.  He was also a rope-maker in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and known for his hangman’s ropes… One thing I found amusing was a line that was stated in the obituary for Godfrey Boger:

“Boger, who was employed at the Edwin H. Fitler company’s works, at Tacony, made all the ropes used in executions in this state and in various parts of the country. ”

Boger died just 12 years after my ancestor, who also made ropes for executions in the state of Pennsylvania.

From the newspaper article “Making Nine Ropes,” Pittsburgh Dispatch (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)  31 March 1890: page 2

“Mr. Bupp had made all of the ropes used in Allegheny County during the last 20 years.”

The same article stated that my ancestor made over 88 hangman’s nooses in his lifetime.  I am currently working on documenting all of the hangings he has done, so I am not sure if that number was inflated, but I do have proof that he made several nooses.  So there is no way Boger could claim he made ALL the ropes in the state, so I wonder if it was more bragging rights on his part…. I know my illustrious ancestor was a bit of a braggart… wondering if Boger was as well.  After all, as your blog states, the ropes were used as talismans, so the creators could be looked at as sort of gods….. so why not brag about it.  My own ancestor bragged about being the creator of the rope that hung [James Garfield’s] assassin Charles Guiteau, but I can not either prove or disprove that fact…

Another quote from Jacob Bupp:

“Hemp is always used.  Flax will do, but hemp is both longer and stronger.  It is first beaten and hackled until it is soft and tender, and then it is twisted into strands.   A hangman’s rope is made of four parts, one of which is used as the heart and the other three are twisted around it.  When it is finished it is perfectly round and smooth and is about 9-16 of an inch in thickness. These ropes are usually made from 25 to 30 feet in length. It requires 21 feet to perform the execution properly, and the surplus is always in case of accident resulting in a break. The knot is tied by the man who makes the rope, so that the executioner has nothing to do but slip the loop over the culprit’s head.”

Many thanks, Kelley!

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window,

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.

Why He Bought the Dolls: 1887

 

child with doll post-mortem

Why He Bought the Dolls.

[Dakota Bell.]

A group of three little girls stood before the window of the toy store and gazed longingly at a display of dolls. A kind-looking man noticed them, and soon each little girl went merrily away with a doll in her arms, bashfully telling her thanks to the man. He lingered behind to say:

“The little ones like dolls, and when I see them looking at them, I can’t help stopping and getting some for them. It gives me a sad sort of pleasure.”

“Yes?”

“My little girl liked dolls—it seemed as if her whole soul was bound up in them, almost. And she was such a little thing, too. But she played with them almost continually, and took so much comfort with them, especially one small wax doll, with its hands broken off and one foot missing. Yes, and its nose was badly worn and its hair had been put up in the very height of fashion so many times that it was nearly worn out, too. All her dolls had names and this one she called ‘Tatie’—she meant ‘Katie,’ but she wasn’t old enough to talk very well. Every night when she went to bed she must have ‘Tatie’ in her arms, and she would take it so, all night. Then when she was taken sick ‘Tatie’ must lie in the little white bed beside her and nestle in her arms at night. And ‘Tatie’ must have some of the medicines, too, and part of the little delicate dishes the loving hands of her mother brought her.

“And as she grew worse she told us that ‘Tatie’ was weaker, and showed us how much paler her poor marred face and worn-off nose were. And every day she held ‘Tatie’ more and more closely in her arms. So we sat by her bedside and knew, hard as it was, that the little angel of our household was going away, and that the closer she hugged ‘Tatie’ in her slender, wasted arms, the faster she was slipping from us. And at last she grew so weak that she could scarcely move, but her arms clasped tighter if we tried to take her ‘Tatie’ away from her. One night I had lain down on the sofa, worn out with watching, and in a little while my wife woke me with a soft touch, and her tears fell on my face, and I knew what it meant. And when we went back in the bedroom our little girl lay there still and calm, and ‘Tatie’ yet in her arms with the scattering, half-worn hair pressed against her pale, wasted cheek. They put her in the little coffin, and when I looked ‘Tatie’ still nestled in her arms.

“So that is why I stopped and bought the little girls some dolls, though I never saw them before, and if they take half the comfort with them that my little girl did I will be more than repaid.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 June 1887: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The reader will have to excuse Mrs Daffodil. She has something in her eye….

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard.

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 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.