I paid a visit, the other day, says Madame de la Barca, which merits to be recorded. It was to the rich Senora , whose first visit I had not yet returned. She was at home, and I was shown into a very large drawing-room, where, to my surprise, I found the lamps, mirrors, etc., covered with black crape, as in cases of mourning here. I concluded that some one of the family was dead, and that I had made a very ill-timed first visit. However, I sat down, when my eyes were instantly attracted by something awful placed directly in front of the sofa where I sat. There were six chairs ranged together, and on these lay, stretched out, a figure, apparently a dead body, about six feet long, enveloped in black cloth, the feet alone visible, from their pushing up the cloth. Oh, horror! Here I sat, my eyes fixed upon this mysterious apparition, and lost in conjecture as to whose body it might be. The master of the house? He was very tall, and being in bad health, might have died suddenly. My being received argued nothing against this, since the first nine days after a death the house is invariably crowded with friends and acquaintances, and the widow, or orphan, or childless mother, must receive the condolences of all and sundry, in the midst of her first bitter sorrow. There seems to be no idea of grief wishing for solitude.
Pending these reflections, I sat uneasily, feeling or fancying a heavy air in the apartment, and wishing most sincerely that some living person would enter. I thought even of slipping away, but feared to give offence, and in fact began to grow so nervous, that when the Senora de __ entered at length, I started up as if I had heard a pistol. She wore a coloured muslin gown and a blue shawl; no signs of mourning.
After the usual complimentary preface, I asked particularly after her husband, keeping a side glance on the mysterious figure. He was pretty well. Her family? Just recovered from the small pox, after being severely ill. “Not dangerously?” said I, hesitatingly, thinking she might have a tall son, and that she alluded to the recovery of others. “No;” but her sister’s children had been alarmingly ill. “Not lost any, I hope?” “None.” Well, so taken up was I, that conversation flagged, and I answered and asked questions at random, until, at last, I happened to ask the lady if she were going to the country soon. “Not to remain. But to-morrow we, are going to convey a Santo Cristo (a figure of the crucifixion) there, which has just been made for the chapel;” glancing towards the figure; “for which reason this room is, as you see, hung with black.”
Today’s post blends two of my interests: costume history and poisons.
Something strange was afoot in the 1870s and 1880s: fashionable people were being poisoned by their stockings. It all began with the new aniline dyes and an innocent vogue for brightly colored and striped stockings, which opened new vistas for ladies wishing to highlight a well-turned ankle.
Serious objection is made to the new style of stockings in which the stripes run lengthwise. It takes too much mud to show the full pattern.
Cleveland [OH] Leader 12 January 1876: p. 3
Poison Two Young Ladies and an Arrest Follows.
Ben Rabenstein, a pack-peddler, some time ago, sold to Mrs. Ben Raeder, on Wilstach Street, near Liberty, some red stockings, which he guaranteed to be fast colors. Mrs. Raeder’s two daughters, Lillie, aged 16, and Amelia, aged 15, wore the stockings to a picnic in Cumminsville last Saturday. The next morning they suffered from a violent itching, followed by eruptions where the stockings had chafed the skin. Their condition rapidly grew worse, until now they are in a terrible state. Mrs. Raeder went to see “Squire Tyrrell about it, and had a warrant issued for Rabenstein’s arrest.
Cincinnati [OH] Post 6 August 1892: p. 2
Poisoned by Red Stockings
Boston, Ind., Dec. 20. Both legs of Miss Eva Dooly were amputated at the knee last night. The amputation was made necessary by the poisoned condition of her limbs resulting from the wearing of red stockings.
Leavenworth [KS] Herald 22 December 1894: p. 1
Was this some sort of Borgian conspiracy? Was there a mad poisoner at work? I have neither the wit nor the chemistry to speculate about specific lethal agents in these deadly articles of dress, although in the 60 or so articles I have read, arsenic, prussic acid (as bought by Lizzie Borden to “clean her sealskins”—a nice euphemism for patricide.), and mercury are all either mentioned as possible dyes or mordants (dye fixatives). Red dyes, highly popular for stockings, were never color-fast and needed a fixative. The answer to these crimes of fashion lies in the very prosaic balance sheet. Some articles on the subject mention the cheapness of the toxic ingredients as the reason for their use.
The following article was syndicated widely in 1875 and makes very clear the blisters provoked by the poison arose along the lines of the colored stripes on the stockings.
The recent introduction and extended use of colored or striped stockings, and the evil effects experienced by the wearers of them, have served to direct the attention the physician and analysist to the question of the dyes used in coloring them. The Pall Mall Gazette, in noticing the evil effects of wearing colored hose, cites several instances where the first symptoms were intense irritation in the skin of the feet, swelling and an inflamed appearance; then an outbreak of watery blisters of all sizes, from groups of the size of hemp-seed to single blisters on the sole of the foot larger than a five-shilling piece. The condition was accompanied by general feverishness, rigors, loss of appetite, and a sensation of pervading malaise. In a sever attack the patient was rarely able to walk for three weeks, and after one attack passes off it was often followed by another of a milder type. In one case a gentleman was obliged to wear cloth shoes for upward of eight months, and with other patients the system has been so impregnated with the poison that blisters have re-appeared at intervals, not only on the feet, but on the hands, ears, etc., for more than three years. There was no doubt as the to cause and method of this blood-poisoning, for the blisters first came in stripes corresponding to the colored strips on the stockings, and the laundresses complained of the irritation and inflamed condition of their hands after washing these poisoned articles. A Scotch lady who suffered from a like cause brought a successful suit against the firm which supplied her with the goods, and it was formally announced by them that henceforth the use of arsenic in the composition of the dyes would be discontinued. Although having no wish to appear as “alarmists,” yet it is evident that the occasion is one calling for watchful care on the part of both purchases and manufacturer. As we have suggested above, these facts are worthy of special consideration at present. For, where the fashion of wearing striped stockings will, without doubt, soon be confined to gentlemen alone, yet the use by them of questionable colors may result in the disastrous effects above described.
Iowa State Reporter [Waterloo, IA] 20 October 1875: p. 6
It was sometimes difficult to find a statute under which to charge sellers of poisoned stockings.
Dr. Edson, of New York, says the Philadelphia Ledger, has discovered an ingenious method of bringing to account in court the dealers in stockings poisoned by dye-stuff. There is no law, it appears, directly applying to such cases, so the Health Officer proposes to have the dealers charged with selling poisons without a label. It is a very “taking” scheme, but would hardly hold if a Philadelphia lawyer should be engaged for the defense.
Brownstown [IN] Banner 17 December 1885: p. 2
I have seen cases from as far afield as Japan and France. Few of the victims are reported to have died although many were brought to the point of death (at least according to the papers), like this child.
A Startling Case–Serious Sickness of a Four-Year-Old Boy
From the Utica Observer, March 4.
Yesterday morning an Observer reporter was informed that the four-year-old boy of a widow lady living in the Third ward was seriously ill and that the cause of the little fellow’s sickness was thought to be his poisoned stockings. It was ascertained that the case was in charge of Dr. Charles B. Tefft, and to him the reporter applied for information. He was told that the cause of the boy’s sickness probably lay in the fact that his stockings were died [sic] brown by the use of picric acid, but that experiments to be made in the evening would determine that point. The case was this:
Last Sunday the little fellow put on a pair of brown woolen stockings. Yesterday morning he was taken very ill. He commenced retching and vomiting and a yellowish hue commenced spreading all over his body. When Dr. Tefft was called the little fellow was suffering great pain. Dr. Tefft confesses that after an examination he was unable to see why the boy should be sick until his eye fell on the boy’s brown stockings, when the thought flashed over him that the newspapers were probably right, and that there was poison in them. He had them removed at once, and fond that the boy’s legs were fairly yellow. He then had the mother test the stockings, and she declared that they were very bitter. (!!!) The mystery of the poor little fellow’s illness was explained.
Dr. Tefft on reading upon the subject of picric acid, found that it would produce the same symptoms as those exhibited by the boy. This morning the stockings were put to a thorough test. A piece was cut from one of them and placed in hot water for a moment. Then placing it between the teeth a very bitter taste was perceptible, so bitter that it irritated the end of the tongue. The pair of stockings were then placed in the water. On wringing them the water immediately became discolored, assuming a yellowish tinge which could not be mistaken. There is no doubt that the picric acid in the matter used to color the stockings produced the boy’s sickness. At one time the little fellow was very near death, but he is now recovered. His yesterday’s attack was his first serious illness, but it is noted that during the time he has worn the stockings he has been afflicted with diarrhea, headache, and stomachache.
The stockings were not a cheap pair. They were as nicely made and of as nice a shade as any. But their effects are dangerous. This picric acid is not used alone for purely brown stockings. It is also used to dye striped hose in which that color appears. But all brown stockings are not poisoned. Some of them are manufactured by honest dealers who disdain to make use of picric acid on account of its cheapness, because they know its deadly effects. There is one sure test to apply to detect its presence. Stockings dyed with it, placed between the teeth and against the tongue, impart a bitter taste, which cannot be mistaken. Ladies or others about to purchase brown stockings would do well to apply this test before buying.
Wheeling [WV] Register 13 March 1876: p 3
The image of ladies licking stockings before purchase is a diverting one. A brief scan of internet sources reveals that the primary use for the fatal picric acid is in munitions and explosives. I leave the question of exploding clothing for another post.
And, finally, RIP young Gertrude Thornton, one of the few named victims of death by poisoned stockings:
Gertrude Thornton, aged six years, daughter of A.G. [G. Alfred] Thornton, of Port Jarvis, N.Y., recently died of pyaemia, or blood poisoning, resulting from the wearing of stockings colored in “old gold” and brown. Over a month ago the child was coasting, and, being thickly clad, her feet became warm, and when her shoes were taken off it was found that the coloring of the “old gold” and brown in the feet of the stockings had been absorbed into the warm flesh of the feet, leaving the stockings almost white. The girl soon began to show symptoms of poisoning. Her limbs became swollen and discolored, and she suffered the most excruciating agony for thirty-eight days. She would scream at times with pain, and during the whole time of her sickness there was hardly a day without the keenest suffering. As the end drew near, her limbs and hips grew swollen and mortified, and all the body except the face showed the deadly poison. A half hour before her death she sank into a comatose state, and never regained her consciousness. The utmost skill of Dr. Van Etten could not check the ravages of the poison.
Owyhee Avalanche [Silver City, ID] 18 March 1882: p. 1
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, crape, and much more.
The burial of Mrs. Abraham Lesher at Kleinfeltersville, the other day, with her sixty-five-year-old black silk wedding-gown for a shroud brings to notice a queer East Pennsylvania custom which prevails among German farmers. Nearly all the people, old and young, have their shrouds and grave-clothes all ready when death comes. The old people especially have all arrangements for their funeral made, and written out in all details. Indeed, it is a common thing to find a special bureau-drawer set apart for the grave-clothes. One custom is to keep every vestige of the wedding outfit for the interment apparel. Gown and undergarments are in many cases worn but once by the bride, and then laid away to wait for her death. Gray silk is much in vogue for wedding-gowns, as the color is preferred for burial-robes to white or black. Where wedding-gowns are not saved, the women folks make their own shrouds, cutting them out, sewing and trimming them. To borrow a shroud-pattern is nothing unusual. It passes from farm-house to farm-house. Long winter evenings are taken up with getting grave-clothes ready; so that when a person dies, all the friends need do is to open the death-drawer and there find written instructions as to the place of burial, the kind of grave and coffin, the name of the minister who is to officiate, the text of the sermon, the three hymns to be sung, the pall-bearers, the grave-stone and its inscription, and all about the grave-clothes. This fashion makes it very easy for the friends to decide on the funeral arrangements. Some old farmers go so far as to state exactly which calf and how many chickens shall be killed for the funeral dinner, and who is to be hired to take care of teams and feed the horses of the visitors.
Not only do the elderly women provide a grave or death drawer, but young wives and young girls do the same thing. They begin early in life to accumulate their death trousseau. Sometimes elaborately trimmed garments, stockings and slippers are carefully wrapped in oil paper and stowed away. At times some of the white garments have become yellow with age. Silk wedding gowns, if they lie in folds, are very apt to go to pieces, and for this reasons such gowns are placed in bags and hung up on the wall. On rainy Sunday afternoons many a housewife on the Pennsylvania German farms spends an hour or so looking through her death drawer to see that nothing has been left uprovided for. If she attends a funeral and sees something new in the shape of a collar, piece of lace, handkerchief, eiderdown blanket, embroidery or anything else that may strike her fancy, she’ll buy it on her first visit to town and put it in her death drawer. Where a young wife is especially fond of a certain perfume she’ll buy a small bottle the contents of which will be used when she is buried.
The old folks will frequently make out a list of small articles they want placed in their coffin, such an old prayer-book, or Testament, spectacles or a thimble. One most unusual request was that a plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon should be placed in an old woman’s coffin. She had used them for 70 years, and did not wish anyone else to use them when she was gone.
This, like all other requests found in the death drawers, was faithfully carried out. Some old people invariably direct that their old house dog shall be shot and buried after the funeral. It is nothing unusual to find a written request that a certain person shall sing a special solo at the funeral, either at the grave or during the taking of the final leave of the remains. Some request that their face shall be well covered before the coffin lid is screwed on for the last time. Others do not want this.
The death drawers are always kept locked, but the family knows where the key is kept. Each drawer is regarded as sacred, and no one save the owner, for any consideration, would venture to open it. The men folks occasionally have death repositories, but they are not so careful as the women are. The old men have their wills and final instructions very carefully written out, so that no mistake can be made.
The Sun [New York, NY] 18 February 1900: p. 27
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This notion, seen as a trifle eccentric by the writer, quite appeals to Mrs Daffodil’s housekeeper’s heart, with its love of order and organisation. Mrs Daffodil also believes in the practice of contemplating death, as the great Stoic philosophers would have us do, although she confesses that the subject of her meditations is usually some malefactor in need of removal.
While the notion that ladies include burial clothes with their trousseaux because of the ever-present danger of dying in childbirth is a common one, actual primary-source evidence for that practice has been wanting. One hears a rumour here, a whisper there, but this is the first really extensive discussion on the subject that Mrs Daffodil has seen, albeit in an ethnic context. It will be quite a coup for Mrs Daffodil when she posts the article to that funereal person, Chris Woodyard, over at Haunted Ohio, who has written a book on the subject of Victorian mourning customs and oddities and is always crowing about her discoveries. See the “Mourning” categories here and at the Haunted Ohio blog for more on sombre topics such as shroud making, coffin threats, and funerary excess. It is a subject both of us return to with pleasure.
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 papers of the past were early adopters of the “If it bleeds, it leads” principle. The more sanguinary the story, the higher the toll of victims, and the more grue and gore the better. Bonus points for dismemberment.
There was a particular subcategory of this genre that told of cursed/unlucky/troubled/hoodoo houses where everybody died or was catastrophically injured. Given my reprehensible penchant for viewing deaths in a Fortean vein as entertainment, I find these fascinating. The Winchester Mystery House, so much in the news these days, had nothing on these troubled houses.
This piece gives the background, with examples:
It is a curious and inexplicable fact that there are to be found in almost every part of the world houses which appear to exercise some kind of evil influence over the lives or welfare of their occupants. In some cases an almost unbroken sequence of disasters to successive occupants is recorded which it would be very difficult to explain as mere coincidence. Occasionally the record of ill luck commences with the very first occupant, but more frequently there is nothing unusual in the history of the house up until a certain date, and from then onwards calamity in some form or another seems to overtake each successive tenant until its evil reputation becomes so notorious that it is either closed for good or else demolished. Not infrequently this apparently evil influence is confined to some special portion of the house, particularly if the house be a large one, but in small houses, such as cottages, the influence appears to be general.
Not long ago, in. a village some three miles or so outside of Glasgow there stood a house with as sinister a history as any in, Britain. It was originally built as a residence for a Glasgow stockbroker, but he died before the building was finished. The first tenant was a doctor who had a considerable practice in the neighborhood. Before he was in the house two months his eldest child, a girl of about eight, fell downstairs and broke her leg, sustaining a compound fracture which left her a cripple for life. While the mother was nursing the injured girl she contracted a chill which developed into pneumonia, and carried her off. Shortly afterwards the doctor himself committed suicide.
The House then stood vacant tor nearly two years, until a city auctioneer became tenant of it. For nearly twelve months this gentleman had no mishap worthy of notice, but one morning his wife received a telegram stating that her husband had been drowned in a boating accident at the coast, whither he had gone to spend the week-end.
The next occupant was a retired merchant who had married somewhat late in life, and had domestic troubles which led to the house becoming vacant once more. This was the only tenant who ever occupied the place without having a. violent death amongst either the family or the servants whilst there. Five years passed before another tenant could be found, and at the end of that time a retired military officer took possession of it. Soon afterwards he had two sons killed in the Boer War, and a little later a third died of cholera in India. The news of these disasters completely overwhelmed the old gentleman, and he did not long survive them.
The house was then advertised for sale, and eventually disposed of to a fairly prosperous tradesman for considerably less than half its value. Upon the very day that this gentleman moved into the house one of his servants fell from a window which she had been cleaning and fractured her spine.
Owing to the fact that the service of trains between the village and city was somewhat unsuitable, the new owner determined to purchase a motor cycle to carry him backwards and forwards between his home and his place of business. His son, a young man of 23 or so, was in the habit of using the motor cycle in the evenings after business hours for a run round the district. There was a gravelled walk of eighty yards or so from the road to the house and, as this was somewhat steep, the young man was in the habit of using a little extra power to carry him up it. One evening after the son had gone on his customary run the father chanced to be strolling around the house, and observing that the iron gate at the roadside was standing open, at once went down and closed it.
Half an hour afterwards, the son. unaware that the gate had been closed, crashed into it as he turned his cycle to climb up the walk. The father heard the crash and hurried to the gate but his son was unconscious and beyond aid. When the distressing news was conveyed to the mother she lost her reason.
Soon afterwards the house again changed hands, but the same ill-luck pursued everyone who occupied it. Initially it was demolished after standing empty for a number of years.
If this were the only case of the kind it might very well be put down as a series of strange coincidences, but it would be easy to give scores of similar cases
Sometimes the ill-luck follows the occupants after they have ceased to occupy the premises. It is a well-known fact that there are many large houses scattered throughout the country, the owners of which will never under any circumstances permit certain portions of them to be occupied. In some cases these unoccupied portions are built up entirely, but as a rule they are simply looked upon as parts of the house, which are to be used as seldom as possible.
Some years ago the wife of a country schoolmaster, finding that her family was outgrowing the accommodation which her house afforded, determined to remove into larger premises. The only available house in the vicinity was a. cottage of five apartments but one of these was entirely sealed up. After some consideration she decided to remove into it on the condition that the landlord would put it into thorough repair and have the sealed room opened. The landlord agreed to repair the cottage to her satisfaction, but absolutely declined to interfere with the sealed room. Eventually the lady accepted this offer, determining at the same time that she would open up the room herself, which she did in spite of the warnings of both the landlord and her neighbors.
Shortly afterwards things began to go wrong. Her husband, who previously had been almost a teetotaler, began to take more drink than was good for him; the eldest of her sons—a. lad or fourteen—got into trouble with the police, and was sent to a reformatory, and the remainder of her family, which previously had been very healthy, began to occupy a good deal of the local doctor’s attention. In twelve months’ time the poor woman was reduced to a condition of abject misery, and was glad to leave the house which she felt convinced was the cause of her ill-luck. The present writer was shut up in the sealed room for the purpose of changing some photographic plates a day or so after it had been opened, and although he then knew absolutely nothing of its history he could not for a single moment rid himself of the impression that there was another presence in the room. Indeed so strong was this impression that he checked himself several times on the point of addressing some remarks to it.
Unlucky houses are no monopoly of any particular class in the community Every factor’s books will show that there are certain houses which are difficult- to let, and seldom remain let for any lengthened period. There may be nothing whatever wrong with these houses, except that no one seems to prosper in them. This is tacitly recognised by factors, hence the desire to avoid selling out any of their defaulting tenants for rent. They know perfectly well that a large number of working men look askance upon houses in which the previous occupants have been overtaken by misfortune, no matter what form it may have taken. These conclusions may not present themselves to their minds as reasoned facts, simply because they are regarded more or less in the light of superstition, but they have a very decided influence nevertheless.
Give a prospective tenant the option of two equally suitable houses in. one of which the previous tenant had met with prosperity and in the other with adversity, and there is not the smallest room to doubt which of the two will be accepted.
Neither reason nor superstition will be the determining factor, but instinct pure and simple, and in this .instance it will prove the safest guide.
Oamaru [NZ] Mail 25 July 1914: p. 1
Of course, in many of these tales the victims are unnamed and the location is not specified, inviting us to denounce them as “urban legends.”
Another example (love the qualifiers “rather” and “virtually”):
A FATAL HOUSE
Seventeen Deaths in Sixteen Years in One House
Rather a Strange Story but Virtually True
Many stories have appeared in the local papers with regard to haunted houses in Racine and thrilling actions of the spooks chronicled. Now comes the story and fact that the North Side has a fatal house. This structure was erected sixteen years ago. During that time sixteen different families have occupied the house and in every single family a death occurred during their time in the house and in one family, two deaths, making a total of seventeen deaths in the house. Thus the house has gained the name of the “Fatal House.” Last evening the Journal reporter called upon the owner of the property and he reluctantly admitted that it was true, in regard to many people dying, but did not think it was anything strange. He said a family was living in the house at present and they were well pleased and he said and even begged the reporter not to mention the number or location of the property for it would be ruined, and as he is a poor man he could not stand it.
The Journal Times [Racine WI] 20 March 1890: p. 3
For those of us in search of rational explanations, the story of the fatal house is situated on the page directly next to an article about the necessity of sewers and back yards brimming with undrainable privy vaults.
The Blaine House in Washington D.C. seems to have been the bane of its unfortunate residents, although 40 years is a long time for a hoodoo on a house to be kept in abeyance.
Are There Unlucky Houses?
When Secretary Blaine opened his new residence at Washington on January 8th attention was called to the fact that the house, an ancient mansion newly reconstructed, had always proved unlucky to its occupants, and due predictions were made accordingly. The very worst of these predictions have been fulfilled. Within a week Mr. Blaine’s eldest son sickened and died, and death has since carried away his daughter, leaving broken hearts behind. Forty years ago the house was the home of Secretary Spencer, and from its threshold his son, a midshipman in the navy, went forth to be tried for treason, and hanged from the yardarm of the vessel in which he served. Through its door, Philip Barton Key passed out to meet death at the hands of Daniel E. Sickles. Later, an assassin crept into its corridors, and plunged a dagger into the throat of Secretary Seward. These may be mere coincidences, but they are sufficient to make half the world believe that an evil fate overhangs this old Washington mansion.
Themis [Sacramento CA] 23 August 1890: p. 5
In this example from Ohio [Found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales] it is difficult to tell whether the fact that Van Wert County was situated in the malaria-ridden Great Black Swamp had anything to do with the Goodloe family’s failure to thrive. Did “the other side of the farm” put them on higher ground?
A HAUNTED CABIN A LOG HOUSE IN WHICH NOTHING WILL THRIVE
UNACCOUNTABLE GOINGS ON
Van Wert, January 7. Your correspondent, while out gunning to-day, met a farmer named Goodloe residing near the Indiana line. During a conversation, Mr. Goodloe pointed to an old log house in the vicinity of a strip of woods, stating at the same time that there was something unaccountably strange about the premises. Said he: “About ten years ago I moved my family to Van Wert County from near Pottsville, Penn., and bought eighty acres of land, upon which I built that cabin. We had no luck as long as we lived in it. When we came here, we were all well and hearty. After living in the cabin about a year I began to lose flesh. So did my wife and children. Before three years rolled around we resembled a family of skeletons. My wife wanted to return to Pennsylvania, but I said that I would build another house on the other side of the farm. I did so, and we have prospered ever since. We gained health and strength and now I am as strong as anybody. Nothing ever thrived in the cabin. I rented it to an old negro, who after living there six months moved away. He said the place was haunted, and I, too, am inclined to think it is. Everything about the place dies or shrivels up to nothing. When we cooked meat on the stove it would curl up or boil down almost out of sight. I planted a lot of young fruit trees on the south side of the house and in less than two months they twisted and shriveled to mere sticks. After we removed to our new house I used the abandoned hut as a shelter for hogs during the winter. The more corn I fed them the thinner they became, until I had to turn them out into the woods and nail up the cabin doors to keep them out. The last winter I lived there, just after butchering hogs, I hung eight hams on a joist. They were tied in sacks, and when I took them down to use them they were found to have shrunk to chunks no larger than your fist. “Then, again, I could notice a difference in my corn crop this fall. I had a pretty fair yield all around, excepting the part of the field which was near the cabin. Close to the cabin the ears were nothing more than nubbins, and mighty poor ones at that. I’ll bet I shingled that old house more than half a dozen times in the three years that I lived in it. Every time the shingles would warp and draw out the nails and finally drop off. I don’t believe in ghosts nor spooks, but I can’t for the life of me account for the queer antics of that blessed old cabin.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 January 1885: p. 1
Even when the principals in an unlucky house story are named, corroboration may be hard to find.
IT WAS AN ILL-STARRED HOUSE
A Series of Accidents Whereby Four [sic] Persons Lose Their Lives.
Pittsburg, July 16. A series of accidents happened at Rankin Station, near Braddock, yesterday and last night, whereby five persons living in the same house were killed or fatally injured. Yesterday morning David Bell, employed at the Carrie [blast] furnace and a boarder at the house of Charles McGrattin, left for his work. He did not return for supper, and at 7 o’clock last evening his naked body was found floating in the Monongahela River. He had been drinking hard, and it is not known whether he was accidentally drowned while swimming or committed suicide.
Two hours later a lamp exploded in McGrattin’s dwelling and two of his children, Robert and Charles, [ages 7 and 10] who were sleep, were burned up with the house.
This morning Harry Rowe and Peter Knee, who boarded with McGrattin, went to the ruins to look for their effects. While searching in the debris a chimney fell on them, killing Rowe and fatally injuring Knee.
The Buffalo [NY] Enquirer 16 July 1891: p. 1
But wait! There’s more!
Dr. Cope, who was called to dress the wound of Peter Knee, was driving home when his horses ran away and wrecked the vehicle. The doctor was thrown out and injured so badly that he may die.
Lebanon [PA] Daily News 17 July 1891: p. 1
Journalists were fond of such hopeful sentiments. An article about remarkable casualties published nearly two years later reported that
Dr. Cope was called to attend Knee, and while driving home his horse became frightened. He was thrown from his buggy and killed. The Morning News [Wilmington DE] 15 March 1893: p. 5
Not having a first name, there is no way of knowing if the doctor really was killed or if Dr. P.C. Cope of Braddock who got married 3 July 1892 was the same man, miraculously recovered. Sadly, I can’t find a independent notice of the deaths of the McGrattin children, nor do any of the characters appear on Find a Grave so possibly the whole thing was designed to fill column inches on a slow news day.
Notes and Queries threw out some tantalising tidbits about unlucky houses.
Unlucky Houses.—In Catholic countries one not infrequently sees a priest, attended by acolytes, in the act of blessing a house prior to its adoption as a residence. On these occasions Protestants are apt to smile at what they are pleased to consider a remnant of the age of superstition. I am not so sure of this. “Superstition” is a relative term, as applicable to piety as to prejudice. But let that pass. I wish to state a fact, and not to preach a sermon. There are, within my knowledge, three houses in London that are fateful to the last degree. I do not know what their previous records may have been, but having observed these houses with passive curiosity for some years, I notice that they constantly change owners, while neighbouring dwellings do not, and that their occupants are soon involved in disaster. For the sake of convenience, I will designate these houses as A, B, and C, In A, during the past six years, three persons have died. Neither of them was in failing health previous to occupation, nor did he die from an accident, nor from any malady caused by defective drainage. The greatest possible care was taken to ensure the sanitary condition of that house, and its inmates were unaware of any rumours in connexion with it. I have said that three persons died. I may add that two of them actually died on the same day. In course of time the remainder of the lease was sold to an officer, then in the prime of life and in perfect health. He resided in that house for two years, and died, there, somewhat suddenly, last year. Although B is situated in a fashionable quarter and is a bright and pleasant dwelling, it is but rarely occupied. It has not, within my knowledge, been occupied for more than twelve months at a stretch by any one family, and yet, during the past six years, two persons, previously in affluent circumstances, have been financially ruined. C has a mystery of another kind. Although of tempting appearance, and situated in a favourite quarter in the West End of London, it has been tenantless for the past sixteen years. The house has often been painted and redecorated, as well as structurally improved, but hitherto in vain. The bill “To Let” stands in the window, and is only removed occasionally to make room for a fresher announcement. I may add that there is not the faintest suspicion of a ghost about the house. Possibly other readers of ‘N. & Q.’ could give similar experiences. I am not superstitious, but in my humble opinion it would not be altogether unreasonable to employ a clergyman as an exorcising medium in dwellings where misfortunes so unaccountable are of such frequent occurrence. Haunted houses have of late years occupied general attention; and in some cases a cure has been effected. But unlucky houses, though possibly far more numerous, have escaped notice.
Richard EdgeCombe. 2, Reichs Strasse, Dresden.
Notes and Queries 8th S. III., Mar 25 ’93: p. 224
UNLUCKY HOUSES When at Bishop Burton, near Beverley, some six years ago, I was informed that at least three of the vicars had committed suicide.
Notes and Queries 8th S. III., June 24 ’93: p. 495
We could muse about suicide clusters or the haunted jail cells where inmates go mad or hang themselves, and there are variants on this theme found in articles about “cursed juries” (Guiteau and H.H. Holmes were said to have been particularly efficient at this. Another day, another post.) There are also tales of luckless families wiped out by hoodoos. Nine of the Archer family died violently in North Baltimore, Ohio and an alleged “Woods of Witches” near Napoleon, Ohio was blamed for a truly impressive neighborhood death toll of at least 21. [See The Ghost Wore Black for the details.]
Sometimes the stories of ill-omened houses tip over into Grand Guignol parody.
STRANGE CURSE ON HOUSE IN PARIS
All Who Enter It Marked for Death in Some Horrible and Violent Form.
The mention of “59 Rue Boileau” sends a shudder of uneasiness through the Paris police officials and calls forth the question: “Well, who has been killed there now.”
It is a novelty in the way of a haunted house, as it has no traditions and no history over a year old, but the history it has crowded into a year is something frightful to contemplate.
The building of the house occupied about five months. While the construction was in progress no accident happened or no injury of any sort of a workman. Yet fatality followed fatality from the day the house was finished. It is the custom in France for the building trades to hoist a little cedar tree above the roof of a house as soon as it is finished, just as in some cities of the United States a broom is fastened upright on similar occasions. The boss builder climbed to the peak of the roof and was in the act of hammering the trunk of the “bouquet” when his foot slipped, he slid down the steep incline, and fell headlong to the street below. He was dead when his comrades reached him.
Disasters Follow Fast.
That same night two homeless men sought shelter from the cold in the new building. They were found there dead the next morning, suffocated by the fumes from the charcoal fire they had built in the kitchen. A few hours after the discovery of the dead tramps the owner of the house made an inspection of the premises. On his way to the cellar he fell down the stairs and broke his neck. Three policemen entered the cellar to carry out the body. A heated argument ensued between two of them as to the supernatural character of the calamities. From words they proceeded to blows and one of the guardians of the peace was fatally stabbed.
Attracted by the extraordinary series of fatalities the juge de paix (justice of the peace) of the ward visited the house the same afternoon, accompanied by his secretary. The latter had an apoplectic stroke and expired just as he was being carried across the sill of the front door into the street.
At the urgent request of the dead owner’s family the police promised not to inform the newspapers, at least for the present, of the sinister string of episodes of which the new building had been the scene. The neighborhood, however, was soon discussing the matter with bated breath, and in all that quarter of the city there was perhaps no one who was not aware of the brief but tragic history of the “the fatal house.”
Becomes Suicides’ Resort.
It remained closed for two weeks, but even that fact did not put a stop to the fearful happenings. One day—it was less than a week after the sudden death of the municipal functionary’s secretary—the house agent, who had the property to rent, was visited at his office by a well-dressed man and woman, who made inquiries about a number of houses for rent, and then asked for the keys of the “one in the Rue Boileau.” The agent felt it his duty to inform the man of the “unlucky reputation” of the place.
“O, we’re not superstitious, my wife or I,” replied the visitor, “and since you offer us the house for such a small rent, a little thing like an accident or two would not affect us.”
The agent waited late at his office that night, but the keys of the mysterious building were not returned to him. Then he notified the police of his fears. Two gendarmes were sent off in hot haste to No. 59 Rue Boileau. They found the front door unlocked. In a second story room one of them stumbled over something lying on the floor. By the light of their lantern they saw it was the body of a woman. Nearby was a man, also dead. In the man’s hand was clutched a note addressed to the police. It stated that he and his companion had been resolved to commit suicide, and that was why they had borrowed the keys and come to the house.
From that time on the accursed house became the favorite resort of persons anxious to die. Though the agent refused to surrender the keys to persons pretending to want to rent the property, calamities went on happening there just the same. A man residing in an adjoining house climbed along the roof, and made his entrance by the trap door into No. 59. As soon as he got inside he cut his throat. The following night another citizen, failing to get inside the building, hanged himself over the doorstep. Then a special policeman was stationed in front of the house to keep away all intending suicides, upon whom the place seemed to exercise an irresistible fascination.
Awful Spell Returns.
The policeman remained on that post for about six months, during which time no human beings entered the building, and, naturally, no disasters occurred. Then people began to forget about the fated house, and different floors were rented out in apartments to families from other cities or from distant parts of Paris. In less than a month an entirely new series of fatal accidents had resulted.
A child’s nurse let a baby fall from a third story window. The following day the nurse killed herself by taking poison. An old woman living in a ground floor apartment was robbed and murdered. A plumber, who had been called in to repair a leak in the water pipes, was fatally scalded by upsetting upon his face his molten solder. Two tenants died suddenly from unknown causes. A balloon passing over the house caught its guide rope in the chimney of No. 59, capsizing the basket and hurling its two occupants to death on the roof of the house of calamity. [Surely this would have made the news?]
These are only some of the fatalities, but there are also one or two others that would seem to indicate that the place puts its terrible seal on persons who have been connected with it. For instance, the father of the child that was killed by falling from a window moved with his wife from Rue Boileau the following day. Two days later he himself was run over and killed in the street. Two boys who lived in the fatal house were drowned while bathing in the Seine. A man and his wife, who had just furnished an apartment there, were killed in a railroad accident on their wedding trip.
Naturally it became impossible to keep longer from the general public the story of the fated house, when its record of deaths accumulated so constantly. So the local journals devoted much space to the general subject and published many letters from subscribers advancing all sorts of strange theories to account for the persistent disasters.
At two separate sessions the National Society for Psychic Research discussed the weird phenomena, from the standpoint of the occult and mysterious, and tried vainly to demonstrate that the calamities occurring in the house were the result of some perfectly simple and natural cause.
Chicago [IL] Tribune 28 June 1903: p. 41
Again, no names, so even if I had good access to French newspapers, the best I could do would be to enter the address with fingers crossed. It appears that Vladimir Nabokov lived at 59 rue Boileau in 1939—he called it “dingy”—and the address is now a block of flats. If you’re tempted to see if there are any Airbnb holiday rentals in the building, just remember, the house always wins.
Corroboration of any of these anonymous tales? Other unlucky houses? Just put the key under the mat. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Mrs Daffodil shared some details of unlucky English castles. Elliott O’Donnell had a fondness for stigmatized properties second only to his obsessions about elementals.