“Oh, what shall I do with them?” said a bereaved mother, as she hung over the little garments whose owner had gone to be with the angels. “Can I ever put them out of my sight? Never! Never!” It was only a week since white crape on the door told the passers-by that death had taken a little child from the home. Now the mother had ventured into the nursery to touch the clothing which her darling had made sacred. They were not elegant garments, at least they were not of finest lace and cambric, but every article told of the love which made it. There were no careless stitches, no sparing of pains could be discovered. Fine, dainty, chaste in every detail, they spoke pathetically of the tenderness which fashioned them. And now what could be done with them? A beautiful box was made; it was of satin-wood and silver, and on the handle was graven the name, “Lily.” Into this, between silver paper, and with sprays of rosemary, was laid the tiny wardrobe. Here the mother came to weep, to open afresh the never-healing wound. Here she recalled each precious word, and look and her lost one; here she tried to imagine the little arms again around her neck, the soft cheek pressed to hers.
Her grief became first selfish, then morbid. The luxury of tears forbade exertion, which is one of God’s laws for healthy spiritual development.
One day a friend came. “My dear,” she said, “what is to become of these little things when you can no longer shed tears over them? Are they to be buried, as sweet Lily’s body was when her soul went up to God?”
“Buried?” said the mother. “I do not know; I suppose not.”
“Would you not rather give them away yourself,” said her friend, “than have less loving hands than yours do so?”
“Oh, I could not give away my darling’s clothes. No other child must wear them.”
“Here are a great many garments,” continued her friend; “and think how many little children are in need. I remember Lily always wanted to give to the poor.”
“Yes,” mused the mother.
The friend said no more, but her words sank deep into the stricken heart. Before her great sorrow she had been generous to the needy. Now she remembered with sharp pain that she had forgotten all those who once depended largely on her bounty. One thought suggested another, and soon she saw her future path shining in clear light—the light of love.
With tender memories, but with a strong resolve, the hoarded treasures were brought forth. Little children were made glad, and mothers’ hearts comforted. And did the angel Lily seem farther away for this sacrifice? Oh, no! When the material bond was broken, the mother’s thought went naturally to greet her child in her heavenly joy. Instead of tears of anguish over the earthly relics, there were tears of joy that her darling was so blessed. Did her love lessen? Never. But her power to love deepened as she thought of those things which are eternal, and realized that her child had entered upon them. Harper’s Bazar.
The Republican [Sycamore, IL] 17 October 1877: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A poignant picture of a devastating loss….
While to-day the bereaved are practically required to “get over” their loss in a few weeks so that no one is rendered uncomfortable by the spectre of their sorrow, the Victorians wisely understood the need for a specified time of grief. However, they also understood the unhealthy nature of what alienists now call “complicated grief.” Queen Victoria, for example, was widely criticised for giving way to excessive mourning to the neglect of her duties. Although it may be a later, apocryphal story, it is said that she turned Prince Albert’s death-room into a shrine, directing that his servants continue to lay out his clothes and bring hot water for shaving. Certainly she insisted on memorialising her mourning in dozens of photos of herself and her children wearing deepest black, gazing sadly at a bust of the late Prince Consort. In the face of rising public discontent, the press dubbed her “The Widow of Windsor” and there were mutterings overheard about dismantling the monarchy. It seemed that none of her family could guide the bereaved Queen into the sensible outlook of Lily’s mother’s friend, although eventually she was persuaded back into public life by her out-spoken servant and confidant, John Brown.
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.
I have always been interested in what the well-dressed corpse is wearing: a netted beadwork shroud, as worn by an Egyptian mummy; the beautiful brocades found in the royal tombs at Las Huelgas; a plain wool shroud tied at the head and foot, as modeled by John Donne in his funerary monument; or the frilled-front white shrouds worn by some Victorian ladies, accessorized with a ruffled cap.
But who made dresses for the dead? We have records of commercial shipments of shrouds from 1770s America. I remember reading, but cannot find a firm source for the assertion that ladies from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth. (Anyone have a reference?) And there are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. There is no doubt that the home-made shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs in the United States. People also buried their dead in their own garments or nightwear. See this link for an excellent article on the subject. I have also seen notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor.
In my search for information on 19th-century burial garments, I ran across the following articles, which discuss the labor issues, the materials, and costs of manufacturing commercial shrouds and burial robes. They are a frank look at the undertaking industry over the course of three decades.
SEWING FOR THE DEAD
Girls Who make Good Wages and Are Contented in an Undertaker’s Shop.
“Isn’t it lovely?” asked a young sewing girl, holding up for inspection something of white satin and lace.
“We are crowded with work just now, so I brought this home to finish it to-night.”
‘You have a trousseau on hand, then? I suppose that fancy garment, whatever it may be, is for a bride.”
The sewing girl opened wide her eyes. “We don’t make no trousseau,” said she. “Did you think I worked at a dressmaker’s?”
“Yes? Aren’t you with Mme. X.?”
“Not much! I left there a month ago. The madame gave me too much sass and too little pay. I’m in Y___’s undertaking establishment and am earning half as much again as I did at Mme. X___’s, who is the most awful crew in this city. The season is longer, too, though of course there ain’t half the number of girls employed where I know that there were at madame’s. When I worked there I was laid off reg’lar three months in the year, while four weeks is the longest that the girls at the undertaker’s are idle. When there is a full supply of robes in stock they are put to making coffin linings, which most of ‘em like because it isn’t fussy work, though, for that matter, none of their work is half so fussy as what I had to bother with when I sewed for live people. Miss B___ (she is our forewoman) used to have the same place at a dressmaker’s, and she says she has grown ten years younger since she went into the robe making business, because she has so much less worry of mind. She sometimes used to have to keep her girls up till 12 o’clock Saturday night to finish a dress for some rich customer, and early Monday morning here would come the dress back again to be altered, and a sassy message long with it about its want of fit. Now, there aren’t any particular fit about a burial robe as you can see by this; it is made only to go over the corpse. Miss B___ says it is a great comfort to her to know that them as wears ‘em don’t make no complaint , and in the main they are becoming, which can’t be said of live dresses—I mean the dresses live people wear.
“To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress.
“Afraid of the coffins? Not after the first day. It would be a pity if we were, as our sewing room is at the end of the loft where piles upon piles of them are stowed away. We talk and laugh and sing, just as we did at Mme. X___, and Miss B___ is an awful lot nicer than the freewoman we had there, because, as I have already said, she isn’t being constantly worried out of her life by fussy ladies; and, as it is piecework, she never has to scold the girls for loafing. She says that what she can’t get used to is to have to go downstairs and take orders for robes for folks that still have breath in their bodies. Some people seem to be in an awful hurry to get their dead put underground.
When Miss B____ was downstairs today at noontime and the rest of us were eating lunch, one of the girls had her chair break down under her, and, as there was no other to be had, what did she do but go out and drag in a coffin to sit on! When we had finished our lunch we took and laid her out in it and covered her with a robe, and then we began to cry, and talk about the virtues of the deceased, and were having a real jolly wake, considering there was no candles, when in come the boss. We didn’t’ know but we’d all be fired out for meddling with the coffins, but all he said was that it would be money in his pocket if we lazy loafers were all of us in our coffins, as our custom would pay him better than our work. The girl in the coffin—she’s awfully cheeky—jumped up and told him it was playtime, as it was not yet half past 12, and then he said what as fun to us would be considered death by most folks and with that he went out. One of the girls said he was in a good humor because there was talk of the yellow fever coming here this summer, but that wasn’t so. Undertakers ain’t no more heartless than other men, and when it comes to paying their girls they ain’t half such skins as some women.” New York Tribune. Huron Daily Huronite [Huron, SD] 16 January 1890: p. 3
This next article may be one of the the earliest mentions in the press of machine embroidery—the shroud seamstresses ingeniously created patterns with their regular sewing machines.
FASHION STOPS NOWHERE
Costumes for the Grave
“Sweet Things” in Shrouds, and Trimmings—“Ladies’ Fine Lawn Robes”—“Ladies’ Cashmere Habit”—“Style No. 37”—The “Forelady’s” Role.
Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents. The undertaker often waits for his pay, and frequently he doesn’t survive the waiting time. So he makes his sales on a basis of large margins of losses. In that way he manages to counteract the effect upon him of the grief that he sees, and he doesn’t die of sorrow accumulating within him.
In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. The morning dress pattern is largely used for women, and the dressing gown for men, invariably with a bosom piece. For men it is the usual shirt bosom and collar of starched linen, often with studs; for women the bosom piece is made according to fancy, regulated largely by the material of the robe. The frequent use of the patterns above mentioned may be due largely to the fact that they are easily put on, because of their large sleeves and loose fit. They are open at the back from top to bottom and, when put on, are fastened at the neck. The sides are simply tucked underneath the body.
Garments worn in life are frequently used as grave clothes—a custom more prevalent in New York than anywhere else in this country, with the possible exception of Deadwood and some other places, where sudden deaths and unceremonious burials are rather the rule. Boston uses twice as many shrouds proportionately as New York, which does not require more than could be furnished by one or two manufacturers. The greater number of the shrouds made by New York manufacturers are sold in other cities….
The least costly shroud is of black lawn, and it sells at retail, ready made, for $2.25. It is trimmed with the same material, in puffings, bows and tulles. Lawn burial robes are little used compared with those of other materials. Prices of shrouds vary from that of the simple robe, already mentioned, to $40 or more. The more usual prices are $10, $12 and $15. Manufacturers of shrouds, coffins and trimmings do not sell at retail….
In a long, narrow room—nearly 200 feet long—in the second story of a manufactory of undertakers’ supplies, were shown shrouds for men and for women, in great numbers and various styles. A shroud of new design, was of black merino, with “cross-crease center” of black satin folds, trimmed at the side with box plaits and milliners’ folds, alternately of satin and Merino. Folds of the same kind around the neck inclosed a satin-threaded crepe lisse ruche. It was finished at the throat with a black satin bow. The end of the sleeve was trimmed to correspond, and was softened with crepe lisse. In an open box on the counter was a brown habit. The bosom piece was of white satin, with finger puffs up and down. There were gimp and edging at the sides, and box plaits, with edging; around the neck, white satin bows, finished with trimming. A man’s shroud was in another box. It was trimmed with quilted satin and raised floss work in the shape of a cross and a leafy vine. There were a linen bosom and collar, and a black cravat and bosom studs. TA fold of satin answered for the vest, and the shroud had the appearance of an elaborate dressing gown for a gentleman. Another shroud for a man had a matelassé front, a shirt bosom of another pattern, and folds to represent a vest showing two buttons. The shelves behind the counter were filled with boxes of burial robes and “head linings.” They were labeled “Ladies’ fine lawn robe;” “Ladies’ cashmere habit, No. 25 front, color brown,” Cashmere robe, No. 35 front, color white;” the number designating the style of the robe. An “old lady’s shroud” was in one of the open boxes. It was of black cashmere, with folds crossing over the breast, the second fold narrow and of black satin; pointed sleeve cuffs, bound with black satin; folds of white lawn crossing diagonally to the left, across the breast; a lawn bow at the throat and at the wrists and around the neck a widow’s ruche. “Style No. 37” was somewhat costly. The material was fine brown merino. Double puffings were edged with white satin and edged again with a ruche of rule. The plain white satin breast piece had “daisy buttons”—buttons with white satin center and loops of white silk thread around it—down the middle. At the throat was a white satin bow, edged, and around the neck a tulle ruche. The robe retails for $30. Quilted to the bottom it would cost $40, and a cord and tassel would come with it. Quilting is a more expensive trimming than puffing, for more time is required to make it. Ordinarily, a shroud has about two feet of trimming, and the cost is about one third as much as when trimmed to the bottom.
The women employed in the manufactures work by the piece. They make two shrouds a day of the more elaborate patterns and four of the simpler. The girls who stitch the seams on sewing machines earn $8 a week. Generally the same hand makes the entire shroud, doing the machine and the hand work and earning $12 a week. The “forelady” does cutting. Her salary is, on the average, $15 a week. The cutting is not a delicate task, for shrouds are nearly all the same size. When too large they are tucked under at the back and care is taken to have them all large enough for a person of ordinary size. The women work in the manufactory, and choose their own hours, generally going to work at about nine in the morning and quitting at five in the afternoon. They bring their luncheons and take about twenty-five minutes’ intermission for eating it. Some of the girls work only on “Headlines,” which extend from the head of the coffin to the break on the shoulder. These girls learn to work mottoes and ingenious figures, stitching them entirely with sewing machines. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 9 December 1879 p: 1
This next article is interesting in that it states that there is a particular apprenticeship period to be served because dressmakers don’t necessarily know how to make shrouds.
IN A SHROUD FACTORY
A THOUSAND GIRLS HAPPY IN A STRANGE OCCUPATION.
The Shroudmakers of New York a Distinct Class of Needle Plyers—Clothing for the Dead—Various Designs, Grades, and Fashions.
There are over one thousand well fed, well dressed, well paid young women in New York city who earn their living making shrouds for the dead. The “Song of the Shirt” was not written for them. They sing no songs with voices of dolorous pitch, and indeed they have very little reason for doing so. Their songs are as merry as the day is long, and are sung to the busy hum of sewing machines. Less doleful melodies it would be hard to find.
The shroudmakers of New York form a distinct class of bread winners. They differ from other needle plyers as essentially as silversmiths differ from locksmiths. An experienced shroudmaker may know how to make a dress, but a dressmaker has little or no knowledge of how a shroud should be constructed. This part is emphasized whenever a dressmaker secures employment in a shroud factory. Before she is able to earn the regular wages of her craft she must serve an apprenticeship, the length of which depends solely upon her aptitude to learn the peculiar knack of this strange trade. There are twelve well known firms in this city engage id in the manufacture of shrouds, and it is in their factories that all the work is done. The wages are well maintained, although fixed by no union, and employment is guaranteed the year through, for the sale of shrouds is not marked by any of the fluctuations which are noted in some other branches of manufacture.
New York is the recognized headquarters of the clothing of the dead as well as of the living. There is mothering about a shroud factory to indicate the character of its product. Even the rows of coffins and enticing varieties of caskets in the ware room below seem to belong to another business altogether. The showcases that are visible from the head of the stairs, with their display of the latest styles in shrouds, appear to have been left there, perhaps by some pervious tenant, and bear no possible relation to the use the rooms are now being put. It is very difficult to imagine that these light hearted girls who chat so merrily over their machines are turning out burial robes by the dozen, but such is the case and to them the work is no more dolorous than the making of shirts.
CLATTER AND CHATTER.
If you are curious come with me to one of the largest factories in the city, within a few blocks of Cooper Union, in the Bowery, and see for yourself. As the door of the shop opens the noise is almost deafening. Between the clatter of the machines on the one hand and the chatter of the girls on the other, one can hardly hear himself speak. It is 10 o’clock—early for us, perhaps, but not for the girls. They have been at work since 8, and one-quarter of their day has already been spent. In the center of the room is a double row of sewing machines, varying in size and power, and all fastened to two long and narrow tables with little round places cut in the sides into which the operators snugly fit. At the other end of the room are several counters forming a quadrangle. Within this square sit a dozen young women chatting and sewing, while a tall, middle aged, motherly woman snips out of yards upon yards of black, white, and brown cloth patterns of shrouds. Shrouds with long skirts, shrouds with short skirts, shrouds with no skirts at all. Shrouds for the rich and shrouds for the poor. And such patterns they are.
This elaborate design in white satin, with soft ruching around the neck and fleecy ruffles around the wristbands, is modeled after a wedding gown as nearly as is possible considering the different use it is to be put to. It will grace the funeral of some rich patron of a fashionable undertaker. This plain black garment, with a false shirt bosom and a collar which ties behind with a cord, is patterned after an evening suit. It is quiet and eminently respectable. It is intended for a man of middle age and costs quite as much as a suit worn in life. Besides these there are robes of brown and combinations of brown and black, some faced with satin, some with silk, and others plain even to severity. These form the cheaper grade of goods and are worn by men or women of advanced years. The white robes are all intended for the young. Some of these are marvelous pieces of work, and if embroidered by hand would cost a small fortune. This little gown would hardly reach from your hand to your elbow. The tiny neckband is ruffled and tied together in front with a white satin bow. The little sleeves are covered with embroidery and the skirt is elaborately trimmed with lace. It is a baby shroud and is the smallest size that is made.
The styles in shrouds are continually changing. Every fashion used by the living contributes to the robing of the dead. Each large factory has its ‘special designer,’ and not even death can still the competition between them. Benjamin Northrup in St. Louis Republican. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 14 July 1888: p. 6
Let’s finish with this tongue-in-cheek look at the practical reasons behind “sham burial suits.” The reporter mentions suits displayed in glass-topped boxes. You can see an example of a child’s burial dress in a box here.
SHAM BURIAL SUITS
Robbing the Grave of Valuable Raiment—Another Step Toward Economy in Funerals—How a Body May be Arrayed Without Waste of Wardrobe—A Real Masquerade of Death
Of late years the fashion in funeral wardrobes has materially changed. Where our ancestors used to be put to their last quiet bed in a plain shroud, their descendants make the same journey in full dress. In the case of a gentleman, a black coat and pantaloons, with a white vest, shirt and tie have been defined as the last tribute of decency he can pay to the social system from which he has departed. A lady is required to be attired in attire whose quality is generally decided by her dressers, but which is of a sober hue.
There are few men who would through choice wear a dickey over their breasts instead of a suit on their bodies. Yet the sham burial suits are nothing but dickeys. A Sunday News reporter saw one in an undertaker’s window the other day, or rather he saw two. One was intended for a gentleman, and the other for a lady. They were inclosed in neat boxes with glass covers, and would have been quite pleasant to look at if it hadn’t been for the coffins which formed a background to them, and the photograph alongside of an embalmer inspecting the corpse of a man who, if looks go for anything, must have been hanged for slaughtering three or four infant schools from a tub of chemicals through a garden house. At first sight they seemed to be what they were evidently intended to represent. The reporter was examining them, when a rosy man, who had been telling a story to several cheerful gentlemen, who laughed heartily at it, called form his arm-chair in the doorway, “What do you think of them, eh?”
“They seem to be real nice,” The reporter responded.
“Nice!” repeated the rosy man; “Why, they’re just bang up. Look at ‘em in here close to. How is that for high, eh? Only take that in.”
‘And yanking what had seemed to be a black coat, vest, shirt, collar and tie complement from its case, he waved a fluttering rag over the reporter’s head. The arrangement was simply a front, no longer than a waiter’s jacket, and with tapes behind to tie it to the body. “Nobody ever sees the back of ‘em,” said the rosy man, “and half of the lid covers ‘em up to the waist. So what’s the use of buying a forty-dollar rig or so when you can get one of these for ten dollars, I want to know? Ain’t the deceased loss enough without chucking his clothes in too, eh?”
The reporter admitted that, taking this view of the subject, the idea was certainly an admirable one. Encouraged by this indorsement, the rosy man sent a rosy boy, who was cracking peanuts and throwing the shells into an open casket, for a pint of beer and went into details. He had long noticed with pain that the poorest of people buried the best suits of clothes they could obtain with their dead. According to a computation he had made with great care, something over $3,000,000 was squandered annually in this way, literally thrown to the worms. This was very wrong. It was an outrage on the whole system of social economy. Somebody could wear those garments, and get more good out of them than the man or woman who had them on. Then why didn’t they wear them?
They didn’t wear them because they were “down on” shrouds, and couldn’t bury the “diseased” with nothing at all on.
But the present improvement supplied a happy medium. It arrayed the body in a stylish garb wherever the body was seen. In the hidden recesses of the casket, where no eyes had access, it didn’t matter in the last how it was dressed. One of these suits only cost from $5 to $15, according to its quality. Ladies’ dresses, constructed on the same plan, rated according to the same schedule. The idea was a new one, but it had made a hit, and the sham suits were selling, to use the narrator’s own picturesque figure of speech, “like hot cakes.” The illusive garments were made in all styles to suit all tastes. One dress had lately been made for a young lady who desired to be buried in pink. Her family were going to sacrifice her best dress when this substitute was suggested to them.
‘And her sister wore that dress to a ball last week,” said the rosy man, triumphantly. “Simmy seen her in it, didn’t you?”
“Simmy set down the beer and responded in the affirmative. As the reporter prepared to depart he asked:
“Are they patented?”
“You bet,” replied the rosy man. “When you need one, let your folks give us a call, will you? Simmy, hand the young man a card.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1880: p. 12
The object above looks like an indifferent specimen of Renaissance pietra dura/ pietre dure,the decorative art of hardstone inlay, or perhaps clever marquetry, made to look like polished jasper, carnelian, and sardonyx. It is, however, made of petrified pieces of human viscera, bone, and muscle, the creation of Professor Segato of Florence, who discovered a process to preserve human remains by turning them into a stone-like substance. Dura mater instead of pietra dura.
I first ran across a hint of this ingenious mineralizer in an 1881 newspaper squib:
A Florentine chemist has by some mysterious process converted the corpse of a girl to the semblance of marble, perfectly white and hard, and the petrified body is being shown at the Milan exhibition. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 November 1881: p. 3
Professor Segato (1792-1836) was featured in an 1855 article in Harper’s Magazine:
“In this hospital [Santa Maria Nuova, Florence] is to be seen the museum of the late Prof. Segato, who discovered the process of petrifying animal substances, so that, while they retained their natural colors and shapes, they became as hard as stone. The church, as usual, interfered with his art, on the grounds that it was contrary to the Scriptural doctrine of “into dust shalt thou return.” Consequently, unable to prosecute the discoveries further, he soon after died, leaving to the world this unique museum as the evidence of his success and to tantalize science with regrets for the last secret.”
Concerning a remarkable table made by this discoverer, the writer says:
“It comprises every portion of the human body transformed to stone, destined to endure as long as the world itself, if not ground to pieces by violence. There are two tables, one finished and polished, the other incomplete, made of mosaics, formed by sections of human bones, brain, lungs, blood vessels, intestines and muscles, as firm as marble, showing the internal structure of each, all resembling colored stones. Without an explanation every visitor would presume them to have come from some stone mosaic manufactory for they are symmetrically arranged in squares, with the great variety of colors nicely graduated. Different portions of the human body, showing the internal anatomy, are so perfectly petrified as to form perfect objects of study of the medical student. Even morbid anatomy was subjected with entire success to this process. Animals of all kinds, reptiles, chickens, in and out of the egg. In short, nothing that had warm blood was capable of resisting his petrifying touch.”
“The Roman Church, above all others, did wrong to discourage the art. Next to medical colleges it is the largest dealer in dead men’s bones. What an improvement it would have been, instead of exhibiting a knee-pan in a vial, or a dried skull in a gold case, to have held up for adoration an entire saint as fresh as in life. All skepticism in relics would then disappear, for however easy it may be to substitute one bone for another, there could be no possibility of destroying personal identity. The stone saint would be the actual image of the live saint; no daguerreotype could be half so exact; and when not in use, could be quietly laid by on the shelf, as is frequently done in life.”
“There is, however, in this museum the head of a young girl, with long flaxen hair, of remarkable beauty, as soft and tresslike as in life. Belonging to this head is a virgin bosom, snow white, and of a perfection of form that nature seldom equals, and art never surpasses. Power’s Greek slave, or the Venus de Medici, could exchange busts with this maiden without loss; so exquisite are its proportions, and so pure its outlines. Here, then, is a figure which women will envy, and men admire through all time, as cold and hard as flint, yet warming feelings with love and pity for the fate of one so young and beautiful. All that is known of her is that she was found dead under the roof of a church that fell in, and Segato possessed himself of her corpse.”
The story above was quoted in the “Curiosity Shop” question column of the Chicago Inter-Ocean. The paper continued its article with details suggesting that the story was a traveler’s tale, but then gave an account of an investigation by the New York Sun, which seemed to conclude that the table was real.
“The author of the above does not give his name, but investigation through periodicals of the last quarter of a century shows that Segato’s table has “cropped up” every little while as a favorite “traveler’s tale” for the assistance of sensation-seeking newspaper correspondents. Not more than two years ago an account of it was given in a medical journal, which should have known better than to give place to such an account without full verification. The writer mentions, but one table and places it in the Pitti Palace, though none of the guide books bear out his story by any mention of it.
“’In the Pitti Palace at Florence is a table which for originality in the matter of construction and ghastliness in conception is probably without a rival. It was made by Giuseppe Segatti, who passed several years of his life in its manufacture. To the casual observer it gives the impression of a curious mosaic of marbles of different shades and colors, for it looks like polished stone. In reality it is composed of human muscles and viscera. No less than a hundred bodies were requisitioned for the material. The table is round, and about a yard in diameter, with a pedestal and four claw feet, the whole being formed of petrified human remains. The ornaments of the pedestal are made from the intestines, the claws with hearts, livers, and lungs, the natural color of which is preserved. The table top is constructed of muscles artistically arranged, and it is bordered with upwards of a hundred eyes, the effect of which is said to be highly artistic, since they retain all their lustre, and seem to follow the observer. Segatti died about fifty years ago. He obtained his bodies from the hospitals, and indurated them by impregnation with mineral salts.’
“A few months ago a correspondent of the New York Sun undertook to run the story of this remarkable table to earth and find out how much truth there really was in it, and the alleged great discovery of its maker. He ascertained that some fifty years ago there was a physician in Florence named Giuseppe Segato, who declared that he had discovered a process of so changing the constitution of human flesh as to render it perfectly hard and make it keep its form and appearance indefinitely. He is said to have submitted specimens of his work to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who thought well of the discovery and offered to purchase it. The physician refused the offer, and while he waited for a higher bid died, either suddenly or after a very short illness. He never revealed his process and his secret was buried with him.
The traveler who is curious to look up the specimens of Segato’s work, which are in St. Mary’s Hospital in charge of one Dr. Stanislao Bianchi, is amazed to find them very different from what he has been led to expect by the accounts he has received of them. The “table” is oval, of what looks like mahogany; it is about eighteen inches long by twelve wide, and consists of a top only; it has no appearance whatever of ever having had a pedestal. The human petrifications on it consist of thin and small sections or slices about one-sixty-fourth of an inch thick, which are veneered upon it. Some are diamond shaped, some oval, others square, with surfaces like fine-grained wood, all arranged in a symmetrical rectangular oblong design; there is a border around it, presenting at first sight the appearance of a checker board. Some of these veneers, by the effects of dampness, have become detached; one or two have fallen off altogether.
Professor Bianchi pointed out that these veneers were small bits of organisms of the human body such as the loins, kidneys, liver, spleen, lungs, skin, all of natural color, and that probably, in order to get them of small size, they had been taken from boys’ cadavers. There were, however, no human eyes in the border or anywhere else. Dr. Bianchi showed other specimens of Segato’s process—a female scalp of perfectly natural color, with long flowing hair attached; a woman’s breasts, fair and white, perfectly life-like. These preserved parts were not hard and stony to the touch, as though actually petrified, but were like pasteboard in thickness and firmness. It seems fair to conclude that the veneered pieces on the table had similar texture. Other specimens, including fishes, reptiles, human hands, and feet subjected to the same process seemed much firmer. The officers of the hospital evince far less interest than might have been expected in these curious articles in their care, and further investigation must be looked for to assure us of what importance the discovery may prove to science. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 20 April 20 1889: Vol. XVIII, Issue 27, Part 2, p. 11
Despite the detail, this account seemed completely improbable to me. The newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s were noted for their interest in petrified corpse stories. Even if such macabre mobilihad existed, surely they had been “ground to pieces by violence” or by time.
But the internet is a wonderful thing. Today you can see, at this online museum, Professor Segato’s astonishing and disturbing handiworks. [site is in Italian.]
If you have any interest in a more detailed analysis, see “An anencephalus foetus petrified by Gerolamo Segato (1792-1836),” R. Ciranni, G. Fornaciari, V. Nardini, D. Caramella in Med Secoli. 2008;20(1):7-17. It is fascinating to note that, despite radiography, CT scans, 3-D reconstruction and virtual endoscopy, Professor Segato’s method of petrification is still a mystery.
His grave, in Santa Croce Church, Florence, bears an epitaph that translates loosely as “Here lies Girolamo Segato—who would be intact, petrified, if the secret of his art had not died with him.”
Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank
Denver, Colo. Nov. 7. When Lieutenant Colonel Thomas F. Davis, military secretary of the department of the Colorado, United States army, opened his mail a few days ago he came across a large brown registered envelope, sent from Cripple Creek, and addressed to the army headquarters, Denver. It weighed perhaps half a pound.
The colonel opened it hurriedly and then jumped. For out of the envelope fell the model of a coffin, cut from a cigar box, and covered with black satin which had been cut and pasted on with mucilage.
The coffin was written over with strange devices and a couple of sheets of writing paper, scrawled over from top to bottom with daggers and skulls and cross-bones. Visions of bombs like Jacob Schiff got and of the Black Hand and of the Ku-Klux clans flitted across his brain as he rang for an orderly and a pail of water.
Further examination proved the package to be less dangerous than it looked. The writing was unsigned, and accepting that the package was sent from Cripple Creek, there was nothing to show who or what the sender was. The greater part of the writing was unintelligible, although here and there enough could be made out to show that the writer, evidently insane, had a fancied grievance against the army, and was threatening it with annihilation. The coffin, he explained, was sent to hold the general staff when he got through with them.
Colonel Davis returned the package to the postal authorities, marking on the cover, “Not intended for army headquarters,” and coffin and all are now in possession of the registry department. Post office inspectors are making an investigation of the affair. The sender is believed to be a harmless crank, although the orderlies at headquarters have received instructions to take no chances with queer looking individuals who visit headquarters in the next few weeks.
Omaha [NE] World Herald 8 November 1906: p. 6
Miniature coffins were usually recognized as a threat, not unlike the practice of a gangster sending funeral flowers to a rival.
Jacob Schiff was the head of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, one of the world’s largest banking houses. Anarchists sent an “infernal device” to his office, which was discovered when the black powder leaked out one end.
Recently a horrific news story about a young Russian woman who was killed by the accidental infusion of formalin instead of a saline IV has been been making the rounds with painful headlines of “Embalmed Alive!”
Since this blog is nothing if not topical, I wondered if, like premature burial, there was such a thing as “premature embalming.”
Of course, we’ve all heard of the urban legend tale “The Poisoned Dress” or “Embalmed Alive” about the young woman who dies after absorbing embalming fluid from a used dress. And if you’ve ever seen that noirest of films, The Loved One, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, you may remember Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, who embalms herself. I’m not a fan of needles or trochars so this is a subject that makes me queasy.
Thankfully the numbers of the near-embalmed are not large, and those embalmed alive are mercifully few. Yet two cases with a remarkable similarity to the Russian tragedy occurred in Norfolk, Virginia in 1929.
On 17 May 1929, a modest notice in The Independent newspaper of Elizabeth City, North Carolina told of funeral services held for Mrs. Ruth Garrett, 36, wife of Cecil F. Garrett, “who died in a Norfolk hospital at 10:45 Sunday morning following an operation.” She died on her birthday 12 May. But early in June, The Independent, tipped off by a confidential informant inside the hospital, began a relentless campaign to uncover the truth about Mrs. Garrett’s untimely death.
“Light is beginning to dawn on the mysterious death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city who came to her death in a Norfolk Hospital on Sunday May 12th, 1929. Her death, following a sudden and unexpected operation, is believed to have been caused by a deadly injection for which a bungling laboratory nurse was responsible.”
That deadly injection, it soon emerged, was of formalin. Mrs. Garrett was, as the papers blared, “embalmed alive.”
As The Independent wrote,
Mrs. Garrett, 36 years old, was one of the healthiest young matrons in Elizabeth City. Her sudden death in St. Vincent’s Hospital on May 12th stunned everybody who knew her. But her husband suspected nothing wrong until weeks afterwards. Murder will out.
(Frankly, I’m surprised the newspaper got away with that kind of potentially libelous language.)
Mrs. Garrett’s personal doctor had discovered kidney disease and referred her to Dr. R.L. Payne of Norfolk, who recommended injections of an antiseptic silver nitrate solution. The first injection went smoothly, but the second caused her great pain. Despite this, she waited another two weeks to see the doctor, when it was discovered that one kidney had been destroyed and the other was badly damaged. An operation was hastily performed to remove the dead organ; the other kidney was too far gone and Mrs. Garrett died on Sunday morning, 12 May, 1929.
There the matter would have rested, with spouse and friends grieving for their loved one, but someone at the hospital decided to talk anonymously to the newspaper. The Independent asked Mr. Garrett for comment and he was stunned by what he heard. When he asked Dr. Payne for an explanation, the doctor admitted that the wrong solution had been used for the injection; he had ordered silver nitrate, but the bunglers in the laboratory had sent a mislabled bottle…. [The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 7 June 1929: p. 1]
Next, readers of The Independent were stunned to find that Mrs. Garrett’s “Death Came Fourteen Days After an Injection of Formalin Into Kidney by Dr. R.L. Payne in a Norfolk Hospital.”
The article makes it clear that Dr. Payne smelled formaldehyde when he examined the kidney which he had removed. He “explained that he was so distressed over the death and the complications that had arisen that it never occurred to him that he should notify the coroner.”
Twisting the scalpel, the newspaper added: “No one professes to know how the pharmacist in St. Vincent’s hospital got formalin in the silver nitrate bottle.” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 21 June 1929: p. 1
The newspaper was on a self-congratulatory roll:
The hospital, upon instructions from Dr. Payne or for reasons best known to itself (this detail is not clear) issued a death certificate stating as the cause of Mrs. Garrett’s death “acute nephritis and heart failure.” And the public might have remained in ignorance of the truth forever if this newspaper had not questioned the mystery of Mrs. Garrett’s sudden death and forced an investigation. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 28 June 1929: p. 5
But the newspaper was far from satisfied with the Coroner’s investigation and report.
According to Coroner McDonald Mrs. Garrett merely died of heart failure, following nephrosis. “A more evasive and innocuous document would be hard to find. All of the ingenuity and cunning of all of St. Vincent’s legal advisers could not have produced a more obvious whitewash and any high school boy could have contrived a more plausible and ingenious exculpation of the hospital staff. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 5 July 1929: p. 1-2
As the paper kept digging, a second victim, Mrs. Leslie McLemore, was identified as having been poisoned by formaldehyde at St. Vincent. Her symptoms were identical to Mrs. Garrett’s. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 12 July 1929: p. 1
Mr. Garrett retained a lawyer, but.
GRAND JURY TAKES NO ACTION IN GARRETT CASE
But Cecil F. Garrett, Husband of Woman Who Was Embalmed Alive,
Will push The Matter To Its Limit.
A special Norfolk grand jury last week investigating the death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city, who died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Norfolk after an operation following an injection of formalin from a bottle labelled nitrate of silver failed to find sufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone and was dismissed by Judge W.H. Sergeant in Corporation Court.
Cecil F. Garrett, husband of the dead woman, told a representative of this newspaper this week that while he was satisfied that the grand jury was composed of intelligent and conscientious men who discharged their duties the best they could and that he was satisfied with their report, considering the evidence they had gathered, he would not be content to let the matter drop. He stated that his attorneys were still investigating and that some sort of suit would eventually be started against someone.
In commenting on an article in a Norfolk paper quoting him as saying that it seemed that there was an unfortunate error in making up the prescription in the drug store or laboratory and that he held no one to blame for the unfortunate error, Mr. Garrett absolutely denies that he said anything of the kind. “The reporter just assumed that I said these words from a former statement in The Independent where I said that there had been an unfortunate error made,” said Mr. Garrett.
But there was something lacking at the hearing that grand jury. There was one Sister Evelyn Fitzsimons, who was in charge of the hospital pharmacy where the bottle labelled “Nitrate of Silver” was filled with a solution of formalin. A few days after the death of Mrs. Garrett from the fatal injection, Sister Fitzsimons’ health became bad and she had to be sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She was not available at the grand jury investigation. Another nurse was ill from an operation and could not be present at the investigation. She was a Miss Eggleson. Had these two important witnesses been able to attend the investigation and shed what light they could on the terrible death of a woman who was embalmed alive, the report of the grand jury may have been altogether different. But they were ill and the grand jury did not wait.
The whole thing, as terrible as it was, has been hushed up by the hospital officials and by the Norfolk coroner, as best they could Mr. Garrett feels that if Coroner C.D. J. McDonald of Norfolk had fully discharged his duties in the investigation of the death of his wife, the grand jury would have had something more to work and that their report would have been different from what it was last week. “I am going to push the matter just as far as I can,” says Mr. Garrett. “Not that I can get any satisfaction in the prosecution of the guilty parties, but to fulfil a duty that I owe the general public.
Norfolk officials would probably never had done as much as they did in the investigation of Mrs. Garrett’s death had it not been for the fact that The Independent gave the case relentless publicity, presenting the facts to the public in a way that made the officials feel that they had to do something.
Mrs. Garrett was not the only one to receive an injection from that bottle of fatal formalin. The solution in the bottle was used on one other occasion before it was used in the case of the Mrs. Garrett; and that other case is believed to have been Mrs. Marie McLemore, a niece of Mrs. M.M. Spruill of this city. Mrs. McLemore died after an operation in St. Vincent’s Hospital in April [28 May, actually] and the circumstances surrounding her death were similar to those in Mrs. Garrett’s case. But the grand jury did not go into the McLemore death further than to ask a few questions and the people of Mrs. McLemore are reluctant to push the matter.
The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 16 August 1929: p. 1
While Mr. Garrett seemed to be making no headway, Mrs. McLemore’s people filed suit.
St. Vincent’s Sued for Death Mrs. McLemore
Murder will out. A suit for $10,000 filed in the Law and Chancery Court of Norfolk, Va., against St. Vincent’s Hospital last Friday, by Mrs. Ernestine Cahoon of South Norfolk… confirms the bold guess made by this newspaper last June that Mrs. McLemore was the victim of a medical blunder in St. Vincent’s….Every effort was made to conceal the facts regarding the deaths of the two young women….” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1
Mrs. McLemore’s family shared gruesome details of the unfortunate woman’s agony. Still, the paper, who had made the case against the hospital, was not sanguine about the outcome:
“Nothing much will come of the suit against St. Vincent. St. Vincent’s is a semi-charitable hospital and enjoys a certain immunity in law. Cecil F. Garrett of this city started a suit against St. Vincent’s but made no progress.
Later Mr. Garrett sought redress from Dr. R.L. Payne, Norfolk surgeon who administered the fatal injection. How Dr. Payne evaded summons in this city and fled from town with the connivance of Dr. R.L. Kendrick and Dr. Howad J. Combs, of this city, has been told in this newspaper. It was learned later that attorneys for Dr. Payne and attorneys for Mr. Garrett were discussing a compromise.” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1
And there the grim story ends. I assume that “compromise” was reached in both cases; I could find nothing more about lawsuits or settlements.
The joke about doctors burying their mistakes apparently applied to embalmers as well. Surprisingly, in early 20th century Massachusetts “under the present law an undertaker can embalm while the person is alive or bury the person before death and he commits no crime.” The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla WA] 30 October 1906: p. 3
Was He Embalmed Alive?
[Special to the Evening World.]
Rutherford, N.J., Aug. 9. Relatives of Dr. Charles Howard, who was reported to have died July 31 from an overdose of chloral, are taking steps to have the body exhumed for an autopsy, as they claim now that the doctor was alive when embalmed and death was due to the embalming fluid. Undertaker Collins officiated at the burial. The Evening World [New York NY] 9 August 1890: p. 4
But grief sometimes overtook common sense.
Anderson, Ind., Oct. 5. The attention of county officers has been called to a strange case at Summittville. It is claimed that Ed Hunter, a glassworker, was embalmed alive last Friday. Thursday evening Hunter retired with a headache. At midnight he called his wife, but before she got to him he was unconscious. The doctor who was called said Hunter was dead. The wife was not satisfied. After the embalmers had left the body she took a small glass, and, placing it over the nostrils, observed that moisture, a sure sign of life, gathered on the surface. She is almost distracted. Daily News-Democrat [Huntington IN] 5 October 1899: p. 1
The professionals were swift to comment:
Physicians and undertakers say the story is absurd. That had Hunter been alive when embalmed with a quart of the fluid of arsenic and other stuff of deadly poison it would have been out of question about him breathing 18 hours after being embalmed. The undertaker says that the veins on the forehead are filled with air, the pump having been pumping air into the veins before the fluid had started and the air in the veins caused them to feel as though they were in a normal condition. The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 5 October 1899: p. 1
There is a peculiar detail in this next story of partial embalming—that the undertaker would begin the embalming process with “weeping friends” in the room.
OPENED HER EYES
When the Undertaker Began the Embalming Process
Wilkesbarre, Penn., December 5. Mrs. Sarah Ramanski, the wife of a baker residing at Duryea, was taken suddenly ill on Monday and grew worse until Wednesday, when she showed signs of death. Toward evening she appeared to sink into a state of collapse and apparently died. The neighbors dispatched a message after Undertaker Koons, who took charge of the remains. Mr. Koons proceeded to arrange the preliminaries, such as tacking the crape on the door, &c., He began to inject fluid into the body, when, to his horror, the supposed corpse opened her eyes and glanced around the room at the weeping friends as if at a loss to understand the meaning of the proceedings. While her astonishment was great, that of the assembled friends was still greater, and instantly the scene was changed from one of grief to gladness. A physician was summoned and in explanation he gave it as his opinion that the case was nothing more than one of suspended animation. The Cincinnati [OH} Enquirer 6 December 1895: p. 4
It was bad enough when unembalmed persons in cataleptic trances awoke in their coffins while being transported to the graveyard. It piles horror upon horror to imagine being in a trance, able to hear what was going on, as the undertaker draws near with his needle….
PARTIALLY EMBALMED WHILE ALIVE
A WOMAN REVIVES IN AN UNDERTAKER’S SHOP
East St. Louis (Ill.), January 14. Mrs. Christina Hirth awoke from a trance in the “dead-room” of the County Hospital today. Only by a slight motion of her eyelids was she able to make life manifest to the undertaker who was busy embalming her. This faint quiver was sufficient to throw a weight from her eye and thereby saved her from death by embalming fluid, or, escaping that, by premature burial.
Mrs. Hirth is 53 years old, and for three months has been suffering from a complication of ailments that have greatly weakened her. Last night it was expected that she would die, and her husband remained at her bedside all night. This morning she grew much weaker, and with a deep sigh seemingly expired.
The county undertaker was called, and the supposed corpse was taken to the “dead-room,” the body was laid out, washed, and partially bleached. Cloths saturated with bleaching fluid were placed over the face and body. The shroud and clothing in which she was to be buried were prepared.
While busy with his preparations to inject the embalming fluid, the undertaker was startled by a noise proceeding from the direction of the supposed corpse. He glanced hastily, but there was no motion in the white-sheeted figure. When he came to remove the sheet from the face, however, he noticed that one of the weights had fallen off. In replacing it he thought that he detected a quiver in the eyelids, but, attributing it to his imagination, went about preparing his instruments for the injection of the embalming fluid.
He was about to inject the fluid when again he noticed a quiver, and then, to be thoroughly satisfied, he applied the most powerful test of life known to undertakers. There was an unmistakable though faint indication of the life in the response. Assistance was summoned, the partially embalmed woman was removed to a bed and restoratives were applied by doctors. She was able after several hours to speak in a whisper and move her muscles, but weakness, caused by her illness and the terrible ordeal through which she had passed, told heavily upon her, and she could make no statement as to her experiences while in the trance. From signs it is supposed that she realized how near she was to being embalmed alive.
Her husband was thrown into a paroxysm of joy over the sudden restoration of his wife to life. Several of Mrs. Hirth’s women acquaintances believe that a miracle was performed, in answer to their prayers. Doctors are doubtful as to her ultimate recovery, though they say that she may take a turn for the better. New Zealand Herald, 24 February 1900: p. 2
If we merely took keyword frequency as an indication, we might think that being “embalmed alive” was a commonplace occurrence. But the phrase was sometimes used in the jocular sense of being drunk. And there are astonishingly large numbers of stories of people who died when mistaking embalming fluid for liquor.
Northumberland, Pa., Jan. 9. James B. Dieffenbach, secretary of the board of health and superintendent of the local water works, felt chilly and swallowed from a bottle which he thought contained whiskey. The fluid was embalming fluid or formaldehyde.
He entered a doctor’s office for relief from violent pains following the drink and soon died. Arkansas Democrat [Little Rock AK] 9 January 1909: p. 5
Undertaker’s Clerk Mistakes Deadly Fluid for Whiskey.
Paterson, N.J., Feb. 7. Mistaking a pint flask of embalming fluid for one containing whiskey, William J. Cantwell, night clerk in the undertaking establishment of Robert R. Nichols, drank enough to make “four fingers.” He was found dead in bed at 8 o’clock next morning by Nichols when he entered the rear room of his office.
The flask containing the embalming fluid stood in the cabinet alongside of one containing whiskey. Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 8 February 1911: p. 5
Finally—sometimes the choice was a deliberate one:
Says a New York dispatch: Michael Ferria, aged 24, died at St. Catherine’s hospital last night, having swallowed embalming fluid, which he obtained at an undertaking establishment in Brooklyn and drank with suicidal intent. He was discouraged, not having been able to secure work. He met a party of friends in front of the undertaker’s and went in and took a bottle which stood on a shelf and laughingly said that he would embalm himself before death. He succeeded. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 16 November 1892: p. 3
Other stories of death by embalming? I think I’ve just about reached my limit of grue….. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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.
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.
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
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.”