Making Her Father’s Grave: 1879

orphans decorating their fathers' graves
Decoration Day at Philadelphia: Orphans Decorating Their Fathers’ Graves in Glenwood Cemetery, 1870s

Making Her Father’s Grave

A Pathetic Scene Witnessed in an Ohio Cemetery

[From the Sandusky (O.) Register.]

A little girl with tangled locks, peeping from under a calico hood, clad in a dress of chintz, loitered behind us as the great dusty crowd moved out of the gates of Mount Adna the other day after they had scattered their flowers and done honor to the dead. Dreamily she gazed after them, her eyes filled with a far away look of tenderness, until the last one had disappeared and the rattle of the drums had died away. Then she turned and vaguely scanned the mounds that rose about her, clutching still tighter the fading bunch of dandelions and grass that her chubby hand held. An old man came by and gently patted her curly head as he spoke her name, but she only shrank back still further, and when he told a passing stranger that the little one’s father had died on shipboard and been buried at sea, there was only a tear drop in the child’s eye to tell that she heard or knew the story.

When they were gone she moved on further to a neglected, empty lot, and, kneeling down, she piled up a mound of earth, whispering as she patted it and smoothed it with her chubby hand: “This won’t be so awfully big as the others, I guess, but may be it will be big enough so that God will see it, and think that papa is buried here.” Carefully she trimmed the sides with the grass she plucked, murmuring on: “And may be it will grow so that it will be like the rest in two or three years, and then maybe papa will sometime come back and”–.

But she paused, as though it suddenly dawned upon her young mind that he rested beneath the waves, and the tear-drops that sprang to her eyes moistened the little bunch of dandelions that she planted among the grasses on the mound she had reared. When the sexton passed that way at night as he went to close the gates, he found the little one fast asleep, with her head pillowed on the mound.

Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 30 October 1879: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Victorian mourning was built around a fixed and ideal ritual: an edifying death-bed, preparing the loved one’s body for the grave, the funeral, and then the burial in a quiet, green cemetery beneath a headstone with a touching inscription, where the family could visit, plant flowers, weep, or picnic. Decoration Day was an important holiday for the bereaved. Graves were tidied and planted and the dead were remembered.

Those whose loved ones never returned: whose bodies were either not identified or were buried on a distant battlefield felt a sense of incompleteness beyond their personal loss: they had also been deprived of essential parts of the mourning ritual.

Mrs Daffodil knows of a person whose Great-Great-Great Grandfather was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. Family lore says that his head was shot off so that his body was never identified and was buried as an “Unknown” at the Chattanooga National Cemetery.  The man’s daughter never turned away a tramp, believing it might be her father come back.


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.

Bad Taste in Funeral Flowers: 1895-1914

1906 floral elk's head floral tribute
1906 Floral Tribute for a member of the Elks.

To-day, Mrs Daffodil (since she cannot exactly say that she is “pleased to welcome”) once again yields the floor to that funereal person over at Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard.  One supposes it is useless to suggest a change of climate, subject, or temperament to a writer so entrenched in the subfusc world of Victorian mourning, but Mrs Daffodil will gently note that a holiday in some sunny Mediterranean country might be cheering.  The author will address the history of grave concerns over grotesqueries in funeral flowers.


Flowers are an appropriate symbol for the excesses of the Victorian funeral. Newspapers documenting large funerals would note the details of these sometimes bizarre floral arrangements and their donors as if keeping score and setting a societal standard for the next bereaved family. The florists claimed that floral excess was a result of customer demand; the public, in turn, said that the pressure arose from over-zealous florists. There were also dark whispers about innocent flowers being tortured into strange and unnatural shapes.

Some trade journals made an effort to stem the tide of truly hideous design by publishing the damning details of floral tributes that they felt were beyond the pale. A Chicago correspondent to The Garden minced no words about current trends:

Floral Gargoyles.

 Here, in America, is the home of the grotesque as well as of the picturesque. Aristocracy and democracy jostle each other, and aristocracy gets the worst of it. We had a bad boiler explosion here lately, and among the emblems sent to a victim’s funeral was a floral clock set for the hour of the explosion! A theatrical treasurers’club sent a floral pass, ‘Admit one.’ Let us hope it was recognised. Gates ajar, open windows with plaster doves thereon, and tawdry wire frames showing through pillows of red and yellow flowers, all tend to vulgarise funerals, and to inspire the words ‘no flowers.’ When the city council is inaugurated, then are the florists busy. Gigantic keys, Indian clubs, desks, chairs, all are on hand, all of natural flowers distorted to suit perverted tastes. We need a renaissance in art to strike the florists here, and strike them hard. The Garden 1 June 1901: p. 385


Funeral “set pieces” generally fell into several categories: wreaths, pillows, and sprays—and, said the critics, monstrosities. Some of the latter had evocative titles and florist supply catalogues carried wire frames to create the more elaborate arrangements such as “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” (an anchor, cross, and heart) “The Sad Hour” (a floral clock); “The Broken Wheel,” “The Harp,” (or lyre) and “Gates Ajar,” an exceptionally popular design. Stuffed doves, often used to accessorize the “Gates Ajar” arrangements, could be purchased or leased.

"Gates Ajar" arrangement topped with a star.

For this next story of a client who desired a floral horse’s head with real glass eyes, I’m afraid I do not have an illustration. Perhaps these rather ghastly arrangements for deceased members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will give an idea of what the ultimate effect might have been.

A floral arrangement given by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks for a deceased member. 1906



A short time ago a certain prominent and popular business man of Cleveland died after a short illness. A day or two prior to his demise one of his business associates went into a florist’s establishment and made some inquiries concerning funeral flowers, and finally placed an order that to his mind embodied all the desirable attributes of such a piece of work. It was to be emblematic of the business in which the deceased had been engaged, and it had occurred to the would-be purchaser that nothing could better represent that idea, than a floral horse’s head! But being a far-seeing business man, accustomed to keeping his eagle eye on the dim and uncertain future, and knowing that such a novel and original design might present some difficulties to a florist when it came to working out the idea, he had thought it best to take time by the forelock and get things moving in good season! The unhappy florist dodged the issue as long as possible by suggesting that the man might get well, but without success. The businessman knew what he wanted and pretty nearly when he wanted it and so the florist had to go ahead with the monstrosity. It seems to me that for downright grim, ghastly, provident, cold-blooded unsentimentality this party is entitled to the pie foundry. But about the time that a sufficient quantity of black cloth had been laid in, and whilst the florist was racking his brain to obtain a life-like wire frame and fiery and spirited glass eyes to go with the same, the order was changed for something not quite so startling. Possibly the man of unique ideas was sat upon by his colleagues. The American Florist 8 June 1895: p. 1148

The employees of the Postum Cereal Company did not have far to look to find inspiration for a floral tribute for the company founder:

Floral tribute for Charles W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company.

Among the set pieces [at the funeral of Charles W. Post] none attracted more attention or expressed more sincere love than the floral piece given by the employes of the Postum Cereal Company. This is the piece we mentioned first, and which is shown here. The design was made to represent the little barn in which he first began making his food products in 1895. This little white building was carefully cherished by its late owner, and still stands in the beautiful grounds surrounding the Postum Cereal Company’s administration building and general offices at Battle Creek, and is always pointed out to visitors as the place where the business began. Doubtless many of our readers have visited the Postum plant and have seen this little building. The floral design was an especially difficult one to bring out because of the demands of perspective. The piece was made by S.W. Coggan, florist, Battle Creek. It measured 6x5x2 feet, and in its construction 2,285 flowers were used. The background was dark pink carnations; the barn proper white carnations. The outlines and roof were of forget-me-nots; the frame effect of American Beauties, adiantum and asparagus green. Corners of frame over roof, Easter lilies, lilies of the valley and pink Killarney roses. The piece bore the inscription, “From his Employes”

The American Florist, Vol. 42 23 May 1914: p. 936

This “bag-man’s” traveling valise was railed against in 1903, yet was still being included in the pages of funeral flower albums in 1914.


Freak Floral Designs

As an example of how not to do it, the accompanying illustration of a floral traveling bag may be worth a place. The design from which the photograph was taken was made by the Iowa Floral Co., Des Moines, for some local traveling men and gave great satisfaction. The body was of Enchantress carnations, the ribs on top and ends of Lawson, while the handle was of violets.

When an order of this kind comes along it has to be filled, but such freak things are in every way to be deprecated. They are a good deal of trouble to make and use a lot of stock lessening the retailers’ profit unless a very big price is paid. But as to anything pretty or artistic there is absolutely nothing in them. It is not even possible to see a good flower in the whole thing for the carnations are cut short and stemmed and packed just as thickly as possible together. It is devoid of all beauty and no retailers with a sense of the artistic or the uplifting of the trade at heart will encourage the making of such flat, ugly and unprofitable things. As hinted above retailers have not always the last word on such points but the making of this class of goods should be discouraged as far as possible. How much more satisfactory in every way would a pretty wreath or other design be than this, supposing the same amount of money was spent. This kind of “art” is best left to the candy makers and confectioners. It is unworthy the attention of florists.

The American Florist: A weekly journal for the trade, 23 January 1909: p. 1290

The demand for special funeral emblems applicable to the vocation of the deceased oftimes taxes the inventive genius of the florist, and some of the pieces suggested by the surviving friends frequently seem very ridiculous. A butcher in our vicinity, being in condition for a funeral, one of his intimate friends came to order a floral offering and insisted on its being in the form of a cleaver. It occurred to me that such an implement was hardly the proper thing. But no one could tell the road he went or the conditions he would encounter at the end of his route. Perhaps it was the very thing he would need.

A commercial traveler having been assigned a new territory, in the unknown world, I was asked to make a floral grip for his funeral ornamentation, by some of his friends. Did he die of the grip, I asked. Oh, no! but as his satchel was his constant companion, one said, we thought it would be a very appropriate emblem for this sad occasion. Alright, I replied, it shall be made, but will I fill it with light underwear, or do you think something heavier would be needed? Not knowing his destination, they failed to advise, so as a precaution, the man being an acquaintance of mine, I filled the grip with wet moss, which you know has a very cooling effect.

American Florist, Volume 21 1903

And how I wish I had a photograph of this postmaster’s novel floral tribute. Truly something for the dead-letter office!

A Novel Floral Design.

P.R. Quinlan & Co., Syracuse, N.Y., made a novel floral piece, the gift of the employes of the Syracuse post office in memory of Edwin H. Maynard, assistant postmaster. It was a 4-foot panel 24×42 inches containing a canceled envelope. The stamp was in pale colored Lawsons and the cancellation which bore the date of his death was in small blue chenille lettering. Upon the floral letter where the address is usually placed was the inscription, “To our beloved assistant postmaster.” The outline of the envelope was maroon carnations representing the envelope in mourning. The groundwork of the panel was Enchantress carnations trimmed with roses, lilies and swainsona. A.J.B.

The American Florist 30 June 1905: p. 1044

1914 seems to have been a particularly fertile year for bad taste in funeral flowers. Here are a few unusually elaborate specimens:



Fraternal orders, trade unions, and vocational groups often clubbed together to provide floral tributes with the appropriate theme.

his-last-alarm-fireman-funeral-flowersa design-for-master-house-painters-funeral-flowersa 174a-floral-chair-funeral-flowersa

I cannot read the lettering on the floral chair above–it looks as though someone draped foliage and moss over an actual swiveling office chair and wired on a stuffed dove. Possibly the writing says “Our Mayor?” or “Our Mary?”  Another in the “floral chair” genre was labeled “The Vacant Seat.”

Garish as these arrangements are, they pale by comparison with this last example, a floral tribute to a man whose life was cut short in a terrible accident.

Derrick funeral flowers.


In the collection of unique designs, the one shown in the illustration on page 11 is entitled to a place at the front. It represents a derrick in flowers made by Lester F. Benson, an Indianapolis florist, on the order of a committee representing the Structural Iron Workers of America, for one of their members who was killed as a result of his gauntlet catching on the hook as the engine started. The man was lifted thirty feet from the ground before his cry, “Slack down,” was heard, and before the order could be obeyed the glove slipped from his hand, resulting in a fall which broke his neck. The design was made sectionally, to work the same as a real derrick, and the committee insisted on the florist placing a glove on the hook!

Of course no florist maintains that such a design is in anything but the most execrable taste; such gruesomeness is an utter perversion of the idea which prompts the sending of flowers to a funeral. The flowers should carry a message of sympathy, and by their purity and beauty should speak of the life beyond, should contain no suggestion of mundane things, least of all a reference to the route of departure of “the late lamented.” The derrick design appears to be just one step removed from the limit. The man who wishes to accomplish the ultimate no doubt will make for a murder victim some such design as the following: Take two clothing-store wire dummies; fit them out with suits of flowers, instead of cloth; raise the arms of each, one figure leaning forward in the act of firing a flower pistol; bring the left hand of the other toward where a man’s heart is supposed to be, and the right hand to his uplifted head; lean this figure backward. Mount the two figures, in the relationship that will suggest itself, on a base of boxwood or galax and there will be nothing further that can be demanded of the florist, unless with such a design the widow fails to survive the shock.

For the florist who makes monstrosities in flowers it is to be said: Hardly any florist has so poor a conception of the uses of flowers that he suggests any such designs; the florist nearly always simply is carrying out the instructions he receives from his customers, and must either do this or see an order involving a goodly sum go to a competitor. Florists are like others—they are likely to do that which they are best paid for doing, but it is in line for every florist to do something toward turning customers to better things in flowers.

The Weekly Florists’ Review 20 April 1911: p. 10

So much for the customer always being right…

Still, one suspects that, despite the florists’ repeated and bitter condemnation of bad taste, there was money to be made by catering to the vulgar whims of the customer.

These set-piece shaped floral arrangements began falling out of favor around the time of the First World War when Victorian mourning conventions were thought to be less relevant in the face of so many deaths. Immense and garish floral tributes still had their place—at the funerals of gangsters and film stars, but by the mid-1920s they were considered thoroughly old-fashioned.  The only pieces I’ve seen recently which seem to carry on the tradition of shaped floral tributes are U.S. flag panels and floral rosaries designed to hang inside the casket lid.  I have not had the opportunity to ask any modern florists if they ever get requests for flower lyres or for  “Gates Ajar,” but in this Age of Individualism, I suspect that there are still orders for the unorthodox and highly personalized funeral arrangement, sans the stuffed doves.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to Mrs Woodyard for revealing these examples of vulgarity in funeral flowers, thus enabling us to avoid embarrassing faux pas at our own obsequies.

For more on funeral flowers, see these posts: “No Flowers” and Corsets and Beer Wagons: Floral Vulgarities, which also appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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

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

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

Pickled to Death

Old Croak embalming fluid
Pickled to Death   Joke bottle for Old Croak Kentucky Straight Embalming Fluid

While researching my recent post on the young woman labelled “embalmed alive” by the tabloids, I was stunned to discover a large corpus, as it were, of stories of people poisoned, not by having formalin or formaldehyde injected into their veins, but by ingesting embalming fluid in various ways, either by chance or by choice.

As we saw in the previous post on this subject, embalming fluid was frequently mistaken for something drinkable like whiskey or beer, or even plain water. I find this a bit baffling.  I admit I do not know how vintage embalming fluid smelled, but I would assume that there was enough of a smell to alert the drinker that it wasn’t whiskey.  But given the copious amounts of alcohol served to mourners at wakes, were there any alert drinkers? The overflowing cup of cheer (along with an apparent shortage of cups) lies behind many of these tales. “Dead drunk” was no mere figure of speech.


Mourners at a “Wake” Poisoned, One of Them Fatally.

Racine, Wis. Oc. 5. Special Telegram.

While attending an Irish wake last night James Payton, James Callahan and Mrs. George Diven were poisoned by drinking embalming fluid. During the night refreshments were served, and beer was poured into a tumbler which contained embalming fluid left by the undertaker. Payton is not expected to recover. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 6 October 1888: p. 9


Centralia, Wash., April. 2. William Maginniss’ wife died a few days ago. The undertaker neglected to remove from the house a bottle of embalming fluid. Last night Maginniss came home drunk. He mistook the fluid for liquor and drank it. Then he died. The Spokane [WA] Press 2 April 1908: p. 4

This story of a practical joke is both horrifying and puzzling.


Moran Drank Whiskey at the Wake and Was Not Poisoned.

Dr. A.J. Downey of 350 Union street, Brooklyn, this morning sent a certificate to Justice Tighe, in the Butler Street Police Court, stating that Patrick Moran, of 162 Walcott street, who, it was supposed, would die from the effects of drinking an embalming fluid for whiskey at a wake, was suffering from alcoholism.

Thomas Ryan and James White, who gave Moran a solution used to wash the face of the corpse as a joke, will now be released.

They had been held until the doctor could determine if Moran had been poisoned. The Evening World [New York NY] 5 October 1894: p. 1

Did the pranksters think they were actually giving Moran embalming fluid? Or did they just give him whiskey they claimed was the poisonous liquid?  If the former, what did they think was going to happen? If the latter, why the hell did he drink it?

Aside from mistaking it for whiskey and ingesting it from the lips of a corpse, there were a variety of ways to be poisoned by embalming fluid. Here are two of the more unusual:

Miss Emma Conrad, of Nevinsville, narrowly escaped death from poisoning. She is the daughter of the late Rev. Mr. Conrad. In preparing the body for burial the undertaker spilled embalming fluid on the carpet and bed clothing. When washing these articles Miss Conrad inhaled the poison in the steam arising from the tub. Estherville [IA] Daily News 2 May 1895: p. 2

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid

Iowa Falls, Oct. 10. Mrs. E.W. Stewart and Mrs. S.B. Couenhoven, two women living just west of this city, are suffering from a severe case of poisoning of the hands and they have been under medical care for several days in hopes of alleviating the suffering the poisoning entails. The accident occurred from the women washing their hands in some embalming fluid which the undertaker had left at the home of a neighbour where a death had just occurred and where the women were assisting at the time. Ottumwa [IA] Semi-weekly Courier 12 October 1899: p. 1

Even undertakers were not immune to its malign effects.


Undertaker Tom Hendricks of Kellerville was poisoned while embalming a corpse last Thursday, by puncturing his finger with the embalming needle. Thirty minutes after the wound was received the fingers began to tingle and the whole arm soon became numb. The pain was intense. He came to town and had temporary medical assistance and went on the evening train to Dr. Prince at Springfield. The doctor told Tom that he had about one chance in a hundred for life and that if swelling continued within thirty-six hours he would not survive. Fortunately the swelling was arrested. Tom has a very sore hand, but the feeling is returning in his arm and it is believed the effects of the poison are counteracted. The Decatur [IL] Herald 12 October 1895: p. 1

One of the most startling categories of formalde-cide was that of food or drink from a recycled embalming fluid keg or cask. Some of these were clearly marked as toxic. Apparently some people took “Name yer poison!” for guidance.

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid.

Saco, Me., October 20. Frank Wilds, of Union Falls, yesterday sold a cask of new cider to Winfield S. Dennett, of Saco. The latter’s son James, aged nineteen years, drank a third of a glass of the cider, Dennett took a teaspoonful and his wife tasted it. All of them were taken sick and the son died early this morning. Mrs. Dennett is very sick, but the physicians think she will recover. On the head of the cask was branded the word “poison.” The cask was purchased from a Biddeford undertaker and originally contained embalming fluid. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 21 October 1886: p. 1

A suit brought against undertaker Dennis O’Connor by the elder Mr. Dennett for $20,000 damages in causing the death of his son ended in a hung jury; I have not been able to find a final verdict from the retrial.  O’Connor used to sell liquor casks to a local cider maker; somehow an embalming fluid cask was included with one lot and it was this that was filled with cider and sold to Mr. Dennett. The testimony transcript describes O’Connor’s handling of the casks and it is easy to see how the jury might have had reasonable doubt about the case.

Beverages were not the only foods tainted by embalming fluid:

Poisoned by Embalmed Kraut.

At Downs the families of Willis DeLay and Orrin McAfferty were seriously poisoned. At dinner they partook of some sauerkraut which had been “put down” in a keg originally filled with embalming fluid. The Miami Republican [Paola KS] 26 December 1902: p. 1

Nineteenth- and early-20th-century health authorities frequently railed against death-dealing rogue ice-cream vendors.


Analysis by Health Officer Shows That Embalming Fluid Was Used as Preservative.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 18. More than fifty persons, the majority of whom are tourists in this city and Manitou, have been poisoned by eating ice-cream made by local dealers from a consignment of cream received on Sunday morning from one of the largest creameries and dairies in the State situated near Denver. Analysis by the health officers of Colorado Springs reveals the fact that the cream was charged with formaldehyde, better known as embalming fluid, to keep it from souring. No deaths have resulted, although several cases are critical.

The name of the company supplying this cream has not been made public. Health Officer Hanford of this city states that arrests will be made at once. The case promises to be sensational. The San Francisco [CA] Call 19 August 1903: p. 7

When the corpse was laid out at home, extra embalming fluid was sometimes left by the undertaker with directions to sponge the face or pour on exposed flesh. Undertakers and embalmers were often remarkably careless about retrieving or storing left-over supplies, to fatal effect.


Kansas City, Mo. Feb. 26 A special from St. Joseph, Mo. Says: A.J. Smith was buried today. During the absence of the family at the funeral, the 2 year old child of the dead man, found a bottle of embalming fluid, which the undertaker had used in preparing her father’s body for burial and drank a portion of it. The child died in great agony. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 27 February 1891: p. 1

Sadly, this was not a unique case.

Poisoned With Embalming Fluid.

Albany, N.Y., Sept. 5 While an eleven-year-old daughter of Byron Welch was carrying in her arms her infant sister, eleven months old, today, the little one cried for a drink of water. The girl picked up a bowl containing embalming fluid, which stood beside the corpse of another child of the family and allowed the babe to drink of the poisonous mixture. A physician was summoned but the child died soon afterward. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 5 September 1889: p. 1

There was a criminal lack of communication in this next story:

Poisoned on Embalming Fluid

Sabina, Ohio, December 11. Mrs. Nathan Pike died Sunday  night at the ripe old age of eighty-six. Her husband, who is a cripple and about her age, and a son, an old bachelor, composed the household. Mrs. Dunham and Mrs. Hallady, two married daughters living here, were with their mother’s corpse. There had been another death in town a few weeks ago, where the undertaker had taken a jug of embalming fluid, which he had not brought back to his office. The undertaker last evening sent a messenger to the place where the fluid had been left, and had him take it to Mr. Pikes. He carried it there, and said that here was a jugful of something that he had got at Mr. Plymire’s. The undertaker not being there the parties concluded it was hard cider that Mr. Plymire had sent them, the messenger having made no explanation of its contents. Being worn out on account of their attention to the wife and mother, they thought they would drink a little hard cider. Mr. Pike and the daughters took small quantities, but the son Dan enlarged on the quantity. The son had not more than drunk his down till the others began to vomit, and he followed in close pursuit. Doctors were soon present, examined the jug and were satisfied the fluid contained arsenic and corrosive sublimate. So they at once used the antidote for such poisons. It had the desired effect upon those who partook of it sparingly, and although Dan is in a critical condition the doctors think he will recover. Druggists are compelled to label all poisons, why not others who use them in their business? The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 December 1883: p. 7

And a certain lack of common sense in this one:


A Sensational Incident at a Wake in New York.

New York, August 1. Last night Rebecca Davis, 67 years old, was assisting at the ceremonies of “waking” the remains of a friend and neighbour who had just died. The ceremonies began early in the evening and as Rebecca endeavoured to assuage her grief and her thirst in the liquid refreshments incidental to the occasion, she gradually became exhilarated. The body was being taken charge of by a friend, who enjoys some reputation as an undertaker, and had just finished embalming the corpse preparatory to removal for burial in a distant part of the country. He carelessly left a bottle containing part of the embalming fluid on the mantelpiece. About 10 o’clock Rebecca’s glass was empty, and to join in a toast to the health of the survivors, she filled it from the first bottle that came handy. That bottle happened to be the one containing the left-over embalming liquid.

In a very short time afterward Rebecca was seized with such pains that she began to think that she was undergoing the tortures of purgatory herself, and her wails persuaded her companions to investigate. When the truth became known a policeman was called for assistance. He rang an alarm for an ambulance, which caused consternation in the neighbourhood by dashing up to the house of mourning at full speed. A surgeon and a stomach pump soon brought Rebecca around, but if she had not been under the influence of liquor at the time she certainly would have been embalmed alive from the inside, for the liquor she drank was a very powerful and penetrating preparation with poisonous ingredients. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 August 1888: p. 1

But embalming fluid in a champagne bottle takes the cake.


Thomas Karns Imbibed of Fluid Intended to Embalm His Father.

Ouray, Colo., Dec. 27. Closely following the sad death of Michael Karns, who was frozen to death, occurs the tragic death of his son, Thomas at 4 a.m. today.

The remains of the elder Karns arrived from Telluride for burial at this city and were at the house of his son, Thomas.

The undertaker had left some embalming fluid, composed of corrosive sublimate and arsenious acid in dilute alcohol at the house, and in the room with the corpse. The poison fluid was in a bottle labeled “Champagne,” and although the undertaker had warned the members of the household of the dangerous character of the fluid, Karns must have forgotten the warning or failed to have heard it.

The first the family and watchers knew that he had taken poison was the query from him as to “what that stuff was,” and then he said that he had taken two swallows of it and thought it was whisky.

That was 9 p.m. and both Drs. Rowan and Ashley were hurriedly summoned, but their efforts were without benefit to Karns, who died at 4 in the morning. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 27 December 1897: p. 1

This was a particularly egregious case with no appalling detail spared by the press:


Three Generations of Family Ate Sweets Saturated With Embalming Fluid

Tongues and Tonsils of Victims Eaten Out by Virulent Stuff Given Them While Attending Funeral of Twin Babies.

Special to the Philadelphia Times.

Altoona, December 29. As the result of eating candy, poisoned by embalming fluid four women of Blue Knob, Freedom township, Blair county, had their tongues and tonsil practically eaten out and are now lying in a critical condition from having swallowed some of the poison. They are:

Mrs. George J. Noffsker, 85 years old, and her daughter, Mrs. John Allison, and her granddaughters, Miss Rose and Miss Viola Ickes.

Christmas night the 3-months-old twin sons of Mrs. John Allison died. A country undertaker embalmed the bodies, using an extra strong fluid to preserve the bodies until Saturday. His assistant accidentally overturned the bottle on the board adjoining the sink in the kitchen and, dripping through the cracks, it saturated a pan of soft candy that had been placed underneath to cool. The fluid was mopped up, but it was not noticed that any had reached the candy.


Yesterday afternoon after the funeral the candy was passed among the mourners. Several noticed an odd taste and did not eat it. The four women each ate freely and shortly afterward were seized with terrible pains. Mrs. Noffsker and Viola Ickes were made unconscious.

When a physician arrived it was found the poison had burned great holes in the tongues and tonsils of the victims until they were practically eaten away. Mrs. Noffsker’s false teeth plate was disintegrated, the teeth falling out.

To-night all are under the influence of narcotics, made necessary by their terrible sufferings. It is not believed they can recover. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 30 December 1901: p. 4

The only victims’ grave I could find was that of Mrs. Viola Ickes, who apparently lived until 1934, albeit perhaps not in the best of spirits.


Sweetmeats Had Been Poisoned by Saturation With Embalming Fluid.

Altoona, Pa., Jan. 21. Mrs. Jacob Ickes, one of the women residing at Blue Knob, this county, who ate candy on Christmas day had had been saturated with embalming fluid through the carelessness of an undertaker, has gone crazy.

It is thought she is now incurably deranged. The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 22 January 1902: p. 1

Like Miss Aimée Thanatogenos,  the pretty cosmetician of The Loved One, some chose embalming fluid as the horrific agent of suicide.  These make for dire reading.


But Coroner Krause Says Almedia Bretz Swallowed Embalming Fluid


Pretty Seventeen-Year Old Girl Ended Her Life in Awful Agony Yesterday Morning.

Actuated by some unknown motive, Almedia Bretz, a pretty 17-year-old girl, 1420 North Fourth street, yesterday morning committed suicide by drinking embalming fluid. Although she protested to the end that she had not swallowed the poisonous stuff all the evidence seemed to contradict her statement and Coroner George C. Krause, after an investigation, decided it was a pure case of suicide.

The girl lived with her mother, Mrs. Kate Bretz, and her father lives in Steelton. She was employed at the Harrisburg Cigar Factory where she was known as an intelligent and industrious worker. She was unusually cheerful upon her return from work on Tuesday and spent the evening with some of the girls of the neighbourhood who are entirely at a loss as to what could have led her to take her life.

Became Ill Early in the Morning.

It was at 5 o’clock yesterday morning when the girl awakened her mother by her violet vomiting. As this ceased shortly nothing unusual was thought of the matter until 8 o’clock when the girl became sick again.

About this time the bottle of embalming fluid which an undertaker had forgotten was found in the girl’s room and a glass showed that some of the fluid had been taken by the sick girl. A month before the death of an infant son of John Bretz, a brother of Almedia, had occurred at the house and the undertaker had neglected to carry away a half-filled pint bottle of the fluid used in embalming.

Declared She Had Taken Nothing.

The mother accused her daughter of having taken the poison, but the girl denied this. “I took nothing,” she said, and she repeated this time and again in her agony prior to death. She remained conscious to the end and the last words on her lips were: “Mother, I didn’t take any poison.”

When it was seen that the case was a most serious one neighbors were summoned and medical aid was telephoned for, but by the time a physician arrived the girl was dead. This was about 9 o’clock.

Coroner Krause was sent for and an hour later held an investigation. He determined that an inquest was unnecessary and that all the indications pointed to suicide.

No Post-Mortem Examination.

No post-mortem examination will be made and it was learned last night that the bottle of embalming fluid and its contents had been destroyed by the family.

The mother last evening went to Steelton to see her husband and arrangements for the funeral will be made this morning. Patriot [Harrisburg PA] 24 March 1904: p. 5

Perhaps I wrong the young woman, but judging from the lack of a post mortem examination, her denials in extremis, and the fact that the family destroyed the incriminating fluid, I wonder if she thought she was taking something herbal and harmless to “bring on a miscarriage”?

This unfortunate lady managed to drink an entire half pint of the noxious liquid, while her undertaker husband tried to hush things up. Where, I wonder, did he get that certificate of death?


Mrs. Ann Benson, wife of James Benson, an undertaker whose place of business is at No. 850 Fulton street, Brooklyn, committed suicide yesterday morning by swallowing embalming fluid.
The case was first brought to the attention of the authorities in the afternoon, when Benson presented a certificate of her death and requested Deputy Health Commissioner Young to keep the matter quiet, as he did not desire publicity. Dr. Young, however, referred the undertaker to Coroner Rooney.

From the statement of the husband it appears that he was attending to his duties as sexton at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday night, when he first heard that his wife was ill. After seeing her he discovered that she had taken poison. Dr. Thompson, the family physician, tried in vain for several hours to save her life.

On the floor of the shop, where the woman was found, was a pint bottle containing embalming fluid, a deadly poison, composed of chloride of zinc. About one-half of the contents of the bottle had been swallowed by Mrs. Benson. She had been subject to fits of melancholy. New York [NY] Herald 30 January 1890: p. 8

This boy’s best friend was not his mother.

Drank Embalming Fluid.

Kansas City, Nov. 4. An unusual suicide occurred here yesterday when Allen M. Bishop, an undertaker, aged 29, poisoned himself by drinking embalming fluid. Bishop had been despondent for some time, owing to the fact that his mother, with whom he had quarreled on numerous occasions, followed him about the city from place to place demanding that he give her all of his wages. Suicides among undertakers are so uncommon that no Kansas City undertaker ever heard of one. Cassville [MS] Republican 11 November 1897: p. 6

And finally, this article’s biased language about a “nervous” woman undertaker is particularly heartless.


Nervous Woman Undertaker at Last Succeeds in Suicide.

Siegfried, Pa., May 25. Mrs. Katie Keck, an undertaker, 43 years old, succeeded in committing suicide, this being her third attempt. A week ago she took an overdose of carbolic acid and was saved, and on Saturday slashed her wrists with a knife.

This time, when her exhausted nurse was taking a nap, Mrs. Keck managed to get embalming fluid, of which she swallowed about a pint, and death ensued in four minutes.

Mrs. Keck succeeded to the undertaking business established by her husband, on his death two years ago. It was at first thought she had become melancholy over financial difficulties, but the examination of her accounts shows that the business was very prosperous. It is thought “the business got on her nerves.” Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 25 May 1910: p. 7

As recently as 1982 “moonshiners” were using embalming fluid in their product to give it “bite.” It runs in my mind that the stuff was/is sprinkled on tobacco (or was it marijuana?) to give an extra buzz. And, of course, we still tell the urban legend of the girl at the prom poisoned by a dress from a corpse. But have there been any recent embalming fluid poisonings?

Have the coroner seal the bottle and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT

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

Mourning the Dandy Dog: 1896

a stone in the dog cemetery 1905

We have previously read of the luxuries lavished on the “dandy dogs” by their masters and mistresses. Yet, in spite of the finest food and drink and the best medical care, these beloved pets, like all of us, “must come to dust.” As we come to the end of “National Pet Week,” we continue the dandy dog narrative as found in The Strand.


And yet, with all this, dandy dogs die like their humbler brethren – probably much sooner. Then comes the funeral, with its flowers, carriages, and marble monuments. I am not jesting. An illustrated article has already appeared in THE STRAND MAGAZINE on the Dogs’ Cemetery, situated, appropriately, in Hyde Park. Mr. Rotherham, the canine specialist, has an extensive burying-ground of the same kind on his property at Neasden.

Mr. Kenyon, the gentle, sympathetic undertaker of Edgware Road, tells me he was sent for in hot haste one Saturday afternoon. He was out at the time, but he called on the Sunday – thinking, of course, that he was required to take an order for the burial of an ordinary Christian. It was not so. The deceased was a pet dog that had met with a tragic death in the street beneath a coal cart. The lady tearfully explained that she wanted the body embalmed, and then placed in a glass coffin, so that she could have poor dear “Friskie” with her all days—even to the consummation of her own; the two would then be interred together. Mr. Kenyon thought this might be magnificent, but it was not business; so he declined the commission.

Mr. Rotherham knows of dozens of cases in which toy dogs have had costly funerals. Pets that die in town are usually buried at the country seat of the family. In this surgeon’s canine cemetery lies one dog that was brought from France. But here is a poetic funeral card that speaks for itself; note that it contains hopeful hints of a canine hereafter – “another place,” as they say in Parliament.

But listen to Mr. Rotherham’s record case. “A year or two ago I was called to the Grosvenor Hotel to see a dog. When I entered the room I saw a young man stretched on the hearth-rug. I thought I had been called to see him ; but I found I was mistaken. The dog was dead, the circumstances being these: The gentleman had occasion to go out, so he shut his dog in the sitting-room. The dog pro tested strongly in his absence – mainly by disfiguring the door, and driving several other visitors nearly crazy with continuous howls. When the master returned, the hotel people complained, whereupon the young gentleman proceeded to chastise his demonstrative pet – which chastisement took the form of a running kick that ended the dog’s days.

“The remorseful man’s reparation resolved itself into a gorgeous funeral. There was a purple velvet pall, two broughams (one for the coffin and one for the mourners), and three guineas’ worth of flowers—chiefly lilies of the valley. A leaden shell was made and inclosed in a polished mahogany coffin, with silver fittings and name-plate. A touch of romance was given to this unique function when, just as the leaden shell was about to be sealed up, the impetuous young fellow was seen to put in with the dog’s remains a packet of letters and a gold locket containing hair. I imagine the dog must have belonged to the chief mourner’s deceased lady-love.”

This funeral, Mr. Rotherham assures me, cost £30 or £40; and the funniest thing about it was that the surgeon himself was requested to “follow.” He consented to do this, and was forthwith provided with a white silk sash and a satin rosette. Another very interesting dog’s funeral was one carried out by a London undertaker, although the remains were to be interred in the tomb of the sorrowing master’s ancestors in Sicily. The dog’s body was, of course, embalmed ; and the headstone was sent with it.

dog's funeral card strand

A typical dog’s funeral-card is reproduced here. “Monkey” was a quaint little Yorkshire; and his mistress — an enormously rich woman, and a great believer in Sir Henry Thompson – had his remains cremated. “Monkey’s” cinerary urn, shown in the accompanying photograph, probably represents the very highest pinnacle of (deceased) Dandy Dog-dom. It cost six hundred guineas, being in the form of a solid tortoise-shell sedan chair, enameled all over the front and sides in the most costly manner, and inlaid with brilliants, rubies, emeralds, and pearls; the extremities of the handles are simply incrusted with jewels.

dog's Monkey cinerary urn, cost 600 Guineas

Inside is a gold-mounted crystal jar, with a monogram in diamonds; this contains the ashes. It is surmounted by a skull. The name of the departed pet is perpetuated by the monkey seen on top of the casket; and in his paw he holds a fine pearl. This casket was made by Messrs. A. Barrett and Sons, of 63 and 64, Piccadilly; of course, it was an exceptional order, but Mr. H. Barrett tells me that the firm ordinarily make cinerary urns, ranging in price from £10 to £250, for holding the ashes of cremated pet dogs.

In conclusion it may be said that pet dogs are treated by their mistresses almost precisely as though they were human members of the family; the only discrepancy in the analogy being that it is horribly bad form for a lady to drive in the park with her baby by her side, while the presence of a pompous pug or a toy terrier is irreproachably correct.

The Strand Magazine 1896

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Despite the sorrowful sentiments expressed, Mrs Daffodil finds “Monkey’s” cinerary urn arrangement to be both absurdly costly and macabre. Expensive funerals for beloved pets were frequently featured in the press. Dogs were thus honoured.

Fine Funeral of a Pet Pug.

Paris is laughing over the extravagant funeral of the pet dog of an American family residing in the gay capital. The body was placed in two caskets, one of oak, the other leaden, conveyed in a hearse covered with flowers to Vaucresson, and there buried. A number of mourners in carriages followed the hearse to the cemetery, and a monument costing $300 was erected over the grave, the total expenditure for the funeral amounting to over $500.  Edgefield [SC] Advertiser 20 February 1895: p. 1

So were cats.

Funeral for Cat

With more pomp and ceremony, perhaps, than ever marked the obsequies of any animal buried in New Haven, Conn., the pet cat of Mrs. William Gay, a wealthy woman, was recently interred. Laid out in a pink silk-lined coffin, with catnip spread around the remains, a big pink silk bow at his throat and fastened to the collar with silver bells, Sonny was buried I a grave dug in the garden by the janitor of the apartment house. Mr. and Mrs. Gay, who believe their pet was poisoned by some one  in the neighborhood, attended the ceremony.

In life Sonny was cared for like a baby, being given the best of food and sleeping in a little bed, snugly tucked in between specially made sheets, with blankest of the same size and with downy pillows for his head. Given a bath and combed every evening by Mrs. Gay, his shiny fur was soft as down. The Silver Messenger [Challis ID] 20 January 1903: p. 6

girl with dead canary Greuze
Girl with Dead Canary, Greuze

And even canaries:

Shoddy made a pretty good exhibition of itself in Philadelphia this week at the funeral of a pet canary. The coffin was of walnut, mounted with silver handles, and screw-heads, and upon it was a cross of white flowers with the inscription in rose-letters, “We mourn thee.” The little boy who was to read the funeral service broke down at the moment he was encouraging his hearers to bear their loss with fortitude, and the other children joined in his sobs. Even older people, who had drawn to the scene by curiosity, were affected. Next Sunday they will put up marble grave-stones with an appropriate inscription, over the resting place. The coffin cost $10, the flowers $6, and the gravestones cannot be had short of $10. The Buffalo [NY] Commercial 4 May 1878: p. 2

Mimi Matthews, the author of The Pug That Bit Napoleon has written this excellent piece on dog funerals in the late Victorian era.

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 Soldier’s Mother: 1864


In 1864, notice was given that a boat-load of prisoners from Andersonville would be exchanged, and that they would be landed at Annapolis, Md.  Men and women came from every part of the United States, each with the hope of meeting a friend whom they knew to be confined at Andersonville. Of course, among such a large number there could not be more than one in a hundred that could find the friend they came after. When the boat came up to the wharf there was a great crowd to welcome the forlorn creatures, and to inquire after others who did not come.

Among the expectants was the mother of a soldier in the twelfth Connecticut regiment, who rushed on board the boat, asking every soldier she saw, for her boy. From deck to cabin, in the cots and among the barrels she searched for him; but he was not there, and no one had heard of him. She had brought a cap, a shirt and a pair of pants, that he might have a clean change, and with these across her arm she wandered among the crowd saying, in a half-inquiring, vacant tone, “He has not come; he has not come.”

For a year after she went regularly to the wharf at sunrise from her lodgings, which nobody could find, and gazed for an hour down the bay, and murmuring, “He has not come,” would go to the post surgeon with the same cap, shirt and pants, and ask why her boy had not come. They shut the door in her face, and she wandered down to the wharf and was found the next morning stiff and cold, sitting upright behind some old barrels on the wharf, with her glassy eyes still gazing down the bay toward the point where steamers first came in sight.

“He had not come to her

But she had gone to him.”

Jamestown [NY] Journal 15 October 1869: p. 2



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.

May Queen Crowned in Coffin

May Queen Crowned in Coffin Stereocard showing The May Queen in Tennyson's poem on her death-bed
May Queen Crowned in Coffin Stereocard showing The May Queen in Tennyson’s poem on her death-bed

You didn’t really think that I could let a beautiful, uplifting spring frolic like May Day pass without relating it to something grim n’ grewsome, did you?


Frock Made for Celebration of Tuesday is Her Shroud and Crown a Wreath in Memory.

Miss Isabel Porter, eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Porter, of Biltmore, died yesterday morning at 9 o’clock at her home, the old Cheesborough place, on the Swannanoa river.

The circumstances surrounding the little girl’s death make it one of particular sadness. Tennyson’s lines, “The May Queen,” are applicable, for sweet-faced, popular Isabel Porter had been chosen from her schoolmates for “Queen” at the May Day celebration to be given by the pupils of the Biltmore Parish school on next Tuesday, and now, by the death angel’s visit, her funeral will take place on today, May Day. As the chosen queen in Tennyson’s poem, she died before the honor bestowed by her schoolmates could be completed by the crowning.

Miss Porter had been ill for a week or two with pneumonia, but until a few days ago it was thought she would recover sufficiently to take her place at the May pole, when the festivities should take place. During the last few days and nights her mind had wandered constantly to the May Day celebration and she talked of the dress in which she was to be crowned and of her mates and teachers and their preparation for the celebration.

The funeral will take place this afternoon from the late residence. The honors of the May Queen will be given her by a large coterie of her school mates. The dainty white frock she was to have danced in as Queen is a burial robe and the fingers of her little friends have woven a crown of flowers that will rest upon her head just as it would have crowned her in the glad celebration.

Rev. Mr. Crutchfield will have charge of the ceremony.

The May Day celebration will be held on Tuesday, because of circumstances which make it almost impossible to postpone it, but out of the love for the dead queen and respect for her memory, the part of the celebration pertaining to the queen, will be omitted.

Asheville [NC] Citizen-Times 1 May 1904: p. 8

It is a pity that Dickens died in 1870. What a death-bed he could have conjured from this poignant story….

The ritual of crowning the May Queen has been said to go back to the Middle Ages (earlier, if you believe James George “Golden Bough” Frazer.) The folk-holiday continues in England and Canada. I remember it being a religious holiday at Catholic schools, where a statue of the Virgin Mary would be crowned with a wreath of flowers.

This parody is based on the old chestnut, “The May Queen,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which was quoted in the press and recited ad nauseam in drawing-rooms until one wanted to scream. The anonymous Punch contributor has captured perfectly the thumpety-bumpety scansion of the original, which ill-accords with the lingering death-bed and morally uplifting sentiments found in the last two sections of the poem.

It was something of a joke that May-day weather in England was always inclement. In 1876 and 1877, records show that the day was either snowy or very wet.  It was no wonder that May Queens died from chills, consumption, or pneumonia. Mrs Daffodil has previously posted an amusing cartoon sequence on the Ideal vs. the Actual May-Day, dating from 1878, when the weather continued perfectly foul.

Other tragic May Queens? chriswoodyard8 AT

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