The Death Angel takes many forms: the hooded Grim Reaper, the Radiant Boy, fairy-like cherubs, the bloody-handed Banshee, or, in today’s case, a dazzling Woman in White.
[This piece comes from an interview of medium Mrs. Ellen Green, in a column called “The Mysteries of Mediumship” by “Our Special Representative” in the Spiritualist journal Light.]
A short time since I gave an account of a chat with Mrs. Stansfield, a bright little medium from the North, enjoying much honour in her own country, and commanding it in London immediately her remarkable gifts became known. Mrs. Green, of Heywood, is another Lancashire medium, or Lancashire witch if you will have it so, who, in many respects, compares with Mrs. Stansfield, of Oldham. She is a pleasant mannered, pleasant spoken little woman, very quiet and very retiring, with the accent of her native county just enough marked to agreeably flavour her talk.
[The narrator asks about how she became a medium.]
“Was there mediumship in the family”
‘My mother had the gift of second sight strongly developed, and could often foretell a death or a striking event. I myself can always feel when anybody related or dear to me is going to pass over. The first time I saw the Death Angel—’
‘The Death Angel! Surely now, I thought that dread personage was an altogether imaginary character.’
‘I have the same vision in each case, and I have come to call the spirit the Death Angel. I have never heard of anybody else seeing it. I was about sixteen at the time, and my mother and I were alone in the world. She was ill; and whilst I was at work in the factory where I was employed I heard my name, “Ellen,” repeated three times very distinctly. Fearing something wrong, I obtained permission to go home, and on the way, while passing through a large yard connected with the factory, I saw in front a form of dazzling white. There were no features distinguishable, but the form was that of a woman, clothed in a white robe of indescribable beauty. I put out my hand, a cold shudder went through me, and she melted away like snow under the sun. Hastening home, I found my mother unconscious; and when she came to herself I told her what I had witnessed. “My child,” she said, “I shall never get well. You have seen the spirit I always see when one I know is about to die.” And a day or two later she passed over. I have seen the Death Angel several times since, but only in the case of relatives or friends for whom I have a strong feeling of affection.’
Light 3 August 1895: p. 368
This is a softer, gentler, friends-and-family version of the Reaper, as opposed to the terrifying hooded Things found here and the bureaucratic Messenger of Death found here.
Intriguingly, in the same interview, Mrs Green confesses that she is afraid of spirits.
Spirit people I have seen as long as I can remember. As a child I used to play with spirit children, and not dream that they were different in any way from other children.’ “I suppose you were not long in discovering the difference ” ‘Longer than you might think. It was all so natural; and it did not occur to me that my little playmates were not visible to everybody as they were to me. When I knew they were not of earth, my feelings changed.” ‘How do you mean?’ ‘I don’t know whether it should be said, lest I be misunderstood, but I am afraid of spirits—afraid, that is, for them to come near me.’ ‘That is rather singular, is it not, when, as I gather is the case, you are on such intimate terms with the other world, and find its beings so natural in appearance and character?’
‘Yes, particularly as they are so natural that I often fail immediately to distinguish them from persons who have not passed over. I can’t explain the feeling, but it is very strongly implanted in me. I never attempt to speak to them, and if one comes near me I shrink away or even cry out. One of the photographs in Mr. Glendinning’s book, “The Veil Lifted,” is of me with a spirit form by my side. The spirit was necessarily quite close to me, and the peculiar expression of my features, and the attitude of shrinking away from the form were due to my uncomfortable sense of its proximity.’
Mrs Green does, indeed, look dubious in the photograph.
To be Relentlessly Informative, the hand in the lower right hand corner of this photograph somehow suggests an air pump; inflatable “spirits” were a useful prop in the séance room—easily hidden, then inflated and deflated, they were perfect for materializations and dematerializations.
I’ve included a chapter on Victorian personifications of Death in The Victorian Book of the Dead. They are fascinatingly rare in nineteenth-century non-fiction, especially considering the cultural focus on death and mourning.
Other Death Angels or Grim Reapers? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
The Latest Alleged Absurdity in Grief for Lamenting Widow
“Come upstairs until I show you my room. It has all been done over in the neatest fashion, and is too sweet for anything,” said a fashionable widow to our sweet girl reporter.
The handsome leader of fashion, who had been widowed for a year or so, led the way to a large room on the second floor.
The door was thrown open and the reporter took one glimpse and then started back. The place at first sight looked like the inside of a hearse.
“It’s the latest English don’t you know, and so in keeping with my crape gown. I did not like it at first, but I do not believe I could sleep in colors again.” The room was furnished with a handsome suite of white enamel and the bedspread and the pillowshams were of black satin merveilleux, embroidered in black velvet applique with silver thread, the monogram of the widow being worked in silver on the centre of both spread and shams. The toilet table and little escritoire were draped in the same manner, and at the windows were thin curtains of black liberty silk against white lace.
“Look here,” said the pretty widow, and she threw back the bed covers, displaying sheets of black silk hemstitched in white, and black silk slips on the pillows.
“I dress in black from top to toe,” she continued. “I wear black silk underclothes, black satin corsets, and a black silk petticoat, and I even have my gowns lined with black. My friends tell me they would sleep as comfortable in a coffin as in my bed, but I find it a delightful resting place.
“And do you know” she continued, “a friend, who has just been made a widow, is having a room fitted like mine, only with black jet monograms. A great many English women who are not in mourning have black rooms, and that is where I got my idea.”
Then she led the way into the boudoir all furnished in vivid yellow, even to the two canaries that piped in their golden cages.
“Yellow is the next color to black you know,” she explained. “And then my husband was a Baltimorean, and I have the oriole colors, black and yellow, too, you see.” The Upholsterer
St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 May 1889: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was an old French custom that a widowed Queen must be isolated for 40 days in a black-draped chambre de deuil. This was to ensure the paternity of any heirs-to-be, a notion which Mrs Daffodil finds laughably optimistic considering the notoriously lax morals of the French court. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the lady in the account above—whose emphasis seems to lie on the “departed” portion of “The Dearly Departed”—was thinking more of how the black silk sheets and black satin corsets enhanced her milky complexion than of her loss.
Whether it be the weeds of woe dictated by the heart’s agony over the loss of a beloved one, or the conventional mourning imposed by state or custom, the sartorial symbols of grief vary with times, places and people. Only in deepest, most lusterless black have we Americans of the nineteenth century been able to show to the world how great was the loss imposed upon us by the death of those dear to us.
Since the twentieth century came in there has been a noticeable tendency toward the lightening of the outward gloom, the sign of our inward grief. An increasing number of persons have protested against donning prescribed mourning, and a still larger number, while adhering in the main to the old order, have modified it so as to make their mourning less oppressive to the wearer and to all beholders.
That black clothes are not the only means of expressing sorrow of the dead is evident if we take into consideration the mourning colors prevailing in other lands and in other times. White is the official mourning of China, as impressive and less depressing than our black. Violet, which we recognize as a minor degree of mourning, is deep mourning in Turkey. Shades of yellow, merging into brown, have expressed the sorrow for loss of life in several eastern countries, including Egypt and Persia. Blue and scarlet have also had sanction as mourning colors in the past.
So, intrinsically, the hue of the garb has no significance other than convention gives. If one has courage one may refuse to accept the dictum of convention. When it was announced recently that Mrs. Madeline Force Astor, the youthful widow of John Jacob Astor, would wear white instead of black, a sigh of relief went up from many who shrink from the somber robes and suffer from their discomforts in warm weather. If one of such social standing could so break with conventions others would surely follow her example. The announcement did not mean that Mrs. Astor would not wear any black during her period of mourning. On ceremonial occasions she will doubtless conform to the prevailing custom and wear black to escape being conspicuous, but she will have a supply of white gowns, hats and accessories which will be easily distinguishable form white wear which is not mourning. All of the white garments worn by her will be guiltless of sheen or luster. Flowers and lace are taboo; white crepe and all kinds of dull, soft white materials ware employed….
This summer more white appears in mourning outfits than has been seen for a long time. Most of it is intended, of course, for young girls and for persons who have completed the regulation period of “deep mourning.” What that period is depends upon adherence to the rules made by the combined opinions of milliners, modistes and public, especially that part of it that we call “society.” It is only slowly that the two years formerly religiously required of a widow for the wearing of crepe veil and all black outfit is being modified. Sticklers for etiquette still adhere to this rule. Greater elasticity in mourning apparel is allowed to other bereaved persons. A mother, a daughter, a sister may shorten the period of her mourning and modify its lugubrious character with less reproach. Relatives of more remote degree are no longer compelled by censorious opinion to wear black unless their inclinations or interests dictate it….
Nothing is considered by the milliners real mourning except the heavy English crepe, although the dull silk nun’s veiling is preferred by many persons, not only because it is less expensive, but because they shrink from the feeling of crape. When the widow’s deep mourning is laid aside, Brussels or other net with a crepe border is substituted. This is also worn as first mourning by those of a lesser degree of kinship to the deceased.
White in mourning millinery makes its appearance in the becoming “widow’s cap.” Next it is found as the facing of the all black hat, which, by the way, is very popular this season. Then there are the lighter combinations of black and white; the white hat (dead white, it must be) with dull black roses or other flowers which may be worn with black or white gown; the dull black straw with trimming of white crepe or tulle and perhaps some such feather as the marabout, and the all-white hat to be worn with white frocks, especially by the young girl. These white hats are trimmed sometimes with a band and bow of white crepe or with French crepe, which, of course, expresses a less degree of mourning than the regular English crepe. Sometimes French crepe and lusterless white wings are used on a young girl’s hat.
White mourning veils are usually made of net with a white crepe order, the length of the veil and the width of the border indicating the period of mourning. Bands of white crepe on dull finished white gowns are correspondingly graduated….
White mourning gowns may be of any material that does not have a sheen, and they should always be guiltless of lace, embroidery or any sort of decorative garniture. Tucks, pleats and folds are the proper trimming. Inserts of net are also permissible. A handsome mourning costume of dull silk had the yoke made of a small figured net having almost the effect of crepe, but not so heavy. Bands of this net were also inserted in the skirt. The long coat to be worn with this gown was made of the same kind of silk, with folds, binding and buttons of the same.
Another gown was of the new dull finish Alaska satin trimmed with broad bands of white crape.
The various nets make very pretty summer gowns alone or in combination with thin silks or muslins. The tucks are varied in width and grouping to relieve the plain effect caused by lack of other trimming.
The white mourning accessories are shown in an attractive variety. For the deeper mourning white crape is used with good effect for neck and sleeve bands or for deep flat collars. In combination with tulle, French crepe, lawn and other thin white fabrics, it has a wider range of usefulness. These are used, too, without the crepe for mourning that is past its deepest stages, and are accounted proper mourning as long as they are made with a deep hem as a finish and with no more decoration than pleats or tucks afford.
White mourning parasols are made of lusterless silk, plain or with tucks, and have dull finished white handles.
The San Francisco [CA] Call 7 July 1912: p. 32
The fad for wearing white mourning received a decided impetus when Mrs. John Jacob Astor, whose husband was lost on the Titanic, donned it as an expression of her widowhood. Many women who already had a positive dislike to black mourning, followed her example, but the fact remains that black is more in consonance with the feelings of those in grief, while white mourning is passe at the present time and can be procured only with difficulty on special order.
Nevertheless, for certain climates and seasons, white mourning, when worn with white hats and costumes, is not only beautiful and suitable, but eminently smart. In California, or Florida, it may be worn appropriately by a young widow or young girl throughout the year.
White English crape is now made in the same perfection by Courtauld as the black, a secret process which that firm has not divulged for more than 100 years.
Very few white veils are made entirely of this white crape, but it is used as a border—one and one-half inch wide—on veils of white shadow mesh or craquele or filet, or hexagonal mesh, or Georgette crepe, or white Brussels net, and makes charming borders on white costumes, and on collars of white chiffon or Georgette crepe. Face-veils made of any sort of quiet-patterned mesh veiling, without figures, and bordered on one side and the two ends, is stylish and proper, when applied to an all-white hat and worn with an all-white costume. No flowers, not even white ones, are permissible, and no jewelry except a strand of pearls. White shoes or spats, stockings, handbag, gloves, handkerchief are absolutely de rigueur, if white mourning be attempted at all.
Millinery Trade Review, Volume 42, 1917
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “White mourning,” only truly came into favour in the early 1910s. As noted, the young Mrs John Jacob Astor, who was only 19 when widowed in the Titanic disaster, set the trend. However, only about a decade earlier, the style was regarded with suspicion.
All-white crepe is now advocated by a New York fashion writers for widows during the summer. She says: “For a summer outfit for a young widow gowns trimmed with white crape, made of white crape, hat with a long white crape veil, a white crape parasol and everything to match, is immensely smart, and, be it added, very becoming.” Imagine such a thing! The uninitiated would surely wonder what a woman so attired was trying to impersonate. She would seem a cross between a bride, wandering about without her bridegroom, and a tragic actress doing Lady Macbeth off the stage.
The aforementioned New York writer of fashions must be possessed of a sense of humor which is, in vulgar parlance, “a dandy.”
There are widows to-day who do not wear mourning as is mourning at all, but at least they do not make themselves conspicuous in a bizarre costume like that described.
The white mourning costume is never likely to be popular until women lose their ideas of appropriateness altogether.
Charlotte [NC] Observer 1 July 1903: p. 7
“White mourning,” was known as the prerogative of royalty: the so-called deuil blanc, which we note in some portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots. A more recent manifestation of white mourning was the spectacular “White Wardrobe” created by Norman Hartnell in 1938 for her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whose mother died just before a state visit to France. And at the 2004 funeral of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, her daughters all wore white mourning.
A curious ruse de guerre, which is said to have been actually perpetrated in the fashionable world not long since, is recorded by a writer in the Tribune.
It seems that a certain business man found it suddenly necessary to curtail his very large family expenses, and, at the same time, he was particularly anxious, for financial reasons, that there should be no appearance of retrenchment. Unfortunately, it so happened that his wife had just issued invitations for a large and expensive ball, to be followed by a series of dinners; moreover, she had a younger daughter to bring out. The head of the house groaned in spirit as he mentally calculated the cost of a winter’s round of gayety for his womankind. His wife, however, was a woman of resource; on being made acquainted with his dilemma, she promptly rose to the occasion. “I tell you what we will do,” she exclaimed; “we will go into mourning.”
“Into what?” gasped her astonished husband.
“Mourning, I said.” continued his spouse, complacently; “I think it is the only thing we can do; as my people are Western, we can easily manage it, and no one will be the wiser. I will send out cards and countermand my invitations. I will buy a black gown, and the girls shall wear black and white all winter and go only to the smallest entertainments, and. I daresay, they will have a much better time than when struggling for partners at the big balls. As for me, I shall enjoy it beyond everything.”
Now, after all, it is only a fib that harms nobody and does us a lot of good,” concluded this fin-de-siecle dame, who successfully carried her point, put her family into mourning, and withdrew gracefully from society and its requirements for the time being.
The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 23 January 1893
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is on her feet applauding the sturdy (and uncommon) common-sense of this resourceful help-meet. Society was a demanding mistress: rounds of calls, the proper clothes, balls and banquets, an army of servants, several residences in the correct neighbourhoods, trips to fashionable watering-places, &c., &c., &c. One wonders how many people used the same device when their domestic coffers ran low?
See the “Mourning” category for Mrs Daffodil’s other posts on mourning costumes and customs. Look also at The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a collection of mourning ephemera and oddities, or, as Mrs Woodyard crisply alliterates on the back cover: Coffins, Corpses, and Crape.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
The flower-pieces which were placed near the coffin of General Grant while his body lay in state were taken from the City Hall yesterday and carried to the tomb by the undertaker. On Sunday evening when Colonel Grant and his sister visited the City Hall it was determined to make this disposition of them. They were carefully removed and placed in a covered wagon by Mr. Merritt. When he reached the vault the crowd of visitors already there made it necessary to place a guard beside the wagon while the flowers were removing.
Several of the larger pieces had to be taken apart to get them into the vault. The design representing the American colors given by the municipality was placed in the background of the vault and the floral clock whose hands indicated the hour of the General’s death was in the center of the rear wall. The coffin itself was covered with laurel and immortelles. At the head of the coffin was the piece “Galena,” from Grant’s old fellow-townsmen. Two floral vases were placed at the sides of the entrance. The pieces can all be seen by visitors as they pass before the tomb. “The flowers will not be taken away,” said Mr. Merritt, “but will stay in the vault as long as the coffin does. When the flowers had all been removed some branches of moss remained on the stone platform before the vault. They were swept up by one of the officers into a little heap when one woman bent over and picked up a spray of white immortelles. Instantly there was a general rush for the rest. Before the sentry and the policemen were aware of it they were pushed aside by the eager relic-hunters, and when they forced back the crowd not a twig or leaf of the little heap was left.
A more touching incident occurred at another hour, when a little woman, bent and gray, appeared at the tomb carrying a lily in a flower-pot. She said to Captain Fessenden that her name was Emma Bryan, that she was a hospital nurse during the war and still retained the pass which enabled her to visit all the hospitals within Union lines to care for the soldiers. Captain Fessenden accompanied her to the tomb and permitted her to go within the lines and up to the grating. After looking in the vault for a few moments she placed the flower-pot down beside the entrance, saying that she had brought it there for General Grant’s tomb, as she had met him several times and he had often talked with her in wartimes. She burst into tears as she told her story and said that she was coming again from time to time to bring some flowers for “her General.”
At 6 o’clock the inner oaken doors of the vault are closed for the night, shutting off the view of the interior. A countersign is then given to the sentinels by all who pass the lines. Last night the countersign was “Spotsylvania.” The guard in closing the oaken doors met with some difficulty, the outer grating having been locked by Captain Beatty. He asked one of the bystanders for his cane to use in pulling the door shut. The man complied and as the guard handed the cane back another man reached over to the owner of the cane, touched him on the shoulder and said quickly:
‘I’ll give you $5 for that stick!”
“You couldn’t have it for $50 now,” said the owner as he walked proudly away.
President Crimmins said yesterday that no more work would be done just now on the grounds at Claremont, but in a few days he expected to place a force of men at work to finish the road. Some more work is also to be done on the roof of the vault. The exact cost of the vault is not yet know, but Park Commissioner Beekman said on Friday that it was estimated that the structure itself would cost about $2,000. More than 200 men were employed during the two weeks by the Park Board on the vault and the grounds, and the entire cost of the work at Claremont since the selection of the site will probably reach about $10,000. With the exception of building the vault, this work was to have been done on the park during the summer and fall. It has now been compressed into two weeks. Calvert Vaux, who has been considering plans for the monument with Park Superintendent Parsons, thinks that the best place for the monument is in the immediate vicinity of the vault.
Late yesterday afternoon Mayor Grace received an anchor of flowers that had been sent by colored citizens of Florida for the funeral, but arrived too late. It will be turned over to the Park Department to be placed on the tomb.
New York [NY] Tribune 11 August 1885: p. 5
I regret that I have not been able to find a photo of the floral clock giving the time of General Grant’s death. If anyone knows where to find one, do please share. The flowers at the head of this post were floral tributes from the General’s funeral, which were waxed and are now on display at Grant’s Cottage at Wilton, New York. You can see some other images of the flowers here.
As a child I remember being terrified by a story in (I think) Strange Worlds by Frank Edwards about a clockmaker who was slowly strangled to death in the gears of a tower clock. Inventors often seem a hapless lot. If they aren’t being blown up by their own patented explosive shells (Samuel H. Mead/Mead-Meigs Safety Explosive Bullet), they hang themselves from their own perpetual motion machines or are found wandering the streets of great cities, hopelessly insane when their creations fail to make them rich.
We all know (or think we know), how the inventor of the guillotine met his end under its blade. In fact Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a more humane method of capital punishment, but did not create the guillotine. Antoine Louis was the inventor of the machine, which was briefly known as a louisette, but Guillotin’s name became attached to it because of his advocacy of the device as more civilized method of execution. The Doctor was imprisoned during the Terror but actually died in his bed in 1814. Guillotin’s family was so mortified by the connection that they changed their name after they failed to persuade the French government to rechristen the instrument.
When I ran across the story of the “demented inventor” at the end of this post who devised an similarly elegant and creative method of suicide, I went in search of obscure inventors—mostly Americans–who died at the hands of their better mousetraps.
By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting
New York, June 13. Herman O. Mortiz, a Brooklyn inventor, sixty-two years old, was killed at Coney Island by a device on the invention of which he had spent more than a quarter of a century and all his savings.
Mortiz’s invention was an aerial toboggan slide. Permission had just been granted to operate it, all the laws of the department being complied with. The first car was empty and went without any trouble. Other cars with persons in them were sent over. The device seemed to be working to perfection and as the various cars, one after another, went down the steep slide and came up with a round turn, Mortiz stood and looked on, his face beaming with pleasure. He fairly shouted for joy. The dream of the last twenty-five years of his life was realized and his face beamed with delight as his friends alighted from the cars and pronounced the construction a success and as certain to make him a fortune.
Inspector Rittenhouse, and Charles Otis, a friend of the inventor, rode in the last car to be tested. Mortiz stood at the foot of the incline. The car had nearly reached the top, a distance of about seventy feet.
There was a cracking sound, a shout, and Rittenhouse and Otis shot backward. Their car had failed to hold the steel dog until the top of the incline had been reached. It came down with great velocity straight for the place where Moritz was standing. The car was almost upon him when he turned to get out of the way. It was too late. The heavy vehicle struck him in the back, knocking him through the wire netting and out into the Bowery walk. He died two hours later. Rittenhouse and Otis were thrown from their seats, but were uninjured. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 14 June 1902: p. 8
Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.
“the same individual who made the original discovery of ether, or chloroform, and of its successful application in surgery or dentistry….The ingenious discoverer of the powers of this extraordinary substance, in its application to surgery, has himself fallen a victim to his own discovery, the only rational conclusion after reading the account of this suicide and of the steps which led to it, seems to be that Dr. Wells has been in the habit of producing intoxication in himself by the habitual use of ether, or chloroform. Under one of the paroxysms produced by the intemperate use of this powerful agent, it seems he sallied forth into Broadway, where he committed the pranks upon some unfortunate females at night, which led to his arrest by the police, causing a great noise to be made in the public prints. For the purpose of drowning the consequences of this exposure, and not being able to meet the issue of his strange acts, Dr. Wells deliberately goes to work and commits suicide, using his own medicine to destroy the sensation of pain in the act. New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1
Dr. Horace Wells was one of three physicians who claimed to have discovered the use of ether as an anesthetic. Unfortunately he became addicted to chloroform and in a moment of exhilaration threw vitriol at a prostitute on Broadway. He was arrested and taken to the Tombs where he committed what may have been the first suicide under anaesthetic.
No suspicion was entertained by the keepers of any intention of self-destruction, as Mr. Wells appeared to be rather cheerful on Sunday, conversing freely, and while out of his cell, on the corridor, appeared to pay particular attention to the sermon delivered by the Reverend gentleman who preaches every Sunday to the unfortunate and abandoned creatures confined in the Tombs. The principal subject of the discourse related to the ill effects arising from the early and constant association with disreputable females, and seemed to throw Mr. Wells into a deep meditation….On the following morning, (Monday) Mr. Jackson, one of the deputy keepers, opened the cell door, between 8 and 9 o’clock and was astonished to find Mr. Wells in a sitting position on his bunk, with his head resting in one corner of the cell, his right leg hanging over the side of the bunk and the left lying straight on the straw mattress. Between his legs, on the mattress, lay an empty vial labeled “Pure Chloroform,” a razor, and a penknife. The razor was fixed with a slip of wood running from the back of the bald along the handle, made fast with a piece of wire, and some threads drawn from the sacking of his mattress. The left leg of this unfortunate man exhibited a most horrible sight, from a desperate gash, evidently inflicted by the razor. This wound was made about the center of the thigh, severing the femoral artery [illegible] nearly to the bone, and some six inches in length, from the effects of which he bled to death. On his mouth he had placed a silk handkerchief, bunched up, and another passing on the outside and tied on the top of his head, on which he had placed his hat. This handkerchief was supposed to have contained the chloroform, which he inhaled just before he inflicted the fatal wound…. [The deceased left a lengthy letter explaining how he came to commit the offense as well as letters of farewell to friends and family.]
The prison was visited during the day by many of our eminent doctors and dentists, and, from remarks made by Drs. Hosack and Smith, founded on interviews with Mr. Wells, prior to his arrest, they were decidedly of opinion that the deceased was perfectly insane on the chloroform practice. We are informed that this chloroform is nothing more than an extract from alcohol and chloride of lime, which, upon application, is inhaled from a sponge. Dr. Walters, the coroner, was called to hold an inquest, and the jury rendered a verdict, “that the deceased came to his death by suicide, by inflicting a wound in the left thigh with a razor, while laboring under an aberration of mind” New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1
Killed by His Own Invention
The cause of the death of Samuel Wardell, which occurred at the Kings County Hospital on Wednesday night, was most singular. He was a street-lamp lighter, and lived on Malbone street, in Flatbush. His duties necessitated early rising and for a time he trusted to the usual methods in such a case until a failure on the part of the alarm clock to perform its customary functions nearly caused his dismissal from the service. He made an invention of his own. On the top of his clock he adjusted a heavy stone, so nearly evenly balanced that the natural shaking of the clock occasioned by the striking of the bell would cause it to roll off to the floor and thus awaken the sleeper by its crash. This was successful until Monday night. A party had been held during his absence. All the available rooms had been utilized for the accommodation of the guests, and the position of Wardell’s bed had been so changed to make desirable space that the head stood directly under the clock.
He returned early in the morning. Too tired to change the position of his bed he hastily retired. For some reason he seemed unable to go to sleep, and not until an hour before the customary time for rising did he finally lose consciousness. True to its perfect mechanical arrangement the little bell tinkled; the heavy stone rolled slowly in its place and fell, striking the sleeping man on the skull–the stroke that cost him his life. N.Y. World. Quoted in San Francisco [CA] Bulletin, 8 January 1886: p. 4
Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:
John Manier, killed at the Gilbert Car Works in Troy, New York when a machine with rotating knives he had invented broke apart, hurling a knife straight into his heart. Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 2 May 1891: p. 2
Stockton, Cal., Dec. 27 Roy Austin McKeel, 19, was electrocuted at his home in Lodi, near here, today while conducting an experiment with an electric welding outfit which he had recently perfected and sold to an electric house.
McKeel was taking a correspondence course in electricity. While at work his hand dropped across a wire carrying a high voltage, and standing on a steel plate laid on wet ground, he closed the circuit, receiving a shock from which he died in a few minutes. Omaha [NE] World Herald 28 December 1920: p. 2
Herbert Goers, 26, of Evansville, Indiana, who was crushed and impaled on the picking arm of a corn picker machine he had worked on for five years. Omaha [NE] World Herald 9 October 1909: p. 5
Victor Palmer, described as an inventor of wonderful versatility, had been working on a scheme to keep the water in a bathtub at an even temperature by means of a gas heater. He was found, nude and gassed, under the water of his tub, while testing the apparatus. One of the rubber connection pipes had come loose. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 April 1911: p. 6
H S Roper, inventor of a steam bicycle, died when it went out of control, throwing him on his head. Jackson [MI] Citizen 5 June 1896: p. 2
A mother and son named Juergens were killed by an electrical apparatus used to heat a chicken incubator, which the son had developed. The son touched a live wire and when the mother went to his aid, she too was electrocuted. Olympia [WA] Record 17 April 1906: p. 5
At Laporte, Ind., last week, Harry May, a New York inventor, was killed by the accidental explosion of a secret waterproofing compound, used in the manufacture of artificial stone. Elmer E. Harding, owner of a cement block works, to whom May had sold the patent on the compound, was severely burned, but will recover. Industrial World, Volume 43, Issue 2, Part 2, 1909, p 1300
Thomas Midgley, Jr., the chemist who gave us leaded gasoline and chloroflurocarbons, contracted polio in 1940. To help his caregivers lift him, he devised an elaborate system of cords and pulleys. He somehow became entangled in his device and was strangled to death by it, age 55.
Dr. Sabon von Sochocky died of the luminous paint which he had invented for the painting of watch dials in the plant of the United States Radium Corporation. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 15 November 1928: p. 13
George Webb, a prison guard at San Quentin met a painful death in the prison jute mill when a fanning device he had created and attached to the main shaft of the mill caught his clothing and whirled him up to the ceiling. San Francisco [CA] Call 1 August 1913: p. 13
The Russian Captain Stepanof, inventor of a system for laying submarine mines, was blown up when a cable snapped and allowed two mines to touch..The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 17 February 17 1904: p 4
And finally, the piece—true or false–that sent me on the hunt for unfortunate inventors:
Deliberate Preparations Which a Demented French Inventor Made to Take His Own Life.
Arthur Charollais, a demented inventor, 40 years old, guillotined himself this week in his laboratory at Mulhouse in Alsace. He had constructed the machine himself. It was an exact duplicate of the legal French guillotine, but was made of costly woods and finely polished.
The triangular knife had engraved on it: “This blade cut Arthur Charollais’ neck, October, 1900.”
Near the body was found a note reading: “Distribute my belongings among the poor. Demolish this guillotine. It is intended solely for my own private use.”
Charollais’ servants heard an unfamiliar electric bell suddenly ringing persistently, and rushing to answer it discovered with horror a wriggling, headless body, with blood gushing in streams from the neck. The head was in a basket with sawdust where it had fallen.
The suicide had so arranged the knife that its fall started an electric bell.