Death Masks

very nasty oliver messel skull mask
Death Masks, Skull mask, c. 1920-29, Oliver Messel

I remember with loathing the plastic or rubber masks of my childhood Halloweens. The eye-holes never lined up, leaving the wearer blind, and the materials were thin enough that, if the nose wasn’t adjusted just so, the brittle plastic or clammy rubber would get sucked onto the face to the point of suffocation. Very dispiriting for young Halloween pleasure-seekers.

So, scarred by that autumnal trauma, I bring you grim tales of death masks—not of the cast plaster faces of the noble dead, but of Halloween disguises that spoiled the fun.

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

Cambridge. Her vision obscured by a mask she was wearing home from a Hallowe’en party, Helen Hillyer, 11, was struck and killed by an automobile. Lancaster [OH] Eagle-Gazette 29 October 1926: p. 2

Just as with the Fourth of July, the casualties and fatalities of Hallowe’en were chronicled in the papers the day after. In stories of this kind, the mangling and bloody injuries were often lovingly dwelt on by the journalist, perhaps as cautionary tales.


Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

Blinded by a mask which she was wearing while playing some Halloween games last night, Gertrude Bender, the seven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Albert C. Bender of No. 512 St. Clair street ran in front of a St. Clair street car and was instantly killed.

The accident occurred in front of the little girl’s home, but her mother who was there did not know about it for some fifteen minutes. A number of neighbors finally told her. She is almost prostrated with grief.

Last night some fifteen children ranging in ages from six to twelve years were celebrating Halloween with games throwing corn and rapping on windows with tick tacks. Some of them finally bought some false faces at a near by store. It was while playing “blindman’s bluff,” that their little companion met her death.

She had started to run to a place of hiding and did not see the street car coming from the west because of the false face. The motorman tried to stop his car when it struck the little girl, but could not do so for over a hundred feet. He finally brought the car to a standstill in front of the little girl’s home and took the bleeding body from under the wheels. It was carried into the undertaking rooms of H. Beckenbaugh & Son at No. 512 St. Clair street where it was prepared for burial. It was found that the whole left side of her skull was fractured and the left leg broken above the ankle where the car wheel passed over it. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 November 1903: p. 17


Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

Elizabeth, Pa., Oct. 31. Miss Maude Albon and Miss Agnes McGeary, aged 19 and 16 respectively, were instantly killed Friday night while en route to a Halloween festivity in the neighborhood by a Pittsburg, Virginia & Charleston train. The two girls, with Hilda McGeary, an elder sister of Agnes, had donned their Halloween masks in a spirit of fun and drove directly in front of the train, the masks interfering with their vision at the crossing.

Agnes McGeary was beheaded, her friend, Miss Albon, was badly mangled, and Hilda McGeary escaped unscathed. The Evening Bulletin [Maysville, KY] 31 October 1903: p. 1

Both pranksters and unmaskers might find themselves on the wrong side of the mask:

Quite a serious, if not fatal accident, occurred to A.J. Love, a young and promising student of the Normal School at Ada, O. At the school board-rooms Love put on a false face and entered the room of his fellow-student, John Stout, who, upon seeing the false face and ghost-like appearance of Love became frantically frightened, seized a chair and struck Love square across the eyes, breaking his nose and cutting his face frightfully. At present his face is badly swollen and he is lying unconscious. Repository [Canton OH] 16 April 1879: p. 1


Bridgeport Man Got Masculine Blow from Hallowe’en “Woman”

Norristown, Pa., Nov. 1 William Hesser, Jr., of Bridgeport, probably received fatal injuries in a Hallowe’en fight here last night.

It is said that Hesser attempted to raise the mask of what he supposed to be a girl because of the feminine attire, but a masculine arm shot out a blow that sent him on his head on the pavement.

The police are endeavouring to find his assailant. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 2 November 1903: p. 1

Some of the strangest death mask stories are not entirely related to the Hallowe’en season. Pranksters have always thought it funny to don sheets or hideous false faces, but, assuming these events occurred as described, there seems to have been a veritable massacre of the innocents via mask.


Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

Walter, the two-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. William Priest, died to-day of convulsions, the result of a fright sustained last evening.

Seven-year-old Margaret Colley, a neighbor’s child, wearing a hideous false face, rushed into the room where Mr. and Mrs. Priest were playing with their baby, and when the little one caught sight of the frightful-looking face he shrieked with fright.

The immediate removal of the false face failed to pacify him in the least. Convulsions soon followed, continuing during the night and until noon to-day when the little one died. The Charlotte Observer 29 January 1897: p. 3

Although, which came first, the shock or untreatable meningitis?


Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

Edward, the 16-months-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Fisk, of Elgin, Ill., is critically ill of a spinal disease through to have been caused by extreme fright. The infant’s recovery is exceedingly doubtful.

The case is a peculiar one. Recently an eight-year-old lad, Harry Shaw, who is a friend of the Fisk family, concealed his face behind a hideous mask and abruptly entered the Fisk home. The infant was terribly frightened. He was thrown into convulsions, spasm following spasm. Later the spine became affected and the child has been in a semiconscious state ever since.

The attending physician, Dr. McCornack, fears that if the child lives he will be either an invalid or imbecile and perhaps both.

Young Shaw was in the habit of spending much time amusing his younger playmate. He had been calling upon older lads with the disguise and had derived great sport therefrom, and had no thought of the effect the hideous mask would have upon so young a child.

The Fisk child’s father is a member of the Elgin fire department. He has been given leave of absence from his duties and is in constant attendance upon the bedside of his sick child.

The mask causing such sad results was one of the most hideous affairs imaginable. It was flaming red, with long hooked nose, protruding chin and generally devilish expression. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 1 March 1898: p. 3

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

On a recent visit to the Maryland Hospital, we learned some particulars of a melancholy case of the loss of reason from sudden fright. The subject is a male child, about eight years of age, named John H. Frisbee, the son of a respectable widow lady residing at Fell’s Point, whose phrenological developments seem intended for the elaboration of elevated intellectual conceptions, and whose physiognomy is eminently qualified to give them that expression which the tongue cannot give. And yet the intellect of that noble looking child has been irremediably destroyed by some silly trifler with a false-face! by whom he was frightened some time last summer. The child, at the time, fell suddenly down, and for two weeks exhibited little or none of his former liveliness, and finally his mind gave way entirely, and though he was kept some time in the hospital, no cure could be effected, and he is now in the care of his mother, in a state compounded of idiocy and madness. Balt. Sun. The Adams Sentinel [Gettysburg, PA] 2 December 1839: p. 4

I’ve written before on people said to have been scared to death. Convulsions are often mentioned as the symptoms of a fatal shock or as the cause of death.

At Bowling Green, Kentucky, a short time since, Miss Rochester, daughter of W.H. Rochester, died of fright, occasioned by a rude boy having run after her on her way to school, with a mask or false face on him. She ran, in her fright, into a pond of water, whence she was carried to her father’s house, where—when nature was exhausted by frequent convulsive or apoplectic fits, she expired: aged 5 years and 5 months. Illinois Weekly State Journal [Springfield IL] 2 November 1833: p. 1

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

Singular Suit for Damages. The case of David Elton vs. George L. Hughes came on for trial in the County Court at Pottsdam, Pa., on Monday 3d inst. It seems that Hughes, either to gratify a private pique, or for some mischief, procured a horrible looking mask and on a Sunday evening, when Miss Jane Eaton, plaintiff’s daughter, was returning, unattended, from conference, he appeared before her with this mask upon his face, which so frightened the young lady that she fell senseless to the earth; and it gave her nerves such a shock that she was confined to her room for several weeks, and at once time it was thought she could not survive. It was for the expense attendant upon the sickness of Miss Jane, and for her services during sickness, that plaintiff now sought redress. For the defence, it was contended that plaintiff had not made out his case, inasmuch as he had not proved that the mask was used by defendant for the express purpose of frightening plaintiff’s daughter. Defendant might have used the mask for his own amusement, and it was certainly not against the law for a man to put on a mask, if he was in such a humor. The jury, however, thought the defendant was too old a child to be amused by playing with a mask and gave plaintiff $200 damages—a very proper verdict. American and Commercial Daily Advertiser [Baltimore MD] 18 June 1839: p. 2

In this case, it sounds like the grieving father brought a civil suit for wrongful death.


Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 24. Letters of administration have been applied for by Thomas Partridge of Penfield on the state of his daughter Mary. The application states that the estate consists of an action for $10,000, which he is bringing against Mrs. Terrill of Penfield, on account of his daughter’s death. The story behind this peculiar litigation is this:

Mrs. Terrill is a neighbour of the Partridges and had shown an intense dislike for Mary Partridge, a child 10 years old. One day last December, it is claimed, that Mrs. Terrill put on a hideous false face and called at the home of the Partridges. Little Mary answered the bell, and as she opened the door Mrs. Terrill thrust her head, covered with the painted mask, toward the child and shrieked. “Now, I’ve got you. I will take you away.” Then she ran away to her own home. The child Mary fell to the floor in convulsions caused by fright and being delicate and of an extremely sensitive nature, she never recovered. The convulsions continued at intervals until her life was exhausted and she gradually wasted away. Her death occurred on July 30 last, from nervous exhaustion. The St. Louis [MO] Republic 26 August 1900: p. 15

I have not found the resolution of the case. Although young Mary was a long time dying from the fright, given the animus of Mrs. Terrill,  possibly Mr. Partridge would have had a good case for second-degree murder.

Several years ago I did a post on the macabre mirth of the vintage Hallowe’en. This was a star item:


Paint Melted and Caused Girl’s Death by Blood Poisoning.

ORANGE, N.J., Nov. 13. Little Freda Henke, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Henke of 24 Church Street, this city, is dead at her home as a result of blood poisoning contracted by wearing a papier mache mask at a Hallowe’en party she recently gave a number of her young friends.

At the party all the children wore masks, and there was much romping. The perspiration on the girl’s face melted the paint on the mask and this contaminated an abrasion on her upper lip. New York Times 14 November 1902.

There were numerous reports of children killed by poisonous dyes in candy. Those same toxic colors were used to dye decorations and color masks.

Poisoned by False Face

George Watkins of North Scranton, is in a serious condition at his home as the result of blood poisoning, sustained by wearing a Hallowe’en false face. Watkins was dressed in a fantastic garb Hallowe’en and as part of the disguise wore a paper false face. The mask became wet and the poisonous dye percolating through the paper soaked into the skin on his face. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 23 November 1906: p. 12


Goldie Wiggins, aged 4, daughter of George Wiggins, of 92 West Second Street, died last night at her parents’ home, the result of poisoning contracted Halloween night. The little one, while enjoying the festivities of the night in question, wore a mask. She ate an apple without removing the mask [??], and in so doing the supposition is that a portion of the coloring matter of the mask found its way into the child’s stomach. Despite the best of medical attention the child failed to rally, and death ensued. The parents of the child are prostrated over the affair. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 November 1903: p. 9

Today parenting magazines and police departments issue annual warnings about the perils of face-masks, and recommend face-painting as a safer substitute, although recently this mother had a warning about that as well.

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.


Society Girl Dies of Blood-poison Resulting from Use of Grease Paints.

Appleton, Wis., March 16. Word was received in Appleton today announcing the death in Chicago yesterday from blood poisoning of Miss Mary Schmidt, an instructor in chemistry in a Black Creek, Wis., school, who on Jan. 23 last, attended a leap year masquerade disguised as Satan and after the party was unable to remove the mask of home made grease paints.

The girl was kept at home for several weeks after the party and Outagamie and Calumet county physicians attempted to remove the paints. Later she was taken to Chicago for treatment. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 15 March 1908: p. 1 and The Times Recorder [Zanesville OH] 17 March 1908: p. 2

A cautionary tale, indeed.

So don’t forget to vet those masks for visibility and that face-paint for purity.  I’ve given up the idea of going as Satan for trick-or-treat and will instead be causing panic in the neighborhood by flitting around in Victorian mourning attire as “Sexy Woman in Black.”

Other lethal holiday masks or pranks? chriswoodyard8 AT

Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow's weeds, c. 1907.
Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow’s weeds, c. 1907.

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.


Ghosts in Grave-clothes


Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery
Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery

A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

“Lost Hearts,” M.R. James

Recently I’ve been digging up the dirt on burial shrouds, trying to determine exactly what the well-dressed corpse was wearing and when. While there is no doubt a certain esoteric charm in studying Z-spun tabbies and shrouding flannels, what I found even more fascinating was the ghosts who appeared clothed in their grave-clothes, often of a markedly archaic pattern. Andrew Lang gives us an striking example:

The most impressive spectre he [Andrew Lang] had ever heard of, he says, in substance, appeared in an English village. Half a dozen children who had been playing together in a house rushed out through the open door in a frightened state of mind, and one of them fell down in a fit. A lady who was driving through the village stopped, attended to the child who was lying on the ground before the horses, and asked the other children as to the cause of the panic. They said they had been playing on the staircase when “a dreadful woman” suddenly appeared among them. The only reason they could give for saying that the woman was dreadful was that she wore a long woolen robe and had her brow and chin bound up with white linen. “In fact,” says the writer, “she was a walking corpse come back from the days when the law compelled us to be buried in woolen for the better encouragement of the wool trade. This wandering old death, seen in the sunlight by the children, has always appealed to me as a very good example of ghosts and of their vague and unaccountable ways. For it is most unlikely that the children knew anything of the obsolete law of the ancient English mortuary fashions.” Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 578

“Buried in woolen” refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666-1680, requiring burial in a shroud of pure English wool.  The acts were resented and were largely ignored after the late 18th century. They were repealed in 1863. Obviously the walking dreadful woman was one of the unhappy woolen-shroud wearers.

Some of you may be familiar with the statue of John Donne depicted in his shroud, which is knotted on top of his head, as pictured in the engraving above. This ghost, seen in a church chancel, presented a virtually identical appearance, as well as making a curiously incongruous rustling noise.

Out of the Long Ago

In 1907 my late husband and I were visiting some friends when the subject of ghosts arose in conversation. My husband did not believe in spirits appearing from another world. I did, for I had seen my father who had, at the time, been dead over twelve months. He also spoke to me. I knew I was awake when I saw the apparition, for I awoke my husband to tell him, as I was frightened. As soon as my husband spoke, the apparition vanished. My mother also saw my father’s spirit twice, and she was the least imaginative of women. My husband’s friend, a young man of about thirty-two, said he believed in ghosts, for he himself had seen one when a boy. He then went on to elate the following remarkable story. I have put it down just as he gave it, without embellishments of any kind. “When I was about twelve or thirteen,” he said, “I visited some relatives in a village near London. About eleven o’clock one morning, I went with the vicar’s two boys, with whom I was friendly, to get a book from the vestry of the church where their father officiated. The elder of the two boys went to get the book, whilst the younger one and I went down the aisle to wait, and to pass the time until the book was found. Hearing a sound, I thought my playmate was coming for us, and looked up towards the chancel. Walking across the chancel I saw a tall figure shrouded in a sort of blanket affair, dull and drab and gathered on the top of the head, and tied in a bunch from which it hung down in folds over the figure, which was walking or gliding toward the vestry door. There was no sound of foot-falls, but, as the apparition moved, it made a sort of rustling noise, like walking amongst dry withered leaves. Thinking some one was playing a trick I followed, hoping to see the fun, but the figure vanished at the vestry door. I looked inside and asked my friend, who was not quite ready to leave, if any one had been into the room, and told him what his brother and I had seen. He answered that he had not seen or heard anything unusual. The church, for certain reasons, was always, except when in use, kept locked. My playmate of the church aisle was full of our adventure, and he told the vicar what we had seen. He strictly forbade us to repeat the story to any one, and went on to say if we did he would be exceedingly angry. His reason for keeping such a tale secret was obvious. When I grew up to manhood,” the narrator continued, “I received a letter one day, from a gentleman who lived, or had lived, in the village where I had seen the ghost in the church chancel. He enclosed me a sketch of the apparition, which he himself had seen when about sixteen years of age. He wanted to know if the drawing was like the figure I had seen. I wrote that it was exactly the same, except for the side face, which I did not remember to have seen. The side face was thin and keen, and the nose thin also, and very prominent. The writer went on to explain that he had heard I had seen the ghost and, like myself, in the broad daylight, and that he was very interested in looking the matter up.”

“In 1911 we called to see the relator of this story, when he at once mentioned that there had been further development in his ghost story. The gentleman who had sent him the sketch had written to inform him that the apparition had again been seen. He was inquiring the time and date of the previous appearances as he was anxious to ascertain if the uncanny visitor came at stated intervals. The shroud that covered the ghost was probably one of the very old-fashioned shrouds that used to be tied on the top of the head. Uncanny Stories Told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927: p. 30-31

Sometimes even the minutest details of the shroud were noted by a witness.


The following is one of the most remarkable of the ghost stories in Sir David Brewster’s late book:

About a month after this occurrence, [the appearance of her husband’s doppelganger] Mrs. A., who had taken a somewhat fatiguing drive during the day, was preparing to go to bed, about eleven o’clock at night, and, sitting before the dressing-glass, was occupied in arranging her hair. She was in a listless and drowsy state of mind, but fully awake. When her fingers were in active motion among the papillotes,[papers for making butterfly curls] she was suddenly startled by seeing in the mirror, the figure of a near relation, who was then in Scotland, and in perfect health. The apparition appeared over her left shoulder, and its eyes met hers in the glass. It was enveloped in grave-clothes, closely pinned, as is usual with corpses, round the head, and under the chin, and though the eyes were open, the features were solemn and rigid. The dress was evidently a shroud, as Mrs. A. remarked even the punctured pattern usually worked in a peculiar manner round the edges of that garment. Mrs. A. described herself as at the time sensible of a feeling like what we conceive of fascination, compelling her for a time to gaze on this melancholy apparition, which was as distinct and vivid as any reflected reality could be, the light of the candles upon the dressing-table appearing to shine full upon its face. After a few minutes, she turned round to look for the reality of the form over her shoulder; but it was not visible, and it had also disappeared from the glass when she looked again in that direction. On the 26th of the same month, about two P. M., Mrs. A. was sitting in a chair by the window in the same room with her husband. He heard her exclaim, “What have I seen?” And on looking on her, he observed a strange expression in her eyes and countenance. A carriage and four had appeared to her to be driving up the entrance-road to the house. As it approached, she felt inclined to go up stairs to prepare to receive company; but, as if spell-bound, she was unable to move or speak. The carriage approached, and as it arrived within a few yards of the window, she saw the figures of the postilions and the persons inside take the ghastly appearance of skeletons and other hideous figures. The whole then vanished entirely, when she uttered the above-mentioned exclamation. The Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, Volumes 1-2, John Johnstone, Publisher, 1832: p. 221.

If the date on this story wasn’t much too early, we might suggest that Mrs. A. had been to Paris’s Cabaret du Neant and seen the coffined living decomposed to a skeleton and back in just minutes!  To be Relentlessly Informative, the “punctured pattern” was an eyelet-like effect punched in the cloth with pinking irons. It was a cheap way to achieve a lacy look for grave-clothes and linens.

Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the "punchwork" commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes
Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the “punchwork” commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes

In some variants of this next story, which was a popular urban legend, the ghost was recognized by a particular detail of the shroud.

A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862

In this account from the séance-room, an apparition draws attention to her burial robe as proof of her identity.

The next one who appeared was Mrs. Mary Ann Waugh, wife of the late John M. Waugh, of Rock Island, who died about thirteen years ago at this place; a sister of Mrs. Hill’s, and also sister of mine. The test in this case was remarkably good, principally in her general appearance of features and the manner she used to wear her hair, and some peculiarity in her burial robe, in the material used, and something very peculiar in the style and make, which she seemed very desirous of my wife seeing, as she assisted in the making of it.  Religio-Philosophical Journal 20 March 1875: p. 2

The shroud was also regarded as an infallible, if nuanced, death token in stories of second sight,  presenting a sort of sliding scale of death.

The event was usually indicated by the subject of the vision appearing in a shroud, and the higher the vestment rose on the figure, the event was the nearer. ‘If it is not seen above the middle,’ says Martin, ‘death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer. When it is seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shewn me, when the person of whom the observation was made enjoyed perfect health.’ Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Volume 3. Robert Chambers, 1861: p. 290

This seeress predicted the death of a young boy without giving her reasons. After his death, she explained what she had seen:

I carried the boy’s corpse aboard with me, and, after my arrival and his burial, I called suddenly for the woman, and asked her, what warrant she had to foretell the boy’s death? She said, that she had no other warrant, but that she saw, two days before I took my voyage, the boy walking with me in the fields, sewed up in his winding sheets, from top to toe: and that she had never seen this in others, but she found that they shortly thereafter died: and therefore concluded, that he would too, and that shortly. Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

One of these seers had his vision calibrated to a nicety.

Two seers at work, one a gentleman and the other ‘a common fellow’, who were both visiting the manse of an Inverness minister. All at once the common fellow began to weep and cry out that a certain sick woman about five miles away was either dead or dying.

The gentleman seer—naturally the expert—replied, ‘No, she’s not dead, nor will she die of this disease.’

‘Oh?’ said the fellow. ‘Can’t you see her covered in her winding sheet?’

‘Aye,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I see her as well as you do, but do you not also see that her linen is wet with sweat? She will soon be cooling of her fever.’ And so it turned out. The Revd Hector Mackenzie vouched for the story’s truth. Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, p. 62

Shrouds seen via second sight might not only predict a death, but the form or color of that winding sheet.

“Florence MacLeod, spouse to the present minister of St. Kilda, informed me lately, that her mother Elizabeth MacLeod, a gentlewoman distinguished from sevrals for piety and good morals, having come out of her house at Pabbay in the Harris, with a clear moon-shining night, and having sat down to enjoy the pleasure of a calm serene air, and the beautiful prospect of a glittering starry firmament; both of them observed a domestic girl, who had been a native of St. Kilda (they had left the house), issuing from it, covered with a shroud of a darkish colour, and stalking across the distance betwixt them and the house as if she intended to frighten them, and after continuing in this manner for some time, disappeared. Upon their return to the house, the said Elizabeth, challenged the girl for her frolick, who affirmed, with many asseverations, she had not left the house all the time her mistress and daughter were absent: to which the other servants gave testimony. In a short time thereafter, the same girl died of a fever, and as there was no linen in the place but what was unbleached it was made use of for her sowe, [winding sheet] which answered the representation exhibited to her mistress and the declarant as above.” Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

Today, although shrouds are making a comeback in the context of green burials, most people go to their final rest in their own clothing.  Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, I’ve heard from people who have seen apparitions of friends and relatives wearing the same clothes they were buried in. That would not be particularly remarkable–if you saw the clothes at the viewing or funeral, you might picture the visitation wearing those clothes. Where that logical argument sometimes breaks down is when the witness did not go to the funeral or have any information about what the dead person wore in their coffin, but could describe the burial clothing anyway. Such anecdotes reopen the whole question of why ghosts are seen wearing clothes and why, if, as some psychic researchers used to suggest, the dead can project whatever image they want to those they visit, they choose to wear their last outfit?

Other stories of ghosts in grave-clothes or burial garments?  chriswoodyard8 AT

I’ve written before about shrouded specters and superstitions involving shrouds.

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.

The Seven Babies in No. 77

death as baby nurse Death's Doings 1827
The Seven Babies in No. 77, Death as the Baby’s Nurse. 1827

Appalled by the recent discovery of 11 infant corpses hidden in the ceiling of a defunct Detroit funeral home and more than 60 infant bodies found in the same week at another Detroit mortuary, I bring you a grim and grewsome story about a Victorian London undertaker similarly neglectful of his duties. While meant for savage satire, the mock-jocular tone may grate on modern sensibilities.


It is our rule not to puff tradesmen. But to every rule there is an exception, and, therefore, if there be any baby-farmers in want of an undertaker we venture respectfully to recommend to them Mr. Henney, of No. 77, Regent’s-park-road. This gentleman’s speciality is babies. He, of course, does not refuse to “undertake” adults. But he prefers infants, and, indeed, so attached does he become to the little bodies which are committed to his charge that he cannot bring himself to part with them, till at last they melt away in obedience to those inexorable laws of nature which even undertakers cannot long withstand. Six such infants were the other day found in his stable, and one in a tin-box in his house. They were all (see how he clings to them) “in an advanced stage of decomposition.” He said they were “stillborn,” and no doubt he knows; but this is clear, they were “still unburied.”

He had, we presume, been paid to bury them, because, however fond a man may be of children, he does not like even “stillborn” ones for nothing. But he did not bury them. He could not bring himself to do it. He kept the babes, and he did not return the money. Perhaps in keeping them he may have been influenced by another motive besides that which we have suggested. He may have said to himself: “Possibly doubts may arise in some one‘s mind as to whether these children really were stillborn. So, as I am not a medical man myself, I’ll keep them by me in case inquiries should be made.” Anyway he did keep them, until one day last week a young man going into the stable was “nearly overpowered with the stench,” and searching for the cause found a partially-decomposed “stillborn” infant, and went away and told the police, who came and found six others, “stillborn,” too—all “ stillborn.” We do not know whether Mr. Henney is an admirer of Tennyson, but we daresay he is, and we can fancy him handing over to the police the last child, the one that was found in the tin box, and saying, with tears in his eyes, “ ‘He was dead before he was born,’ Mr. Policeman.” This is why we say that he is the very undertaker for baby-farmers. In baby-farms, when a child is born on the premises, it is usually stillborn, we believe.

We suppose there is something in the genius loci which occasions this, for of course the baby-farmer has nothing to do with it. Her business is with the living, not with the dead, and so when a child is “stillborn” she looks out for a good-natured undertaker like Mr. Henney to take it off her hand. Mind, we do not say, because we do not know, that Mr. Henney has any connection with baby-farmers. We are merely pointing out what an admirable baby-farmer’s undertaker he would be, if the baby-farmers would employ him. His peculiar mode of doing business enables him to “undertake” at a cheaper rate than other tradesmen; he can afford to do it at an almost nominal price, because he does not pay any burial-fees. Consequently, he ought to do a great trade, if the law would only let him alone, as, no doubt, he, up to last week, believed it would, for the law is very indulgent to the undertakers. It requires no qualification from them. It does not register them. It does not inspect their premises. It is the easiest thing in the world to become an undertaker; a man has merely got to call himself one, and there he is, duly qualified to bury. He takes a window somewhere, he puts up in it a little coat-of-arms, with a pious motto, such as “In coelo quies,” or “Resurgam,” underneath which he writes “Funerals furnished,” and then he goes out about the real business of his life,—the business to which he has been brought up, chimney sweeping, or scavenging, or stealing, or whatever it may be—and leaves his wife to attend to the corpses if any come in. Thus as we pass along the streets we see the business of undertaker combined with almost every other business under the sun, “Carpenter and Undertaker,” “Upholsterer and Undertaker,” “Coal and Com Merchant and Undertaker,” “Greengrocer and Undertaker,” and so on. We do not remember ever having seen “Confectioner and Undertaker.” But we should not be in the least degree surprised to see it, for undertaking, like oysters, is one of those things which goes well with everything else. It is the pleasantest and easiest of avocations. Anybody can follow it who has sufficient strength to walk round the corner and order a horse of the job-master, and sufficient knowledge of arithmetic to add a percentage to the price he charges.

Whether in the interests of a community which, as a rule, desires that Christian burial should follow upon death, the undertaking business ought to be so very easy, is another question. We are disposed to think it should not. We can conceive that there may be considerable danger in leaving undertakers so completely alone as they are left at present. It may be quite true that the seven infants found upon Mr. Henney’s premises were “stillborn,” and we feel sure that if any lady had offered to him a quick-born and full-grown corpse he would have buried it in the ordinary way. But can the same be said of all undertakers? This is what we do not feel so sure of. We fear that there are men in the undertaking business who would be quite capable of leaving the body of a person who had been born alive, but had subsequently died, to rot in an out-house, like Mr. Henney’s seven still-born infants If there are such men, there is, as things are at present, nothing to prevent them from so dealing with the corpses committed to their charge, provided they live in secluded neighbourhoods away from other habitations.

For the purposes of the business which he pursues, Mr. Henney’s establishment is unfortunately situated, being near an infants’ school, with the inmates of which the “stench” of the seven “stillborn” but nevertheless decomposing children in Mr. Henney’s stable, appears not to have agreed. It is, indeed, stated that “serious illness” has been produced in the school by the disagreeable odour. Owing to this cause Mr. Henney’s peculiar mode of conducting funerals would probably, sooner or later, have been discovered, even if the young man of whom we have spoken had not gone into the stable at all. But supposing this Mr. Henney to have lived a little way out in the country, or near an extensive piggery or soap-boiling establishment, or other place where a “stench” would naturally be expected, it is manifest that he might have persisted in his present course of allowing the “dead to bury their dead,” for almost any length of time without being discovered. But whether it is safe to act upon this injunction in all cases, whether it is right to leave the dead to bury themselves when somebody else has been found to bury them, are questions which we venture to propose, and which we hope some one will answer. We do not like to reiterate an assertion or an argument more than is absolutely necessary to ensure its being understood, but we cannot refrain from saying plainly what we have already implied, that since sauce for the gosling is sauce for the goose, and since seven still-born infants have been found rotting in one undertaker’s stables, it may possibly be our own destiny to be resolved into our original elements in a bed of quicklime beneath the flags of some of other undertaker’s kitchen, and that we do not at all relish the prospect.

In Cuba, as we read somewhere the other day, the bones of Chinese Coolies are sometimes used for the purpose of refining sugar. We are not aware whether human bones are so used in this country. Perhaps Mr. Henney can inform us. Will he be so kind as to tell us what he and his friends in the trade are in the habit of doing with any bones which they may chance to have over? We are very curious to know, because it seems to us that if an undertaker is paid to bury a body, and he not merely does not bury it, but sells the bones to anybody else, and pockets the price as well as the burial-fee, he is guilty of conduct which, whether he may think so or not, is in theory distinctly dishonest. Of course, we know that every business has a morality of its own; and we are quite prepared to learn that Mr. Henney is, according to his own light, as honourable a man as Brutus. But if Brutus had lived in these days, and in London, he would have been tried at the Old Bailey.

So we trust that in like manner there may be a searching inquiry into Mr. Henney’s conduct and mode of carrying on business, and that it may be clearly ascertained, if possible, whether all these seven infants really were still-born, and whether he has any more. We will also venture to express a hope that, one of these days when there is time, and the Eastern and other burning questions are settled, Parliament will take up undertakers, and examine them before Select Committees or Royal Commissions, or some way or other (we do not in the least care what) ascertain whether what is called Christian burial is the rule or the exception in this country, and then legislate accordingly.

Truth, Volume 1, 8 February 1877

In case you wish to read more about the lucrative profession of baby-farmer, see this well-researched link and this, with some dreadful details and photographs. And this, about Amelia Dyer, who stood at the peak of her loathsome profession.

The reference to Tennyson is from “The Grandmother,” where an elderly woman bewails her many losses: “But the first that ever I bare was dead before he was born.”

The additional frisson caused by the note about Chinese bones used in sugar refineries in Cuba is a reference to the use of bone-black (charcoal made from bones, usually animal) filters to remove impurities and make the finished product white sugar. While it is true that the Cubans imported Chinese laborers by the thousands when slavery was outlawed, I sincerely hope that this was an urban legend. And now I’m wondering if the bone collectors of the “rag and bone” profession got some of their supplies from the undertakers…

An undertaker in New York state got into similar trouble, but had a reasonable explanation:

For keeping dead babies in his cellar on ice for days or even weeks, a Greenpoint, N.Y., undertaker is in trouble with the authorities. His explanation is that he keeps the corpses until there enough of them to make a paying load, when he takes them to the cemetery. Macon [GA] Telegraph 22 July 1885: p. 2

And at least he kept them on ice. It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.


Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

  “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.

Does anyone have access to any of the stories of the original discovery of the bodies in Mr Henney’s stable? Or of the illnesses at the adjoining infants’ school? Ice well and send to ChrisWoodyard8 AT

For other stories of corpse collectors and the undertaking trade, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

Ashes à la carte


coffee can urn
Ashes a la carte Coffee Can Urn

Recently I noted some startling tabloid-fodder in the British press;  an article about a daughter grieving her late mother, who decided to eat her Mum’s ashes with her Christmas dinner. She was quoted as saying sadly, “I feel like she can live on by being inside of me.” Comments on the story ranged from sympathy for her loss to harsh words about her mental state.

It is such a strange and unpalatable story (is there a medical term for this curious taste–parental pica, perhaps?), but if you can’t trust the Mirror, who can you trust?

Just yesterday a report about cookies supposedly baked with human ashes was being circulated, although there is a possibility that it is merely a sensational story.

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, here is a similar story from 1901. At that date, cremation was a relatively new idea (The first modern crematorium in the United States was built in 1876; the first in England in 1878.) and its proponents were sometimes seen as eccentric or even mad. In this story, an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, we meet Mrs Matilda Francefort, who took to heart the sentiment: “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.”

Cremation’s Odd Phases

One Widow Reported to Have Eaten the Ashes of Her Husband

Complications That Happen

A good many queer things have happened in connection with cremation, but perhaps the strangest of them all was the case of Mrs. Matilda

Francefort. Matilda ate her husband, which sounds cannibalistic, but isn’t.

In 1896 Mr. Francefort left his sphere of usefulness in Brooklyn and his soul, it is to be hoped soared to a better world. As for his body, they took it to Fresh Pond and cremated it. Then his widow went after the ashes and took them carefully home with her. All widows do not. Some don’t even buy a niche for them at the crematory or pay storage for them in the cellar.

But Mrs. Francefort was different. She got the ashes of the late Mr. F. and carried them home in a japanned tin box, like a tea canister or a spice box. Perhaps that was suggested to the sorrowing widow the disposition she should next make of them.

At any rate she decided to eat them. There was much to be said in favor of this plan. It was economical. She would save the expense of an urn and niche and a monument by being all that herself. Then, too, she and the dear cremated had lived together for 31 years and she was lonesome without him. She was informed that the ashes would enter permanently into her system and it seemed to be a clear case of eating your cake and having it too. Anybody could see that under the circumstances it was the only way of keeping the family together.

Having decided to eat her husband, the next question was the manner in which he should be served. Mrs. Francefort went over his qualities with a sorrowful heart. He had been a witty man; there was always a spicy flavor in his conversation. Mrs. Francefort made a note: “Spice.”

Then she defied anybody to say that he had not been the salt of the earth. Another note: “Salt.” Still she had to admit that he had a bit of a temper. Note number three: “Pepper.” But then, he was always sweet to her. Final note: “Sugar.” Clearly Mr. Francefort’s post-mortem specialty should be in the condiment line. Mrs. F. determined to take him as seasoning.

So she put a pinch of him in her coffee at breakfast and sprinkled him lightly over the boiled shad. At luncheon he went into the tea, and contributed distinction to the lamb stew. At dinner—well, at dinner the supply of Mr. Francefort’s ashes went down in more ways than one. And whatever the gentleman may have done in life, there is one thing sure, he never disagreed with his widow when he was dead, though a little of him did perhaps go a long way.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1901: p. 12

Was this just a whimsical flight of fancy by the author?  Mrs. Francefort is found in several other newspaper stories when she was involved in a lawsuit over timber rights. The tongue-in-cheek flavor is often found in news stories about human remains. Perhaps a little gallows humor was required for audiences to swallow such a grim tale.

Here is story of a similar piquancy, although I cannot find this “ludicrous mistake” in any of Twain’s published works. It is likely that the celebrity’s name was added to a well-known anecdote. There was a variant of the tale where the tooth-brusher was a servant girl.


Mark Twain Uses Human Ashes for Toothpowder.

New York Letter Kansas City Journal

I was told yesterday a rather amusing story at the expense of Mark Twain—and the same story is already a standing joke in society. Not long ago the humorist was traveling in the country and stopped one evening at a house presided over by an elderly woman. He was shown to a room somewhat bare of ornament and furniture, yet slept peacefully until morning. When morning came and he arose, he became mindful of the fact that although he had provided himself with a toothbrush, he had forgotten his toothpowder. He consoled himself with the thought that there must be tooth powder lying somewhere about. After a brief search he discovered something in a small box on the mantel, which certainly resembled tooth powder. At any rate, he used it vigorously on his teeth and found it satisfactory. When he got down stairs he apologized to his hostess for using her tooth powder. She appeared surprised. “What tooth powder?” she inquired, blandly. “It was on the mantel,” Mark replied. “On the mantel?” she repeated. “Yes, in a small box. It was excellent,” he declared. “Good gracious!” she ejaculated. “That wasn’t tooth powder!” “What was it?” asked Mark, now slightly alarmed. “Why, that was auntie,” said she. (It seems that “auntie” had been cremated.)

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 14 December 1886: p. 2

Similar mix-ups involving human ashes are found in a previous post on stolen cremains.

I’ve speculated before about the possibility of a hoarding disorder involving a loved one’s remains. If the stories about eating Mum or Mr. Francefort are not urban legends, they, too, might fall into this rare category.

In 2011 a widow who said that she was addicted to eating her husband’s ashes was profiled on a show called My Strange Addiction. Other historic cases of dining on the detritus of the dead?  (Other than the well-known ritual to prevent a vampiric relative from preying on surviving family members….) 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.


The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise

 The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2.
The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2.


The Victorian widow, swathed in her “habiliments of woe,” was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.

Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19th century audience: transvestism.

Why was mourning  such a useful disguise for criminals?

The phrase the “Woman in Black” was in common use by the 1870s, referring to a series of mysterious black-clad apparitions who stalked and startled people in the dark. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. There was ambiguity as to whether “The Woman in Black” was some flesh-and-blood woman in mourning clothing, a man in disguise, or a supernatural omen of death. Inexplicably—since widows were scarcely an uncommon sight—these appearances often escalated into full-scale panics, and, as the New York Times of 7 January 1887 wrote, afforded “unscrupulous and criminally disposed persons an opportunity to do their wicked work under the mask of the Woman in Black.”

These veiled supernatural horrors apparently provided inspiration for copy-cat wearers of crape because it is apparent from newspaper reports that, far from being ghostly, the Women in Black were corporeal enough to commit assault.

For example, a veiled Woman in Black attacked citizens of an Illinois town in 1898. A man and his wife were confronted by the woman and, “without making the slightest sound, except the rustling of skirts,” the creature “struck the wife a sharp blow on her cheek.” …The assailant was described by multiple witnesses as nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a solid black gown with a heavy veil reaching almost to the bottom of her skirts. Her step was noiseless, and, said the papers, “she invariably strikes a blow with her hand as she peers into the face of any one she meets.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1898: p. 4

Not something you would want to meet in a dark alley…

“Menacing threats” was another crime associated with The Woman in Black. I have collected many examples of the lost art of the “crape threat.” This is the practice of hanging mourning crape streamers on the door of an enemy as a threat, rather like sending funeral flowers to a rival mobster.  In one classic case, for nearly five years a veiled woman in black stalked Mrs. Amy Thornley of Brooklyn, lurking around her house, hanging crape on the door and throwing threatening letters into her yard. One of the letters read: “Murder for you. Crape is for Amy T. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son.” Mystifyingly, despite several witnesses who also saw the Woman in Black, the case was never solved. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3

Moving from menacing threats to felonies, we find a woman at the peak of her disreputable profession: In 1887 a woman nicknamed ‘The Widow’ used to attend the funerals of the rich wearing a long black veil drawn over her face. When the time came for the friends to take their last look at the departed she contrived to be among the last in line. “When she came opposite the head of the coffin she would sob passionately, and fling herself on the bier so that her veil covered it.” Under the cover of the mourning veil, she would loot the corpse of jewelry and valuables. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 15 December 1887: p. 2

Pick pocketing was another fertile field for widow impersonators. In 1875 a besotted reporter on a New York street car described how he could not take his eyes off “the most saintly looking widow that I ever set eyes on,” wearing “the sweetest little widow’s cap imaginable.” When another widow boarded the car, the saintly widow kindly made room for her to sit down. “The car stopped, and widow No. 1 got out; she was hardly out of the car when widow No. 2 discovered that her pocket had been picked by that saintly widow who had been sitting by her side. Bruce [NZ] Herald, 12 January 1875: p. 3

The Women in Black were not afraid to use firearms as this story from 1911 shows.

A woman, or a man in female attire, armed with a small revolver and with a heavy black veil covering the face, entered the store of the Sanitary Grocery this morning about 7:40 o’clock, held up two woman clerks and the porter, and robbed the cash register of about $10.

So quietly was the robbery perpetrated and so slowly did the robber walk away from the store after getting the money that neighbors and passers-by knew nothing of the occurrence until the clerks gave the alarm. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 3 April 1911: p. 1


Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black
Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black

One of the most adroit American burglars was a lady who wore widow’s weeds. Her name was Ellen Gibbons; she was described as one of the “most notorious female house-breakers” in the country. She went by many aliases, but was best known as “the woman in black,” because often she “dressed in the deepest of black, and was closely veiled when she committed her depredations.”   Wherever she went, her neighbors would be startled by a sudden surge in robberies and burglaries. Although the police initially thought the thefts were the work of a well-organized gang, it was quickly realized that a veiled woman dressed in mourning was frequently seen near houses that were robbed.  Gibbons’ house was found full of plunder that she had spirited out of homes under cover of crape. She was repeatedly arrested, sent to prison, then repeatedly pardoned.  I’m not sure why, except she claimed to be a kleptomaniac and she was said to be the wife of a police officer in Brooklyn. In 1877 The Chicago Daily Tribune paid her a well-earned tribute: “Her long-continued life of crime ranks her with the most daring and skilful of male robbers and burglars.” Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 14 October 1877: p. 11

A far more dire crime was that of kidnapping. A widow’s garb is frequently mentioned in high-profile stories of child enticement. For example, the terrifying “Black Ghost” of Toledo was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer:

A “woman in black” has put in an appearance on the East Side… and is causing a reign of terror. The mysterious stranger is believed to be a man. ..This morning while Johnny Barror, aged 12, was hurrying on his bicycle for a doctor, he was seized by the “black ghost” and pulled from his wheel and told that he would be instantly killed. The black-robed figure tried to carry the lad away, but the little fellow fought like a tiger and broke away, and after a chase of several blocks met two policemen, who hurried to the place… but the “black ghost” was gone….  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November, 1902: p. 1

Mourning costume was particularly alluring to murderesses. In 1896 a St. Louis family was nearly poisoned by a veiled woman in black who gave their little boy a pie to give to his family. When his mother cut the pie, she found green powder under the upper crust, indicating Paris Green. A chemist examined the food and found that it was laced with arsenic. No one was ever charged with the crime. St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 February 1896: p. 6

In 1914, in Newark, New Jersey, 20-year-old Hazel Herdman donned a mourning veil to hide her face, and shot dead the wife of the man with whom she was infatuated. The veil effectively confused the police, who spent a day rounding up other suspects before Herdman, who had swallowed poison, confessed. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 7 February 1914: p. 1

One of the most startling murderous crimes by a veiled woman in black was an attempt in 1892 to blow up the residence of Charles D. Irwin, a wealthy speculator in Chicago. The woman was interrupted at her fiendish work by passers-by and ran toward the lake, leaving behind a container filled with 10 pounds of high explosive, more than enough to have blown the building to atoms. The description given to the police was that she was attired in deep mourning and wore a heavy black veil that fell below her waist.”  Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 5 August 1892: p. 5

Once again, there was no capture of the black-clad bomber.

You will have noticed that none of the veiled criminals in the preceding cases were conclusively identified as a man disguised in mourning. While some male criminals wore women’s clothing, usually to avoid detection after a crime had been committed, only rarely are they described as wearing widow’s weeds. The criminal Women in Black I’ve studied are sharply divided between women criminals and male transvestites.

The newspapers are full of stories of plucky girls who tucked their hair up under a cap and put on boy’s clothing to escape an unhappy home life. Boys who put on girl’s clothes, however, never do so except with evil intent. And donning widow’s weeds was an unmistakable signal that the men so dressed were up to no good. A common theme of the Women in Black panics I mentioned earlier is the ambiguity of the sex of the veiled spectres. While never explicit, the coded language used in reporting these panics reflects this:

1866 It was a terrible creature, shrouded in black, the garments of a female and the stature of a man, moving awfully about the streets o’nights, and creating panic…   Freeport North West July 19, 1866: p. 2

1911 A man disguised as a woman and out for a sinister purpose…Greencastle [KN] Herald 29 November 1911: p. 2

1912 A man is masquerading in women’s clothing and is either crazy or is trying to perpetuate a huge joke on the community. New Castle [PA] News September 26, 1912: p. 1

1886 There are yet others who suppose that the “woman in black is some evil-minded man who is masquerading in female attire for the purpose of frightening timid persons.Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 12 November 1886: p. 5

1903 One of the current theories in the village is that the masquerader in mourning is a man, who is either bent on mischief or is mentally unbalanced Boston [MA] Herald 15 October 1903: p. 8

“Mentally unbalanced” may have been a euphemism for “transvestite.” Cross-dressers were considered mentally aberrant and were sometimes sent to lunatic asylums. In 1848 Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to pass anti cross-dressing laws;  some 40 other cities soon followed their example, making it illegal to wear clothes contrary to one’s sex.  Penalties became increasingly severe. In San Francisco, for example, Revised Orders 1863 said that cross-dressers would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, would pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars. In 1866, the penalty increased to a $500 fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it went to a $1000 fine, six months in jail or both (General Orders 1875)

Of course none of these laws stopped men from dressing as women. Few were criminals trying to escape detection, but the act of wearing women’s clothes made them criminals. As Clare Sears writes in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” public, but not private cross-dressing was against the law and, she notes, “As such, cross-dressing was marked as a deviant and secretive practice, rather than a public activity and identification.”

A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19th-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publicly, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.

In addition, mourning clothing was readily accessible. A man might borrow the weeds his wife had at home. Mourning goods could be purchased second-hand or through the mail. And security was guaranteed by the fact that few persons would have the courage or the impudence to walk up to a veiled widow in the dark and remove her veil. I found only a single case among hundreds of spectral Women in Black sightings, where a young Connecticut woman pulled the veil from the face of what turned out to be a well-known young man in widow’s weeds. His motive for doing so was elided by the newspaper.

how a burglar really looks burglar mask


What were the advantages to a criminal of donning widow’s weeds? Why not simply wear some other disguise or perhaps an automobile veil, a medical mask or a traditional burglar’s mask?

motoring veil


There are two primary advantages: First, of course, the physical concealment offered by the veil. Second, the social barrier created by the societal expectations and status of widows.

Let us look at the physical concealment advantage. While there was much discussion among physicians about the hygiene of mourning textiles, a widow in deep mourning generally wore a thick veil, of near opacity, made of or bordered with crape. We can see by the surviving fabrics—which in practice were often doubled–that the veil effectively obscured the face when lowered. This all-encompassing veil was the defining symbol of the widow.

mourning veil 1800-99


Unlike the ordinary fashionable veil, which was thin or semi-transparent, the mourning veil was meant to conceal the face, not for nefarious purposes, but for the protection of the widow.

In 1907 The Illustrated Milliner wrote: “The sorrowing when death comes, turn instinctively to the protection of the mourning veil.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer 1899 commented about mourners:

“the struggle to retain one’s composure is a cruel one. Against it crape is the only protection.” Philadelphia, [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1899: p. 11

The mourning veil protected the painfully sensitive widow from the prying eyes of the world. It conferred anonymity, even invisibility. It explained and it excused. The veil was psychologically impregnable, leaving the widow shrouded and shielded in grief and crape.

What made mourning clothing such a powerful social barrier? The answer lies in the communal expectations of widows. Leaving aside the “Merry Widow” jokes endemic in 19th-century popular culture, if we judge by what we read in newspapers, etiquette books, and popular fiction the average person, on encountering a widow in the street, might feel pity for one who was too often struggling to raise her family alone and in poverty.  A woman in mourning was essentially an invisible woman, yet one who had the instant sympathy of all right-thinking spectators.

Victorian literature is filled with quotes emphasizing that a widow was thought to be more spiritual, closer to heaven, than an ordinary woman. Mourning costume assumed the status of a religious garment:

Harriet B. McKeever wrote in 1867, in her novel Heavenward-Earthward, “now in her widowed state she was invested with a holy sanctity.” And McKeever described a widow “In her mourning-dress, an expression of holy resignation resting upon her face,”

“The Mourning Veil,” an 1857 short story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, makes the connection even more explicit. When a mourning veil is delivered by accident, a beloved dying child says to her mother: “Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil.” [Source: “The Mourning Veil,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857]

There was an odd dichotomy between the wink-and-nudge widow jokes and the adjectives and phrases often used in literature to describe the widow, which emphasize her passivity and harmlessness: delicate, sad-faced, pale and careworn, weak, helpless, and unprotected, gentle, sanctifying.

Widows’ weeds sanctified the wearer, who was assumed to be patiently submitting to the will of Heaven. Few would dream of invading the privacy of one so dressed. And so it was the perfect criminal disguise.

A criminal might exploit these two facets of mourning garb and operate in perfect safety, knowing that while wearing mourning, she could not be identified and as a widow, she might be given the benefit of the doubt long enough to perpetrate the crime and escape. Who could possibly suspect a woman of “sanctified affliction” of any criminal act? And while the black mask of the penny-dreadful fiend or the kerchief of the desperado would be highly conspicuous if worn in the street, the veiled widow was a familiar and disarming sight.

While I have emphasized the female Women in Black, some male criminals, too, found crape a convenient disguise, although they tend to be less well-represented in the papers, except by inference. Of course, today we draw a sharp distinction between the “crime” of cross-dressing and criminals trying to escape detection; it is the difference between an enthusiast who enjoys passing as female in public and, for example, an embezzler wearing widow’s weeds, trying to evade capture, as was reported in the Macon Telegraph:

A Missouri railway express agent named William Page stole $8,000 in cash. He donned the full mourning his wife had been wearing for her father, and hopped a train. “In this costume he started on his travels, but his walk gave him away to the train men, and the conductor telegraphed to the chief of police here. Detectives met the train and took the charming young widow into custody, when she weakened and confessed.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 1 January 1886: p. 4

I finish with one final mourning costume disguise: that of grieving innocent. There are stories of an unsettling number of murderers taking their places in the witness box wearing mourning for their victims to give the illusion of innocence. In 1872, accused serial poisoner Mrs. Emily E. Lloyd, “The Leesburg Borgia,” on trial for giving arsenic to her husband, aunt, and four children, appeared in court dressed in deep mourning, weeping piteously.

One man asked to wear his “Sunday Blacks” at his execution, as a mark of respect for the wife he had murdered.

In 1929 Jane Weyler, who killed her husband after an orgy was reported as wearing “deep mourning, with just a wee bit of white under the rim of her widow’s bonnet to match the pale cream of her face. Her eyes were delicately penciled to express black sorrow.” Auckland Star, 28 December 1929: p. 3

Sadly for our sense of mystery, the Women in Black no longer roam our dark back alleys. Rising hemlines and the First World War’s ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale meant that the veil went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Female pickpockets and male transvestites clothed as “The Women in Black” had to find some other method of disguise. The very term “The Woman in Black” slipped to the level of a journalist’s catchphrase for any mysterious or seductive female and as an undertaker’s euphemism for “widow.”

What strikes me most in reflecting on the cases of criminal Women in Black I have studied is this: Mourning dress was an exceptionally effective method of concealment. I have searched for follow-up stories, but very few of the women in black were ever caught or brought to justice. Those mistresses of the dark had, under the shelter of their veils, discovered the perfect criminal disguise.

Other examples of Victorian criminals disguised as widows? Or of confirmed men in crape? chriswoodyard8 AT

This post is adapted from my presentation “The Woman in Black: Victorian Mourning Dress as Criminal Disguise,” given in 2015 at the fall symposium of the Southeastern Chapter of The Costume Society of America, a professional organization for historians of dress and costume/textiles curators. Parts are included in The Victorian Book of the Dead and The Ghost Wore Black.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.


Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle

weeping widow SF Call 3 Oct 1897 p. 18
Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle This 1897 weeping widow uses a black-bordered handkerchief and not a tear bottle.

It is an affecting picture: sobbing black-clad Victorian mourners holding little glass vials to their eyes to catch their streaming tears. The vials could be sealed and left at the gravesite or taken home as a reminder of loss and its attendant grief.  By the time  the trapped tears evaporated, perhaps the bereaved one’s eyes would be dry, symbolizing an end to mourning and the renewal of hope.

This touching image has spawned the legend of the Victorian tear bottle, which has spread virulently through books and the internet, usually by people who seem to be making it up as they go along. One book describes—without citing sources—how groups of mourners would mingle their tears in one bottle and how the wives left behind during the Civil War collected their tears to show to their loved ones as proof that they had been missed.

Today you can purchase pretty objects described as “tear bottles,” or “tear catchers,” both new and antique, and the bottles have become emblematic of the quaint and macabre mourning practices of the Victorians. Now I like an attractive mourning tradition as well as the next ghoul, but, like the myth of standing corpses held up by posing stands for their post-mortem portraits, this transparent fiction really needs to be smashed to bits.

Recently there have been some excellent articles disputing the use of tear bottles and calling them what they are: perfume flasks. I was about to publish this article when this excellent piece by Sonya Vatomsky was posted. There is also this slightly older post, examining the tear bottle legend, so my post may seem redundant.  However, I am all about primary sources, and I have looked at the subject using textual references, which may seem tedious if you are a believer in the myth.  Be warned that this post will be Relentlessly Informative. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

When searching the literature for references to “tear bottles,” “tear catchers” or variant spellings of “lachrymatories,” there are basically three types of references: the sacred, the archaeological, and the secular, which almost always has a satirical or comedic context. There are also a few outliers such as reports of customs from exotic lands, and, of course, modern references to the alleged Victorian “tradition.”

Let’s start with the legend’s origins. Persons discussing the tradition of tear bottles often cite Psalm 56: 8: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” Small glass and clay bottles have been found in copious quantities in ancient graves. Nineteenth-century archaeologists and scholars described mourners crying into the bottles, which were then left at the grave. These artifacts were dubbed “lacrymatories” although, due to my lack of ancient languages, I haven’t found ancient texts confirming that there really was such a word or custom in Egypt, Cypress, Phoenicia, or Greece. However, even if this was just a sentimental fiction, the notion was well-known to the Victorian reading public.

I have a few decades of experience reading Victorian popular journals, newspapers, and fiction. Mourning fads and fashions are well-covered in all of these media. If tear bottles were deployed by mourners, we would expect to see them mentioned or advertised. Let me share a few statistics. Recently I examined several digital newspaper databases to see if I could find contemporary mentions of “tear bottles” or “tear catchers” used in Victorian mourning. What I found was this:

In the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” database, [1839-1922] there were 329 entries, almost all references to the lachrymatories found in ancient graves. In addition to duplicate references to the same newspaper articles, an estimated 10% of the total were optical scan errors, for example, misreading phrases like “four bottles” or “team catcher.”  Under the phrase “tear catcher,” there were 4 entries, none of which related to mourning.

In, [1786-2014] there were 1,545 matches for “tear bottle” and 281 matches for “tear catcher.” The references were largely religious and archaeological.

In, [1850-2015] there were 1,800 matches for “tear bottle” and 234 matches for “tear catcher.” These were also primarily references to ancient tear bottles. Some entries from the 1970s onward referenced the “tradition,” but did not give any primary Victorian sources. An article from 2015 advertised new tear bottles being sold at a gift shop, along with “artisan gourds, P. Buckley Moss, and fashion accessories.”

At, [1833-1983] we find 244 matches for “tear bottle,” which are, again, nearly all about ancient bottles and 29 references to “tear catchers,” most of which were mis-reads in articles about baseball.

In Google Books, [1677-1974] there are 205 entries for “tear bottle,” most of which refer to the bottles of antiquity. There are only 3 entries for “tear catcher” and none for “tear catchers.”

I’ve gone into this level of detail because I want to emphasize that while the 19th and early 20th century press was full of information on mourning practices, I can find absolutely no period “tear bottle” key-word entries which refer to Victorian mourners bottling their tears. 

Phoenician “tear bottle”

While the ancient artifacts sometimes called “tear bottles” certainly existed, I do not know if modern archaeologists would agree that they were used for tears. They might be ampullae or unguentaria. In the last few years, the use of investigative techniques unavailable to the archaeologists of the nineteenth century has confirmed that these so-called “tear bottles” contained oily substances, perhaps fragrant ointments used as libations or to anoint the dead. Oddly enough, this theory was known well before modern chemical analyses, but so ingrained was the idea that these ancient bottles were “tear catchers,” that a bizarre and misogynistic theory had to be invented to explain away the actual contents, as can be seen in this article from 1913:


“Tear Bottles” Used to Display Grief Were Powder Puffs.

Philadelphia. The “tear bottles” which women of the Orient carried centuries ago reveal the hypocrisy of the women. Several of these bottles are included in a collection of glassware which has been bought for $13,000 for the University of Pennsylvania museum. In ancient prints and histories the women of fashion of 1000 B.C. are represented as carrying the “tear bottle” in which to give vent to their grief on public occasion. It now develops that when the woman raised one of the bottles to her eyes she was dabbing powder over a red spot on her cheek.

Examination of the “tear bottles” in the museum collection disclosed traces of rouge, powder paint and cold cream still sticking to the bottom of the glass. In the collection are many cream pots and oil jars for the toilet table wrought in wonderful designs and colors, which have been more beautiful after lying for many centuries in tombs of Egyptian cities where they were found.

Daily Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock AK] 13 July 1913: p. 29

Talk about making it up as you go along….It takes a certain sort of insufferable arrogance to misunderstand an artifact and blame long-dead women for its alleged misuse.

In yet another extravagant display of making it up as you go along, we find this little-known episode of Egyptian history:

In 1952 the Cleveland Plain Dealer added this text to an illustration of a woman with an Egyptian flask. “On a wedding night, 1,900 years ago, a young bride like this cried her happiness into a tear-bottle—and then put the stopper in for later memories.”

Throughout the 19th century, there were spates of (probably) apocryphal stories from exotic locations about the use of tear bottles.

Take this unsubstantiated story, which has nothing to do with mourning:


It is a custom among the Chinese to have a tear-bottle. When two ladies or females of the lower rank quarrel, they go before a magistrate. A tear-bottle is given to the individual who says she is aggrieved, and if she can fill it with tears, the magistrate says, “I perceive you have been harshly treated. I shall award a great punishment to the one by whom you have been oppressed.” If she can only half fill it, the punishment is reduced to one half, but if she cannot shed one tear, there is no punishment at all.” Newark [NJ] Daily Advocate 5 August 1850: p. 2

Iran “tear bottle” (perhaps a perfume sprinkler)

This next story is the closest match I’ve ever found for the notion of mourners collecting tears, but it, too, is set in a distant country.

They still bottle tears in Persia. As the mourners at a funeral sit around weeping wads of cotton are passed with which the cheeks are mopped, the tears are then squeezed into a bottle and used as a charm and to revive dying persons. The practice was once universal, as every old tomb has a tear bottle. Otago Daily Times 24 November 1884: p. 4

I consulted two associates with backgrounds in Middle Eastern literature and culture and this is what I was told:

Both pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and Persian poetry have a long tradition of talking about tears.  A lot of crying tears of blood (crying so hard the eyes bleed) or crying enough to wash off a body in preparation for burial. There is a Farsi word for tear-bottle: Ashk-daan, but these objects seemed to be, like lacrymatories, historical objects or archaeological finds in graves, and not in current or 19th-century use.

The Persian tear bottle seems to be a poetic conceit conflated with grave finds. The Victorian public’s interest in Sir Richard Burton’s books and Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám may have suggested the idea of this Persian custom.

Such stories evoke extravagant displays of grief like those from the professional mourners of Egypt, Italy, and Ireland, none of whom reported bottling tears.

Ancient tear bottles pop up in a variety of odd places. For example, in an 1833 discussion of politics:

*“…we have nothing in the shape of consolation—not even a tear-bottle to send them.” (after mentioning “lachrymal vases which we received from the ruins of Thebes a few years since.”)

*A Temperance sermon called “How the Rum Bottle Fills the Tear Bottle,” [presumably God’s] was announced in  the New York Tribune 4 April 1884: p. 8

*A fairy character in a 1913 story called “HER BABY’S SMILE,” by Roy Rutherford Bailey tells about a tear in a bottle, which is revealed in the soppiest manner possible as “a tear of pure delight. It was the happy tear of a young mother over her baby’s first smile.” Boston [MA] Herald 30 December 1913: p. 11

*This quote, cited at, seems like it might offer some positive proof of the tear bottle custom.

One subtle, but accurate reference is found in The Living Age, a literary journal, in 1898. In the story, A Fateful Dinner Party, by H. Meyer Henne, the character Major Blythe discusses consoling a friend with Mrs. Samuels, “Lady Sloane won’t need to go shares with the tear bottle.”

However, looking at the tone of the entire story (which is a late silver-fork comedy of manners), and given the slangy context, (the exchange about Lady Sloane begins with “you bet your bottom dollar that Carol will console herself.”) this seems more likely to be a sarcastic reference to the easily alleviated grief of the mourning friend rather than a reference to an actual custom.

“The tear bottle” is often the equivalent of “get out your handkerchiefs!” and evokes in a jocular way fake sorrow or sympathy and exaggerated grief. It is important to recognize the unspoken subtext, the nuances, and the conventions of nineteenth-century writing rather than just seeking a keyword match.

This next item initially seemed promising, but no—the lady practicing with her tear bottle was from ancient Pompeii….

Before the days of La Grippe, when the ladies of Pompeii were the belles of the day, posed as the professional beauties, and, for all we know, had their photographs taken and got a percentage on them, well-bred people didn’t cry in handkerchiefs. They dropped their tears slowly and graceful into vials of cut glass that had gold stoppers set about with precious stones. There can be no doubt that the woman with thoughts upon a graceful pose practiced with her tear-bottle before her mirror, and, can there be anything more touching than when one’s best young man was off to the wars, sending him by registered letter a little note saying, “You have all my heart and these are the tears I have wept for you since your absence!” The tear-bottle could be enclosed as practical proof, and the maiden fair would write on the outside of the envelope in large letters: “Glass—please do not stamp so hard.” Those, indeed, were the days of romance! Undoubtedly some very fetching young women, who appreciated the impression made by a bottle of tears, but didn’t like getting a red nose, had their slaves do the weeping for them, and physical cultured themselves by administering to the slaves a good sound whipping that they might have something to weep for…

Nowadays in place of the bottle [emphasis mine] we have handkerchiefs… [goes on to discuss handkerchiefs at length.] St Louis [MO] Republic 11 January 1890: p. 9

I wonder if the bit about sending the bottle of tears to a soldier boyfriend was the inspiration for the idea that Civil War wives and sweethearts made a practice of this.

Next I got my hopes up with the promising headline, “Revival of the Tear Bottle.” But, alas! “Tear bottle,” only referred to the shape of the ancient bottles.

Revival of the Tear Bottle.

Among quaint old shapes in porcelain that are being revived are the classic “tear bottles,” a narrow-necked, full-bodied shape, round at the bottom, recalling the primitive days of the human race when such luxuries as tables were unknown and the bottle, the chief domestic utensil, was stuck in the stand to keep it upright. The tear bottle is often found in Roman and old Greek tombs. In it were supposed to be stored the tears shed for the departed ones. Quaint bottles of porcelain in this shape are mounted in ornamental frames of wrought iron.…All varieties of exquisite shapes in porcelain and Bacarat glass are mounted in wrought iron frames. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 16 July 1891: p. 6

Then there was an article headed “Bottled Tears,” which began by describing a craze for painting household accessories. It goes on:

But the very latest, up to the hour of going to press is painted “tear bottles.” For centuries there has been absolutely nothing to catch tears in, when a girl desired to sit down and have a good cry. How on earth this has come to be overlooked is not simply astonishing; it is astounding. Hitherto expensive handkerchiefs have been drenched, and their value nearly destroyed, on account of the sorrowing person being obliged to run to the door every few minutes and wring them out. If the person happened to be a copious weeper and her sadness of a great and overshadowing nature, like the loss of a thirteen ounce poodle, not only would the handkerchief be ruined, but all evidence of the feelings of the afflicted one over the calamity would be obliterated—wrung out in the gutter and carried away into the sewers. It is proposed now to retain these blessed mementoes in bottles, for future reference, and it is certainly a beautiful sentiment. Elegantly painted bottles, standing in rows on painted shelves provided expressly for them, will hereafter form a principal feature in a lady’s boudoir—showing the rainfall for the year throughout a large part of the Northwest. The decanters will be labeled appropriately, “On the death of poor Carlo,” “On seeing the hateful Maliflores in the loveliest of bonnets,” etc. These tender tokens of past sorrows will be useful as well as sentimental, and in case the sincerity of the lady’s grief is ever called in question, on the occasion of the death of her poodle or her husband, she can set out the bottle containing the tears shed at the time, and silence the venomous tongue of slander. Bottled tears, not for export, but for home use, will also have a commercial value, and can be placed in evidence in a court of justice, on an action for breach of promise. A painted three-gallon jug of tears would assuredly go far with a jury in determining the amount of damages to be awarded…Peck’s Sun.

Alabama Beacon [Greensboro AL] 16 February 1883: p. 3

Well, while the headline certainly sounds authoritative, it is patently obvious from this and from the rest of the piece that the passage is meant as satire.  The source also gives it away.  Peck’s Sun was run by well-known humorist George W. Peck, and was sometimes called “the funniest paper in America.”

Surely a sermon could provide convincing proof of the tradition? Yet this widely syndicated homily called “A Vision of Heaven” or “God’s Tear Bottle,” by The Rev. Thomas De Witt Talmage, one of the most popular American preachers of the 19th century, does just the opposite.

Talmage wrote:

“…on the steps of the altar was something like the lachrymal or tear bottle as I had seen it in the earthly museums, [emphasis mine.] the lachrymals or tear-bottles into which the orientals used to weep their griefs and set them away as sacred. But this lachrymal, or tear-bottle, instead of earthenware as those the orientals used, was lustrous and fiery with many splendors, and it was towering and of great capacity… And I said to my attending angel; “What is that great lachrymal, or tear-bottle, standing on the steps of the altar?” and the angel said: “Why, do you not know? That is the bottle to which David, the psalmist, referred in his fifty-sixth psalm when he said: “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.’ It is full of tears from earth, tears of repentance, tears of bereavement, tears of joy, tears of many centuries.” Sermons, Thomas De Witt Talmage 1872: p. 365-372

This, I think is a vital piece of evidence in disproving the tear bottle as an actual Victorian tradition: it is always mentioned in the context of the past.

Not convinced? Here’s another:

I must now direct your attention to a remarkable classical curiosity, namely the “Tear Bottle.” No one quite knows what these bottles were, neither is the origin known of the strange title to an Italian wine called Lachrymae Christi. This name has but correspondential value, but the tear-bottles have reference to some strange ceremonies long ago lost and forgotten. [emphasis mine.] Nevertheless, if any one will reflect what sort of tears are shed, when the soul is in deep grief and contrition, it will be concluded, I think, that they are a physical effect caused by the attrition and solution of that soul, altogether different from the usual eye secretion. The Journal of the Alchemical Society, London, November 1913: pp. 26-7

Again, here we see reference to an ancient, long-forgotten custom and not a mourning curiosity of a decade or two before.

In a sermonette against self-pity from 1941, the author speaks of ancient tear bottles without any mention of a later tradition:

A tear bottle is a little container whose mouth is shaped just like an eye and which, when put to the eye, fits very snugly. It is made, you see, so that one may catch his tears. No, tear bottles are not made any longer, not really, but in far off Egypt, many, many years ago, thousands of them were made. (They were possibly also made in ancient Palestine, for we find the Psalmist praying, “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.”) The Pantagraph [Bloomington IL] 23 November 1941: p. 17

I’ll offer one last example against the idea of Victorian tear bottle usage. This is from a gossip column, but there is no reason to think that the description from the letter is inaccurate:

The columnist writes that the widowed actress Mary Moore, on tour in America, shared a letter from her nanny, who was caring for her two children back in England.

[The letter] recounted the progress of the babies. The elder of the two is inclined to cry copiously. It seems as if his little heart is ever overcharged with sorrows beyond his very few years. He is not a fretful crier, but a mournful little chap, generally. The nurse, a wise, motherly woman, determined to get him out of this habit. So she pretended to read in the Times newspaper that there had been invented “a tear-catcher for baby boys.” This useful little invention, she declared she should purchase, as mamma often said that boys’ tears were very precious after they had turned 4 years of age; “and, of course,” added the adroit nurse, “if they are so precious, why, mamma can sell them, if saved in the tear-catcher, and on her return sell them for a deal of money, thus preventing her having to leave us and go away off to America to work for us all.” For a day or two the manly heart of the sorrowful little boy was so stirred that he did not cry as he usually did. But finally he resumed his weeping. Meantime nurse had raked up an old pair of seaside smoked glass goggles, removed the glasses, and, with the aid of wire, filled up the holes with tiny china ink wells, completing the whole with an elastic head band. A birthday came. So! There was the usual weeping. Nurse produced the tear-catcher as her birthday gift. At once the tears were dried ere the lad had worn them two minutes. On this the baby toddler realized, in a dim way, that his brother was in some sort of disgrace, and he began screaming lustily. Off came the glasses, and, with tragic intensity, the youngster lisped out: “Put ‘em on him; he a cryin’, nurse; me won’t cry any more.” At the time of writing the tears saved by “the catcher” seemed very few indeed, for selling purposes, the nurse explained…

Annie Wakeman.

Boston [MA] Herald 5 January 1890: p. 21

Note that this diverting anecdote came from a recently bereaved household.  Mary Moore’s husband, James Albery, died in 1889. If there had been such a thing as tear bottles, the nurse would not have had to invent her bizarre tear-catching specs, but could have popped down to the shops to purchase one. And if tear bottles had truly been an article in use in Victorian England, why would the custom not have been mentioned in this very appropriate context?

A final point: It is possible that the tear-bottle myth arose from the great many references in Victorian deathbed scenes and poetry to the “last tear” of the dying. This is a phenomenon not unknown to those who work with the dying. It is called lacrima mortis.

While there are copious references to “the last tear” there are far fewer references to actually catching that tear. These references are found mainly in a religious context and the tear is caught, not in a bottle, but on a bit of cloth or a handkerchief.

Here is a well-known example, from St. Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897), who speaks of her Superior, Mother Genevieve: “The Sisters hastened to claim something belonging to our beloved Mother, and you know what precious relic is mine. During her agony I had noticed a tear glistening like a beautiful diamond. That tear, the last she shed on this earth, did not fall, I still saw it shining when her body was exposed in the choir. When evening came, I made bold to approach unseen, with a little piece of linen, and I now have the happiness of possessing the last tear of a Saint.”

If not tear bottles, what are those pretty antique glass bottles which are so often advertised for sale? Sonya Vatomsky of Haute Macabre, who also wrote the Atlas Obscura article at the beginning of this post, suggests very plausibly that they are disposable perfume bottles called “throwaways.”

Some vinaigrettes or salts bottles sometimes mistaken for “tear bottles.”

Illustrations in catalogs show very similar bottles sold as “vinaigrettes” or “salt bottles.” The vinaigrette was a decorative bottle containing smelling salts.


The vinaigrette most in demand just now is the one which is most antique in appearance. The dull gold or “Indian finish” is almost exclusively used for the top….The bottles are much the shape of the famous “tear bottles,” and vary through every cut of the glassmakers’ art. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 January 1900: p. 36

Why am I bothering to go on at such length about a relatively minor mortuary legend? Because it is bad history. Fake news, if you like. And people are profiting from the fakelore. I suppose you could make a case that fakelore is harmless (although it would be difficult to tell that to the “Slenderman” victims), but I do not think it harmless to have an actual historical artifact turned into something it patently is not and never was.  This was highlighted in a recent article about those “vampire killing kits,” which asked if it made any difference if they were real or not. The notion isn’t “whimsical” or “letting people make up their own minds.” It is fraud. And yes, bad history and fake artifacts do matter.

But can I prove a negative? I cannot prove that tear bottles never existed. Yet the silence in popular sources, which otherwise dwelt at length on every gradation of crape and black borders, is damning. While I often study the ephemeral customs that had their fifteen minutes of fame and then vanished without necessarily leaving physical artifacts behind, it would be without precedent not to find some documentation. A custom claimed to be so pervasive must surely have left behind some traces in the written record.

I’ve collected as many primary references as I could, hoping to show conclusively that there is no evidence in the popular record of tear bottles being used in Victorian mourning. Perhaps someone has another set of primary sources that would prove me wrong.

I regret that I must specify primary sources. When I briefly sketched out these arguments for a group of mourning history/artifact enthusiasts, one of them told me about the modern book that I mentioned earlier that cited no sources for the tear-bottle fantasy, earnestly assuring me that I’d find the proof I was looking for there. Well, no….

While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, in this case the evidence suggests that it is time to put the stopper into the tear-bottle myth. I’m sorry it all has to end without tears.


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.