Little Jane’s Christmas Box: 1842

 

doll's coffin 1870-1900
Little Jane’s Christmas Box https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/304803

LITTLE JANE’S CHRISTMAS BOX.

Incidents filled with deepest pathos, and occurrences to stir the soul with tenderest emotion, happen around us every day; yet seldom, very seldom, have we a pen commanding leisure enough to yield them a brief record.

We remember being at the house of a friend on a certain Christmas day, when our eye, glancing through the window, fell upon an upholsterer’s preparations for a funeral going on in front of a house immediately opposite. Our gentle hostess of the occasion, marked the action, and made us sit down to hear the following simple and affecting history of poor little Jane and her first Christmas Box.

The little girl about to be buried upon the merriest holiday in the year, was just approaching the anniversary of her seventh birthday, when some subtle disorder that had afflicted her from infancy, carried her off during the night that ushered in our last gay Christmas. She was a child of very sweet and attractive manners, and the neighbors had learned to know and love her. The incurable complaint which was consuming her, gave a placidity almost ethereal, to her disposition, and her smile was a thing so mildly beautiful, that (if we may use a simile to assist this warm but imperfect description of our informant,) it must have been like the leaf of a lily shining in the embrace of a moonbeam.

The parents were poor, but dignified and retiring, and notwithstanding the profound interest little Jane awakened in the neighbourhood, the bearing of the father and the constant seclusion of the mother, clearly forbade any intrusive proffer of assistance. A few weeks since the child ceased its visits to the sidewalk, and was seen to sit no more upon the door step. Poor Jane was upon her death-bed.

At the approach of the holidays, the father and mother (with that old hankering of hope which so eagerly clings for safety to a straw,) grew joyous with a bright change in their suffering daughter. She suddenly grew to laugh and converse with pleasant freedom, and the symptoms of internal pain ceased to cross her sweet face so often as before. Then the cheered mother would sit by the bedside, and talk to her girl of the merry holidays that were soon coming, and promising the poor child what she had never known before —a handsome Christmas box.

This promise, as it would seem, took great hold upon poor little dying Jane’s fancy, for she still, from day to day, would question her mother about it, and desire to know what sort of a box it was to be? For an hour or two on the day preceding Christmas, she chatted with remarkable liveliness, telling her father and mother jocosely, that she meant to keep awake in the night, and watch Santa Claus when he came down the chimney with the box. But as evening came on, she faded into pale and sleepless stupor. The doling mother grew again uneasy, and with every innocent artifice, endeavored to keep the child’s senses in action. She lifted little Jane upon the pillow, that she might see how the stocking .was disposed in the chimney corner, telling her how she had promised to keep awake to see Santa Claus come down; but poor Jane smiled faintly, without speaking, a peculiar expression only crossing her countenance, by which the mother always understood a solicitation to be kissed.

There she slept—a sort of sleep from which her mother wished, yet feared to wake her—brightening up again at her father’s return home in the evening. Somehow then the child’s eye, or its changed voice, or some symptom not seen before, smote conviction of the coming catastrophe upon the father’s heart, and mute with wretchedness, he sank upon his knees by the bedside.

One loud, abrupt, involuntary and thrilling scream burst from the mother at this action, for it told her all that the father had no tongue to utter. She flew to her child, clutching it to her heart and lips, as though she would detain the breath heaven was taking away, and a deathly silence followed the woman’s scream, broken only by the mountain-like laboring of the father’s heart, and hysterical sobs bursting from the afflicted mother.

In the opposite dwelling Fortune and Pleasure were smiling upon each other, and a gay assemblage of the chosen votaries of each, were joyfully greeting as they passed away the merry and laughing hours of Christmas Eve! How strangely opposites will sometimes jar during our progress through this chequered scene! How, still more strangely, does that jarring oft touch up the chords of gentle sympathy, which vibrate ever with melodious sound.

The poor, bereaved mother’s scream reached, and startled the company opposite, and our good hostess commanding her guests of the evening to remain in undisturbed festivity, went to visit the scene of affliction, for her heart too truly told her what alone could be the cause of such a desolate sound.

Little Jane lingered till nearly midnight, fading slowly, like one of those thin vapors sailing in the train of Cynthia, which pass away into ether, mocking admiration as with some beautiful illusion that you think you’ve seen, yet suddenly and strangely miss. The fair child yielded its breath with a smile, while the mother’s tears were falling on its face, and the heavy throbs of the father’s heart kept mournful accompaniment with the last pulsations of life in the breast of his child.

So came the morning, and poor little Jane’s Christmas box was—a coffin!

The Ladies’ Garland Volume 6, 1842: pp. 171-172

 

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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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Christmas Mourning: 1895

1895 mourning accessories. 65.231.4a-b 0004 http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

ONLY A MOURNING VEIL

Glimpses at a Modern Pawnbroker’s Sale in New York.

BAB BEFRIENDS A WOMAN

It Was at the Humane Establishment on Fifth Avenue and Many Unredeemed Pledges Were at Auction

A Pathetic Christmas Story of a Fallen Daughter.

 New York, December 20, 1895

It was a very queer crowd—in the extreme front were the pawnbrokers from off the Bowery. Among them, and around them, were fashionable women, who looked frightened because their sables were a little too close to shabby coats, and because their ears were shocked by loud voices. It was the sale of society’s pawnshop—that is to say, the pawnshops that society, properly enough, is backing. The pawnshop permits you to get back whatever you pawn on the installment plan, and all the percentage that is asks is a very small one, so that your heart’s blood is not dragged from you, and there is some chance for the poor. But there were so many things no called for, and there had to be a sale. To be in harmony, this sale took place in a fashionable auction room on the Fifth avenue. The day before some beautiful pictures were sold, and the newest beauty flirted with the handsomest millionaire, and there was a mixed odor of violets and sable, while the seats were filled by the people who at night occupy boxes at the opera. The Four Hundred usually go to this auction room, but to-day it was the representatives of the four million who were there.

How the dealers did lean forward to look at the diamonds! They were so eager that they were told to sit down. And such pitiful diamonds as they were! Good enough stones, but those in rings were set as you remember your mother’s engagement ring was. Those in brooches were in the deep, old-fashioned way that didn’t bring out the brightness of the stone, but which was though very smart fifty years ago. There were old-fashioned breast-pins, such as gentlemen used to wear in their scarfs; there was a flounce of Spanish lace—whose dress had it trimmed? There was a little watch with an open face, and on the back engraved “To the One Woman from Him” –who was she?

Poverty at the Sale.

My neighbor on my right was a shabby woman, not pleasant to look upon. She was thin, she was tall, her features were sharp, and she had that peculiar air that one sees among the people of the other side of never having been satisfied. Never having been warm enough, never having had clothes enough, and never having had quite enough to eat. She had on a black alpaca dress, a miserable looking black crape bonnet, while a shabby blue and green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She pushed her way through the crowd, bringing a stool with her, shoved me closer to the wall, placed her stool and seated herself. Then she borrowed my catalogue. She turned over several pages, and I heard her say to herself, “’Taint come up yet.” She continued talking, and although I did not understand every word, I did heard her say, “if I’d a got here before the sale commended, there’d a been no trouble; but when you hire out for a day, people they say ‘gimme a day,’ but I was bent on comin’ here this afternoon to get that.”

Rings were sold, watches were sold, there were so many wedding rings sold, and then there was a child’s necklace put upon a string of coral beads with a tiny enameled clasp. I glanced at my neighbor, thinking it was that in which she was interested, but no; she evidently cared nothing for it. In a few minutes I felt her touch me on the arm. I looked around and smiled. She said, “Lady, would you be afraid to bid on anything?” I told her I wouldn’t, and then she asked, “If I start and don’t get right will you straighten me?” I promised. Then I heard her say, “I had enough to pay for the ticket, but a handsom’ thing like that—well, there’s no telling what some of these fashionable folks will do.”

Bid All the Money She Had.

Suddenly the auctioneer said: “I am not in the habit of selling dry goods, but—“

There was a hush, and for once the brokers were silent. And I knew, in some queer way, some inexplicable way, that what my neighbor had come for was put up. It was not a diamond ring, it was not a beautiful watch, it was not a long gold chain; it was only—a mourning veil. For a second—and it seemed like an hour—nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said, “Won’t somebody start this?” Somebody did for 50 cents. In a second my neighbor was on her feet, and it was raised to 75 cents. Her opponent called out a dollar. She raised it a quarter. He made it a dollar and a half. She raised it another quarter. He made it $2. She sat down, the tears streaming down her face. I heard her say, “I ain’t got a penny more, an’ can’t get it.”

I lifted my muff way up in the air. The auctioneer saw it, and the veil was knocked down to me for two dollars and a half. She looked at me quickly. She saw the smile on my face, the smile that struggled with tears for supremacy, and she realized the truth. Grasping my gloved hand in her hard, rough one, she said: “I’ll work it out.” But I whispered good-by, gave my card to her, and was glad that I had been of use to somebody in the world.

The next morning I went in to pay my bill, and the cashier said to me: “There is a woman here, a woman who was here when we opened the door, and she is waiting for you.” It was my friend of the day before. I felt that she was unusual in her desired to say “thank you,” for experience has taught me that thanks are the scarcest things in this world and yet they cost the least. But here she stood, stiff and starved looking, and with the precious veil in her hand. After the ordinary thank you, she said to me, “You must let me pay you the money I’ve got, lady, and as I told you yesterday, I’ll work out the rest.” I told her it was not necessary, that I was glad to think I had been able to make her happy. And then she began to cry.

Her Daughter an Actress.

She said, “It mayn’t seem much to you, but it’s a great deal to me. Times has been hard with me, else this’d never gone into the pawnshop. I’m common, lady, but I had a girl and you’d never thought she was my girl. And she was like you and the other ladies and wore soft furs, and dresses that rustled, and always had a nice perfume all around her. She was pretty when she was a baby, and when her father died some kind people got the Sisters interested in her, and they took her in the school for nothin’. An’ she was so bright and pretty that they taught her to play on the piano, an’ she could sing and talk to the laundress that lives in the same house with us, and who comes from way off across the sea just as well as she could to me, though the langwidges was different. I always thought she was goin’ to be a teacher, an’ when she came home to my poor place, just one room, I used to think how comfortable we’d be when she got a situation an’ we could take a cheap little flat and enjoy ourselves. But no, she said she was goin’ to be an actress. I don’t know how she managed it. No, I never went to see her act. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me. But she sent for me once, an’ I went to a big hotel, an’ there she was lookin’ like a queen, an’ she told me she was married, an’ showed me the picture of a handsome young man. An’ she wanted to give me some money, but I said ‘No, my dear, I know just how fussy some son-in-laws are, an’ this one shan’t say that your mother’s interferin’ with you.’

“I could always keep myself decent, but I just made up my mind I’d have to give her up. Once in a while the neighbors would show me a paper, where there would be a picture of her, and it’d tell how she played and sang and how much people liked her. But I never saw her again ‘till one night last winter near Christmas. I’d gone to bed. There was a knock at the door, and who should it be but my girl.

She and the Baby Died.

“I saw she was in trouble, and when she says to me, ‘Mother, I’m a bad girl, but I have come back to you,’ I remembered that story in the Bible where his father went far out to meet him, an’ I never blamed her. She had a few trinkets, and they went first to get medicine. Then came that awful night when her baby was born. They both died. The poor little baby seemed to know it wasn’t wanted in this world, an’ it just opened its eyes an’ closed them again. But she, she said to me,’ Mother, I don’t want you to forget me’ an’ I promised her I wouldn’t. An’ to show I didn’t, I got this crape bonnet and that veil and wore them to the funeral. That was Christmas Eve she died, nearly a year ago, and during the year I have been strapped pretty tight, and I bundled up a lot of things and took them to the pawnbroker so I might square myself with the undertaker. They was things I didn’t care for, but he wouldn’t gimme enough on the, so I just yanked off my veil and left it. An’ I have been worrying for it ever since. I thought I’d get here in time to redeem it, ‘cause I kept my ticket, but I appreciate your kindness, lady, an’ I think you can understand why just when it was getting’ near Christmas I wanted to have my veil on, ‘cause it seemed to tell those people who knew her that, no matter what she was, no matter how she acted, she was my girl, an’ I wore the veil in memory of her. God give you and yours a happy Christmas.”…

It is strange how that spirit of Christmas brings up in our hearts the desire to keep before us always those for whom Christmas was made joyful many years ago. There are processions of children who are thought of, and the memory of each one comes back to the mother heart that has each missed a little child. And that mother heart can sympathize with the hard, common-looking old woman who longed so for her black crape veil that she might show on Christmas Day she had not forgotten her daughter….

The Washington [DC] Post 22 December 1895: p. 22

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the desperate desire by the poor for respectful and respectable mourning. To those comfortably well-off, it seemed a foolish mania to spend all the burial club money on crape and display. This struggling woman, however, points the moral that wearing mourning was not always about what the neighbours thought, but of love for the unforgotten dead.

For more on mourning veils and Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

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

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

O tödliche Baum! O tödliche Baum!

santa claus with doll by tree kind of creepy

Well, the Christmas tree is up and encrusted in an effect some critics have likened to standing on a stepladder and emptying a ornament storage box onto a bare tree. I look pityingly at the skeletal and skimpily trimmed trees in antique photographs. Yet there was method in this minimalism: wider spacing between branches and fewer ornaments reduced the risk of fire. Christmas trees as the agent of death are a common theme in the papers of the past. Candles for lights, paper ornaments, and cotton batting to simulate snow were a lethal combination. Each year at least several score of people–some of them playing Santa Claus–burned to death in the Season of Light–killed by their Christmas trees.

Perhaps, then, it was appropriate that evergreens were a staple landscaping choice in the 19th-century graveyard. Cedars were sanctified by their mention in the Bible; evergreens of all kinds represented the perpetually green soul. One would think that a graveyard tree would be sacrosanct or the subject of superstition, yet tree thefts at Christmas were occasionally reported with much indignation. Even when an evergreen was legitimately removed from a cemetery, there might be trouble—fatal or not—with the “hoodoo” tree.  

MYSTERY OF “HOODOO” CHRISTMAS TREE SOLVED

Change From Its Graveyard Environment Is Too Much; Falls from Dignity.

Kendalville, Ind., Dec. 20 The mystery of Kendallville’s “Hoodoo” Christmas tree is explained by the revelation that the tree was taken from a cemetery. Little wonder that the poor thing acted up when brought from its graveyard environment of peace and quiet into the city’s Christmas whirl of rush, hurry and hubbub, and was placed right in town at the intersection of Main and Williams streets. Human frailties are oft revealed when the tenderfoot from the rural district encounters the glare of the lights and lure of the city, and plunges into riotous living. After being roughly hewn from its comfortable surroundings and dragged into an atmosphere quite the reverse, it would naturally follow as a matter of course that among everything so new and strange the tree would lose its self possession in a few instances and fall from its pedestal of dignity. Who wouldn’t?

Trees suitable to answer for a community Christmas tree are very scarce hereabouts and just when the outlook was darkest for procuring one to answer the purpose, Ex-Mayor Case learned that the Cemetery association had a surplus supply and would be glad if a few were removed. The tree was secured with their consent.

Wednesday afternoon while trying to place the tree, which being forty feet in height and frozen, was very heavy, the guy wires holding it broke and it crashed to the ground. Mayer Brouse narrowly escaped seriously injury and two other men who were assisting in raising it, Ben Smith and Glen Milks, were somewhat scratched up by the branches striking them as the tree fell. Thursday morning while driving his car at the corner of Main and Williams street, George Bloomfield struck a guy wire used in erecting the tree, which broke the windshield on his machine. He was it on the head and rendered unconscious, the machine smashed into a tree and Mr. Bloomfield was thrown violently out of the auto to the pavement. His condition was thought to be very serious, but latest reports are to the effect that he is recovering nicely at the hospital and is expected to be out soon. Fort Wayne[IN] Sentinel 20 December 1919: p. 18

CHRISTMAS TREE A HOODOO

[Waterbury (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Chopping the butt of a Christmas tree in Prospect this afternoon, William Smith, a farm hand, nearly cut off his great toe.

Angered, he threw the ax and it broke a window and struck a child, Mabel Scoville, in the face, inflicting a severe cut. Trimming the tree later, Mrs. William Scoville fell and broke an ankle.
Indignant over the chain of accidents, Howard Scoville, a son of the woman, insisted on doing the rest of the work himself, and while testing the candles set the tree afire and nearly burned the farmhouse.
Believing the tree bewitched, the father, Ambrose Scoville, threw it into the hog pen, where it fell on and killed a chicken.

“Four of July is good enough for me. Let’s celebrate at the church festival this year,” was Mr. Scoville’s comment. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 January 1908: p. 12

For many years Christmas trees were shipped from Northern Michigan in risky, late-season runs by Great Lakes schooners, known as Christmas Tree Ships.  Despite multiple deaths, it was a highly lucrative trade. One of the most famous fatalities of the Christmas Tree ships was a man known as “Captain Santa.”

Crepe on Christmas Tree Recalls Death of Captain Schuenemann

Chicago, Dec. 25. Crepe on a Christmas tree was the unusual sight gazed upon yesterday by thousands of persons who rode on street cars in North Clark street.

The tree stood on the prow of a boat at the Clark street bridge, where for years Captain Herman Schuenemann of the ill-fated Rouse Simmons, sold Christmas trees.

The crepe recalled to the minds of those who saw it the death of Captain Schuenemann and his crew of sixteen a few weeks ago in Lake Michigan when the Simmons was lost. She had sailed from Michigan with a cargo of Christmas trees for Chicago.

Incidentally it was recalled that Captain Schuenemann and his crew were saved a few years ago when another ship, the Mary Cullen, of which he was in charge, sank of Grosse Point. She, too, was loaded with trees for the Yuletide season. It was recalled, too, that August Schuenemann, a brother of the captain, lost his life fourteen years ago in Lake Michigan when the schooner Thal, of which he was in charge, sank. This boat also was laden with Christmas trees, and carried a crew of five men. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 26 December 1912; p. 6

Even if the trees the Schuenemanns carried were not cut from a graveyard, they seemed to have been something of a hoodoo for the family.

We may take as read the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths from fire caused by candle-lit trees. Safety authorities for years tried to discourage some of the more dangerous decorating practices like the use of cotton batting for “snow,” advocating “less harmful” materials like asbestos, lead, and mica.  

Cotton, candles, children and matches make a very dangerous Christmas combination. Every year this combination casts a gloom over many American households and in addition is responsible for a considerable loss of property by fire. All cotton is needed, this year, in clothing and ammunition factories; so let us use metallic tinsel [some was made from lead] asbestos fibre, and powdered mica for decorations and imitation snow, instead of the highly combustible cotton. Fox Lake [WI] Representative 20 December 1917: p. 3

Sadly, all the safety warnings in the world could not stop children eager for Christmas morning.

9 ARE DEAD IN CHRISTMAS TREE BLAZE

Children in DeGerbo Family at Hillsville, Pa., Illuminate Decoration With Horrifying Result

ALL ARE INCINERATED

Five Children, Their Parents and Two Boarders, Die in Home Burned at Early morning Hour.

Newcastle, Pa., Dec. 24 Guitana DeGerbo [Guipana Gerbo, Guitana De Gerbo] and wife, five children and two boarders, were burned to death at 1 o’clock this morning when their home burned at Hillsville, the fire starting from a lighted Christmas tree.

It is thought the children got up during the night and lighted the Christmas tree. Telephone reports say the bodies are still in the smouldering ruins. Elkhart [IN] Truth 24 December 1909: p. 1

While fire was the most common reason for evergreen lethality, there is a startling variety in other fir fatalities. Some were merely peripherally associated with the tree preparation, as in this story of the wrong tool for the job:

MOTHER KILLED AS SHE PREPARED CHRISTMAS TREE

Detroit, Mich. Dec. 22. Mrs. Thomas E. Barnes was killed today at her home by the explosion of a “one pounder” rapid fire gun cartridge, which it is supposed she was using for a hammer in the Christmas preparations for her two baby girls.

How the explosion occurred is not definitely known, as she was alone with the children, but it is said by friends of Mrs. Barnes that she had used the cartridge for a hammer at other times. The cartridge had been in the possession of the Barnes family for some time, and is said to have been given to Mrs. Barnes by her brother, William Mayhew, a gunner in the United States Navy, who is thought to be attached to the United States torpedo station at Newport News.

The woman’s right hand was torn off at the wrist, her left hand was mutilated, part of the cartridge penetrated her breast and cut her heart and lungs, and her back also was cut by parts of the shell. Mrs. Barnes had left the children in the kitchen so that they would not see her prepare the Christmas tree, which was to be set up in the archway between parlor and sitting room. Evidently she had been re-arranging the curtains of the archway so that the candles on the tree would not set the curtains on fire. Using the cartridge for a tack hammer, she was instantly killed by the explosion that resulted. Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 23 December 1904: p. 10

Or in this sad story of Christmas greed run amok:

Boy Trampled to Death in Rush at Christmas Tree

Hastings, Mich., Dec. 25. Russell Smith, 6, son of Ralph Smith, was trampled to death by a crowd of children in their mad rush to receive gifts and candy during a ceremony at the community Christmas tree in the heart of the business district.

The boy was dead before it was discovered that he had fallen beneath the feet of his schoolmates. His cries apparently were drowned out in the shouting of the children.

Russell had been taken down town only after he pleaded all during the day, the father said. The tragedy cast a pall over the Christmas celebration. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 December 1922: p. 2

In others, the tree was clearly to blame;

FATAL CHRISTMAS TREE

Harrisburg, Pa., Dec. 22 A Christmas tree that Michael Mahorcic, of Steelton, was carrying home, prevented him from seeing a train as he was crossing the Pennsylvania tracks today and he was struck and instantly killed. Macon [GA] Telegraph 23 December 1913: p. 12

But while the headline places the blame squarely on the tree, this story has always seemed a little mysterious–what kind of an insect emerges from a Christmas tree?

A Deadly Christmas Tree

Nyack, N.Y., Dec. 20. A singular death occurred at Sparkill. While Miss Josie Reichling, a popular young artist and musician of Sparkill, was assisting in trimming the Episcopal church last Saturday for Christmas she was bitten on the cheek by some insect. The sore gradually grew worse. Its nature puzzled the most skilful doctors and after great suffering the young lady died yesterday. The News [Frederick, MD’ 30 December 1893: p. 1

Similar questions arise from this story, where blood-poisoning resulted from decorating a tree. Was there some toxic substance on the needles? Did unscrupulous dealers spray their wares with arsenical green to make the trees look fresher?

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

New York, Feb. 22. William W. Babbington, a bookkeeper, decorated a tree Christmas eve, assisted by his wife. Both were slightly pricked by pine needles. Both developed felons and later blood poisoning. Babbington died in St. John’s hospital, Long Island City, on Monday.

Mrs. Babbington, who is to undergo two operations, one for blood poisoning and another for tumor, is awaiting her husband’s funeral before going to the hospital. The Salina [KS] Evening Journal 22 February 1909: p. 5

A felon, to be Relentlessly Informative, is “a painful abscess of the deep tissues of the palmar surface of the fingertip that is typically caused by infection of a bacterium.”

Christmas tree candles were the primary agent of holiday deaths, but fire was not their only hazard: 

We find arsenic in green wax candles and green tapers. Mr. T. Bolas of Charing Cross Hospital having noticed the arsenical odour which was present during the burning of green wax tapers, Christmas candles, and similar articles, was induced to examine several samples, with the following results: Of thirteen samples, one only contained arsenic, the majority being coloured with verdigris, and two samples were tinted with ultramarine green. The arsenical tapers were of the kind usually employed in houses for lighting gas; and one taper, weighing 17’69 grains, was found to contain 0’276 grains of arsenious acid. When we consider how extremely sensitive some people are to the action of this poison, especially when it enters the system through the respiratory organs, it will be sufficiently apparent that it is highly reprehensible to use a volatile poison like arsenic, even though the amount employed may be small, for colouring tapers or other similar articles intended for burning in houses. A Christmas tree brilliantly illuminated with arsenical candles may be taken as an extreme instance of the danger likely to arise from this source. A Dictionary of Hygiene and Public Health, Alexander Wynter Blyth, Ambroise Tardieu, 1876 p. 65

In photographs of vintage Christmas trees, the candles appear to be white;  it was startling to realize that they were colored and toxic. This makes me rethink using the box of antique  red candles for the Swedish angel chimes.

It has been known that many children have been victims from colored Christmas candles, yes, adults were seized with curious and inexplicable symptoms, which could not be traced to the ingestion of any particular food or liquid of which they had partaken. Attention was then drawn to the candles on the Christmas tree, many of which were green, and these when submitted to analysis, proved to contain Scheile’s green, the red candles, moreover, being colored with vermillion [a mercury compound.] The Dental Review 1912: p. 647

One of the most shocking stories about green candles came from Vienna:

While the Princess Frederica was arranging a Christmas tree for some poor children at Vienna, for the Christmas of 1869, a burning green wax taper fell upon her arm, and so poisoned her that she is dying a painful death, at the residence of her father, the ex-King of Hanover. Albany [NY] Evening Journal 4 May 1871: p. 2

This is such a great story–those deadly green dyes!—but Princess Frederica actually lived until 1926. Possibly she was conflated with her dear friend, Archduchess Mathilde, who burned to death in 1867 when she set fire to her muslin dress while trying to hide a cigarette from her father.  Mathilde’s father Prince Albert and the King of Hanover lived almost next door to one another in a suburb of Vienna and the two young aristocrats were great friends. Still, it is such a cautionary tale that it ought to have been true.

The advent of electric lights was hailed as a holiday life-saver, never mind the mica, asbestos, spun glass, and lead tinsel still in use.  Today everything is UL approved, but I still wash my hands after handling antique ornaments of fabric or tinsel.  Like the voiceover says on those PSAs that show how quickly a tree can go up in flames, no one wants to become yet another holiday statistic. It would be just too embarrassing to die of an ornament overdose. The tree has that already.

Other balsamic bereavements? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Christmas in the Graveyard: 1912

russian graveyard
Christmas in the Graveyard An Old Russian graveyard. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Much to do to prepare for Christmas so a quick post on mourning and Christmas in old Russia.

A STRANGE CHRISTMAS PARTY

December and the year had almost unwound themselves. We were among the scantily clothed days at the end of the year. There was now no snow on the ground, or if there were any, it was not of the time; it survived from earlier days when the skies had been prodigal. It rained a little and froze a little and the feeble air blew up in little gusts or lay exhausted in mists. The mists trailed over the withered maize fields or lay listlessly about the green roofs of the village houses, or cleared for a few hours to show the bases of the mountains. I was living in the far South of Russia.

I stood one morning in the little cemetery and looked around me. It seemed the mist had just cleared a space. The graves and the stones and the crosses, the grass and last summer’s withered flowers could be seen quite clearly, and even the low green paling that fenced the graveyard in. But beyond these the mist had dominion. My world had for the time shrunk, and the unknowable boundlessly increased. As I stood there I felt the mist encroaching, encroaching—like oblivion upon memory; as if it would limit even to the seven feet of shadow I cast upon the ground.

Around me were many green wooden crosses, crosses that had weathered many rains and dried in hot suns, and become wet again in mist and rain, or white and green in snow, or silvered in frost. They were all fragile and unstable as if put up for sport by children, and the winds had tumbled them so that they pointed at all angles, as it were, at every star in heaven. Round the necks of the crosses hung little ikons or artificial-flower wreaths, a prayer book, a shape, a token; and below, one read the legend:

Here lies buried the body of a slave of God.”

It was an ancient graveyard full of dead, and had served several little villages for a century or more. Its fresh dark earth exhaled an incense to the mind, a remembrance of tears and prayers.

Fast underground lie the poor joinered coffins, most of which the moujiks had made for themselves before they died. All the fair form and flesh has vanished away, and with them the personality and lovableness of those whose life’s limit was marked by these crosses. But to the Russian it is the cross planted upon the grave that nullifies the grave, signifying the triumph of Christ over death. No crosses are of stone, and the wood is for him the wood of the Tree of Life.

For there are no dead in Russia … all who have passed the dark portal are alive for evermore.

Suddenly out of the mist a form emerged, as if the mist itself had taken form. An old woman, tall, and bent with age, came slowly forward, gathering sticks here and there as she walked. She did not notice me, but wandered to and fro among the graves. Then as I reflected what she might be doing, a grey-headed crow fluttered down from an unseen tree and balanced itself upon a cross in front of her. Whereupon she turned hurriedly from the bird of evil omen, and I saw that she was a worshipper at a grave. At some distance from me, where little rustic seats had been placed about a grey-green cross, a candle was burning, and a young woman was arranging some tribute upon the low mound—a wreath perhaps. I approached and recognised my neighbour who lives in the house facing the white church on the green.

I did not go nearer, but I saw they had planted a new Christmas tree before a grave, and they had hung it with little ornaments and candles. The old lady lit a little fire with the sticks she had gathered, and the young one, her daughter, spread out a cloth in which was a portion of cake from their Christmas table. They had come to share their rejoicing and their festival with one who had died, a daughter and a sister.

The fire crackled and sent up clouds of blue smoke, and the little lights twinkled on the tree upon the grave. The red and yellow candles gleamed. The liquid mist flowed about the scene like staring ghosts, and I was the only human witness.

Presently, after crossing herself, and kissing the ground, the old lady rose. She placed a little cake upon the mound for the dead one, and took to herself a little, and gave a little to her living daughter; then to myself in my heart the sacred fare also was given, and we made up this strangest Christmas party. There were four present; there were four thousand—the ghosts pressed around in the mist, a mob of the dead. I felt like Ulysses in quest of Tiresias.

She who had died was a beloved daughter, and the tears streamed down the face of the old mother, and though the younger did not weep, I have learned there were as many tears in her heart as in the eyes of the other. The old woman, the babushka, belonged to Old Russia, and the young one belongs to the newest of the new.

I have more to say of them. They took the toys from the tree and gave them to the poor children round about their home, and to these also gave of the cake. For the younger woman had learned the lesson that in the living we can find all our dead again.

Undiscovered Russia, Stephen Graham, 1912

Graham [1884-1975] was a British journalist and travel writer, who wrote several dozen books about Russia, the First World War, social issues, biography, and “tramping.” He began traveling in Russia in the heady, pre-Revolutionary days when a remaking of the world seemed possible and seems to have felt a mystic connection to the peasants, to tramps, and those who toiled on the land.

I have collected several heartbreaking accounts from 19th-century United States newspapers of placing decorated Christmas trees on the graves of children.  The practice continues to this day.

If you have an interest in mourning practices and rituals, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

 

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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.