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.