A Hasty Conclusion Which Gave a Father Much Pain—An Irishman’s Waistcoat the Cause of It All.
N.Y. Tribune. A young husband and father was hastening along in a suburban town one afternoon not long ago to cover the short distance between the railroad station and his home. When he started for business in the morning his little son was ill with a fever, so anxiety had driven the father from his office at an earlier hour than usual. As he caught sight of his cosey home, in its setting of greensward, ivy and shade trees, he could not help thinking how blessed he was to have such a place to live in, and, above all, that there were awaiting him within it a loving wife, a handsome son and the prettiest, sweetest, cunningest baby in or out of Christendom.
As the reason of his early coming home crossed his mind, however, a cloud spread over his joy, and he quickened his pace to put an end to his suspense. He had come within half a block of his home, on the opposite side of the street from it, when he saw something white on its door-bell knob. He imagined he saw the object sway gently in the breeze. Gazing intently on it, he had walked a dozen paces when of a sudden he felt a sinking in his heart, an indefinable impression of fear, of poignant grief and desolation.
In another instant the feeling had transplanted into words, “My God, it’s crape, Arthur is dead,” and the breath seemed to leave his body. Pictures of hopes, and hopes destroyed, of a happy hearth and a desolate one, of a sunny smile with an aureola of curls and a little face pale and cold in death, lacerated his soul like so many knives, as they flashed across his brain with the rapidity of sparks from an electric machine.
“Why did they not telegraph? Perhaps they did, and the telegram did not reach me. It takes me an hour to get home. How will Mary bear up under it? Perhaps it has killed her, too! No, no; she wouldn’t die. She would live for baby. O, God, why did you take my first born? Why did you not take me instead? All my dreams for his future, all, all for naught.” It can not be said that he thought these things. The impressions that gleamed across his consciousness would have translated themselves thus had they not succeeded one another too rapidly to be put into words.
He had slackened his gait, casting his eyes on the ground, but now he hurried along, and summoned up courage to look at the white object again. It did not seem to be crape now, as he neared it, but what else could it be? A puzzled uncertainty lightened his load of grief, but not until he had crossed the street and entered his gate did he solve the mystery.
The white cloth was a waistcoat turned inside out, which an old Irishman had hung on the doorbell knob while he was cutting the grass. It did not take the undeceived father long to tear the waistcoat down, fling it clear over the fence into a neighbor’s yard, rush into the house and ask breathlessly.
“How is Arthur?”
“Why, he’s much better. What is the matter, John?”
John at first felt heartily ashamed of himself, but as he looked at his wife, who still wore a gaze of troubled inquiry, at the baby in her arms and at Arthur, whose arms were about his legs and whose mouth was turned up to receive the kiss which would follow mother’s, a feeling of thankfulness overflowed his heart at the thought that after all his grief might have had sufficient ground, and he kissed wife and children heartily.
When he told his wife the story she did not scold him for his foolishness, but, moving closer to him, said:
“How thankful we ought to be that it isn’t so!”
Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 4 November 1890: p. 2
There are a number of 19th-century tales of the panic caused by seeing what was believed to be crape hung on the door to mark a death.
Susanna Cornett shared this awkwardly spelled version of a popular hymn on the subject: “Ring the Bell Softly (There’s Crape on the Door.)” I imagine it was set by a half-drunk compositor while the printer’s devil snickered.
I have always been interested in what the well-dressed corpse is wearing: a netted beadwork shroud, as worn by an Egyptian mummy; the beautiful brocades found in the royal tombs at Las Huelgas; a plain wool shroud tied at the head and foot, as modeled by John Donne in his funerary monument; or the frilled-front white shrouds worn by some Victorian ladies, accessorized with a ruffled cap.
But who made dresses for the dead? We have records of commercial shipments of shrouds from 1770s America. I remember reading, but cannot find a firm source for the assertion that ladies from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth. (Anyone have a reference?) And there are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. There is no doubt that the home-made shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs in the United States. People also buried their dead in their own garments or nightwear. See this link for an excellent article on the subject. I have also seen notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor.
In my search for information on 19th-century burial garments, I ran across the following articles, which discuss the labor issues, the materials, and costs of manufacturing commercial shrouds and burial robes. They are a frank look at the undertaking industry over the course of three decades.
SEWING FOR THE DEAD
Girls Who make Good Wages and Are Contented in an Undertaker’s Shop.
“Isn’t it lovely?” asked a young sewing girl, holding up for inspection something of white satin and lace.
“We are crowded with work just now, so I brought this home to finish it to-night.”
‘You have a trousseau on hand, then? I suppose that fancy garment, whatever it may be, is for a bride.”
The sewing girl opened wide her eyes. “We don’t make no trousseau,” said she. “Did you think I worked at a dressmaker’s?”
“Yes? Aren’t you with Mme. X.?”
“Not much! I left there a month ago. The madame gave me too much sass and too little pay. I’m in Y___’s undertaking establishment and am earning half as much again as I did at Mme. X___’s, who is the most awful crew in this city. The season is longer, too, though of course there ain’t half the number of girls employed where I know that there were at madame’s. When I worked there I was laid off reg’lar three months in the year, while four weeks is the longest that the girls at the undertaker’s are idle. When there is a full supply of robes in stock they are put to making coffin linings, which most of ‘em like because it isn’t fussy work, though, for that matter, none of their work is half so fussy as what I had to bother with when I sewed for live people. Miss B___ (she is our forewoman) used to have the same place at a dressmaker’s, and she says she has grown ten years younger since she went into the robe making business, because she has so much less worry of mind. She sometimes used to have to keep her girls up till 12 o’clock Saturday night to finish a dress for some rich customer, and early Monday morning here would come the dress back again to be altered, and a sassy message long with it about its want of fit. Now, there aren’t any particular fit about a burial robe as you can see by this; it is made only to go over the corpse. Miss B___ says it is a great comfort to her to know that them as wears ‘em don’t make no complaint , and in the main they are becoming, which can’t be said of live dresses—I mean the dresses live people wear.
“To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress.
“Afraid of the coffins? Not after the first day. It would be a pity if we were, as our sewing room is at the end of the loft where piles upon piles of them are stowed away. We talk and laugh and sing, just as we did at Mme. X___, and Miss B___ is an awful lot nicer than the freewoman we had there, because, as I have already said, she isn’t being constantly worried out of her life by fussy ladies; and, as it is piecework, she never has to scold the girls for loafing. She says that what she can’t get used to is to have to go downstairs and take orders for robes for folks that still have breath in their bodies. Some people seem to be in an awful hurry to get their dead put underground.
When Miss B____ was downstairs today at noontime and the rest of us were eating lunch, one of the girls had her chair break down under her, and, as there was no other to be had, what did she do but go out and drag in a coffin to sit on! When we had finished our lunch we took and laid her out in it and covered her with a robe, and then we began to cry, and talk about the virtues of the deceased, and were having a real jolly wake, considering there was no candles, when in come the boss. We didn’t’ know but we’d all be fired out for meddling with the coffins, but all he said was that it would be money in his pocket if we lazy loafers were all of us in our coffins, as our custom would pay him better than our work. The girl in the coffin—she’s awfully cheeky—jumped up and told him it was playtime, as it was not yet half past 12, and then he said what as fun to us would be considered death by most folks and with that he went out. One of the girls said he was in a good humor because there was talk of the yellow fever coming here this summer, but that wasn’t so. Undertakers ain’t no more heartless than other men, and when it comes to paying their girls they ain’t half such skins as some women.” New York Tribune. Huron Daily Huronite [Huron, SD] 16 January 1890: p. 3
This next article may be one of the the earliest mentions in the press of machine embroidery—the shroud seamstresses ingeniously created patterns with their regular sewing machines.
FASHION STOPS NOWHERE
Costumes for the Grave
“Sweet Things” in Shrouds, and Trimmings—“Ladies’ Fine Lawn Robes”—“Ladies’ Cashmere Habit”—“Style No. 37”—The “Forelady’s” Role.
Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents. The undertaker often waits for his pay, and frequently he doesn’t survive the waiting time. So he makes his sales on a basis of large margins of losses. In that way he manages to counteract the effect upon him of the grief that he sees, and he doesn’t die of sorrow accumulating within him.
In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. The morning dress pattern is largely used for women, and the dressing gown for men, invariably with a bosom piece. For men it is the usual shirt bosom and collar of starched linen, often with studs; for women the bosom piece is made according to fancy, regulated largely by the material of the robe. The frequent use of the patterns above mentioned may be due largely to the fact that they are easily put on, because of their large sleeves and loose fit. They are open at the back from top to bottom and, when put on, are fastened at the neck. The sides are simply tucked underneath the body.
Garments worn in life are frequently used as grave clothes—a custom more prevalent in New York than anywhere else in this country, with the possible exception of Deadwood and some other places, where sudden deaths and unceremonious burials are rather the rule. Boston uses twice as many shrouds proportionately as New York, which does not require more than could be furnished by one or two manufacturers. The greater number of the shrouds made by New York manufacturers are sold in other cities….
The least costly shroud is of black lawn, and it sells at retail, ready made, for $2.25. It is trimmed with the same material, in puffings, bows and tulles. Lawn burial robes are little used compared with those of other materials. Prices of shrouds vary from that of the simple robe, already mentioned, to $40 or more. The more usual prices are $10, $12 and $15. Manufacturers of shrouds, coffins and trimmings do not sell at retail….
In a long, narrow room—nearly 200 feet long—in the second story of a manufactory of undertakers’ supplies, were shown shrouds for men and for women, in great numbers and various styles. A shroud of new design, was of black merino, with “cross-crease center” of black satin folds, trimmed at the side with box plaits and milliners’ folds, alternately of satin and Merino. Folds of the same kind around the neck inclosed a satin-threaded crepe lisse ruche. It was finished at the throat with a black satin bow. The end of the sleeve was trimmed to correspond, and was softened with crepe lisse. In an open box on the counter was a brown habit. The bosom piece was of white satin, with finger puffs up and down. There were gimp and edging at the sides, and box plaits, with edging; around the neck, white satin bows, finished with trimming. A man’s shroud was in another box. It was trimmed with quilted satin and raised floss work in the shape of a cross and a leafy vine. There were a linen bosom and collar, and a black cravat and bosom studs. TA fold of satin answered for the vest, and the shroud had the appearance of an elaborate dressing gown for a gentleman. Another shroud for a man had a matelassé front, a shirt bosom of another pattern, and folds to represent a vest showing two buttons. The shelves behind the counter were filled with boxes of burial robes and “head linings.” They were labeled “Ladies’ fine lawn robe;” “Ladies’ cashmere habit, No. 25 front, color brown,” Cashmere robe, No. 35 front, color white;” the number designating the style of the robe. An “old lady’s shroud” was in one of the open boxes. It was of black cashmere, with folds crossing over the breast, the second fold narrow and of black satin; pointed sleeve cuffs, bound with black satin; folds of white lawn crossing diagonally to the left, across the breast; a lawn bow at the throat and at the wrists and around the neck a widow’s ruche. “Style No. 37” was somewhat costly. The material was fine brown merino. Double puffings were edged with white satin and edged again with a ruche of rule. The plain white satin breast piece had “daisy buttons”—buttons with white satin center and loops of white silk thread around it—down the middle. At the throat was a white satin bow, edged, and around the neck a tulle ruche. The robe retails for $30. Quilted to the bottom it would cost $40, and a cord and tassel would come with it. Quilting is a more expensive trimming than puffing, for more time is required to make it. Ordinarily, a shroud has about two feet of trimming, and the cost is about one third as much as when trimmed to the bottom.
The women employed in the manufactures work by the piece. They make two shrouds a day of the more elaborate patterns and four of the simpler. The girls who stitch the seams on sewing machines earn $8 a week. Generally the same hand makes the entire shroud, doing the machine and the hand work and earning $12 a week. The “forelady” does cutting. Her salary is, on the average, $15 a week. The cutting is not a delicate task, for shrouds are nearly all the same size. When too large they are tucked under at the back and care is taken to have them all large enough for a person of ordinary size. The women work in the manufactory, and choose their own hours, generally going to work at about nine in the morning and quitting at five in the afternoon. They bring their luncheons and take about twenty-five minutes’ intermission for eating it. Some of the girls work only on “Headlines,” which extend from the head of the coffin to the break on the shoulder. These girls learn to work mottoes and ingenious figures, stitching them entirely with sewing machines. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 9 December 1879 p: 1
This next article is interesting in that it states that there is a particular apprenticeship period to be served because dressmakers don’t necessarily know how to make shrouds.
IN A SHROUD FACTORY
A THOUSAND GIRLS HAPPY IN A STRANGE OCCUPATION.
The Shroudmakers of New York a Distinct Class of Needle Plyers—Clothing for the Dead—Various Designs, Grades, and Fashions.
There are over one thousand well fed, well dressed, well paid young women in New York city who earn their living making shrouds for the dead. The “Song of the Shirt” was not written for them. They sing no songs with voices of dolorous pitch, and indeed they have very little reason for doing so. Their songs are as merry as the day is long, and are sung to the busy hum of sewing machines. Less doleful melodies it would be hard to find.
The shroudmakers of New York form a distinct class of bread winners. They differ from other needle plyers as essentially as silversmiths differ from locksmiths. An experienced shroudmaker may know how to make a dress, but a dressmaker has little or no knowledge of how a shroud should be constructed. This part is emphasized whenever a dressmaker secures employment in a shroud factory. Before she is able to earn the regular wages of her craft she must serve an apprenticeship, the length of which depends solely upon her aptitude to learn the peculiar knack of this strange trade. There are twelve well known firms in this city engage id in the manufacture of shrouds, and it is in their factories that all the work is done. The wages are well maintained, although fixed by no union, and employment is guaranteed the year through, for the sale of shrouds is not marked by any of the fluctuations which are noted in some other branches of manufacture.
New York is the recognized headquarters of the clothing of the dead as well as of the living. There is mothering about a shroud factory to indicate the character of its product. Even the rows of coffins and enticing varieties of caskets in the ware room below seem to belong to another business altogether. The showcases that are visible from the head of the stairs, with their display of the latest styles in shrouds, appear to have been left there, perhaps by some pervious tenant, and bear no possible relation to the use the rooms are now being put. It is very difficult to imagine that these light hearted girls who chat so merrily over their machines are turning out burial robes by the dozen, but such is the case and to them the work is no more dolorous than the making of shirts.
CLATTER AND CHATTER.
If you are curious come with me to one of the largest factories in the city, within a few blocks of Cooper Union, in the Bowery, and see for yourself. As the door of the shop opens the noise is almost deafening. Between the clatter of the machines on the one hand and the chatter of the girls on the other, one can hardly hear himself speak. It is 10 o’clock—early for us, perhaps, but not for the girls. They have been at work since 8, and one-quarter of their day has already been spent. In the center of the room is a double row of sewing machines, varying in size and power, and all fastened to two long and narrow tables with little round places cut in the sides into which the operators snugly fit. At the other end of the room are several counters forming a quadrangle. Within this square sit a dozen young women chatting and sewing, while a tall, middle aged, motherly woman snips out of yards upon yards of black, white, and brown cloth patterns of shrouds. Shrouds with long skirts, shrouds with short skirts, shrouds with no skirts at all. Shrouds for the rich and shrouds for the poor. And such patterns they are.
This elaborate design in white satin, with soft ruching around the neck and fleecy ruffles around the wristbands, is modeled after a wedding gown as nearly as is possible considering the different use it is to be put to. It will grace the funeral of some rich patron of a fashionable undertaker. This plain black garment, with a false shirt bosom and a collar which ties behind with a cord, is patterned after an evening suit. It is quiet and eminently respectable. It is intended for a man of middle age and costs quite as much as a suit worn in life. Besides these there are robes of brown and combinations of brown and black, some faced with satin, some with silk, and others plain even to severity. These form the cheaper grade of goods and are worn by men or women of advanced years. The white robes are all intended for the young. Some of these are marvelous pieces of work, and if embroidered by hand would cost a small fortune. This little gown would hardly reach from your hand to your elbow. The tiny neckband is ruffled and tied together in front with a white satin bow. The little sleeves are covered with embroidery and the skirt is elaborately trimmed with lace. It is a baby shroud and is the smallest size that is made.
The styles in shrouds are continually changing. Every fashion used by the living contributes to the robing of the dead. Each large factory has its ‘special designer,’ and not even death can still the competition between them. Benjamin Northrup in St. Louis Republican. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 14 July 1888: p. 6
Let’s finish with this tongue-in-cheek look at the practical reasons behind “sham burial suits.” The reporter mentions suits displayed in glass-topped boxes. You can see an example of a child’s burial dress in a box here.
SHAM BURIAL SUITS
Robbing the Grave of Valuable Raiment—Another Step Toward Economy in Funerals—How a Body May be Arrayed Without Waste of Wardrobe—A Real Masquerade of Death
Of late years the fashion in funeral wardrobes has materially changed. Where our ancestors used to be put to their last quiet bed in a plain shroud, their descendants make the same journey in full dress. In the case of a gentleman, a black coat and pantaloons, with a white vest, shirt and tie have been defined as the last tribute of decency he can pay to the social system from which he has departed. A lady is required to be attired in attire whose quality is generally decided by her dressers, but which is of a sober hue.
There are few men who would through choice wear a dickey over their breasts instead of a suit on their bodies. Yet the sham burial suits are nothing but dickeys. A Sunday News reporter saw one in an undertaker’s window the other day, or rather he saw two. One was intended for a gentleman, and the other for a lady. They were inclosed in neat boxes with glass covers, and would have been quite pleasant to look at if it hadn’t been for the coffins which formed a background to them, and the photograph alongside of an embalmer inspecting the corpse of a man who, if looks go for anything, must have been hanged for slaughtering three or four infant schools from a tub of chemicals through a garden house. At first sight they seemed to be what they were evidently intended to represent. The reporter was examining them, when a rosy man, who had been telling a story to several cheerful gentlemen, who laughed heartily at it, called form his arm-chair in the doorway, “What do you think of them, eh?”
“They seem to be real nice,” The reporter responded.
“Nice!” repeated the rosy man; “Why, they’re just bang up. Look at ‘em in here close to. How is that for high, eh? Only take that in.”
‘And yanking what had seemed to be a black coat, vest, shirt, collar and tie complement from its case, he waved a fluttering rag over the reporter’s head. The arrangement was simply a front, no longer than a waiter’s jacket, and with tapes behind to tie it to the body. “Nobody ever sees the back of ‘em,” said the rosy man, “and half of the lid covers ‘em up to the waist. So what’s the use of buying a forty-dollar rig or so when you can get one of these for ten dollars, I want to know? Ain’t the deceased loss enough without chucking his clothes in too, eh?”
The reporter admitted that, taking this view of the subject, the idea was certainly an admirable one. Encouraged by this indorsement, the rosy man sent a rosy boy, who was cracking peanuts and throwing the shells into an open casket, for a pint of beer and went into details. He had long noticed with pain that the poorest of people buried the best suits of clothes they could obtain with their dead. According to a computation he had made with great care, something over $3,000,000 was squandered annually in this way, literally thrown to the worms. This was very wrong. It was an outrage on the whole system of social economy. Somebody could wear those garments, and get more good out of them than the man or woman who had them on. Then why didn’t they wear them?
They didn’t wear them because they were “down on” shrouds, and couldn’t bury the “diseased” with nothing at all on.
But the present improvement supplied a happy medium. It arrayed the body in a stylish garb wherever the body was seen. In the hidden recesses of the casket, where no eyes had access, it didn’t matter in the last how it was dressed. One of these suits only cost from $5 to $15, according to its quality. Ladies’ dresses, constructed on the same plan, rated according to the same schedule. The idea was a new one, but it had made a hit, and the sham suits were selling, to use the narrator’s own picturesque figure of speech, “like hot cakes.” The illusive garments were made in all styles to suit all tastes. One dress had lately been made for a young lady who desired to be buried in pink. Her family were going to sacrifice her best dress when this substitute was suggested to them.
‘And her sister wore that dress to a ball last week,” said the rosy man, triumphantly. “Simmy seen her in it, didn’t you?”
“Simmy set down the beer and responded in the affirmative. As the reporter prepared to depart he asked:
“Are they patented?”
“You bet,” replied the rosy man. “When you need one, let your folks give us a call, will you? Simmy, hand the young man a card.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1880: p. 12
Think you can have anything you want carved on your tombstone? Think again. When a Lancashire man’s family wanted to write “Sleep Tight Dad” with Xs representing kisses on his monument, the local parish priest objected and asked for the offending gravestone to be removed. The parents of a young soldier were forced by Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati to take down a “Sponge-Bob-“shaped monument, at least temporarily. Such cemetery sensitivities are nothing new. In 1905, the Tombstone Censor was on the job and in the news.
THE TOMBSTONE CENSOR
He Sees That No Unseemly Inscription Mars the Cemetery
A tombstone censor is employed by most large cemeteries. It is the duty of this man to see that nothing unseemly in the way of a tombstone is put up.
A young engineer in a Norristown mill was killed by the explosion of a boiler, and the family of this young man, believing that the mill owners had known all along that the boiler was defective, actually had carved on the tombstone the sentence, “Murdered by his masters.” The tombstone censor, of course, refused to sanction such an epitaph.
On the death of a certain noted prize fighter the surviving brother of the man wanted to put in a glass case beside the grave a championship belt, four medals, a pair of gloves and other trophies of the ring. But the censor’s negative was firm.
A widow who believed that the physician was responsible for her husband’s death wished to put on the tomb, “He employed a cheap doctor,” but the tombstone censor showed her that such an inscription would lay her open to heavy damages for libel.
Atheists sometimes direct in their wills that shocking blasphemies be carved on their monuments. The censor, however, sees to it that these blasphemies do not disfigure the cemetery. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 22 June 1905: p. 3
There was a relatively recent case in England of a widow being made to take down her husband’s cricket-bat tombstone, but I’m unable to find the reference. The story was practically identical to this one:
A Remarkable Tombstone
[Sheffield (Eng.) Telegraph.]
All day Sunday a large number of people visited Wadsley Church-yard to inspect a tombstone which has recently been erected to the memory of Benjamin Keeton. The characteristic of the tombstone is that immediately after the worlds “In affectionate remembrance of,” and before “Benjamin Keeton,” there is engraved in very bold relief a set of stumps, six inches across, with balls on, the stumps being a foot high; a cricket-bat, which is across the stumps, the bottom of the bat resting on the ground, the bat being eighteen inches high, and the handle appearing as if it were wrapped with the orthodox waxed thread. The Vicar and Church Wardens as soon as they saw the stone, communicated with the widow of the deceased, and required her to remove it in three days. The widow of the deceased says there has been nothing irregular, and she has no intention either to remove or deface the stone. On the other hand, the officers of Church say that the putting up of the stone was a trespass, as the stone got into the church-yard surreptitiously. Keeton was a professional cricketer. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 January 1877: p. 2
This article, from a monument-makers’ trade journal, spells out the law in England and mentions a few high-profile cases.
THE LAW AND TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS.
Not long ago an American newspaper called attention to the fact that the vestry of an English church refused to allow a few lines of poetry to be inscribed upon a tombstone in the churchyard. The ground of their objection was that the verses were held to be “mere doggerel.” The vestry was undoubtedly unaware of the fact, brought out by the newspaper, that the “doggerel” was from the pen of no less a writer than Longfellow, whose bust is given an honored place in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. As if to even up for this international slight, the same writer recalled the fact that another vestry board refused to permit a tombstone inscription from Tennyson, on the ground that it was sacrilegious.
The curious epitaphs that so frequently find their way into print must often cause the serious to grieve. That a tombstone is no place for jocularity, for sarcasm, for mawkish sentimentality or for grotesque exaggeration is one of those things that should be known without teaching. But it is not known, and a tombstone censor would be an overworked official in almost any community. It is a question how far church officials or cemetery directors could go in the supervision of epitaphs or inscriptions in this country. That the law would frequently be invoked is evident. \With the Established Church in England, the condition of affairs is far different. A recent exchange touches on this matter, and quotes several decisions that have a general interest to readers of Stone. The writer says: It would appear from many legal decisions that, notwithstanding the powers vested in an incumbent, he has no legal right to refuse to allow an inscription on a tombstone in his churchyard of a simple and scriptural nature. Apart from the sentiment of the question it was never intended or contemplated by the Legislature that the ordinary’s power to regulate the inscriptions on tombstones should be oppressively or arbitrarily exercised. Sec. 28 of 15 and 16 Vic., ch. 85, provides (inter alia) that any question which shall arise touching the fitness of any monumental inscription placed in any parts of the consecrated portions of the burial ground shall be determined by the Bishop of the diocese. In the case of Keet vs. Smith, L.R. 4, Adm. and Eccl. 398. and P.D. 73, the incumbent objected to the promised inscription on a tombstone, and on application being made by the father of the deceased for a faculty, the Chancellor of the diocese and the Court of Arches refused it, but the Privy Council, seeing nothing objectionable in the inscription, directed it to issue. The objection taken by the incumbent in this case was that the deceased was described as “The Reverend,”‘ he being only a Wesleyan minister, and as such, in the incumbent’s opinion, not entitled to the prefix” “Reverend.” The inscription in its entirety was as follows:—”I.H.S. In loving memory of Anne Augusta Keet, the younger daughter of the Rev. H. Keet. Wesleyan minister, who died at Owston Ferry, May11th, 1874, aged 7 years and 9 months. Safe sheltered from the storms of life.” It should be remarked that no exception was taken to the latter part of this inscription.
Again in the case of Breeks vs. Woolfrey. Curt 887, Sir Herbert Jenner said:—”It was not denied, nay it was admitted, that if the inscriptions were of the character attributed to them in the citation, viz., contrary to the articles, canons and constitutions, and to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England—no person had a right to erect a tombstone with such inscriptions impugning the doctrines of the Church of England, and that a person so offending is liable to be punished.” The inscription in this case was “Pray for the soul of J. Woolfrey,” and the court held that such an inscription was not illegal. Stone; an Illustrated Magazine, Volume 19, 1899
Apparently the Tombstone Censor could not be everywhere, for there were a surprising number of stories in the 19th- and early 20th-century press about epitaph lawsuits, such as these two:
A CURIOUS EPITAPH
Tombstone Maker, of Wheeling, W. Va., Takes a Queer Revenge and Gets in Serious Trouble.
Among curious epitaphs, that which is engraved on the monument of James Rine, of Wheeling, W. Va., is certainly the most unique. List most epitaphs of interest, says the Chicago Daily News, this one does not spring from an attempt to eulogize the dead; on the contrary it is a distinct effort to cast disgrace upon the sleeper beneath the stone. The inscription, besides the name, date of birth and death of the deceased, tells the world in large letters that “This Ain’t Paid For.”
Some years since James Rine had Tombstone Maker Carroll erect on the family lot at Stone Meeting House Cemetery a monument for which he gave his note in payment. Before the same matured Rine died, with his estate insolvent. Carroll, being unable to collect his claim, inscribed on the stone: “This Ain’t Payed For.” In consequence, the nearer relatives had him indicted. Morning Olympian [Olympia, WA] 19 November 1899: p. 4
LIBEL SUIT CAUSE UNIQUE
Tombstone Inscription Curious
Widow is in Dilemma.
Hamburg, May 28. From Heligoland comes a curious libel action for the German courts to deal with in the course of the present sessions.
Last year the lighthouse-keeper on the island died, and his affectionate widow put up a tombstone on which was inscribed: “Neglect shortened thy life in the Spring of thy years.”
Friends of the widow say this was a dig at the authorities, who sent no relief to the lighthouse-keeper when he needed it, but the local doctor has read it as a reflection on himself. So he has filed a suit for libel.
Now the widow is faced with a dilemma. She denies any reflection on the doctor, and, as she draws an official pension she does not wish to fall foul of the authorities. Her defence, therefore, is that she set up the inscription for her own neglect of her husband in his last hours. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 29 May 1910: p. 2
Either standards have become much more lax in some cemeteries or the Tombstone Censor was looking the other way when this particular monument was carved. Any other actionable epitaphs? Laser-etch on a slab of Vermont marble and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the BBC article that inspired this post.]
It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. A woman in India was declared dead of a lung infection, taken quickly to the ghats, and cremated a few hours after death. But bystanders, believing she was still alive, dragged her off the pyre and an autopsy showed soot in her windpipe and lungs that could not have gotten there if she had been dead. Yet the doctors at the hospital where she died who certified her death were certain she was dead. The case is complicated by allegations of rape, murder, and property disputes; DNA and other forensic testing has been ordered, but it is unlikely the truth will come out any time soon.
If, indeed, the poor woman was burned alive on her funeral pyre, it was not the first time for such a horror. I have previously written about burial alive, something dreaded by the Victorians perhaps even more than they feared the Resurrection Men. Today we fire up the retort as we look at the third of a terrifying triumvirate of Victorian death-fears: being embalmed alive, dissected alive, or cremated alive. We have some surprise witnesses to share their stories.
The three fears were often mentioned—and cautionary statistics cited–in the warning screeds published by the various branches of the Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial.
STARTLING FIGURES SUPPLIED BY A DOCTOR.
Some very disconcerting figures were supplied to the meeting of the London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial at Bloomsbury Town Hall by Dr Hadwen, of Gloucester, as arguments in favour of speedy legislation in. burial reform. The following cases, he said, had been certified by medical men:
Persons buried alive 149
Narrow escapes from burial alive 319
Dissected alive 10
Narrow escapes from dissection alive 2
Embalmed alive 2
Cremated alive 1
Star, 7 July 1906: p. 4
Obviously the odds were vastly against cremation alive, but that reflects the lower instance of cremations in this period. There was still religious prejudice (and some social hostility) towards the practice.
It would seem impossible that we should ever know about most cases of premature cremation: ash tells no tales, unlike the corpses of the buried alive, with their fingers bitten or battered to the bone, their hair and grave clothes rent. But we are fortunate that Spiritualism was on hand to bring us first-hand, beyond-the-grave testimonials from those who met their end in the flames.
How It Feels to be Cremated.
Mrs. Althea Romeyn-Roberts is a Spiritualistic medium at No 36 Cottage Place. She is one of the many who give séances in which forms emerge from a cabinet and present themselves to be re-embodied spirits. There are twenty to thirty such establishments in town, and they have not had any essential differences. In her parlor a cabinet stands against the wall, and from this, after some preliminary speaking and singing, white-robed forms come out into the very dimly-lighted room.
Accepting the theory of unbelievers that these apparitions are either the medium herself or her assistants, there is nothing puzzling about the exhibition. They could be easily introduced into the cabinet through a secret panel, or might sneak into it under cover of what at times becomes total darkness. But of late Mrs. Romeyn-Roberts has bettered the doings of her rivals by introducing a spirit character who tells a sensational story. He purports to be the late James Allen, and he relates to each successive audience that he was cremated alive.
“Folks thought I died at Binghamton about three years ago,’’ he said, on the occasion of the Times correspondent’s visit to the séance, “but I didn’t. I was taken singularly ill and fell into a condition that resembled death. It was a cataleptic attack, I presume, and after a brief spell of unconsciousness I came to myself, so far as my mind was concerned, but could not move a muscle. I soon discovered that I was regarded as a corpse, and a horror of being buried alive took possession of me. But soon I learned that I was not to be buried—I was to be sent to the crematory at Washington, Penn. I then remembered very well that I had expressed a preference for cremation over interment, and that my family were also converts to that new method. I think that I lost consciousness several times, but only for short periods, and nearly all the while I was fully aware of all that was going on. But I could not make the slightest motion or the faintest sound. They put a shroud on me, laid me in a coffin, shut me up and shipped me to Washington. At that place is the first furnace ever built for cremation I suppose in the country. I had read descriptions of the process, and I knew what was coming to me unless I could regain vitality enough to show that I was alive. Struggle as I would I could not get myself at all out of the condition of seeming death. The preparations for burning me went on—enough of them in my presence, too, to keep me aware of them. I was mentally wide awake when they took me out of the coffin and laid me on the iron carrier, which, when all is ready is run into the superheated furnace.”
At this point the alleged ghost launched into a flighty and oratorical description of the horror which he felt at his impending fate. Then he concluded: “The white-hot doors of the furnace were at length opened, and the glare of the intense heat drove the attendant for an instant away from the opening. Four attaches of the crematory were doing the work. My relatives, who had accompanied me to the place, were withdrawn from the room. I made a last frantic exertion to stir and to give utterance to my terror. But I was relentlessly held by the trance, and probably the most careful examination would not have developed evidence of life. The iron carriage run on iron tracks that led directly into the fiery furnace. Then men laid hold of it and moved it nearer. A hot blast almost compelled them to let go, and as for me I seemed to be actually melted in the indescribable temperature. Then they shoved the apparatus suddenly clear into the furnace and shut the door. The clang of the metal was the last thing of which I was conscious. Death came instantly and painlessly. Within a few hours my mortal form was reduced to a few pounds of ashes which was delivered to my relatives, encased in a tin box, to be conveyed to my home and there reverently inurned.”
The Better Way 22 September 1888: p. 1
Allen is practically a poster-boy for the benefits of cremation: “instantly and painlessly” must have reassured his audience, brought up on stories of cataleptics who met terrible deaths after being put living in the tomb.
On the other hand, our old friend Dr Franz Hartmann brought news from a Spiritualist medium that was not quite so sanguine.
REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES AND PRESUMABLE EXPLANATIONS
By FRANZ HARTMANN, M.D.
Perhaps many of the readers of the OCCULT REVIEW residing in Switzerland will remember the death of Mr. H__, a well-known and prominent member of the Federal Council, who suddenly died at his office in the federal palace at Bern, about three years ago, and whose body was brought to Zurich to be cremated. Everybody at Zurich went to see the funeral procession on its way to the crematory. It took place with great pomp; the streets were crowded, musicians played solemn airs, and speeches were delivered. Among the spectators there was present a lady of a very sensitive nature, and in possession of certain mediumistic gifts, and as the coffin containing the corpse passed near her she felt a very curious sensation, and claimed that she had come in contact with the spirit (or aura) of the deceased. The procession went on, and the lady went to her lodging, where she was occupied with other things, and thinking no more of the funeral; but about an hour afterwards, presumably when the preliminary ceremonies at the crematory were ended, she began to suffer terribly from a burning heat overspreading all the left side of her body and face; the skin grew red, and cold water applications had to be applied for relieving the pain. After about a half-an-hour’s intense suffering, the pain left her entirely.
Some time afterwards there was held a spiritualistic séance at the house of Mr. S__, a judge of the Court of Appeal, at which this lady was present. It may here be remarked, in parenthesis, that this Judge S__ was one of the witnesses for defence in the well-known trial of the medium Rothe, at Berlin, where he testified in favour of the actuality of so-called spiritualistic phenomena; but his experience and testimony availed nothing against the ignorance of the Court.
At this séance there manifested an entity claiming to be the personality of Mr. H__. He said that he was unable to see anyone of the persons present in the room, except that lady; and, among other things, he informed the company that his body had been cremated too soon, and before his soul had become fully separated from it, and that in consequence he had suffered intensely at the left side of his body. It then only occurred to that lady to bring the burning sensation which she had experienced into connexion [sic] with the cremation.
Now, as concerns the identity of the” spirit” of Mr. H__, he was asked whether, during his life, he had known anything about the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the departed, and he answered that he had paid no attention to such matters, but had heard of it indirectly through Dr. A. P__. Nobody in the circle knew who this Dr. A. P__ was; but after some research in the register he was found to be a member of the National Council, residing at L__. Mr. S__ thereupon wrote to him, and Dr. A. P__ answered that he had spoken of such things to a friend of Mr. H__, and upon further inquiry it was found that this friend had a conversation with Mr. H__ about it.
Now, in this case, any theory of collusion, telepathy, etc., is to be excluded, because none of the members of that circle knew anything about Dr. A. P__’s existence, nor of his conversation with the friend of Mr. H__; and it seems reasonable to believe that the explanation given by the “spirit” of Mr. H__ is the correct one, and that the ethereal body actually may suffer from injuries inflicted upon the physical body after its apparent death, as long as the soul has not entirely separated from it.
It seems that a similar occurrence took place in the case of H. P. Blavatsky, whose body was burned. It is claimed that before the cremation took place her “spirit” manifested itself in two places: at Paris with the Duchess de P__, and at Hamburg at Professor S__’s, asking in each case that urgent telegrams should be sent to London to request a delay of the cremation, as she had not yet become free from her physical form. The telegrams were sent, but no notice was taken of these warnings by her friends, and the cremation took place at the previously appointed time.
Moreover, at least three cases have come to my notice in which similar communications were received from “spirits” of persons prematurely dissected. One was a case of suicide by poisoning, another by shooting, and the third one that of a young lady who killed herself on account of a love affair, and whose body was exhumed three days after her burial, some suspicion having arisen as to her having been murdered. She was submitted to post-mortem examination and dissected, and the “spirit” claimed that she had felt every cut of the dissecting knife the same as if it had cut her living nerves. Whatever may be thought of such communications, it stands to reason to suppose that the ethereal form of a person dying prematurely a forcible death will find it more difficult to separate itself from the rest of the elementary body, than if the death occurs in a natural way in old age or after a sickness. We find a corresponding law in other departments of nature, for the shell of a ripe orange may easily be detached from the pulp, while from an unripe one it separates with difficulty. Cases of premature burial, cremation, dissection and suffering after forcible death will probably continue to occur until the world at large recognizes the fact that death is not, as public opinion goes, a cessation of the perceptible functions of life; but it takes place only at the final separation of the soul from the physical form.
The question of cremation was a hot-button issue throughout the late-19th century. In a lengthy story titled “Ghosts Among Coffins,” about a violent, poltergeist-like haunting at the undertaking establishment of the appropriately-named Valentine Geist in Detroit, the story concludes with a theory that
Yesterday the superstitious came to the settled belief that none other than a ghost haunts the building. Moreover, that it is the ghost of Louis Dohmstreich, a wealthy brewer, who was killed by being thrown from his sleigh about the time the weird rappings and rackets began. His body was taken to Buffalo and cremated there. Geist had charge of the funeral and accompanied the body to the crematory, returning with the ashes. This grounds the belief in the minds of many that the spirit of the dead man has come back to protest against cremation and make it exceedingly warm for the undertaker.
Omaha [NE] World Herald 19 February 1887: p. 1
In other cases, the ghost protested because he or she had not been cremated as requested. While cremation was regarded by burial reformers as a hygienic alternative to over-filled churchyards, it was still seen by many as the choice of the crank or the infidel. While we may wonder why the “spook” was so adamant, this is not the only story I have seen of a ghost returning when its wish for cremation was ignored.
SPOOK INSISTS ON CREMATION
Ghost of Ernest Heinig Upbraids His Sister for Burying his Body
Fort Wayne, Ind.; March 7. The body of Ernest Heinig was cremated Saturday evening at the Lindenwood crematory, under peculiar circumstances. Heinig committed suicide on Jan. 30, because of despondency, owing to having been thrown out of employment. Two weeks before he died he expressed to his sister, Mrs. Leuchner, the wish that in the event of his demise his remains might be cremated. Mrs. Leuchner, however, had a horror of cremation, and had his body buried. One night last week, Mrs. Leuchner says, her brother appeared to her in a dream and demanded why her promise had not been fulfilled, and insisted that she, even then, should cause the body to be exhumed and burned. So impressed was Mrs. Leuchner by the dream that she ordered the corpse taken up and cremated.
Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 7 March 1899: p. 1
Returning to the initial story of the young Indian woman, we find this similar tale from 1889. Cholera was a great dissembler of death and fearful communities hastily bundled its victims into the grave without much thought.
I am here reminded of an incident told me by the Residency surgeon. The young wife of a well-to-do Hindoo was struck down by cholera. Our friend the doctor was called, and under his care she rallied, and bade fair to recover. What was his surprise to be told, two or three days after, that the woman was being carried at that very moment to the Pashupati burning ghat! He mounted his horse and rushed down to the place. Here he found his poor patient still alive, but laid out so that her feet touched the flowing stream, while beside her the wood was being arranged, and the cremation ceremonies were under way. The doctor expostulated with the husband and relatives, and urged them to desist at once from their murderous intentions. They were finally prevailed upon to stay proceedings, and to take the poor woman home. She survived only three days. But for her rough exposure to premature cremation she might have entirely recovered.
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1889: p. 479
And finally, this is the only story I have found of premature cremation being both discovered and prosecuted. As we might expect, it is reported from a land far, far away.
The police at Hiroshima, Japan, have arrested a man named Jinsuke Ikeda and his wife, says the ‘Japan Times,’ on a charge of wilfully cremating a live man. The prisoners were in charge of a crematorium, and while at work a faint voice coming out of the coffin begged for fresh air. The couple took no notice, however, and proceeded to apply fire, roasting the man alive.
Mataura Ensign, 1 September 1911, Page 5
Other horrors of premature cremation? Fire them over to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
It is the week-end of the Royal Windsor Horse-show and Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded by a box of really excellent chocolate cremes to allow Chris Woodyard, the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, to post a guest article on the theme of “hearse horses,” a class which Mrs Daffodil can confidently assert will not be on the programme at Windsor. In view of Prince Phillip’s impending retirement, a Hearse Four-in-Hand event might be seen as lacking in tact.
But enough persiflage. Chris Woodyard is champing at the bit….
In the United States, until the advent of the automobile hearse, hearse horses were a cherished commodity, well-known and sometimes beloved by the communities they served. The acquisition of a new pair of hearse horses was, like the purchase of a new hearse, an important event—something to be puffed in the papers. A smart team of plumed hearse horses was a selling point for any undertaker.
As late as 1911, E.F. Parks, an undertaker in Bryan, Texas, announced the arrival of “our fine team of hearse horses” rhapsodizing: “They are simply beautiful. White with a touch of red about the ears, back and hip. They are full brothers 5 and 6 years old.” Undertaker Parks even ran a contest for several weeks in the local newspaper to name the horses, selecting “Prince” and “Pilot” as the winning names. The Bryan [TX] Eagle 16 March 1911: p. 1
Articles about the acquisition of hearse horses often stressed the animals’ training (which seems to have been primarily about gait and speed), yet there were hundreds of accounts in contemporary newspapers of hearse horses running away or colliding with trees, trains, or telegraph poles, often with grave consequences.
FUNERAL HORROR FRIGHTENED HORSES
The Corpse of a Man Pulled After the Demolished Hearse in a Runaway
Rochester, N.Y., Feb. 24. A ghastly accident occurred at the double funeral of Mr. and Mrs. John Hackett, held near Lyons yesterday afternoon that has deeply shocked that community.
While the first hearse, drawn by a spirited team of blacks, was passing through a deep snow drift the horses became frightened, and, unseating the driver, ran away. The hearse containing the coffin and the remains of Mr. Hackett tipped over and the casket was demolished, throwing out the corpse, which, becoming entangled in the wrecked hearse, was dragged a considerable distance over the bare road and through deep snow drifts. When the terrified team finally broke loose from the wrecked vehicle and its ghastly occupant, the corpse was so badly mangled as to be almost unrecognizable. A driver was sent to look up another casket, which was procured several hours later, after which the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery, where both bodies were interred in one grave. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 24 February 1902: p. 4
One undertaker, when he discovered that the hearse horse he had trained could not keep to the required solemn gait, made the best of a bad job and released the horse to a racing career:
There is a son of Del Sur in California that they call “The Los Angeles Del Sur Wonder,” but known, for short, as the “hearse horse.” He was bred by an undertaker, and used for a while hauling the hearse. He was found to be rather faster than was needed to keep at the head of the procession, and being trained, trotted a 2.20 gait and paced in 2.18. Otago Witness, 28 April 1892: p. 27
An essential part of funeral pageantry, black horses were used for many adult funerals; white horses—or sometimes white ponies—drew the white hearse of the maiden, the child, or the infant. White horses were also used at state funerals:
Last of the Lincoln Hearse Horses.
A local celebrity recently died after a kind, useful life of thirty-eight years, says the Indianapolis Journal. His name was Jesse, and the one act which entitled him to mention was participation in the funeral cortege of the martyred Lincoln. He was the last of the six white horses which drew the hearse containing the honored body along the streets of Indianapolis. His mate in the proud but sorrowful lead of the team died eight years ago. The McCook [NE] Tribune 3 July 1891: p. 8
Since they were so much in the public eye, certain traits made for the most desirable hearse horses. In the United States, this was a suggested standard:
A more popular hearse-horse is coal-black with no white markings, and he must also have a long, flowing tail. Occasionally they are accepted when slightly marked with white, which is less objectionable on the hind feet than in the face or on the front feet….A hearse requires a horse from 15-3 to 16-1 hands high and weighing 1200 to 1250 pounds. Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Volume 21, 1909 p. 490 and 512
In England, a matched set of black Drenthe horses from Hanover were employed at royal funerals. For the fashionable society funeral, black Belgian stallions were the ne plus ultra. Some of the cheaper imported stallions lacked the all-important tail-weepers and were provided with false tails:
A queer English custom is that of decorating the black hearse horses with long false black tails. They attract no more notice on a street in Liverpool than do the black nets used in this country to cover the horses. Pierre [SD] Weekly Free Press 16 November 1905: p. 1
The use of nets, as seen in several of the illustrations, seem to have been confined to the Americas. If draped, a European funeral horse would wear a blanket, as we see in these pictures of Russian and Roumanian hearse horses.
Rich in detail is this account of the “Black Brigade” of funeral horses in London. I’m particularly amused by the horses being named for current celebrities. It is also fascinating that an influenza epidemic put pressure on the supply of desirable hearse horses.
THE BLACK BRIGADE
A good many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as ‘the black brigade ‘; but the real black brigade of London’s trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the jobmaster is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The ‘funeral furnisher’ is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The [funeral] wholesale men, the ‘black masters,’ are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand —London’s normal is seventeen—but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the ‘blacks’ have to get help from the ‘coloured,’ and the ‘horse of pleasure’ becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.
A hundred years ago there was but one black master in London. He owned all the horses; and there are wonderful stories of the funerals in those days when railways were unknown. The burying of a duke or even a country squire, in the family vault, was then a serious matter, for the body had to be taken the whole distance by road, and the horses were sometimes away for a week or more, and were often worked in relays, much on the same plan as the coach-horses, only that rapid progress through the towns and villages was impossible, for the same reason that no living undertaker dare trot with a tradesman within the limits of the district in which the deceased happens to have been known and respected….
Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing; in fact, they begin work as what we may call the ‘half-timers’ of the London horse-world. When young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they get astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65£. each; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class -work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas; if they go to the repository they average 10£; if they go to the knacker’s they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years’ work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price; but the law of supply and demand came in to check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.
Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth [founder of the Salvation Army], for instance, is ‘most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud’; all the Salvationists ‘are doing well,’ except [George Scott] Railton, ‘who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.’ [Journalist W.T.]Stead, according to his keeper, is ‘a good horse, a capital horse—showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn’t work with [biologist Thomas Henry] Huxley at any price!’ Curiously enough, Huxley ‘will not work with [physicist John] Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. [philanthropist Thomas John] Barnardo.’ Tyndall, on the other hand, goes well with Dickens,’ but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. [Liberal statesman John] Morley works ‘comfortably’ with [Conservative politician & PM Arthur] Balfour, but [Liberal statesman William Vernon] Harcourt and [Irish political leader Michael] Davitt ‘won’t do as a pair anyhow.’ An ideal team seems to consist of [political activist and atheist Charles] Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. [Alfred] Adler, and Cardinal [Henry Edward] Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. ‘All the horses,’ the horsekeeper says, ‘named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!’ And so we leave Canon [Frederic] Farrar, and Canon [Henry] Liddon, and Dr.[William Morley] Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now ‘out on a job,’ and meet in turn with [celebrity quack doctor] Sequah and [Louis] Pasteur, [hypnotist Franz Anton] Mesmer and [Electrohomeopathy inventor Cesare] Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.
‘Why don’t you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?’
‘They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians—well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!’ And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives; under him being another man, who drives when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.
One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion….
There is an old joke about the costermonger’s donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The ‘black family’ has always to be alone; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result; and thus it has come – about that in the black master’s yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.
The funeral horse hardly needs description. The breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., and even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones to Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads ‘like a book,’ and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day’s rest in the week.
To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day—-it is a trifle under that, over the 700—and his food differs from that of any other London horse. In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes, and so forth; and as a Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats, and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for it would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.
The Horse-world of London, William John Gordon, 1893, pp 139-147
We find equally telling detail in this section from an article on unusual professions. Painting over inconvenient white portions of a funeral horse was widely practiced. An 1875 article tells of undertakers “not stinting with paint or black lead.” A lady observer in 1912 wrote about “dyed horses” in Paris funeral processions.
The last curious industry deals with funeral horses. Mr. Robert Roe, of Kennington Park Road, has imported these stately animals for upwards of twenty-five years. It seems they come from Friesland and Zeeland, and cost from £40 to £70. There must be about nine hundred funeral horses in London. The average undertaker, however, keeps neither horses nor coaches, but hires these from people like Seaward, of Islington. Mr. Seaward keeps a hundred funeral horses, so that a visit to his stables is an interesting experience.
“It is dangerous,” said one of my informants, “to leave a pair of these black stallions outside public-houses, when returning from a funeral; for these animals fight with great ferocity.” Once, at a very small funeral, the coachman lent a hand with the coffin; but, in his absence, the horses ran amuck among the tombstones, which went down like ninepins in all directions.
A white spot takes a large sum off the value of a funeral horse. In the photo one of Mr. Seaward’s men is painting a horse’s white fetlock with a mixture of lampblack and oil. A white star on the forehead may be covered by the animal’s own foretop.
On the right-hand side in the photo. will be seen hanging a horse’s tail. This is sent to the country with a “composite” horse— a Dutch black, not used for the best funeral work, owing to his lack of tail. He is sold to a country jobmaster, with a separate flowing tail, bought in Holland for a shilling or two. In the daytime, the “composite” horse conducts funerals, the tail fastened on with a strap; but at night he discards it, and gaily takes people to and from the theatres.
Worn-out funeral horses, one is horrified to learn, are shipped back to Holland and Belgium, where they are eaten.
The Strand Magazine, Vol. 13, 1897: p. 202
At least, that was the practice in England; Belgian horses were prized in their native country for their tender meat. In the United States, a hearse horse often retired to green pastures, after a long and useful career. This clever hearse horse had a well-deserved tribute paid to him on his retirement.
KEPT UNDERTAKERS BUSY
Horse Always Stopped at Houses Where Crape Hung on Door.
From the New York Press.
Having reached such a degree of zealousness in behalf of his owner’s business interests that he would stop in front of any house on the front of which symbols of mourning were displayed, Dan, for twenty years a faithful horse for Thomas M. O’Brien, an undertaker of Bayonne, N.J., has been retired on a pension. The undertaker made arrangements with a farmer in Orange county to take good care of Dan for the rest of his life, and to give him decent burial when he dies. Dan was shipped away yesterday. Twice when on the way to the railroad station the horse balked, and it was noticed that each time he balked it was in front of a house with crape hanging on the door. It was not until the driver whispered in Dan’s ear that his boss already had the jobs that the intelligent animal consented to move on.
Dan knows the way to and from every cemetery within 20 miles of Bayonne. Some persons even assert that he knows most of the family plots in those cemeteries. More than once the horse placed O’Brien in an exceedingly embarrassing position by stopping with a hearse in front of houses on which mourning was displayed regardless of whether O’Brien had been retained to have charge of the burial.
One of the stipulations entered into between O’Brien and the Orange county farmer is that Dan must not be compelled to do any work. He must have good oats and timothy hay in winter and, added to that, all the grass he can eat in spring, summer, and fall.
“He’s earned his retirement by twenty years of faithful work,” O’Brien said. “If he were a man instead of a horse, he would have been a partner long before this. He was simply indefatigable in hunting for new business.” The Washington [DC] Post 17 January 1909: p. M10
The hearse horse might also serve as an equine memento mori as in this elegiac New England article:
THE OLD HEARSE HORSE
Among the long-standing fixtures of our day are the Hearse-man, the venerable Robert Bell, and his scarcely less venerable old Black Horse, which will be twenty years old next months. For fourteen years the same man and the same horse have been in attendance at almost every funeral that has taken place in our city. For nearly two thousand times have they borne to their resting places the old and the young—the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered. There can be seen scarcely a more grave sight than these funereal accompaniments. The old horse though lively and active on other occasions, knows the moment a corpse is put into the hearse, and he will scarcely mind the admonition of a whip to change his speed from walking. His master is growing infirm and the horse is nearly blind—a premonition that all must ere long return to the dust. Portsmouth [NH] Journal of Literature and Politics 12 May 1860: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to the subfusc author for being so relentlessly informative and are pleased to have learned something new to-day about this department of the Victorian funeral industry.
Mrs Daffodil has noticed an unlikely resemblance between the plume-adorned hearse-horses with their dark burdens and beplumed circus horses drawing brilliantly carved and coloured circus wagons at a stately pace. One idly wonders if an aged circus horse ever retired to a career as a hearse-horse or if a black horse of too cheerful a disposition might run away with the circus.
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.