He Saw Crape on the Door: 1890

white crape jacob riis 1890 mourning
White crape hung for dead child. Jacob Riis, 1890 “Baby mourning badge on mouth of Mulberry Street Alley, flashlight at 3 a.m.” http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWRC85RW2&SMLS=1&RW=1033&RH=709

THINKING HE SAW CRAPE ON THE DOOR

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.

Mrs Daffodil shares a similar story of misidentified crape in The Black Alpaca Coat.

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.

crap on the door

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.

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 4 November 1890: p. 2

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