Death by Owl

skull owl finis.JPG

This weekend begins the “International Festival of Owls,” and while we do find some touching stories of owls as pets and grudging acknowledgment that they keep down vermin, the papers of the past are more likely to report on owls killing domestic fowls or sheep, or on monster owls with 4-foot wingspans. Owls are silent, taloned killers and they have long been heralds of death. Even today some people believe that their call is a token of doom. It must have felt that way to this unfortunate Long Island woman:

OWL IS CAUSE OF SUDDEN DEATH

YOUNG WIFE SUCCUMBS TO ATTACK OF APOPLEXY

Heard Omen in Screeches.

Dies When Bird Flies Against Window

New York, June 15. Mrs. Josetta Coonan O’Neill, wife of James T. O’Neill, assistant corporation counsel in Brooklyn died suddenly in their summer home in Argyle Park, near Babylon, L.I., early yesterday, from apoplexy caused, it is believed, by fright when a screech owl flew against the window of her room just before she retired. Mrs. O’Neill for two days had lived in fear of the owl, a dark-feathered bird that had followed her about the grounds and had passed and repassed her husband and herself when they went out. Her dread is believed to have reached a fatal climax when the owl flew against the window in the darkness, screeching.

The body of Mrs. O’Neill last night lay in the home of her mother, Mrs. Thomas Coonan in Seventh street, Brooklyn, on the Park Slope, the home from which the young woman went forth a bride only last December.

Mrs. Coonan, who is an invalid, was in the Argyle Park home of her daughter when Mrs. O’Neill died. There was no warning that death was to visit the house. Mrs. O’Neill, only five minutes before her death, had passed into the room of her mother and kissed her good night. The younger woman then apparently was in her usual health. It is thought, however, she was suffering secretly through her fear of the owl, which at that moment was screeching dismally from the limb of a tree near the house, and that she concealed her fear for her mother’s sake.

Mrs. O’Neill was in the railroad station in Babylon at 5.40 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, when her husband arrived from Brooklyn, and together, as usual they walked to Argyle park. The owl was not then in evidence, for it was still daylight. After dinner, however, when O’Neill went out to rake a flower bed he had been preparing for his wife, the owl began to screech nearby. The flower bed is in front of the house and only 50 feet from the front porch where Mrs. O’Neill sat watching her husband. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation and her husband looked up to catch a glimpse of the owl that swiftly passed within a foot of his face, crying as it passed.

Three times the bird made the passage in front of him until, in exasperation; he threw his hoe at it. The hoe went over a fence and the owl perched again in a tree, letting out a succession of raucous screeches. To O’Neill it seemed as if the bird mocked him, and he tried to hit it with a stone, but the owl only flew away unharmed.

Mrs. O’Neill was much disturbed by the actions of the bird, which the night before had pursued her and her husband in their walk to the village. O’Neill hardly could persuade her to go out for their usual walk, but at last she went, though expressing a fear the owl would give them no rest. She said the persistence of the bird was an omen. Her husband treated the subject lightly, saying he would get a gun the next day, and end the bird and the omen too.

But Mrs. O’Neill’s fears of being pursued quickly were verified. Scarcely had they gained the street when the owl, out of the darkness, darted past their faces, uttering its hoarse scream. The bird, O’Neill observed, waited until it was passing before it screeched. Once it went so close to them its wings fanned their faces, and Mrs. O’Neill stopped, trembling, and grasped her husband’s arm, saying she could go no further. They had walked no more than 300 yards from home. They just had turned back when the owl again passed them, screeching. All the way to the house the owl passed and repassed, and at last Mrs. O’Neill’s terror became so great she released her husband’s arm when they almost had reached the steps and ran into the house, where she sank trembling into a chair. Her husband reassured her and afterward they sat on the porch and watched for the appearance of the bird, which at intervals flew close to the steps. By that time Mrs. O’Neill seemed to have recovered her courage, and laughed and chatted with animation. Afterward they went into the house where O’Neill wrote letters and Mrs. O’Neill read and commented on some of the articles she looked at. She still maintained the air of cheerfulness. It was almost midnight when they thought of retiring. Mrs. O’Neill’s last act was to kiss her mother.

Just after the wife entered their room, which is on the second floor, O’Neill left it for five minutes. It was in his absence the owl is thought to have struck the screen of the window. When O’Neill returned his wife apparently was asleep. Believing she merely was feigning sleep the husband pinched her earl slightly but she made no response. Then, becoming alarmed, he looked closely at his wife and observed her pallor. He called her mother and the maid and telephoned to Dr. Harold E. Hewlett of Babylon, who on arriving, said Mrs. O’Neill had died from apoplexy.

At dawn yesterday, the owl again flew near the room where lay the body of Mrs. O’Neill. In a second flight the bird flew against a screen door which gives egress from the room to a balcony.

The nurse who had been summoned and several others in the room saw the bird hurl itself against the screen as if to break its way into the room. It uttered its cry, fluttered to the floor of the balcony and then again flew to its favorite perch in a tree nearby. O’Neill, when asked last night about the owl, said it had persisted in following his wife and himself. The Argyle park home has been owned by the O’Neill family for 20 years, but Mr. O’Neill said he never had seen the owl until two days ago. O’Neill said the owl was not larger than an ordinary pigeon, but had a great spread of wings. Springfield [MA] Union 15 June 1911: p. 2

Now, I’m sure a naturalist would hoot at the idea that the owl had anything supernatural about it, and perhaps rightly so. Owls are intensely territorial. The “favorite perch” could have been its nest and it might have been defending its eggs or owlets. Owls are well known for attacking people who come too close. They sometimes hurl themselves against windows, believing the reflection is an intruder. One owl even attacked a window of a room where a stuffed owl was kept. But it does seem a little odd that the bird only showed up two days before Mrs. O’Neill’s death and that it attacked the room where her body was laid out.

Rational explanations aside, the owl is, of course, a token of death.  The unfortunate Mrs. O’Neill believed it had come for her and that she was doomed. Other headlines for this story also emphasized a belief that Mrs. O’Neill was scared to death. “Dies from Fear of Owl,” “Dread of Owl Causes Death.” “Bride of Three Months Scared to Death by Owl.” Even the New York Times’ headline read: “Hears Owl Screech; Dies,” although the Times article mentions that Mrs. O’Neill was also grieving for her father, who had died five weeks previously and that she had had a “nervous breakdown” over his death. In a post on people who died of fear, I cited “broken-heart syndrome,” which is triggered by a sudden loss or shock.

The “superstition” of believing that owls hooted of death was supposed by all educated and right-thinking people to have been wiped out by 1911 (except in isolated pockets of rural or ethnic ignorance).  A 1912 article rather scornfully stated that the barn owl was the source of more ghost stories than any other living creature, with its uncanny cry and ghastly face. Owls trapped in chimneys and furnaces were exposed as the source of haunted house rumors; eerie moans in burial vaults were revealed to be roosting owls. Such things really took all the fun out of folklore. But despite ridicule, there was a deeply-rooted belief in the malignity of owls.

A gravedigger had this to say:

“It seems like the graveyard is their natural element, especially when there’s lots of big trees and ivy-grown vaults. To hear an owl hoot in the night here, as I do sometimes, when everything is still, would make your blood run cold. They don’t keep it up right along through the night, so you can get used to it; but it will be quiet for a long time–so still that you get almost afraid to breathe, and the falling of the leaves startles you–then all of a sudden you’ll hear the long hoot-too-toot and a dull rushing in the air, as a big owl sails by and drops down upon a vault beneath the hill…

“I can always tell when there’s going to be a busy time here,” he continued. “When the owls are particularly plenty and keep up an awful hooting during the night I look for the funerals next day. They always come. When the owls hoot, it means funerals.”

“I don’t like owls,” the old man went on, scraping the red clay from his spade with the toe of his boot. “I don’t like ’em; they don’t mean good. Dead people are good enough in their way, I get used to them. But owls are a kind of half-dead and half-alive bird, and if t’warnt that I knew they couldn’t get at ’em, I’d believe they lived on dead people.” The Independent Record [Helena, MT] 9 December 1883: p. 9

A half-dead and half-alive bird. A perfect description of the skull-faced barn owl, silent and deadly one moment; screaming as if knifed the next. You’ll find a selection of owl calls here. Even knowing what is coming, they are unnerving.  A screeching owl dive-bombing out of the dusk; hitting window screens; screaming like a banshee–it is like something out of The Birds and it is no wonder that, in her weakened state, Mrs. O’Neill felt that a taloned angel of death had come for her. Death is the thing with feathers…

Other fatal owl attacks? 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.

Corpse Contracts: People who Sold Their Own Dead Bodies

body snatchers with rotted corpse 1865

The sun is shining, the weather is clement, the birds are chirping in the shrubbery, and it is altogether a grand day to be alive. On such a lovely day, one’s thoughts must, inevitably, turn to bodysnatching. 

It is a sinister fact that, before the passage of the various Anatomy Acts, the doctors of the past paid for stolen corpses for their dissecting rooms. What is less well-known is that various individuals in what might be termed the “pre-corpse stage” sold their own bodies to the anatomists, assigning legal title to their mortal remains with an official document.  One wonders if such contracts were valid if not signed in blood?

 The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.

THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD

Demise of a Man Who Sold His Own Body to Buy Drink

Vienna, July 15. A man known as the “Bird of Death,” employed in the Vienna general hospital, met with a singular fate in the discharge of his gruesome duties. His name was Alvis Paxes. He was about 55 years old, and of herculean physique. For 33 years he carried all the corpses from the mortuary chamber, hence his weird name, which the hospital jesters gave him. He died to-day of blood poisoning caused by handling the body of a patent who died from an infectious disease.

Some years ago he sold for cash his own body to a museum manager and spent the money in drink. To-day his body was handed over to the purchaser. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 16 July 1890: p. 1

I expect the original German had the connotation of something like “carrion crow.”

 This squib weighs whether the drink or the selling of his aged mother’s body was the greater sin. Whisky seems to have won out. 

Sold His Body for Whisky

Cincinnati, Nov. 17. John Winkler, an old rag picker, who was found dead in his hovel, 608 West Sixth Street, this morning, was a peculiar example of the depths of degradation to which a human being may sink. For many years he was a familiar figure in the West End. For 10 years past it is very doubtful if he drew a single sober breath. He lived in the utmost filth and squalor, and when found dead in his bed had his clothes and boots on. Four years ago his aged mother died, and Winkler sold her body to a medical college. He also sold his own body to be delivered after death and squandered the money in whisky. The Somerset [PA] Herald 23 November 1887: p. 2

 Some had seller’s remorse. 

Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.

This queer story comes from Massachusetts: A man who lives in a suburb of Lowell is seeking to have a deed given by him twenty years ago recovered. The deed conveyed his body to a surgeon now practicing in Great Falls, N.H., for the sum of ten dollars and other considerations, possession to be taken on his death. Since the deed was made the giver has made a fortune in South America and has decided that he would like a Christian burial. The deed provides that the body shall be dissected and the skeleton articulated and presented to a medical university. The lawyers have decided that the deed holds good and that the only alternative is to buy off the doctor. The giver of the deed has made a big offer, but it has been refused. Hartford Courant. Daily Nevada State Journal 16 January 1892: p. 1

 Others imposed on good-hearted physicians. 

TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE

Police of Naples Looking for a Man Who Sold his Own Body to Physicians

NAPLES, April 3. The police of this city are looking for Giuseppe di Maggio, a freak possessed of two hearts, but, evidently, no conscience. Some time ago a medical institute of New York bought Maggio’s body to be delivered after death, for $8,000. With this money Maggio settled down in Naples and lived merrily on his capital, which was soon spent. He ingratiated himself into the favour of a wealthy landowner, whose sister he promised to marry. He pretended that he was to receive a large sum of money from America and supported his story with a fraudulent cablegram. On the strength of his story he borrowed money right and left, including his prospective brother-in-law, and then skipped.

Now a warrant is out for his arrest. The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla, WA] 3 April 1906: p. 2  

Given the date, we may be permitted to doubt the strict veracity of this item. 

Strange Freak to Get Money

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 5. Milton Clark, who is employed at the University of Louisville, medical department, to take care of the dead bodies brought to the place for examination, sold his own body yesterday for the thirty-third time to physicians for dissection. Whenever he is sore need of money he visits a physician interested in one of the various medical colleges and sells his body. Lawrence [KS] Journal World 5 December 1898: p. 2 

Still others, like this sad lady, with the “checquered past,” sold their bodies to clear a debt. I have not yet found Annie E. Jones’s grave in Bridgeport, but Dr. John Cooke was a luminary of the Eastern Ohio Medico-Chirurgical Society. 

A Singular Suicide

There has lived on Glenn’s Run and about Martin’s Ferry and Bridgeport, for the past few years, a queer, gnarly-looking little old French woman, named Annie E. Jones. Her past history has been varied, checquered and not altogether reputable. She had several children, all dead or wandering. She was twice married—the last time to a negro. By some of her children there came a granddaughter named Agnes Racine, a white girl, of rather prepossessing appearance, and together she and her grandmother lived at Martin’s Ferry, till a colored man, named Boggs, essaying to be a Baptist preacher, living in Bridgeport, concluding his Christian duty was to discard his wife and make love to Miss Racine. The tender emotion was reciprocated by Agnes, and Boggs quit preaching, began to vote the Democratic ticket—kicked his old wife out of doors, and took old Mrs. Jones, her granddaughter Agnes, and the illegitimate young one by her, to his home on top of the hill, south of Bridgeport, on Vincent Mitchell’s place, where they have since nestled. Having voted for Hancock, he next, it is alleged—so the old woman said to us the evening she suicide—he began to abuse her terribly, knocking her down and otherwise showing his high appreciation of his—grandmother—by his baby. It seems Agnes lent a helping hand also when necessary to keep the old woman in proper subjection. Time flew apace, and the old woman—who by the way, was rather a good French scholar and more perhaps than ordinarily intelligent—grew tired of her rations of abuse, and soured and sickened of life. This Boggs, as many of the Chronicles’ readers know, was charged with a tried for adultery with this Racine girl in St. Clairsville, and much to the regret of our people, was acquitted; since which time he has been living, it is alleged, in open criminality with the girl, though he claims to be married to her.

The old woman had contracted a bill with Dr. Cook, amounting to $17 for herself and Agnes. She had no money, and though Boggs abused it, she claimed to own, in fee, her mortal body—65 years old, not very comely, and weighing, perhaps, 80 to 100 pounds. She wanted to pay her debts, so she came to see her creditor, Dr. Cooke; he was not in, she went home, leaving a message for him to come up at once. He went, and she asked the doctor “what bodies were worth for dissection?” He replied it depended on certain contingencies. She then informed him she meant to deed him her body, after death, and as she meant to be honest, she would give him the paper just then. The doctor informed her such a transaction such as that must be regularly drawn up and acknowledged, and referred her to  R.J. Alexander as a suitable person to “draw up the papers and make them full and strong.” So she proceeded to wash her clothes and her person, and all things being in readiness she visited Mr. Alexander at his office, when Mr. McDonald, Alexander’s partner, drew up at her request and had acknowledged the following deed:

Know all men by these presents, That I, Anna Eliza Jones, for and in consideration of seventeen dollars in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge from Dr. John Cook, of Bridgeport, Ohio, do hereby give grant and convey to said Dr. John Cooke my body after my death, to be disposed of as said Dr. John Cooke may desire, either for dissection by any medical college, or for his own private use for dissection. Said Dr. John Cooke to have immediate possession and control of my body as soon as life therein shall be extinct and wherever my body may be at that time.

It is hereby witnessed that the real considerable of this deed is the release by said Dr. John Cooke or his claim against me for medical professional services, for myself and granddaughter, Agnes Racine, which amounts to seventeen dollars above mentioned, and by accepting this deed said Dr. John Cooke released said claim.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of March 1881

Anna E. Jones

The signing and sealing of the above was witnessed by the undersigned at the request of said Anna E. Jones

W.W. Conoway

J.E. MacDonalds

State of Ohio, Belmont County ss: before me, F.C. Robinson, a Notary Public and for said county, personally appeared the above named Anna Eliza Jones and acknowledge the signing of sealing of the above instrument to be her voluntary act and deed, this 25th day of March 1881.

T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.

It was now late in the evening of Friday, and having all things in readiness, she presented the Dr. with his “deed,” receiving therefor his receipt in full for his bill, and the old woman mounted the hill by the aid of a lantern “to deliver the goods.”

Reaching Boggs’, she called for writing materials, wrote a letter to a Mrs. Berry, in Martin’s Ferry, saying among other things, that “ere that reached her the writer would be dead,” &c., Giving this to Agnes, with orders to mail it, she kissed the baby, called for the keys of the door, which at first were refused her, but then given her, she took a chair  in hand and mounted it beside a post in the yard to which was fastened a clothes line—fastened one end of the rope around her neck, the other to the post, and pushed her old bark off, into the darkness and eternity. She informed Boggs & Co., that she meant to hang herself—but, as he alleges, she had threatened to destroy herself with pistols and by starvation before, he paid no serious attention to it. When morning came, however, Boggs & Co. saw the old woman hanging by the neck dead. The alarm was given, Coroner Garrett summoned, and after hearing the facts as related, he decided Anna E. Jones came to her death by her own hand, and of premeditation. The goods were delivered. The old woman was a good as her word. Setting a wholesome example to many creditors, to either “pay up” or “go and do likewise.” We can but revere the old woman’s memory for her determined purpose to pay an honest Dr. bill. Oh! That others we know of would profit by the old woman’s example—pay their bills we mean—or—or—well, a “word to the wise is sufficient.” Dr. Cooke waived all present claim to the old woman: her body was taken in charge by the Township Trustees, and by them buried on Sabbath afternoon, at Bridgeport Cemetery. A solitary vehicle alone formed the funeral cortege, with not a mourner to drop a tear for the strange determined old suicide.

As they rattled her bones over the stones,

The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.

Belmont Chronicle [St. Clairsville, OH] 31 March 1881: p. 3

The rhyme at the end comes from a much-quoted poem called “The Pauper’s Drive” attributed to Thomas Hood. It has the refrain

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns. 

Ohio was home to some of the giants among bodysnatchers. Yet even the “Prince of Ghouls,” probably knowing that his body would be stolen anyway, decided to profit from it when alive.

 The man about whom more graveyard stories have been told than about any other “resurrectionist,” was “Old Cunny,” the prince of ghouls, who in his day was known to every person in this part of the country, at least by name. He was the bogyman for all ill-behaved children. He was popularly called “Old Man Dead.” His real name was William Cunningham. He was born in Ireland in 1807. He was a big, raw-boned individual, with muscles like Hercules, and a protruding lower jaw, a ghoul by vocation, a drunkard by habit and a coward by nature. His wife was a bony, brawny, square-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator. Both had a tremendous appetite for whiskey. Cunny had sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio. When he died of heart trouble in 1871, the body was turned over to the college. Mrs. Cunningham, the bereaved widow, managed to get an additional $5 bill for the giant carcass of her deceased spouse. The skeleton of “Old Cunny” is to this day the piece de resistance in the Museum of the Medical College of Ohio. Daniel Drake and His Followers, Otto Juettner (Cincinnati, OH: Harvey Publishing Company, 1909): p. 395

 Cunningham’s apprentice and eventual partner followed Old Man Dead’s example.

 PICKLED

CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,

GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION

HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS

AND IS CARRIED FROM THE DEATH-BED TO THE PICKLING VAT

  Last Friday night a coffin containing the dead body of a colored man was driven to the Ohio Medical College, taken from the wagon and carried up the stairs, with little, if any, effort at concealment. Arriving in the “dead-room” the body was taken from the coffin, the large artery in the side of the neck cut, the blood removed, and the arteries filled with a preservative fluid, after which the body, divested of its clothing, was tumbled, with no further ceremony, into the “pickling tub,” along with a couple of dozen others which had been quietly accumulating during the past month. There was a peculiar lack of the secrecy which accompanies most of the operations of this sort by which dead bodies are transferred to the dead-room of the college, and a business-like air about the whole transaction which indicated that it was somewhat different from the ordinary cases of grave-robbing and body-snatching. A little inquiry into the case showed that it was a peculiar one—that, in fact, the body was that of one of the most notorious body-snatchers of the city, and that the lack of secrecy in the matter was from the fact that it was merely the carrying out of a plain business transaction, that the dead man had in his life sold his body to the college for dissection after death, receiving the payment, and that in accordance with this agreement his body was thus being removed to the dissecting room for that purpose.

Charley Keaton, the dead man, was in his life one of the most active body-snatchers in this city, and from his hands have hundreds of “stiffs”—bodies from many of the burying grounds in the city and vicinity, somebody’s loved ones to whose memory tears have fallen and marble shafts aspired heavenward—been sent down through the terrible “chute,” and upward through the death shaft to the dissecting room.

Keaton was a colored man of about forty, and had been for more than ten years in the business of body snatching, making good money at it, and coming to rather enjoy it than otherwise. To him there was nothing more in the handling of stiffs than in so many bolts of cloth or sacks of grain, and no more in dissection than in the business of the butcher or meat vender.

He began his work with “Old Cunny,” the noted resurrectionist, and followed it through all seasons and all weather, until only a few weeks before his death. In it he encountered all sorts of weather and exposures, and so contracted colds and a cough which finally led to bleeding of the lungs, and so his life among the dead ended in death, whose presence was as familiar to him as the days of his years of manhood.

To him the medical college, the chute, the dead-room, the pickling-vault, and even dissection had no horrors; familiarity with these had deprived him of that feeling of repugnance so common to mankind, and especially to his race, and as a result he had expressed a willingness in life that his remains after death should be submitted to the dissecting knife “in the interest of science,” as he said, as he considered his business and that which he supplied, inseparably interwoven with the science of anatomy and medicine, and as a result he had sold—deliberately sold during his life-time–his body to the college professors, receiving the usual price, $35 cash in hand, and giving a receipt and statement that his body should become the property of the college after dissection.

Indeed, he seemed rather to prefer that his skeleton should stand beside that of old “Cunny” in the museum of the college than to mold to nothingness in the dark, damp earth, and in life he frequently contemplated Cunny’s skeleton as it stands, spade in hand, in the college, evidently reflecting that he would someday stand beside it, and keep the “ole man” company through the many years that the college shall stand, instead of being consigned to the changes and final nothingness of the Potter’s field grave.

  So when old Charley died on Friday last, the college authorities were notified, his wife, who had accompanied him on many of his nightly expeditions, and is herself an expert anatomist, prepared the body for dissection, and after the brief funeral service, it was removed from the house on Barr Street, where he lived and whence he had sallied forth for many nightly excursions in the homes of the dead, and taken directly to the college, where it was prepared and put in pickle. It is pronounced “excellent material,” being well developed and obtained without serious delay after death.

  Whether this is strictly “professional,” as viewed from a body-snatcher’s stand-point, seems extremely doubtful. A system which takes the body with the consent of all parties concerned direct from the death-bed to the dissecting-room, and upon an agreed-upon and already paid price, seems to be one which must undermine the business of the profession, and therefore should be frowned down by every patriotic body-snatcher. Hawarden [IA] Independent 14 August 1878: p. 2   

I’ve asked the librarians and archivists at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine (the successor to the Medical College of Ohio) if Cunningham and Kenton’s mounted skeletons are still in their collection, but no one seems to know. If you have any answers, sack ‘em up and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. 

Mrs Daffodil posted about a unique method of Burking by Snuff,.   Look for similar joy and jollity in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

 

 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.

My Fatal Valentine

My Fatal Valentine The Fatal Letter.

Valentine’s Day always brings out the best in mankind: the delightful box of chocolates, the gay flowers, the heart-warming sentiments, the vicious valentines…. Today we flip through a rack of gruesome, horrid, insulting and threatening valentines, and discover some missives to die for.

Several years ago, in a piece called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacres,” I wrote about the scourge of “Vinegar Valentines” and the violence they inspired in their recipients. That post included  several stories of greeting-card-induced murder, murder/suicide, and the sad story of a young servant, Margaret Cray, who killed herself when her beloved apparently sent her a cruel valentine. I was surprised to learn that this was not a unique incident.

A FATAL VALENTINE

Mrs. Bowers Commits Suicide Because a Valentine Insults Her.

[N.Y. Tribune.]

Just at dark Thursday evening a woman was seen leaning over the coping at 401 West Nineteenth street. Then she seemingly pitched forward, hung for a moment with failing grasp upon the coping and then fell into the area in Nineteenth street, a distance of fifty feet. The neighbors, who hastened to her side, recognized her as Mrs. Delia C. Bowers. She was borne, still alive, to her apartments at 151 Ninth avenue. She died an hour later. She and her husband, Mr. Daniel H. Bowers, attended the Sixteenth Street Church, of which she was a devoted member. Their home life was unruffled until on St. Valentine’s Day Mrs. Bowers received two valentines and a letter. One was entitled, “A Seamstress,” the other, “In Love with Every Preacher,” and the letter left no doubt that the sender intended a scandalous charge against Mrs. Bowers. She handed the three missives to her husband, and he laughed at them; but a neighbour talked about them among Mrs. Bowers’ acquaintance, and despite her husband’s confidence in her, the groundless scandal dethroned her reason. The New Orleans [LA] Daily Democrat 28 February 1877: p. 8

Valentines were often used to intimidate their recipients, much like the crape and coffin threats I’ve mentioned before.

STRANGE VALENTINE Joseph Taylor Has Placed the Matter in Government Hands

Hagerstown, Md., Feb. 18. Joseph Taylor, of Washington county, received a valentine on which were drawn pictures of a hearse, skull and cross bones and the word “Beware.”

He brought it to Hagerstown and showed it to Deputy United States Marshall Oliver, who will make an investigation, as the missive passed through the mails. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 19 February 1898: p. 6

A similar valentine threat, which included some grave allegations about a “respectable man with a family,” had been sent a year earlier, in Colorado.

A GRINNING SKULL.

UNDERNEATH THE VALENTINE BORE THE WORD “BEWARE”

Chief Post office Inspector McMechen’s office is investigating a thrilling case of using the mails to intimidate. On the chief’s desk lies a hideous valentine depicting a pearly human skull staring with a stony, forbidding smile from a gory background. Beneath in letters evidently intended as a piratical black is printed, “Beware!”

In this morning’s mail came a letter from a prominent citizen of Hooper, Colo., who states that he has received the valentine and the accompanying letter from whom he has no idea, as the letter and valentine bear no names. “I am a respectable man with a family and am guiltless of the charges made. I ask you to help me. This is the second letter of this nature I have received through the Hooper post office.

The letter is written in an uneducated hand in blue pencil. It says: “Beware! You have ruined my sister’s reputation and robbed her of her virtue. You said you would go to Mosca, but did not. I have warned you before! Clear out and never let me see you again. If you remain, some of these dark nights you will turn up missing. Remember, stay and DIE!”

Prompt action will be taken on this most gruesome valentine and its skull. Denver [CO] Post 15 February 1897: p. 2

Mystifyingly, flesh-and-blood hearts were thought to be an acceptable token of esteem. Sometimes they were sent as a joke:

RECEIVES REAL HEART FOR VALENTINE TOKEN

T.F. Wilson, a Retired Ranchman, Remembered in Unique Way by His Old Friends.

Thomas F. Wilson, a retired ranchman living on South Conejos street, has received what is perhaps the most unique valentine of any residenet of this city. The token consisted of a sheep’s heart in a small tin box, and was sent by some of his friends in the vicinity of Falcon. On opening the package, Mr. Wilson read the inscription, “Take my heart and give me yours,” and was much surprised to see an organ resembling that of a human being. His fears were not allayed until a friend who had been in on the joke explained it to him. Colorado Springs [CO] Gazette 16 February 1911: p. 5

And sometimes not.

A Strange Valentine

A Troy young lady received on Saturday last the most wonderful valentine on record. Neatly encased in a box she found a beef’s heart pierced with a golden arrow of elegant manufacture, set with jewels and estimated to be worth at least $75. It is probably intended to be used as a neck pin or as an ornament for the pair. There was not the least intimation who is the giver, nor can the lady or her family imagine who sent it. For the donor of so munificent a gift he shows a strange taste in sending such a remarkable valentine to a lady. A pet dog had the heart for his dinner, but what do to with the pin the lady can hardly determine. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 February 1875: p. 1

At least the dog appreciated it. And she could sell the pin.

Then there were the other body parts, reminiscent, in this case, of Van Gogh.

LEILA’S STRANGE VALENTINE

Human Ear Was Enclosed in a Box and Sent to a Woman.

St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 14. There was wild excitement at Miss Norma Langdon’s mansion, at 1311 Pine st., about noon today.

The cause was a valentine received by Leila Powers, one of her guests.

The valentine was a pretty fabrication of lace and pink celluloid, and within the box that contained it there was a human ear, only recently severed from the head and still bloody.

The box and its contents had lain undisturbed in Miss Langdon’s sleeping apartments about 12 hours, for Leila Powers had a short time before disappeared from the house.

No one at the house knew its contents, but the office authorities had opened the parcel to make sure there was no writing in it, and that it was entitled to third-class postal rates. They were horrified to find the bloody ear, evidently that of a delicate woman, close to the pretty valentine. The carrier hastily rewrapped the gruesome bundle, separated it cautiously from the rest of his mail, and breathed a sigh of relief when he had safely delivered it. The Boston [MA] Daily Globe 15 February 1893: p. 6

I wondered about that “mansion” and its guests. Norma Langdon seems to have run an “improper house” for “soiled doves,” if we go by various court reports and an article about Nora Way “an inmate of the house on Tenth street kept by Norma,” who attempted to stab Norma in 1886. St Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 10 August 1886: p. 7. I could find no further word on the fate of Miss Powers or the ear’s owner.

Another ear was sent as a valentine to a Virginia man in 1903, noted with the casual racism of the day.

Mr. E.D. Foster, of Clifton Forge, received a very peculiar valentine, which caused much comment. A human ear, taken from a grown negro (supposed by some college friend), was sent him nicely decorated with ribbon and securely packed in a box padded with cotton. Mr. Foster takes great pride in exhibiting the oddity, which is indeed a peculiar valentine. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 22 February 1903: p. 15

 

“My Buxom Widow” vinegar valentine. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/533291.html
Widow “to be let” Vinegar Valentine http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/534700.html

It seems incredible, but a particular class of “vinegar valentines” was directed at tormenting widows, suggesting that they were “man eaters” or “merry widows” eager to snag a man or that they were glad their husband was dead. In a heartless case in Chicago, a newly-bereaved and deeply grieving widow was the victim of one of these valentines.

Mrs. Sarah Sweeney Tries to Die Because of a Comic.

DRINKS A CUP OF ETHER

Missive Laid at Her Door at 150 Gladys Avenue.

CRUEL VERSES TO A WIDOW

Grief and mortification at finding a hideous valentine underneath her door on her return from viewing the body of her husband in the receiving vault at Calvary impelled Mrs. Sarah Sweeney, 150 Gladys avenue, a widow of one month, to swallow a cupful of ether in an effort to end her life. The valentine, on which were a picture and some unkind verses inscribed to “A Widow,” is supposed to have been sent by mischievous boys of the neighbourhood.

Mrs. Sweeney was discovered a few minutes after she had swallowed the ether by her sister, Mrs. E.L. Seaton, and a physician was summoned in time to save her life. She is still in a precarious state, however, and the prank played on her, together with her own troubles, threatens to seriously affect her mind.

Mrs. Sweeney’s husband, Philip Sweeney, was the proprietor of a prosperous plumbing business at 1025 West Lake street up to the time of his death, one month ago. The family, including two young children, was known to the neighbourhood as an unusually happy one, and when Mr. Sweeney died suddenly his wife was prostrated by the shock, and for a time her life also was almost despaired of.

The grief of the widow was so great that she was reluctant to have her husband’s body buried at once, and to please her it was placed in a receiving vault at Calvary, where she made regular visits, often looking at the remains. Her friends were unable to persuade her to stay away, although it was found that the visits only aggravated her grief.

Two weeks ago Mrs. Sweeney and her two children left the house at 1025 West Lake street, where the family had lived for almost ten years, and moved to 150 Gladys avenue. Once away from her old surroundings and partly lost sight of by her friends, grief took possession of the widow to such an extent that her relatives feared she would try to end her life. Mrs. Seaton went to live with Mrs. Sweeney and her children. The latter still continued her visits to the cemetery.

Finds the Cruel Valentine.

On St. Valentine’s day Mrs. Sweeney went early to Calvary and took what she said was to be a final glance at her husband’s remains. She reached home a short time before noon, almost hysterical. The valentine was lying underneath the door and Mrs. Sweeney found it. It contained a cruel picture, supposed to represent a widow, and verses that were even more unkind than the picture. The sight of it threw Mrs. Sweeney into hysterics, as she thought it a reflection upon her grief for her husband.

Although the neighbors, who had deep sympathy for her sorrow, assured her that the work was only a boyish prank, Mrs. Sweeney was inconsolable. She threatened to end her life, also, and for three days it was necessary to keep her partly under the influence of opiates.

On Friday morning she appeared to have forgotten all about the valentine, and her relatives rejoiced to think that she had finally gotten control of her grief.

There was a quantity of ether in the house which had been used by Mr. Sweeney in his plumbing business. Just before noon Mrs. Sweeney poured out a quantity of this, and, telling her sister she was going to end her “headache,” swallowed the drug before anyone could prevent her. The cries of Mrs. Sweeney’s sister aroused the neighbourhood and Dr. Richard H. Brown, California avenue and Jackson boulevard, was hurriedly brought. A half hour’s hard work brought the woman back to consciousness, though she was still hysterical over the memory of the valentine.

No effort has been made to discover who the senders of the offending paper were. Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 20 February 1898: p. 12

Why the hell not? If children had left the valentine, at the very least strong words seemed in order. If an adult, charges of reckless endangerment or depraved indifference might have fit the case; involuntary manslaughter if the widow died.

And that is the big question. While I was able to find Dr. Brown in the medical rosters, Mr. and Mrs. Sweeney seem to be missing from the online record. Did she survive?

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who will not be opening any mail today.

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.

Detritus of the Dead

Detritus of the Dead, a dead infant’s photo framed in a coffin-like shadowbox by a fabric flower wreath. Former eBay listing.

In the theatre noir of Victorian mourning, textiles took center stage, providing backdrop, scenery, costume and props.  Crape, the quintessential mourning fabric, darkened clothing, doorknobs, and public building facades. Textiles veiled the widow, covered the coffin, and enshrouded the corpse. The hairwork wreaths and mourning embroideries created by mourners to enshrine the memory of the dead, might be framed with the coffin plate of the late-lamented and hung in the front parlor as a kind of domestic reliquary.

Today, of course, crape has rather fallen out of fashion as a mourning textile. In fact the only mourning textiles we find these days are “funeral blankets,” also called “sympathy” or “memorial throws.” These ghastly objects are often printed with angels or the “Footprints” poem, and may be personalized with the name and dates of the deceased. A far cry from crape fluttering ominously from the doorknocker.

Detritus of the Dead Memorial wreath made from the deceased man’s ties and displayed first on his coffin and then at his former place of business. https://twitter.com/attyfay/status/1017610721071333376

So  I was intrigued to find a return to the spirit of Victorian mourning textiles in some recent examples of very personal mourning art: first, the wreath above, made of the deceased’s ties, which I find both attractive and touching, and second, the work of an artist who “forms severed tree stumps from pieces of her late father’s clothing…The works address the passing of time and allude to the body returning to the environment after death.”

There must be many other bereaved artisans creating similar intimate memorial works from family garments. Unsurprisingly, this thread of mourning arts and crafts runs back many years.

FLOWERS OF FLANNEL

An Up-Town Artists Who Makes Gorgeous Posies of Peoples’ Old Clothes.

ART THAT OUTSTRIPS NATURE
Gaudy Wreaths Evolved From the Depths of the Family Rag-Bag.

“Remember the Loved Ones! Memorial Flowers Made of Your Deceased Friends’ Clothing.” This is the simple inscription on a tin sign, nailed against the front of a private residence on Columbia avenue, near Twenty-second street. A passing reporter saw the sign and sought an interview with the person who puts sentiment into old clothes. The bell was answered by an artistic-looking lass, who ushered the scribe into the studio to await the advent of the master, who happened to be the mistress of the establishment. Around the apartment there were distributed glass shades covering specimens of unnaturally luscious-looking fruit and supernaturally bright-colored flowers, all wax. On the walls hung several frames containing what looked like somber tinted prints of mournful weeping willows, monuments, crosses, wreaths, and other mortuary emblems, which proved, on inspection, to be human hair wrought into these various cheerful shapes. While the reporter was still inspecting these works of art and remembrance the lady of the house entered.

A LEADING FEATURE.

“Good morning. You’re looking at some of my relics, I see. Pretty, aren’t they?” was her greeting. Without ascertaining her visitor’s wishes she began to explain the various designs and to tell how many premiums she had taken at country fairs.

“Do you really make flowers of old clothes?” asked the curious newspaper man.

“Yes, indeed; that is a part of my business. In fact, it is the feature that I want to make the leading one. It is a new departure, and there is no limit to its possibilities.” Before the reporter had left he was fain to believe there was not.

A great many people don’t like hair work, and some say preserved flowers have too much of the waxy look of a corpse. The prettiest natural flowers are only emblems, after all; but bouquets made from clothes worn by those we wish to keep in remembrance are almost a part of our friends themselves.”

The floral artist then proceeded to prove in a most conclusive manner what could be done by showing what had been done already, and when all is known it is as simple as it is ingenious. Samuel of Posen could not make a necktie out of a pair of socks with more ingenuity. Given a sufficient quantity of old garments and the skill imparted by the artist at one dollar a lesson, the problem of how to make the flowers is easily solved. The process is much like that of making artificial flowers for ladies’ bonnets, the difference being that instead of selecting the colors to suit the design to be wrought the design must be made to suit the materials at hand. Right there is where the skill of the manipulator to adapt means to end [sic] of ribbons and scraps of cloth comes into play.

DAISIES FROM WHITE DRESSES.

Two wreaths, in which the artist takes especial pride, were shown to the reporter to illustrate this point. One was made from the clothing once worn by a dead grandchild. It contained, besides a number of roses fashioned of the white muslin of tiny skirts, a number of odd-shaped leaves made by cutting out the pattern of the embroidery upon the edge of the same. A daisy’s blossom had the white stuff of a baby stocking cut in strips for petals and a yellow-covered button for a center. There were queer-shaped botanical specimens evolved from striped and plaid percale, and unnameable blossoms in navy blue and cardinal wool that only the brain of a grower of flannel flowers might conceive. The second wreath, the admiring newspaper man was told, contained flowers made of the clothing worn by the artist’s own first infant. In this white blossoms predominated, as was explained by the proud mother, because “there is not so much variety in an infant’s dress as in an older person’s. But white flowers are so much more appropriate for a little babe that is all innocence and purity, and besides, they never will fade, you know.” The skeptical scribe didn’t pretend to know. With pride the mother proceeded to point out a pale buff pansy made of the kid of a tiny shoe, and a few little snowdrops of cotton that had been stuffed into the toe of the shoe to make it short enough for baby’s foot. The gem of the whole collection and the one which was shown with most gratification was a cream-colored lily on the inner circumference of the wreath, which the loving parent triumphantly explained was a part of the crape scarf that hung on the door-knob when the little one lay cold in its casket.

TROPHIES OF THE LIVING

Another wreath, more gaudy in color and more cosmopolitan in make-up, was one of all the shades of the rainbow and several others besides. It was in itself a whole family history. “A red, red rose” was a part of her married daughter’s last new bonnet, and a delicate white blossom called to mind the dress she wore when she was made a wife. A wild-looking tiger lily was once part of a colored underskirt. The blossoms that old the story of the rest of the female side of the house were in such colors as were not found in all the bright robes worn by Solomon in the days of his glory.

“But only feminine apparel can be utilized for bouquets,” objected the reporter. “That’s just where you are wrong!” the artists exclaimed. “Why, think of the colored shirts, flannel drawers, neck ties and stockings. They furnish an unlimited supply for as bright bouquets and rosettes as you could wish. I made a beautiful bunch of pansies not long ago of bits of a gentleman’s kid gloves. Many of the pieces were the right shade, but a few had to be colored to suit. I am about to make a large bouquet for a down town women whose husband belonged to the old Moya Hose Company and was afterwards a soldier. The centre will be a large hollyhock. His red fireman’s shirt will come into play here, don’t you see? I can surround this by blue glowers of some kind. I liked best to make them according to my own ideas. Some people think they can tell just how it ought to be done. Why this woman, whose husband was a firemen, wanted me to make a lot of forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley of her husband’s blue uniform and a white flannel shirt. Such blossoms would do for a baby or a love sick girl, but for an old fellow that used to run with the masheen it makes my head ache.”

TIGER LILIES FROM COATS.

Just at this point a Columbia avenue dude passed the window. The disgusted artist espied him and exclaimed: “Wouldn’t I like a chance to make a bouquet for him out of his clothes? That spotted jacket would be just lovely worked up into tiger lilies and sunflowers and his legs would make elegant stems for the flowers if they were a little thicker and not so crooked.

The many advantages of the faille and linen flowers are causing the trade in them to grow and the florist who now does the chief business in growing them has confidence that as soon as their virtues become more widely known some of the florists will be compelled to shut up shop for lack of something to do. When it is considered that they don’t fade or wilt under the hottest rays of the sun or freeze though attacked by the coldest blasts of winter, the mall sum of $20 asked for making a medium-sized wreath sinks into insignificance and it will be admitted that the genius that originated the idea of remembering dead friends by their old clothes is a benefactor of the race.

The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 24 June 1883: p. 3

Most readers would have nodded knowingly at the first level headline.  Flannel—also known as shrouding flannel—was formerly the main textile used for shrouds.

Some relicts were not content just with flowers made from the deceased’s wardrobe, but added the detritus of the dead to their memorial collages. This widow, with an eye to future historians, carefully labeled all the artifacts.

A NOVEL MORTUARY WREATH.

The Unique Memorial of a Connecticut Widow,

From the Boston Herald.

A unique piece of handiwork has just been completed by Mrs. Sophia Laramore of Waterbury, Conn., who is now approaching her 70th year. It is a mortuary wreath In memory of her husband, who was dead nearly five years before the curious symbol was begun. She made it of relics of her late husband, and of articles which were the property of the wives who preceded her. The frame is of putty, into which while soft the widow placed, among others, the following articles: In the center of the top cross piece are the spectacles of her late lamented and a small vial containing the pills which were left over from his last Illness. Besides these the Hartford Courant says there are many small stones which he had treasured during life, his jackknife. a piece of candy, which she says be had left uneaten; buttons of all kinds from his old clothing, and a small bottle containing cheese made by his first wife. All of this collection is labeled, as, for instance. “The smelling bottle used by the wife before me.” Inclosed in the frame is a picture of him whose memory the wreath is supposed to perpetuate. The wreath above the portrait is composed almost entirely of flowers and leaves, each of these made either of some portion of his coat, waistcoat, trousers, neckties or suspenders, and worked together artistically. The shirt in which he died is honored by having made from it a showy bird, too wonderful and strange for description. Just outside the wreath are placed suspender buckles and watch chains entwined with the hair of the mother of his first wife. Some of the hair of his own head has been made into tendrils, and the stamens of one of the flowers is of the material that lined the coffin. On another side of the wreath is a bunch of raisins he bought her the winter before he died, saying: “Now don’t cook any of these, but eat everyone.” Balancing the raisins are three wires, each supporting one of his teeth, and behind them the last toothpick he ever used.

St. Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 16 January 1890: p. 11

And this Vermont widow found solace in a mixed-media memorial to her husband made from all manner of sentimental scraps.

A Widow’s Fad.

Near Vergennes, Vt., lives an old widow, Mrs. Parthena Barton, who has just completed a novel memorial to her dead husband. This memento takes the shape of a wreath and the articles in it would start a junk shop. There are many different kinds of flowers composing the wreath, each one made of a bit of the neckties or trousers, or suspenders, which the deceased Barton had worn in life; the centers of the flowers are tender souvenirs in the shape of collar or coat buttons. The spoon with which Mr. Barton took his medicine, the cough drops and boxes of pills are all enshrined in the memorial wreath, as are a motley collection of watch keys, and samples of all the kinds of garden seed he last saved. There’s a bit of the cushion of the church pew in which he sat Sunday after Sunday, a section of the saw he used in providing stove wood, and the awl and bristles he used in mending his boots. Indeed to make the memorial as complete as possible, the good widow included in the collection a souvenir of his first wife in the shape of a smelling bottle, and a match box some one had given Mrs. Barton No. 2, while for herself she only put in a lock of her hair. This huge wreath is enclosed in a frame and hangs on the wall. Both wreath and frame were made by the old lady herself, who views her work with much pride and says: “Taint natural to build monuments and put flowers on the graves of friends. What you want is something to remind you of them. That’s why I made that wreath. Everything’s got a history.”

The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 7 November 1888: p. 4

The latter two stories remind me of African-American conventions of leaving objects important to the dead person at the burial place. As James M. Davidson writers in “Keeping the Devil at Bay: The Shoe on the Coffin Lid and other Grave Charms in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century America,” sometimes the last items used by the deceased–medicine bottles, dishes or spoons–were interred with them or carefully positioned on the grave. (You can find a contemporary description of the practice as found in Washington D.C.’s Mount Zion Cemetery in The Victorian Book of the Dead, where the stories of the Pennsylvania wreath-maker and the Vermont widow also appear.) I should emphasize that the making of these unconventional wreaths was certainly not a widespread practice, but it was novel enough to interest the press.

Other examples? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who has a brimming junk drawer handy for post-mortem use.

 

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.