Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

beautiful detail boy in coffin

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

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.

 

The Mourner A-la-Mode: A Satirical Poem: 1871

mourning walking toilettes The Milliner and Dressmaker, Goubaud

THE MOURNER A-LA-MODE.

By John G. Saxe

I saw her last night at a party

(The elegant party at Mead’s),

And looking remarkably hearty

For a widow so young in her weeds;

 

Yet I know she was suffering sorrow

Too deep for the tongue to express.

Or why had she chosen to borrow

So much from the language of dress?

 

Her shawl was as sable as night;

And her gloves were as dark as her shawl;

And her jewels that flashed in the light,

Were black as a funeral pall;

 

Her robe had the hue of the rest

(How nicely it fitted her shape!)

And the grief that was heaving her breast,

Boiled over in billows of crape.

 

What tears of vicarious woe,

That else might have sullied her face,

Were kindly permitted to flow

In ripples of ebony lace!

 

While even her fan, in its play,

Had quite a lugubrious scope,

And seemed to be waving away,

The ghost of the angel of Hope!

 

Yet rich as the robes of a queen

Was the sombre apparel she wore;

I’m certain I never had seen

Such a sumptuous sorrow before;

 

And I couldn’t help thinking the beauty,

In mourning the loved and the lost,

Was doing her conjugal duty

Altogether regardless of cost!

 

One surely would say a devotion

Performed at so vast an expense,

Betray’d an excess of emotion

That was really something immense;

 

And yet as I viewed, at my leisure,

Those tokens of tender regard,

I thought:—It is scarce without measure

The sorrow that goes by the yard.

 

Ah! grief is a curious passion,

And yours—I am sorely afraid—

The very next phase of the fashion

Will find it beginning to fade.

 

Though dark are the shadows of grief,

The morning will follow the night,

Half-tints will betoken relief,

Till joy shall be symbol’d in white!

 

Ah, well! It were idle to quarrel

With Fashion, or aught she may do;

And so I conclude with a moral

And metaphor—warranted new.

 

When measles come handsomely out,

The patient is safest, they say;

And the sorrow is mildest, no doubt,

That works in a similar way!

The Spiritual Magazine 1 August 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Widows were often, alas, fair game for the Victorian press. Many marriages were not love-matches and many women were widowed quite young. In addition, there might be economic incentive to remarry. These circumstances led to the cliche of the “merry widow,” a woman who delighted in mourning finery and thought of nothing except bagging another husband. Tragically, the author, John G. Saxe [1816-1887] poet, wit, and satirist, knew too much about mourning. Only three years after this light-hearted poem was published, he began to suffer a series of losses: his youngest daughter Laura died of consumption aged 17 in 1874. His daughter Sarah died in 1879; his mother in 1880; another daughter, Harriet, his eldest son, John, and John’s wife also died of the disease in quick succession in 1881. In 1880, his wife collapsed with an apoplexy and died, worn out from nursing her sick children and husband. Saxe himself suffered head injuries in a train accident in 1875, sank into a reclusive melancholy and died in 1887.

Mead’s is “Paul Mead’s” a chop house in Brooklyn popular with lawyers and sporting men. The last stanza refers to the belief that if the rash of measles was somehow supressed or turned inward, it would go ill with the patient.

You may read more about mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available. A recent post satirizing the fashionable widow was this one.

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.

 

Composting the Dead in Naples

Recently there has been much talk about a plan to compost the dead in urban burial towers, the Urban Death Project. You can even support it through a Kickstarter campaign. From an ecological point of view, this has many advantages: it would be cheaper for families; precious land would not be wasted on cemeteries; no embalming would be needed, reducing use of toxic chemicals;  cremation’s high energy costs could be avoided. And families would come away at the end with a nice bag of compost.

On the downside, there are still some bugs to be worked out: the heat of composting does not destroy everything–disease-causing prions, for example and the end product may not be safe to mulch your vegetable garden with. From an historian’s point of view, if this plan became the regular method of burial, cemeteries would disappear and with them, much beauty and historical information. The compost is also apparently not guaranteed to be completely free of other peoples’ relatives, which might bother some families. On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to be composted; I’m not a joiner.

While the Urban Death Project is a hip, modern, scientific, and green take on corpse disposal, the notion of communal graves where the dead might rot in peace is not new. N.P. Willis, an American author visited some gruesome burial pits in Italy in the 1830s (during a cholera epidemic, I might add.) Then, as now, there was death tourism.

The road, after leaving the campo, runs along the edge of the range of hills enclosing the city; and just below, within a high white wall, lies the public burial-place of Naples. I had read so many harrowing descriptions of this spot, that my curiosity rose as we drove along in sight of it, and, requesting my friends to set me down, I joined an American of my acquaintance, and we started to visit it together.

An old man opened the iron door, and we entered a clean, spacious, and well-paved area, with long rows of iron rings in the heavy slabs of the pavement. Without asking a question, the old man walked across to the further corner, where stood a moveable lever, and, fastening the chain into the fixture, raised the massive stone cover of a pit. He requested us to stand back for a few minutes to give the effluvia time to escape, and then, sheltering our eyes with our hats, we looked in. You have read, of course, that there are three hundred and sixty-five pits in this place, one of which is opened every day for the dead of the city. They are thrown in without shroud or coffin, and the pit is sealed up at night for a year. They are thirty or forty feet deep, and each would contain perhaps two hundred bodies. Lime is thrown upon the daily heap, and by the end of the year the bottom of the pit is covered with dry white bones.

It was some time before we could distinguish any thing in the darkness of the abyss. Fixing my eyes on one spot, however, the outlines of a body became defined gradually, and in a few minutes, sheltering my eyes completely from the sun above, I could see all the horrors of the scene but too distinctly. Eight corpses, all of grown persons, lay in a confused heap together, as they had been thrown in one after another in the course of the day. The last was a powerfully made, grey old man, who had fallen flat on his back, with his right hand lying across and half covering the face of a woman. By his full limbs and chest, and the darker colour of his legs below the knee, he was probably one of the lazzaroni [the poorest of Naples], and had met with a sudden death. His right heel lay on the forehead of a young man, emaciated to the last degree, his chest thrown up as he lay, and his ribs showing like a skeleton covered with a skin. The close black curls of the latter, as his head rested on another body, were in such strong relief that I could have counted them. Off to the right, quite distinct from the heap, lay, in a beautiful attitude, a girl, as well as I could judge, of not more than nineteen or twenty. She had fallen on the pile and rolled or slid away. Her hair was very long and covered her left shoulder and bosom; her arm was across her body; and if her mother had laid her down to sleep, she could not have disposed her limbs more decently. The head had fallen a little way to the right, and the feet, which were small, even for a lady, were pressed one against the other, as if she were about turning on her side. The sexton said that a young man had come with the body, and was very ill for some time after it was thrown in. We asked him if respectable people were brought here. “Yes,” he said, “many. None but the rich would go to the expense of a separate grave for their relations. People were often brought in handsome grave-clothes, but they were always stripped before they were left. The shroud, whenever there was one, was the perquisite of the undertakers.” And thus are flung into this noisome pit, like beasts, the greater part of the inhabitants of this vast city—the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous together, without the decency even of a rag to keep up the distinctions of life! Can human beings thus be thrown away!—men like ourselves —women, children, like our sisters and brothers! I never was so humiliated in my life as by this horrid spectacle. I did not think a man—a felon even, or a leper—what you will, that is guilty or debased—I did not think anything that had been human could be so recklessly abandoned. Pah! it makes one sick at heart! God grant I may never die at Naples!

While we were recovering from our disgust, the old man lifted the stone from the pit destined to receive the dead of the following day. We looked in. The bottom was strewn with bones, already fleshless and dry. He wished us to see the dead of several previous days, but my stomach was already tried to its utmost. We paid our gratuity, and hurried away. A few steps from the gate, we met a man bearing a coffin on his head. Seeing that we came from the cemetery, he asked us if we wished to look into it. He set it down, and the lid opening with a hinge, we were horror-struck with the sight of seven dead infants! The youngest was at least three months old; the eldest perhaps a year; and they lay heaped together like so many puppies, one or two of them spotted with disease, and all wasted to baby-skeletons. While we were looking at them, six or seven noisy children ran out from a small house at the road-side and surrounded the coffin. One was a fine girl of twelve years of age, and, instead of being at all shocked at the sight, she lifted the whitest of the dead things, and looked at its face very earnestly, loading it with all the tenderest diminutives of the language. The others were busy in pointing to those they thought had been prettiest, and none of them betrayed fear or disgust. In answer to a question of my friend about the marks of disease, the man rudely pulled out one by the foot that lay below the rest, and, holding it up to show the marks upon it, tossed it again carelessly into the coffin. He had brought them from the hospital for infants, and they had died that morning. The coffin was worn with use. He shut down the lid, and, lifting it again upon his head, went on to the cemetery, to empty it like so much offal upon the heap we had seen.

Pencillings by the Way, Nathaniel Parker Willis, London: George Virtue, 1852

Willis, by the way, was a friend of Poe and published his poem “The Raven.” He also defended Poe’s reputation after his death. Willis’s idea of a decent burial would have been the standard Victorian one: the body washed, dressed, and coffined. A wake or watch, where the body was not left alone. A religious ceremony, then hearse and carriages to the cemetery for burial in a grave in the family plot. Eventually a monument with a touching inscription erected above the grave. Subsequent pilgrimages and picnics at the cemetery. Distinctions, shrouds, and virtue all intact.

Didn’t the pits eventually fill up? Were the whitened bones left in the pits at Naples reused in any way? Animal bones were often burnt to make pigments or ground up for fertilizer. Perhaps these bones were moved to an ossuary. Skulls disinterred from Neapolitan churches and kept in the Fontanelle charnel house eventually became the subject of a local cult.

Italian funeral procession Gaetano Dura c. 1830-40
An engraving showing a more affluent Italian funeral. Gaetano Dura, c. 1830-40 http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/25714.html?mulR=1854290710|31

A slightly earlier travel writer tells much the same story:

In humble life, no box is provided,—coffin-shape being unknown in the highest. But all here is done in a plain and palpable way; and the occasions are as numerous, where the human remains, in conveyance through the streets of the Neapolitan or Roman Capital—(and, I presume, generally) —are not protected from absolute exposure by a cloth, or a raised awning, as those where they are: the exposure or non-exposure rests in the body’s being borne forth in dress or in comparative, or, it may be, absolute nakedness. In either case it is scrupulously washed clean, and laid out to seem a wax figure: this office rests not with the relatives or domestics of the family, but constitutes the employment of a body of persons, of whom it is the livelihood, and who follow the corpse in procession, each enveloped in a white robe, that disguises the person,—even the face of the wearer being covered, with glasses in the linen, opposite the eyes, to give the train power to perform their duties in detail. The performance, to poor as well as rich, is obligatory on this fraternity ; and the shew they exhibit gives almost as much consequence to the funerals of the one as the other. In Rome the bodies are consigned—coffinless let it be—to earth: and in the exterior of Naples also, is a general cemetery, of which, in sequence through the year, one of its 365 receptacles is diurnally opened, and all who are brought on the same day, are, in utter nakedness, shot into the one pit—that pit to be re-opened on the same day in the following year. But at Naples it is also the practice to reposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr.__ was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of Remarks on Subjects Picturesque, Moral, and Miscellaneous, William Webb, 1827

Thoughts on common graves, composting the dead, or a practical use for bones? Wait for the effluvia to clear before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Other grim and grewsome stories of funerary and mourning practices may be found in

The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

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.

 

Corpses on Ice: The Dangers of the Undertaker’s Ice-Box

corpse cooler 1885
1885 corpse cooler and “Fresh-ever.” https://www.google.com/patents/US311764?dq=%22corpse+cooler%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi575ev2PzUAhUGHT4KHXXFDY0Q6AEIMjAC

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not mince words when writing about the perils of 19th-century corpse disposal. You may have read about the grim German waiting mortuaries, the dark side of those popular Fisk cast-iron burial caskets, people who asked to be stabbed to the heart after death to make sure they were really most sincerely dead, and about the Victorian fear—actually more like an obsession—with being buried alive. It was sometimes difficult for 19th-century physicians to tell when a body was a lifeless corpse, given diseases like cholera that mimicked death and an apparent epidemic of catalepsy. Yet beyond dubious diagnoses of death leading to premature burial, there was another, lesser-known mortuary danger: the undertaker’s ice-box.

While arterial embalming had been popular since the Civil War, some undertakers, either conservative or cautious about the toxic chemicals involved, shunned embalming, feeling that they got more satisfactory outcomes using the tried-and-true method of icing the corpse. For example, this undertaker was delighted with a tub of ice so effective there was doubt about the death:

“Before the patent ice boxes were in use,” continued Mr. William, “I was called on to bury a young man whose death was caused by drowning. It was in warm weather, and the family desired that the funeral should be put off a few days. The bath tub was used, and he was laid in it, covered with ice, and kept splendidly. In fact, he looked so much better in death than he did in life that his mother could not be made to believe that life was extinct, and for this reason the hour of the funeral services was twice postponed until her family physician arrived and made an examination. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 12 July 1888: p. 6

I’d always imagined that Victorian undertakers iced their corpses by putting them on beds of ice like fish in the seafood case. But, in fact, the goal was to freeze the corpse solid, letting it thaw gradually before burial would be necessary. The illustration at the head of this post shows one such device, with a handy hose to hang out the window. The sound and smell of the water running off the corpse is one of the lost sensory landscapes of the 19th-century…. There are numerous 19th-century patents for “corpse coolers” and improvements thereof. Some were essentially immense ice-chests; several were meant to fit only over the abdomen and breast of the corpse. And, according to some physicians, these devices were a menace to the public wheal.

Dangers Of Prematurely Placing Corpses On Ice.

Dr. E. Vanderpoel, of this city is strongly opposed, and for very good reasons, to the practice of hastening to place a body on ice almost as soon as the patient appears to be dead. Some of his experiences in his own professional life have made so deep an impression on him, that he has more than once, publicly and privately, protested against the modern custom introduced by the undertakers, of putting bodies on ice before there were official proof of death. He considers it a scandal to the undertaking profession, an outrage to society, and an insult to the patient’s family that for the sake of collecting exorbitant fees, undertakers do not await the arrival of a doctor’s certificate of death before they freeze the remains.

The case lately reported from Canada, of a smallpox patient who had apparently died and was about to be buried when he came to life again, suggests to Dr. Vanderpoel the following reflections: “If that Canadian had been taken ill in this city his life would never have returned at the cemetery, for it would have been frozen out of him long before he reached the grave. In reading about this case I thought of a certain Brooklyn patient of mine who died in 1872. She was forty-five years old, and the widow of a well-known reverend doctor of divinity. She had an attack of dysentery, and had been lying ill for four or five days with a low fever but her condition was not dangerous, although it was assuming a typhoid form. I called in to see her one day at one o’clock, and returned again at five o’clock on the same day, when, to my profound surprise and indignation, she was lying in an icebox down stairs partially frozen. The undertaker had committed this atrocity without any medical certificate of her death, and he had no official knowledge that she had died at all I found that after I had left she arose from her bed and fainted while walking across the floor from sheer weakness, and because she lay there motionless the children thought she was dead; so, instead of sending for me to come and make an examination, they ran for the undertaker. He responded with like promptitude, bringing in his mortuary box full of pounded ice, and in a short time she was frozen stiff. Every part of her body, except her face was covered with the ice. I believed then and I always shall believe, that she might have revived had proper means been employed for her resuscitation.”

The following is still more tragic: In 1874 I attended a wealthy lady about fifty years old, and her house was but five doors from my own. She was perfectly well at six o’clock in the evening. She went to bed as usual. In the night she was taken ill, and I was called over to the house by another doctor, for consultation, at six o’clock in the morning. After doing what we could I left at seven to finish my toilet and to get some breakfast. The other doctor also retired soon afterward, as he found he could not be of any immediate service. I returned at half-past nine o’clock and found her, not in bed, but in the back parlor enclosed in an undertaker’s ice chest. From what I knew of the character of her case, it was one in which returning consciousness would be almost certain to follow a period of apparent sinking away of life. If there ever was a case of restoration after suspended animation that should have been one. The undertaker’s excuse was that mortification might set in when he ought to have known that it takes twelve hours for animal life to leave the body after death and before decomposition can set in.

“After death there are three stages in the processes of decomposition. On the first day the features and the flesh are sunken in and the pallid shade of death is very ghastly. On the second day there is an improved look in every respect and the remains lose a part of the pallor of the first day. On the third day the flesh becomes full again, the skin clears up, and the natural hue of life returns to a degree that in some cases is almost startling. At the end of this period discoloration sets in and decomposition does its work with great rapidity if the weather be warm. But these changes can be postponed without difficulty by the proper use of a very little ice on the stomach, and some diluted carbolic acid sprayed into the nostrils. In 1848, when the modern iceboxes were unknown, I kept the body of my mother four days in the hottest summer weather of July. My son dropped dead in the street from kidney disease. He was in full health, and I kept the remains in fine condition for five days with a simple pan of ice. I was attending on a poor little girl in Thompson street. Her mother was so poor that I did not charge her anything. When the little sufferer passed away I told the mother that an undertaker would come and order the remains to be put on ice, but I would show her how to keep the body until time for burial. It would keep without trouble, for there was no flesh to decay. I left the mother to go to my office for a certificate of death. When I returned the body was on ice as usual, and the mother told me that the undertaker had come and told her that she must have the remains put into an icebox without delay. She thought it must be some kind of an official utterance, so she borrowed $10 and gave it to the undertaker before I could return.”

In conclusion, Dr. Vanderpoel thinks that physicians, the Board of Health, and the law, should take measures to put a stop to such indecencies. There is no necessity for the practice, no excuse for it, except the sordid anxiety of the undertaker to make an exorbitant fee. He strongly favors the Neurological Society, which, he understands, is making efforts to have a medical expert especially detailed to investigate each case of reported death, and to make a scientific examination as to whether the doctors themselves might not have erred and issued certificates before the vital spark of life had really fled. The Medical Advance, Volumes 9-10 1881

Dr. S. Oakley Vanderpoel, had been Health Officer of the Port of New York and also Surgeon General of that state.

This next article’s headline is even more candid.

SENT TO UNTIMELY GRAVES

The Perils of Undertakers’ Ice-Boxes

Inanimate People Frozen to Death

[New York News.]

The medical profession and embalmers are soon to wage war against the undertakers on the subject of preparing the dead for burial. The physicians nearly all claim that persons still alive are frequently taken by undertakers and placed on ice, thereby making death certain, whereas, if the body was kept until the first signs of decomposition set in, all uncertainty would be dispelled. The late occurrence in this city, where a prominent physician attending a lady left the patient after prescribing for her, and returned the following morning only to find her body packed up in an undertaker’s ice-box has given rise to severe indignation among medical men. The doctor who attended the lady expressed the belief that the patient’s blood could not have been cold in so short a space of time, and he considered that the undertaker iced her while she was yet alive, lest in delaying he might lose the job.

The embalmers charge that many bodies are rapidly hustled into the grave through the undertaker and his ice-box, and they are endeavoring to get the physicians to cooperate with them, so that in a short time the use of ice will be entirely put out of practice. It is claimed that the process of embalming will not cost any more than icing, and through its use, nobody can be placed in a coffin before life is undoubtedly known to be extinct. One of the embalmers, when spoken to on the subject, said: “I have been in the business for at least twenty-five years, and can say I never knew bodies to be packed and placed completely in ice until I came to this city. Of course I have seen ice used a little, but not to such an extent as to entirely envelope every portion of the form. In my opinion, bodies are certainly put on ice too soon after death; they should be kept for some time, so that signs of positive death would make their appearance. If the breath ceases, or the pulse stops beating, and the lips become blue, while the face is livid, you have no positive indications of death, for there have been cases where all these symptoms were perceptible and yet life returned.”

“What would be the result if a person so attacked would be seized and crowded into a box of ice?” “Why, they would have been frozen to death, and their morbid or temporarily-stilled blood-vessels made dead forever. No body should ever be placed on ice unless it is rigid in the extreme….

“Another occurrence like this took place over on Seventh avenue not long ago. A woman lived with her husband and two grown children in a tenement house. The husband, son and daughter all worked in a theater. One evening the woman, while walking about the room, was seized with apoplexy, and dropped powerless upon the floor. Some of the neighbors in the house heard the fall and went to the room, and, finding the woman speechless, immediately sent to the theater for her son. The young fellow immediately went for a physician, who pronounced the woman dead. The body was then lifted into bed and left there until the return of the husband and daughter and when they came an undertaker was sent for. He was assisted by two old women, neighbors of the deceased, in laying out of the dead body preparatory to placing it on ice. While the body was being disrobed one of the women suddenly cried, ‘Oh, my God! She’s warm! She’s not dead yet!’

”At this the husband rushed to the corpse, and sure enough it was warm, but the undertaker hastened the body to the ice-box, saying that the body was made warm by being left in bed so long without being undressed. This was received as probable, and the body was put on the ice without further comment. But two old women sent the story all over the neighborhood that the woman was buried alive. This created no little excitement at the time, and a crowd gathered around the house to see the funeral, while the poor husband and son and daughter were nearly distracted with shame. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 February 1881: p. 2

I can see how the embalmers might go to war over corpse coolers. Obviously icing cut into their profits. Yet, it seems a bit disingenuous. Though I’ve collected a few anecdotes on the subject, I have not yet investigated in any detail how many of the dead awoke during embalming before it was too late. Dead men tell no tales…

On the bright side, you will be relieved to know that being packed in ice had one important benefit to recommend it:

The morbid dread of being buried alive that is entertained by some nervous people, is entirely groundless. Such a thing is practically impossible, for the simple reason that a person supposed to be a corpse, but not really such, would inevitably be frozen to death in the ice box long before the funeral. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1896: p. 25

Other stories of corpses on ice? Check carefully for signs of life before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this post, A Stiff Drink for more iced corpse contretemps.

 

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.

“Gee whiz! Don’t I wish every day wuz de fourth!” 1910

Gee whiz! Don't I wish every day wuz de fourth! E.W. Kemble, c. 1904 Source: The Library of Congress
Gee whiz! Don’t I wish every day wuz de fourth! E.W. Kemble, c. 1904 Source: The Library of Congress

Independence Day was, traditionally, one of the bloodiest holidays of the past. See this wonderful post from Strange Company for a round-up of 4th-of-July casualties.

“Blank cartridge wounds,” according to the official report of the American Medical Association, “cause more deaths in the annual celebration of the Fourth of July than all other factors combined. In seven years 794 deaths have been caused by this one factor. Most of the victims were boys from six to eighteen years old, and they were doomed to die the most awful death known to medical science, a death the agony of which is probably not paralleled by the tortures of the Inquisition. If this annual sacrifice were really necessary it would be far more merciful to pick out the hundred or more youths each year and deliberately shoot them.”

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 55, 1910

Wishing you all a safe Independence Day holiday!

The Day Before the Fourth of July.  [Image from The Library of Congress.] c. 1900
The Day Before the Fourth of July. [Image from The Library of Congress.] c. 1900

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.