Tales of Terrible Turkeys: A Thanksgiving Post

Turkey Horror 1895

I am not fond of Thanksgiving. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t see any merit in a holiday based on overeating and football. That and I still shudder at the time a hostess insouciantly defrosted the frozen turkey on top of the drier overnight in a paper bag, leading to hours of projectile vomiting for the whole assembly.

This may explain why you will not find here any heart-warming tales of juicy birds swimming in gravy, dressing, and cranberry relish, but rather a mean-spirited account of vindictive turkeys. Long before the invention of the deep-fat turkey fryer so loathed by the underwriting community, dangerous turkeys were in the news.

While I have only seen wild turkeys at a distance–they look like miniature velociraptors—they are said to be very aggressive and territorial. They are bulky, have sharp beaks and claws, and their heavy wings can do serious damage. One mocks a turkey at one’s peril and it is not wise to wear red around them. The males read the color red as signifying an invading turkey cock and will attack, a motif found in many of these stories. Having heard from those who keep them that domesticated turkeys are rather stupid—I would not have expected that they could do as much damage as these stories suggest.

In Belmont county, Ohio, an old gobbler attacked and killed a playful young puppy because he persisted in chasing the young turkeys. New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 13 November 1889: p. 2

Turkeys on a Rampage.

Rising Sun, Md., Enraged at his red handkerchief, two large turkey gobblers attacked R.B. Marshall while he was walking near the home of George Nesbitt, owner of the birds, and it required the combined efforts of both Marshall ad Nesbitt to drive the turkeys off.

The birds beat Marshall’s legs with their wings, bruising him severely. He yelled lustily and Nesbitt ran to his aid. Using light sticks as clubs they managed, after a sharp fight, to rout the angry gobblers. St. Tammany Farmer [Covington, LA] 9 May 1908: p. 5

TURKEY ATTACKS ARTIST;

SERIOUSLY INJURES HIM

London, June 9. A Staffordshire artist, while sketching near Hanley was attacked by a turkey and had an exciting encounter with the bird lasting a quarter of an hour.

The turkey approached the artist from behind and made a sudden attack. With his sketch block he aimed a blow at the bird’s head, but missed and then sought refuge behind a tree. The turkey pursued him and injured him quite severely. A party of golfers finally came to the rescue and killed the turkey. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 10 June 1910: p. 16

GOBBLER ATTACKS AUTO

Wins Fight With Bird Mirrored in Varnish of Car.

Prof. Frank W. Magill of Danville, Pa., drove his new highly polished automobile out into the country the first day after receiving it and stopped along the road to chat with a farmer friend.

Up strutted a fine turkey gobbler, which caught a glimpse of its reflection in the polished sides of the machine. The bird immediately challenged the newcomer and with beak and claws flew at the car.

The old bird fought until it was exhausted and the side of the auto was a wreck. The Kentuckian [Hopkinsville, KY] 19 July 1919: p. 10

[A squib from an 1899 Michigan paper told the same story about a new, highly polished buggy.]

When [Mr. Alexander Wedderburn of Chesterhall,] was between three and four years old, having provoked a fierce Turkey cock, by hallooing to him,—

“Bubbly Jock, your wife is a witch,

And she is going to be burnt with a barrel of pitch.”*

The animal flew at the child, laid him flat on the ground and seemed disposed to peck his eyes out, when he was saved by his nurse, who rushed in to the rescue with a broom in her hand.

[*The author says that he doesn’t know the meaning of the rhyme but heard it himself as a child, applied to turkey cocks. Karen Davis, author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, says that the term comes from “bubbly”—“snotty” and “Jock” or “Jack,” meaning a rustic boor.  So the turkey’s wattle makes it look like a snotty-nosed peasant. A salutary lesson in not mocking a turkey!] The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, Volume 6John Campbell, 1847

Attacked by a Turkey

Frank Stadden narrowly escaped having his eyesight destroyed and his nose bitten off by an infuriated turkey on Monday morning. But here’s the story in brief;

John McCool sold a number of turkeys to Mr. Austin and one of them flew into a tree. Finding it impossible to coax the gobbler from its perch Frank Stadden was appealed to. Frank loaded his blunderbuss and brought the fowl to earth, but it was only slightly wounded and, when he attempted to capture it, the bird showed fight. It struck at Frank, drove its talons into his hands, bored holes into his face with its beak and greatly disfigured his proboscis. Seeing that Frank was getting the worst of the battle Mr. Austin ran to his assistance with a club and dispatched the gobbler. However, in striking at the turkey Austin’s aim was not at all times accurate, and Frank received one of the blows intended for the bird which caused a big blue-black lump to appear with remarkable rapidity upon the polished portion of his cranium. Mr. Stadden asserts that never in his lifetime has he encountered so ferocious a turkey as this particular gobbler, and says he is inclined to the opinion that either its father of its mother was a great American eagle. The Princeton [MN] Union 21 December 1911: p. 2

Only rarely was there a happy ending when a turkey attacked a child.

Charleston, April 24. A mare belonging to John Cooper was the heroine in a savage attack which a large turkey gobbler made upon a small child of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper at their residence, the gentle animal taking a position with surprising intelligence directly over the prostrate form of the little boy and with his [sic] head fighting off the infuriated bird as it tried to scalp the child. The gobbler weighed 24 pounds. It was a magnificent bird and was admired by all who saw it. No harm had ever come, however, to the child, and it seems that I was never thought necessary to especially guard against any attacks of the kind. While the child was at play in the yard, the gobbler attacked him and knocking the child prostrate, was savagely pecking at the head and tearing the flesh, as it closed its beak and pulled at the skin and hair. The child was heard to cry in pain, but it was a minute or two before he could be reached, and when the call was answered, the mare was found enedeavoring to protect the child form the attack. As the gobbler viciously flew and pecked at the child, the mare would put her head in the way and receive the beak. The horse had seen the gobbler attack the child, and with wonderful intelligence and a sense of devotion, she came to his assistance and protection and perhaps saved his life or serious injury. As it was, the child’s head was badly pecked and the scalp torn in places, but the wounds will speedily heal and fortunately the little fellow will not be marked in life.

It is needless to add that a turkey dinner was served at the Cooper home yesterday. The handsome bird was introduced to the axe on short order after its attack upon the child and he is now getting the picking, so to speak. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 24 April 1911: p. 9

This was the more usual outcome.

A Gobbler Attacks a Child

English, Ind., April 26. An enraged turkey gobbler tore the nose and part of the upper lip off and destroyed an eye of a small child belonging to Geo. R. Cutter Thursday. The babe was in the yard, dressed in a red gown, which enraged the bird. Drs. Brent and Hazelwood hope to restore the nose and lip by stitching, but the eye is torn from the socket. Daily Public Ledger [Maysville, KY] 26 April 1895: p. 3 

Or this.

A Child Killed by a Turkey Cock

An inquest was held at the Police Office, Cheadle, Staffordshire, last Monday, before Alderman Flint, to inquire into the death of a grandchild of a Mr. Finney, of the Cheadle Park farm. It appeared from the evidence of William Philips, one of the farm servants, that on Friday afternoon last, while some of the family were absent at Cheadle Market, the child in question—a remarkably fine boy about two years old—was playing about in the yard with him, and that while he was at work the child slipped away, and went, as he supposed, into the house, but presently, on inquiry being made for the child, it was found to have gone into a field at the further end of the yard, where, on a search being made, it was found lying with its face downward, quite dead, a flock of turkeys being about twenty yards off. From the evidence of Phillips, it appeared that a kind of feud existed between the child and the turkeys, he having on a former occasion killed several of the young ones with a stick, wince which time the “old cock bird (to use the witness’ expression) had made pecks at the child.” Mr. Thomas Webb, surgeon, deposed, that on being sent for to the child the only visible mark of violence found upon it was upon the jaw or lower part of the face, which might have been caused by a turkey’s wing, and was not such a mark as would have been caused by a kick from a horse, but he stated that, as there were horses in the field, he examined the ground closely, but could not discover any horses’ footmark near where the child lay. The coroner and jury, together with the medical man, went to view the locus in quo and the deceased, and upon their return the former addressed a few remarks to them, suggesting that, although there was no positive evidence of the manner in which the child came by its death, there could be very little doubt, looking at the evidence which had been brought before them, that it had been caused by the turkey. A verdict to that effect was accordingly rendered. London Times. 8thConstitution [Washington, DC] 28 October 1859: p. 2

I have my doubts about the previous verdict, but was surprised to find an account of a turkey killing a man:

The victim was Judge Samuel Spencer, of the first North Carolina Supreme Court. He was very old and infirm and had been placed in a chair under a tree in his yard.

“He died in 1794. His death was caused by a most singular circumstance. He had been in ill health, and was in the yard, sitting in the sun. A large turkey gobbler was attracted by some part of his clothing [his hat], which was red, for which color turkeys have a great antipathy.

“The turkey attacked the judge most furiously, and before assistance could rescue him, so severely was he injured that he died in a short time from the injuries.” [Another account says that the gobbler put a spur into the Judge’s temple, killing him.] The History of North Carolina, John Wheeler Moore

In addition to live killer turkeys, there were many reports of families poisoned by eating them. The reason was not always understood, although there were stories of ptomaine poisoning and of cattle dying of “lump jaw” being fed to the poultry, who then died of cholera and were served at table. This last story is an intriguing murder mystery.

POISONED TURKEY SENT TO KILL WHOLE FAMILY

San Francisco, Nov. 29. An attempt to poison the family of Adolph Ottinger, a retired railroad ticket broker, by means of a poisoned turkey sent to his home Thanksgiving, became known today, when the police admitted that they were searching for the would-be poisoner.

The turkey was left in the kitchen of the Ottinger residence during the temporary absence of the Chinese cook. Believing it was the gift of some friend, Ottinger ordered the cook to place it in the pantry until one already being prepared for the table was disposed of.

The following day it was noticed that the turkey had assumed a peculiar color, and becoming suspicious, Ottinger carried it to a chemist who found a large quantity of arsenic in the dressing. There is no clew to the identity of the person leaving the turkey nor to the motive for attempting the murder of an entire family. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 30 November 1909: p. 3

As a side note, Adolph Ottinger was much in the news, including three attempts to burn his mansion and murder Mrs Ottinger [1912] and several arrests for various financial irregularities. A longer article on the poisoning said that the turkey was found on the sidewalk between the Ottinger residence and a police detective’s home by the Ottinger’s chauffeur and that the bird poisoned two grapefruits kept in the same icebox, sickening Mr and Mrs Ottinger.

I wish you non-aggressive and wholesome turkeys for the upcoming Thanksgiving. I will be crouching in the corner in a defensive posture.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

The Heartless Wife: 1850

Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly another gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8
Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly a previously-made gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8

Going Into Mourning

A few weeks ago, our friend Clark was lying sick with the bilious fever. The attack was severe, and he believed death was near. One morning he awoke from a short sleep, to hear a hurried and smothered conversation in the adjoining room, in which his wife took part. The first words that Clark caught were uttered by his better-half.

“On that ground,” said she, “I object to mourning!”

“Yes,” replied another, “but the world looks for it—it is fashionable, and one might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.”

“Here,” thought Clark, “is a nice wife. She thinks I am about to die—to be planted, if I may use the expression, in the cold earth, and yet she refuses to go in mourning for me. Ah, me!”

“Now that I am here, perhaps I had better take your measure.”

“The unfeeling wretch!” exclaimed Clark, “to think of sending for a dressmaker before I am dead! But I’ll cheat her yet! I’ll live in spite!”

“Well,” mused the wife, “I believe you may measure me. I will let you buy the trimming, and let it be as gay as possible.”

“What heartlessness,” groaned Clark. “Woman-like, though. One husband is no sooner dead than they set about entrapping another. I can scarcely credit it.”

“Of course you will have a flounce?”

“Two of them; and as the body is to be plain, I wish you to get wide gimp to trim it.”

“How will you have the sleeves trimmed?”

“With buttons and fringe.”

“Well—well—this beats all,” sighed poor Clark.

“When do you want the dress?” inquired the mantua-maker.

“I must have it in three days. My husband will then be off my hands, and I shall be able to get out!”

“Oh, horrible—horrible!” ejaculated the sick man; “I am only half dead, but this blow will kill me.”

His wife heard him speak, and ran quickly to his bedside. “Did you speak, my dear?” said she, with the voice of an angel.

“I heard it all, madam,” replied Clark.

“All what, my dear?”

“The mourning—gay dresses—fringe—every thing. Oh! Maria—Maria!”

“You rave!”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

“Certainly not, my dear.”

“You expect me to be out of the way in three days, do you?”

“Yes, love; the doctor said you would be well in that time.”

“What means the dress?”

“It is the one you bought me before you were taken sick.”

“But you were speaking of mourning!”

“We were talking of Mrs. Taperly.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“Yes, love. You know she is poor, and her family is large, and it must inconvenience her very much to find mourning for them all. On this ground alone, I oppose it.”

“So—so—that’s it, is it? I thought you were speaking of me, and it distressed me. Let me beg of you to be more careful for the future.”

Clark was out in three days, and he now laughs at the matter, which then appeared so horrible.

The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 7 May 1850: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One quite understands the gentleman’s distress. Taken in the context of a dying husband, the lady’s remarks would have seemed the height of social depravity, although, to judge from the many jocularities surrounding “Merry Widows” in the papers, such things were not uncommon. And fringe, although popular on early 1850s gowns, was certainly not approved for mourning.

Of course, there was also merit to Mrs Clark’s opposition to the wearing of mourning, although she seems to regard it as the purview of those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. It is true that the practice weighed most heavily on the poor as this Spiritualist publication wrote:

 How sadly out of place, then, are the milliner and the dressmaker, the trying on of dresses and the trimming of bonnets. There is something profane in exciting the vanity of a young girl by fitting a waist, or trying on a hat, when the corpse of a father is lying in an adjoining room. It is a sacrilege to drag the widow forth from her grief to be fitted for a gown, or to select a veil. It is often terribly oppressive to the poor. The widow, left desolate with a half dozen little children, the family means already reduced by the long sickness of the father, must draw on her scanty purse to buy a new wardrobe throughout for herself and her children, throwing away the goodly stock of garments already prepared, when she most likely knows not where she is to get bread for those little ones. Truly may fashion be called a tyrant, when it robs a widow of her last dollar. Surely your sorrow will not be questioned, even if you should not call in the milliner to help display it. Do not in your affliction help uphold a custom which will turn the afflictions of your poorer neighbour to deeper poverty, as well as sorrow. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. 5, January 1870: p. 28

Mrs Daffodil has previously posted about the sartorial excesses of enthusiastic widows in “The Mourner a la Mode,” “The Mourning Boudoir,” and a cutting dialogue between pieces of mourning stationary over their mistress’s grief or lack thereof.  The latter two pieces and similar stories of the happily bereaved, as well as widow jokes and discussions of funerary excess may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 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.

 

Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut

buried alive in seattle A

Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus.  For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.

A NOVEL SOCIETY

Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.

Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject is another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.

“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”

New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1

The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.

If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at 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.

Hell-wain Spotting:

white hearse Street Railway Review 1891
Child’s trolley hearse, 1891 Mexico

[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]

Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)

While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.

Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals.  The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time.  I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.

Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.

first class funeral car
First-class funeral car, 1884

FUNERALS ON STREET CARS

When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.

The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.

I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.

There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.

Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15

Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.

cheap funeral car, Mexico Street Railway Review 1891
The cheapest class of funeral car, except for the multi-compartmented one for pauper funerals. 1891

Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.

The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3

elaborate street car hearse mexico city 1923
1923 street car hearse in Mexico City

The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.

FUNERAL SERVICE.

The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.

With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.

The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.

There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,

This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.

The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326

The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.

1st class funeral motor body for Brazil trolley hearse
st Class Funeral Motor Body for Guinle & Company of Bahia, Brazil (Photo #2613, Order #15901–Ordered March 16, 1907, Delivered June 15, 1907) This photo depicts an open, ornate funeral car with a platform for a casket at the center of the car, draped in black cloth. The sides of the car have heavy black drapes held open with tiebacks, and there are four black plumes on each corner of the roof.. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/brill/inventory.html

MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS

Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.

City of Mexico, June 27.

The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.

The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.

The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.

All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.

Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.

Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10

This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.

The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.

FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE

Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20

It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For a really fascinating look at the historical care of the dead in Mexico City, see “The Cadaverous City: The Everyday Life of the Dead in Mexico City: 1875-1930.”

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.