The unwanted, lost and unidentified dead of New York are still buried in the same Potter’s Field on Hart’s Island. Modern descriptions of burials on Hart Island are an eerie echo of the story below.
BURIED IN POTTER’S FIELD
The Grewsome Trips of the Fidelity
Her Daily Cargo of Pauper Dead
Scenes at the City Cemetery, Hart’s Island. [sic]
Among the boats that may be seen on the East River any day is a small craft bearing the name Fidelity. People to whom the various vessels are only slightly known see nothing peculiar about the boat, because she is like hundreds of little vessels on the East and North rivers used for conveying freight and passengers between points where the larger vessels do not make landings. But to the river men and to the people who spend their time near the east waterfront the little boat is known as “the deadboat.”
She belongs to the city, has a crew of four deckhands, besides a mate, an engineer and a fireman, and is commanded by Captain Edward McEvoy. This boat makes the tour of the city institutions on the East River daily and collects the bodies of the dead and takes them to the Morgue. Randall’s Island, Ward’s Island, Blackwell’s Island and the Harlem Hospital all contribute to the grewsome cargo which is landed every evening at the Morgue, where the bodies of the homeless and the friendless are also taken.
“We have dull and busy seasons,” said Captain McEvoy, “but we can usually count on about two a day from Randall’s Island, about three a day from Ward’s Island, and Blackwell’s Island gives us about ten a day. The North Brother Island dead are taken care of by the Health Department; the Harlem Hospital, at One-hundred-and-twentieth-st., is good for about three a day.”
THE FIDELITY’S CARGO
All the bodies as they come aboard are handled by the deckhands and are piled on the after deck, covered with tarpaulins, and when the Fidelity steams down the river with her load for the Morgue, passengers on passing vessels would never suspect the character of her cargo.
Twice a week in the winter months and three times a week during the warm season the Fidelity makes a trip to Hart’s Island, where the bodies from the Morgue which have not been claimed or identified are buried in Potter’s Field, or, as it is officially, the City Cemetery.
“It’s all the same after you are dead,” said a man who had made the trip, “but if you want to know the advantage of passing away among friends make a trip to Hart’s Island on a burying day.”
The boat’s load, which varies in size from thirty to one hundred boxes, stands on the dock and in the hallways of the Morgue, ready to be taken away early in the morning. Every box is furnished with a card which contains the name, age, sex, cause of death, etc., of the subject, or, where the name is unknown, a number corresponding with the one on the Morgue records, by which everything that is known on the body may be ascertained. The marks on the box also show whether the person was a Catholic or a Protestant, when that fact may be ascertained.
“How many ye got to-day?” the deckhand asked one of the Morgue helpers who assist the regular attendants for their board and what they can pick up from undertakers in the way of tips for helping with the claimed bodies.
“Oh, it’s a small day. Ten big and twenty-seven little ones.” That meant that there were ten large coffins and twenty-seven coffins with children’s bodies to be taken away. The cargo was taken on board with less care and ceremony than would have been devoted to a like number of boxes in the hands of a transportation concern marked “Handle with care,” the boat moved away from the dock, which was littered with old and broken coffins, and the trip to Potters Field began.
AT HART’S ISLAND.
The distance to Hart’s Island is about fifteen miles, past the City Hospital, Penitentiary, Almshouse, Maternity Hospital, Insane Asylum, House of Refuge, Idiots’ Asylum, Infants’ Hospital, North Brother Island and about six miles beyond Fort Schuyler, on Throg’s Neck and Willets Point. At the landing there were several officials in the uniform of the Department of Correction and three men in convict’s stripes.
“Didn’t expect you to-day,” one of the officers called in greeting to the captain, “you had such a big load yesterday.”
The boat was made fast and the bodies, which had been transported by the Charities Department, were transferred to the custody of the Department of Correction. The three convicts loaded the boxes into a wagon and it started on its first trip to a trench about one hundred yards from the landing.
John Bopp, the Superintendent of Potter’s Field, who has been in charge of the place for thirty years, and in spite of the nature of his work and the surroundings, retains a cheerful disposition, said:
“We have about fifty convicts here, who are detailed from the Workhouse, but some of them object to handling the coffins, so we select three men who are willing to take the job and give them a ration of whiskey after every load has been disposed of. These men have to do no other work, and, while they think they have ‘a graft,’ the other convicts, although they envy them the whiskey, call them ghouls.”
The wagon brings the bodies to the open trench, which is 45 feet long, 15 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and into this the boxes are placed after Frederick Bartels, the assistant superintendent, who is serving his seventeenth year at the Field, has scratched the number on the box with an instrument called a scriber. The long ends of the trenches run east and west, and the bodies are placed in them facing north and south, heads to the edge. A row of twenty-five is placed at each side of the trench, and on this layer of fifty a thin covering of earth is placed until more bodies are received, when the trench is “tripped” by the convicts. This is the term for the process of taking the earth off the boxes before the next layer is put down. This is repeated until the trench holds three layers, or 150 bodies, when it is covered with earth, and built up about a foot. When this has been done a new plot for 150 bodies is laid out and numbered. A record is kept of the place occupied by every box, and the books which are kept by Mr. Bartels show all particulars necessary for identification in case a body should be claimed by friends or relatives.
All the coffins marked with a cross are buried in the Catholic plot, on the north end, and separate trenches are devoted to nameless children, unidentified bodies and boxes from the colleges, of which latter there are nine or ten every week.
The records show that since the City Cemetery was founded, in 1869, 110,751 bodies have been buried there. Last year’s contribution was 4,377, of which 1,829 were credited to the “Outdoor Poor,” 362 to Bellevue Hospital and 435 to the Foundlings. There is a special plot for soldiers’ graves, in which about forty bodies are buried, the last being two victims of yellow fever, who contracted the disease in Cuba and died at North Brother Island. This plot is marked by a handsome monument and is decorated every Memorial Day. Several attendants who died on the island are also buried in separate graves.
One enclosure contains the bodies of two little children whose mother asked that they might be kept separate from the others so that she might know where the little ones were laid away, and near the south end of the field is another child’s grave, the existence of which is unknown to the little one’s parents or friends. Some years ago, so goes the story, a man was going abroad with his family, and as they boarded the ship an attendant noticed the deathly pallor of the infant in the mother’s arms. Examination showed that the child was ill, and before the vessel sailed the child was dead, and the body was left for burial. The story reached Potter’s Field before the body arrived there, and in the hope that the names of the parents might be learned a separate grave was made of the body, but all efforts in that direction have failed….
“The men who work in the trenches where the bodies are laid away have a grewsome job,” said an officer of the Department, “and one for which the ‘drunk and disorderly’ on the island don’t envy them; in fact, being put in this gang is by no means a mark of distinction, and yet they see less mourning than the men who work in a private cemetery. There relatives and friends stand about the open graves and weep for those who have passed away. Here the bodies come, are carted to the trench, lowered and covered with earth, and that is all. No one knows, no one cares; a hundred and fifty make a trench full, and then a new hole is dug. Men grow accustomed to all kinds of work, and there’s probably no convict gang in the New-York institutions where there is less of the blues than among the helpers at Potter’s Field.”
New York Tribune 1 April 1900: p. 6
Note: This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead. In the book it is preceded by a look at the New York Morgue in 1868.
“Remember that that ‘Gates Ajar’ must go up to Brown’s before 9 o’clock to-morrow morning,” said a Wabash-avenue florist to one of his employes the other afternoon, “and don’t forget that it is to be an n.f. affair and that you’ll have to keep our eyes open.”
“What is an n.f. funeral?” I ventured to ask, after the young man addressed had left us.
“No flowers,” sententiously answered the proprietor.
“That means, then, that you are taking flowers to a funeral where they are prohibited?”
“Do so frequently?”
“Then ‘no flowers’ really doesn’t mean no flowers after all, does it?”
“It doesn’t if we can help it—rest assured of that. We are here to sell flowers. The funeral trade forms an important part of our business, and we have to protect ourselves against the anti-floral cranks as best we can. The ‘no flowers’ order is a fashionable fad and nothing else. It originated in New York years ago at a funeral of one of the Vanderbilts, who requested that no flowers should be displayed during his obsequies. I was working for a new York florist at that time, and I well remember what a flutter this innovation caused among the tradesmen in our line of business. They did not care about losing the single Vanderbilt job, but they feared that such an example in the ultra-fashionable world would be followed by its general adoption. Thus a whim of fashion might deal a severe blow to the floral trade. The leading florists immediately held a conference and it was unanimously decided that the great funeral must not be permitted to set the fashion and inaugurate an anti-flowers era. Several very costly and elaborate floral pieces were prepared, but I spite of all we could do the orders of the deceased were obeyed to the letter and we were unable to get a solitary flower inside the Vanderbilt residence. An attempt to bribe the servants failed, as they had received ironclad instructions not to permit a floral offering of any kind whatsoever to be taken inside the house. This ultimatum fell like a wet blanket upon our hopes, but still we determined not to quit the field without making one last bold ‘bluff.’ A magnificent ivy cross was made—one of the finest that ever was seen in this country. I was about six feet high and was composed of a mass of English ivy leaves and tendrils. It represented a good round sum, let me tell you, and a good deal of work. But there was not a bud or a flower in it anywhere. Just before the time appointed for the exercises to begin we took the cross to the Vanderbilt residence, and, as we expected, were stopped at the door by a liveried lackey, who denied us admission.
“But there must be no delay about this matter, we insisted. ‘It must go in and at once. Come now; we have no time to parley with you.’
“’You can not come in.’
“’I have strict orders not to admit any flowers. I can not do it.’
“’But there are no flowers in this. Look at it for yourself. It was built entirely in accordance with the wishes of the family. You have no orders against admitting ivy, have you?’
“He hesitated. Just then something round and hard dropped into his hand. He was lost. A moment later that beautiful cross stood at the head of the casket. I shall always remember the remark of my companion as we left the house: ‘Well, Jim. We’ve beaten the old man cold at his own game.’”
Talk about push and business enterprise! Are there any limits beyond which they can not go?
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 August 1891: p. 11
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The “anti-flower cranks” came in several flavours: reformers who felt that the tributes contributed to the extravagance of Victorian funerals; those who found them vulgar; and those who had medical grounds. Here is an argument from the latter:
The reformers suggest that the notice of the death which appears in the papers should end with the announcement: “No flowers.” A novel argument against the sending of these tributes is that the petals of the flowers serve to keep the germs which are given off from the dead body, and in the case of people who died from infectious diseases they may become a positive source of danger, and…be absolutely death dealing. Then again the custom of preserving these wreaths is denounced by many medical men, who contend that they, containing as they do morbific bacteria, are a constant source of danger and a menace to the healthy life of those who afterward occupy the rooms. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 14 February 1891: p. 12
“No Flowers at Funeral” is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, which contains other stories about floral tributes at funerals in its look at the popular culture of Victorian death and mourning.
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.
Dreariness and Desolation, Mourning and Misery on Every Hand, All Pleasure Forgotten.
THE CITY’S VAST COMMERCE BLOCKED
And All Who Could Possibly Flee From the Plague-Stricken Place Have Gone.
THE SCOURGE SPREADING ALL OVER THE FREE PORT.
Personal Investigation of Affairs in the Stricken City by a Dispatch Correspondent—Sad Sights on Every Street—The Plague Not Confined Now to the Poorer Portions of the Place—Hospitals Crowded and the Ambulance Service Inadequate—The Hotels Without Guests—All Sorts of Vehicles Brought Into Requisition for Burial Purposes—Wagonloads of Coffins Jostle Against Funeral Processions on the Way to the Cemeteries—More Than 100 Children in One Asylum All Orphaned by the Plague—The Undertakers Too Busy to Go to Bed—Grief-Stricken Husbands, Wives and Parents Driven to Suicide—A Number of Other Sad Incidents of the Scourge.
[By Cable to the Dispatch.]
Hamburg, Sept. 8 [Copyright.]
This city, usually at this season one of the gayest places in Europe, an aristocracy of merchant princes who live in elaborate style in beautiful houses with magnificent surroundings, where no element of pleasure is lacking, is to-day a city of death and desolation, of mourning and misery, a city of coffins and hearses, of Rachaels weeping for their children, of children crying for their parents, of wives mourning their husbands and husbands mourning their wives. Hamburg’s vast commerce with all nations is at a standstill. Her miles of wharfage are lined and double-lined with idle steamships and sailing vessels, and only an occasional tug or lighter disturbs her waters. Her families have fled from the great houses and beautiful grounds of Hohenfeld and Uhlenhors, on the one side of the Alster, and from Harvestshade and Dotherbaum on the other. Her hotels are vacant save for an occasional benighted traveler, and her schools, theaters, opera houses and concert halls are closed. Almost All Travel Suspended.
The first intimation I had of the manner in which the plague is regarded on the Continent arose out of the circumstances that every railroad guard on the route from London after I reached Belgium looked at me with curiosity when he read the word Hamburg on my ticket. I was the only passenger on the Bremen express who got off at Hamburg Saturday evening, and the others shut their windows when they saw the name of the station, as if they feared that the deadly atmosphere of the polluted suburbs would penetrate the smoke and steam and innoculate them with the deadly virus in the railway carriages.
The station was only half lighted, and deserted save for the station master and a single porter who carried my luggage a quarter of a mile before he could find a conveyance to take me to a hotel– conditions somewhat different from the usual bustle of the omnibuses, cabs, hotel runners and railway servants.
Desolation Over All the City.
The streets, even in the central part of the town, were all but deserted, the tables outside of the cafes were without occupants and desolation was upon the city.
When I drove up before the great Hotel de’l Europe, beautifully situated upon the Alsterdamm, a tree-lined terrace facing the blue waters of the Binnen-Alster, there were so many dress coats in the corridor that I at first fancied that the Hamburgs were celebrating the plague after a manner suggested by Poe in “The Masque of the Bed Death.” It turned out that all the waiters were gathered in the hall to discuss the prevailing topic, owing to lack of business and the dread of remaining in the rear rooms alone.
I was the first guest to arrive at the hotel since it had been depopulated more than a week before. They were delighted to see me. The proprietor was on the sidewalk to bid me welcome before I had alighted from the cab. Three or four porters struggled for the honor of bringing in my luggage. Two pages fought for my umbrella, and a retinue of servants escorted me to the bridal chamber.
All the Big Hotels Deserted.
The hotel was absolutely empty, save for two guests who could not get away, and the employes, and the loneliness of the echoing halls and stairways impressed me as nothing else had done with the actuality of the presence of pestilence. The same state of affairs, I learned, existed at all the other big hotels. There were but two or three guests at the Kronprinen, the Hamburger and the Victoria, and only one at the Hotel Street.
The waiter who served my supper that evening, where I sat alone in a big dining hall, among empty tables, beamed with pleasure when he took my order. He made a brave effort to ameliorate the gloom of the situation by informing me that the head waiter on his way home the night before had met three great luggage vans, each drawn by six horses, and piled high with coffins of the cholera victims and had followed them part way to Ohlsdorf cemetery, for the entertainment afforded when an occasional box of human clay fell into the street.
A Peculiar Way to be Cheerful.
The waiter made a further effort to be cheerful by bringing me a copy of the Hamburger Correspondent, containing a table of statistics showing the number of deaths up to that morning.
I visited some of the cafes and beer gardens during the evening. There were few people present in any of them, and they did not keep up the German reputation for boisterous merriment. One the contrary, they were very quiet, and they talked even less in the streets on their way home, seeming to shrink as they passed other streets, as if they feared the cholera fiend might be lurking at the corners ready to spring out and strike them down.
A new phase had come upon the plague during the latter part of the week. It had previously been confined to the lower classes who live in the suburbs of Hamm and Hammersbrook and in Spitalerstrasse, Steinstrasse and other densely populated streets along the poisoned Elbe. In the latter part of the week it began to break out in the upper part of the city, far from the noxious waters, where Prof. Koch thinks it originated. The Hamburg newspapers have made no comment upon this circumstance, and of course it does not appear in official returns, which only deal in totals.
Some Singularly Sad Cases.
I heard of several cases. One of these under exceptionally sad conditions was that of O. W. Pollitz, a native Hamburger, formerly a well-known business man of. Boston, where he married an American. lady. He has lived in Hamburg with his daughter and son-in-law for several years. Last Thursday his wife was in Berlin and his son-in-law in Boston when his daughter was taken very ill. He sat up all night to nurse her, and at 5 o’clock in the morning was stricken down with the dread malady. The physician ordered the immediate removal of the wife and child, and at 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon the old gentleman died raving in his last moments for someone of his loved ones to come to his bedside. The infection had been brought into his house by a charwoman from Hamm.
A wealthy Hamburg merchant, the pride of whose life was in three sturdy boys, aged respectively 7, 8 and 10 years, saw them all die on Sunday within five hours of one another.
A Babe Left Alone With Its Millions.
Two of the editors of the Hamburger Nachrichten died last week, and I was told of a child of 6 months who is the sole survivor of a father, mother and four brothers and sisters and will inherit millions. Driving with a well-known citizen of Hamburg yesterday he pointed out one of the most beautiful houses, with extensive grounds, on the Schwanenwick, whose lord and master had succumbed a few days before, he having refused to leave the city when his family fled, and laughed at their fears.
All this time the people from the infected districts come and go as they will in the public streets and public places. Funerals are ceaselessly passing through the city, and the improvised police ambulances are carrying patients through the most densely populated thoroughfares at all hours of the day and night to the Neues Allgemeines Krankenhaus, or hospital, in the suburb of Oppendorf, or to the Altes Allgemeines Krankenhaus, in the heart of the town.
Continual Reminders of the Scourge.
It is almost impossible to realise, without having experienced it, the depressing effect of these continual reminders of the presence of the disease and death. Turn from one street, where a funeral is passing and a wagonload of new coffins is on its way to the mortuary, and one meets perhaps two or three more hearses with attendant mourners, and an ambulance containing a hospital attendant and a dying woman wrapped in blankets. All these public funerals one meets in the better parts of the city, and they are aside from the daily quota of unfortunates who are carted away at night and buried in a long trench in the Potter’s field.
From morning until night these dreary processions are wending their way to the cemeteries, and from morning until night the hearses are hurriedly returning thence for new employment, and groups of “Leichenbetter,” or professional mourners, curiously clad in knee breeches, buckled shoes, white-ruffs and birettas, are hurrying from one place to another, as their services are required.
Undertakers Too Busy to Go to Bed.
The undertaker men are so worn out with long hours of work that it is no uncommon thing to see two or three of them asleep in a hearse returning from a burial. Those mourners who cannot afford the trappings and the state of woe for their dead, and yet will not let them be buried by cold municipality, engage all sorts of vehicles for the conveyance of the black biers to a final resting place for the remains of their beloved. I have seen coffins jolt by on baggage wagons and butchers’ carts, with sobbing women clinging to the driver’s seat, and little children sitting stolidly behind wondering what it is all about.
On Sunday I witnessed a peculiarly pathetic sight. A carriage containing a very young husband and wife robed in black, she weeping bitterly on his shoulder, while the tiniest of silver-mounted coffins, covered with flowers, on the front seat, told the story of their grief.
Two subsidiary tragedies growing out the epidemic were reported on Tuesday. One was that of a carpenter who had lost his wife and three children and who blew out his brains, and the other that of widow of a well-to-do merchant, who succumbed Sunday. She drowned herself the Aussen-Alster.
There are 110 children who have been committed to one asylum alone, all orphaned by the cholera.
THE HAMBURGER’S DIET.
AT PRESENT IT IS ONE OF THE MOST ABSTEMIOUS KIND.
Nothing Eaten That Hasn’t Undergone 130 Degrees of Heat–Butter, Cheese and Fruit Dealers Doing No Business at All—Advice of Physicians In Case of Choleraic Attack–Nervousness the Surest Way to Bring on the Sickness.
The Hamburger’s diet at present is a careful one. The best motif is not to eat anything that has not undergone 130 heat, a temperature that is said to be fatal to the cholera bacilli. The consequence is that dealers in butter, cheese and green groceries are doing no business at all. Salads are forbidden and fruits are not to be considered at all. Everyone washes with water that has been boiled, and even then uses a 5 per cent solution of carbolic acid in it. The entire city reeks with disinfectants. In all the public buildings salts are strewn upon the stairways and halls and piled in the corners. The same is true of private offices and hotels, where waiters and pages are continually spraying themselves and the guests with various disinfectants. The street sprinklers emit an odor of carbolic acid, and when one goes into a restaurant a waiter brings him a bottle of sanitas to put into the water in which he washes his hands. Barbers advertise in their windows that their shaving water is disinfected, and at the door of the shops that are open are signs informing prospective customers that all sanitary precautions are observed within.
Medical Advice Given Free of Charge.
The newspapers publish daily the advice of eminent physicians as to the procedure to be taken in case of choleraic attack. The leading instructions generally are “not to be nervous.” The physicians say that nervousness about the disease is the surest way to bring it on, and point out many instances in which the malady has been thus acquired–advice which is doubtless very valuable to nervous people.
I was the first newspaper reporter to arrive in Hamburg after the outbreak of the plague, and the only other who visited the city was from the new London paper, The Morning, and he is an American. The London Times and Standard have correspondents in Hamburg, the former journal’s representative being the British Vice Consul there, but these two have been content to send the official figures of seizure and death, and to keep away from the infected districts.
It was not difficult to find out who, in the mind of most Hamburgers, is responsible for the epidemic that has already cost almost, if not quite, 5,000 lives. It is Dr. Krauss, Medical Inspector of the Board of Health. His friends say that he did not report the case of cholera which was reported to him by a sub-inspector on August 18 because he was unfortunate in his first test, in which he endeavored to discover if the bacilli were, those of Asiatic cholera, and it was the necessity of making a second test that prevented his reporting the case for five days. Others say that he paid no attention to the case when it was first reported, and that he is notoriously neglectful of his duties.
The Medical Inspector Has a Big Pull.
I was told that on the day that Prof. Koch and Dr. Roth came from Berlin to investigate the origin of cholera Dr. Krauss could not be found, and that six messengers who were sent out to search for him when it was learned of the prospective visit from Berlin were unable to find him. Motions have been made in the Board of Health for his removal, but he is said to possess a large purse, and will doubtless hold his position.
I learned something else that does not appear in the Hamburg newspapers. At the registry office of the Board of Health on Monday I was given an official return of the seizures and deaths from cholera. The total was then 6,124 cases and 2,676 deaths. The same night Director Cortes, of the Ohlsdorf Cemetery, gave me a list of the burials of cholera victims for the same period, which amount to 4,032, which is exclusive of those buried in other cemeteries, and of 100 or more which appeared in the death returns but had not yet been buried. I was told at the Registry office that the doctors were so busy caring for patients that they did not always have time to report every death.
A Visit to Hospitals and Morgues.
Through the courtesy of Acting United States Consul Charles H. Burke, The Dispatch reporter was yesterday invited by Dr. Sthamer, private secretary of Senator Hachmann, who is chief of police, to visit the two cholera hospitals, and the other municipal institutions for the control of the epidemic. Dr. Sthamer is a fine-looking, powerfully-built young man, with the scars of several Heidelburg duels upon his face.. He tells a story of meeting an American who introduced himself while Sthamer was a student at Heidelburg and asked to be permitted to witness some of the students duels. He granted this privilege and the American was present. A lady afterward pointed him out as “Mark Twain,” and Dr. Sthamer says that he read, a year or so afterward, “A Tramp Abroad,” particularly that part of it relating to Heidelburg, with a great deal of interest. Our first visit was to the mortuary on Borgtelder strasse, near the old general hospital. A vacant lot had been temporarily converted into a morgue, and a large wooden shed erected. As far as we could see in Borgfelder strasse long lines of mourning carriages stretched back on both sides of the street, relieved at long intervals by pallbearers, with their nodding plumes and sombre trappings. A throng of children gathered at the entrance of the mortuary, but they were as hushed and silent as their elders. Gloom was upon the locality.
Many Compelled to Wait for Hours.
This was the spot where the bodies of the better class of cholera victims were buried, those whose friends could afford carriages and professional mourners. So many funerals were in progress, however, that some, mourners were compelled to wait hours for an opportunity to bring their dead to the hearses.
A glance along this double line of mourning carriages gave some idea of the impartial manner in which the plague selects its victims from old and young. In one carriage four tearful children sat, evidently on their way to the burial of father or mother–or perhaps both. In another a young widow sat alone. In others fathers and mothers were waiting for the hearses to bring out the bodies of their children.
At least ten hearses were in the mortuary yard, and a score of men were handling the coffins, while group, of the professional mourners in their somber uniforms gathered about that particular corpse that they were paid to mourn, and directed its transportation to the hearse. In a shed were perhaps 20 bodies of men and women, all wound about in white disinfecting cloth and emitting the powerful odor of carbolic acid. Each corpse had a paper pinned to its wrapping, bearing a number which corresponded to the names that were registered by the mortuary clerks.
Terrible Mortality Among the Children.
Men were lifting these bodies into the coffins, others were screwing down the coffin lids, and still others were carrying the coffins to hearses under the direction of a chief of staff with the same regularity and industry that one witnesses in a well-regulated workshop. In the corner of the shed nearest the door were six little coffins ranged in a row, some with wreaths of flowers upon them. Each was decorated with a label which contained the name and age of the victim and name and address of its parents. The greatest age that had been reached by the former occupants of these small bodies was 4 years. On the tiniest coffin of all there was a mark drawn across the printed form in the place where the age should have been recorded.
This spot was gruesome enough, but it was cheerful compared with the mortuary where those victims who are buried by charity were prepared for their final resting place.
IN THE CHARNEL HOUSE.
OVER 400 HUMAN BODIES AT ONCE PREPARED FOR BURIAL.
A Stack of Coffins All Around, Higher Than a Man’s Head–Half a Dozen Vans Being Loaded at a Time, the Drivers Chaffing and Laughing Unconcernedly–Some of the Bodies Contorted in All Sorts of Shapes–From Mortuary to Hospitals.
I visited the charnel house Monday with a member of the staff of the Hamburger Nachrichten. Here, in the edge of an old graveyard whose tombstones were falling down and whose graves were overgrown with weeds, were more than 400 human bodies in various stages of preparation for burial. On one side of an improvised road way was a stack of coffins higher than a man’s head, and at least 20 feet long, from which four workmen were loading a great van in preparation for a night trip to Ohlsdorf. Two or three other vans were waiting for a chance to load, and the drivers and workingmen were chaffing and laughing as if theirs was. a most ordinary and commonplace occupation.
The Most Grewsome Sight of All.
Further along, from a carpenter’s wagon, was being unloaded an installment of new coffins. But the most ghastly sight that I have witnessed in this city of horrors was at the other side of the road. Here, on the floor of a tumble-down shed, were laid the corpses, just as they had been brought from the hospitals after death, of 120 men, women and children. Most of these bodies were arranged in the coarse bed dress of the hospitals, but there were others in the tattered garments in which they had been brought from their homes when stricken down, showing how quickly the deadly malady had done its work.
These bodies were contorted in all sorts of shapes, just as death had left them. The body of one man who had died in a suit of underclothes, with his stockings on, had his knees drawn up almost to his chin, and as this circumstance caused him to take up more than his share of room on the floor of the shed, he had been laid sideways, and the bodies of two children were at his head and feet The body of a woman was bent back nearly; double, just as she died in an awful spasm, and others had their arms stretched above their heads as they had struggled before the vital spark left them.
Some of the Most Horrible Scenes.
Among these corpses, staring with their dead eyes open, worked a dozen men, straightening the rigid limbs into shape and wrapping them about like mummies in the disinfecting clothes in which they were to be buried. Each body was then fastened with heavy string to a narrow board reaching from head to feet, in order that it might remain in proper shape, and then, in a further shed, they were piled one above the other on racks until their coffins should be made ready. The comparison is a brutal one, but the racks with their enshrouded occupants reminded me of a packing house where slaughtered sheep were being prepared for transportation.
From the new mortuary we drove to the general hospital in Lohmullen strasse. I had visited this institution upon my arrival in Hamburg, and seen Dr. Yolasse, the head of the institution. He told me it was impossible for him to show me through the hospital, as it was absolutely forbidden, both because the physicians and attendants were so busy ministering to the dead and dying, and because a visit was attended by great risk to the visitors.
All Hope Abandoned by Many.
On this day, Monday, a crowd was gathered in the outer gate of the hospital, and one ambulance carriage after another was bringing in patients. I caught glimpses as these carriages passed of the terrified white faces of men and women who believed, as they drove under the arched portals, that they left hope behind. Many of these carriages were followed to the gate of the hospital by friends and relatives who had run miles to catch what might be, and probably would be, a last glimpse of the afflicted. These were stopped in all instances by a cordon of police on duty before the hospital, and before the great building were weeping women and children, mingling with the vulgar throng whom curiosity had drawn to the scene.
Inside the hospital, on the occasion of my first visit, I witnessed one of the pathetic scenes that are common enough in Hamburg just at present A little girl of 15 or 16, of the most pronounced type of German blonde beauty, with tears running down her cheeks, stood with a letter in her hand begging one of the attendants to take it in to her mother. The attendant, a big, coarse-looking fellow, refused gruffly.
A Message That Couldn’t Be Sent
While I was watching the scene one of the corps of physicians passed and said, sharply:
“Why don’t you take letter in?”
“Her mother is dead and was taken away last night,” whispered the attendant.
“Why don’t you tell the girl then?” queried the doctor, as he passed on.
But the attendant, for all his familiarity with suffering and bereavement, and for all his gruff manner and coarse features, had not the heart to tell the weeping child the truth, and when I left the hospital she was still waiting with the letter in her hand and great tears dropping down upon her calico gown.
There was no difficulty in getting into the old hospital under Dr. Sthamer’s auspices. He sent in his card and Dr. Yolasse at once came into the corridor and announced his willingness to show us the entire institution. He said he had refused permission to enter to newspaper correspondents ‘because one from a Vienna newspaper had published a report to the effect that cholera patients were dying so fast that their bodies were stacked up like cordwood in the hospital. Dr. Yolasse explained that since the cholera epidemic had broken out all the other patients had been removed from the institution except about five or ten who were too ill to bear transportation. The hospital was, however, soon full, and it became necessary to prepare new accommodations, and as a result, six barracks, capable of accommodating from 20 to 30 patients each, were erected in the hospital yards. These were all filled, there being nearly 1,200 cholera patients under treatment in that one place. No new cases were being brought in that day, all further patients being carried to the Neues Krankenhaus in Oppendorf.
COFFINS IN HUGE PILES.
PITIFUL SIGHTS ON ALL SIDES WITHIN THE BARRACKS.
A Double Row of Beds, All Occupied by Patients Suffering Terrible Tortures–Dead and Dying All Around—Hearses by the Half Dozen Waiting to Carry the Victims Away–A Post Mortem Examination of Each Body Held by the Physicians–Identification of the Corpses.
Dr. Yolasse has 43 physicians under him on his medical staff, and 258 nurses and attendants. As we passed in the hospital yard two hearses drove in, and I noticed a great pile of coffins behind the barracks. “Yes,” said Dr. Yolasse, “there are a few being buried from here, but only 20 or 30 a day.”‘ It was a pitiful sight that met our eyes as we entered the first barrack. On a double row of beds on either side of the room lay women in all stages of disease and death. The occupant of the bed nearest the door had drawn her feet up so that they almost touched the small of her back. Her face was almost black, and her eyes were turned so that only the whites could be seen. “She is not suffering,” said Dr. Yolasse. “She is past it. She is dying–all but dead.”
Sorrowful Sights on Every Hand.
Next to the dying woman’s couch was that of a rather pretty young girl, with black eyes and hair, who watched her neighbor’s death struggles with apathy, and took no notice of the presence of strangers. Farther down the room, a Sister of Charity bent over the bed of a dying woman, and at the furthest end two stout nurses were lifting a corpse from a bed to a stretcher, and they presently passed us carrying it out.
Each bed contained a patient, some of them writhing and moaning, others tossing restlessly, and still others seeming to rest quietly. We looked in at the doors of the other barracks, where the scene was much the same–dead and dying men and women and busy nurses and doctors.
“Just come down to the end of the garden,” said Dr. Yolasse, “and I will show you the dissecting room. You see, we make a post mortem examination of each body to see if it is real cholera that they die of.”
We passed a number of coffins on the way to the end of the garden, some with numbered lids screwed down, others with the lids half off, revealing naked bodies. Within, four or five hearses were waiting under the shadow of the trees, and a number of men and women were attempting to identify friends and relatives in the corpses that were being continually brought from the hospital. The dissecting room remains an unpleasant memory in my mind. Two or three physicians were at work there.
Peculiar Exemption of the Nurses.
Dr. Yolasse told me that out of his staff of physicians, nurses and attendants who were continually at work among the cholera patients, only two had caught the disease, and only one of those had died, while done of the noncholeraic patients who were obliged to remain in the hospital after the cholera patients were brought there had been attacked by the malady.
From the old hospital Dr. Sthamer next took me to the new hospital, in the beautiful suburb of Oppendorf. This is said to be the finest hospital in Germany. It contains 87 separate bedrooms, capable of accommodating from 30 to 40 patients each. Enough of these were in use to contain 1,100 cholera patients, the whole institution being in charge of Prof. Rumpf. Here new patients were constantly arriving in the police ambulances, at least 20 being brought in during the two hours that we remained in the place. Prof. Rumpf showed us everything with the utmost readiness.
This hospital, like the old Krankenhaus we had just left, was scrupulously clean and run on a perfect system. We looked into several of the cholera wards. In one there were several small children, one being convalescent and a great favorite of the physicians.
Prof. Rumpf works with the assistance of 40 doctors and 240 nurses and attendants. He believes that the epidemic is abating.
TREATMENT OF CHOLERA.
SALT WATER INJECTED IN VEINS OF THE FOREARM.
Nobody Succumbs to the Disease While an Attendant at Hospital or Cemetery–Great Expense for a Steamship Company–The Utmost Poverty and Destitution in the Worst Parts of Town–What a Berlin Correspondent Saw.
I asked both Prof. Rumpf and the doctor we had just left what their treatment for cholera was. Both seemed disinclined to discuss the question generally, but each had the same method of reviving patients brought in in a comatose condition. This was to open a vein in the patient’s forearm and inject a solution of one-half one per cent of salt.
Prof. Rumpf said that of all his staff of physicians and nurses, not one had been seized with cholera. In the Ohlsdorf cemetery, where 260 men are digging and filling the graves of cholera patients day and night, only one has succumbed to the disease, and of the hundreds of men who are employed taking cholera patients to the hospitals in ambulances and removing infected clothing and bedding from the houses, not one has, so far as reported, acquired the malady.
After our visit to the new hospital we drove to Sandthor Quai, and took the police boat across the Elbe to Amerika Quai, where the barracks of the Hamburg-American Packet Company are situated. Here 600 Russian emigrants were awaiting the removal of the quarantine restrictions to on to America in much more comfortable quarters, probably, than the aristocratic prisoners of the Normannia in New York bay.
Where the Cholera Epidemic Started.
There are here commodious houses, a large yard, fine bathtubs and closets under the constant inspection of the police. It is from these barracks, however, Prof. Koch declares that the cholera epidemic started. He thinks that, as all water the emigrants there used, together with the excreta, were poured into the at this point without being disinfected, the cholera originated with them.
Dr. Stahmer and Acting Consul Burke think that the disease was brought into Hamburg from Havre. However that be, there are no cases of sickness among 600 Russians on Amerika Quai.
One woman, who seemed very proud be pointed out, had just been sent from the old hospital in Hamburg. She supposed to have the disease, but after days under surveillance was sent back as healthy person. All these emigrants are compelled to bathe at least once a week, and all seemed perfectly healthy during our visit yesterday.
A Steamship Company Does Its Duty.
Dr. Sthamer and Acting Consul Burke both speak in the highest terms of the conduct of the Hamburg-American Packet Company in the present circumstances. They are co-operating with the authorities in every respect in order to put (town plague. The 600 emigrants now in quarantine are fed and quartered at the expense the company and will be until the American quarantine is removed. I have visited the infected districts of Hamburg–Steinstrasse and Spitalerstrasse. These streets are along the quays of the Elbe and Horn and Hammersmask here. The utmost destitution and misery prevails, and the residents live in constant dread of the prevailing terror. The houses are wretched abodes in alleys that run into and abut upon alleys, and an odor of disease is in the air.
A correspondent of a Berlin paper says that he has, in Steinstrasse, seen children eating oats that they had picked out street refuse in his presence, and feasting upon vegetable refuse they found in streets. I saw nothing of this.
One Death for Every Thirty Persons.
The same correspondent says that he visited a house, the door of which was so low that he had to stoop to get in, and stairs of which were composed of a ladder, with a rope for balusters. Up on this ladder he professes to have found a tiny room in which he could not stand upright, where lived, slept, and worked a shoemaker, his wife, his grown-up daughter, and five younger children. I could not find this house.
Nevertheless, nearly 3,000 people have died from cholera from Steinstrasse alone, a percentage of 1 in 30 of the population.
It is a pitiful thing to see these poor people gathered in groups in their filth, waiting in a pathetic misery until an unseen enemy shall clutch at their vitals. Some of these courts are in the real valley of the shadow of death. The visitor feels under a pall. There is a horror in the air, for no one can be sure that the next inhalation of the breath of life may not contain the germ of death.
The police ambulances are never away far from the street, and no man knows whether it will be himself or his neighbor who will next be borne to the hospital, and thence to a grave in a trench in Potter’s field.
There is little doubt, however, that the plague is abating. The cool weather of the last few days has done more to bring this about than anything else, and unless the disease should obtain some new foothold where it has not already decreased the population, Hamburg may soon regain her former place in European civilization.
It was at the midnight lunch and the telegraph editor told the story. We had all been kicking over the extra ‘assignment’ the city editor had just given us of writing an Easter story. Every man on the reportorial staff was to contribute one. The telegraph editor said he could reel off Easter stories by the yard if he had no more to do than the reporters. The sporting editor asked him for a sample. We lighted cigarettes and prepared to listen. He said:
“This is a ghost story. It is an Easter ghost story, and there is a woman in it. The woman was married to a newspaper man. His name was Bob Scrutiny. He was a jolly good fellow, but a heavy drinker and a thorough spendthrift. His wife was a silly tempered woman, or rather more of a school girl than a woman. Her temper was fearful. When angry her face and neck became scarlet, the veins in her temples expanded and she was a very unattractive person all round. Scrutiny loved his wife more than anybody except himself. He got a good salary, and she spent the greater part of it. He was always ‘broke’ by Thursday and on Mondays he was generally eating lobsters and drinking champagne at midnight. On Fridays he ate toast and drunk tea. Well, Bob was a good newspaper man. He wasn’t steady in his work, but his brilliance at times compensated for his general good-for-nothingness at other times. One night he would fairly reel ‘copy’ off by the yard; the next he would work an hour over a ‘tow-line head.’ But everybody including his managing editor liked him and his position was as secure as—well, as mine, for instance.”
The telegraph editor stretched his legs out complacently.
“But the managing editor resigned finally to accept a position as confidential secretary to Hon. Somebody or other and a new man was called from New York to fill the vacancy. One of these plodders, you know; same yesterday, today and forever; never startled at anything, moving along at the same pace no matter what the rumpus. Everything went on smoothly for a week or so. Then Scrutiny got one of his off spells and also got a big assignment; some gilt edged murder story, I believe. He got his facts all right; he always did, but when he came into the office that evening about 10 o’clock he told us that he’d be d__d if he felt able to write a line. However, he sat down and after three hours apparently hard work he sent his ‘copy’ up. The new managing editor read it. He came downstairs and said:
“’Make a column more of this, Mr. Scrutiny, and make it spicier.’
“’Make a column more of this? Mr., I couldn’t make a line more out of that to save my neck.’
“The managing editor repeated his request, then demanded more of the story and ended by leaving the ‘copy’ on Bob’s desk with instructions to write or quit. Bob quit.
“You don’t see where the Easter part comes in, eh? Well, Bob went home and told his wife of his discharge. It was about a month before Easter. She told him not to mind and gave the usual bread and cheese in a cottage story. Bob felt relieved. Knowing her temper he had anticipated a regular equinoxial storm; on the contrary, for a week or so he lived a regular honeymoon existence.
“But then Lalla, that was Bob’s wife’s name, wanted an Easter bonnet.
“Bob told her he had never denied her anything, but she’d have to go without a new bonnet this Easter. She teased and scolded, wouldn’t listen to reason, and finally worked herself into such and uncontrollable state of anger over the really trivial deprivation that I’m hanged if she didn’t break a blood vessel or something and die right then and there. It was, of course, an awful shock to Bob. He had loved his little wife, and, as men go, had been very true to her. They buried her on Easter Sunday in the big family vault, for Scrutiny came of good people, and Bob wore crepe on his hat and looked haggard.
“One day he came to the office and complained of dreaming constantly about his wife. She came constantly to his bedside and reproached him, he said. Some young fool laughingly asked him if she wanted that bonnet yet. Bob turned white, and said, ‘Yes, she asked for her bonnet, her bonnet, her Easter bonnet, so pathetically.’ This went on for several weeks. He told us he never slept and we knew he didn’t eat enough to keep a canary alive. One night he came to the office late and remarked to his small coterie of friends that he had bought that bonnet and the next time his ‘girlie,’ he always called her that, came to him he proposed to give it to her. We did not take the matter seriously. Well, Bob went home and we learned in a roundabout way that he had purchased a bonnet. He showed it to someone.
“About two hours later the night police reporter brought in the story that Scrutiny had been found dead at the Woodland cemetery.
“We questioned the reporter eagerly. He had not committed suicide, we learned, but there he lay with one hand clutching at the bars of the gate of the tomb where his wife lay buried. And near him lay an empty bonnet box.”
The telegraph editor puffed at his cigar a moment. Then he asked for a light. We roused ourselves and found that our cigarettes had all gone out.
“What do you ‘spose became of that bonnet?” asked the night editor absently.
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 25 March 1894: p. 10
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The acquisition of a new Easter bonnet was an article of faith for every church-going lady; one would be better off dead in a ditch than seen wearing last-year’s bonnet, no matter how cleverly re-trimmed. Even dead women desired the latest modes in hats. Mrs Daffodil has previously written about a ghost who ordered a hat. Vanity does not end with the grave. This must have been an Easter bonnet to die for.
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.
If we were to examine the standard-issue prank repertory of the vintage April Fool’s day, it would include old chestnuts like the hat-covering-a-brick trick or the wallet-on-a-string. Epicures would be tempted by chocolate covered soaps, cotton-stuffed doughnuts, or peppered candy. “KICK/KISS ME” signs would be attached to coat-tails. Possibly exploding cigars would be offered to unsuspecting acquaintances. Unpleasant, but mostly benign stuff.
But since I am known for being a Little Ray of Sunshine, we will bypass these harmless japes in favor of more ghoulish fooleries, the ones involving fake corpses, staged murders and suicides. All in good fun, of course.
April Fool’s Day must have been hell for trainsmen and drivers of street-cars.
A ghastly April Fool joke was played on the Wilmington train yesterday as it was coming up to the city. Some party or parties had stuffed an effigy looking very much like the average bummer and laid it across the track. As soon as the object was sighted by the engineer he whistled down brakes, and the train was brought to a stop, but not until it had passed over the prostrate body and sent the mangled head rolling into the ditch at the side. There was a general scrambling out of the train and some excited people for a few moments. When the state of the case was ascertained, it would not have been healthy for the perpetrator of the joke to show himself in that crowd.
Los Angeles [CA] Daily Herald 2 April 1876: p. 3
It must have been an equally fraught holiday for the coroners.
The Coroner, His Assistants, and Newspaper Reporters Neatly Sold.
A ghastly, but unique “April Fool” joke was sprung on the Coroner yesterday. A party of fellows, thinking to have a little fun at his expense, arranged a “dummy” corpse so as to resemble a man, whose exit from life had been caused by railway car wheels. The “dummy” was located at the crossing of the transfer track and Pennsylvania street, a call issued, and in due time the coroner, his assistant, a number of reporters and quite a crowd of other people had assembled at the spot. There laid the “corpse.” A blood-stained handkerchief covered the face, and the misshapen trunk, cut and scarred by the marks of wheels, made a sight that filled the hearts of all present with horror.
Cautiously raising the ‘kerchief to take a preliminary squint at the remains, the Coroner fell back and muttered an imprecation that was far from being gentle or pious. The rag soaked with red ink covered a pile of straw, and the “corpse” was a made up “April Fool” joke that “worked to a charm” at the expense of an august Court, clerk and spectators.
Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 2 April 1890: p. 5
A GHASTLY HOAX
A “Floater” Turns Out to Be a Man of Straw
An idiotic April Fool joke possessing some elements of maliciousness was perpetrated on the Coroner last night by a lot of wharf hoodlums. A telephone message was received at 7:30 o’clock telling the Coroner to send the wagon to the foot of Third street, and conveying the information that a “floater” had been found in the bay at that point. Deputy Coroner Charles Johnston accepted the notice in good faith, and with an assistant drove down to the place where the alleged “floater” was found to be a man of straw.
The dummy was in the water and was fished out with much trouble before Johnston learned that he had been made the victim of a very feeble joke. A crowd of men and boys stood around the spot and guyed the officials and when remonstrated with stoned them. They drove away without having been hurt.
First Deputy Coroner Murphy investigated the matter and learned that the telephone message came in from Pope & Talbot’s lumber yard at Third and Berry streets. The telephone is in the private office of the firm, to which the night watchman has the key, and as this individual could not be found around the place when Murphy tried to hunt him up, it is supposed that he is the witless booby who conceived and perpetrated the hoax.
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 April 1888: p. 3
Straw dummies were a popular April Fool’s Day accessory:
A GHASTLY APRIL FOOL JOKE
Dummy Thrown from Building and Several Women Fainted.
New York, April. 1. Hundreds of pedestrians crowded in narrow Nassau Street, in the financial district, shrank back in terror this afternoon when the form of a man came hurtling down form the twenty-fourth story of the Liberty Tower building. Several stenographers in windows on the opposite side of the street fainted and someone turned in an ambulance call. Police officers rushed to the spot where the figure fell and found it to be a dummy stuffed with hay, with a broomstick for a backbone and a false face to make it realistic. The ambulance surgeon did not appreciate the April Fool’s day comedy and drove away, leaving a street cleaner to gather up the debris.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 2 April 1912: p. 1
Woe to the unfortunates who had accidents on the wrong day.
PLUNGE TO HIS DEATH
Friends Thought Young Man Was Hanging for Fun.
In view of several hundred persons, who thought he was playing an April fool prank, Luther Williams, aged 22, a painter, dangled for a few minutes at the end of a rope attached to the smokestack of the Georgia Railway and Electric Light company plant at Atlanta and then plunged 150 feet to earth. He was still breathing when picked up, but died ten minutes after arriving at a hospital. In its descent the body of Williams crashed through the roof of the boiler shop.
The Manning [SC] Times 10 April, 1912: p. 6
Some April foolers went entirely too far. This one deserved to be named and shamed, although it appears that the young lady survived.
A Fool April Fool Joke
As the result of an April fool joke, Edith Walrach, of Camden, N.J., who is visiting friends at Binghampton, N.Y., is said to be dying. Miss Walrach is 19 years old and of a very nervous temperament. In the family she is visiting is a young practical joker. He procured a small live mouse which he put in an egg shell, covering the opening with plaster of Paris. This was brought in with the breakfast Sunday, and when Miss Walrach broke the shell and the liberated mouse jumped out she screamed and fainted away. During the day she had three nervous fits, and her physician pronounces her condition critical. The young man is nearly wild with grief, as he and Miss Walrach were shortly to be married.
Jackson [MI] Citizen 6 April 1900: p. 6
April Fool’s prank letters caused as much havoc as vinegar valentines.
AN APRIL FOOL MURDER
A Sumter County Girl’s Joke Causes Death
Americus, April 14. Jack Tyner, a young man 18 years old, was stabbed to death yesterday afternoon by Henry Weaver, a companion about the same age. Your correspondent has obtained the following particulars of the tragedy:
Young Weaver received an April fool letter that made him very mad. It was signed by Tyner. Yesterday Weaver met Tyner and the matter was referred to. Tyner denied writing the letter or knowing anything about it. Weaver did not believe him and assaulted him with the result above stated.
Since the killing a young lady admits that she wrote the letter and signed Tyner’s name to it. The killing occurred in the country a few miles from Ellaville. Weaver fled and at last accounts had not been captured.
Macon [GA] Telegraph 15 April 1889: p. 1
We may seriously doubt that this wife would have described her husband as “delightful” and “a great humorist.”
A Nashville, Kansas, farmer, who is a great humorist, planned a delightful April Fool joke on his wife. He disguised himself as a tramp, appeared before his wife, and scared her into a faint from which death relieved her within an hour. Thus is again illustrated the fact that the breed of fools is perennial; it blooms forever. And the fool who thinks it funny to scare somebody usually is particularly evident. If only the homes for the feeble minded were large enough to contain everybody who should be in them, ow many of us would cease going at large.
Fresno [CA] Morning Republican 5 April 1896: p. 2
Even the dead were not safe from the April Fool’s prankster.
That was a ghastly April fool joke of some Eastern correspondent, who telegraphed to the Associated Press that the tomb of George Peabody had been entered by burglars, and the coffin robbed of silver plate and handles. [on March 31st] The telegraph to-day exposes the canard. What will April Fool do next?
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 April 1870: p. 2
LOST THE CORPSE
Might Have Been an April Fool’s Joke But Undertaker Couldn’t See It.
Boston, April 1. Visions of the dead arisen floated before the eyes of Undertaker Jas. A. Coudey today when a body in his charge disappeared. Mr. Coudey had driven his hearse containing the body of a man, to the old court house, and entered the municipal offices to secure a burial permit. When he came out, body, hearse and horse were gone. A search revealed the vehicle around the corner, with another man on the box. A policeman, whose suspicions had been aroused, was talking to the man and, after he had heard Coudey’s story, he placed the stranger under arrest. The man, Donald Beauslack, explained that another man had asked him to drive the hearse around the corner.
Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND] 1 April 1910: p. 1
In this article there is an obvious subtext of admiration for the joker who so effectively faked a suicide. The coroner must have thrown his hands up in despair.
GHASTLY APRIL FOOL HOAX
A Man Puts Up a Suicide Fake at Chattanooga, Tenn., with Much Success.
Chattanooga, Tenn., April 1, 1892. Some one went to some expense to play a joke to-day, but the success of his efforts must gratify him. Chattanooga evening papers are full to-day of graphic description of the suicide of Thomas W. Johnson, of Brooklyn, and special correspondents have burdened the wires with accounts of the suicide. Two butchers coming into the city at daybreak this morning were startled by finding a handsome overcoat and derby hat lying upon the Tennessee River bridge. Investigation followed by the Coroner, who was awakened by the police. In a pocket of the satin lined coat was found a well written letter of farewell, finishing up with a plaintive lament in rhyme. The letter was addressed to Miss Stella Woolbridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., who was addressed as “My Darling.”
Despite the fact that it was April 1, the Coroner, after careful investigation, determined that the find was genuine, and for hours the river was dragged and river men cautioned to look out for the corpse. In the letter was a lock of golden hair tied with blue ribbon. In a pocketbook were found coins, newspaper clippings, sleeping car receipts and a request that the remains be sent to Brooklyn if recovered. By a curious coincidence the name signed to the letters corresponded with one registered at the Shiff Hotel four days ago.
The joker, frightened at the proportions his joke was assuming, confided to me to-night that the whole thing was a fake. At three o’clock this morning he left coat and hat, with its carefully prepared contents, on the bridge. He took the name of Thomas Johnson at random, and had no idea that a Thomas Johnson, of Brooklyn, had really registered here a few days ago.
New York [NY] Herald 2 April 1892: p. 5
And finally, some April foolers just did not understand why their victims failed to appreciate their carefully arranged pranks.
But Then It Did Not Seem to be Duly Appreciated
“Can I stay here and sleep on a lounge to-night?” asked a sad-faced young man as he walked into the Press club last evening and joined a group of reporters. “I’ve got to, anyway, whether I can or not. I’m a victim of the boomerang April-fool joke. It started in like this: I was just getting my comfortable second nap this morning when a call came on my door and the voice of the landlady notified me that the postman was below with a registered letter for which I must give a receipt in person. Had I been good and awake I would not have been caught by such a transparent joke, but I was just stupid enough to hustle into a portion of my clothes and tramp downstairs, where everybody hailed me with that old chestnut about ‘April fool.’
“I went back to my room, sore in spirit, and kept thinking of a plan to get even all through the day. By afternoon I had the thing all fixed up and proceeded to work out my plan. I went home between five and six and took occasion to mope about for a little while, making all the folks see me and notice my glumness. I was the very embodiment of woe and would only respond in monosyllables. Then I went to my room, took off my coat and vest and put a streak of red ghastly grease paint across my neck resembling a slash with a razor. In addition to this I put a red spot on my shirt front, and then, grasping a razor in my left hand—the blade clotted with imitation blood—and a revolver in my right, I fired two blank cartridges, let a wail out of me, staggered and fell with a thud to the floor. There I lay, with the revolver firmly grasped in my right hand and the razor in my left.
“In a second I heard feminine screams and pattering footsteps on the stairs. Then the landlady and two or three married women and the servants broke into my room, saw my blood-stained corpse stretched out on the floor, and set up an assortment of shrieks, which made the pictures turn face to the wall. Then I heard some moans and a woman flopped to the floor in a faint. More moans and another flopped. The landlady and her sister came to me and bent over me with horrified exclamations, and the first thing I knew the sister let loose a little wail and fell across my stomach. In about a second the landlady herself sunk in a heap with an arm thrown across my neck, whereupon the servant girls turned and fled with shrieks.
“I dragged myself from beneath the forms of my sympathizers and sat up. It was a beautiful sight. Four women dumped down on the floor regardless of appearances, some of them with their noses puncturing the carpet and some tied in knots. I threw a glassful of water in each woman’s face, and lit a cigarette and watched ‘em come to. They opened their eyes about the same time, and pretty soon sat up and looked about ‘em. I watched their faces, and when I saw that they had about got their bearings, I blithely remarked: ‘April fool’ and rubbed the red grease paint off my neck with a towel. Just then the servant girls returned with a policeman and came charging upstairs. I happened to know him and gave him a wink, and told him it was a mistake; that one of the boys had worked a little April-fool joke on the folks, and he went away. But the women turned on me and abused me scandalously, and the landlady ordered me out of the house at once. To escape their wrath I fled, and when I sneaked back after supper found my trunk on the doorstep with a note tacked to it ordering me not to try to enter on pain of being murdered in my bed.
“That’s why I’m here. When will the American people learn to appreciate real humor? That’s what I want to know.”