Ghost Fires and Melting Masks: The Macabre Mirth of the Vintage Hallowe’en

It’s Beggar’s Night here in my town and some people worry about making Halloween safer and healthier. To that end, my neighbor gives out pencils to trick-or-treaters. I prefer unhealthy treats like M&Ms and KitKats. After all, a child could put an eye out with a pencil. Safety first.

 But it was not always thus.

A boy is crushed during a Halloween out-house tipping; blinded by a Halloween mask, a girl drives into the path of a train; a child is killed by a falling pumpkin.  Halloween has always been an inherently dark, dangerous, and unwholesome holiday.

The social columns of vintage newspapers are filled with fascinating snippets like “A pretty tea was given by Mrs. A.P Clawhammer for her friend Miss Margaret Pruritis of Dismal Seepage, Iowa.”  These news items burble along in a predictably restful pattern, listing the decorations, the refreshments and the entertainments at local parties. As I was researching the topic of vintage Halloween disasters, I found these two Halloween items in the social column of a Georgia newspaper and was struck by their casual cruelty side by side with the genteel details.

 Philatheas Entertain

The Philathea Class [this was a Bible study group] of the First Methodist Church entertained at a most successful Halloween party on Friday evening in the church parlors.

          Their guests included the members of the Baraca Class, and the officers of the Sunday School and their wives.

          Autumn leaves, pumpkins and chrysanthemums were used in decorating, carrying out the Halloween idea.

          The ladies of the class, garbed as ghosts, welcomed them into the parlors, where many surprises of a fearful and spooky nature awaited them. On shaking the hand of Miss Daisy White, president of the class, so cordially offered them, the unsuspecting guests (or victims) were given a severe and agonizing shock. A small electric shocking machine explained this mystery. This was one of the most amusing incidents of an eventful evening.

           Miss Burt Entertains

Miss Georgia Burt entertained her Sunday School class at a most delightful Hallowe’en party Friday evening in Kennesaw.

          The house and spacious veranda were very artistically decorated with autumn leaves, black cats, owls, ghosts and witches, which gave the interior such a weird aspect, one felt as if he were really in the land of Goblins.

          The veranda and interior were illuminated with Jack o’ lanterns, and two large pumpkins were placed at the entrance, and were very attractive, with large faced cats on each side with candles lighted in them, defining the features.

          The children were entertained throughout the evening by various games suggestive of the season, and fortune-telling….

          The most remarkable event of the evening was a real live black cat coming to take part in the Hallowe’en celebration, but the little cat died next morning and Miss Burt was accused of poisoning it as she was told by several friends she would surely be an “old maid” if she should keep it. Marietta [GA] Journal 7 November 1919: p. 7          

Although there were no razor-blades in apples or poisoned candy, Halloween fatalities were an expected part of the fun. Some newspapers published lists totting up Halloween victims from all over the country. Alcohol and firearms figure heavily in most accounts, but you also find macabre accidents:

Columbus, O., Nov. 1 An unknown man was run over by a Main Street car, shortly before 3 a.m. today, and instantly killed, being terribly mangled. The motorman saw the body lying across the track as he approached, but supposed it to be a Halloween dummy. There was nothing on the body by which it might be identified. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 November 1904: p. 4


Paint Melted and Caused Girl’s Death by Blood Poisoning.

ORANGE, N.J., Nov. 13. Little Freda Henke, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Henke of 24 Church Street, this city, is dead at her home as a result of blood poisoning contracted by wearing a papier mache mask at a Hallowe’en party she recently gave a number of her young friends.

At the party all the children wore masks, and there was much romping. The perspiration on the girl’s face melted the paint on the mask and this contaminated an abrasion on her upper lip. New York Times 14 November 1902.

          Fire was a constant theme in the Halloween celebrations of the past. For example, in 1906 an entire Leipsic, Ohio city block, to the value of $100,000, went up in flames because of a Halloween paper lantern mishap. Lives were frequently lost when costumes were ignited by jack-o-lanterns or candles. A Halloween dance could become a Dance of Death, especially when a Ghost Fire was involved. At an April 1908 “Ghost Dance” in New York, a young woman was burnt to death when the alcohol in the following ritual exploded.

Would You Know Whom you Are to Marry?

Then Build a Ghost Fire on Hallowe’en.

          …For centuries young men and maids on the eve of All Saints’ day have invoked ghostly information as to their futures.

There are many methods of doing this—such as holding a candle lighted mirror over your head and walking backward down a crooked stairway as the clock strikes midnight. If you are a girl the apparition of your future husband will cloud the mirror’s surface. If you are a man vice versa….But the oldest as well as most mirth-provoking mode of procedure is the ghost fire.

A ghost fire is made as follows:

A big dish pan is placed in the center of the floor of a dark room. The pan contains some four or five pounds of salt which has been fairly well saturated with wood alcohol. The party gathers around the pan, chanting the incantation quoted above. Each has been given a chestnut, and each chestnut has been marked in some distinguishing way. A lighted match is thrown on the salt, which breaks into a blaze that gives off an uncanny green light. The chestnuts are then thrown in, and the girl whose chestnut pops first will be the first bride. Of course, she must immediately eat the chestnut. BUT—that is not all.

She is supposed to see the face of her future husband arising from the flames! Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne, WY] 31 October 1919: p. 7

My friend Nick Reiter of The Avalon Foundation had this to say about what seemed to me a dubious indoor entertainment:

“First off, the amount of alcohol needed to soak 4 pounds of salt is a lot of alcohol. The fire from that wouldn’t so much be explosive, but rather hot and very long lasting. It would be difficult to put out. It would also make the pan hot enough to burn the hell out of the floor….

“Wood alcohol is methanol – not ethanol as in booze, or isopropyl as in rubbing alcohol. They all burn about the same, but wood alcohol is very toxic, both in fume and in ingestion. I would not have wanted to eat a chestnut [roasted that way.]”

A different sort of Halloween divination proved fatal to a Pennsylvania woman:


Miss Minner’s Fatal Effort to Win a Halloween Husband.

Sharon, Pa., Nov. 6. A very peculiar case has come before the local physicians in this city. Miss Luelia Minner, of Charleston, this county, attended a Halloween party, and the guests indulged in familiar Halloween legends. Miss Minner had heard that if a young lady would swallow a chicken’s heart her future husband would be the next gentleman she would meet. The girl tried the experiment and the heart lodged near the windpipe and caused an abscess to form in the throat. She kept gradually growing worse until today, when the matter broke forth and emptied into the windpipe, choking her to death. Deceased was 21 years old and a popular young society lady. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 7 November 1895: p. 1

Halloween pranks could turn out to be deadly for the pranksters, who were particularly at risk for being shot by irate householders.

 As a result of a Hallowe’en prank two men were shot at Shelby, O., and both may die. Floyd Armstrong and Morris Brower placed cannon crackers in the spouting at Roscoe McCormick’s house. McCormick fired both barrels of a shotgun with deadly effect. Recorder [Indianapolis, IN] 10 November 1900: p. 5

 Or the victims, as in this extraordinary story:


Rochester, NY, Nov. 1 The authorities of Allegany County are looking for the persons who manufactured a skeleton out of animals’ bones which frightened Mary Oldfield of Karrdale to death last night.

          Miss Oldfield, accompanied by two friends, was returning from a Halloween party, where they had listened to grewsome stories until their hair stood on end. When about to enter the woods a rattling of bones was heard overhead, and looking up, the trio were overcome with horror at seeing a skeleton of gigantic proportions sweeping down on them from above. With a cry of terror. Mary dropped dead.

          A searching party found a wire leading from the ground to a tree top, to which was attached a skeleton by a pulley.  New York Times 2 November 1900: p. 5

A very happy and safe Hallowe’en to all of you. Dibs on the KitKats.

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 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 Funeral Men: 1856

The Funeral Men The Funeral Mute, Robert William Buss, Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We are all familiar with the more usual tokens of death: the picture falling off the wall, the howling dog or hooting owl, the tap of the Death Watch Beetle or the stopped clock. Some of us may also know the less common death omens: the butterfly of doom or ships with black sails, but it is the specifically mortuary tokens of death that fascinate me: the sounds of a phantom funeral, or visions of a spectral hearse or coffin. The following story, which is unique in my experience, features two funeral mutes as the terrifying messengers of death.

‘In the year 1856 we were residing in a rented house in one of the midland counties, with our family and servants, near which temporary residence my husband, an officer in the army, had a command. For reasons upon which I need not enter, a change of position and locality had been much pressed upon the authorities in London, on my husband’s behalf, which, after the expiration of some time, was determined on by them; and we found ourselves likely to go to Scotland; the exact change for which my husband’s friends had asked, and which we each desired, for it was not far from the home of some of those who were very near and dear to us.

‘As there was considerable difficulty in obtaining a suitable and sufficiently convenient house at the place where we wished to reside, my husband went on to Scotland a month before it was intended to take me and our family. I therefore remained with our household in England. With the exception of my children and servants, I was quite alone. Our hired residence, surrounded by considerable grounds and plantations, and situated on the slope of a hill, was quite isolated. No other abode was nearer than a quarter of a mile ; and that was the lodge where our gardener resided. Our drawing- room was on the first floor, outside of the windows of which rose a balcony of iron and wood, connecting this room with my bedroom (which adjoined it), and my husband’s dressing-room, which was furthest off, all of which rooms, by glazed doors, opened on to the balcony in question.

‘One evening, between nine and ten o’clock, in the month of September, I was seated in the drawing-room. My maid had brought me some coffee, and was arranging my work-table and books prior to my retiring to bed, when I arose mechanically and walked out on to the balcony through the open door, as was often my custom, to look at the beautiful landscape in the moonlight. The moon was up, and the whole of the valley below was bright, almost as bright as in the day. Greensward and brook, wood and copse, were seen in the distance; with a large dark mass of stately elms, below which a cluster of Scotch pines stood to the right. The stillness was marked and almost unusual; the landscape lovely.

‘Suddenly, turning my eyes to the left along the balcony, I beheld all at once the figures of two men, dressed as mutes at a funeral, with hatbands, scarves and cross-poles covered with black silk, standing at the glass door of my husband’s dressing room. They did not seem in the least degree spectral, but too truly and too perfectly real. For a brief moment this was my certain impression; but on looking steadily at their forms for a few seconds, they began to have a less substantial, and a more transparent and cloudy appearance. Awestricken and overcome, I fell back through the drawing-room window, with a shriek and a stagger, into a chair. My maid, who was still in the room, rushed forward to my aid; and for a few seconds I believe that I entirely lost my consciousness. On recovering myself partially, but wholly unable to speak many consecutive words, I cried out to her, pointing in the direction of the figures, “Look there—there!”

‘She looked out on to the balcony, and there beheld the two gloomy forms as vividly and keenly as myself. It was a surprise and a shock to us ‘both.

‘She rang for the man-servant, who, coming up, was at once asked if he could see anyone or anything outside his master’s dressing-room door on the balcony.

‘Looking in the direction indicated, he replied that he could not. “There is no one and nothing there.”

‘“Don’t you see those two funeral men?” earnestly asked the maid.

‘“There are no men there,” he answered; at the same time that he walked out, and approached the spot where the figures we still beheld stood.

‘I and the maid watched him as he boldly walked up to the door, into the room, and actually passed through the spectral forms which still stood there. They did not swerve, they did not stir. The dressing-room was as usual, the man asserted. No mortal was there. The man-servant maintained that both the maid and I were dreaming.

‘For a while, the figures seemed to both of us as solid and lifelike as possible. There they stood in the clear moonlight, erect, weird, motionless, and spectral. In a short time they began to grow less distinct, and as it were, cloudy and dim, in their lower parts, but yet, as manifest as ever in the upper; and then, in about a quarter of an hour, they had utterly faded away.

‘I was overcome and puzzled to a degree which I cannot describe and could not measure. The thought of my husband’s safety—for which 1 prayed—smote me at once, and was constantly before me, and yet at the same time I felt a weight of sorrow and a foreboding of loss which so completely took possession of me, that I could neither talk nor cry. Tears would have been a relief; but they did not and would not come.

‘Within an hour, my maid occupying a sofa in my bedroom, I had been induced to retire to rest ; almost glad to be convinced at one minute by the arguments of the man-servant that what I had seen was the result of my imagination, and yet utterly unable either to get rid of the pressing load of anxiety on my mind, or to secure sleep.

‘A night-light burned in my room; and from time to time a few commonplace words had been spoken between myself and my maid. The time passed slowly. Midnight had come; I think I was dozing.

‘All of a sudden we heard a loud and startling knock at the principal entrance of the house; so sudden, so loud, and so startling, that the manservant, who slept on the ground floor, suddenly awakened, speedily rushed to the front door.

‘He opened it as quickly as possible. But as he solemnly and affrightedly affirmed, there was no one there, and no sign of anyone, as he told me at my bedroom door. The moon was still up; my maid and I looked out once again on to the balcony: the landscape was clear. Not a sign. Not a sound. All was still. “These things,” said I to myself, “are some blessed angel’s warning of a coming calamity,” and this thought (for I had always believed in angelic intervention) was upon me throughout the rest of the night. I did not begin to sleep until the morning had broken, and the sparrows were twittering on the roof. But constantly I commended myself to God the Blessed Trinity in prayer.

‘On the following evening, my husband’s brother came to announce the overwhelming tidings that my children were orphans and that I was a widow.

‘ My husband had died almost suddenly of heart disease, at his temporary residence in the north of Scotland on the very night in question; and these strange warnings for eye and ear were no doubt mercifully sent to me to break the severity of the shock which news of a sudden death must have given. Here is the finger of God. How often afterwards, and how fervently, have I prayed to God in the beautiful words of the collect for St. Michael’s Day in the “Book of Common Prayer,” “As Thy Holy Angels always do the service in Heaven, so may they succour and defend us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” ’

More Glimpses of the World Unseen, Frederick Lee, 1878

The sharp rapping on the door was a common death-omen. Some banshees also knocked on doors, rather than screaming.

Victorian Funeral mutes

Funeral mutes—the “funeral men,” as the maid calls them, were, for a long time, an essential part of a Victorian funeral. They carried wands swathed in black and were stationed mournfully outside the house of the deceased. They also marched in the funeral procession to the cemetery. Mutes were paid by the job and were rarely from the most refined social classes. They were often a figure of fun in Victorian literature and journalism. But there is nothing amusing about these sinister Mutes in Black,  uniquely Victorian messengers of death.

Other death omens with a mortuary theme? Swathe in crape and send to chriswoodyard8 AT

You’ll find information about professional and amateur mourners in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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 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.

Like a Mournful Gust of Wind

viewing corpse in coffin The Spectre of the Hall, author of Varney the Vampire 1848

As someone who studies death and mourning, I’m always pleased to come across a story—either true or fictional—that mingles mourning customs with a good ghost story. This plausible tale, which is written as fiction, features the traditional night-watch over the corpse plus a sinister aural haunting.


“Well,” said Aunt Sarah Bird, “though I never saw one and hope I never shall, there are many who have, or who thought so at any rate; and I can’t help half believing in them after all. Your father, Mary Horton, if he was here, or Mr. William Day, if he was alive, could tell of an awful thing we once witnessed, which, if not a ghost, must have been something supernatural.”

“Do tell us about it, Aunt Sally,” said cousin Fanny.

We were all sitting in a great ring around Uncle Robert’s blazing hearth. Here were Aunt Sarah, Mary Horton, Elise Parker, cousin Fanny, and the children; on the other side Uncle Robert, Martin Kennedy the schoolmaster, and Daniel Ford and Stephen Ingalls, the hired men. Tiger and I occupied the chimney corner. I must mention that Uncle Robert is a large farmer in one of the old Puritan towns in Plymouth county, and lives in the family mansion, of which a part was built by my great-great-grandfather, who came over in the Mayflower.

It was a dark stormy night without, and the noise of the wind through the ancient elms was terrible.

“‘Twas before we were married,” continued Aunt Sarah, (speaking to uncle,) “when I couldn’t have been more than fifteen—but I must begin further back than that. Old Deacon Mansell of Middleborough, whose grandson died the year Fanny was born, had an only daughter, Charity”

“She married Dr. Garfield,” said uncle, “as long ago as I can remember; they’ve both been dead these twenty years at least.”

“Yes,” said aunt, “but she died before her husband, after they had been married about a year. The doctor was much the eldest, and was a rough man in his ways; they said he was none too kind to his wife while she was alive. It was a match of the deacon’s making, for Charity wanted to have had Stephen Kent, who went off to Genesee. She was a timid kind of a girl; indeed she was brought up so that she hardly knew what it was to have her own way in her life. The old man made her turn off Kent, who wasn’t worth anything but a small farm, and take Garfield, because he had property and was heir to old Mr. Cobb of Carver.

“All the young people then a few years older than I, said the marriage was the cause of her death. From the very day it took place she seemed to fall into a decline, and in less than a year she died of consumption.

“I wasn’t much acquainted with her, but Esther Mayhew, who had lived at our house, took care of her in her last sickness; and when she died, as there was no one there with Esther, our folks let me go over to keep her company.”

“I know the house,” said Stephen Ingalls; “it is around on what they call the five mile road.”

“Col. Davenport owns the place now,” said my uncle.

“The house stands in from the road,” continued Aunt Sarah, “and it looked dreary to me then because there were no trees near it, except some white birch and sumach at the foot of the lane—nothing but a high well-sweep, and a few outhouses that hid themselves behind as if they were afraid of being seen. I remember as plainly as though ’twere yesterday, how gloomy it looked the day I went to see Esther. There was she, and old granny Bolcum, who went away in the afternoon, and William Day, then a young man; he married Esther afterwards, and they moved over to the Vineyard. Garfield had gone down to Boston in the worst of his poor wife’s sickness, and though word had been sent, it took a day to go and a day to come, so that he could no more than get back in time for the funeral.

“In the east room lay the body in the coffin, ready for the funeral, which was to be next day. Dear me! how distinctly I recollect the expression of the face, when Esther took me in to see it; so serene and peaceful that I said it appeared as if the soul had gone to heaven before death. But Esther, who liked her very much, was all tears, and said ‘she didn’t know what to think, for that Charity had never experienced religion.’

“That evening, after granny Bolcum went away, came your father, Mary, who was to sit up with William Day. He must have been then about twenty-five, and as strong and resolute a young man as there was in the Old Colony.”

“He’d have been an active man if he had not gone into business,” said Uncle Robert.

“We sat by the kitchen fire,” continued my aunt, “till about ten o’clock, and then Esther and I went upstairs to bed. I was soon asleep and conscious of nothing, till some time in the night I was awaked by Esther’s suddenly rising up and saying in a startled whisper, ‘What’s that?’

“I should have mentioned that the house is a one-story one, and the only chamber then finished was the one we occupied, directly over the east room.

“She spoke so quick and grasped my arm so tightly I was awake in an instant, and comprehended that she was frightened at something she had heard. I held my breath, and in a moment we both heard a strange sound, that seemed to come from beneath the floor. I was frightened almost out of my senses. Esther had more courage. ‘Slip on your gown, Sally dear,’ said she; ‘don’t be scared—(for I was beginning to cry)—we will go down stairs. I dare say it’s only William Day has fallen asleep and snoring.’

“We hurried on our gowns as well as we could in the dark, and had hardly done so before there came another—a deep, low groaning, heavier than before.

“Esther pulled me down stairs, and we rushed into the kitchen where the watchers were sitting, both asleep, their supper untouched, and the fire light almost gone out. I grasped your father’s knees and he started to his feet; Esther shook William Day and clung to him, crying, ‘O William; wake! wake!’

“‘What’s the matter?’ said your father.” They were both awake in a moment, and listening. Presently the awful sound was again repeated; we all heard it as plainly as you hear me speak. Not a word was spoken for a moment. William Day lighted a candle. Said your father to him, ‘Let us go in and look at the body.’

“But now Esther lost all courage, and held William Day by the arm, saying he should not go; if he did we should die, and so forth. Then your father said, ‘Stay you with the girls, William. I will take the gun and see what this means;’ and he began to do so while he was speaking.

“The east room did not open immediately from the kitchen, but through another apartment at the side of the house. Your father walked in with his gun, thinking, I suppose, that a cat (for cats, you know, are attracted by dead bodies) might have broken in through the window. He had crossed the floor of the side apartment, and had his hand on the latch of the east room door, when there came another dreadful moaning noise, much more distinct and lengthened than either of the others. It makes my blood run cold even now to think of it.

“We clung with all our might to William Day. Your father paused an instant, and we could see that the light for a moment trembled in his hand. But suddenly he flung the door wide open and walked steadily into the dark room, saying with a voice that made the house shake,”‘ In God’s name, Evil One, depart!’ “Immediately, while he walked around the coffin, we heard a noise as of a rushing wind going swiftly about the outside of the house. William Day opened the kitchen door and we went with him and stood upon the door-stone. Your father, seeing that there was nothing in the east room, joined us with the light, and we all stood there together and listened, expecting we knew not what.

“Three times the mysterious sound seemed to encircle the house, each time more faint, till finally it appeared to depart, and gradually die away. As it came the second time your father walked out a little distance from the house, bearing the candle in his hand. The night was pitch dark, and so perfectly calm that the flame of the candle was as steady as it was within doors. Yet we all heard the sound, and when we came to talk of it afterwards, we found it appeared precisely the same to each of us—a singular mysterious whisper, something like a prolonged mournful gust of wind, that went three times round the house against the sun, and then died away.

“We listened some time after it had ceased, till your father came with the light, and then we all went in. He and William Day then walked into the east room and examined the doors and windows carefully, without finding that anything had been moved however, except that the napkin which covered the face of the corpse had been turned down. William was positive that this was not so before; but your father was not sure that he had not done it himself when he went in alone. The face of the dead was unchanged, and both the men said the sweet look of it was enough to frighten away the worst spirit that ever walked upon the earth.

“You may suppose none of us slept much that night; but though one and another of us would often fancy noises coming from the east room like those we had heard, there was no time when we could all agree that we actually heard any. We sat up and talked of it till day-break; your father said it might after all have been our imagination, or it might have been caused by an earthquake, or something that learned men might know about; for the sake of poor Charity he thought, and so did all, that it had better be kept a secret.

“So they made me, who was the youngest, promise very strictly not to tell of it. We have all kept our words so well that none of us, so far as I know, ever mentioned it again, though William Day (who afterwards married Esther) might have talked of it with his wife; they are both now in their graves. Your father and I are the only ones left; and the very names of the persons concerned are almost forgotten—so I think there’s no harm in telling it.

“Dr. Garfield arrived soon after daybreak in the morning, having ridden all night from Boston. He inquired if any one had passed the night at the house except ourselves, and said that in coming through Dodge’s woods about three miles back, he met an old man in a three-cornered hat and black stockings, with a long staff in his hand; the woods were dark and the morning fog obscured the twilight, so that he could not see distinctly, yet it appeared to him, oddly enough, that the old man looked and walked precisely like ‘daddy Mansell’—meaning Charity’s father, who died about four months after her marriage. He said that the old man, whoever he was, walked fast, in the middle of the road, and must have been almost blind, or in a brown study, for his horse would have gone directly over him had he not suddenly jerked him aside.

“I observed your father’s face change as he said this, but was so young at the time I could not understand it. When I grew up, however, and came to know what fathers—yes, and mothers, are capable of doing to their children, then I saw that he must have connected this account of the doctor’s with what had occurred in the night, and suspected in his mind that the awful groans we had heard were the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child. And for my part, foolish as it may seem, I have never been able to account for the mystery in any other way.”

American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics and Literature, Volume 8: October 1848: pp 411-413

In the original article, another paragraph was added in which a sceptic suggested that the noises were a door creaking and cattle breathing out in the yard. There have been reports of mysterious vocalizations coming from corpses as trapped air works its way out.  In The Victorian Book of the Dead there is an account of watchers startled by a dead boy’s laughter.  The detail of “the prolonged mournful gust of wind” going “three times round the house against the sun,” seems to bear out the evil nature of the manifestation: widdershins is the direction of the Devil. The sinister figure of Deacon Mansell (the Deacon Met on the Road?) adds to the darkness of the story.

The custom of sitting up with the corpse would have been taken for granted by the readers of this story. It was a sign of respect for the dead, who, in common humanity, should not be left alone, just as the sick and dying should never be abandoned. While the vigils, particularly where there were only one or two watchers, could be very frightening, there is no truth to the modern suggestions that wakes were a) to make sure the person was actually dead or b) to prevent the corpse from becoming a vampire. That said, there are certainly stories of persons “waking” at their own wakes, and it was well-known that cats and corpses did not mix: in some cultures, a cat or other animal jumping over a corpse could cause the dead to become un-dead; and, to judge by the stories in the papers, cats found corpses an irresistibly tasty snack.  There is a blood-curdling story in The Victorian Book of the Dead about cats madly trying to get into a room containing a corpse.

As for the “awful groans” being the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child, I have my doubts. They seem more like a banshee after the fact.

Other aural or funereal hauntings? Whisper mysteriously to chriswoodyard8 AT


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The False Funeral: 1860


I never liked my uncle’s business, though he took me when my father died, and brought me up as his own son. The good man had no children. His wife was long dead; and he had an honest old woman for a housekeeper, and a flourishing business in the undertaking line, to leave to some body; but he did not leave it to me, and I’ll tell you the reason.

When I had been about five years with him, and had grown worth my salt, as he used to say, a death occurred in our neighborhood, which caused greater lamentation than any we had heard of since my apprenticeship began. The deceased gentleman was a Mr. Elsworthy. The family had been counted gentry in their day. I should have said my uncle lived in York, and all the world knows what Yorkshire families are. Well, the Elsworthys were of good family, and very proud of it, tho’ they had lost every acre of an old estate which had belonged to them time out of mind. I am not sure whether it was their grandfather’s dice and cock-fighting. or their father’s going surety for a friend, who did something wrong in a government office that brought them to this poor pass; but there was no house in all York where candles went further, and tea leaves were better used up. There was a mother, two sisters, and a cousin who lived with them. The mother was a stately old lady, never seen out of the black brocade. The sisters were not over young or handsome, but they dressed as fine as they could. The cousin was counted one of the prettiest women in Yorkshire, but she walked with a crutch, having met with an accident in her childhood. Master Charles was the only son, and the youngest of the family; he was a tall, handsome, dashing young man, uncommonly polite, and a great favorite with the ladies. It was said there was some red eyes in the town when the story got wind that he was going to be married to the Honorable Miss Westbay. Her father was younger brother to the Earl of Harrowgate, and had seven girls beside her, without a penny for one of them; but Miss Westbay was a beauty, and the wonder was that she had not got married long ago, being nearly seven years out, dancing, singing, and playing tip-top pieces at all the parties. Half-a-dozen matches had been talked of for her, but somehow they broke down one after another. Her father was rather impatient to see her off; so were her sisters, poor things, and no wonder, for grow up as they might, not one of them would the old man suffer to come out till the eldest was disposed of, and at last there seemed something like a certainty of that business. Young Mr. Elsworthy and she struck up a courtship. He was fascinated–isn’t that the word?–at an assize ball, paid marked attentions at the bishop’s party, and was believed to have popped the question at a picnic, after Lord Harrowgate, the largest share holder in the North Eastern Bank, got him promoted from a clerkship to be manager. It’s true he was some years younger than Miss Westbay, and people said there had been some thing between him and his pretty cousin; but a Lord’s niece with beauty, accomplishments, and a serviceable connection does not come in every young man’s way; so the wedding-day was fixed for the first of January; and all the milliners were busy with the bride’s bonnets and dresses.

It was just a month to come, and everybody was talking of the match, when Mr. Elsworthy fell sick. At first they said it was a cold; then it turned to a brain fever; at last the doctor gave no hopes of his recovery, and within the same week Mr. Elsworthy died. The whole neighborhood was cast into mourning. A promising young man, in a manner the only dependence of his family, newly promoted to a station of trust and influence, and on the eve of marriage, everybody lamented his untimely death, and sympathized with his bereaved relations, and his intended bride. I think my uncle lamented most of all. None of his customers, to my knowledge, ever got so much of his sorrow. When he was sent for in the way of business, it struck me that he stayed particularly long. The good man could talk of nothing but the grief of the afflicted family–how the mother went into fits and the sisters tore their hair– how the cousin talked of wearing mourning all her days–and how it was feared that Miss Westbay, who insisted on seeing him, would never recover her senses. The country papers gave expressions to the public grief. There was a great many verses written about it. Nobody passed the house of mourning without a sigh, or a suitable remark. My uncle superintended the making of the coffin, as I had never seen him do to any other; and when the workmen were gone home, he spent hours at night finishing it by himself.

The funeral was to set out for the family vault in the Minster church, at Beverly, about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was made a strictly private affair, though hundreds of the towns men would have testified their respect for the dead by accompanying it all the way. The members of the family, in two mourning coaches, and the undertaker’s men, were alone allowed to follow poor Elsworthy to his last resting place, and the coffin was not to be brought till the latest hour. My uncle had got it finished to his mind, but evidently did not wish me to look at his work. He had a long talk with Steele and Stoneman, two of his most confidential assistants in the workshop, after hours, and they went away looking remarkably close. All was in train, and the funeral to take place the next day, when, coming down his own stairs they were rather steep and narrow, for we lived in one of the old houses of York my uncle slipped, fell, and broke his leg. 1 thought he would have gone mad when the doctor told him he must not attempt to move, or mind any business for weeks to come, and I tried to pacify him by offering to conduct the funeral with the help of Steele and Stoneman. Nothing would please the old man; I never saw him so far out of temper before. He swore at his bad luck, threw the pillows at his housekeeper, ordered me to bring him up the key of the workshop, and kept it fast clutched in his hand. I sat up with him that night. In a couple of hours he grew calm and sensible, but could not sleep, though the house was all quiet, and the housekeeper snoring in the corner. Then he began to groan, as if there was something worse than a broken leg on his mind, and

“Tom,” said he, ” haven’t I always been kind to you?”

“No doubt of it, uncle,” said I.

“Well, Tom, I want you to do me a great service–a particular service, Tom, and I’ll never forget it to you. You know Mr. Elsworthy’s funeral comes off to-morrow at three, and they are very high people.”

“Never fear, uncle; I’ll take care of it as well as if you were there yourself.”

“I knew you would, Tom,–I knew you would. I could trust you with the hearsing of an earl’s coffin ; and for managing mutes, I don’t know your equal. But there’s something more to be done. Come over besides me, Tom; that old woman don’t hear well at the best, and she’s sleeping now and no mistake. Will you promise me”–and his voice sunk to a whisper–“that, whatever you hear or see, you’ll make no remark to any living, and be as cautious as you can about the body? There’s foul play,” said he, for I began to look frightened; “but maybe this leg’s a judgment for taking on such a business. Howsomever, I’m to have three hundreds pounds for it; and you’ll get the half, Tom, the full half, if you’ll conduct it properly, and give me your solemn promise. I know you’ll never break.”

“Uncle,” said I, “I’ll promise, and keep it too; but you must tell me what it is.” “Well, Tom,” and he drew a long breath “its a living man you’re going to put in that coffin in the workshop! I’ve made it high and full of air holes; he’ll lie quite comfortable. Nobody knows about it but Steele and Stoneman and yourself; they’ll go with you. Mind you trust no one else. Don’t look so stupid, man; can’t you understand? Mr. Elsworthy didn’t die at all, and never had brain fever; but he wants to get off with marrying Miss Westbay, or something of that sort. They’re taking a queer way about it, I must say; but these genteel people have ways of their own. It was the cousin that prepared my mind for it in the back parlor; that woman’s up to anything. I stood out against having a hand in it till I heard that the sexton of Beverly Church was a poor relation of theirs. The key of the coffin is to be given to him; it will be locked, and not screwed down, you see; and when all’s over at the vault–it will be dark night by that time, for we don’t move till three, and these December days are short–he’ll come and help Mr. Elsworthy out, and smuggle him off to Hull with his son the carrier. There’s ships enough there to take him anywhere under a feigned name.”

“Could he get off from the marriage no easier?” said I, for the thought of taking a living man in a hearse, and having the service read over him, made my blood run cold. You see I was young then.

“There’s something more than the marriage in it, though they didn’t tell me. Odd things will happen in my business, and this is one of the queerest. But you’ll manage it, Tom, and get my blessing, besides your half of the three hundred pounds; and don’t be afraid of anything coming wrong with him, for I never saw any man look so much like a corpse.”

I promised my uncle to do the business and keep the secret. A hundred and fifty pounds was no joke to a young man beginning the world in an undertaking line; and the old man was so pleased with what be called my senses and understanding, that before falling asleep, close upon daybreak, he talked of taking me into partnership , and the jobs we might expect from the Harrowgate family; for the dowager-countess was near fourscore, and two of the young ladies were threatened with decline. Next day early in the afternoon, Steele, Stoneman, and I were at work, The family seemed duly mournful; I suppose on account of the servants. Mr. Elsworthy looked wonderfully well in his shroud; and if one had not looked closely into the coffin, they never would have seen the air-holes. Well, we set out, mourning-coaches, hearse and all, through a yellow fog of a December day. There was nothing but sad faces to be seen at all the windows as we passed; I heard them admiring Steele and Stoneman for the feeling hearts they showed; but when we got on the Beverly road, the cousin gave us a sigh, and away we went a rattling pace; a funeral never got over the ground at such a rate before. Yet it was getting dark when we reached the old Minister, and the curate grumbled at having to do duty so late. He got through the service nearly as quick as we got over the miles. The coffin was lowered into the family vault; it was more than half filled with Mr. Elsworthy ‘s forefathers, but there was a good wide grate in the wall, and no want of air. It was all right. The clerk and the clergyman started off to their homes; mourning-coaches went to the Crown Inn, the ladies were to wait till the sexton came let them know he was safe out—the cousin would not go home without that news–and I slipped him the key at the church-door, as he discoursed to us all about the mysterious dispensations of Providence.

My heart was light going home, so were Steele and Stoneman’s. None of us liked the job, but we were all to be paid for it; and I must say the old man came down handsomely with the needful, not to speak of Burton ale; and I was to be made his partner without delay. We got the money, and had the jollification; but it wasn’t right over, and I was just getting bed, when there was a ring at our door bell, and the housekeeper came to say that Dr. Parks wanted to see me or my uncle. What could want and how had he come back so soon? Parks was the Elsworthy’s family doctor, and the stranger at the funeral; he went in the second mourning coach, and I left him talking to sexton. My clothes were thrown on, and I down stairs in a minute, looking as sober as could; but the doctor’s look would have sobered any man. “Thomas,” said he, “this has turned out a bad business; and I cannot account it; but Mr. Elsworthy has died in earnest. When the sexton and I opened the coffin, we found him cold and stiff. I think he died from fright for such a face of terror I never saw. It wasn’t your uncle’s fault; there was no doubt he had air enough; but it can’t be helped; the less said about it, the better for all parties. I am going to Dr. Adams to take him down with me to Beverly. The sexton keeps poor Elsworthy, to see if anything can be done; and Adams is the only man we could trust; but I know its of no use.”

The doctor’s apprehensions were well founded–Mr. Elsworthy could not be recovered; and after trying everything to no purpose they laid him down again in the coffin with air holes. The ladies came back, and we kept the secret; but in less than six months after, a rumor went abroad of heavy forgeries on the North Eastern Bank. On investigation they proved to be over fifty thousand, and nobody was implicated but the deceased manager. His family knew nothing about it; being all ladies, they were entirely ignorant about banking affairs; but they left York next season, took a handsome house at Scarborough, and were known to get money regularly from London. They never employed any doctor but Parks; and his medical management did not appear to prosper, for they never were well and always nervous; not one of them would sleep alone or without a light in the room; and an attendant from a private asylum had to be got for the cousin. I don’t think the matter ever left my uncle’s mind; he never would undertake an odd job after it; and all the partnerships in England would not have made me continue the business, and run the risks of another false funeral.

Altoona [PA] Tribune 30 August 1860: p. 1

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 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.