Bangham & Company, Funeral Furnishers, letterhead, c. 1860 https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk
FRAUDS ON UNDERTAKERS.
A man named Henry Russell has lately confessed how he victimised undertakers, an English paper gives the following details About four o’clock one afternoon in May, 1883, Russell, dressed in deep black, walked into the shop of an undertaker in Willesden and asked the assistant if his master were in. The assistant explained that his master would be but a short time, and asked the future customer to be seated. Whilst waiting; for the arrival of the master the assistant engaged the customer in conversation, and, to put it briefly, during the space of about twenty-five minutes Russell simply “pumped” the assistant and made himself master of certain facts and details of the business which proved very useful. The undertaker arrived, and Russell explained in a most becoming manner that his brother-in-law had died that morning, and he had been recommended to place the arrangements for the burial in the hands of Mr __ by Miss J__ who spoke highly of the manner in which he had carried out the funerals of her two sisters whom she had unfortunately recently lost. In this way Russell quite charmed the undertaker, and in the result, having explained the kind of grave, coffin, and funeral he wanted, desired the undertaker to give him a price for the whole thing.
Rapidly the undertaker totalled up the whole cost, which he said would come to £20. “Very well,” said Russell, I will just consult my poor sister, and call upon you later in the evening, when doubtless I shall have a cheque from my brother for you.”
According to his promise Russell called and asked the undertaker to make out the account, and receipt it.
“Ah!” said Russell, “I am very sorry. My brother thought I said £30, and has given me a cheque for that amount, but it matters little; just give me the difference, £10, in gold, will you?
The address of the deceased was in the very best part of Willesden, and the undertaker made not the slightest objection, and promptly handed “Mr James Le Royt” the £10 in sovereigns. Towards nine o’clock Mr Undertaker paid a visit to the address given, and to the servant who answered the door he explained his object in calling. The servant, in turn, called her mistress, to whom the undertaker expressed his regret for the loss of so excellent a husband.
The lady had some doubts about the sanity of her visitor. She told him that he must have mistaken the house, and that her husband was on the premises, alive and well. The undertaker showed her the address given by Russell. and said he felt sure that he had made no mistake. The lady then called her husband, who was having dinner, in order that the undertaker might have ocular proof of the truth of her statement.
Hardly had the first undertaker been gone half-an-hour before another knock was heard, and again the lady of the house was requested to conduct undertaker No. 2 to the death chamber for the purpose of taking the necessary measurements for a coffin. Again the master was shown to be in the flesh— much, we feel bound to say, to the horror of the undertakers, who now realised that they had been the victims of a very clever fraud, both the cheques being worthless.
Whilst talking to the assistant of undertaker No. 1, Russell learned that Mr__ who kept a public-house in the immediate neighbourhood, had often changed his master’s cheques, and before quitting Willesden Russell succeeded in inducing the landlord to cash a cheque of the undertaker’s for £20, which he (Russell) stated had just been paid to him for cloth he had brought down. The signature was, of course, obtained from the receipt for the funeral expenses which Mr__ had given Russell. Russell was very pleased with his visit to Willesden, which, he informed his companion, had resulted in a net gain, after deducting expenses, of £38.
Russell next paid a visit to Bedford; and, just as the assistant of one of the undertakers of the town was closing the shop, Russell, in a very hurried manner, walked up to him and asked him if he could direct him to Messrs B__ and Co., undertakers.
“Yes,” said the assistant, “this is the shop.”
“l am so glad,” said Russell. I have been hurrying all the way from the other end of the town. Is your master in?” The young man replied in the negative, and seeing Russell was overcome, and appeared as if about to faint, he augmented they should adjourn to the hotel bar near, and partake of some brandy. Russell thanked the young fellow and accompanied him to the hotel, where be soon became himself, thanks to the brandy. Russell again thanked the young man, and placed half a-crown in his hand. A conversation ensued, during which Russell learned the name of his master’s bankers and the names of some of his master’s friends in London, and other details, which served him in good stead. Russell then made an appointment for the next day to arrange for the funeral of his sister, who had just died, and who was an old maid, explained Russell, “with a nice long stocking.”
Next day Russell saw the undertaker, and explained that he had been called down from London owing to the death of his maiden sister, which had taken place some two or three days previously.
“When I got to the house,” said Russell, “I found that they had made some arrangements with Mr S__ and that he had actually made a coffin. Well, I find he is a very small man, and I don’t think, considering I am one of my sister’s executors, that I can allow him to carry out the funeral. I come to you because I know a Mr Balman, and having mentioned that my sister at Bedford had died he recommended me to you, as he was a friend of yours, but I don’t see my way clear at all. What am I to do with the other man now he has made the coffin?”
“Oh,” replied the undertaker, “just tell him that you are going to make other arrangements, and then ask him what he wants for the coffin and the trouble he has been put to, and then pay him— that is what I should do.”
“Very well,” replied Russell, “I’ll go down and do so at once, and come back to you.”
A little later Russell appeared, and exhibited to the undertaker his rival’s receipt for £6, the price of the coffin, &c. It may be as well here to tell the story of how he obtained the receipt. Russell went to another undertaker in a small way of business, and explained that his sister had just given birth to a stillborn child, and he would so very glad if he would make a small coffin, see Dr __ and make arrangements for the burial. Russell then asked him whether he had a book showing the different styles of coffins, and whilst the undertaker was hunting for his pattern book Russell managed, to abstract from a case on the counter several printed memoranda forms and envelopes. Then Russell suddenly remembered that he had an appointment to keep in the town, and hurriedly left the shop, promising to come again later in the day. It was on one of the memoranda forms that Russell wrote “Rced. of W. Wesson, Esq., the sum of £6 for coffin for Miss A. Wesson, No. 21, ___, Bedford.”
The production of the receipt, of course, inspired confidence: first it established the fact that a Miss Wesson had died and, secondly, that she was in her coffin. It also showed that Russell was desirous of placing business in the way of Messrs Russell then described the kind of funeral he wanted, with feathers, palls, &c, and asked how much it would come to. “£15,” replied the undertaker. “Very well; make out a bill and I will pay you. I have just got a cheque from my cousin, James Wesson, for £20. The account was duly made out, stamped, and receipted, while Russell said, “I must send £5 back to London to-night, so I think you had better give me your cheque for the balance, and it will save me getting a post office order. Don’t cross the cheque, as it is going to a poor relative to buy black with, and they will want to change it in London.”
The undertaker gave “Mr Wesson” the cheque for £5, and after having fixed the date on which the funeral was to take place and partaken of a glass of wine at the before-mentioned hotel, Mr Wesson bid the undertaker good day. Half an hour later a cheque was presented at the Bedford branch of the Bank for £50, and Mr Wesson requested that the money should be paid in gold. The £5 had been cleverly turned into £50, and a nought placed after the £5. This fraud Russell always pointed to with great pride, and “Undertaker Jimmy,” was never too tired or too busy to tell this story, of course to an admiring circle of selected friends.
Star [Christchurch NZ], 26 November 1891: p. 2
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.