The Angel of Gettysburg: Elizabeth Thorn: 1863

Peter and Elizabeth Thorn

[Originally published in 2013]

In honour of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a story of an ordinary woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances and how she rose to the occasion: Elizabeth Thorn, known today as The Angel of Gettysburg.

 A Woman’s Courage at Gettysburg.

Mrs. Peter Thorn, of Gettysburg, lived in the house at the entrance of the borough cemetery. The house was used as headquarters by General 0. 0. Howard. Mrs. Thorn’s husband was away from home at that time (serving in the 148th regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, and stationed in Virginia), leaving her with two [actually three] quite young children. During the first day of the fight General Howard wanted someone to show him and tell about different roads leading from Gettysburg, and asked a number of men and boys who were in the cellar of the house to go with him and point them out. But these persons were all fearful and refused to go. Then Mrs. Thorn showed her courage and patriotism by voluntarily offering to show the roads. This offer was at first refused by General Howard, who said he did not wish a woman to do what a man had not the courage to do. Mrs. Thorn persisted in her offer, saying: “Somebody must show you, and I can do it; I was born and brought up here [a misunderstanding, perhaps–Elizabeth and her husband were German immigrants.] and know the roads as well as anybody.” Her offer was accepted, and with the general and his horse between her and the fire of the enemy, Mrs. Thorn went from one spot to another pointing out the different roads. When passing along the line of troops the general was greeted with: “Why do you take a woman for a guide? This is no place for her.” “I know it,” said the officer, “but I could not get a man to come; they were all afraid.” This answer to them started cheers for Mrs. Thorn, which lasted several minutes and showed that our soldiers admired the courage shown at such a time. The Popular History of the Civil War in America (1861-1865), George B. Herbert, 1885

General Howard wrote of Mrs Thorn in his autobiography: “After the battle Slocum, Sickles, and I took our headquarters on the ground near the gatekeeper’s cottage. Mrs. Peter Thorn, whose husband was a soldier, with her daughter [this is inaccurate—her daughter was not yet born] was caring for the cottage. I had been all day from breakfast at sunrise without food and was nearly famished. Mrs. Thorn, before we had time to ask, brought us some bread and cups of coffee. Those refreshments have never been forgotten.” Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army, Oliver Otis Howard, 1907, p. 419

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is interesting, yet disheartening to see that these are the anecdotes most often told about Mrs Thorn, 20 years after the close of the American Civil War. The story of her pointing out the local roads appears in multiple publications during the 1880s, yet the General, whom she guided, only mentions her “refreshments.”  Let us look more closely at Mrs Thorn’s extraordinary story.

Elizabeth Thorn and her husband, Peter, as well as her parents, lived in the gatehouse of the Evergreen Cemetery at Gettysburg. Her husband enlisted as a soldier, leaving her with three small children—ages 7, 5, and 2.  She was six months pregnant when she volunteered to show General Howard the Gettysburg roads.

Her obituaries say merely that she witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg. Occasionally they mention that she assisted the General, or that she was Superintendent of the Cemetery in her husband’s absence. The papers are silent on her condition. They did not report how she did her duty in the aftermath of the battle.  Working almost entirely without help, in the heat and storms of that July, among the rotting corpses of men and horses, she dug graves in the rocky soil and buried over one hundred soldiers.

Mrs Thorn herself somewhat understated the trauma as she spoke in her memoir of scrounging supplies, baking bread to distribute to the troops, and returning to find her household and livestock destroyed. Here she recounts her memories of those days, beginning with the first day of the battle, July 1, when the family took refuge in their cellar:

I wanted to go upstairs once more to see if our men gained, but when I came on the stairway a shell had cut in the window frame, then jumped a little, then went through the ceiling, so I would not go up any more… Soon one of General Howard’s men came and ordered me to have supper for Gen. Howard. I complained I had no bread, for I had given it all away in the morning. But I said I could make cakes, and he said they were good enough for war times. They did not come for so long, it was near twelve o’clock. It was Gen. Howard, Gen. Sickles, and Gen. Slocum. The house was so full of soldiers that the boys had to lay on the floor in the kitchen, on feather beds. And as they saw the children lying there, they said it was very sad. After they had had some supper and I found they were going to leave I asked them if they thought I should leave the house in the night. Gen. Howard rubbed his forehead and said: “Leave the house? Leave the house?” Then he looked towards the others and said: “Comrades, I say stay.” Then he said we should take our best things and pack them up and in two hours he would send two men to carry them to the cellar. Then he smiled and said: “I guess you call all best.” But I said: “Some I call better than others.” He said they would begin hard fighting about day-break, near four o’clock, and then we should go to the cellar. About two hours after they left the men came and took the things to the cellar. Gen. Howard said: “When I give you orders to leave the house, don’t study about it, but go right away.” About four o’clock we went to the cellar. There were seventeen of us (other civilians)…We were in the cellar about two or three hours. The noise of the cannonading was terrible. At last the door flew open and someone said: “This family is commanded by Gen. Howard to leave this house and get as far in ten minutes as possible. Take nothing up but the children and go.” They said we should keep (to) the pike, where the soldiers could see us, and that would save us. When we were a little way down the pike a shell bursted back of us, and none of us were killed, but we commenced to walk faster…

Near midnight [this would be on the second day of the battle, July 2], when everything was quiet, my father and I undertook to walk home to the Cemetery house. As we left the [neighbor’s] house we had to pass through a room where the Union soldiers were sleeping, lying in two rows, with only one candle to light the whole room. About the middle of one row a man raised himself on his elbow and motioned me to come to him, my father signaled I should go to him, and he took a picture out of his pocket and on it was three little boys, and he said they were his, and they were just little boys like mine, and would I please let him have my little boys sleep near him, and could he have the little one close to him, and the others near him? And so, he took them and had them lying by him…. 

The next day Mrs Thorn and her family fled to the country, going to a farmhouse where the wounded were being treated. She wrote of seeing the amputated limbs tossed into a corn crib and removed by the wagonload.

 We were down the country four days and the fifth we went home. On the way home we met Mr. McConaughy. He was the president of the Cemetery at that time and he said to me: “Hurry on home, there is more work for you than you are able to do.” So we hurried on home. When we looked at the house I could only say “O my!” There were [sic] no window glass in the whole house. Some of the frames were knocked out and the pump was broken. Fifteen soldiers were buried beside the pump shed. I went to the cellar to look for the good things I had put there on the first night. One chest was packed with good German linen, others packed with other good things. Everything was gone, but three featherbeds and they were full of blood and mud. After I had dragged them out of the cellar I asked an officer who was riding by, if I would ever get any pay for things spoiled like this. He asked me what it was, and I told him bed clothes that were in the cellar, and he said in a very short way: “No!” So as soon as the pump was fixed I sent for three women and we washed for four days before we got them clean.

Then I got a note from the president of the Cemetery, and he said: “Mrs. Thorn, it is made out that we will bury the soldiers in our Cemetery for a while, so you go for that piece of ground and commence sticking off lots and graves as fast as you can make them.” Well, you may know how I felt, my husband in the army, my father an aged man. Yet for all the foul air we two started in. I stuck off the graves and while my father finished one, I had another one started. This lasted for days, until the boys sent word, if I couldn’t get help at all I should telegraph to some of my friends to come and help me. Two came, but one only stayed two days, then got deathly sick and left. The other stayed five days, then he went away very sick, and I had to pay their fare here and very good wages for their work. By that time we had forty graves done. And then my father and I had to dig on harder again. They kept on burying the soldiers until they had the National Cemetery ready, and in that time we buried one hundred five soldiers. In front of this house there were fifteen dead horses and beside the Cemetery there were nineteen in that field. So you may know it was only excitement that helped me to do all the work, with all that stench. And in three months after I had a dear little baby. But it was not very strong, and from that time on my health failed and for years I was a very sickly woman. In my older days my health has been better, but those hard days have always told on my life. Gettysburg [PA] Times 2 July 1938, p. 3

In the battle, nearly everything the family owned had been destroyed or stolen. For her efforts, Elizabeth Thorn received no extra money beyond her husband’s salary of a little over $12.00 per month and she and her father were criticized as unpatriotic for daring to ask for compensation for their substantial losses. President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address from a platform in Evergreen Cemetery on 19 November, 1863.  One wonders if Mrs Thorn, her new daughter in her arms, heard the President speak? Peter Thorn survived the war and returned to the cemetery. He and Elizabeth died within months of each other in 1907 and are buried at Evergreen.

You may see more photographs of the statue of this intrepid woman here. The sculptor hid a Civil War relic—a minie ball—in the base of the image.

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.

Folding Up the Mourning: 1891

1891 mourning fashions
1891 mourning fashions https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-02f0-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

MARY SPOTTSWOOD, OF ELMIRA.

 People are always interested in the breaking of a record, whether it be that of the steamer time across the Atlantic, or the number of days which a superfluous man can go without food and still continue his superfluity. So it is not strange that when it is announced that an Elmira young woman, twenty-four years old, has just been married for the fifth time, a demand for information concerning her should arise so loud that we cannot ignore it.

Before her marriage, two days ago, with the present incumbent, the lady’s name was Mary Mason. Space will not permit as to give her entire list of names, and thus run back to her maiden name–we can only say that her father was named Spottswood, and as Mary Spottswood she was known to her school-girl friends. She was bright and pretty, and later was well known in Elmira society.

Seven years ago, she contracted the marrying habit and has not yet been able to shake it off. A Tioga man named J. M. Coleman met Mary Spottswood and won her young heart So they were married in June, while the forward roses clambered up the veranda and peeped in the open windows at the redder roses of the cheeks of the bride. She was dressed in some sort of clinging white stuff, while the bridegroom wore the conventional black. Six months of wedded happiness rolled by, when the foolish Coleman stopped behind a vicious horse to look at the scenery. The horse knew the danger and switched his tail warningly, but still Coleman tarried and feasted his eye on the hill and dale. Then the horse kicked, and Mary Coleman put on her first mourning. But she did not wear it long, for mourning seems so out of place for a bride, especially when it is for a former husband.

Samuel Rucker, of Binghamton, came in seven months and claimed her for his own, and again the roses on the veranda envied those in her cheeks. Rucker was a butcher, and strong and healthy, and cautious as to horses, but the smallpox came, and he fell sick of it. His young wife nursed him faithfully, but one day she told the hired girl to go up stairs and to bring down the mourning. Mary Rucker was a widow after five short months of married life. But there was one slight consolation–how slight none may know–the mourning had not had time to go out of fashion.

And the same may be said of her wedding dress, for in a few more months Edwin Ailing, of Buffalo, threw himself at her feet, and hand in hand they went to the altar, while the girl packed away the mourning up stairs and the roses nudged one another in the ribs as they peeped in the window. Ailing lived a year, and it occasioned much quiet talk in the neighborhood. But one day he went into the bar to get a lemon, and a beer keg exploded and blew him through the ceiling. The faithful domestic had the mourning out before the Coroner arrived, for Mary Ailing was a widow. The dresses needed a little changing, owing to the lapse of time, but not much. And for that matter, the wedding dress had to be made over, too, because it was almost a year before Mary married again.

This time the bridegroom was named J. S. Mason, and he was from Brocton, and was a contractor. It is said that the roses did not take the trouble to peep this time, as it was becoming an old story to them, and the minister only looked in a moment and said, “Consider yourselves married,” and hurried away. The life insurance companies withdrew their policies on the life of J. S. Mason, and the honeymoon began. Fourteen months later he fell off scaffold. The fall was fatal He was five miles away from home, but in some mysterious way the hired girl felt that something was going to happen, and when the messenger came she was dusting off the mourning with a whisk broom. A dressmaker came that afternoon and fixed it over a little, putting in those high-top Gothic sleeves, and so forth, and again Mary Mason put it on.

She now announced that she should not marry again. She was still young, only twenty-two. She had always regretted leaving school so soon–she had left a year before her class had graduated–and now that she had seen her four poor, dear husbands in the only place where husbands can really be trusted, she determined to go back to school and finish the course. This she did, graduating with high honors. But after this was over the idea of marriage again occurred to her. Her schoolmates were marrying, why should not she do the same?

Joseph Armstrong, of Philadelphia, came and wooed her, and she consented. Two days ago, she became Mary Armstrong. The minister sent word that it was all right, and that he would call the next day with the certificate. The servant-girl folded up the mourning and put in some tar-camphor to keep away the moths for a few months. The bridegroom’s friends shook hands with him and sadly turned away. He is now busy arranging his business affairs. At the request of the bride he has made his will. She told him that this had been customary in the past, and he complied. New York Tribune.

The Kansas Chief [Troy KS] 2 April 1891: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  To paraphrase Mr Oscar Wilde, to lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four husbands looks like carelessness–or worse. Certainly one cannot blame Miss Spottswood. She seems far too young and inexperienced to engineer a skittish horse, smallpox, an exploding beer keg, and a fall from scaffolding. If the four husbands had all succumbed to gastric trouble, one might rightly look askance. One does wonder, however, about the hired girl’s prescient brushing of the mourning clothes and Mrs Armstrong’s request for the “customary” will. Perhaps the best we can say of her is that she is, to use the vernacular, a “hoodoo.”

A feature of interest in this story is the packing away of the lady’s mourning. It is widely believed to-day that Victorians thought that keeping mourning in the house after the expiration of the mourning period was unlucky. The author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, an assiduous researcher into mourning customs, has been looking into the matter and was pleased to find confirmation in this otherwise melancholy story of bereavement that mourning was not always immediately discarded.

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 anecdote

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.

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.

A Father’s Vow: 1882

A FATHER’S VOW

He Declares That His Dead Children Shall Never Leave Him

He Has Their Bodies Embalmed, and the Casket Placed in a Room Where He Keeps Them for Twenty Years.

[Philadelphia Press]

A funeral took place in Palmyra, N.J., on Tuesday last, which furnishes the sequel to one of the most remarkable cases ever known. The bodies of three embalmed children, which had been preserved by an eccentric father for twenty years, were interred in one grave, the father having died three months before, and the remaining members of the family being unwilling to perpetuate his singular ideas, in violation of common custom.

In 1859 Henry Coy lived in a comfortable old-fashioned dwelling, on the northeast corner of Front and Cooper streets, Camden. His family then consisted of himself, a wife and two children—one a girl of five years and the other a curly-haired, handsome boy of two. Mr. Coy was a surgical instrument maker, engaged in business in this city, on Eighth street, near Walnut, and afterward in the neighborhood of Second and Dock streets. He was regarded as a skillful man at his trade, and was said to be worth money, but his reticent disposition and disinclination to mix in society prevented any specific inquiry as to his exact financial standing. People who knew him in a business way, however, were content to spread the rumor that he was a man of no inconsiderable wealth. His entire time out of business hours was spent with his family, to whom he appeared devotedly attached.

THE FATHER’S STRANGE CONDUCT

Soon after the war began, Mrs. Coy died, after giving birth to another child—a girl. She was buried, and after that the father seemed more than ever in love with his children. The little daughter was rather a delicate child, and in 1862 she was taken ill and died after a few weeks’ sickness. Unceasing attendance at the little one’s bedside, and the constant loss of sleep, seems to have strangely affected the fathers mind. He would not permit any of the neighbors to touch or even look at the dead body, and declared that it should never leave his sight while he lived. And the eccentric man then went to work to accomplish that purpose. With the assistance of a mysterious stranger the little corpse was subjected to an embalming process and then incased in an air-tight casket and carefully deposited in one of the upper chambers of the dwelling. Old-time residents of Camden remember well that it was a popular superstition that the spirit of the child used to regularly appear at the windows in a supplicating attitude, and the house was said to be haunted. All attempts to see the mummified corpse or to learn the truth of the queer story were fruitless, and in a few months there were not many persons who gave it credence. Some time between the latter part of 1863 and the summer of 1864 observing people noticed that the baby had disappeared, and the previous appearance of a physician’s chaise at the door a dozen times during the week led to the believe that the infant had died and had been embalmed, as the first one had been. The doctor was a strange one, and nothing could be gleaned from him. Just when the boy died is not known, but it is supposed that he followed not long after the second death, and was also put in a casket and laid alongside his brother and sister.

MOVING THE BODIES

In 1866 the story of the mysterious embalming was renewed, and for some unexplained reason it was whispered about the upper part of Camden that Mr. Coy was a Mormon; that he had a dozen or more wives concealed in the house, and that every night prayers were said over the bodies of the dead children. There appeared no just foundation for these stories, for the father was rarely seen on the street, and during his brief absence from home the dreary-looking old house seemed entirely deserted. The upper stories were never opened, and cobwebs collected over the windows and under the eaves. The man became such a thorough mystery that all efforts to ferret out his secret were abandoned, and the gossips were obliged to build their startling stories of ghosts and uncanny noises by night purely from imagination. Mr. Coy left Camden for a time, and, it was popularly supposed, took the bodies of his children along with him; but nothing definite was known of his movements nor of the truth of the rumor, until five or six years later, when he moved. It was then noticed that three oblong boxes were carefully packed in a wagon, and the father drove away with them.

Nothing more was heard of Coy until his recent death was announced, and then the story of twenty years ago was either forgotten or deemed too incredible for revival. The triple burial at Palmyra on Tuesday, refreshed the strange tale in the minds of a few, and it was shown that the rumor had been correct.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 6 May 1882: p. 10

Henry is buried at the Epworth Methodist Church Cemetery under a stone which reads “Henry – Sarah Coy and Family.”

A chapter titled “Bone of My Bone: Collecting Corpses, Relics, and Remains” in The Victorian Book of the Dead tells of other mourners who just could not let go of their loved ones. 

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

She Wanted to Be a Widow: 1889

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

Perhaps the queerest of tales is that of a young lady who had just attained her majority, and with it the unrestricted control of 100,000 dollars. This young lady’s sole desire was to become a widow. Weeds are so becoming. What is so interesting as a young bewitching widow, with a handsome fortune? Accordingly, to obtain the desirable result, she engaged the services of the real estate agent who managed her property to procure an accommodating moribund husband. The agent set to work, and, with the aid of a friendly physician (every apothecary and sawbones is a physician here), a suitable subject was found in the person of a destitute printer, who was supposed to be dying of whisky and consumption.

After a little inducement the dying man consented, knowing that he was on the verge of the grave, the prospect of being decently buried overcoming any repugnance he might have felt at such an unnatural wooing, and by his orders the fair would-be widow was asked to name the day. Thereupon the next day there was presented at the bed of the bridegroom the bride and a widowed friend, the dying man’s mother, the real estate agent, the doctor, and a Justice of the Peace. The blushing bride having satisfied herself that the man she was about to take for better or worse “would soon be where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest,” shyly consented to be united according to the Statute in such cases made and provided by the accommodating Justice, and without bestowing another look on her newly-acquired husband, the fair bride left the room, having left sufficient coin of the Republic to pay the present living expenses and the future funeral charges, which she fondly hoped would be at early date.

Time passed, however, and still the bride remained a wife, and not a widow, and days merged into weeks and weeks into months, and the lady was reminded of the existence of a husband by the frequent demands on her purse. At last, her patience being exhausted, she determined to visit her husband to ask him why he persisted in living, and when he intended to be ready to be measured for his coffin. With that intent she proceeded to take the train for ‘Frisco, her residence being Oakland, and just as she was stepping into the carriage, someone stepped in front of her with outstretched arms, and said, “Frankie, my darling, I have found you at last.” Frankie (the lady) took a good look at the speaker; it was her husband. She was too cool to faint that, of course, goes without saving, but her voice, husky with emotion, trembled as she said, “What, not dead yet”

“No,” replied her husband, “I have quite recovered. They told me they did not know your address.”

You can imagine the fair one’s feelings. After a stormy interview and a refusal by the husband of a substantial sum to permit a divorce, a compromise was affected, whereby the lady was to furnish so much a month to the husband for his needs, —meaning whisky, of course—and after two or three months of unlimited quantities of the aforesaid needs, death claimed the victim who had so nearly escaped him. And the fair widow furnished with unbecoming cheerfulness the necessary funds to inter her dear departed and now, the object of her life being attained, she is turning the heads of all young eligible men with her ravishing widow’s weeds. But enough of this. I know your readers will say I have been romancing, but I can assure them that the lady is now residing in Oakland, and has taken no steps whatever to contradict the story on the contrary, she is quite proud of her exploit. Funny taste, is it not?

Waikato Times, 14 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is rare to find a young woman (particularly one in possession of such a large fortune) who knows her own mind so well. Not for her the siren-song of young and handsome. It is not entirely dissimilar to those young persons, poor in worldly goods, but bountifully equipped with feminine charms, who calculatingly marry elderly millionaires, although in those cases, the young persons crave the money rather than the weeds.  One must admire the young lady’s coolness, if not her kindly heart.

The bewitching widow was something of a cliché in popular mortuary literature:

We could hardly conceive how it was possible the head could think of the fashion of a bonnet if the heart were breaking, We for a long time supposed that the matter lay entirely with the milliner, but we were undeceived once by having to carry a mourning bonnet back, intended for a young and pretty widow, because it was not becoming, and another, as the funeral did not occur for two days thereafter, was forthwith made that suited to a charm. The Spirit Messenger, R.P. Ambler, Editor, 14 June 1851: p 361

and

It is in questionable taste for a young and pretty widow to wear her mourning after she has become reconciled to the death of her first husband and is quite willing to marry a second. A widow still wearing her weeds, and at the same time carrying on an animated flirtation with some new admirer, is a sight to make the gods weep…To angle for a second husband with the weeds worn for the first, because they are becoming, is a thing that should be forbidden by law. Social Customs, Florence Howe Hall, (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1911)

For more on mourning customs and bewitching widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, as well as this story, “The Widow’s Baby,” and “The Mourner a la mode,” a satirical poem about a fashionable widow.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The French Doctor’s Bride: 1830s

lighter shrouded corpse Rowlandson 1775
Grave-robbers interrupted by Death, Thomas Rowlandson, 1775 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j7twdvrd

THE FRENCH DOCTOR’S BRIDE.

BY VICTOR LECOMTE.

Twenty-five years ago I entered the medical college at F__ as a student. I was then quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and sentimental; and well do I remember the horror I experienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly thrust me into the dissecting room, among several dead bodies, and closed the door upon me; nor do I forget how my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older companions.

Ridicule is a hard thing to bear: the coward becomes brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could stand no more; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation, I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my character, and gain an honourable footing among my fellow students.

“I will tell you,” said one, his eyes sparkling with mischief; “if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another word about your womanly fright.”

I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative; but it seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after day, the jeers of my companions.

“Where shall I go and when?” was my timid inquiry; and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood run cold.

“To the Eastern Cemetery, to night, at twelve o’clock,” replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me, and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt. “But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to perform such a manly feat?” he added, deridingly

His words stung me to the quick; and without further reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I rejoined, boldly, “I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by performing what you call a manly feat.”

“You will go?'” he asked quickly.

“I will,” was my response.

“Bravely said, my lad!” he rejoined, in a tone of approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for one of surprise and admiration. “Do this, Morel, and the first man that insults you afterwards makes an enemy of me.”

Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at the thought of what was before me; but I had accepted his challenge in the presence of many witnesses—for this conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after listening to an evening lecture—and I was resolved to make my word good, should it even cost me my life: in fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

I should here observe, that in those days there were few professional resurrectionists; and as it was absolutely necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant business of procuring them devolved upon the students, who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge, and the grave of its victim.

There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few friends; and this was considered a favorable chance for the party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest—for not unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over these; and only the year before, one student, while at his midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle-ball; and another, a month or two subsequently, had been rendered a cripple for life by the same means.

All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight, who accompanied me to my room—which was in a building belonging to the college, and let out in apartments to some of the students; and they took care to add several terrifying stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal terminations of just such maladies as the one with which their helpless victim was then afflicted.

“Is it expected that I shall go alone?” I inquired, in a tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were white.

“Well, no,” replied Belmont, my most dreaded tormentor; “it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for one individual could not succeed in getting the body from the grave quick enough; and you, a mere youth, without experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will go with you, some three or four of us, and help to dig up the corpse; but then you must take it on your back, bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone with it!”

It was some relief to me to find I was to have company during the first part of my awful undertaking; but still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you; and chancing to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw reflected therein.

“Come, boys,” said Belmont, who was always, by general consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or undertaking, he was to have a hand in; “Come, boys! it is time to be on the move. A glorious night for us!” he added, throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of wind and rain: “the very d__l himself would hardly venture out in such a storm!’” He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak, took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks also, took each a spade, and followed him.

We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen by any citizen that might by chance to be stirring; and in something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery, scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness—the wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

“Here we are,” whispered Belmont to me, as we at length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one of our party had stumbled. “Come, feel round, Morel, and strike in your spade; and let us see if you will make as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some day at killing a living one with physic.”

I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire—for the soft dirt was all aglow like living coals; and as I had fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tormented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

“Fool!” hissed Belmont, grasping my arm with the gripe of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my very teeth chattering with terror; “another yell like that, and I’ll make a subject of you! Are you not ashamed of yourself to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any, by a little phosphorescent earth? Don’t you know it is often found in graveyards?”

His explanation re-assured me; though I was now too weak, from my late fright, to be of any assistance to the party; who all fell too with a will, secretly laughing at me, and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they quickly lifted out the corpse; and then Belmont and another of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow, and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the cemetery, Belmont now called upon me to perform my part of the horrible business. “Here, you quaking simpleton,” he said, “I want you to take this on your back, and make the best of your way to your room, and remain alone with it all night. If you do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow, and the first man that dares to say a word against your courage after that, shall.find a foe in me. But hark you! if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes on you again! Do you understand me?”

“Y—ye-ye—yes!” I stammered, with chattering teeth.

“Are you ready?” Y-ye-ye—yes,” I gasped.

“Well, come here! where are you?” All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud of the corpse; but I felt carefully round till I got hold of Belmont, who told me to take off my cloak; and then rearing the cold dead body up against my back, he began fixing its cold arms about my neck-bidding me take hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any consideration whatsoever, as I valued my life. Oh! the torturing horror I experienced, as I mechanically followed his directions! Tongue could not describe it!

At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long black cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a cord about my neck, and then inquired, “Now, Morel, do you think you can find the way to your room?”

“I—I—do-do—don’t know,” I gasped, feeling as if I should sink to the earth at the first step.

“Well, you cannot lose your way if you go straight ahead,” he replied. “Keep in the middle of this street or road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows too heavy; the distance is only a good half-mile!”

I set forward with trembling nerves, expecting to sink to the ground at every step; but gradually my terror, instead of weakening, gave me strength; and I was soon on the run—splashing through mud and water—with the storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

How I reached my room, I do not know—but probably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phantoms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dyspeptic dream. But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my back; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful time; for Belmont and his fellow student, fearing the loss of their subject—which, on account of the difficulty of getting bodies, was very valuable— followed close behind me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to keep me within hailing distance.

The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim consciousness of something horrible having happened—although what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon me; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room alone with a corpse. The room was not dark; there were a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light; and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and timidly around.

And there—there, on the floor, against the right hand wall, but a few feet from me—there, sure enough, lay the cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move? I was gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indescribable terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a low, stifled moan.

“Great God!” I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

How long I lay unconscious I do not know; but when I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and become the tenant of a madhouse ; for there—right before me-standing up in its white shroud—with its eyes wide open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow and death-hued—was the corpse I had brought from the cemetery.

“In God’s name, avaunt! ” I gasped. “Go back to your grave, and rest in peace! I will never disturb you again!”

The large hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me—the head moved, the lips parted, and a voice, in a somewhat sepulchral tone, said, “Where am I? where am I? Who are you? Which world am I in? Am I living or dead?”

“You are dead,” I gasped, sitting up in bed, and feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of unspeakable horror; “you were dead and buried, and I was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in heaven’s name! and no mortal power shall ever induce me to come nigh you again!”

“Oh! I feel faint!” said the corpse, gradually sinking down upon the floor, with a groan. “Where am I? Oh! where am I?”

“Great God!” I shouted, as the startling truth suddenly flashed upon me; “perhaps this poor girl was buried alive, and is now living!”

I bounded from the bed, and grasped a hand of the prostrate body. It was not warm—but it was not cold. I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat? or, was it the pulse in my fingers? I thrust my hand upon the heart. It was warm—there was life there. The breast heaved—she breathed—but the eyes were now closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it was a living body—or else I myself was insane. I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for help. “Quick! quick!” cried I. “the dead is alive! The dead is alive!

Several of the students sleeping in adjoining rooms came hurrying to mine, thinking I had gone mad with terror, as some of them had heard my voice before, and all knew to what a fearful ordeal I had been subjected.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed one, in a tone of sympathy; “I predicted this!”

“It is too bad,” said another; “it was too much for his nervous system!”

“I am not mad,” returned I—comprehending their suspicions; “but the corpse is alive!—hasten and see!”

Hey hurried into the room, one after another; and the foremost, stopping down to what he suppposed was a corpse, put his hand upon it, and instantly exclaimed, “Quick a light and some brandy! She lives! she lives!”
All now was bustle, confusion, and excitement, one proposing one thing, and another something else, and all speaking together. They placed her on the bed, and gave her some brandy, when she again revived. I ran for a physician (one of the faculty), who came and tended upon her through the night; and by sunrise the next morning she was reported to be in a fair way of recovery.

And recover she did; and turned out to be a most beautiful creature, and only sweet seventeen. But that is not all: for she turned out an heiress, and married me!

Yes: that night of horror only preceded the dawn of my happiness; for that girl—sweet,
lovely Helene Leroy—in time became my wife, and the mother of my two boys.
She sleeps now in death, beneath the cold, cold sod, and no human resurrectionist shall ever raise her to life again!
 Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, 1857: p. 85-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most grim, gothic, and grewsome tale, in the florid French vein of the Gallic tabloids, but Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending, even one that sums up an entire lifetime of important events in a paragraph or two.

Mrs Daffodil will not quibble over how a friendless orphan girl was transmuted into a beautiful heiress, but perhaps on the dark and stormy night, the medical students mistook the grave.

 

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.

 

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.