Gravediggers on Strike: 1916


Ever since the author of “Hamlet” put the grave digger into literature there has been an impression in literary circles that there is something more or less humorous, philosophic, or romantic about the grave digger.

Consequently, when the grave diggers in one of the Philadelphia cemeteries recently went on strike, the more or less humorous reporter of the Ledger was sent out to interview, and produced the following philosophy or lamentation of the grave digger:

Grave digging is healthful. It makes fine muscles. But it isn’t very exciting or profitable.

That is why the grave-digging force in a large cemetery has walked out, and another is about to. The grave diggers want it known that they are not striking for the excitement, but for the money.

Those graves are hard to dig,” said one of the men in the Fernwood Cemetery today. The Fernwood force is all ready to strike if the Holy Cross diggers are successful in the strike they have carried on since Monday. It may be said, in passing, that if the Holy Cross diggers do not get their raises, they have at least got the “goat” of every undertaker in the city for the manner in which they are spoiling funerals. Funeral after funeral has driven into Holy Cross Cemetery to be halted by the absence of the grave diggers, who swear they’ll get a raise if they have to strike for a year.

“We have to dig in all kinds of weather,” continued the Fernwood digger, Frank Pumley, who is married and has three children, including a daughter, 19 years old. “We dig in water up to our knees, and under a sun that drives the thermometers to 120. Below zero weather is also frequent.

“A grave digger digs two graves a day. He has a helper, and in the morning after the grave is marked out by the superintendent, he must dig it in four and a half hours. Some graves are harder to dig than others. Some cave in, some are rocky. Then the size of the grave makes a difference.

An ordinary grave is 7 feet deep, 30 inches wide and from 7 to 8 feet long. For two coffins, the grave is 9 feet deep. For three, we dig down 11 feet.

Graves are funny. Sometimes they behave and sometimes they don’t. I’ve known them to be fine until the funeral is driving through the gates. Then they collapse. I have known them to collapse after the coffin is lowered, too. Then we have trouble. The women faint, the men swear and everybody blames the grave digger. But we can’t help it. It’s all according to the nature of the ground.

“I speak from experience,” said Pumley, “because I’ve dug graves here for 23 years. Diggin’ two graves a day, and sometimes three, I calculate I’ve dug over 16,700 graves in my time. I never had a ‘vacation, ’cause grave diggers don’t get any. If they want a vacation, they take it without pay. A grave digger gets $2 a day, so you see I don’t have the money to take vacation,

“That’s why the men are striking. Who can live on $12 a week with a family, when things are so high? Meat’s high and loaves of bread are smaller.

Everything’s up but wages for grave diggers. I hear of the other workmen getting raises, but the grave diggers, no. We get no consideration at all. They must think we’re animals.

“The cemetery business is a good business. It costs a family about $8 for a grave, $13 if it is dug on Sunday. It used to be cheaper, but even graves have gone up. The cemetery has the grave dug in one morning by two men, paid $2 a day apiece. The grave costs the cemetery $2. About $6 profit on weekday graves, and $11 on Sunday work.

“The grave digger is not as mournful as people think. We whistle and sing and chew while digging graves. Why shouldn’t we? It isn’t our graves we are digging. We used also to have our little swig, but the cemetery officials cut that out. One of the diggers got drunk on duty and fell in a grave. So they cut it out. A drunken grave digger is funny all right,” the digger philosophized, leaning on his long-handled spade.

“Grave digging, though, is more nerve racking than you think. Sometimes the carriages drive through the gates and we’re only half finished. Then we must work like blazes. Everybody fusses. After the services, we lower the casket, four of us, into the grave. If it is rainy, the ropes or straps are slippery. The casket might slip or fall to the bottom. Also we might fall into the graves ourselves.

I have seen both happen. Some time ago a strap broke. The casket fell with a thump and all the women fainted. Nothing was hurt. Another time two of the diggers fell over the edge onto the coffin. One of the diggers hit his chin on an iron-bound corner and knocked two teeth out. The woman then fainted, too.

“Once we were lowering a body when the side of the grave collapsed and we all fell in. The mourners were superstitious, and swore the grave was bewitched. But in all my life of grave digging I shall never forget an incident that happened 10 years ago. The hearse and carriages had just arrived. They were up on that hill yonder. The pallbearers prepared to take the coffin from the hearse. As one of the younger men put his hand on the rail of the casket to draw it out he fell dead. We took him away, held the services, and buried the pallbearer the following Sunday.”

Park and Cemetery and Landscape Gardening, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, May 1916 : pp. 78-79

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.

A Touching Tribute to a Wife: 1872

A Touching Obituary

A disconsolate husband [who also happens to be the editor of a local newspaper] thus bewails the loss of his wife, and apostrophizes her memory:

Thus my wife died. No more will those loving hands pull of my boots and part my back hair, as only a true wife can. No more will those willing feet replenish the coal hod and water pail. No more will she arise amidst the tempestuous storms of winter, and gladly hie herself away to build the fire without disturbing the slumbers of the man who doted on her so artlessly. Her memory is embalmed in my heart of hearts. I wanted to embalm her body, but I found I could embalm her memory much cheaper.

I procured of Eli Mudget, a neighbor of mine, a very pretty gravestone. His wife was consumptive, and he had kept it on hand several years, in anticipation of her death. But she rallied that Spring and his hopes were blasted. Never shall I forget the poor man’s grief when I asked him to part with it. “Take it, Skinner,” said he, “and may you never know what it is to have your soul racked with disappointment, as mine has been!” and he burst into a flood of tears. His spirit was indeed utterly broken.

I had the following epistle engraved upon her gravestone: “To the memory of Tabitha, wife of Moses Skinner, Esq. gentlemanly editor of the Trombone. Terms three dollars a year invariably in advance. A kind mother and exemplary wife. Office over Coleman’s grocery, up two flights of stairs. Knock hard. ‘We shall miss thee, mother, we shall miss thee.’ Job printing solicited.”

Thus did my lacerated spirit cry out in agony, even as Rachel weeping for her children. But one ray of light penetrated the despair of my soul. The undertaker took his pay in job printing, and the sexton owed me a little account I should not have gotten any other way. Why should we pine at the mysterious ways of Providence and vicinity? (Not a conundrum.) I here pause to drop a silent tear to the memory of Tabitha Ripley, that was. She was an eminently pious woman, and could fry the best piece of tripe I ever flung under my vest. Her pick-up dinners were a perfect success, and she always doted on foreign missions.

Camden [NJ] Democrat 27 April 1872: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A touching tribute, indeed. It is not just any woman who can fry tripe to perfection, although Mr Skinner is ambiguous about whether the tripe was within his person or tucked under the vest until he could feed it to the dog.

Widowers were a pathetic lot. Sometimes they would go to any length to procure a monument for their lost loved one.

A Sorrowing Widower

A fellow living on the Indiana shore of the Ohio river, near Vevay, Indiana, having recently lost his wife, crossed in a boat to the Kentucky side, visited a grave yard there and stole a tombstone, which he placed over the remains of his lamented better half. Public Ledger [Philadelphia, PA] 19 June 1860: p. 1

This widower was late to the party, but better late than never…


Meant a Good Deal and He Wanted It Right Away.

[New York Journal]

A countryman entered the office of a dealer in monuments.

“I want a stone to put at the grave of my wife,” he said.

“About what size and price?”

“I don’t know. Susan was a good woman. A trifle sharp, mebbe, at times, but she was a good woman and never got tired of working. Just seemed to sort of fade away. She brought me a tidy sum when I married her, and now I want to put up a stone that her children and me kin be proud of.”

“Did she die recently?” asked the dealer, sympathetically.

“Not so very. It will be five years next month. I thought to put up a stone sooner, but I’ve been too busy. Now I’ve got around to it, and want one right away.”

“Well, here’s a book of designs. Select what you think will suit you.”

“I don’t know much about such things, and you are in the business. I’d rather you would take $50 and do the best you can. I want sumthin’ showy. I’ll tell you how it is, and then you’ll know the kind. I want to marry the Widder Scroggs, and I heerd she said that I was too mean to even put a stone at the grave of my first wife, when she brought me all of my property. Put a stone that will catch the eye of a wider and write a nice verse on it. If $50 ain’t enough and you are sure a little more will help me with the wider put it on, and I’ll make it right soon as I marry her. She’s got a heap of property, and while it seems a lot of money to put in a stone, I reckon the chances are with it.” And the sorrow-stricken widower paid $50 and inquired where he could get a present cheap that would suit a widow. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 November, 1896: p. 12

Such little attentions to a late wife’s grave did not go unnoticed:

A Kansas woman fell in love and married a widower for no other reason, so she said, than that he took such excellent care of his first wife’s grave. Kansas City [MO] Star 2 April 1924: p. 26

One might do worse than to use a widower’s care-taking qualities as a benchmark when choosing a mate, although bedding plants and granite or slate slabs require a good less attention than a wife.

You may read more about widowers, tombstones, and mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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

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

Death on the Links: 1861

The  approach to the final hole and clubhouse at the Old Course at St Andrews.  The Swilcan Bridge is in the foreground.

[Originally published in September 2014. Revived for The Open Championship of 2021, at Royal St George’s.]

The Ryder Cup, that international showcase for atrociously designed golf sweaters, is being played this week at Gleneagles, Perthshire. Naturally I had to come up with a golfing ghost story.  Here is one from the hallowed links of St. Andrews.

Of the Bodach-Glas, or “dark grey man,” whose appearance is said to herald the approach of death to certain clans in Scotland, and of which Sir Walter Scott has made such effective use in Waverley when relating the end of his hero, Fergus Mac Ivor, we have the following well-authenticated instance of its having been seen in our own day.  The late excellent and justly popular Earl of Eglinton, whose sudden death was truly felt as a national loss in Scotland, and who is famed for an attempt to revive an ancient custom of mediaeval times by the tournament held at Eglinton Castle in 1839, was engaged on the 4th of October, 1861, in playing, on the links of St. Andrew’s, at the national game of golf. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of a game, exclaiming,” I can play no longer, there is the Bodach-Glas. I have seen it for the third time; something fearful is going to befall me.” Within a few hours, Lord Eglinton was a corpse; he died the same night, and with such suddenness, that he was engaged in handing a candlestick to a lady who was retiring to her room when he expired. Henderson, in Folk Lore, mentions that he received this account of Lord Eglinton’s death from a Scotch clergyman, who endorses every particular as authentic and perfectly true.

Singularly enough this much-lamented nobleman had a warning only a few months previous, concerning his second wife’s sudden death, conveyed, however, on this occasion by a dream. He had married in November, 1858, the Lady Adela Capel, only daughter of the Earl of Essex. Shortly after her confinement in December, I860, he left home to attend a wedding, and during his absence dreamed that he read in the Times newspaper an announcement of Lady Eglinton’s death on a day not far distant. The dream affected him a good deal, and his dejection on the day following was apparent to everyone. He returned home at once, and found his wife progressing favourably, and his alarm subsided. Soon after, the countess caught cold from having removed to another room; illness came on, and her husband was aroused one night with tidings that she was in a dangerous state. It was the last day of the old year, and the very morning indicated in his dream. Lord Eglinton rose up, as he afterwards expressed it, with a yell of agony. Before nightfall his wife expired.

Apparitions: A Narrative of Facts, Bourchier Wrey Savile, 1880, pp. 146-9

Archibald William Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton [1812-1861] has been best remembered for his inspiration to host a re-enactment of a medieval jousting tournament in 1839. It was a sincere attempt—the “knights” actually seriously trained to joust and some wore real medieval armor, but the event has gone down in legend and song for its extravagances and misfortunes: horrifically bad weather, gridlock from the crush of visitors, and leaking/collapsed banqueting tents.

Lady Eglington was Lord Eglinton’s second wife. She died in December 1860, at age 32. He was 49 when he died in October 1861.

The Bodach-Glas  is described as a spirit on horseback by Robert Chambers, commenting on Sir Walter Scott:

The original of the Bodach Glas, whose appearance proved so portentous to the family of the Mac-Ivors, may probably be traced to a legend current in the ancient family of Maclaine of Lochbuy, in the island of Mull, noticed by Sir Walter Scott in a note to his “Lady of the Lake.” * The popular tradition is, that whenever any person descended of that family is near death, the spirit of one of them, who was slain in battle, gives notice of the approaching event. There is this difference between the Bodach Glas and him, that the former appeared on these solemn occasions only to the chief of the house of Mac-Ivor, whereas the latter never misses an individual descended of the family of Lochbuy, however obscure, or in whatever part of the world he may be.

The manner of his showing himself is sometimes different, but he uniformly appears on horseback. Both the horse and himself seem to be of a very diminutive size, particularly the head of the rider, from which circumstance he goes under the appellation of “Eoghan a chinn bhig,” or ” Hugh of the little head.” Sometimes he is heard riding furiously round the house, where the person is about to die, with an extraordinary noise, like the rattling of iron chains. At other times he is discovered with his horse’s head nearly thrust in at a door or window; and, on such occasions, whenever observed, he gallops off in the manner already described, the hoofs of his steed striking fire from the flinty rocks….Like his brother spirits, he seems destined to perform his melancholy rounds amidst nocturnal darkness, the horrors of which have a natural tendency to increase the consternation of a scene in itself sufficiently appalling. Illustrations of the Author of Waverley, Robert Chambers, 1884

You’ll find the original Scott text here. Obviously there was a good deal of variation in the behavior and appearance of the Bodach-glas, not unlike the several varieties of banshee.

One wonders what, if any, statute in the R&A’s Rules of Golf covers a ghost in the fairway. “Outside Agency,” perhaps? Or more to the point:

“The course authorities may, under Rule 33-7, disqualify any player who acts in serious breach of etiquette, thereby violating the ‘spirit of the game’. Such serious breaches include actions made with intent to to injure other players or disturb/distract them while making their play.”

One couldn’t get much more disturbing/distracting than being a harbinger of death. Where was the rules official? The Bodach-Glas should have been ordered off the course immediately.

Other golfing ghost stories?  Lay one dead at my feet: 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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Predicting His Own Death: 1879

A Sharp Game by Creditors.

Among the many manias that have run for the past few years, prominently, stands the one of old men predicting their death. Some time ago, says the Little Rock Gazette, we published an article of an old man that lived out on the Mount Ida road. This man foretold the hour when he would die, and true to the prediction, he died. Men, during the past year, have died in every state in the same manner. This has been carried to such an extent that when a man says, ‘I am going to die at ten minutes past three next Monday,’ his relatives immediately begin to make arrangements for the funeral.

Several days ago an old man named Robertspear, living about ten miles from this city, called his family together and remarked; ‘Wife, children, next Monday at precisely one o’clock I am going to die. I would rather remain, but the summons has arrived,’ The first storms of grief were violent. The wife and children gathered themselves into each others’ arms and wept. The news soon spread around the neighborhood, and people came in to console the family. Bill collectors came in and the old gentleman promised to pay all his debts on the following Saturday at twelve o’clock. He continued to work on the farm, but was much depressed, and at night would pray loud prayers and sing sorrowful hymns. Sunday night the household, supplemented by friends who always take great delight in gloomy occasions, seemed to be a well organized camp-meeting.

The old gentleman for the first time expressed his willingness to go. Yesterday was his appointed time. At nine o’clock the old man dressed himself, took up his Bible and began reading. At ten o’clock he sang a hymn, and at eleven he bestowed blessings on his family. Shortly before twelve six men came in and presented bills, bills that had been ‘stood off’ from time to time. He paid every cent, ate a light dinner, and lay on his bed. The collectors stood around and waited. The hands on the clock indicated 12.50. A minister who had just arrived sang softly and spoke to the old gentleman consolingly. Five minutes to one. An affecting scene between the old man and his wife. The clock struck one.

The old gentleman groaned. One of the bill collectors burst out in a hearty laugh, ‘Here, old man,’ said another, ‘get out of the bed. We saw that you were not going to pay those bills, so we notified you of your death. I hid in the woods at night, and told you as you passed. Come, get out.’ The old man, so mad that he could hardly see, kicked off the sheet and got up. His wife remarked, ‘You fellows think you are mighty smart,’ and straightened the cover. The minister cast a look of reproach at the collectors, and, with a disappointed expression, went away. The old man is well.

The Catoctin Clarion [Mechanicstown MD] 18 September 1879: 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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.