The Undertaker’s Revenge

The Lowry Mausoleum, Ironton, Ohio

Today’s guest-narrator tells the bizarre and gruesome story of an undertaker’s revenge.

The story began innocently enough in Ironton, Ohio in 1933, when Dr. Joseph Lowry was found dead in his bed. He was thought to have had a stroke and was laid to rest next to his late wife in his $40,000 mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery. His estate amounted to around $300,000.

Official suspicions were first aroused when a key to a safe deposit box was found in the Lowry house, but the box could not be located. It was whispered that several of Lowry’s strong boxes had been emptied by his sister Alice Barger and nephew Clark, who were said to have borrowed money from Lowry in the past. An autopsy was ordered, but on the exhumation morning when the authorities needed a key to the mausoleum, the Bargers were nowhere to be found. Eventually the authorities burned a hole through the heavy metal doors with a welding torch.

Dr. Lowry’s body was autopsied at a local funeral home. There was no sign of a stroke. In addition to previously unnoticed marks of asphyxiation, a surprise awaited. …

But Mrs Daffodil will let the author tell the story in her own discursive way:

Many years ago I ran across a story called “The Coffin with the Plate Glass Front or The Undertaker’s Revenge” by Jean Dolan, which was part of the Ohio Valley Folk Research Project, a collection of locally-collected folk-tales. Part of the story concerned a doctor disemboweled by an undertaker, which, as I am a lover of the grim and gruesome, I filed away for future reference, assuming it was just a folktale.

Then, as I was writing Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, I spoke with a genealogy librarian from Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton, Ohio. She told me about some of the hauntings at the library and mentioned something about a disemboweled doctor who had formerly lived on the site.

Alarm bells went off. I had assumed the story was just a story, but the librarian graciously sent me newspaper clippings about the sensational story to prove that it wasn’t a fake.

Was he murdered? Why were his insides removed? Here we enter into the realm of conjecture. What follows is entirely speculative, based on local hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, sometimes a more reliable source of truth than the most carefully sworn testimony:

The story goes that when Dr. Lowry’s wife Sarah died in 1931, he ordered a very expensive, custom-made polished wood coffin. When it arrived, it had a slight scratch. Dr. Lowry noticed it at once. The undertaker murmured that it could easily be repaired. The French polisher could be on the job within the hour….

Dr. Lowry cut him short. It wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be imposed upon with shoddy, second-rate goods. He insisted on being shown the coffins in stock and selected one, a top-of-the-line model, to be sure, with the genuine imitation mahogany veneer but a good deal less costly than the custom-made coffin. Dr. Lowry knew perfectly well that the custom coffin could be fixed but perhaps he was having second thoughts about the Dear Departed, or it may have been one of those minor economies that keep the rich richer than you and me.

The undertaker had not insisted on payment when the order was placed. He went home with a splitting headache and his wife put cool cloths on his forehead while he railed against the miserly doctor. He was his usual unctuous professional self by the time he next saw the doctor at the funeral. But he had the coffin taken up into the loft of the carriage house and covered with a horse blanket. On sleepless nights he brooded over the unpaid coffin invoice.

So when the news came that Dr. Lowry was dead, the undertaker danced a little jig of delight. He had sworn that Lowry would go to go his eternal rest in that expensive casket but it had been made for the Doctor’s wispy little wife and the dead man’s bulging midsection made it impossible to close the lid. Piece of cake, said the undertaker, preening himself on his ingenuity.  He simply scooped out the internal organs, shoveled in a few handfuls of excelsior, stitched up the now much‑diminished belly, and voila! Not only was the coffin a perfect fit but the old man looked trimmer than he had ever looked in life. The heirs congratulated him on how well the old man looked. Only a few people seemed puzzled by the corpse’s diminished height. Oh well, they went away thinking, the dead always look smaller… It had been a simple matter to take up the old man’s legs a bit so the undertaker could cram him into the coffin crafted for the five-foot Sarah.

Soon, however, rumors began to fly around the town that the old man’s death wasn’t altogether a natural one. There was some suspicion that someone had helped the old boy along—either by poison or a pillow over the face.

Dr. Lowry was removed from his $40,000 mausoleum in his plate-glass-fronted coffin. The autopsy revealed a startling secret, but not the one expected. When questioned, the undertaker admitted that he’d taken a few liberties with the old man’s innards. Motivated entirely by spite, he said cheerfully. The undertaker led the authorities to the place he’d buried the remains of the Doc, but the parts in question were too far gone to be analyzed for poison.  Any possible case against the heirs was dismissed for lack of evidence.

It is said that Dr Lowry haunts the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton—the site of Dr Lowry’s former home where he was found dead….He has also been seen roaming the cemetery in search of his missing insides.

Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is grateful for her guest’s ghost story contribution. Another story involving a doctor, poison, a ghost, and entrails, may be found at the Haunted Ohio blog. One wonders if the disemboweled Dr Lowry’s ghost could have been placated by the substitution of ersatz entrails: trimmings from a local slaughterhouse perhaps or bits of an opossum run over by a motor-car?

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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. 

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.

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

A short time ago, I promised my readers an occasional series of “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” which started with the morgue at the Monastery of the Mount St. Bernard in the Alps. Further morgues will be profiled, but in scouring the journals of the past for crowd-pleasing details of maggots and decomposition discerning readers demand, I got distracted by this account from a hospital morgue in Dublin, Ireland. I pride myself on not being rattled by the average ghost story, but this one actually brought me up rather short.

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

[The subjoined is a narrative of the experience of Dr. B__. It has been transcribed for the benefit of readers of the Occult Review by Dr. J.H. Power, the record having been previously checked and its accuracy confirmed by Dr. B__.] 

See me, at the time the following episode happened, a medical student at a hospital in Dublin. I was not quite a novice, being in the third year of my course. I was in the pink of health, and with the happy irresponsibility of the golden age of twenty-one years. In truth I was a bit of a lad, never happier than when I was playing pranks on citizens both offensive and inoffensive. All the same I was never in serious trouble, for up till then a bottle had never touched my lips, and my little differences with the police were the outcome of friendly religious and political fights.

I mention these few facts about myself as a proof that I was, for my age, a normal Irishman, with vague ideals, content to take life as it came, never troubling about anything practical save what the moment gave, and loyally hating the Government.

While I was taking my turn as resident clinical clerk at the hospital, a young man was brought in one morning with a temperature of 106°, a condition known as hyperpyrexia. No cause was found for his high fever at the time, though later it was discovered that he had been suffering from peritonitis, and, for some reason that I have forgotten, he was sent to the wing of the hospital that was reserved for infectious cases. I saw this patient that morning in company with the physician under whose care he was placed, but not again during the day.

As clinical clerk it was my duty to go round the wards during the night and inspect the patients, reporting to the house surgeon or the house physician if I found anything that I thought needed his attention.

About midnight came my visit to the fever wing. This was built separate from the rest of the building, and I had to go some twenty yards in the open air to get to it. The side door of the hospital, through which I left, was kept locked, and on opening it, I found that snow was falling. Turning up the collar of my jacket, I started to make a dash for my destination, when I saw coming towards me through the snow the hyperpyrexia patient who had been brought in the previous morning. He was clad—so far as my impression went, and I confess that I did not think much of how he was clad, and, of course, the light did not favour a casual glance—in the night-shirt and red flannel jacket that were used in the wards.

Stopping short, I waited for him to come up, thinking that he was walking in his sleep; and having some notion that a somnambulist should not be awakened suddenly, I stood back by one of the buttresses that supported the wall of the hospital. As I glanced round, fully expecting to see a nurse running from the fever wing in pursuit, he passed me in the direction of the side door of the hospital. No nurse was in sight, and on looking again for the patient, nobody was to be seen. The man had gone—nowhere, for I had locked the side door on leaving the hospital, on the right of the side door was an unscalable wall, and immediately opposite this side door was the morgue, the door of which was fastened with a Yale lock of which I had the key. He could not have passed back the way he had come, or I should have seen him.

Then I felt that kind of chilliness down the back which is not caused by cold, for I realized that I had come across something a trifle out of the ordinary.

“There’s no fun in snow,” said I to myself, and made a bolt for the fever wing.

On entering the ward, I saw the night-nurse sitting in a chair asleep, with a book in her lap. I went to the bed of the hyperpyrexia man, and, as I expected, found him dead, the condition of the body showing that he had died but a few minutes before. I next went to the slate on which the night nurse wrote reports of patients, and found that opposite the number of the hyperpyrexia patient’s bed, she had noted that his temperature had fallen and he was better, not more than a quarter of an hour previously.

I then went to the nurse. She woke with a start, and exclaimed, “My God, you did give me a fright. I thought Sister had come in and struck me on the mouth with a clothes-brush.”

“How is No. 19?” I asked.

“Oh, much better,” she replied, “his temperature has dropped.”

“Should you be surprised to hear that he was dead?” I answered.

She was much upset, but still she was not to blame, and as there was no more to be done, the night-porters were sent for, and the body taken to the morgue.

At 9.30 a.m. the pathologist gave demonstrations in the morgue, and by that hour bodies had to be prepared for him by the clinical clerks. This rather nauseous task fell to my share during the week, and about 2 a.m. I decided that I would get on with the preparation of the body of the hyperpyrexia man.

I own that the job had no attractions for me. I was feeling more upset by what I had seen in the snow than I would have believed possible. Up to that time I had laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything uncanny, and would have gone out of my way to meet a ghost. Besides, our morgue was not a very cheerful place. No post-mortem room that ever I came across has many pretensions to liveliness, but in addition the gas burner in our morgue was faulty, and had a way of slowly and silently allowing a jet of gas to grow up to a flare, and then cutting it off till the flame faded to a minute spark. However I would not allow to myself that I was so badly scared as not to be able to do what there was to be done, so I went down to the morgue.

I had to hold myself well together as I put the key in the lock. . . . Then with another effort I pushed the door open.

The gas had not been turned out by the porter, and by its uncertain light I saw the corpse lying on the table, covered with a sheet, with the feet towards me, and facing me, standing at the head, close against the table was the Figure of the man himself, watching.

I must have been a plucky youngster in those days, for even then, frightened as I was, I did not give in. I remember that I did not look straight at the Watcher, but kept my eyes slightly averted. I had in my mind the notion that he could not, or would, not blame me for what I was about to do to his body, if I did not know he was there, and so I pretended that I did not see him. Why I should have thought that he would be so easily deceived I cannot tell, but one has strange notions at trying times.

Strive as I would, however, I could not bring myself to go through the process of prosection in the usual way. I cannot be certain now, but I fancy I had some idea of finding if the man was really dead, and making a wound to test the matter. Still taking no notice of the Figure, I gave the table a pull, and ran it on its castors till it was quite near the gas. The Watcher at the head moved with it. Then, instead of uncovering the body from the head downwards, as I should ordinarily have done, I took hold of the sheet and threw it upwards from the feet. The Watcher at the head did not move. Then, greatly daring, I took the knife in my hand, and made as if to pierce the leg of the corpse. Instantly the Watcher made a motion with his hand, and…

I remember no more till about 9 a.m. the next morning, when the other clinical clerk came to the room and found me asleep on the floor. I think it likely that the mental strain had made me lose consciousness, but I did not feel like telling anybody about it all, and said that I had been tired and had lain down there and fallen asleep. We must have been a happy-go-lucky lot, for the fact of my having chosen the cold stone floor of the morgue as a resting place excited no particular remark from him. I caught a bad cold, and another man did the prosection, but I told nobody what had happened on that dreadful night till many a day later. 

The Occult Magazine July 1918: p. 32-35

Taking up my Relentlessly Informative syringe, the fever ward patients were dressed in red flannel jackets because red flannel was not only warm, but was believed to protect the chest and throat—it was often called “medicated flannel.” An 1861 medical journal suggests also that the toxic poison-sumac dyes in some red flannel served as “a very excellent, gentle counter-irritant,” counter-irritants being thought useful in “drawing out” disease. It obviously had no salutary effect on the patient with peritonitis.

This story will be found in my upcoming book When the Banshee Howls.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

The Funeral Coach: 1855

Funeral Carriage First Class, Eugene Atget, 1910

THE FUNERAL COACH.

“1855, March 28.—The following story was told me by Lady S., who heard it from Mr. M., a gentleman of considerable note, and one not at all given to romancing:—

“Mr. M., a well-known lawyer, went to stay with Mr.T., in the county of ___. In the course of their first evening together, Mr. M. learned that, among his host’s neighbours, was an old friend of his own, for whom he had great regard; but of whom he had lost sight since college days. The next morning Mr. M asked the gentleman of the house if he would forgive him if he walked over to see his old friend; adding a request that if he were asked to dinner, he might be allowed to accept the invitation.

“On being assured that he might do whatever was most agreeable to himself, he went to make his call—not on foot, as he had proposed, but in his friend’s dog-cart. As he anticipated, the gentleman he went to see insisted on his staying to dinner. He consented, and sent the groom back with the dog-cart, with a message to his master to say that, as it would be a fine moonlight night, he should prefer walking home. After having passed a very agreeable day with the old fellow-collegian, he bade him good-bye; and, fortified with a couple of cigars, sallied forth on his return. On his way he had to pass through the pleasant town of ___, and on coming to the church in the main street, he leaned against the iron railings of the churchyard while he struck a match and lighted his second cigar. At that moment the church clock began to strike. As he had left his watch behind him, and did not feel certain whether it were ten o’clock or eleven, he stayed to count, and to his amazement found it twelve. He was about to hurry on, and make up for lost time, when his curiosity was pricked, and the stillness of the night broken, by the sound of carriage wheels on the road, moving at a snail’s pace, and coming up the side street directly facing the spot where he was standing. The carriage proved to be a mourning-coach, which, on turning at right angles out of the street in which Mr. M. first saw it, pulled up at the door of a large red brick house. Not being used to see mourning-coaches out at such an unusual hour, and wondering to see this one returning at such a funereal pace, he thought he would stay and observe what happened. The instant the coach drew up at the house, the carriage door opened, then the street door, and then a tall man, deadly pale, in a suit of sables, descended the carriage steps, and walked into the house. The coach drove on, and Mr. M. resumed his walk. On reaching his quarters, he found the whole household in bed, with the exception of the servant, who had received orders to stay up for him.

“The next morning, at breakfast, after he had given the host and hostess an account of his doings on the previous day, he turned to the husband and asked him the name of the person who lived in the large red brick house directly opposite the churchyard. ‘Who lives in it?’ ‘Mr. P., the lawyer!’ ‘Do you know him?’ ‘Yes; but not at all intimately. We usually exchange visits of ceremony about once a year, I think.’

“Mr. M.: ‘Does any one live with him? Is he married?’ “Answer: ‘No. Two maiden sisters live with him. He is a bachelor, and likely to remain one; for, poor fellow, he is a sad invalid. If I am not mistaken, he is abroad at this moment, on account of his health.’

“Mr. M. then mentioned his motive for asking these questions. When he had told of his adventure, he proposed that, after lunch, they should drive to and call on the ladies, and see if, by their help, they could not unravel the mystery. Full of their object, they paid their visit, and after the usual interchange of commonplace platitudes, the sisters were asked if they had heard lately of their brother. They said, ‘No; not for weeks: and felt rather uneasy in consequence.’

Mr. M. surprised at not seeing them in mourning, asked them if they had not lately sustained a great loss. ‘No,’ they replied: ‘why do you ask such a question?’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr. M. ‘because of the mourning-coach I saw, with some gentleman of this family in it, returning from a funeral so late last night.’ ‘I think, Sir,’ said one of the ladies, ‘ you must have mistaken this house for some other.’ He shook his head confidently. At their request, he then told them what had happened. They said it was impossible that their street door could have been opened at that hour, for that every servant, as well as themselves, were in bed. The more the subject was canvassed, the farther they seemed from arriving at any satisfactory conclusion. The ladies, rather nettled at the obstinacy of his assertions, examined the servants, individually and collectively, but with no better result. Mr. M. and his host eventually withdrew. On their drive home, Mr. M.’s friend quizzed him, and reminded him that when he saw the apparition he had dined, and dined late, and had sat long over his friend’s old port. But Mr. M., though he submitted to the badinage good-humouredly, remained ‘of the same opinion still.’

“A week after, when Mr. M. was in his chambers in London, his friend from the country burst in upon him, and said, ‘I know you are much engaged, but I could not resist running in to tell you that the two ladies we called on last week, three or four days after our visit received a letter, telling them that their brother, “a tall, pale man,” had died at Malta, at twelve o’clock on the very night you saw the mourning-coach and the person in it at their door.’”

The Spiritual Magazine 1 October 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While Mrs Daffodil finds that the ghostly tale delivers a delightful frisson (and plans to tell it at the next All Hallow’s festivities, where it will frighten the Tweeny out of her wits…) , she is pursing her lips dubiously over the many breaches of etiquette found in this narrative. Mr. M. deserves reproach for entering a stranger’s house and posing such a delicate question, despite paving the way with conventional platitudes. His host is equally in the wrong for introducing him to the household simply in order to gratify a morbid curiosity.

The dead man is also to be censured. He might have panicked the household by his unexpected appearance so late at night. At the very least he should have sent a telegram notifying his sisters of his arrival.  One might also point out that the tall, pale gentleman properly belonged in a hearse, not in a funeral carriage, which is reserved for conveying legitimate mourners to and from the funeral and churchyard. Mrs Daffodil will reserve judgement on the dead man’s attire. It is a nice point of etiquette as to whether the corpse himself should don “sables” for his own demise.

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.

For other stories of death-omens and tokens of death, see The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past and The Victorian Book of the Dead, both by Chris Woodyard of http://www.hauntedohiobooks.com.  Her blog also contains rather too many stories of death and the grim and grewsome for those of a sensitive disposition. Mrs Daffodil has had to forbid the Tweenie the site.

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.

Shipping Corpses and a Haunted Car: 1882, 1891

[Fake Wells-Fargo corpse-shipping tag.]

THE HAUNTED CAR

In Which a Dead Man Got Up Out of his Coffin and Vanished

From the Reno Gazette

Wells’ Fargo & Co.’s express car, No. 5, is said to be haunted. The messengers on the run between San Francisco and Ogden have been exercised over the fact for some time, and when the car was sent to Sacramento several weeks ago to be overhauled and repaired they expressed much satisfaction, and were firm in the belief that the car-builder would kill the ghost and return the car to the rail free from all demoralizing influence. In this they were disappointed, for the messenger who left San Francisco  Tuesday night was visited by the unseen power and put to a deal of trouble. The ghost came in and tumbled the boxes of freight about, tolled bells, and made sweet music, and called the messenger by name. The last trip the car made before it was taken from the track, the messenger heard strange noises on the roof. His thoughts were on his duty, and he came to the conclusion that robbers were waiting an opportunity for entering the car. He cautiously opened the door and took a look at both ends, but found everything quiet. He could see nothing unusual and returned, closed the door and was walking back to the mailing-table when down came a box of cooked shrimps and a band-box. The freight was ranted about and finally left in the same place. The mysterious din was indulged in  until the train was nearing Terrace Station, in the eastern part of the State, and the messenger had about made up his mind to take to the sage-brush, when all was still again.

On one occasion when they had a corpse in transit, the head and trunk of a man’s body was seen to rise up from the casket, take a good look around the car, calling the messenger by name, and then vanish. The car was in the train several years ago when an accident occurred just west of Truckee, killing Conductor Marshall and an express messenger, and since that time these mysterious noises have been frequent, much to the discomfiture of the occupants. The express boys say car No. 5 is known to all the company’s employes, and they all tell the same story for the truth.

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 28 February 1882: p. 9

Wells-Fargo was well-known for shipping corpses. Tuberculosis, known as consumption, was usually a death sentence before antibiotics. The dry air and sunshine of the western United States was said to be beneficial for sufferers, who were sent west, hopefully to recover, but more often to die. This express company found an ingenious and heartless way to exploit the deaths of consumption patients under the guise of reuniting loved ones.

AN INDUSTRY IN CORPSES
How an Express Company and an Undertaker Whack Up on Consumptives.

[St. Louis Globe-Democrat.]

The Wells-Fargo Company does some queer things in the way of business, but the strangest perhaps is a new line, worked up by one of the shrewdest agents of the country at Denver. Colorado is a sort of last chance of consumptives, and pretty generally they die there. Most of them are supplied with money from home in regular installment, so when they die not enough coin is found among their effects to pay an undertaker. Undoubtedly many of them would be buried by the county, but right here’s where the company gets in.

It has a contract with an undertaker who takes charge of the body, embalms it, and gets it all ready for shipment. Then the Fargo agent wires to the agents in the towns from which the deceased received letters. If any relatives can be found it is a sure thing, and nine times out of ten enough friends can be found to put up a check for the undertaker’s charges and transportation. When this has been done the body is shipped to the friends or relatives by fast train, and turned over by the agent. The company makes a fat annual profit out of this melancholy business–“the corpse industry,” they call it—it is a good snap for the undertaker, and this county is saved just so many dollars. Many a time there have been three to four corpses at once in the company’s “cooling room” at Denver awaiting notice from friends in just this way. It is a cold day when W.F. & Co., can’t discover a new way to turn an honest penny.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 August 1891: p. 20

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.