Two stories are told quite seriously by a contributor to London ‘Truth, which it is difficult to accept at face value. The first relates a system of funeral drill to which a wife in the shires declares she has been subjected. She writes:
“Sir,—Some months ago I married ___, who is a well-known but eccentric man. After the honeymoon we retired to his estate, when began the annoyance of which I complain.
Every Wednesday a hearse and several mourning coaches are driven up to the front door, and mutes carry down from my husband’s bedroom a coffin which is supposed to contain his remains!
Draped in widow’s weeds, and accompanied by several of the servants, I have to follow this, my husband marshalling the procession, and directing the proceedings generally!
‘Be careful; do not ram the rails,’
‘Bend your head more reverently, dear,’
‘Keep your distances; it looks so slip-shod.’
The coffin is raised into the hearse, and I and several of the householders occupy the coaches, whilst the gardeners and others follow on foot, my husband drilling us until the funeral service is completed, even to the lowering of the coffin into the grave!
I can scarcely hope that this letter will not be intercepted, but should it reach you, will you publish it, that your readers may know to what length a man will go in indulging his peculiarities?”
Mataura [NZ] Ensign, 26 February 1912: p. 7
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: That gentleman’s eccentricities were not as singular as one might think. The Divine Sarah was celebrated for allegedly sleeping in her coffin, or, at the very least, posing for photographs in it:
A certain lady who is not over-religious, in the usual acceptation of the term—Madame Sarah Bernhardt—has her whole life toned and seasoned and solemnised by the presence of the grim, even if dainty, case in which her mortal remains are to be interred. She has got a new coffin to replace the old one, which some time ago, along with her other personal effects, was seized by her relentless creditors. The present coffin is daintily lined with blue silk, and at the head has a soft little pillow trimmed with Valenciennes lace. It is Sarah’s grim humour to sleep in her coffin sometimes; and, to be quite consistent, she dresses herself in something not unlike a shroud. But usance dulls the edge of appetite, and this funeral fad of the Divine Sarah has a tendency to make the coffin a joke and the grave a jest.
Roses and Rue: Being Random Notes and Sketches, William Stewart Ross, London: W. Stewart & Company, 1890: p. 168
Returning to Mr Funeral Drill’s eccentricities, “peculiarities” is perhaps the kindest euphemism for such tastes. The lady’s statement about the note being intercepted suggests alarming and sinister possibilities. If this were a Gothic Novel written by a lady with three names, our heroine would be a great heiress, wooed in a whirlwind courtship and married before she could discover her husband’s morbid fancies. Then, one day, the funeral drill would go on without her and the coffin would be buried, the lady’s absence explained by an indisposition which would shortly lead to a permanent residence in the South of France for her health, despite no one seeing her en route. Her tragically early death in France would be announced and shortly thereafter Mr Funeral Drill would remarry….
Mrs Daffodil suggests that after the first few repetitions of this macabre ritual, the lady should have taken steps to ensure that the next funeral was no drill, but the genuine article.
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.
“Well, you don’t look very kitteny this morning,” said the grocery man to the bad boy, as he stood up behind the stove to get warm, and looked as though life was not one continued picnic, as heretofore. “What’s the matter with you? Your father has not been tampering with you with his boot, has he?”
“No, sir,” said the boy, as he brightened up. “Pa and me are good friends now. He has discovered that my heart is in the right place, and that I am going to amount to something, and he has forgiven every foolish thing I ever did to him. and says for me to come to him any time when I want advice or money to do good with. Why, when pa found I had pawned my watch to get money to buy medicine for the old woman, he went and redeemed it, and offered to whip the pawnbroker for charging me too much for the money. Oh, pa is a darling now. He went to the funeral with us.”
“What funeral?” said the groceryman, with a look of surprise. “You crazy? I haven’t heard of any funeral at your house. Don’t come no joke on me.”
“O, there is no joke about it,” said the boy. “You see, the little apple-girl’s grandmother lost her grip on this earth, soon after she got the medicine and the doctor, and died. I was down there, and it was the solemnist scene I ever witnessed. I looked around, and seen that somebody had got to act, and I braced up and told the girl that I was all wool, a yard wide, and for her to just let me run things. She was going to the poormaster, and have the city bury the old lady, but I couldn’t bear to see that little girl play solitaire as mourner, and ride in an express wagon with the remains and not have any minister, and go to the pauper burying ground where they don’t say grace over the coffin, but two shovelers smoke black pipes and shovel the earth in too quick and talk Bohemian all the time. It did not seem right for a poor little girl that never committed a crime except to be poor and sell wormy apples, to have no style about her grandma’s funeral, so I told her to brace up and wipe her eyes on one of my handkerchiefs and wait for Hennery. Well, sir, I didn’t know as I had so much gall. You have got to be put in a tight place before you know the kind of baled hay there is in you. I rushed out and found a motherly old lady that used to do our washing, and give me bread and butter with brown sugar on it, when I went after the clothes. I knew a woman that would give a bad boy bread and butter with brown sugar on it, and cut the slices thick, had a warm heart, and I got her to go down the alley and stay with the little girl, and be a sort of mother to her for a couple of days. Then I got my bicycle and took it down to the pawnshop and got twenty dollars on it, and with that money in my pocket I felt as though I owned a brewery, and I went to a feller that runs an excursion hearse and told him I wanted a hearse and one good carriage, at two o’clock, and the mourners would be ready. He thought I was fooling, but I showed my roll of bills and that settled him. He would have turned out six horses for me, when he see I had the wealth to put up. I went down and told the little girl how I had arranged things, and she said she wasn’t fixed for no such turnout as that. She hadn’t any clothes, and the toes of one foot were all out of the shoe, and the heel was off the other one, so she walked sort of italic like. I told her not to borrow any trouble, and I would rig her out so she would do credit to a regular avenue funeral, with plumes on the hearse, and I went home and hunted through the closets and got a lot of clothes ma wore years ago, when my little brother died, and a pair of shoes, and a long veil, and everything complete. I was going to jump over the back fence with the bundle when pa got sight of me and called me back. I felt guilty, and didn’t want to explain, and pa opened the bundle, and when he saw the mourning clothes that he had not seen since we buried our little baby, great tears came into pa’s eyes, and he broke down and wept like a child, and it made me weaken some, too. Then pa wanted to know what it all meant, why I was stealing them clothes out the back way, and I told him all, how I had pawned my things to see that little girl through her trouble, and had taken the black clothes, ’cause I thought pa would go back on it, and tell me to let people run their own funerals. I expected pa would thump me, but he said he would go his bottom dollar on me, and, do you know the old daisy went with me to the house, and patted the little girl on the head, and said for her to keep a stiff upper lip, and when the funeral came off, pa and three other old duffers that are pa’s chums, they acted as pall-bearers. I had tried a couple of ministers to get them to go along to say grace, but guess they couldn’t see any money or glory in it, for they turned me away with a soft answer, and I had about closed a contract with a sort of amateur preacher that goes around to country school houses preaching for his board, but pa he kicked on that, and said we should have the best there was, and he sent word to our minister that he had got use for him, and he was on deck, and did his duty just as well as though a millionaire was dead. Well, I rode with the little girl as assistant mourner, and tried to keep her from crying, but when we passed the house of correction, where her father working out a sentence for being drunk and disorderly, she broke down, and I told her I would be her father and mother and grandmother, and the whole family, and she put her hand on mine and said how good l was, and that broke me up and I had to beller. I don’t want to be called good. If people will keep on considering me bad, and let me do what good I want to on the sly, it is all right. But when she put that little hand on mine, and it was so clean and plump, something went all over me, like when you step on a carpet tack, or hit your funny bone against a gas bracket, and I felt as though I would stay by that girl till she got big enough to wear long dresses. Everything passed off splendid, and as a pauper funeral passed us on the road, the driver smoking a clay pipe, and the coffin jumping around, I couldn’t help noticing the difference, and I was proud that I pawned my bicycle and got up a funeral that nobody need be ashamed of, and when I arranged with the wash woman to take the girl home with her and be her mother till I could make different arrangements, I felt what a great responsibility rested on a family boy, and when I dismissed the hearse and carriage and went home, and pa took me in his arms and said he wouldn’t take a million dollars for me, and that this day’s experience had shown him that I was worth my weight in solid gold, and that he had stopped at the pawn shop and got my watch and bicycle, I never felt so happy in my life. Say, don’t you think there is a heap of solid comfort in doing something kind of unexpected, to make other people happy, or didn’t you ever try it?”
“Of course there is,” said the grocery man, as he passed the boy a glass of cider. “I remember once I gave a poor woman a mackerel, and the look of gratitude she gave me, as she asked me to trust her to a peck of potatoes, kept me awake two nights just thinking how much happiness a man can cause through one rusty mackerel. But she never came back to pay for the potatoes. I suppose you will be marrying that apple-peddler, won’t you?”
“Well, I hadn’t thought of that,’ said the boy, as he looked red in the face, “but if it would make her feel half as contented as it did for me to fix her up for the funeral, and go along with her, I would marry her quicker than scat, when we get big. But I must go and pay the undertaker. He stuck me for two dollars extra on the driver’s wearing a black suit, but I guess I can stand it,”‘ and the boy went out whistling. As he passed out the door without taking any fruit, the grocery man said to a man who was shaving off some plug tobacco to smoke, ‘That boy is going to turn out all right, if he doesn’t have any pull back.”
In Ireland the living are dominated by the dead to an extent unknown probably in other countries. It is a willing servitude, based upon two powerful sentiments—the constancy of Irish family affection, and their Catholic solicitude for the eternal welfare of those they love whose mortal existence has been brought to an end. Death, as the extinction of-life, as a farewell for ever to the warm^ precincts of the cheerful day, is not regarded as a matter of very great importance. No race faces death, whether on the battlefield or anywhere else, with more unconcern than the Irish, or, when lying on the bed of sickness, accepts with more resignation the doctor’s pronouncement that there is no hope. They can pass into the eternal silence with a joke on their lips. I have heard a story of a dying Irishman who, when asked by the priest, in the course of the administration of the last religious rites, whether he was prepared to renounce the devil and all his works, exclaimed, “Oh, don’t ask me to do that, your reverence. I am going to a strange country and I don’t want to make myself enemies.”
If there is any concern in the mind of the dying, it arises from some uncertainty as to what may happen in that strange country, the other world. This feeling finds expression in the quaintest and most wayward fancies. Canon Sheehan, the author of Luke Deimage, and other novels of Irish life, who was a parish priest in county Cork, relates that an old farmer after receiving the last sacrament of extreme unction said to the priest: “I want you to say a word to rise me heart for me long journey, your reverence. Will the Man above have anything agin me in His books?” This dread simile was prompted by sad experiences of the land agent’s office, arrears of rent and the fear of being thrown out of house and home. “I’m sure,” replied the priest, “Almighty God has pardoned you. You have made a good confession, and your life has been a holy and a pure one.” “And did your reverence give me a clear resate?” asked the old farmer. Here was the land agent’s office again. “I’ve given you absolution, my poor man,” said the priest. The dying man was satisfied. “Thanks, your reverence,” were his last words. Another story I have been told shows the droll forms which the same thought assumes in the minds of relations. A farmer who was dying had occasional fits of coma, or profound torpor. The doctor advised the wife, when one of those attacks came on, just to moisten the lips of the patient with a little brandy. “Doctor, dear,” cried the poor wife, with reproach in her voice, “is it to go into the presence of his Maker with the smell of spirits in his breath you’d be havin’ him?”
It is to the family that the visitation of death brings terrors and obligations. At first it has a crushing and stupefying _ effect by reason of the void it makes in the domestic circle, and, afterwards, it entails a lasting devotion to the memory of the loved one who has passed away. So long as a member of the family lives, the dead, in a sense, never dies in Ireland. They survive in the prayers that are said for them, morning and night, in the Mass on each anniversary of their death, in the weeping and wailing over their graves, years upon years after they have been laid to rest. You rarely if ever hear among the peasantry the expression “dead and gone.” Death is simply a passage from one life to another. What you do hear is, “She’s in Heaven,” “God sent for her,” or “He’s with God,” telling of the life of the dead hereafter, of their eternal companionship with angels and saints.
The custom of “waking” the dead, with the drinking, smoking, and conversation of the large company of neighbours who assemble in the house of mourning, appears incongruous and repulsive to those who are unacquainted with its remote origin or the kindly and humane motives which underlie it. The wake is a very old institution. It existed among the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Shakespeare and Scott give instances of medieval revels in honour of the dead. The custom survives in a different form, but with somewhat identical motives, among the Irish, almost alone of the ancient peoples.
“Waking” means, for one thing, “watching.” The English way of leaving the corpse shut up in a room, all alone, would be most repellent to the Irish nature. It would be regarded as a desertion of the dead. The Irish keep close company with their dead until the very last moment of the burial. The body is clothed in a shroud, made in imitation of the habits worn by certain Orders of Friars, and in the hands, crossed reverently on the breast, is placed a crucifix. The walls near the bed are hung with clean white sheets on which are pinned bunches of flowers, laurel leaves and holy pictures. Lighted candles, seven in number, are placed on a table. They are symbolical of hopes and aspirations relating to the dead. That he or she has been cleansed of the seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth ; that he or she possessed the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, and the seven principal virtues—faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and that the relatives joined their sorrow with the seven dolours of Our Blessed Lady—the prophecy of Simeon that a sword of sorrow should pierce her soul; the flight into- Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the Temple ; meeting Jesus with His Cross ; the standing beneath His Cross; the receiving the Body of Jesus; and the burial of Jesus. The room is frequently sprinkled with holy water to banish any evil spirits that may be hovering round. All this is in part a survival of the public lying-in-state of the bodies of great personages, a ceremonial that, once rather common in Ireland, is now reserved for ecclesiastical dignitaries and national heroes.
The Irish people are at all times addicted to companionship, to association with their fellows, and the desire for it is strongest perhaps when death has visited them nearly. We know that we are mortal and ephemeral; that nothing is more certain than that death will come. Every day almost we are reminded that death is the common fate of all in reading our newspapers and meeting with funerals in the streets. Yet there is always an element of the terrible and incomprehensible in the sight of one that is near and dear to us, one, as we know from long experience, capable of the most loving thoughts and deeds in our regard, lying there inert, deaf to familiar voices, unconscious for ever of the joys and tenderness of domestic life. A chill runs down one’s spine, as though the icy coldness of death emanated from the remains and penetrated subtly into one’s frame, and we seek for consolation and support in the sociability of the living. And the neighbours, ever quick in showing sympathy, crowd in to ease the sting of death, to cheer up the spirits of the bereaved, to distract them for a while from the crushing thought of their irreparable loss.
First entering the room where1 the corpse lies the visitors kneel and say a prayer for the eternal salvation of the departed soul. Afterwards in the kitchen, snuff, pipes and tobacco, whisky and stout are served to the company. The dead person is in his house for the last time, and, as host for the last time, dispenses hospitality. What he would do, but can do no longer, those who love him best do for him. Memories of his kindliness and good nature are revived by the neighbours. “’Tis he that had the bright smile and cheery word whenever you met him, and no matter what you might want of him, sure you had only to say the word to get it with a heart and a half.” Stories are told by the elders, and politics discussed; forfeits may be played by the young of both sexes, or, more likely, riddles given for solution. But the Irish are most reverent in the presence of sorrow and nothing unseemly is permitted in these efforts to give relief to the relatives from cares that weigh heavily on their spirits. Manifestations of grief are not entirely suppressed, but they are confined to the chamber of death. In some parts of Ireland it is believed that the soul of the dead person is detained on earth by tears and lamentations, and that not until the sorrow of the relations is appeased can it turn contentedly to face the eternal judgment. To a young widow who was sobbing by the death-bed of her husband, I heard the remonstrance addressed—”Don’t be crying that way, asthore; or you’ll keep him from his rest.”
Here and there throughout the country where waking has been abused by excessive indulgence in drink, the authorities of the Catholic Church have tried to abolish it altogether. It is therefore not so common as it used to be, especially in the towns and the larger villages. Religious services have been substituted for the ancient observances. The body is removed from the house to the parish church, where it remains for the night in its coffin resting on a bier near to the high Altar ; and in the morning the Mass for the Dead is said before its removal for interment. There could hardly be a more notable example of the influence of the Church. The Irish are slow to adopt new ideas. They are among the most conservative people in the world in their adhesion to traditional habits and customs. Especially do they resent any innovation which touches their dead. It is their deep and reverential respect for the Church, rather than their instinct as to what is right and proper, that induces them to part from their dead for a night. They bow their heads in submission, but so heavy lies the immemorial past upon them that in their hearts they doubt whether in doing so they are quite loyal to their dead.
In the case of the keen (Gaelic caoine) or funeral lamentation— one of the eeriest death chants to be heard from the crushed heart of sorrowing humanity—the Irish also adhere to a custom held sacred by their remotest ancestors. It has come down to us from the Pagan era. Walker, in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, says the object originally was to propitiate the gods by proclaiming the genealogy, rank, possessions and virtues of the dead person. Spirits whose requiem was not thus sung were liable to be condemned eternally to a state of unrest. Geraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh writer who visited Ireland in the twelfth century, describes this funeral song or wail as it was practised in Christian times. Its purpose then was to sound the praises of the dead without regard to any supernatural or religious motive. The keeners, in the course of their chanting, put a number of questions, as if with a view to discovering why it was the person lamented had died. If a man, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love, or if the blue-eyed maidens had treated him with scorn? The keen of the twentieth century differs very little in form or spirit from the keen of the twelfth century. The cries of lamentation usually take the form of questions which are asked in a half-singing, half-reciting and sobbing voice. “Mo cushla machree (pulse of my heart), why did you die from me? Wasn’t it you that was the best of husbands and fathers, giving joy to all that knew you, and wouldn’t those that love you go through fire and water to save a hair of your head from being hurt?” The piercing wail of a mother for a favourite son is most heartrending to hear.
“Ah, Michael, me ville astore (my ten thousand treasures), sure your like was not to be found on all the broad acres of Ireland, and your death has cast a shadow on the country that no sun will ever disperse.” In towns the keen is cried in the room where the corpse is being waked before the start of the funeral. In rural districts, where the journey to the graveyard is often long, the keen breaks out at intervals, and then the whole countryside rings with the weirdest lamentation.
To have “a grand buryin’ with all the neighbours at it” is the last thing the Irish peasant desires of this world. A farmer who married a penniless girl was asked why he made so poor a match. “My wife,” he answered, “has thirty brothers, uncles and cousins, and if I was to die to-morrow her faction could give me as long a funeral as the King of England.” It is an object of solicitude long before the end is felt approaching. During a visit to the remote parts of Donegal I was told so great was the difficulty of getting a coffin made that many people gave the only carpenter in the district sheaves of oats or a sack of potatoes annually by way of a retaining fee for this service when they died. I remember a curious case that came for decision before a bench of magistrates in my native city of Limerick. An undertaker was asked by an old maid to make her coffin, and his proposal “to complete the job” for £4 was thought by her to be reasonable enough. When the coffin was finished the undertaker brought it to the woman’s house and received £2 as part payment; but being unable to obtain the balance he was reluctantly obliged to summon her. The defence set up by the woman was that the undertaker was not only to supply the coffin, but bury her respectable for the £4, and as he had not yet fulfilled the latter part of the agreement she submitted that he was not entitled to be paid the remaining £2. The case, which caused much laughter in court, was dismissed. Then the old maid turned to the undertaker and said, “As soon as you perform your part of the contract, I’ll not be behindhand in completing mine.” Wandering beggars, lone creatures who have no one belonging to them, who tramp the countryside for a living, carrying all their worldly goods on their back, are known to stint themselves of food in order to add an odd penny or sixpence, now and then, to the sum of money, kept in a secret hiding-place in their clothing, and intended to pay the expenses of the burial. An old fellow of this class who, feeling ill, sought refuge in a workhouse and died there, had a piece of paper, with his little hoard—the slow accumulations of many a hard year—on which he had written: “This is to bury me. Bury me decent, or I’ll haunt you.” Thus all through life he was providing against what he would have thought the last misfortune and final disgrace—a pauper’s coffin, and a grave in the “yellow hole,” as the workhouse pit is called. Some years ago it was the custom of the poorer classes, when they were unable to afford a coffin, to make the corpse beg for it. The body was laid on a board outside the door on a Sunday with a plate to receive the coppers of the people on their way to Mass. Sometimes imposture was practised. On one occasion a woman placed a sixpence on the plate and began to take up five pennies.
“Arrah, ma’am,”: cried the supposed corpse, “be generous wance in yer life and don’t mind the change.”
Ireland is noted for its big funerals. The whole parish, and sometimes the countryside, turns out to pay the last tribute of respect. It is the rule also in rural districts for strangers who meet with a funeral to turn back and accompany it for some distance at least. “Who is it that’s dead?” they will ask, and when they are told they will add, “Well, well, may the journey thrive with him,” “God rest his soul,” or “Wisha, God be with him, whoever he is.” Burials are so well attended that they have come to convey the idea of the largest possible numbers. A man out for a day’s shooting asked a lad whether he had seen any rabbits on his way. “Yes, sir, whole funerals of them,” was the reply. Comedy often follows closely on the heels of tragedy in all circumstances of life and death in Ireland. At any rate family pride in a large funeral softens bereavement. Condolences take that form on the way to the grave. “If your father could only sit up in his coffin, and see the grand funeral he’s havin’, wouldn’t he be mightily pleased?” “Well, oughtn’t you to be consoled and made proud by so fine a funeral?”
Vanity and ostentation are very prevalent in Ireland, and most so, perhaps, among the poorer classes. It is a point of honour to have a fine funeral. But a funeral is fine by reason of the numbers of unhired cars and unhired mourners attending it. These manifestations of neighbourly sympathy and respect give to funerals in Ireland an unostentatious dignity. There is an entire absence, even in the cities, of that hired ornate ceremonial of the great hearse and horses with plumes, and mutes in tall hats and frock coats and wreaths of flowers, that make burials so extravagantly expensive to the poor in England.
Another reason why, apart from neighbourliness, funerals are so well attended is that they afford opportunities for revisiting family graves. When the coffin is committed to earth and the prayers are said, the mourners disperse through the graveyard, and soon from all quarters are heard the wildest bursts of grief. The rain may be falling pitilessly, and the graveyard engulfed in a dense humid atmosphere. But the wet and the mud are unnoticed, discomforts accepted as a matter of course. Moved by the overpowering impulse of their revived affection and sorrow for those that are no more, the mourners fling themselves prostrate on the ground, passionately kissing the mounds and flagstones, pressing closer and closer to get as near as possible to their long-buried but still darling dead, babbling almost incoherently expressions of the fondest love. Then they sit back on their haunches, and raise the keen, swaying their body to and fro, clapping their hands in time with the rhythm of their lamentations, and weeping the bitterest tears of affliction.
It is a scene in which Irish history, life and character are epitomized: the dust of saints, the ruined abbey, the broken cross; the crowded dead; hemlock, and deadly nightshade; weeping and wailing; the love that always endures; and, casting a tender light over it all, the hope of a glorious resurrection
Recently Dr Beachcombing wrote about the many premonitions of disaster occurring before the Morfa Colliery explosion of 10 March, 1890. The colliery, which was known as a “gassy” mine, had a long and deadly history. There were explosions in 1858 (4 men killed), 1863 (30 or 40 men killed), and in 1870 (30 men killed), when the mine had to be flooded to put out the resulting fires. What I propose to look at today is the sequel to the 1890 disaster or, perhaps, to the entire grim history of the Morfa pit, which became known as “the pit of ghosts.”
Reports from the days and months after the 1890 disaster almost invariably mention superstition in connection with the warnings told of in Dr Beachcombing’s post.
“Other curious instances of warnings are freely spoken of which would yield matter of interest to the student of either folk or spirit-lore.’’ Such stories used to be quite common in the mining districts of Wales in connection with every disaster of this kind, and although the spread of popular education has done much to deaden the popular fancy and to kill off the old superstitions, it is quite clear that the land of the corpse-candle, the phantom funeral, the coal-finding gnome, the sprite and elf and fairy, is not yet denuded of all its poetical traditions.—Christian Herald, March 19th. Quoted in The Two Worlds: A Journal Devoted to Spiritualism, Occult Science, Ethics, Religion and Reform, 28 March 1890: p. 229
Some men even went on record with their belief in omens:
There is an abiding belief among the men of the Morfa Colliery that signs of warning preceded the terrible accident by which eighty-seven lives were lately lost. Not only is this floating belief current among the gossips, but it is sufficiently firmly held to be testified to on oath. In the course of the inquiry into the cause of the disaster the following evidence was given on oath:—
Peter Williams, questioned why a special examination of the pit was asked for previously to the day of the explosion, said (speaking in Welsh): The truth was there had been complaints of spirits being about in the four-foot vein. He supposed the colliers thought a special examination would get rid of the spirits. Another witness, named Harding, said a rumour had gone round that something was to be heard in the pit, and it was regarded as a proof that something unusual was to occur at Morfa—a fire or an explosion. He himself thought something would happen in the four-foot. The sounds they heard created fear in the minds of the men that there was danger in the pit. About a fortnight before the explosion he was in the four-foot with another man. After emptying a tram they went on their knees. No word passed between them; but they heard something, and looked at each other in amazement. One asked, “What is that?” and thereupon a door opened and slammed against the frame. He met Tom Barrass, the undermanager, and said to him,” Something very strange has happened there to-day.” Barrass remarked, “Well, I can’t doubt that this sort of thing makes one believe that everything one has heard before is true.” There were some people who were superstitious, and he had his ideas before the explosion; but he had come to believe that it was something else that caused the accident. He had proof himself that sounds and signs occurred before the explosion of 1883. Light, Volume 10, 3 May 1890
The tokens of the disaster as reported several months after the explosion were weird and varied:
As the excitement connected with the awful colliery accidents in South Wales has died away, it may not be out of place to give a few interesting facts, as personally related to the writer, concerning the hallucinations which many of the colliers who worked in the Morfa pit laboured under before the disaster.
Mr Isaac Hopkins is the manager of the well-known Dynevor Collieries, at Neatb, and he told Mr George Palmer, of Neath, that a great many men had come to him from the Morfa pit seeking work, giving as their reason for leaving that “the Morfa pit was certainly haunted, and that some terrible calamity was about to occur. Several of the men declared that “there were frequent peculiar noises as of ghostly trams running wild in the pit, with heavy fails of coal and debris which never happened; that at times strong and most remarkable perfume spread itself all over the mine, the odour being like that from clusters of roses, clematis, and honeysuckle. Nothing could be seen, but scent of the most exquisite kind was honestly stated to have been frequently inhaled.” Others of the men stated that “a huge red dog was daily seen prowling about the workings, that it suddenly disappeared, and it could be none other than a ghostly dog and a sure omen of great evil; also that a strange man, dressed in oil-skins and wearing a leather cap tightly fastened over his ears [shades of Spring-heel Jack?], one day suddenly appeared on the cage of the pit, and, after waving his hands upwards as if in despair, faded away into thin air.”
An old collier named Thomas swore that he saw a weird-looking man jump on a journey of trams underground, and after riding some distance jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine. This statement was confirmed by a man named Beece, who both declared they recognised him as a pitman who died years ago. These, with many other tales of the most extraordinary kind, the mining population about Taibach even now pin their entire faith in. Press, [Canterbury, NZ] 22 December 1890: p. 6
But the noises and presences did not end in 1890. It was said in the papers that only six bodies were not recovered from the 1890 disaster; a list found here suggests that 44 of the 87 dead were not recovered–ample reason, from a classic ghost-lore perspective, for the echoes of the dead to linger and for the mine to be haunted.
In 1895 the mine was hit with a wave of new terrors.
WELSH MINERS SCARED They Leave Work in a Panic Owing to Uncanny Noises
London, Dec. 20.
The latest sensation for lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest last week by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.
It has been suggested that the trouble at the Morfa colliery is due to the “coblyns” or fairies supposed in Wales to dwell in mines. But the miners themselves scout the idea. Coblyns, they say, are friends of the miners, and when they knock or shout or throw bits of coal about, it is for the purpose of letting the men know where the best veins of coal are to be found. The suggestion that the mysterious and terrifying wailing came from a tomcat, which had strayed from the mine stables and got lost in the workings is unanimously repudiated and denounced as unworthy trifling with a solemn subject. The Ottawa [Ontario, Canada] Journal 21 December 1895: p. 3
No longer were strange noises signs of disaster: the mine was declared haunted by the victims of the 1890 explosion.
SPOOKS IN WELSH MINES
Workmen Frightened Away by Mysterious Noises
The latest sensation for jaded lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery, in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had ever heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.
Recent efforts to persuade the men that the mine was perfectly safe and spook proof, and that the noises were due to natural causes, succeeded, and the men reluctantly returned to their work. Some had begun to be somewhat ashamed of themselves and made pretense that they had feared not ghosts, but some physical disaster, of which the noises were intended as a warning. But the majority fervently persist in the belief that there is a supernatural explanation and incline to think that the trouble is due to the disturbed spirits of six workmen who were killed in an explosion which occurred six years ago, and whose bodies were never recovered. Some of the men have declined to go down again until those bodies have been found and decently interred with Christian rites.
The evidence in favor of the supernatural theory is still considered abundant and plain enough for the average Welsh miner. Scores of men heard blood curdling noises, and several saw doors and brattices moving in the most unearthly manner. People abroad after dark are said to have heard the singing of dirges and the roll of muffled drums. Repository [Canton, OH] 5 January 1896: p. 6
Reported even longer after the fact, was this tale of the omen of the “Seven Whistlers,” which was not mentioned in any of the 1890 accounts I have found. These creatures seem to be the ornithological wing of the Wild Hunt.
WARN OF DANGER
SEVEN WHISTLERS UNCANNY
Peculiar Noises Like Yelping Supposedly Heard in Parts of England Before a Disaster.
In some parts of England peculiar whistling or yelping noises are heard in the air after dusk and early in the morning before daylight during the winter months. Sometimes, however, the noise is described as beautiful sounds like music, high up in the air, which gradually die away. The general belief is that the “seven whistlers,” as they are called, are the foretellers of bad luck, disaster, or death to some one in the locality.
It is a very ancient suggestion. Both swifts and plovers have been suggested as the “whistlers.” It may be noted that plovers are traditionally supposed to contain the souls of those who assisted at the crucifixion and in consequence were doomed to float in the air forever.
Like Singing of Larks.
In Shropshire the sound is described as resembling that of many larks singing, and the folklore of both Shropshire and Worcestershire says, “They are seven birds, and the six fly about continually together looking for the seventh, and when they find him the world will come to an end.”
Everywhere, without exception, the “seven whistlers” are believed to presage ill, but the superstition seems to be more particularly a miners; notion. If they heard the warning voice of the “seven whistlers,” birds sent, as they say, by Providence to warn them of an impending danger, not a man will descend into the pit until the following day.
Heard Before Explosion.
Morfa colliery, in South Wales, is notorious for its uncanny traditions. The “seven whistlers” were heard there before a great explosion in the sixties and before another, in 1890, when nearly a hundred miners were entombed.
In December, 1895, it was said that they had been heard yet again, whereupon the men struck work and could not be induced to resume it until the government inspector had made a close examination of the workings and reported all safe. Muskegon [MI] Chronicle 17 June 1904: p. 6
Another article on the “Seven Whisperers” says that the Morfa mine was a “singularly unlucky pit,” and that
In December, 1896, the scare broke out afresh, as a repetition of the same curious noises [as in 1890] took place, and, direst portend of all, one Sunday night a dove [one of the three “corpse birds:” robin, pigeon, and dove] was found perched on a coal truck in the weigh-house. By way of reassuring the miners, who had struck work in a body, the Government inspector, the chief manager, and a small party of officials made a strict examination of the workings, but although they found nothing changed it was several days before the superstitious miners could be induced to resume work. Auckland [NZ] Star 17 January 1903: p. 5
The miners read the jocular pieces ridiculing their “superstitions” and rightly resented the slur.
A reporter from the Western Mail wrote: “I visited Morfa in quest of a ghost. In arriving at the place I found the Morfa miners standing in groups at the street corners. Being descendants of the ancient Silurians, these men are very brave, and, like their ancestors, they would meet a charge of cavalry on foot. But, if they are equal to all kinds of flesh and bones in war or peace, they are terribly afraid of ghosts….
It is all very well for the reader seated in the daylight at his fireside, to call the Morfa miners “superstitious,” because they on hearing strange and unexplainable noises in the dark caverns of the earth…One of the miners today, standing among his fellows, with his hands in his pockets, a pipe in his mouth, told me he had read the editorial comments in the Western Mail that morning on what they were pleased to call the “superstition” of the Morfa miners. “Tell the editor,” he said severely, “to confine his remarks to things of this world, for he knows nothing about heaven and hell and the workings underground.” And he added the remark that if the Western Mail editor had been seated in the dim light of a clammy lamp in the interior of the workings, and had heard groaning in the darkness beyond and below in the deep, he, too, would have taken to his heels and quickly sought “some hole to hide in.” Another miner, sharp-eyed and seemingly highly intelligent, declared to me that there was not the slightest doubt that inexplicable strange noises had been heard in the workings both lately and before the explosion six years ago. This belief, which he declared 50 percent of the men believed, has been intensified by the finding the dove at 10 o’clock on Sunday night close to the mouth of the shaft…. The Scranton [PA] Tribune 28 December 1895: p. 6
Considering the noises and alarums the miners experienced in 1895-1896, they must have been relieved that there was only one fatality in 1896—a man who died of dropsy exacerbated by a fall in the pit. As far as I can find, the Morfa Colliery had only isolated fatalities—no large-scale disasters–from 1890 until it closed in 1913. Is the pit still believed haunted by the men who died there? And what toxic gases found down a coal mine might produce a sweet, flowery scent? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Various materials have been believed over the centuries to trap spirits: iron, crystal, and various gemstones. Coal is not one of them, yet the mines and their communities teem with mysterious voices, knocking kobolds, silently flitting Women in Black —and the spirits of those men and boys buried, not beneath decent slate in the churchyard, but under tons of rock and smouldering slag.
Mourning Styles for the Society “Gentlemen in Black”
How the Bombazine Band is Worn.
With the death of William Astor one of the first families in the land has retired from social life for a year or more, and it may interest the man of fashion to know how John Jacob Astor, the heir, appears in gentleman’s mourning garb and how the remainder of the family will follow the dictates of society in this regard.
The band of fine bombazine comes within half an inch of the top of Mr. Astor’s high hat, and that, it may be said, is de rigeur. For a year the band will be worn at this height, then it may be worn lower or removed altogether and replaced by the staid black ribbon and bow.
“It is almost impossible in this country,” says an authority, “where there are no hereditary customs, to lay down exact laws, either as to the length of the period during which mourning should be worn or as to the extent to which it should be assumed. There is, however, a certain etiquette of mourning, which, while not as arbitrary as the French code (which declares a widow must don weeds for one year and six weeks exactly), is usually followed in this country, where most of the customs are borrowed from the English. It would be interesting in this connection to know how the arbiter of English fashion, the Prince of Wales, attires himself for the Duke of Clarence. His mourning is, of course, much modified by the exigencies of his position, but it is safe to assert that it is distinguished by that perfection of detail, that faultlessness of selection that shows the perfect gentleman.
“The laws governing the depth of the band on the hat have become mathematically exact, and it is the first article of attire to consider in this connection. For deep mourning for the day of the funeral, for church, for all occasions except business and traveling, the high hat is in style.
“For the widower the band of fine bombazine comes to within one-quarter of an inch from the top. For the father or mother one half an inch from the top. For brother or sister or grown child, three and one-half inches up from the brim, and for an aunt, uncle or collateral relation, three and one-half inches up from the rim.
“The widower, and the man wearing the band for father or mother should wear it unaltered for at least a year; after that period, according to individual taste, it may be lowered.”
The same rule holds good for the band worn for brother or sister, one year being the proper duration of deep mourning. For aunts, uncles, cousins and collateral relations the period varies from three to six months, according got the degree of intimacy and affection existing between the dead and bereaved.
In “complimentary” mourning, a ghastly term used to denote that worn for parents-in-law, the rule is the same as for the closer and truer kinship. The mourning for parents-in-law is, however, purely arbitrary and depends principally upon how much they leave. The bigger the bank account the deeper the mourning, especially for mothers-in-law. Any man, however, who honors his wife will show her deceased parents the same respect he would his own, and nothing could possibly appear in worse taste than to see a woman in all the trappings of woe, while her husband disregards the custom entirely.
For round topped derbys the band for wife and all the closer kinships must be as high as the shape permits. Fr the other ties of kindred it can be a bout half way to the top. The square topped derbys are regulated exactly as the high hats.
In deep mourning the rough cheviots, and any all black goods, but more particularly the rough woolens, are in good taste. There should be no deviation from the rule of all black for one year; after that the band may be lowered and fancy trouserings in gray and black and goods with a mixture of these colors may be adopted.
Beau Brummel was once asked what was the distinguishing characteristic of a gentleman’s attire and he replied: “Good linen, plenty of it, and country washing;” and good linen, plenty of it, and pure white is essential in mourning. Nothing is so suggestive of a cake walk as a black and white shirt and don’t be deluded into considering it mourning. Handkerchiefs should also be pure white; the black bordered affairs, permissible to women, are abominations when carried by men. They are extremes and extremes are always vulgar. The man of taste is a conservative being and oversteps the boundaries in nothing.
For the first year ties should be all black and nowadays the “man in black” has a range of choice both in material and shape. A few years ago only gros grain silk was admissible, and this after a few wearings looked shiny and greasy; now, the soft crepe de chine, china silks and armures are made up in the ever popular four-in-hand and puff shapes, the former being preferable for deep mourning, requiring no pin.
Jewelry, except what is absolutely necessary, is tabooed. A black silk watch guard is better form than a chain, and it is debatable whether the usual plain gold studs and sleeve buttons are better taste than the black ones, whether of onyx or enamel. For a widower there is something incongruous in the glitter of gold, and the black studs and sleeve buttons seem more consistent; but for heaven’s sake don’t wear a black jet or onyx watch chain, they make the gods weep. And, by the way, a velvet collar on the overcoat is not mourning, nor this garment made of brown and blue chinchilla, however dark; neither are black satin ties, nor a brown derby with a band on it, which last eyesore is not infrequent. It would be impossible in the limits of this article to enumerate the various solecisms of fashion even well informed men commit in wearing mourning. Only a few general rules can be given and you do the rest.
It is, however, in the matter of gloves that men err most frequently. Most men hate a black glove, buy a pair for the funeral, wear them till worn out and then buy their favorite color. They must, however, in wearing the deeper grades of mourning, wear only black gloves for one year, or go bare handed, a mechanic like alternative, but far better than to done pumpkin colored dogskins or even brown ones. As fashion, however, is great, so also is she merciful, and at the ned of the year a very dark tan may be permitted, another instance of those unwritten laws which smooth the way of man.
And now having exhausted deep mourning, let me consider what might be called “mitigated grief.”
Under this head also I may consider collateral sorrow, that for all the less near degrees of kindred. After the first year the band may be lowered, and clothes of various black and gray mixtures be worn. Ties of pure white, black and white and vice versa are permissible, but mourning must be left off gradually, so that the re-adoption of colors be most imperceptible. Lavender, heliotrope and gray are allowed in scarfs, though a man’s individual taste may be followed in this respect. What is said of second or half mourning is applicable to “complimentary” mourning—a despicable term, but I know no other. In deep mourning, for three months at the very least, men should attend no theaters, banquets or festivities requiring a dress suit. After that time he may, if he cares to, and should, wear a black tie of dull silk. Satin is never mourning. His jewelry in full dress should be the white enamel so generally worn. Here is something absolutely ghastly in seeing a man arrayed for a function with such grave-like suggestions as black jewelry about him.
The simple and beautifully pathetic mourning of the soldier and sailor, the black band on the coat sleeve, has something infinitely touching about it, and appeals to one’s sense of the fitting more perhaps than the trailing weeds that women wear or the crow like attire of men, but we have not as yet arrived at any such simple solution of the problem of black, and as the etiquette of mourning now stands it should be respected. It is, after all, a matter of sentiment, above all a matter of good feeling. Precise rules are impossible to formulate, and its depth and direction must depend on individual taste. Above all, no man should be judged harshly for any deviation from the custom, even though he might show better taste by conforming to it. Many a sad heart throbs beneath a gay mantle and many a happy one has crape, so to speak, on its door bell; like the pathetic emblem waving at many a door, while the “wakers” make merry within.