Taking Pictures of the Dead: An Interview with a Photographer: 1882

A lone grave on the battle-field of Antietam, Alexander Gardner, 1862 https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646938/

For “Camera Day.”

[Originally published on 22 September 2013 https://mrsdaffodildigresses.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/taking-pictures-of-the-dead-an-interview-with-a-photographer-1882/ ]

A first-hand narrative from a photographer of the dead and how he came to such a vocation. This past week was the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, where this photographer had a grim experience.

GHASTLY PHOTOGRAPHIC EXPERIENCES.

[Sunday Mercury.] I’ve been engaged in taking pictures of the dead for twenty years or more, was the remark of a photographer of Philadelphia, as he arranged his camera to photograph the first corpse ever brought to a Philadelphia gallery for that purpose. A little coffin or casket was under the sky-light in a slanting position, supported by two chairs, and in it was the body of a fair-haired child, whose peaceful, smiling expression, despite the ghastly pallor of death, make it appear to be in tranquil sleep. The head lay in a perfect bed of flowers, and the waxen hands clasped held a spray of mignonette and two delicate tea rosebuds. The sun, shaded as it was by curtains, threw a bright glare over one side of the little dead face, leaving the other half in shadow. The tube of the camera was brought to the proper focus on the silent subject, and in a few seconds the negative was ready to go into the “dark room” and be prepared for printing in its chemical bath. No one was in the place except the proprietor, a solemn-faced undertaker and your correspondent. This is the first time, said the photographer, as he critically examined the negative, that I have ever been called upon to picture the dead in my own place, but this case was such a peculiar one that I could not refuse, although it would undoubtedly draw away custom if it were known. People have a foolish horror of death, you know, and would actually be afraid to come if they thought I had dead bodies here. It only took a moment, and there was really nothing awful about it. The mother, poor soul, will have something to look at and cry over now, and the speaker stopped, as the undertaker had turned the last screw in the lid of the coffin and was preparing to carry it out to the hearse again.

THE CAMERA ON THE BATTLE-FIELD.

My first experience in photographing the dead, resumed the photographer, as the hearse rattled away from the door, was on the battle-field of Antietam. It was a warm September morning, three days after the great fight. I had a boy with me to assist in preparing the chemicals. He only worked for an hour. With boyish curiosity he went poking about, and picked up an unexploded shell. He was then on the bank of the creek about half a mile off. I never knew how it happened, but the bomb exploded, and almost blew him to pieces. A little darkey came up to where I was waiting for the boy’s return, and completely unnerved me by shouting: “Say, boss, de red-headed gemmen has done gone and blowed hisself up wif a shell!” He was a bright, intelligent boy, and I felt his loss keenly, but I pressed the negro boy into service, and went to work.

It would be useless to go over the scene of that carnage again; to tell of the ghastly after-sights of that awful fight which made so many widows and orphans. I was nervous and excited, and you can depend it did not tend to quiet my nerves when I unwittingly planted one leg of the camera stand on the chest of a dead Union drummer-boy. By some means he had been partly buried in a patch of soft soil. Nothing was visible but the buttons on his blouse and one foot. I changed my position rather hastily. A “dark room” was improvised by hanging army blankets from the limbs of a low tree; and after taking four negatives, I packed up my traps and started for Philadelphia. It was a slow and dangerous journey, but I made it in safety, and went to work printing pictures. They sold like wildfire at fifty cents and one dollar each. I was nearly two thousand dollars in pocket in less than two weeks, and determined to repeat the programme after the next big battle. It came with Fredericksburg. My anxiety to get a view of the field after the retreat of the Union army led to trouble. I was captured by three Confederate stragglers and taken down the Rappahannock in a rowboat. They suspected me to be a spy, I suppose, and the photographic apparatus merely a blind. At any rate the valuable camera, chemicals, glass and everything else were dumped into the river. I was taken before General Lee, personally, and charged with being a Union spy. No explanation availed anything; it was not even believed that I was a photographer. One of General Lee’s staff—I think his name was Murray—proposed that I should be tested. An aide-de-camp galloped off and procured the necessary apparatus, and I photographed the rebel general and his entire staff, on a day cold enough to freeze the words in a man’s mouth. The officers were evidently impressed with the idea of my innocence. A short consultation followed, and then General Lee himself said to me: “Sir, it appears that you are simply engaged in earning a livelihood, and, I believe, honestly. You are at liberty.” I was blindfolded, put back in the boat, and landed within twenty miles of where Burnside had his winter quarters. From that day to this I never knew where I was. Here is the picture of Lee and his staff, and the photographer exhibited the faded likeness, which had probably saved his life.

FRIGHTENED BY A SUPPOSED CORPSE.

After the battle of Gettysburg, he resumed, it became very common for photographers to go to the front. They all appeared to be making money, and I finally made up my mind to try it again. The three days’ fight at Spotsylvania Court House was the last battle-field I ever saw, or want to see again. I arrived there before General Grant had driven the enemy into Richmond. Many of the dead had been removed, but there were still many bodies on the field—enough, in fact, to make a good picture, I thought. I never took it. After getting the best site to have the sun on a half-dozen dead soldiers and two abandoned cannon for the central figures of the picture, I covered my head with the cloth and brought the tube to bear on the group. I had just got the proper focus when a most startling incident occurred. I saw the arm of a supposed dead man lift high in the air and then fall. The day was mild, beautiful and sunny. Everything was as still as death, except the faint booming of a far distant cannon. I dropped the cloth and ran forward to where the dead soldiers lay. There was not the least sign of life in any of them. Decomposition had set in, except in one of them, a dark-haired young man wearing the gray uniform of the Confederacy. He was dead, to all appearance, and a ragged bullet-hole in his forehead precluded any other idea. Thinking it was only imagination, I went back to the camera to make another attempt. No sooner had I lifted the cloth to put over my head than I saw the arm lift up a second time. There could be no mistake. Again I approached the dead men, and looking first at the young man who seemed to have met death later than his companions, I plainly saw a tremor in his fingers. Quickly I bent over him, and placing my hand on his forehead found it clammy and cold. He was not dead, but dying. I spoke, and his eyelidstrembled in a sort of unconscious recognition of the presence of the living. I heard a faint flutter of the breath, and saw the shadow of a smile hover for a moment about the lips. Then came a long-drawn sigh, a weak gurgle in the throat, and the soldier boy was dead.

I opened his coat. An old-fashioned daguerreotype of a gray-haired lady, a pack of cards and a Catholic prayer-book I found wrapped up in a small Confederate flag. On the fly-leaf of the book was written, “Henry Barnes MacHenry. From his mother.” The poor fellow had evidently lain where he fell for two or three days, suffering from the tortures of hunger and thirst. Earlier attention might have saved him. The incident, simple as it may seem to you, frightened me. I went home, and for a year devoted myself to regular photography.

A GHASTLY KIND OF BUSINESS.

Business grew dull, and I got poor. The war had just about ended, when one day, when pushed to my wits’ end for money, I was struck with an idea which I have followed out successfully ever since. The death columns of the morning papers were carefully gone over, and when the funeral was advertised from an humble neighborhood I was usually sure of a five dollar bill. I visited the houses and offered to photograph their dead. Out of a dozen visits I would probably get one job. In a couple of years my reputation grew, and now I am almost as frequently sent for as the minister. Only last May a messenger came from a West Philadelphia family for me to photograph their dying father.

When I got there he was too far gone and I had to wait. Half an hour after the old gentleman had breathed his last, and before he became stiff, we had him sitting in a chair, with his eyes held open with stiff mucilage between the lids and brow, and his legs crossed. He made a very good picture. I once photographed two children—sisters—who had died the same day of diphtheria. They were posed with their arms about each other’s necks. An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward. Another time I took a picture of a dead man who had been scalded to death. It was a full-length photograph, and an artist was engaged to fill out the burns on the face and then make a copy in oil. For that piece of work I got $50, and I think he got no less than $500.

TAKING THE DEAD FROM THE TOMB.

I recall an instance, continued the photographer, which is probably the most remarkable thing ever related. Two young men came into my place in the winter of 1874 or 1875, I forget which, and said they wanted a photograph of their dead father, whose body was in the family receiving vault awaiting interment in the spring. They cautioned me that their step-mother was violently opposed to having her husband’s body taken from the vault for such a purpose, and that she daily visited the place of sepulture to prevent any such attempt. It was agreed that I should engage a couple of men to assist in taking the body out, and another to keep watch for the widow. We went to the vault early in the morning to avoid the woman, who usually made her visit after twelve o’clock. It took some time to get the body properly posed against the side of the vault, and then it began to drizzle. We threw a horse blanket over the coffin and retreated to the shelter of a tree. About noon the sun came out, and I hurriedly prepared to secure the negative. The camera had just been placed in position when our sentinel came running breathlessly in, with word that the widow was nearly at the entrance to the cemetery gate, a quarter mile distant. It did not take a moment to restore the corpse to the coffin, screw on the lid, and carry all back to the vault. I packed up my kit, and with the two men got out of another gate. Four months after that one of the sons came to me with a most remarkable story. He said his step-mother had lost her reason. When the dead man’s body was exhumed in the spring in the presence of the widow, she insisted on having the coffin opened. The corpse was found partly turned over and the lining of the coffin disarranged. The widow went into hysterics, under the impression that her husband had been buried alive. The stepsons tried to reassure her, and finally confessed that they had authorized the taking up of the body to have it photographed, but the explanation came too late. The woman’s reason was affected, and she could not understand that in our haste to escape we had turned the corpse on its side.

Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This gripping narrative contains several popular themes of the era: dying Civil War soldiers, post-mortem photography, and burial alive. The mistaken placing of the tripod on a drummer boy’s corpse, the “dead” soldier’s moving arm, and the descent into madness of the obviously disliked stepmother are thrilling touches. And it is always useful to get a professional’s tips on how to make a dead body seem alive using common household items.

This excerpt and more on post-mortem photography may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

For a piece on the myth of standing post-mortem photographs see this post, Dead Man Standing.

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.

One Widow’s Folly: 1909

Parisian mourning chapeau, 1909

ONE WIDOW’S FOLLY.

She Squandered on Extravagant Dress What Little Money She Had, But She Knew Her Business.

The West Side woman was smiling with so much amusement that her companion insisted on knowing.

“It’s the story of a little woman I know. She was first mentioned to me as an object of charity, as her husband drank and they had three children. I gave her clothing and helped her in every way I could, and so did a number of other persons. A few months ago her husband died, and to the surprise of all concerned he left a life insurance of $1000. it was the only creditable thing he had ever been known to do. I could not help feeling that conditions would be better for the widow than they had been for the wife. I asked my husband if he did not think she could open a small shop of some kind in her neighborhood and thus make the money support her and her children. He said she certainly could if she had any gimp, and that we would do anything we could to help her that direction. I spoke to a number of her neighbors and friends about it, and all thought the idea was excellent. I also spoke to the widow in regard to it. and she seemed pleased, but she didn’t do anything about it. Several times I referred to it and said my husband and I would help her to get started; and her friends also talked with her as to what would be the best kind of business for the neighborhood etc, but she-just smiled pleasantly and didn’t make a move to open a shop. Of course, we couldn’t take her money by force and put it into business for her; so we simply had to wait to see what she would do. She had never been one of the active sort.

“To our distress, she began to squander the money right and left on mourning clothes for herself. I was perfectly shocked at such extravagance and implored my husband to interfere, but he said we couldn’t do a thing.

“‘It docs seem.’ I said to him, ‘as if somebody of intelligence ought to save such a woman from her own folly and lack of judgment. That money will soon be gone, and then she and her children will again be objects of charity.’  

“He told me I’d better drop the matter and not worry myself about it, and I made up my mind that If she should come to grief I really could not again undertake to help her.

“She didn’t come to grief. She looked so swell in her new mourning clothes that a big, lumbering greenhorn of a fellow fell in love with her and has married her and her three children. He is some sort of a mechanic and makes a great deal more money than she could make in any kind of a shop she would be likely to run, and my husband grins every few minutes about what he calls her ‘business judgment.’ 

The Boston [MA] Globe 1 August 1909: p. 53

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 Widow’s Wedding Dress: 1870s-1916

half mourning wedding gown purple and black2

The other bride wore black, being, as Virginie explained to us, a widow carrying the mourning for her defunct husband up to the last possible moment—a touching devotion to his memory, is it not?

The New York Times 26 August 1877: p. 3

AT A WIDOW’S WEDDING

Etiquette Which Governs This Highly momentous Event.

Etiquette governing the wedding of a widow has been recently reorganized and temporarily, at least, is finding high vogue among certain great ladies who are making second matrimonial ventures. The widow’s engagement ring is now a peridot, which in reality is an Indian chrysolite, and a deep leaf-green in color. The peridot ring is set about with diamonds, and when it arrives the lady gives her first engagement ring to her eldest daughter and her wedding ring to her eldest son.

One week before the wedding a stately luncheon is given to the nearest and dearest of the old friends of the bride to be. After the engagement’s announcement, she appears at no public functions. At the altar her dress may be of any subdued shade of satin. To make up for the absence of veil and orange blossoms, profusions of white lace trim the skirt and waist of the bridal gown en secondes noces. Even the bonnet is of white lace and the bouquet is preferably of white orchids. An up the aisle the lady goes, hand in hand with her youngest child, no matter whether it is a boy or girl. The little one wears an elaborate white costume, holds the bride’s bouquet, and precedes the newly married pair to the church door. Where there is a large family of children and a desire on the widow’s part for a trifle more display than is usually accorded on such occasions, all of her daughters, in light gowns and bearing big bouquets, support their mother to the altar.

An informal little breakfast now follows the ceremony. Such a breakfast is scarcely more than a light, simple luncheon, served from the buffet, wound up by a wedding cake, and a toasting posset, but the bride of a second marriage does not distribute cake nor her bouquet among her friends. Her carriage horses do not wear favors, either, though shoes and rice can be freely scattered in her wake, and, to the comfort and economy of her friends, she does not expect anything elaborate in the way of wedding gifts. N.Y. Sun.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 27 May 1896: p. 5

Subdued colours and muted joy seem to have been the order of the day for most second marriages. Travelling costumes covered a multitude of sins.

SECOND MARRIAGE

What Fashion Prescribes for a Widow’s Bridal Gown.

The Revolution in Etiquette Which Permits White Silk and Orange Blooms to a Widow Who Stands Before the Altar for the Second Time

A change comes o’er the spirit of our dreams. There’s nothing short of a revolution in progress in the etiquette of second marriages.

The color gray, it is against its deadly zinc tones that the arms of the rebels are directed.

Powerful has it been to avenge the spinster on the pretty widow who dared to lead a fresh captive in chains.

I’d wager three yards of pearl gray silk that more than one bridegroom has felt the love glamour fading into common light of every day before the subdued tones, the decorous reminiscent festivities of a second marriage…

I’d wager three yards again the Hamlet’s mother stood up with the wicked uncle in a pearl gray gown frightfully trying to her complexion and that bad as he was he repented the murder when he looked on her. She had no bridesmaids, of course. There were no orange blossoms, and she hid her blushes under no maiden veil. She still wore the ring of her first marriage, and when they came to the proper point in the second ceremony, his fingers touched it, reminding him of ghosts, as he slipped another just like it to be its mate on the same finger. She wore a bonnet probably and thoroughly correct cuffs and collar. It’s possible that she avoided comparisons with the gayeties of her first wedding by eschewing distinctly bridal robes altogether, and gowning herself from head to foot in travelling costume. Unless she had the genius to seek this refuge she was all in half tones, not sorrowful, but as if having emerged from grief, she was yet unable to again taste joy….A traveling dress as a costume for a second marriage saves too many embarrassments as to questions of toilet to fall out of favor these many years. A widow who remarries wears or does not wear, as she chooses, her first wedding ring at the second ceremony. Two or three years ago she usually retained it. Now she oftener takes it off.

[The balance of the article discusses wearing white and bridal flowers in defiance of Mrs Grundy as well as the toilettes of some recent widow-brides.]

Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 17 February 1889: p. 12

black and violet mourning wedding gown c. 1850

WIDOW’S WEDDING LORE.

It may not be well known, but there is a peculiar etiquette attaching to the ceremony of a woman’s second wedding.

It is possible for her, should circumstances permit, to marry as often as she chooses, but only once in her life is she allowed to carry orange blossoms. This is when she stands at the altar for the first time. On the same principle, it is not correct for a widow to wear white at her second marriage ceremony. Cream, grey, heliotrope—indeed, any color she prefers—is permissible.

The bride of experience also should never wear a long bridal veil with or without a bonnet. Neither is she allowed to wear a wreath on the short veil which etiquette permits her to don. She may, however, carry a bouquet, but this should not be composed of white flowers. It is considered better taste for her to match the colour of her wedding-gown with the floral decorations.

The “bridesmaid” of a widow also is not called a bridesmaid, but a “maid of honor.” Her duties, however, are exactly similar to those of the former, though her title is different.

Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette 19 March 1913: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

There was a heated controversy over whether widows were ever entitled to wear white en secondes noces. Some said, “yes,” while banning the veil and the orange blossoms (1889); others said only heavy white fabrics such as velvets and brocades were acceptable (1889); while others delicately suggested pale, half-mourning colours (1916).  As we have read above, the “deadly zinc tones” were not universally pleasing. This gown, however, sounds quite lovely:

A widow’s bridal-gown, of palest violet satin trimmed with sable. An infinitesimal toque of silver passementerie and ivory satin is worn on the head. Demorest’s Family Magazine January 1895: p. 186

The most sensitive point of etiquette had been settled by the early 20th century:

Above all [a widow] should not wear the ring of her first husband. That should be taken off and locked away. The second happy man doesn’t want to be reminded of Number One more often than is necessary. Wanganui Chronicle 9 August 1913: p. 4

For more on etiquette for widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is also available in a Kindle edition.

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

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

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the 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.

Potato Bugs, Cow Paunches, and Peaches: Indirect Poisonings

In my well-thumbed files of strange deaths, there are a number of curious poisoning cases. These are not the humdrum “I-mistook-Rough-on-Rats-for-sugar” stories of the harried housewife or careless servant nor the plausible tales of strychnine bought to exterminate vermin—unwanted stepchildren, for instance, or inconvenient spouses. No, these are more subtle, and to my mind, more interesting “indirect poisonings.”

They come in three flavors: animal, vegetable or mineral. Animals are by far the most numerous. We begin with an article by a dog-loving journalist. The baby seems to be an afterthought.

DOG POISONING

(Fort Wayne News-Sentinel)

Out in Spokane Washin., one of those sneaking beasts in human form, whose milk of human kindness has been curdled with the venom of a cancered soul, set out some poison for a dog the other day. The dog found the bit of food that had been poisoned and took the bait. In his agony, the poor creature crawled to his little pal, a 19-months-old child, and licked the baby’s hands. The baby put his hands to his mouth and got some of the poison and was soon in the throes of excruciating pain. At the moment when these lines are written, the baby is hovering between life and death. All this ghastly tragedy because some beast unworthy of the association of dogs had vented his sinister and unnatural spleen upon society. If nothing else will avail to withhold these perverted pusillanimous caninophobiacs from throwing out poison for dogs, let them reflect upon the Spokane case and consider the possibilities of death to human beings which may result from the death of a normal human being’s animal friend. But will a dog hater be much worried about what can happen to a baby? Hammond [IN] Lake County Times 27 February 1930: p. 4

Cow’s milk was often a hazardous commodity. There are too many cases to count of persons killed or driven mad by cows ingesting poisonous plants. [In The Headless Horror, for example, there was a case of an Ohio village in the grip of a witch mania from poisoned milk.] In this snippet, the culprit is supposed to be a snake, but one wonders….

Pittston, Pa., June 18. Eighteen persons were seriously poisoned here yesterday, by milk taken from a cow supposed to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. Evening Star [Washington DC] 18 June 1878: p. 1

Cows also might prove a more direct hazard, especially when the victims were groping around in bovine intestines.

SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Death of Two men from Poison Received in Handling the Intestines of a Dead Cow

Woman and Boy Dangerously Ill.

[From the New Albany Ledger.]

On Thursday of last week a very remarkable and terrible case of poisoning occurred at Tell City, Perry county, resulting in the death of two men, the probable  death of a woman, and the serious illness of a little boy ten years of age. The circumstances of the case, as we learn them from E.E. Crumb, Esq., of Cannelton, are about as follows;

On Wednesday night the cow of Dominic Friant died very suddenly. On the next day (Thursday) Mr. Friant determined to open her and examine as to the cause of her death, suspecting she had been poisoned. He called to his assistance his wife, a little boy of ten years, and Mr. Joseph Sporcey. Upon cutting open the paunch of the cow, small pieces of pewter and a silver spoon were found in it; and each of the parties named pushed their hands into the paunch and felt among its contents for other pieces of the spoons than those already found.

On Friday morning, when the persons arose from bed, they found their hands and arms much swollen and broken out with large red blotches. The swelling continued to rapidly increase and spread until it covered the entire upper part of the bodies of the victim. Medical assistance was summoned, and everything possible done for the relief of the sufferers, but all was of no avail. Mr. Friant died on Saturday, Mr. Sporcey on Sunday, and Mrs. Friant was still dangerously ill on Tuesday and it was thought would die. The little boy was out of danger at last accounts.

The physicians gave it as their opinion that the unfortunate victims took the poison from the cow’s paunch into their systems by absorption, as there was no abrasure upon the skin of either of them. The case is one among the saddest and most singular we have ever been called upon to record. The Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 13 July 1870: p. 3

Rats were a favorite animal culprit. They could be found in a domestic setting.

Apples Poisoned by Rats

Poison placed in a grocery cellar at Bucyrus, O., to exterminate rats was dragged by them over a lot of apples. Loren Haman bought some of the fruit and his whole family is sick. Ethel, aged 5, died in great agony. Many other purchasers of the apples suffered—New York World Marion [OH] Daily Star 16 February 1899

Or they could be found operating on a grand, public scale.

The National Hotel Sickness Again.

The Editor of the New York Scalpel makes the following statement in regard to the mysterious sickness at the National Hotel, Washington.

We have a patient from the immediate vicinity of this hotel—a very common-sense man and a housekeeper—who assures us that his premises were overrun with rats from the hotel; dozens of them might be seen at almost any hour of the day in the yard—indeed, they were so numerous as to be incredible, and a man from this city was sent for to poison them. He did so, and what he used it is not very probable he told. Those ingenious philosophers are not apt to communicate their secrets. The rats all disappeared. My patient tells me not one is visible on his premises, and they were in numbers so incredible, that he would not venture to say; but we know, for we have been there and seen them in the hotel-yard. He had a servant who had been employed at the hotel, and she told him, that it was known to all the other servants, that a great number of dead rats were taken from the water-tank, which was used for cooking and other household purposes! This was published at the time, and is doubtless true; for a rat’s instinct, after eating arsenic, will lead him to the top of a house to get water; and nothing is easier than for them to get in a water-tank. No other person than those who ate at the hotel were affected, although that sewer opens directly before the room, and under the doors and windows of a telegraphic office, where sixteen gentlemen are constantly operating. It by no means follows that all who ate of the food should be similarly affected; all did not die, and some ate mostly perhaps of dishes that did not require so much of that filthy water in their preparation. Some drank much strong coffee, and coffee is an antidote—in short, some had stronger constitutions, and many are still suffering.

No doubt, the proprietors of the National Hotel felt disgraced at the discovery of the filthiness of their premises; and no doubt the committee felt sore at our letter—it had too much common-sense in it; but we can’t cure committees—never. As for the hotels at Washington, they are the most disgraceful and filthy holes that humanity ever vomited in; and if our business again leads us to Washington, which it often has, and probably will, we will either live out of town in the suburbs, or carry some food with us. Such filth as we have there witnessed, we never wish to see again. We should not have been surprised to have found a rat entire in a hash or a pie.

Whilst reading the proof of this article, we find a very learned paper in the American Medical Monthly, by the excellent Dr. Hall, of Washington — a gentleman who is admired by all who know him — designed to prove the miasmatic character of the disease. The last paragraph is as follows: “One thing, however, jostled my theory, and has staggered me a good deal, and that is, that many persons who partook of but a single meal were seized! Could the miasma have affected or adhered to food? The water of the house I drank copiously without any ill effects.”

Dear Doctor, they never gave you that water to drink; it was a little too filthy for drinking; as the poor woman said, who wished to settle the stomachs of her guests, when they rebelled at their breakfast, her eggs were “not fresh enough for boiling;” so she fried ’em.

So far as regards the power of concentrated exhalations from sewers to produce disease of the bowels, no one doubts it; Heaven knows every physician in a large city is abundantly convinced of its power; but it acts chiefly on children, and in connection with teething; the dysentery of our summers is chiefly admitted to be caused by heat, and is dysentery and nothing else; that this National Hotel epidemic should have been confined solely to one house, and have produced the set of symptoms it did, without a specific or material poison acting on the stomach and its appendages is absurd. Arsenic, mechanically diffused from the decayed rats, and slowly acting on the stomach, is sufficient to account for all the symptoms. The Highland Weekly news [Hillsboro, OH] 9 July 1857: p. 1

See this link for more on this sensational case. [Thanks to Strange Company for the link.]

Fatally Poisoned by Impure Water.

Findlay, October 19. Miss Hattie Wade of Mount Cory, died of a strange malady just two weeks after her mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wade, the two cases showing the same symptoms. Investigation shows the cause to have been poisoning, due to the use of drinking water from a well in which a poisoned rat had been drowned. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 20 October 1883: p. 6

We are, of course, reminded by both articles above of that tragic case where a young woman tourist drowned herself in the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Everyone knows that snake venom is still lethal for a long period after a snake’s death. Apparently it maintains its lethal qualities even in another animal’s body.

SNAKE POISON.

It is stated that the blood of an animal bitten by a venous snake assumes poisonous properties. Frank Buckland on one occasion having seen a rat bitten and killed by a cobra, dissected off the skin to examine the wound. Having discovered the two minutes punctures made by the poison fangs, he scraped away with his fingernail the flesh on the inner side of the skin which he had removed. Unfortunately, he had shortly before been cleaning his nails with a penknife, and had slightly separated the nail from the skin beneath. When he had completed his rapid examination of the rat he walked way, characteristically stuffing the skin into his pocket, (what strange things, alive and dead, did those pockets often contain!)

He had not walked a hundred yards before, all of a sudden, he felt as if somebody had come behind him and struck him a severe blow on the head, and at the same time experienced a most acute pain and sense of oppression at the chest, “as though a hot iron had been run in and a hundred weight put on top of it.” He knew instantly from what he had read that he was poisoned. Luckily he obtained ammonia and brandy, but was ill for some days. “How virulent, therefore,” he says, “must the poison of a cobra be! It had already been circulated in the body of the rat from which I had imbibed it at second hand.” From the account that he gives, however, it seems at least possibly, if not probable that some of the poison was hanging about the wound unabsorbed, and had thus entered his system directly and not, as he believed, indirectly. Murray’s Magazine. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 18 April 1889

I have a note in my files to the effect that “Charles Drury, taxidermist of Cincinnati was poisoned by rattlesnake head on a specimen he was preparing,” but I cannot find the citation.

Tainted poultry has also been responsible for many food poisonings, but not for the same reason as in these two cases. Another reason to avoid Thanksgiving.

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.

Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.

The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.

As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.

The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.

The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.

All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.

Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1

Did this young man die of anthrax poisoning? It is said that people who sorted wool or worked with animal bone, bristles, or hides were susceptible to inhalational anthrax. The wonder is that it didn’t kill more people.

A SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Jas. Francis McLean, whose singular poisoning was yesterday referred to, was employed in the morocco factory of James. S. Barclay, on Piano Street, Newark, N.J., where imported skins are tanned. Last Wednesday he was engaged in the handling of some Russian hides that were in the process of tanning. While his hand was still wet, he rubbed a pimple of his chin. On Thursday night he was taken ill, and on Friday morning he complained of chills, and his throat was slightly swollen. He continued to grow worse, the swelling extending upward to the forehead and half way down his chest. The swelling affected his breathing and he suffered intense pains. A consultation of physicians was held and the conclusion was reached that the young man was afflicted with a malignant pustule. All efforts to save his life proved unavailing, and on Saturday evening he died, partly from strangulation and partly from nervous prostration. These pustules arise generally from the infusion into the blood of virus from diseased animals, and the skins of animals who had died with disease are said to have communicated the poison months after their slaughter. [N.Y. Times, 6th.] Evening Star [Washington, DC] 7 June 1878: p. 3

Then we have the animal that is man. There are a surprising number of stories of people dying or becoming ill from human bites.

A DYING MAN

Bit His Wife’s Finger and her Life is Despaired Of.

Tiffin, O., March 25. Mrs. Elizabeth Atkinson lies at the home of her parents in this city in a critical condition, the result of being bitten by her late husband while he was in the throes of death. The deceased by W.H. Atkinson, a man high in  railroad circles in Cleveland. He died in that city last week of Bright’s disease, and his body was cremated. While his wife was administering to him just before his death, he seized her little finger in his teeth and in his delirium lacerated the flesh badly. She accompanied the ashes of her husband here, and a few days later the injured hand began to swell, until now her entire arm is swollen to twice its natural size, and she suffers excruciating agony.

It is believed that blood poisoning has resulted and that the woman’s life is in danger. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 March 1902: p. 1

A letter from Portsmouth, Ohio, written by a lady to her husband in this city, makes mention of an extraordinary circumstance. A short time ago a young lady was bitten by a dog. Hydrophobia manifested itself on her, and while confined with the disease she bit her sister, who was waiting on her. The sister was soon attacked by the same disease and bit the mother. All three were alive at the last account, but were all raving mad, and there was no prospect of their recovery. Louisville Journal.Standard [Clarksville, TX] 8 October 1859: p. 2

While insect bites also could be or turn poisonous, this is an unusual story of insect toxicity. Any explanations?

At Piqua, Ohio, last week, Rev. W. L. Fee picked a quantity of potato bugs off his vines and placed them in a tin can; then pouring boiling water into the can, he stood over it to watch its Christian effect on the enemy, but soon became very ill and it was concluded the vapor had poisoned him. Cleveland [OH] Leader 2 June 1871: p. 3

Our final animal entry circles back to dogs in a seemingly unlikely case of indirect poisoning.

Singular circumstance. A Baltimore paper states, that a girl died recently in Virginia from having biten [sic] a thread with which she had sewn up a rent made by the bite of a mad dog, in her apron. Ohio Monitor [Columbus, OH] 29 June 1831: p. 2

Stories of indirect vegetable poisons are more rare.

Mr. John Thomas, residing at No. 2233 B street, visited the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in company with some friends, on Sunday last, and while there weeded some grass from the flowers on a grave. On arriving home he discovered a poison had entered his skin, completely covering his body with a mass of putrid corruption. The doctors in attendance say they are unable to determine the natural of the poison. The Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, PA] 29 may 1871: p. 8

Singular Case of Poisoning

From Our Jacksonville correspondent we learn of a strange poisoning case. J.M. Dille, a citizen of Richhill township, while cleaning off some ground for the plow, recently, and burning brush with which was mixed some mercury vines (rhus radicans?] and other poisonous vegetation, inhaled some of the smoke of the burning mass. This, singular to relate, acted upon the lungs like poison upon the external surface, and soon produced serious sickness. Mr. Dille is now lying in an almost hopeless condition from the effects of the poisoning. Waynesburg Republican. Washington [PA] Reporter, 27 May 1874: p. 1

A curious case of tobacco poisoning is reported from Brooklyn. A child purchased a cake at one of the refreshment stands in Prospect park. After eating a small portion of it, he was taken with nausea and vomited freely. A physician being summoned declared that the child was suffering from tobacco poisoning, and, on examination, tobacco was found scattered through the cake. This accident indicates the necessity for some sort of supervision of the bakeries, as there is but little doubt that the subordinate workmen are not of the most cleanly habits possible. Chicago Medical Review Denver Medical Times, Volume 2, Issue 3 1883

Indirect mineral poisonings are even rarer (although there have been suggestions that lead leached from pipes or ceramics brought down the Roman empire.) but I find these to be some of the most interesting.

A bartender was believed to have rheumatism, but the doctor suspected that he was suffering from lead poisoning.

One point in his history was suggestive, and that was the fact that he was accustomed to drink a good deal of what he termed “soft stuff,” [i.e. soft drinks] being a total abstainer, yet compelled to drink something when “treated” by his customers. The bottles containing these beverages were closed with old-fashioned lead stoppers and the carbonic acid gas dissolved in the beverages made them much better solvents of lead than uncharged fluids. Eliminative treatment led to quick recovery of the patient and proved the correctness of the diagnosis. Medical Record, George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, Vol. 74, 1908

I have previously written about the perils of poisoned stockings. Here is one more.

Cincinnati, March 18. Last Saturday Louis Mosser, purchased a pair of stockings. He wore them Sunday. Monday morning he was unable to leave his bed, and to-day the physician, who has been in constant attendance, considered his case very precarious. His feet and legs are swollen two or three times their natural size and give him the most intense pain. The stockings were dyed a cardinal red, and it is supposed the coloring matter must have contained poison. The Highland Weekly News [Hillsboro, OH] 24 March 1886: p. 2

And finally, watch out for peaches.

The Granada (Mi.) Register of the 19th ult., says the family of G. Morehead, residing near the Yazoo Pass, were recently poisoned (as is supposed) by eating peaches which had been dried upon a painted scaffold—‘the acid of the peaches, combining with the alkaline and other properties of the white lead, probably producing a poison like sugar of lead.’ Mrs. M. and two of the children died. The other members of the family recovered. Boston [MA] Traveler 2 December 1842: p. 2

My alter-ego, the murderous Mrs Daffodil, has a penchant for what one might call “indirect murder,” never resorting to direct violence, but allowing circumstances or other people to do her dirty work. The cases above seem to be accidents, but contain some useful details. Mrs Daffodil is taking notes.

Any other indirect poisonings? Is the book-page poisoning from The Name of the Rose strictly a fictional creation? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who does not lick her fingers when turning over the leaves of a book.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Gloomy Coffin-Makers Go on Strike to Recover their Cheerfulness: 1903

The Coffin Maker Has a Just Kick.

Because the employees of two of the largest coffin factories in New York feel that they have the same right to laugh and be merry, in spite of their daily toil, that is given to the majority of mankind, they are out on strike. A thousand workmen have laid aside their tools and say they will not take them up again unless they are assured of a nine and one half-hour workday and a three-hour day on Saturday. They have been toiling among the coffins for ten hours six days a week. The more sensitive of the workmen complain that it makes them gloomy and melancholy to fashion tenements for the dead ten hours a day and right up to quitting time on Saturday. The somber associations of the coffin factory, they assert, are not easily got rid of, with the result that they do no recover their cheerfulness and attain a frame of mind to enjoy their leisure until late on Sunday, which curtails their pleasure and renders them undesirable associates for their friends. “A fellow can’t help thinking of his own end when he is hammering these dead boxes together, a striker is quoted as saying. “You get in the habit of wondering who is going to occupy the coffin and often you have a notion that it will be yourself. We’re not a gloomy lot naturally; all we want is an opportunity to be cheerful out of business hours.” The striking coffin makers will have the profound sympathy of professional joke writers, usually the most solemn and serious-minded of men. The right of the coffin maker to appreciate and enjoy the humor of the comic supplements in the Sunday newspapers is a sacred one, and if his hours of toll paralyze his power of laughter he has a perfect right to strike or choose another occupation, say undertaking. It is not, however, the usual thing for men to take seriously the duties with which they are most familiar. Only a short time ago an undertaker in a nearby city gathered up and put together the horribly mangled remains of a man who had been dashed to death by a fall over a cliff 500 feet high. While he worked he whistled, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And the majority of those, who day after day are thrown in contact with death and suggestions of the dark and narrow house speedily lose the innate sense of fear and awe that controls those who seldom contemplate the common end of man.

Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 25 June 1903: p. 4

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Readers with an curiosity about matters mortuary may find the following post on the girl shroud-makers of New York to be of interest. The young ladies, who seem a cheerful lot, mention the coffin department and how quickly they became used to working with these reminders of mortality. The article was followed by a discussion of shrouded spectres: shrouded ghosts and superstitions about the habiliments of death. You will also shudder at a recent post on phantom coffin makers as an omen of death.

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.

Other stories of funerary workers appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

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.