Tales of Terrible Turkeys: A Thanksgiving Post

Turkey Horror 1895

I am not fond of Thanksgiving. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t see any merit in a holiday based on overeating and football. That and I still shudder at the time a hostess insouciantly defrosted the frozen turkey on top of the drier overnight in a paper bag, leading to hours of projectile vomiting for the whole assembly.

This may explain why you will not find here any heart-warming tales of juicy birds swimming in gravy, dressing, and cranberry relish, but rather a mean-spirited account of vindictive turkeys. Long before the invention of the deep-fat turkey fryer so loathed by the underwriting community, dangerous turkeys were in the news.

While I have only seen wild turkeys at a distance–they look like miniature velociraptors—they are said to be very aggressive and territorial. They are bulky, have sharp beaks and claws, and their heavy wings can do serious damage. One mocks a turkey at one’s peril and it is not wise to wear red around them. The males read the color red as signifying an invading turkey cock and will attack, a motif found in many of these stories. Having heard from those who keep them that domesticated turkeys are rather stupid—I would not have expected that they could do as much damage as these stories suggest.

In Belmont county, Ohio, an old gobbler attacked and killed a playful young puppy because he persisted in chasing the young turkeys. New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 13 November 1889: p. 2

Turkeys on a Rampage.

Rising Sun, Md., Enraged at his red handkerchief, two large turkey gobblers attacked R.B. Marshall while he was walking near the home of George Nesbitt, owner of the birds, and it required the combined efforts of both Marshall ad Nesbitt to drive the turkeys off.

The birds beat Marshall’s legs with their wings, bruising him severely. He yelled lustily and Nesbitt ran to his aid. Using light sticks as clubs they managed, after a sharp fight, to rout the angry gobblers. St. Tammany Farmer [Covington, LA] 9 May 1908: p. 5

TURKEY ATTACKS ARTIST;

SERIOUSLY INJURES HIM

London, June 9. A Staffordshire artist, while sketching near Hanley was attacked by a turkey and had an exciting encounter with the bird lasting a quarter of an hour.

The turkey approached the artist from behind and made a sudden attack. With his sketch block he aimed a blow at the bird’s head, but missed and then sought refuge behind a tree. The turkey pursued him and injured him quite severely. A party of golfers finally came to the rescue and killed the turkey. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 10 June 1910: p. 16

GOBBLER ATTACKS AUTO

Wins Fight With Bird Mirrored in Varnish of Car.

Prof. Frank W. Magill of Danville, Pa., drove his new highly polished automobile out into the country the first day after receiving it and stopped along the road to chat with a farmer friend.

Up strutted a fine turkey gobbler, which caught a glimpse of its reflection in the polished sides of the machine. The bird immediately challenged the newcomer and with beak and claws flew at the car.

The old bird fought until it was exhausted and the side of the auto was a wreck. The Kentuckian [Hopkinsville, KY] 19 July 1919: p. 10

[A squib from an 1899 Michigan paper told the same story about a new, highly polished buggy.]

When [Mr. Alexander Wedderburn of Chesterhall,] was between three and four years old, having provoked a fierce Turkey cock, by hallooing to him,—

“Bubbly Jock, your wife is a witch,

And she is going to be burnt with a barrel of pitch.”*

The animal flew at the child, laid him flat on the ground and seemed disposed to peck his eyes out, when he was saved by his nurse, who rushed in to the rescue with a broom in her hand.

[*The author says that he doesn’t know the meaning of the rhyme but heard it himself as a child, applied to turkey cocks. Karen Davis, author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, says that the term comes from “bubbly”—“snotty” and “Jock” or “Jack,” meaning a rustic boor.  So the turkey’s wattle makes it look like a snotty-nosed peasant. A salutary lesson in not mocking a turkey!] The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, Volume 6John Campbell, 1847

Attacked by a Turkey

Frank Stadden narrowly escaped having his eyesight destroyed and his nose bitten off by an infuriated turkey on Monday morning. But here’s the story in brief;

John McCool sold a number of turkeys to Mr. Austin and one of them flew into a tree. Finding it impossible to coax the gobbler from its perch Frank Stadden was appealed to. Frank loaded his blunderbuss and brought the fowl to earth, but it was only slightly wounded and, when he attempted to capture it, the bird showed fight. It struck at Frank, drove its talons into his hands, bored holes into his face with its beak and greatly disfigured his proboscis. Seeing that Frank was getting the worst of the battle Mr. Austin ran to his assistance with a club and dispatched the gobbler. However, in striking at the turkey Austin’s aim was not at all times accurate, and Frank received one of the blows intended for the bird which caused a big blue-black lump to appear with remarkable rapidity upon the polished portion of his cranium. Mr. Stadden asserts that never in his lifetime has he encountered so ferocious a turkey as this particular gobbler, and says he is inclined to the opinion that either its father of its mother was a great American eagle. The Princeton [MN] Union 21 December 1911: p. 2

Only rarely was there a happy ending when a turkey attacked a child.

Charleston, April 24. A mare belonging to John Cooper was the heroine in a savage attack which a large turkey gobbler made upon a small child of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper at their residence, the gentle animal taking a position with surprising intelligence directly over the prostrate form of the little boy and with his [sic] head fighting off the infuriated bird as it tried to scalp the child. The gobbler weighed 24 pounds. It was a magnificent bird and was admired by all who saw it. No harm had ever come, however, to the child, and it seems that I was never thought necessary to especially guard against any attacks of the kind. While the child was at play in the yard, the gobbler attacked him and knocking the child prostrate, was savagely pecking at the head and tearing the flesh, as it closed its beak and pulled at the skin and hair. The child was heard to cry in pain, but it was a minute or two before he could be reached, and when the call was answered, the mare was found enedeavoring to protect the child form the attack. As the gobbler viciously flew and pecked at the child, the mare would put her head in the way and receive the beak. The horse had seen the gobbler attack the child, and with wonderful intelligence and a sense of devotion, she came to his assistance and protection and perhaps saved his life or serious injury. As it was, the child’s head was badly pecked and the scalp torn in places, but the wounds will speedily heal and fortunately the little fellow will not be marked in life.

It is needless to add that a turkey dinner was served at the Cooper home yesterday. The handsome bird was introduced to the axe on short order after its attack upon the child and he is now getting the picking, so to speak. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 24 April 1911: p. 9

This was the more usual outcome.

A Gobbler Attacks a Child

English, Ind., April 26. An enraged turkey gobbler tore the nose and part of the upper lip off and destroyed an eye of a small child belonging to Geo. R. Cutter Thursday. The babe was in the yard, dressed in a red gown, which enraged the bird. Drs. Brent and Hazelwood hope to restore the nose and lip by stitching, but the eye is torn from the socket. Daily Public Ledger [Maysville, KY] 26 April 1895: p. 3 

Or this.

A Child Killed by a Turkey Cock

An inquest was held at the Police Office, Cheadle, Staffordshire, last Monday, before Alderman Flint, to inquire into the death of a grandchild of a Mr. Finney, of the Cheadle Park farm. It appeared from the evidence of William Philips, one of the farm servants, that on Friday afternoon last, while some of the family were absent at Cheadle Market, the child in question—a remarkably fine boy about two years old—was playing about in the yard with him, and that while he was at work the child slipped away, and went, as he supposed, into the house, but presently, on inquiry being made for the child, it was found to have gone into a field at the further end of the yard, where, on a search being made, it was found lying with its face downward, quite dead, a flock of turkeys being about twenty yards off. From the evidence of Phillips, it appeared that a kind of feud existed between the child and the turkeys, he having on a former occasion killed several of the young ones with a stick, wince which time the “old cock bird (to use the witness’ expression) had made pecks at the child.” Mr. Thomas Webb, surgeon, deposed, that on being sent for to the child the only visible mark of violence found upon it was upon the jaw or lower part of the face, which might have been caused by a turkey’s wing, and was not such a mark as would have been caused by a kick from a horse, but he stated that, as there were horses in the field, he examined the ground closely, but could not discover any horses’ footmark near where the child lay. The coroner and jury, together with the medical man, went to view the locus in quo and the deceased, and upon their return the former addressed a few remarks to them, suggesting that, although there was no positive evidence of the manner in which the child came by its death, there could be very little doubt, looking at the evidence which had been brought before them, that it had been caused by the turkey. A verdict to that effect was accordingly rendered. London Times. 8thConstitution [Washington, DC] 28 October 1859: p. 2

I have my doubts about the previous verdict, but was surprised to find an account of a turkey killing a man:

The victim was Judge Samuel Spencer, of the first North Carolina Supreme Court. He was very old and infirm and had been placed in a chair under a tree in his yard.

“He died in 1794. His death was caused by a most singular circumstance. He had been in ill health, and was in the yard, sitting in the sun. A large turkey gobbler was attracted by some part of his clothing [his hat], which was red, for which color turkeys have a great antipathy.

“The turkey attacked the judge most furiously, and before assistance could rescue him, so severely was he injured that he died in a short time from the injuries.” [Another account says that the gobbler put a spur into the Judge’s temple, killing him.] The History of North Carolina, John Wheeler Moore

In addition to live killer turkeys, there were many reports of families poisoned by eating them. The reason was not always understood, although there were stories of ptomaine poisoning and of cattle dying of “lump jaw” being fed to the poultry, who then died of cholera and were served at table. This last story is an intriguing murder mystery.

POISONED TURKEY SENT TO KILL WHOLE FAMILY

San Francisco, Nov. 29. An attempt to poison the family of Adolph Ottinger, a retired railroad ticket broker, by means of a poisoned turkey sent to his home Thanksgiving, became known today, when the police admitted that they were searching for the would-be poisoner.

The turkey was left in the kitchen of the Ottinger residence during the temporary absence of the Chinese cook. Believing it was the gift of some friend, Ottinger ordered the cook to place it in the pantry until one already being prepared for the table was disposed of.

The following day it was noticed that the turkey had assumed a peculiar color, and becoming suspicious, Ottinger carried it to a chemist who found a large quantity of arsenic in the dressing. There is no clew to the identity of the person leaving the turkey nor to the motive for attempting the murder of an entire family. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 30 November 1909: p. 3

As a side note, Adolph Ottinger was much in the news, including three attempts to burn his mansion and murder Mrs Ottinger [1912] and several arrests for various financial irregularities. A longer article on the poisoning said that the turkey was found on the sidewalk between the Ottinger residence and a police detective’s home by the Ottinger’s chauffeur and that the bird poisoned two grapefruits kept in the same icebox, sickening Mr and Mrs Ottinger.

I wish you non-aggressive and wholesome turkeys for the upcoming Thanksgiving. I will be crouching in the corner in a defensive posture.

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.

Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect
Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

The days are filled with the plague-rattle clamor of cicadas. Dying locusts buzz and smear underfoot on the sidewalk, raising visions of scorpion-tailed locusts swarming out of the Pit of the Book of Revelation. It is an evil season….

What with locust resentment, the Zika virus, dive-bombing stink-bugs, and the fact that I am a tick-magnet, I am not an admirer of the Insect Kingdom.  Pocket your killing jars, or perhaps don your beekeeping coveralls and veils—today we’ll be pinning down some cases of Death by Insect.

Spider bites, bee-stings, and lethal centipedes may be taken as read, as may deaths from insect-vectored disease. I am more interested in what you might call the personal touch: deaths directly caused by insects with undeservedly benign reputations.

Flies, however, have long been regarded with suspicion in the medical community. One popular slogan stated, “Every fly is a messenger for the Angel of Death.” [Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 24 April 1911]

The zoöphagic William Buckland is remembered for having eaten blue-bottle flies; he said that he found it difficult to decide which was the nastier dish: mole or fly. Buckland seems to have suffered no ill-effects, unlike the old woman of the whimsical rhyme, and these unfortunates:

Swallowed a Fly

St. Louis, Sept. 7. Eugene Dixon swallowed a fly Tuesday afternoon and died yesterday. He was playing in the kitchen and was laughing heartily at some incident which had happened when he swallowed the fly. About an hour afterwards he became so ill that it was necessary to call a physician. Notwithstanding the efforts of the medical attendant the child grew worse very rapidly and died in terrible agony. Worcester [MA] Daily Spy 8 September 1894: p. 3

Is there an explanation or did some juvenile illness coincide with the swallowed fly? Perhaps this story holds the answer:

FLY PAPER KILLS A MAN BY PROXY.

Daniel Miller, of Arcola, Swallows a Poisoned Insect and Dies.

Arcola, Ill., Sept. 21. The most singular case of poisoning that has ever occurred in this section happened last night. Dan Miller, aged 60, was eating supper, and accidentally swallowed a fly that had been on fly paper. Miller lived about three hours. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 22 September 1895: p. 5

Arsenic, commonly found in fly papers might explain the child’s “terrible agony.”

The Daily Mail delights in gruesome stories about the immense and disgustingly mobile creatures infesting human ears, eyes, and noses. Such things might have occurred even more frequently in the past when window-screens were less common and children spent more time out of doors.

KILLED BY A BEETLE IN HIS EAR

Atlantic City, Dec. 1 After suffering for months from headaches and acute pains in the head, Somers Braddock, 9 years old, did at the home of his parents here. Doctors had treated him and had failed to locate an apparent cause for his illness. An autopsy was performed and a dead beetle was found in one of the boy’s ears. Lexington [KY] Herald 2 December 1907: p. 8

Singular Death.

A labourer died on one of the flat boats on the Levee at New Orleans on the 8th, of a disease which baffled his physician. A post mortem examination took place, and upon examining his brain, it was discovered that an insect of about an inch long, known by the name of a centipede or a thousand legs, had crawled into his ear, causing thereby an excruciating death. Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette [Hallowell, ME] 24 July 1841: p. 2

We must question whether this next dire and improbable story happened in this exact way or whether it has more in common with tales of reptiles said to inhabit the stomachs of unwary drinkers from springs.

CHILD KILLED BY A BEETLE

A correspondent writing from Ashley, pa., August 23, says: A post-mortem examination has just been held upon the body of a two years old child of Mr. Louis Schappert, a butcher residing in this place, which died a day or two since in great agony. It was taken suddenly and violently ill, and nothing could be administered that seemed to give any relief. Its body swelled to nearly twice its size, and it died vomiting blood. On the opening of the stomach of the child, the cause of the singular illness and death was discovered. In the coating of the stomach, with the huge horns firmly imbedded was an enormous stag beetle. The only explanation that could be given as to the manner of the insect getting into the stomach was that given by the child’s mother, who stated that the night the child was taken sick, and a few moments before the first symptoms, it had asked for a drink. The mother gave the child a drink from a cup containing water and sitting on a chair beside the bed. There is no doubt that one of these horned beetles had fallen into the cup while flying about the room, and the child drank it with the water. Eastern Argus [Portland, ME] 7 September 1871: p. 4

We’ve read before about Butterflies of Doom—black moths and winged insects as tokens of death.  This multi-colored angel of death played a more direct and deadly role as a child was

LURED TO DEATH BY BUTTERFLY

Child Reached For It and Was Killed by Fall From Fire Escape.

New York, June 15. Mary Fletcher, 6 years old, fell from the third floor fire escape at No. 1813 Amsterdam Avenue, yesterday afternoon, and was killed.

The child had been permitted by her mother to play on the fire escape. A large butterfly alighted on the brick wall near the child, and she made an attempt to catch it. In her excitement she fell through the opening. New Haven [CT] Register 15 June 1899: p. 8

The U.S. Bureau of Entomology made a shocking revelation about the Brown-tail moth.

MOTH CAUSES TUBERCULOSIS

Brown-Tail Variety Has Already Killed a Government Agent

(Washington Dispatch to New York World)

The announcement that a New England woman is seriously ill from the “brown-tail moth rash” is causing alarm in states where the pest is spreading. The bureau of entomology is making constant war on the brown-tail moth, but it is on the increase.

“We lost one of our men from the effects of the rash caused by the hair of the caterpillar going into his lungs and pores,” said Dr. L.O. Howard, chief of the bureau.

C.L. Marlatt, assistant chief of the bureau, said:

“The brown-tail moth exercises a very deleterious effect on health. The hair which cover the caterpillars of this moth are strongly nettling and not only are they so from accidental contact with a caterpillar which may fall on clothes, face, neck or hands from an infested tree, but also from the myriads of hairs which are shed by these caterpillars when they transform to the chrysalis state.

“Breathed into the lungs, the hairs may cause inflammation and become productive of tuberculosis. Thousands have suffered from brown rash. All of the assistants who have been connected with the government work with these pests in the New England states have been seriously poisoned. Two of them had to give up their work and go to the southwest to try to recover from pulmonary troubles, super induced by the irritating hairs of the brown-tail moth. The death of one man on the work was due to severe internal poisoning contracted in field work against larvae.

“This insect is a most undesirable neighbour, even if it were not responsible for great injury to orchards and ornamental trees.”

The brown-tail moth was imported by a florist in Somerville, Mass., twenty years ago, probably on roses from Holland or France. Its presence was not discovered until 1897, when it had made much headway.

Dr. Howard believes the moth can be killed out if the people will fight it. Evening Times [Grand Forks ND] 23 November 1911: p. 4

The caterpillar of the moth does cause skin irritation and breathing difficulties, but we cannot blame it for tuberculosis.

On the other hand, I recently saw a headline about a motorcyclist being choked by an inhaled moth. (In a related note, a dense swarm of mayflies caused multiple motorcycles to crash and closed a bridge in Pennsylvania.) What are the odds of that happening?

BOY KILLED BY MOTH

Flies Into His Mouth, Lodges in Windpipe and Prevents Breathing

Owensboro, Ky., Oct. 18. Almost instant death from swallowing a candle moth was the fate that befell 10-year-old Jessie Moore, son of George Moore, of Whiteville, this county. The moth passed into the boy’s windpipe, and altho a physician was in the house at the time, he could do nothing to save the child’s life.

The boy and his father were sitting in front of a fire. The former had fallen asleep in his chair with his mouth slightly open. A large moth fluttering around a lamp on a table nearby suddenly flew into the boy’s open mouth. The father saw it and supposed that the boy would be awakened, but was alarmed when instead he became black in the face and was apparently thrown into convulsions. In an adjoining room with a smaller child of the Moore family was Dr. McDonald of Whitesville and he was quickly called into the room to see the boy, but the lad died in a few seconds. The moth had gone into the boy’s mouth and lodged squarely on top of the windpipe, completely shutting off his breath. Fort Worth [TX} Star-Telegram 18 October 1907: p. 11

I am not sure if this next item is just a fictional tale for the papers or whether night-moths are really such crack shots with a pistol. It sounds like an episode of House.

KILLED BY A MOTH.

Princess Caravella, a singularly lovable woman, had been entertaining a party of friends at dinner at the Caravella Palace in Naples, and, as she had promised, to attend a ball towards midnight, she went to her bedroom to lie down for a few minutes’ rest to refresh herself for the dance.

At 11 o’clock her maid entered the room to awake her, whereupon the Princess asked her to return a little later, and. twenty minutes afterwards, when she returned, the girl found her mistress still lying on her bed with scarcely a muscle of the face changed, but stone dead, with the mark of a tiny bullet in the region of the heart.

The maid’s shrieks quickly brought the Prince and the whole household to the room, and within ten minutes the judicial and police authorities arrived. It was clear that no stranger had fired the shot, since the bedroom was situated on the third floor, and no one had entered the gates of the palace between the hour of ten and midnight.

At length the Prince was arrested on a charge of having murdered his wife with the little pistol which lay by her side on the table, and one chamber of which was empty, colour being lent to the accusation by the fact that he was notoriously jealous.

His trial resulted in acquittal, partly in consequence of an extraordinary piece of testimony which was produced in court by one of the police officials. The testimony he related was this: A couple of days after the murder, on the removal of the seals from the door to the bedroom, he made a careful investigation of the apartment, and had found on the floor by the bedside one of those enormous night moths, the bodies of which are almost as thick as a man s thumb, and which abound in Italy. He declared that the moth’s wings were badly singed, as if it had flown against the candle that stood on the table by the bedside.

He produced the math in court, and then proceeded to point out to the judges that some of the powder on the insect’s wings was apparent on the black ebony and gold stock and trigger of the little revolver which had been found on the table with which the shooting had been done.

He then called the attention of the judges and the jury to the phenomenal facility with which the trigger yielded, and advanced the argument that the Princess had been killed by the night moth, which, he alleged, must have flown into the room, attracted by the candle-light, and falling with singed wings on to the table, had discharged the revolver in the violence of its contortions. Hastings Standard 18 July 1914: p. 1

These horrifying tales brought back childhood memories of reading about hapless South American villagers overwhelmed and eaten by army ants, leaving behind only skeletons.

Killed by Ants.

A broken-hearted mother, a peasant woman living near Schlang, Bohemia, is weeping over her discovery a few days ago refuting the popular belief that red and black ants, while a nuisance, are no menace to life or limb.

The woman, going out to labor in the fields after nursing her babe, laid the infant on the ground in the shade and went to work. After a while the child began to cry violently. The mother, thinking that it simply wished to be taken up, paid no attention to it.

The cries increased in violence at first, and then gradually died away, presently ceasing entirely. When the mother had finished her task and returned to her infant she at first thought it had been stolen. Her attention was attracted to a swarming heap of black ants, and on approaching was horrified to see one hand of the child sticking out of the mass of insects. The baby had ceased to breathe. Its eyes had been eaten out, and the insects, swarming into its throat, had literally choked it to death. Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 17 March 1902: p. 3

COUPLE KILLED BY ANTS

El Paso, Tex., Aug. 17. Jesus Gonzales and his wife, Maria, unknowingly camped on a nest of desert ants while crossing the country here and were so terribly bitten by the insects that they succumbed at the hospital later. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 18 August 1908: p. 3

Reports of spider deaths almost always follow the same monotonous thread. Here are two of the more singular cases.

To demonstrate the potent character of molecular influence, I would refer you to an incident that occurred in San Francisco, Cal., where a lady, Mrs. Jervis, was bitten by a poisonous tarantula. She lingered for six months in continual agony, her blood literally drying up, till she was reduced to an absolute skeleton. Three months before her death her entire right side became paralyzed; yet, strange to say, the hand had a tendency to crawl, and the fingers incessantly moved like the legs of a spider. The encyclopaedia of death and life in the spirit-world, John Reynolds Francis p. 77-8

I’ve written before about people who died from accidentally swallowing spiders. This fellow apparently did not read the papers as he wantonly and deliberately ate three spider egg sacs.

A singular death, reported by a correspondent of the Louisville Courier-Journal occurred in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, a few days ago. Mr. Pennington, a stout healthy farmer, living about four miles from Iuka, had a slight chill last Sunday. The day before he was in excellent health. Monday morning he felt the approach of another chill and lay down on the bed. After lying awhile he remarked to a member of his family that he had heard it said that spider-webs “were good for chills,” and that he believed he would try the remedy, whereupon he rose from the bed and gathering from the wall or ceiling of the room a web in which were three “spider balls,” as they are called, swallowed them without more ado. Very soon his throat, lips and the whole of his face were greatly swollen by the action of the poison. Who has not seen hundreds of young spiders not so large as a pin-head, swarm from one of these balls when broken open? And who, but this ill-fated Mississippian would ever have thought of swallowing a spoonful of them as a remedy for the chills, or for anything else. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 20 August 1870: p. 2

Potato bugs/beetles, while bad for the potatoes, do not usually bother people. Any explanations for this unusual case of insect toxicity?

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

I was surprised to find no human-roach fatalities. As a student I lived in a subterranean apartment infested with roaches the size of Medjool dates. They were an insolent, cowardly bunch, fleeing under the sofa at the flick of a light switch. I always feared they would swarm me in my sleep or perhaps burrow into my skull through the ear….

ROACH KILLED BIG COBRA

Monster Reptile Meets Death in a Most Unusual Way.

Rex, the king cobra at the Bronx Park, the largest reptile in captivity and the deadliest snake on earth, is dead.

He was murdered while he slept, in the most cowardly and atrocious manner—by a little black roach. The king of all snakes had suffered indignities for some weeks, and the ignoble way his earthly career was ended was the climax. Last Sunday a week ago Raymond L. Ditmars, the curator of reptiles at the Zoo, who had been noticing the irritability of Rex for more than a week, tempted him with a choice water snake, the prize dainty for a cobra. While Rex was swallowing this morsel he was held and a tumor cut from the left side of his jaw. If he had not been taken advantage of in this fashion he couldn’t have been overcome. He got well from the operation.

Rex ate only on Sundays, and this time of the year he slept most of the time between meals. Last Sunday he had a square meal and, snake-like, went to sleep. He did not stir after this meal.

Yesterday morning Keeper Charles Snyder, whose special pet Rex was, noticed that the snake was lying particularly still. When he poked him with a stick the snake didn’t move and Snyder investigated. Rex was dead. He hadn’t been sick and bore no marks of violence. This puzzled the keeper.

Dr. W. Reid Blair, the veterinarian, was called in to perform an autopsy. It was thought something the snake had eaten had disagreed with him, but the autopsy proved this theory unsound.

Upon further cutting up it was found that the cause of Rex’s death lay in his head. The head was cut open, and inside the brain was found a little black roach, still alive. This roach had bored into the cobra’s cranium. This is the first case of the kind on record. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 January 1910: p. 6

(For another unequal contest, here’s an eyewitness account about hummingbirds killed by praying mantes.)

Even though I have found no actual roach fatalities, there is this unsettling report, which suggests that the roaches were using the children as appetizers.

The following interesting letter from Mr. Herbert H. Smith, the collector and naturalist, gives a vivid picture of the roach nuisance in the tropics:

“Cockroaches are so common in Brazilian country houses that nobody pays any attention to them. They have an unpleasant way of getting into provision boxes, and they deface books, shoes, and sometimes clothing. Where wall paper is used they soon eat it off in unsightly patches, no doubt seeking the paste underneath. But at Corumba, on the upper Paraguay, I came across the cockroach in a new role. In the house where we were staying there were nearly a dozen children, and every one of them had their eyelashes more or less eaten off by cockroaches–a large brown species, one of the commonest kind throughout Brazil. The eyelashes were bitten off irregularly, in some cases quite close to the lid. Like most Brazilians, these children had very long, black eyelashes, and their appearance thus defaced was odd enough. The trouble was confined to children, I suppose because they are heavy sleepers and do not disturb the insects at work.  My wife and I sometimes brushed cockroaches from our faces at night, but thought nothing more of the matter. The roaches also bite off bits of the toenails. Brazilians very properly encourage the large house spiders, because they tend to rid the house of other insect pests. The Louisiana Populist [Natchitoches, LA] 12 February 1897: p. 4

Bed-bugs are hardly benign insects, but they seem to have grossly exceeded their brief in this case:

Killed by Bedbugs.

A remarkable case of the death of a woman was reported recently from Franklin township, Beaver County, Pa. The death occurred while the woman was suffering with a violent attack of headache, to which she has been subject for nearly three years. For the past three years she has been living in an old house which was badly infested with bedbugs. Shortly after moving into it she began to be troubled with a strange type of headache, which seemed to increase in violence with each returning attack until at times she was rendered unconscious by the severe pains, which she often described as resembling a heavy weight or pressure on the top of her head. The strange nature of the case and his inability to render aroused the attending physician’s curiosity, and with the consent of the bereaved husband, he cut open the skull after the woman’s death. He found firmly lodged on the top of the brain in a clotted mass, a large number of bed-bugs. How they got there baffles all who have heard of the case. The doctor has placed his strange find in alcohol and has sent an account of the case to a medical school in New York. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 17 February 1888: p. 3

Naturally, I have to add the caveat that the sufferer, the physician, and the medical school are unnamed, in the time-honored manner of urban legend. And Harrisburg is a long way from Beaver County.

We began with flies, let us finish with maggots because while flies are the messengers of the angel of death, their maggots get you coming and going…. Maggots do have their place–in genuine corpses and possibly for cleaning out infected wounds. But they are a dreadful way to die.

EATEN BY MAGGOTS

PITIABLE CASE OF AN OLD MAN FROM BARBER COUNTY

A very pitiable case of an old man, friendless and unable to care for himself is at Dudley’s sanitarium on North Market street. About a week ago an old man drifted in here from Barber county. He stayed at a place on the corner of Harry and Hydraulic avenues and became very ill with diabetis [sic] and was unable to care for himself. He was removed to the city hospital and remained there two days. As he was absolutely penniless, the hospital could not afford to keep him and he was taken to the county jail. He was placed in a cell and made as comfortable as possible. As the man was helpless and unable to take care of himself, he was soon in a horrible condition. Yesterday a Mrs. Cox, who does much work among the poor classes, found him there and arranged to have him removed to the Dudley place. The men who moved him, had to protect themselves with handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol, while they washed and dressed him in clean clothing. It was found that he was practically being eaten alive by maggots. The sight was too horrible for some of the men to stand and they had to retire from the room. Many think that the city needs a hospital under police supervision where unfortunate cases like this can be cared for until arrangements can be made for a proper home for them. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 4 July 1899: p. 5

Many might think that a better class of pesticide was what was needed, to control the flies.

One might say that such things would not have happened to the gentleman above, if he had had someone to look after him. But maggots will find a way.

EATEN BY MAGGOTS Horrible Death of a Woman at Milwaukee.

Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 13. Mrs. Anna Beatty, who lived with her family at Bay View, last evening, died a most horrible death. About two weeks ago a fly got into one of her nostrils, and it was some time before she was able to remove it, and when she did an itching sensation remained and her nose and throat began to swell. She became alarmed, and a week ago Sunday a physician was called. Since that time Mrs. Beatty had been suffering in a manner almost indescribable, and the doctors say a similar case is unknown to medical science. It is stated that soon after she was taken sick maggots were discovered in her nose and throat, and for several days Mrs. Beaty had been unable to swallow anything like food. Her death was the result of having been literally eaten up by maggots. She died in the greatest agony, and her affliction was a puzzle to the doctors. Upon examination of the body it was found that the partition of her nose was gone, a hole had been eaten through the roof of the mouth, the soft palate had disappeared, and the throat was frightfully eaten. St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 August 1890: p. 1

Other dire deaths by insect? “The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out…”  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See also The Death Bug of Chicago for a fanciful tale of insect death.

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.

A Rat Funeral: 1900

rat poison mourning rat family 1880
Advertisement for Tord-Boyaux rat poison, c. 1880 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/d6aem4hx

A RAT FUNERAL

Mike Was Popular and There Were Many Mourners.

Mike was buried on Tuesday afternoon. That is, the first interment occurred then. The second burial was late in the evening. News of Mike’s death was not published in any paper and no carriages followed the body to the grave, but there were many mourners and the grief was sincere.

Mike was buried in the animal burying ground on Convent Heights, opposite St. Nicholas avenue, near One Hundred and Thirty-first street, where already had been buried the bodies of two cats, three canary birds, one parrot and “Snoozer,” a fox terrier, all of them pets of their owners, as well as friends of the children who live “in the block.”

Mike was a tame white rat, who belonged to a family who live at the corner of One Hundred and Thirtieth street and St. Nicholas avenue. He was an enterprising rat. He lived, when at home, on the top floor, and daily he would go through the open windows to the wide ledge which runs the entire block, and passing through the open windows of the other flats make informal calls on the neighbors. It was quite a common occurrence when a family was at breakfast, or lunch or dinner, to see Mike suddenly appear on the table and help himself to a portion of whatever food appealed to him. Sometimes he would disappear with the food in his mouth as quickly as he came. At other times, he would sit up on his haunches and eat, holding the food in his paws as a squirrel holds a nut.

Sometimes his calls lasted for several hours, and at other times he would scamper through a flat, return in a few minutes to the parlor, jump into a chair, then to the window sill and ledge and continue on his route. The housewife found Mike in the most unexpected places; in beds, closets, clothes baskets and bureau drawers. One morning he called in for breakfast on a family and was allowed to help himself. When he had finished he curled himself up like a kitten on one corner of the table and went to sleep. He slept for an hour, the removal of the dishes and other noises not disturbing him.

Strange to say, Mike would not eat cheese, but he was fond of cocoa, milk, potatoes, corn, meat, and especially of lettuce and similar green stuff. He was often seen scurrying homeward along the ledge, carrying a choice morsel for future use. His owner estimated that Mike brought home on an average about a teacup full of forage daily.

Mike was not popular with all the persons on his list. It is rumoured that he was pushed from the ledge by an enemy. However that may be, one of the Rogers twins found him on the sidewalk on Tuesday afternoon badly hurt. Mike was at once taken to his home, where he died in a few minutes. The body was put in a fancy, gold-embossed candy box, lined with blue silk. A white ribbon was tied around the box.

Burial arrangements were then made. The owner led the procession ,carrying a spade. The Rogers twins came next, and then followed the single file Jay, Georgie, Balance, Teddie, John, Vinnie, “Sluts”—which is short for Slattery—“Fatty” and his sister Grace, Ethel, Margaret Reade, and a dozen others.

Great care was taken to prevent the “Eight avenues,” as the juvenile residents of that avenue are known, from learning of the event, and making trouble. After mike had been properly interred a big cannon cracker was fired as a salute and the procession retraced its steps. Later it has rumoured that the “Eight avenues” had learned of the burial and were about to steal the body. The procession was quickly reformed and marched to the grave. The body of Mike was disinterred and reburied in another spot.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 August 1900: p. 12

 

 

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.

Death by Owl

skull owl finis.JPG

This weekend begins the “International Festival of Owls,” and while we do find some touching stories of owls as pets and grudging acknowledgment that they keep down vermin, the papers of the past are more likely to report on owls killing domestic fowls or sheep, or on monster owls with 4-foot wingspans. Owls are silent, taloned killers and they have long been heralds of death. Even today some people believe that their call is a token of doom. It must have felt that way to this unfortunate Long Island woman:

OWL IS CAUSE OF SUDDEN DEATH

YOUNG WIFE SUCCUMBS TO ATTACK OF APOPLEXY

Heard Omen in Screeches.

Dies When Bird Flies Against Window

New York, June 15. Mrs. Josetta Coonan O’Neill, wife of James T. O’Neill, assistant corporation counsel in Brooklyn died suddenly in their summer home in Argyle Park, near Babylon, L.I., early yesterday, from apoplexy caused, it is believed, by fright when a screech owl flew against the window of her room just before she retired. Mrs. O’Neill for two days had lived in fear of the owl, a dark-feathered bird that had followed her about the grounds and had passed and repassed her husband and herself when they went out. Her dread is believed to have reached a fatal climax when the owl flew against the window in the darkness, screeching.

The body of Mrs. O’Neill last night lay in the home of her mother, Mrs. Thomas Coonan in Seventh street, Brooklyn, on the Park Slope, the home from which the young woman went forth a bride only last December.

Mrs. Coonan, who is an invalid, was in the Argyle Park home of her daughter when Mrs. O’Neill died. There was no warning that death was to visit the house. Mrs. O’Neill, only five minutes before her death, had passed into the room of her mother and kissed her good night. The younger woman then apparently was in her usual health. It is thought, however, she was suffering secretly through her fear of the owl, which at that moment was screeching dismally from the limb of a tree near the house, and that she concealed her fear for her mother’s sake.

Mrs. O’Neill was in the railroad station in Babylon at 5.40 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, when her husband arrived from Brooklyn, and together, as usual they walked to Argyle park. The owl was not then in evidence, for it was still daylight. After dinner, however, when O’Neill went out to rake a flower bed he had been preparing for his wife, the owl began to screech nearby. The flower bed is in front of the house and only 50 feet from the front porch where Mrs. O’Neill sat watching her husband. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation and her husband looked up to catch a glimpse of the owl that swiftly passed within a foot of his face, crying as it passed.

Three times the bird made the passage in front of him until, in exasperation; he threw his hoe at it. The hoe went over a fence and the owl perched again in a tree, letting out a succession of raucous screeches. To O’Neill it seemed as if the bird mocked him, and he tried to hit it with a stone, but the owl only flew away unharmed.

Mrs. O’Neill was much disturbed by the actions of the bird, which the night before had pursued her and her husband in their walk to the village. O’Neill hardly could persuade her to go out for their usual walk, but at last she went, though expressing a fear the owl would give them no rest. She said the persistence of the bird was an omen. Her husband treated the subject lightly, saying he would get a gun the next day, and end the bird and the omen too.

But Mrs. O’Neill’s fears of being pursued quickly were verified. Scarcely had they gained the street when the owl, out of the darkness, darted past their faces, uttering its hoarse scream. The bird, O’Neill observed, waited until it was passing before it screeched. Once it went so close to them its wings fanned their faces, and Mrs. O’Neill stopped, trembling, and grasped her husband’s arm, saying she could go no further. They had walked no more than 300 yards from home. They just had turned back when the owl again passed them, screeching. All the way to the house the owl passed and repassed, and at last Mrs. O’Neill’s terror became so great she released her husband’s arm when they almost had reached the steps and ran into the house, where she sank trembling into a chair. Her husband reassured her and afterward they sat on the porch and watched for the appearance of the bird, which at intervals flew close to the steps. By that time Mrs. O’Neill seemed to have recovered her courage, and laughed and chatted with animation. Afterward they went into the house where O’Neill wrote letters and Mrs. O’Neill read and commented on some of the articles she looked at. She still maintained the air of cheerfulness. It was almost midnight when they thought of retiring. Mrs. O’Neill’s last act was to kiss her mother.

Just after the wife entered their room, which is on the second floor, O’Neill left it for five minutes. It was in his absence the owl is thought to have struck the screen of the window. When O’Neill returned his wife apparently was asleep. Believing she merely was feigning sleep the husband pinched her earl slightly but she made no response. Then, becoming alarmed, he looked closely at his wife and observed her pallor. He called her mother and the maid and telephoned to Dr. Harold E. Hewlett of Babylon, who on arriving, said Mrs. O’Neill had died from apoplexy.

At dawn yesterday, the owl again flew near the room where lay the body of Mrs. O’Neill. In a second flight the bird flew against a screen door which gives egress from the room to a balcony.

The nurse who had been summoned and several others in the room saw the bird hurl itself against the screen as if to break its way into the room. It uttered its cry, fluttered to the floor of the balcony and then again flew to its favorite perch in a tree nearby. O’Neill, when asked last night about the owl, said it had persisted in following his wife and himself. The Argyle park home has been owned by the O’Neill family for 20 years, but Mr. O’Neill said he never had seen the owl until two days ago. O’Neill said the owl was not larger than an ordinary pigeon, but had a great spread of wings. Springfield [MA] Union 15 June 1911: p. 2

Now, I’m sure a naturalist would hoot at the idea that the owl had anything supernatural about it, and perhaps rightly so. Owls are intensely territorial. The “favorite perch” could have been its nest and it might have been defending its eggs or owlets. Owls are well known for attacking people who come too close. They sometimes hurl themselves against windows, believing the reflection is an intruder. One owl even attacked a window of a room where a stuffed owl was kept. But it does seem a little odd that the bird only showed up two days before Mrs. O’Neill’s death and that it attacked the room where her body was laid out.

Rational explanations aside, the owl is, of course, a token of death.  The unfortunate Mrs. O’Neill believed it had come for her and that she was doomed. Other headlines for this story also emphasized a belief that Mrs. O’Neill was scared to death. “Dies from Fear of Owl,” “Dread of Owl Causes Death.” “Bride of Three Months Scared to Death by Owl.” Even the New York Times’ headline read: “Hears Owl Screech; Dies,” although the Times article mentions that Mrs. O’Neill was also grieving for her father, who had died five weeks previously and that she had had a “nervous breakdown” over his death. In a post on people who died of fear, I cited “broken-heart syndrome,” which is triggered by a sudden loss or shock.

The “superstition” of believing that owls hooted of death was supposed by all educated and right-thinking people to have been wiped out by 1911 (except in isolated pockets of rural or ethnic ignorance).  A 1912 article rather scornfully stated that the barn owl was the source of more ghost stories than any other living creature, with its uncanny cry and ghastly face. Owls trapped in chimneys and furnaces were exposed as the source of haunted house rumors; eerie moans in burial vaults were revealed to be roosting owls. Such things really took all the fun out of folklore. But despite ridicule, there was a deeply-rooted belief in the malignity of owls.

A gravedigger had this to say:

“It seems like the graveyard is their natural element, especially when there’s lots of big trees and ivy-grown vaults. To hear an owl hoot in the night here, as I do sometimes, when everything is still, would make your blood run cold. They don’t keep it up right along through the night, so you can get used to it; but it will be quiet for a long time–so still that you get almost afraid to breathe, and the falling of the leaves startles you–then all of a sudden you’ll hear the long hoot-too-toot and a dull rushing in the air, as a big owl sails by and drops down upon a vault beneath the hill…

“I can always tell when there’s going to be a busy time here,” he continued. “When the owls are particularly plenty and keep up an awful hooting during the night I look for the funerals next day. They always come. When the owls hoot, it means funerals.”

“I don’t like owls,” the old man went on, scraping the red clay from his spade with the toe of his boot. “I don’t like ’em; they don’t mean good. Dead people are good enough in their way, I get used to them. But owls are a kind of half-dead and half-alive bird, and if t’warnt that I knew they couldn’t get at ’em, I’d believe they lived on dead people.” The Independent Record [Helena, MT] 9 December 1883: p. 9

A half-dead and half-alive bird. A perfect description of the skull-faced barn owl, silent and deadly one moment; screaming as if knifed the next. You’ll find a selection of owl calls here. Even knowing what is coming, they are unnerving.  A screeching owl dive-bombing out of the dusk; hitting window screens; screaming like a banshee–it is like something out of The Birds and it is no wonder that, in her weakened state, Mrs. O’Neill felt that a taloned angel of death had come for her. Death is the thing with feathers…

Other fatal owl attacks? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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.

Hearse Horses

 

Miniature model of a hearse and horses, c. 1865-75 http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M990.674.1

It is the week-end of the Royal Windsor Horse-show and Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded by a box of really excellent chocolate cremes to allow Chris Woodyard, the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, to post a guest article on the theme of “hearse horses,” a class which Mrs Daffodil can confidently assert will not be on the programme at Windsor. In view of Prince Phillip’s impending retirement, a Hearse Four-in-Hand event might be seen as lacking in tact.

But enough persiflage. Chris Woodyard is champing at the bit….

Hearse and plumed hearse horses, 1870

In the United States, until the advent of the automobile hearse, hearse horses were a cherished commodity, well-known and sometimes beloved by the communities they served. The acquisition of a new pair of hearse horses was, like the purchase of a new hearse, an important event—something to be puffed in the papers. A smart team of plumed hearse horses was a selling point for any undertaker.

As late as 1911, E.F. Parks, an undertaker in Bryan, Texas, announced the arrival of “our fine team of hearse horses” rhapsodizing: “They are simply beautiful. White with a touch of red about the ears, back and hip. They are full brothers 5 and 6 years old.” Undertaker Parks even ran a contest for several weeks in the local newspaper to name the horses, selecting “Prince” and “Pilot” as the winning names. The Bryan [TX] Eagle 16 March 1911: p. 1

Mexican hearse with six netted horses. 1884

Articles about the acquisition of hearse horses often stressed the animals’ training (which seems to have been primarily about gait and speed), yet there were hundreds of accounts in contemporary newspapers of hearse horses running away or colliding with trees, trains, or telegraph poles, often with grave consequences.

FUNERAL HORROR FRIGHTENED HORSES

The Corpse of a Man Pulled After the Demolished Hearse in a Runaway

Rochester, N.Y., Feb. 24. A ghastly accident occurred at the double funeral of Mr. and Mrs. John Hackett, held near Lyons yesterday afternoon that has deeply shocked that community.

While the first hearse, drawn by a spirited team of blacks, was passing through a deep snow drift the horses became frightened, and, unseating the driver, ran away. The hearse containing the coffin and the remains of Mr. Hackett tipped over and the casket was demolished, throwing out the corpse, which, becoming entangled in the wrecked hearse, was dragged a considerable distance over the bare road and through deep snow drifts. When the terrified team finally broke loose from the wrecked vehicle and its ghastly occupant, the corpse was so badly mangled as to be almost unrecognizable. A driver was sent to look up another casket, which was procured several hours later, after which the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery, where both bodies were interred in one grave. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 24 February 1902: p. 4

One undertaker, when he discovered that the hearse horse he had trained could not keep to the required solemn gait, made the best of a bad job and released the horse to a racing career:

There is a son of Del Sur in California that they call “The Los Angeles Del Sur Wonder,” but known, for short, as the “hearse horse.” He was bred by an undertaker, and used for a while hauling the hearse. He was found to be rather faster than was needed to keep at the head of the procession, and being trained, trotted a 2.20 gait and paced in 2.18. Otago Witness, 28 April 1892: p. 27

 

White child’s hearse with driver outside Neil Regan Funeral Home, Scranton, PA c. 1900 http://en.wikipedia.org

An essential part of funeral pageantry, black horses were used for many adult funerals; white horses—or sometimes white ponies—drew the white hearse of the maiden, the child, or the infant. White horses were also used at state funerals:

Last of the Lincoln Hearse Horses.

A local celebrity recently died after a kind, useful life of thirty-eight years, says the Indianapolis Journal. His name was Jesse, and the one act which entitled him to mention was participation in the funeral cortege of the martyred Lincoln. He was the last of the six white horses which drew the hearse containing the honored body along the streets of Indianapolis. His mate in the proud but sorrowful lead of the team died eight years ago. The McCook [NE] Tribune 3 July 1891: p. 8

Since they were so much in the public eye, certain traits made for the most desirable hearse horses. In the United States, this was a suggested standard:

A more popular hearse-horse is coal-black with no white markings, and he must also have a long, flowing tail. Occasionally they are accepted when slightly marked with white, which is less objectionable on the hind feet than in the face or on the front feet….A hearse requires a horse from 15-3 to 16-1 hands high and weighing 1200 to 1250 pounds. Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Volume 21, 1909 p. 490 and 512

In England, a matched set of black Drenthe horses from Hanover were employed at royal funerals. For the fashionable society funeral, black Belgian stallions were the ne plus ultra. Some of the cheaper imported stallions lacked the all-important tail-weepers and were provided with false tails:

A queer English custom is that of decorating the black hearse horses with long false black tails. They attract no more notice on a street in Liverpool than do the black nets used in this country to cover the horses. Pierre [SD] Weekly Free Press 16 November 1905: p. 1

The use of nets, as seen in several of the illustrations, seem to have been confined to the Americas. If draped, a European funeral horse would wear a blanket, as we see in these pictures of Russian and Roumanian hearse horses.

Russian hearse with elaborately draped horses, First World War http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205250983
Draped Roumanian hearse horses c. 1920

Rich in detail is this account of the “Black Brigade” of funeral horses in London. I’m particularly amused by the horses being named for current celebrities. It is also fascinating that an influenza epidemic put pressure on the supply of desirable hearse horses.

A sample of the Black Brigade

THE BLACK BRIGADE

A good many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as ‘the black brigade ‘; but the real black brigade of London’s trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the jobmaster is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The ‘funeral furnisher’ is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The [funeral] wholesale men, the ‘black masters,’ are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand —London’s normal is seventeen—but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the ‘blacks’ have to get help from the ‘coloured,’ and the ‘horse of pleasure’ becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.

A hundred years ago there was but one black master in London. He owned all the horses; and there are wonderful stories of the funerals in those days when railways were unknown. The burying of a duke or even a country squire, in the family vault, was then a serious matter, for the body had to be taken the whole distance by road, and the horses were sometimes away for a week or more, and were often worked in relays, much on the same plan as the coach-horses, only that rapid progress through the towns and villages was impossible, for the same reason that no living undertaker dare trot with a tradesman within the limits of the district in which the deceased happens to have been known and respected….

Hearse with Plumes, John Henry Walker, 1850-85 http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M930.50.7.409

Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing; in fact, they begin work as what we may call the ‘half-timers’ of the London horse-world. When young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they get astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65£. each; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class -work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas; if they go to the repository they average 10£; if they go to the knacker’s they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years’ work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price; but the law of supply and demand came in to check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.

Three-horse hearse, c. 1895-1898 http://www.historymuseum.ca/collections/artifact/140018/?q=deueil&page_num=2&item_num=2&media_irn=5249990 Canadian Museum of Civilization digitized historical negatives

Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth [founder of the Salvation Army], for instance, is ‘most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud’; all the Salvationists ‘are doing well,’ except [George Scott] Railton, ‘who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.’ [Journalist W.T.]Stead, according to his keeper, is ‘a good horse, a capital horse—showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn’t work with [biologist Thomas Henry] Huxley at any price!’ Curiously enough, Huxley ‘will not work with [physicist John] Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. [philanthropist Thomas John] Barnardo.’ Tyndall, on the other hand, goes well with Dickens,’ but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. [Liberal statesman John] Morley works ‘comfortably’ with [Conservative politician & PM Arthur] Balfour, but [Liberal statesman William Vernon] Harcourt and [Irish political leader Michael] Davitt ‘won’t do as a pair anyhow.’ An ideal team seems to consist of [political activist and atheist Charles] Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. [Alfred] Adler, and Cardinal [Henry Edward] Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. ‘All the horses,’ the horsekeeper says, ‘named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!’ And so we leave Canon [Frederic] Farrar, and Canon [Henry] Liddon, and Dr.[William Morley] Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now ‘out on a job,’ and meet in turn with [celebrity quack doctor] Sequah and [Louis] Pasteur, [hypnotist Franz Anton] Mesmer and [Electrohomeopathy inventor Cesare] Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.

‘Why don’t you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?’

‘They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians—well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!’ And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives; under him being another man, who drives when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.

One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion….

Hearse & Mourning Coaches, William Francis Freelove http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_220846/William-Francis-Freelove/page-1

There is an old joke about the costermonger’s donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The ‘black family’ has always to be alone; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result; and thus it has come – about that in the black master’s yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.

1880 hearse

The funeral horse hardly needs description. The breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., and even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones to Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads ‘like a book,’ and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day’s rest in the week.

To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day—-it is a trifle under that, over the 700—and his food differs from that of any other London horse. In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes, and so forth; and as a Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats, and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for it would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.

The Horse-world of London, William John Gordon, 1893, pp 139-147

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We find equally telling detail in this section from an article on unusual professions. Painting over inconvenient white portions of a funeral horse was widely practiced. An 1875 article tells of undertakers “not stinting with paint or black lead.” A lady observer in 1912 wrote about “dyed horses” in Paris funeral processions.

Vista of funeral horses, man painting out a white fetlock.

The last curious industry deals with funeral horses. Mr. Robert Roe, of Kennington Park Road, has imported these stately animals for upwards of twenty-five years. It seems they come from Friesland and Zeeland, and cost from £40 to £70. There must be about nine hundred funeral horses in London. The average undertaker, however, keeps neither horses nor coaches, but hires these from people like Seaward, of Islington. Mr. Seaward keeps a hundred funeral horses, so that a visit to his stables is an interesting experience.

“It is dangerous,” said one of my informants, “to leave a pair of these black stallions outside public-houses, when returning from a funeral; for these animals fight with great ferocity.” Once, at a very small funeral, the coachman lent a hand with the coffin; but, in his absence, the horses ran amuck among the tombstones, which went down like ninepins in all directions.

A white spot takes a large sum off the value of a funeral horse. In the photo one of Mr. Seaward’s men is painting a horse’s white fetlock with a mixture of lampblack and oil. A white star on the forehead may be covered by the animal’s own foretop.

On the right-hand side in the photo. will be seen hanging a horse’s tail. This is sent to the country with a “composite” horse— a Dutch black, not used for the best funeral work, owing to his lack of tail. He is sold to a country jobmaster, with a separate flowing tail, bought in Holland for a shilling or two. In the daytime, the “composite” horse conducts funerals, the tail fastened on with a strap; but at night he discards it, and gaily takes people to and from the theatres.

Worn-out funeral horses, one is horrified to learn, are shipped back to Holland and Belgium, where they are eaten.

The Strand Magazine, Vol. 13, 1897: p. 202

At least, that was the practice in England; Belgian horses were prized in their native country for their tender meat. In the United States, a hearse horse often retired to green pastures, after a long and useful career. This clever hearse horse had a well-deserved tribute paid to him on his retirement.

KEPT UNDERTAKERS BUSY

Horse Always Stopped at Houses Where Crape Hung on Door.

From the New York Press.

Having reached such a degree of zealousness in behalf of his owner’s business interests that he would stop in front of any house on the front of which symbols of mourning were displayed, Dan, for twenty years a faithful horse for Thomas M. O’Brien, an undertaker of Bayonne, N.J., has been retired on a pension. The undertaker made arrangements with a farmer in Orange county to take good care of Dan for the rest of his life, and to give him decent burial when he dies. Dan was shipped away yesterday. Twice when on the way to the railroad station the horse balked, and it was noticed that each time he balked it was in front of a house with crape hanging on the door. It was not until the driver whispered in Dan’s ear that his boss already had the jobs that the intelligent animal consented to move on.

Dan knows the way to and from every cemetery within 20 miles of Bayonne. Some persons even assert that he knows most of the family plots in those cemeteries. More than once the horse placed O’Brien in an exceedingly embarrassing position by stopping with a hearse in front of houses on which mourning was displayed regardless of whether O’Brien had been retained to have charge of the burial.

One of the stipulations entered into between O’Brien and the Orange county farmer is that Dan must not be compelled to do any work. He must have good oats and timothy hay in winter and, added to that, all the grass he can eat in spring, summer, and fall.

“He’s earned his retirement by twenty years of faithful work,” O’Brien said. “If he were a man instead of a horse, he would have been a partner long before this. He was simply indefatigable in hunting for new business.” The Washington [DC] Post 17 January 1909: p. M10

Shrouded horses with hearse, 1858, advertising Undertakers Massey & Yung, San Francisco

The hearse horse might also serve as an equine memento mori as in this elegiac New England article:

THE OLD HEARSE HORSE

Among the long-standing fixtures of our day are the Hearse-man, the venerable Robert Bell, and his scarcely less venerable old Black Horse, which will be twenty years old next months. For fourteen years the same man and the same horse have been in attendance at almost every funeral that has taken place in our city. For nearly two thousand times have they borne to their resting places the old and the young—the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered. There can be seen scarcely a more grave sight than these funereal accompaniments. The old horse though lively and active on other occasions, knows the moment a corpse is put into the hearse, and he will scarcely mind the admonition of a whip to change his speed from walking. His master is growing infirm and the horse is nearly blind—a premonition that all must ere long return to the dust. Portsmouth [NH] Journal of Literature and Politics 12 May 1860: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to the subfusc author for being so relentlessly informative and are pleased to have learned something new to-day about this department of the Victorian funeral industry.

Mrs Daffodil has noticed an unlikely resemblance between the plume-adorned hearse-horses with their dark burdens and beplumed circus horses drawing brilliantly carved and coloured circus wagons at a stately pace. One idly wonders if an aged circus horse ever retired to a career as a hearse-horse or if a black horse of too cheerful a disposition might run away with the circus.

 

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.

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.