Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.

Tales from the Presidential Crypts

 

Garfield monument
President James A. Garfield’s tomb, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

President’s Day is Monday, so today let’s look at some dead presidents—particularly stories of a few strange incidents at presidential tombs. Some 19th-century newspapers wrote about presidential graves suffering from neglect or disrepair like the overgrown grave of Thomas Jefferson in 1873, where student vandals had chiselled and chipped all the letters off of the granite monument or the once-popular tomb of William Henry Harrison, which was described as looking like a shabby bread oven in the 1890s. The tomb had been built on a hill overlooked the Ohio River. Steamboat captains would sound a reverential whistle and notify their passengers so that they could bare their heads at the simple brick vault, but the bricks were crumbling into dust by the time Harrison’s grandson came to the Presidency.

There have also been cases of genuine desecration of presidential graves: the infamous attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from his Springfield tomb, vandals uprooting a cross at the head of John F. Kennedy’s grave in January,1970 and more vandalism there in December of 1997. And this strange disturbance at President Reagan’s grave by a person whose hobby is apparently desecrating as many presidential graves as possible. Such things happened more often in the past than one might expect, starting with George Washington.

Relics of the Father of His Country were avidly collected. One disgruntled gardener tried to collect the skull of George Washington, but was foiled.  Below, a Washington biographer describes the old Washington tomb, which may still be seen today at Mount Vernon and also the condition of the General’s body.  Prior to this description, the author fumes at a sacrilegious daguerreotypist offering to take pictures of tourists with Washington’s original tomb, aggressively peddling his services to people getting off the excursion boats.

This vault and inclosure were erected many years ago, in pursuance of instructions given in the following clause of Washington’s will: “The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one, of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains, and those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault,) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited.”

The old vault referred to was upon the brow of a declivity, in full view of the river, about three hundred yards south of the mansion, on the left of the present pathway from the tomb to the summer-house on the edge of the lawn. It is now an utter ruin. The door-way is gone, and the cavity is partly filled with rubbish. Therein the remains of Washington lay undisturbed for thirty years, when an attempt was made by some Vandal to carry them away.  [1831]The insecure old vault was entered, and a skull and some bones were taken; but these comprised no part of the remains of the illustrious dead. The robber was detected, and the bones were recovered. The new vault was then immediately built, and all the family remains were placed in it. Mr. William Strickland, of Philadelphia, who designed the composition on the lid of Washington’s coffin, and accompanied Mr. Struthers when the remains of the patriot were placed in it, in 1837, has left a most interesting account of that event. On entering the vault they found everything in confusion. Decayed fragments of coffins were scattered about, and bones of various parts of the human body were seen promiscuously thrown together. The decayed wood was dripping with moisture. “The slimy snail glistened in the light of the door-opening. The brown centipede was disturbed by the admission of fresh air, and the mouldy case of the dead gave a pungent and unwholesome odor.” The coffins of Washington and his lady were in the deepest recess of the vault. They were of lead, inclosed in wooden cases. When the sarcophagus arrived, the coffin of the chief was brought forth. The vault was first entered by Mr. Strickland, accompanied by Major Lewis (the last survivor of the first executors of the will of Washington) and his son. When the decayed wooden case was removed, the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured. In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver coffin-plate, in the form of a shield, which was placed upon the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. “At the request of Major Lewis,” says Mr. S., “the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared, by the dim light of the candles, to have suffered but little from the effects of time. The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark, and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault, the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place ; the body, raised by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed from our sight on Saturday the 7th day of October, 1837. . . . The relatives who were present, consisting of Major Lewis, Lorenzo Lewis, John Augustine Washington, George Washington, the Rev. Mr. Johnson and lady, and Mrs. Jane Washington, then retired to the mansion.” The Illustrated Life of Washington, Hon. J[oel] T[yler] Headley, 1860 

This narrator claimed to have been present at the removal of the Washington bodies to their new tomb.

William H. Burgess, who lives in Alexandria, Va., assisted, in 1836, in building Washington’s new tomb at Mount Vernon. He says: “I was a lad then, but I remember that in removing the bodies of George and Martha to their present tomb we decided to open the coffin. I looked in and saw General Washington’s face. The body was well preserved, and the features were intact. There was nothing to indicate the time he had been dead. A minute after exposure to the air there was a collapse, and nothing was recognizable. The face looked like his pictures.” Repository [Canton, OH] 8 June 1889: p. 2 

Several decades after the gardener’s attempt to get a head, there was another dire rumor about Washington’s skull. 

WASHINGTON’S HEAD SAFE

No Truth in the Tale of the Tomb Desecration

[From our Regular Correspondent]

Herald Bureau,

Corner Fifteenth and G Streets, N.W.,

Washington, Sept. 29, 1887.

The story that the head of Washington was stolen from Mount Vernon and carried to Paris by curiosity hunters is pronounced by Dr. G.M. Toner as an unqualified falsehood.

The remains of Washington were removed from the old and original coffin about fifty years ago and placed in the marble sarcophagus made for that purpose, which was not only to keep out the air but so constructed and fastened that it would be next to impossible for anybody to violate the sanctity of the seals without having uninterrupted access to them for many hours.

THE SKELETON INTACT IN THE TOMB.

When the remains were transferred from the old coffin to the marble receptacle many members of the Washington family were present, with persons of prominence, and they all certified to the fact that the skeleton was all intact. After the sarcophagus was put in its place the iron grated door was locked and the key thrown into the Potomac. The old lock is still in good preservation and has never been tampered with.

During the Rebellion the grounds at Mount Vernon were held sacred and the hand of the vandal was never known to have desecrated any part of the tomb or its surroundings.

WATCHING NIGHT AND DAY.

The last resting place of Washington has been vigilantly watched ever since the present tomb was erected. Though some distance from the mansion, every device known has been used for many years to alarm the superintendent of the grounds. Now electric wires communicate with the house, making it impossible for any one to even attempt to open the iron doors.

The story, therefore, that the skull of Washington was ever removed or even profaned by the touch of vandals, Dr. Toner says, is utterly without foundation. In 1849 the Washington heirs loaned to Mr. Clark Mills the original cast of Washington’s face, made during life by the celebrated sculptor Houdon. It was never returned, but in its place, a copy which Mr. Mills claimed was in better condition than the original, was sent to the Mount Vernon mansion. It subsequently passed into the possession of Mr. McDonald, the sculptor, and is supposed to be in his possession still. Speculation was rife for a time as to who had the original. It was not, however, stolen, and is probably still in New York. New York Herald 30 September 1887: p. 6 

Those pesky, overwrought headline composers were at it again in this article about an incident at the McKinley vault. There was an actual event, but no attempt to blow up the tomb. 

VANDALS AT CANTON

Guards at McKinley’s Tomb Attacked

WANTED TO BLOW IT UP

That is What is Generally Believed. Great Excitement.

Dastardly Plot at Canton

Attempt Was Made Last Night to Blow Up McKinley’s Tomb.

Canton, O., Sept. 30 A strange story comes from Westlawn cemetery, where a company of regulars from Fort Wayne, Mich., is guarding the vault in which the body of the late President McKinley lies. It is to the effect that the guard on duty on top of the vault last night fired a shot at one man who refused to heed his challenge; that the shot was diverted by another man, who appeared from another direction, and that an effort was made to stab the guard.

Private Deprend was on guard duty on top of the vault at a point commanding the entrance below and the approach from the rear. Shortly before 7:30 o’clock  he saw what he took to be the face of a man peering from behind a tree about forty feet from his post. He watched it for twenty minutes, he says, and at 7:45 o’clock saw the man hurry to a tree ten feet nearer. He challenged the man to halt, but this was not heeded, and the fellow approached nearer. Deprend levelled his gun and aimed to shoot for effect, but just at that instant, another man, who came toward him from the opposite side, caught the gun, threw it up, and the bullet spent in the air.

This same man struck Deprend on the right side of the abdomen with a knife or other sharp weapon, cutting an L-shaped gash in his overcoat an inch and a half long each way, and a smaller one in his blouse. The flesh was not broken, but was bruised under the cuts in the clothing. Deprend, in the struggle, fell and rolled down the side of the vault.

Lieut. Ashbridge, officer of the day, was in front of the vault and rushed to the top on hearing the shot, but the men made their escape. All members of the company, on hearing the shot, hurried to the vault, and, besides searching the cemetery, the guard was increased.

Deprend is said to be an excellent soldier, and to have a fine record with his officers. He says the man who attacked him was masked, but that the first one he saw was not masked. He saw the latter carried a white package in his right hand and something that glittered in his left.

Since the incident stories have been told in camp of some incendiary conversations overheard in the crowds that have visited the cemetery, including one today, alleging that some stranger said: “Lots of people would like to see this whole thing blown up.”

Canton, O., Sept. 30. Eight prisoners broke from the county jail here Sunday by sawing out the bars of a window opening from a court between the jail and court house. They had five minutes start when discovered. Bloodhounds were immediately put on the trail.

Canton, Sept. 30. The city is astir today over the assault on Guard Deprend at the vault in which McKinley’s body rests. Some advance the theory that one man who broke jail here last night made the attack in an effort to secure a rifle, with which to protect himself against pursuing officers. The belief is general, however, that the attack was part of a plot to blow up the tomb. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 30 September 1901: p. 1 

A later article quoted a sentinel who described three men who had spoken to him as he was guarding the tomb. “One asked how long sentinels in front of the vault gates were kept on duty. I told him half an hour at a time. He asked me if there were other guards. I told him several on the hill, over the vault and at other places. The second man said he did not see the use of all this fuss: that no one would try to do any harm now.

“The third man said he was mistaken; that there were lots of people who would like to see the whole thing blown up.

“No, I had no suspicion that any of these men would have any interest in or would sympathize with any act of violence. I think they were speaking of the disposition of other classes who might be prompted to such acts.” Morning Herald Lexington KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8.  

One can see how this might have been twisted by an overzealous journalist into an actual attack on the monument, but the men’s remarks might equally seem suspicious: like reconnaissance for some dastardly mission. 

Other papers sneered at the event as the product of a nervous guard’s brain.

The marauder scare at Canton, as nearly as we can make out, was not caused by beings in the flesh, but by spirits which are supposed to haunt cemeteries. It is not likely that there will be any further difficulty with such uncanny presences, if the officer in command of the detail will carefully exclude spirits from the camp. The Evening Times [Washington, DC] 1 October 1901: p. 4 

In fact, “Particular inquiry was made as to Deprend’s sobriety. The time, it is said, established beyond all reasonable doubt that he had not been drinking….The most common belief is that the sentinel was over-wrought by the loneliness of his position; that his nerves were taxed, and that imagination contributed to some of the details related in good faith. The post is regarded as particularly isolated and depressing to a man guarding it at night.” Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8. 

There was definitely something to the notion of the job being particularly depressing. [See this post on Tombstone Madness.] Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found others, so the journalist may have exaggerated.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

Joseph Kashinsky, a private in Company H, Tenth U.S. Infantry, on duty at Garfield’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, has become insane, and has been taken to Detroit for cure. The peculiar form of insanity is melancholia, and a peculiar state of affairs came to light when the case was looked up. The men on the guard dread their duty, and several cases are reported of men committing offenses for the purpose of getting punished.

Anything or any device is used to get away from the ghostly array of mounds and tombs. This is said to have driven Kashinsky insane and his incoherent language and actions carry out the impression. One man, a veteran, said: “I dread the duty, although I am not afraid of it and do not complain, but on the younger the strain is intense. Many tricks are resorted to to escape the night watches.” Kashinsky is a young Pole, but ten months a soldier, twenty-one years of age, and until this trouble came a light-hearted, healthy young man. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune, 2 April 1883: p. 2   

Some newspapers attributed the young man’s insanity to the “Curse of Guiteau” (another post, another time), a malign hoodoo widely reported to have killed and driven dozens of people insane. 

There had been an attempt to snatch Garfield’s body before it was placed in the temporary tomb in Lake View Cemetery so guards were felt to be necessary. “The guards are almost essential to protect the tomb from the relic fiends as from the ghouls. The guards assert that were it not for their presence, and the wire screen or fence, which completely surround te tomb, that the crowds that visit it would chip off, break up and carry away vault, casket and all as relics. As it is they break twigs from adjacent trees, reach through the wires and pluck blades of grass, pick up pebbles or anything else they can seize upon.”  New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 14 February 1883: p. 1 

The Garfield tomb was a popular tourist attraction. In 1882 there were complaints of littering, theft, vandalism, and harassment of bereaved visitors  by the “picnic masher element.”  Lake View Cemetery decided to close its doors to the public on Sundays, except for “proper persons” who could apply for a ticket of admission. [Source: Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 August 1882.] 

There was much resentment expressed in some newspapers about the expense and the “farce” of keeping up a guard of soldiers at Garfield’s grave and eventually the guard was withdrawn July 1, 1886. With this event, as well as the finishing of Garfield’s permanent tomb, a story emerged about some genuine bodysnatching: 

When Secretary Endicott ordered the guard removed from Garfield’s tomb the family and friends of the dead President were alarmed. Detectives informed them that an organized band of body snatchers had plotted to desecrate the sepulchre. It was finally decided to remove the remains to an obscure vault in another corner of the cemetery. This was accomplished in darkness by a party of four chosen friends. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 February 1890: p. 1 

The article goes on to describe how four prominent Cleveland business men, friends of the Garfield family, got a key to the holding vault, got Garfield’s immensely heavy coffin out of its sarcophagus, and carried it in complete darkness to an obscure vault in a little-visited section of the cemetery. Then they resealed the sarcophagus, locked the door, and went home, sworn to secrecy. Apparently one of the men hurt himself so badly in carrying the heavy coffin that he never really recovered. The article goes on to describe how people paid their respects at an empty sarcophagus, little knowing of the “necessary deception.”   

Today Garfield’s massive monument at Lake View Cemetery is said to be haunted by mysterious lights and perhaps the apparition of the man  himself. 

Our last case concerns some truly odd events at the holding vault where the body of President Warren G. Harding and his wife were kept until the Harding Monument could be built.  

Harding’s Tomb Guards Are Annoyed

Marion, O. Jan. 3. Lieutenant R.H. Harriman, commander of the guard detachment stationed in Marion cemetery to guard the vault in which reposes the body of the late President Harding, supplement a previous order, today issued instructions to the twenty-six men in his command to make every effort to capture a marauder, who, since the formation of the guard detachment, has continually annoyed the perpetual guard of six men. Gruesome disturbances including bugle blowing at midnight, ghostly noises by prowlers and throwing of stones in the direction of the vault make up the offense with which the individual or individuals will be charged if captured.

  Several time soldiers have caught glimpses of a man and on several occasions have shot at him. Early one morning a guardsman chased a man for over half a mile.

  It is believed by Lieutenant Harriman that the continual disturbances represent an attempt to frighten the men and to break the morale of the detachment. It is also thought that possibly people came to the cemetery to rob the graves of flowers. Elyria [OH] Chronicle Telegraph 3 January 1924: p. 8 

An Associated Press story added that “at first it was thought it was small boys, but when the disturbances kept up, the guard took it more seriously.” So seriously, that Lieut. R.H. Harriman, the commander of the tomb guards, ordered his men to shoot directly at anyone causing a disturbance. The article said also “Riot guns have been sent from Fort Hayes, at Columbus headquarters for the guard detachment here, and these loaded with buckshot will be used if the disturbances continue.”  

It seems unlikely that flower thieves or pranksters would be flitting about the cemetery, risking being shot. The stone throwing and ghostly noises almost suggest poltergeist manifestations.  

It’s a curious thing that the stories about Garfield, McKinley and Harding all refer to events at holding vaults, rather than their finished tombs. Is there something about corpses in transit or bodies not yet laid to rest that encourages graveyard intruders? 

Any other stories of presidential tomb disturbances? Signal by dark lantern to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You’ll other tales of disturbed graves in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also found on Amazon and other retailers in paperback and for Kindle.

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.

 

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.

Pinched Ashes

The Urn

A report of a vile, “ashes for cash” scheme sent me to my files on early cremation to look for vintage stories of  purloined cremains.  It was surprising that, while corpses were often held for ransom or replevin, similar stories about ransom demands for ashes were extremely rare. Perhaps this was because fewer Victorians were cremated, yet there were plenty of stories of stolen ashes.  Let’s fire up the retort and look at some of these cases of ashen bodysnatching. There is quite a variety in motives and mysteries.

In most of the ash-theft cases, it is obvious there was a more mercenary motive.

HIS ASHES STOLEN.

St. Louis Girl Carried Reminder of Dead Sweetheart in Ring.

St. Louis, Dec. 15. Miss Cora Evelyn asked the police to locate a robber who stole from her $250 worth of jewelry, including an unusual ring. This ring contained the ashes of her former sweetheart, according to her statement. He was Charles Patterson who died in Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago.

After his body had been cremated, Miss Evelyn says she procured a small quantity of his ashes, which she had placed in the setting of the ring, behind a transparent film. Her reason for this, she said, was to have near her always, some forcible reminder of her dead sweetheart. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 15 December 1910: p. 9

Today, of course, you can purchase pretty glass lockets in which to keep a pinch of the loved one’s cremains ever near, but in 1910, the ring  was freakishly unusual. In the 19th century the “correct” mourning accessory would have contained the hair, rather than the ashes, of the beloved.

Thefts of bronze urns and grave markers for scrap-metal sale are commonplace even today. One wonders if that was the motive here.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

The police of Newark, N.J., were asked yesterday to investigate the theft of a bronze urn containing the ashes of Henry Rundel Center. The urn bore the name of Center and the date of his death, November 19, 1909. Mrs. Catherine Center, widow of Henry Rundel Center, occupied an apartment at 176 Third street. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., and left the apartment in charge of a friend. The friend discovered several articles were missing, among them the urn. A sneak thief robbed the apartment. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 29 March 1918: p. 24

Other stories are simply a comedy of errors:

HUSBAND’S ASHES LOST.

Comedy of mixed bags.

An American widow who is so devoted to the memory of her late husband that she always carries his ashes with her was revealed by a curious mistake at the Pittsburgh station of the Pennsylvania line.

Mrs Mary White, of Chicago, who had been spending a holiday with friends at Pittsburgh, left her portmanteau at the station cloakroom while she was saying good-bye. At the same time a mechanic named James Robinson, who was going to seek employment at New York, left a similar valise containing his tools at the same station. Robinson was the first to call for his bag, accepted the one handed to him, and started for his 21 hours’ journey to New York.

Here his quest for work was successful. “But I can’t begin,” said Robinson; “they’ve given me the wrong valise at Pittsburgh and my tools are left behind.” An examination of his luggage disclosed the fact that the valise he had brought contained some woman’s wearing apparel and a sealed copper urn, to which was attached a coffin plate engraved, “George Shires White, died 1910.” There was also a Civil War medal which had belonged to Mr White. At the same time the stationmaster Chicago was telegraphing throughout the Pennsylvania line: “Wanted, a lady’s valise containing memorial tagged with the name of White; lady very anxious.”

The bags were exchanged as speedily as possible, and Mrs White explained to the Pennsylvania officials that she was never able to bring herself to inter her husband’s ashes after his cremation. She kept them with her, and it always seemed as if he himself were still her companion. Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1911: p. 5

In this story, the ashes were removed by police-impersonators probably under the guise of public health concerns. If they just wanted her trunk, how did they know there were ashes in it—did the recently widowed Mrs. Rankin mention it to the desk clerk?

DEAD HUSBAND’S ASHES STOLEN FROM WIDOW

Trunk Stolen From Hotel Room Contained Remains of Man

Cincinnati, Ohio, July 29. The disappearance of a trunk from her room in the Bremen Hotel, Twelfth and Bremen streets, containing the ashes of her husband, John Rankin, 47 years old, who died June 25, was reported to police late yesterday by Mrs. Bertha Rankin.

She told detectives she was informed police had ordered the trunk to be removed. No such order was issued through the Police Department, she was told. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 July 1916: p. 7

Sometimes the thieves, spooked by what they’d done, abandoned their loot.

ASHES OF HUMAN BODY STOLEN FROM DENVER OFFICE, UNOPENED URN IS LEFT AT BAKERY SHOP

Human ashes stolen Monday night from the offices of the Denver Crematory association, 100 First National Bank building, and abandoned by the thieves in a bakery at 1955 Curtis street, were returned to the crematory by the police Thursday.

As a result of conflicting instructions from relatives of the dead man—Jesse J. Haller of Mancos, Colo.—the disappearance of the ashes was not known to officials of the crematory association until the urn containing the ashes was returned to the crematory. At the downtown office of the association it was thought the ashes had been scattered in Riverside cemetery, in accordance with instructions given after Haller died here. Operator Rice of the crematory at Riverside thought the ashes had been sent to Mancos in accordance with instructions given to him by a brother last Sunday.

“It is the most mysterious happening I ever heard of,” declared President W.D. Pierce of the crematory, Thursday. “When we received Mr. Haller’s body, we were instructed to cremate it and scatter the ashes.

BODY CREMATED WEEK AGO

“The body was cremated March 24 and the ashes were locked in a steel vault at the cemetery. On Sunday, a brother appeared at the crematory and instructed Mr. Rice to ship the ashes back to Mancos. Mr. Rice sealed the ashes in an urn and brought them in to our office Monday night. The office force was gone when he arrived, and he placed the urn in a roll-top desk, locking the desk.

“The next morning we noticed that the desk would not lock, but [The rest of the story doesn’t appear or is illegible.] Denver [CO] Post 30 March 1922: p. 1

Here’s the rest of the story:

Thieves Steal Man’s Ashes, But Police Recover Them.

After having passed thru a peculiar chain of circumstances, including interment in a steel vault in the Riverside cemetery, theft from the office of the Denver Crematory association offices, abandonment in a Denver bakery and finally being turned over to the police, the ashes of J.J. Haller of Mancos, Colo., whose body was cremated on March 24, are to be shipped today to Mancos, where they will be laid in what is intended as a final resting place.

The almost unprecedented theft of human ashes was discovered yesterday when an urn containing them was returned to the Crematory by the police. The theft, which evidently occurred on Monday night, had not been noticed because of conflicting instructions from the relatives of the dead man.

Stolen from Desk.

The body was cremated on March 24, and the ashes locked in a steel vault in Riverside cemetery. Instructions from one source directed that the ashes be scattered in Riverside cemetery but a brother of the dead man, living in Mancos, gave instructions that the ashes be sent to him.

Joseph C. Rice, assistant superintendent received the latter instructions on last Sunday, so he took the urn containing the ashes to the downtown office of his company. He placed the urn in a rolltop desk and locked it. On Monday morning the urn was gone, but because of the misunderstanding that existed the possibilities of a theft was not considered.

Abandoned in Bakery.

Upon the return of the urn to the crematory association yesterday by the police, it was explained that the urn had been left in a bakery shop by two boys who said they would return for it. When they did not come to claim it the baker took it to the police station where it was opened and its contents discovered. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the boys left the urn with the baker without knowing what it contained or whether they opened it and learned of its contents before abandoning it.

A telegram asking reasons for the delay in the shipment of the ashes was received from Mancos yesterday, so the ashes will be shipped today.

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 31 March 1922: p. 3

Recently I read of a donation to a thrift store of a bottle labeled “Dad’s Ashes.” Perhaps the bereaved are simply absent-minded, leaving “Dad” or, as in the following story “a carpenter” in the wrong place.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

Urn Taken From Railway Carriage Is Hastily Abandoned in Tram Car by Surprised Crook.

Berlin, April. 30. Strange objects have been left behind in public conveyances, but it is not often that deliberation or forgetfulness abandons anything more incongruous to workaday traffic than the urn containing the ashes of a carpenter, which was found yesterday by a conductor in the corner of a Cologne tram car.

The incident proved to be even odder on investigation than it had appeared at first sight, for it turned out that the vessel had been stolen from a railway carriage, evidently under the impression that it contained something to eat or drink, while its legal owner was conveying it home from the Maience Crematorium. On discovering that he had embarrassed himself with the incinerated remains of a carpenter, the thief had hastened to get rid of them by leaving his burden in the train. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 15 May 1910: p. 4

Did the thief think the urn was a thermos?

Then there are the truly mysterious thefts, hinting of nameless uses for the ashes.

ASHES STOLEN FROM A GRAVE

The Discovery of the Outrage Causes a Sensation in Raleigh

Raleigh, N.C., May 26. A distinct sensation has developed here among a wide circle of friends of the family at the discovery that the grave of Miss Mattie Oettinger, in Oakwood Cemetery, has been opened and her ashes stolen away. The ghouls had cut off the turf and dug down into the inner cell, where the urn was placed. On replacing the roof a mistake was made, so that the earth sifted through, causing a depression of the grave. This and the withered turf led to the discovery.

Miss Oettinger was a daughter of the late Isaac Oettinger, and died in New York about more than a year ago. The remains were cremated and brought here for burial in the family lot. Every effort thus far has failed to reveal any clue to those guilty of the crime. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 27 May 1906: p. 5

Towards the end of my search, at last I located a single instance of “ashes for cash.”

KIDNAP ANCESTRAL ASHES FOR RANSOM

Berne, Switzerland, Oct. 1. Thieves broke into a crematory situated in Bienne near Berne, a few nights ago, and stole a few sepulchral urns containing the ashes of members of wealthy families.

Prominent families of Berne and Zurich are receiving letters offering to return the urns for a consideration varying between 2,000 and 4,000 francs, according to the financial standing of the owners.

The police hope to lay a trap for the ghouls.

Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne WY] 1 October 1902: p. 4

And, finally, the lust for murderabilia formed the motive for the theft of a murderer’s cremains.

MURDERER’S ASHES STOLEN BY MORGUE SIGHT-SEERS

Visitors to Allegheny County’s Dead House Carry Away Dust Mementoes

Pittsburgh, Pa., Jan. 3. The ashes of Steve Rusic, whose body was first to be cremated in the county crematory, after he had been hanged in the county jail yard for murder, have slowly disappeared from an urn in the morgue building, where they have been on view since February, 1911. Curiosity-seekers are accused of carrying away the ashes until about half a handful remains.

The theft was discovered today when Deputy Coroner John Moschell noticed that the urns, containing the ashes of persons cremated, had been disturbed. Rusic was hanged for the murder of Salvarro [Mary] Domboy at her home in McKees Rocks January 15, 1910. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 January 1917: p. 2

Mrs Garvarro Domboy was shot by Rusic as she lay in bed with her husband and baby. Some papers reported that this was because she refused to accept the man’s attentions; others because she had ended their love affair. Did the curiosity-seekers think they could use the ashes for some kind of charm or did they merely want a grim and sooty souvenir?

Any other ashes-for-cash stories? 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.

The French Doctor’s Bride: 1830s

lighter shrouded corpse Rowlandson 1775
Grave-robbers interrupted by Death, Thomas Rowlandson, 1775 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j7twdvrd

THE FRENCH DOCTOR’S BRIDE.

BY VICTOR LECOMTE.

Twenty-five years ago I entered the medical college at F__ as a student. I was then quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and sentimental; and well do I remember the horror I experienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly thrust me into the dissecting room, among several dead bodies, and closed the door upon me; nor do I forget how my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older companions.

Ridicule is a hard thing to bear: the coward becomes brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could stand no more; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation, I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my character, and gain an honourable footing among my fellow students.

“I will tell you,” said one, his eyes sparkling with mischief; “if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another word about your womanly fright.”

I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative; but it seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after day, the jeers of my companions.

“Where shall I go and when?” was my timid inquiry; and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood run cold.

“To the Eastern Cemetery, to night, at twelve o’clock,” replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me, and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt. “But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to perform such a manly feat?” he added, deridingly

His words stung me to the quick; and without further reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I rejoined, boldly, “I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by performing what you call a manly feat.”

“You will go?'” he asked quickly.

“I will,” was my response.

“Bravely said, my lad!” he rejoined, in a tone of approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for one of surprise and admiration. “Do this, Morel, and the first man that insults you afterwards makes an enemy of me.”

Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at the thought of what was before me; but I had accepted his challenge in the presence of many witnesses—for this conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after listening to an evening lecture—and I was resolved to make my word good, should it even cost me my life: in fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

I should here observe, that in those days there were few professional resurrectionists; and as it was absolutely necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant business of procuring them devolved upon the students, who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge, and the grave of its victim.

There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few friends; and this was considered a favorable chance for the party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest—for not unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over these; and only the year before, one student, while at his midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle-ball; and another, a month or two subsequently, had been rendered a cripple for life by the same means.

All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight, who accompanied me to my room—which was in a building belonging to the college, and let out in apartments to some of the students; and they took care to add several terrifying stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal terminations of just such maladies as the one with which their helpless victim was then afflicted.

“Is it expected that I shall go alone?” I inquired, in a tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were white.

“Well, no,” replied Belmont, my most dreaded tormentor; “it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for one individual could not succeed in getting the body from the grave quick enough; and you, a mere youth, without experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will go with you, some three or four of us, and help to dig up the corpse; but then you must take it on your back, bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone with it!”

It was some relief to me to find I was to have company during the first part of my awful undertaking; but still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you; and chancing to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw reflected therein.

“Come, boys,” said Belmont, who was always, by general consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or undertaking, he was to have a hand in; “Come, boys! it is time to be on the move. A glorious night for us!” he added, throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of wind and rain: “the very d__l himself would hardly venture out in such a storm!’” He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak, took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks also, took each a spade, and followed him.

We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen by any citizen that might by chance to be stirring; and in something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery, scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness—the wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

“Here we are,” whispered Belmont to me, as we at length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one of our party had stumbled. “Come, feel round, Morel, and strike in your spade; and let us see if you will make as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some day at killing a living one with physic.”

I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire—for the soft dirt was all aglow like living coals; and as I had fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tormented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

“Fool!” hissed Belmont, grasping my arm with the gripe of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my very teeth chattering with terror; “another yell like that, and I’ll make a subject of you! Are you not ashamed of yourself to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any, by a little phosphorescent earth? Don’t you know it is often found in graveyards?”

His explanation re-assured me; though I was now too weak, from my late fright, to be of any assistance to the party; who all fell too with a will, secretly laughing at me, and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they quickly lifted out the corpse; and then Belmont and another of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow, and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the cemetery, Belmont now called upon me to perform my part of the horrible business. “Here, you quaking simpleton,” he said, “I want you to take this on your back, and make the best of your way to your room, and remain alone with it all night. If you do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow, and the first man that dares to say a word against your courage after that, shall.find a foe in me. But hark you! if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes on you again! Do you understand me?”

“Y—ye-ye—yes!” I stammered, with chattering teeth.

“Are you ready?” Y-ye-ye—yes,” I gasped.

“Well, come here! where are you?” All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud of the corpse; but I felt carefully round till I got hold of Belmont, who told me to take off my cloak; and then rearing the cold dead body up against my back, he began fixing its cold arms about my neck-bidding me take hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any consideration whatsoever, as I valued my life. Oh! the torturing horror I experienced, as I mechanically followed his directions! Tongue could not describe it!

At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long black cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a cord about my neck, and then inquired, “Now, Morel, do you think you can find the way to your room?”

“I—I—do-do—don’t know,” I gasped, feeling as if I should sink to the earth at the first step.

“Well, you cannot lose your way if you go straight ahead,” he replied. “Keep in the middle of this street or road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows too heavy; the distance is only a good half-mile!”

I set forward with trembling nerves, expecting to sink to the ground at every step; but gradually my terror, instead of weakening, gave me strength; and I was soon on the run—splashing through mud and water—with the storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

How I reached my room, I do not know—but probably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phantoms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dyspeptic dream. But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my back; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful time; for Belmont and his fellow student, fearing the loss of their subject—which, on account of the difficulty of getting bodies, was very valuable— followed close behind me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to keep me within hailing distance.

The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim consciousness of something horrible having happened—although what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon me; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room alone with a corpse. The room was not dark; there were a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light; and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and timidly around.

And there—there, on the floor, against the right hand wall, but a few feet from me—there, sure enough, lay the cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move? I was gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indescribable terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a low, stifled moan.

“Great God!” I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

How long I lay unconscious I do not know; but when I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and become the tenant of a madhouse ; for there—right before me-standing up in its white shroud—with its eyes wide open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow and death-hued—was the corpse I had brought from the cemetery.

“In God’s name, avaunt! ” I gasped. “Go back to your grave, and rest in peace! I will never disturb you again!”

The large hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me—the head moved, the lips parted, and a voice, in a somewhat sepulchral tone, said, “Where am I? where am I? Who are you? Which world am I in? Am I living or dead?”

“You are dead,” I gasped, sitting up in bed, and feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of unspeakable horror; “you were dead and buried, and I was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in heaven’s name! and no mortal power shall ever induce me to come nigh you again!”

“Oh! I feel faint!” said the corpse, gradually sinking down upon the floor, with a groan. “Where am I? Oh! where am I?”

“Great God!” I shouted, as the startling truth suddenly flashed upon me; “perhaps this poor girl was buried alive, and is now living!”

I bounded from the bed, and grasped a hand of the prostrate body. It was not warm—but it was not cold. I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat? or, was it the pulse in my fingers? I thrust my hand upon the heart. It was warm—there was life there. The breast heaved—she breathed—but the eyes were now closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it was a living body—or else I myself was insane. I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for help. “Quick! quick!” cried I. “the dead is alive! The dead is alive!

Several of the students sleeping in adjoining rooms came hurrying to mine, thinking I had gone mad with terror, as some of them had heard my voice before, and all knew to what a fearful ordeal I had been subjected.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed one, in a tone of sympathy; “I predicted this!”

“It is too bad,” said another; “it was too much for his nervous system!”

“I am not mad,” returned I—comprehending their suspicions; “but the corpse is alive!—hasten and see!”

Hey hurried into the room, one after another; and the foremost, stopping down to what he suppposed was a corpse, put his hand upon it, and instantly exclaimed, “Quick a light and some brandy! She lives! she lives!”
All now was bustle, confusion, and excitement, one proposing one thing, and another something else, and all speaking together. They placed her on the bed, and gave her some brandy, when she again revived. I ran for a physician (one of the faculty), who came and tended upon her through the night; and by sunrise the next morning she was reported to be in a fair way of recovery.

And recover she did; and turned out to be a most beautiful creature, and only sweet seventeen. But that is not all: for she turned out an heiress, and married me!

Yes: that night of horror only preceded the dawn of my happiness; for that girl—sweet,
lovely Helene Leroy—in time became my wife, and the mother of my two boys.
She sleeps now in death, beneath the cold, cold sod, and no human resurrectionist shall ever raise her to life again!
 Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, 1857: p. 85-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most grim, gothic, and grewsome tale, in the florid French vein of the Gallic tabloids, but Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending, even one that sums up an entire lifetime of important events in a paragraph or two.

Mrs Daffodil will not quibble over how a friendless orphan girl was transmuted into a beautiful heiress, but perhaps on the dark and stormy night, the medical students mistook the grave.

 

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 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.

Planted in the Trench: 1882

philadelphia school of anatomy lecture ticket 1865-6
Philadelphia School of Anatomy lecture ticket https://jdc.jefferson.edu/lecturetickets/1200/

SEARCHING FOR A CORPSE.

A BOGUS BURIAL AND THE RESULT.

How the Medical College Vaults Were Scoured for the Remains of Alfred Breslow by the Dead Man’s Family—An Old Ghoul’s Horrible Work in the Vats.

Wendell P. Bowman, the lawyer, yesterday related the particulars of the stealing of the corpse of one of his clients and the strange hunt he had for the missing remains. Alfred Breslow, an industrious German mechanic, lived very happily with his wife and a pretty sixteen-year-old daughter on Master street, above Ninth, where he died suddenly while reclining on a lounge in the sitting room. Five or ten minutes later his wife and daughter discovered that he was dead. The wife fell in a swoon and the horrified daughter ran screaming into the street. The house was soon filled with neighbors, who found Mrs. Breslow in spasms at the side of her dead husband. She was carried up stairs and placed in bed, while the daughter was taken to a neighboring house.

The case was hastily investigated by a man from the Coroner’s office, who came to the conclusion that death had resulted from heart disease. On the following day, when the grief-stricken wife and daughter regained their senses, they were astonished to hear that the dead man’s body had been taken to the Morgue. Mrs. Breslow went at once to the Morgue for the purpose of claiming the body and burying it, but she was told that it had been taken to the Potter’s Field. The wife and daughter sought legal advice at the office of Richard P. White and George H. Earle, but as the dead man had known Wendell P. Bowman the case was turned over to him. Mr. Bowman began his investigation on the third day after Breslow died. At the Morgue he was told, as Mrs. Breslow was, that the body had been taken to the Potter’s Field for burial. On visiting the Potter’s Field he found an old man named Carey, who has for years been known about the hospitals and schools of anatomy.

RECORDED, BUT NO BURIAL.

The old man’s Quasimodo-like figure is surmounted by an unnaturally large head, covered with coarse iron-gray hair. He has but one eye, and his swarthy, wrinkled face is traversed by an ugly purple scar which extends from the right check to the left ear. Old Carey replied to Mr. Bowman’s inquiries by pointing to this terse entry in a greasy notebook which he took from his pocket:

“Breslow–dutchman from Morgue– planted in the trench.”

Mr. Bowman asked what trench? Carey pointed the place out, but the lawyer saw that the earth there had not been disturbed for weeks. “Are you sure it was buried there?” “Yes,” replied Carey. “Then it must come out at once,” said Mr. Bowman. The old man said it could not be got at, and made numerous excuses. When Mr. Bowman threatened to have him arrested, however. Carey confessed that the corpse had been taken to a medical college instead of being buried, but declared that he did not know the name of the college. According to old Carey’s story, the man who hauled the body from the Morgue was so impressed by its magnificent physique that he resolved to benefit himself and advance science by selling the corpse for dissection. The body reached Potter’s Field before noon and was stored in a shady corner of the tool house until night, when it was hauled away. Mr. Bowman at once turned his attention to the colleges. In order that the body might be identified, if found, the widow and daughter accompanied the lawyer during his ghastly investigations. At this season of the year no bodies are dissected, but a large stock is laid in for the fall and winter season, when the medical schools are in full blast. Fresh bodies, being soft, do not take the knife well, and in order to give the flesh the desired firmness and keep it in that condition during hot weather the corpses are treated with a chemical preparation before being put into pickling vats.

FACES OF THE UNBURIED DEAD.

The bodies are kept down in the brine by boards, on which heavy weights are placed, and when one is wanted for the dissecting room it is gaffed with an iron hook and dragged out. Armed with authority to search the college vats and the quick-lime pits, in which the mangled flesh is thrown after dissection, Mr. Bowman and the two women began the painful search. At the first vat Mrs. Breslow fainted when a body was dragged to the surface and exposed for her inspection. She revived in a few minutes, however, and the search went on, corpse after corpse being hooked up without finding the one wanted. At the end of two days the vats, pits and dissecting rooms of every medical college and school of anatomy in the city had been examined, without success. The women, worn out by the unnatural strain on their nerves, became hopeless and favored giving up the search, but Mr. Bowman’s blood was up and he resolved to pay another visit to old Carey, believing that that tricky person had lied to him on his first visit. This conjecture proved correct, for Carey at last admitted that he had sold the body at Dr. Keen’s Anatomical School, in a little thoroughfare which runs from Tenth street, between Market and Chestnut. The corpse brought fourteen dollars. Carey, anxious to propitiate Mr. Bowman, offered to assist in searching for the corpse. The offer was accepted and an hour or two later Mr. Bowman, Carey and Breslow’s weeping widow and daughter stood on the brink of the corpse vat in Dr. Keen’s school.

A GHOUL WITH THE DEAD.

The women were greatly agitated, and even Mr. Bowman was made nervous by the belief that the black basin at his foot contained the long- looked-for body. Carey was, by long odds, the coolest member of the quartette. He removed his shoes and stockings, rolled the bottoms of his pantaloons to his knees, and, with a short pole in his hands, slid in, waist deep, among the ghastly contents of the vat. Before the shuddering spectators fairly realized what he was about he poled the naked corpse of a man to the surface of the pickle, thrust one of his arms under its neck, raised the head so that the face could be seen, and said: “Is that him?”

The women shook their heads and the ghoulish fisherman allowed the corpse to slip from his arm and hide itself in the depths of the pickle pool. Carey next fished up the corpse of a woman…, over which he used much strong language. There were fifteen subjects in the vat, but Breslow’s corpse was not among them. The pit in the cellar was overhauled, but no new remains were found there. After searching the house from bottom to top Mr. Bowman and the women departed, leaving Carey behind to put on dry clothes. The women went home and the lawyer sought and found Dr. Keen himself. On learning the facts of the case he went with the lawyer to the school and ordered the janitor to tell where the body was. The janitor denied all knowledge of its whereabouts, and there the search ended. It is Mr. Bowman’s opinion that after he first saw Carey at Potter’s Field the body snatcher became frightened and, conveying his fears to the janitor, they together took the body from the vat and buried it. If this theory is true old Carey’s note-book entry:

“Breslow–dutchman from Morgue–planted in the trench,” may now be correct.

The Times [Philadelphia PA] 4 August 1882: p. 1

NOTE: “Dutchman” here means “German,” from “deutsch.”  Dr. Keen’s Anatomical School was actually The Philadelphia School of Anatomy. It was under the direction of Dr. William Williams Keen Jr.  

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.

The Broom Corn Seed Funeral Swindle: 1866-7

Sarah Bernhardt shamming death in her coffin.

Who among us has not fantasized wistfully about faking their own death and disappearing? Hands?

Recently this helpful article about faking death for various, mostly criminal, reasons, sent me to my files of vintage insurance fraud for some amusing and perhaps instructive anecdotes. Just don’t tell anyone you heard it here…

Obviously the art of disguise figures heavily in faking death. Mrs Daffodil posted recently on a Victorian urban legend about a funerary scam in which the “corpse” was nicely painted to simulate death’s pallor. The peerless master in this next story, however, not only impersonated the corpse, but his own widow, leaving us gasping at the audacity and applauding his self-reliance.

A REMARKABLE INSURANCE FRAUD.

A most remarkable fraud is that of the man Kumf, who was recently imprisoned in Germany for collecting insurance money on his own life. This man was a skilful impersonator, and, disguised as a woman, he applied for an insurance on his own life. As the husband of the applicant he presented himself for medical examination, was accepted, and the policy issued. In course of time he feigned sickness, and was attended by a short-sighted old physician he had selected as a man easily to be duped. One day during his spell of sickness he got up quietly, disguised himself once more as his wife, went to the insurance office, paid a premium about due, and tearfully announced the grievous sickness of the insured. The company seem to have suspected that this illness was not at all genuine, for, having casually asked the name of the attending physician, they sent to that gentleman, whose replies to their questions, however, allayed their suspicions. One day this doctor was called in great haste and told that Kumf was dead. The old fellow does not appear to have been very conscientious or painstaking. On his arrival at the house, he was met by Kumf, this time disguised as the wife or alleged widow, and taken to a darkened room in which lay a corpse. His examination of this must have been nominal, for in a short space of time he quitted the house, leaving behind him the required death certificate. As the bereaved widow, Kumf attended the interment of what purported to be his own body. Still as the widow of himself, he obtained the insurance money on his own life, and his little plot had answered admirably. Unfortunately for him, however, he got intoxicated, first with success and then with liquor, whereupon he neglected to keep up the disguise, went about as the dead man redivivus, was detected, and now languishes in gaol.

The Daily Democrat [Huntington, IN] 17 August 1889: p. 3

Well, he was brilliant up to that last bit. It is disheartening that someone who had taken such pains was, in the end, so careless. Why, if you wanted to appear to be dead, wouldn’t you stay the hell away from places you are known? A disappointing lapse in an otherwise flawless plan.

As the Bloomberg article on faking your own death suggested, the scheme might be more appealing than bankruptcy to those with a large amount of debt.

BRINGING A ‘CORPSE’ TO LIFE.

An ingenious female, living in the Boulevard de Rochechouart (says the Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph), lately failed in business, and a writ was issued for the sale of her effects. On Saturday an officer of the Court, or huissier, went with a police inspector to the woman’s abode, in order to seize her goods, but he rang the bell of her door in vain. As the key of the dwelling, however, was in its place, the inspector turned it and the pair then entered the rooms of the debtor, in one of which a strange and sombre scene was presented to their startling sight. On a bed in the centre of the room was the apparently dead body of the female fraud, laid out in all the trappings of woe, and ready for the French equivalent of a wake. Around the presumed corpse were ranged six tall candlesticks, with lighted tapers therein. The huissier, deeming that he had to deal with a genuine dead body, instantly prepared to withdraw with his writ, but the police inspector, more inquisitive and suspicious than the process server, went over to the bed, and, attracted by the extraordinary plumpness of the arms of the corpse, pinched them with considerable vehemence. There was an instantaneous bringing of the dead to life. The corpse chalked carefully as to its face —sat up in its shroud, spoke words to the effect that the trick had failed, and confessed all. The candles were quickly snuffed out, the mourning drapery pulled down, and the process-server proceeded speedily to confiscate everything appertaining either to life or death in the domicile of the deceitful female debtor. 4

Auckland [NZ] Star 31 May 1890: p.

Life insurance was the more usual motive in these cases. I suspect that this is the story that inspired the plot of The Thin Man.

“THE DEATH GAMBLE.”

SUPPOSED INSURANCE FRAUD.

NEW YORK, August 3

When it was disclosed that Henry Schwartz, of San Francisco, an inventor, who was supposedly killed by an explosion in his laboratory, carried a life insurance of 180,000 dollars, the authorities became suspicious. Examination of the body by a dentist showed that the teeth in the dead man’s head were not Schwartz’s. Later, the wife of a labourer, named Rodrigeus [sic], reported that her husband was missing. She inspected fragments of the body and believed that it was her husband. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Schwartz, on a charge of murder.

Press, 5 August 1925: p. 9

Ah, there’s the snag: procuring that all-important body for insurance purposes. In the old days, you could probably just pick up a plausible-looking corpse lying around in graveyard, back alley, or medical college, but the end of bodysnatching meant that murder was the only option.

LIFE INSURANCE FRAUD.

MURDER AND MUTILATION.

Vienna, October 28. In order to perpetrate a life insurance fraud a chauffeur named Toman murdered an unknown man, removed the eyes and nose, to prevent recognition, and dressed the body in his clothes, containing personal letters. Toman has escaped.

Dominion, 30 October 1911: p. 5

Of course, if you were actually fond of the soon-to-be-corpse, there was always that old standby: bricks in the coffin.

Audacious Attempt to Defraud an Insurance Company.

A Hungarian count, named Enling, found himself lately in New York with a curious household upon his hands, consisting of a wife ten years older than himself, and a handsome mistress, whose position was recognised by Mrs Enling without annoyance. He was also almost destitute, but found money enough to take out a policy for 10,000 dollars upon the life of his mistress, who fortunately soon after fell sick. A doctor who was called in, who seems to have been a very incompetent physician, and after the farce had been played a short while, the girl shammed death, deceived the physician, and successfully lay for inspection by friends for about an hour. Then the coffin came, and full arrangements were made for the funeral. After the obsequies, Enling lost no time in making his claim upon the insurance company. Something in the case, however aroused their suspicions, and they got an order from the Board of Health to exhume the coffin, which, upon inspection, proved to contain nineteen bricks carefully held in place by some slips of board. The undertaker has since confessed to having shared in the business for a bribe of 250 dols, and Enling and the woman have both been arrested. Great interest is shown by the public in the case, and Barnum, whose monster show is to open very soon, has bought the coffin and eighteen surviving bricks—for one of the nineteen has been stolen by a curiosity hunter—for 1000 dollars.

Star 27 July 1874: p. 3

Here we see again the importance of the Incompetent Physician, a pivotal figure in domestic poisonings or pseudocides.

In this next case, how different things would have been if Dr. Bassett’s wife could have recognized his extra-domestic interests without annoyance.

A New Way to Get Rid of a Wife.

We announced on Saturday, that Dr. Bassett was drowned from the Southerner, on her way from Cleveland to Detroit. It now seems there is a little romance in the story, and Dr. Bassett is still alive and kicking. A gentleman came on board of the Southerner, and purchased a ticket for himself, calling his name Morse. The clerk gave him a state room and told him he should be compelled to put another man in the room with him. All satisfactory. Mr. Morse was very indifferently dressed. In a very short time, a person very genteelly dressed called for a ticket under the name of Dr. Bassett. The clerk gave him a berth in the state room with Mr. Morse. In the passage up, the story was started by Morse, that Dr. Bassett had fell overboard, while in the act of vomiting. All credited it. After a few moments, the Captain came to the conclusion, that it was singular that no other person than Mr. Morse saw the accident, and some surmised foul play. Dr. Bassett’s baggage was looked for in his room, but nothing but an old russet leather valise, with his name on it, could be found. This appeared rather singular for so genteel a traveller, who at least would require a change of linen. Thus matters remained until after the boat’s arrival at our wharf, and Mrs. Bassett was telegraphed that she was a widow.

On reviewing the whole circumstances, it was concluded that Mr. Morse ought to be arrested and an investigation had. Accordingly, a warrant was obtained and an officer took charge of him. Mr. Morse and Dr. Bassett, from the story of the prisoner, are one and the same man, and the unfortunate plot was a stratagem to rid himself of his wife at the east. He tells the story thus: When he got the ticket, he wore an old suit. As soon as he got the key of his state room, he entered at once, and placed upon his person another suit of clothes and a pair of false whiskers and went to the clerk for another ticket, as Dr. Bassett, which he says is his real name. The drowning scene was got up for the eastern market, where he has a wife, and desires it for home consumption.

But here again, is the dilemma. The doctor is a stranger here and the last we heard from him, he had not been able to prove that he was himself, or in other words, that he was the identical Dr. Bassett, and the police still hold him a prisoner, until he can make satisfactory evidence, that Dr. Bassett is not now a drowned man in Lake Erie.

Pittsburgh [PA] Daily Post 18 September 1850: p. 2

If you were Mrs. Bassett, called upon to identify the scoundrel, what would you do? I suppose it would have depended on whether she was the beneficiary of any will or life insurance policies.

Our final tale has some instructive points: the introduction of the cholera motif; the purchase of chloride of lime; the creation of the speedily-doomed McFadden. But the elaborate plot quickly collapsed under the sheer weight of numbers…

THE SHAM DEATH AT LEBANON

Mayor of Eaton the Dead Man.

Attempt to Realize $20,000 on Life Insurance.

Arrest of all the Parties to the Fraud.

[From the Cincinnati Gazette 20th.]

All the facts and incidents connected with the reported sudden death of a man near Lebanon, Ohio, and his hasty burial at Eaton, seem to have came to light, and we present them below in detail. The whole affair reveals a long premeditated plot of fraud, on the part of heretofore respectable citizens of both Eaton and the vicinity of Lebanon; and although the parties implicated may not be convicted of crime, their criminal intentions seem very strikingly manifest, and no one will envy them the reputation they have made for themselves in this matter.

On Monday, the 24th, a man, who gave his name as W.T. McFadden, rode out from Cincinnati in the omnibus driven by Abner L. Ross, and got out at Frank Richardson’s near Lebanon, having complained of being sick on the way out. In the evening Frank Richardson went into Lebanon, reported that McFadden had died of cholera within twenty minutes after stopping at his house, telegraphed Mary McFadden, care of B.M. Batchelder, Eaton, that her husband was dead, and bought a coffin which he took home with him. The undertaker wished to go with him and encoffin the corpse, but his services were persistently declined. It has been ascertained also that Mr. Richardson purchased some chloride of lime and peppermint drops, when he was town after the coffin, the use of which will appear in the sequel.

On Tuesday morning, when everybody was supposed to be absorbed in Christmas festivities, Mr. Richardson called in a few neighbors, as they supposed, to lay out the corpse, but they found the coffin closed and they were only asked to help lift it into a spring wagon. On asking to see the corpse, their attention was directed to the offensive smell coming from the coffin, and warned of the danger of catching the cholera, and the lid was not removed.

Dr. N.S. Richardson, brother of Frank Richardson, formerly surgeon of the 12th Ohio cavalry and a practicing physician of Eaton, was the only person present during the reported death of McFadden. In reference to his part in the affair, it is said that on Monday he left Eaton with the declared intention of meeting McFadden at Lebanon, to close a contract for the sale to him of a tract of land in the West.

On Tuesday Dr. Richardson returned to Eaton, and stated that he met McFadden according to agreement, but that immediately after his arrival upon an omnibus at Frank Richardson’s, he was taken violently ill with an attack of cholera and died.

Dr. Richardson then engaged an undertaker to go to Lebanon with a horse, to bring the coffin containing the remains to Eaton for interment. He also visited a clergyman, and requested him to hold a brief burial service at the Methodist Episcopal church in the evening, which, owing to other engagements, the minister was unable to perform. The undertaker started for Lebanon, and when four miles beyond Middletown met Frank Richardson with the coffin said to contain the corpse, in a spring wagon. The coffin was transferred to the hearse, which was driven rapidly to Eaton, B.M. Batchelder, who accompanied the undertaker, urging him to apply the whip. The coffin arrived in the evening, about 6 o’clock and Dr. Richardson, securing the assistance of three or four citizens, had the supposed remains conveyed immediately to the burial ground and interred.

A woman personating Mrs. McFadden was present when the corpse arrived, and was loud in her passionate cries to see her dead husband, but the stench from the coffin and the danger of contagion were urged upon her, and the gratification of her wishes was denied.

On account of the suddenness of the reported death, and the secrecy with which the corpse was encoffined and removed, suspicion was aroused in the minds of the citizens of Lebanon that there was something wrong in the affair. They telegraphed to parties in Eaton, and officer Wampler and an assistant started over to Eaton, with warrants to arrest Dr. Richardson and Batchelder. They arrived about midnight, and learning the circumstances of the interment, their suspicions were strengthened, and they made the arrests. Early on Wednesday morning the undertaker was sent to disinter the remains. Upon opening the grave, it was found that other parties had preceded them; the coffin had been broken open and its contents removed during the night. Here was more mystery, which was not solved till Dr. Richardson, seeing the plot would all come to light sooner or later, made a confession the same day, to the Prosecuting Attorney, that McFadden held a life insurance policy in favor of his wife for $20,000, that Batchelder, who is an agent for a life insurance company, McFadden and himself had entered into a plot to publish McFadden’s death, while McFadden should secrete himself, and thus secure the $20,000, which was to be divided among them, that the coffin contained broom corn seed, [cheaper than bricks?] which they had removed after the interment, so that, should the insurance company institute a search, this evidence of their guilt would not exist. The story was confirmed by finding the broom corn seed where Dr. Richardson said he deposited it.

Where was McFadden? The statements of Dr. Richardson and Batchelder in regard to his whereabouts were not satisfactory. But during the day Mr. Ross, who drove the omnibus in which McFadden rode to Lebanon, arrived in Eaton, and in one of the little crowds he met about town, talking over the strange affair, he espied the missing McFadden, and who should he prove to be but his Honor the Mayor of Eaton, Mr. [Luther C.] Abbott. When charged by Mr. Ross with being his late sick passenger, he stoutly denied it, but on being taken into the presence of Dr. Richardson he had to give up. Whether he has been arrested or not we do not know. Frank Richardson, however, was arrested, and in the same spring wagon in which he drove away the full coffin, he was compelled on Thursday to ride back with the empty coffin, beside an officer. As the wagon was driven along the streets of Lebanon an immense crowd, mostly of boys, followed, crying out, “Where’s your broom-corn seed?” “What’s the price of broom-corn seed?” He and his brother; the doctor, and Batchelder, are now lying in the jail at Lebanon, waiting further developments.

The Dayton journal, in its account of the affair, says:

It appears that policies for $20,000 insurance in the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Brooklyn, of which B.M. Batchelder, of Eaton, was agent for that place were taken for W. T. McFadden, who seems to have been a fictitious personage. A policy for $5,000 was taken in the same interest in the Mutual Benefit in Dayton of which Mr. I.H. Kiersted is agent, and $5,000 in the Connecticut Mutual, of which Dr. Jewett is agent.

We understand that Frank Richardson disclaims any participation in the plot, until after the enacted death in his house, but the fact that the family were all opportunely absent on that interesting occasion; that he had borrowed the spring wagon; and had it there in readiness before McFadden arrived, and had also borrowed sacks to hold the broom-corn seed, seem to indicate special preparations for the part he was to perform.

The charge of murder against these parties will, of course, have to be withdrawn, as no murdered man can be found, and what crime can be substituted in its place will puzzle the prosecuting attorney to determine.

Louisville [KY[ Daily Courier 31 December 1866: p. 1

Top tip: The fewer people involved in your insurance fraud, the better.

Alas, the conspirators seem to have undone themselves by their cleverness. Even though quick burials were mandated for cholera deaths, the undue haste aroused suspicions of murder. This apparently was not their first funeral scam:

We learn from the Eaton Democrat that “others matters have been brought to light, which go to show that this was not the first operation of the kind, in which these gentlemen have been engaged, and as they have realized money on some of them, they will be, or have been arrested on charges which come within the power of the law. The arrested parties were Dr. Richardson, and Bachelder, of this place, and Frank Richardson of Lebanon. L.C. Abbott, the most honorable Mayor of our city, is the man who personated the McFadden, who was reported dead, and it also turns out that McFadden is a myth, there being no such man, and the wife who was so broken-hearted at the news of his death, a “woman of the town,” from New York. The man who passed examination for insurance under the name of McFadden, is said to be a Mr. Blake, a resident of Kentucky.”

The Daily Empire [Dayton, OH] 7 January 1867: p. 3

And what inspired the Mayor of the county seat of Preble County, who was also a lawyer and former Prosecuting Attorney, to participate in such a plot? Bad business investments? Tapping the public till? Eaton was a rather unlucky little town, decimated first by cholera in 1849 and by a massive fire in 1859. Perhaps Mayor Abbott did not have fire insurance.

I am at a loss to understand how he escaped arrest and prosecution; he was re-elected Mayor (to much adulation in the local papers) and was still practicing law in Eaton in the 1870s.

Other fake-death insurance frauds?

I have the borrowed broom-corn seed sacks waiting. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the initial link about faking death.]

Undine of Strange Company shares two brilliant cases of insurance fraud: The Wrath of Walburga and Give the Howards a Hand! Thanks, Undine—your posts are always a jaw-dropping pleasure!

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.

A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls: 1898

A CHRISTMAS TREE WITH LAMPS OF SKULLS

The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.

It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W.O. Wilcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.

There was no need of striking a light. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles [sic] of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.

On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls–evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.

There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.

By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.

Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never woud do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.

The San Francisco [CA] Call 27 December 1898: p. 8

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.

A Grave Man: The Sexton of Spring Grove: 1866

Mind meal at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A GRAVE MAN.

The Old Sexton at Spring Grove.

Strange, Weird Experiences in a Grave-Digger’s Life.

Various Ways of Expressing Grief at the Last Scene.

Queer Actions of Superstitious People in Arranging Mounds.

Guards Armed to the Teeth—Only One Attempt at Grave-Robbery in Seven Years—Professional Mourners.

For twenty years Mr. Trotter, who is known as the old Sexton, has had charge of the digging and filling up of the graves at Spring Grove Cemetery. [Cincinnati, Ohio]

Yesterday an Enquirer reporter had an interview with Mr. Trotter.

He has seen nearly thirty thousand graves dug, and, of course, the same number filled after the body had been deposited.

He always makes it a point to be present, if there is a possibility of doing so, on both occasions.

For the first few years of his service at the Grove, Mr. Trotter often lent a hand in making the long, narrow and deep excavations, but of late he has devoted his whole time to overseeing the work, and the condition in which the mounds are to be found is sufficient proof that he is the right man in the right place.

Of this gentleman it can be truly said that he “sat by the new-made grave,” and that he is always prepared to “gather them in.”

A STRANGE FACT.

“You may think it strange,” said the sexton, “but it is nevertheless a fact that not more than twenty-five out of every one hundred persons who die in Cincinnati and its suburbs are buried in Spring Grove.” On being asked the reason for this, Mr. Trotter said, “Simply because there are so many other grave-yards. In the first place, there is a very large Roman Catholic population, both Irish and German, in Cincinnati, and they have burying-grounds of their own. Then, the Methodists have a couple, the German Protestants two or three, and our Jewish and colored citizens, one each. Combine these and it will be found that nearly three-fourths of Cincinnati’s dead are put to rest in grounds other than Spring Grove.”

The persons employed about any cemetery from the Superintendent down to the humblest sweeper, have some

VERY PECULIAR PEOPLE

To deal with, and Spring Grove is no exception to the general rule. Some people, with an order for the digging of a grave in their pocket, will go out and insist on seeing not only the first spadeful of earth removed, but that they be allowed to remain until the work is completed. They will suggest this thing and that thing, and if told that it can not be done will want to know the reason why. As a rule the workmen endeavor to be as obliging as possible, but there is not one case in ten where a person who has watched the digging through goes away entirely satisfied. The graves are of a uniform depth of six feet, but their width and length depend altogether upon the size of the coffin that is to be received.

Then again, there is almost more trouble about the

FILLING OF THE GRAVE

Than there is about its digging. Of course, there is rarely much said at the immediate time, but a day or two afterward, yes, in fact, perhaps early the next morning, some friend or relative of the deceased goes to the grounds and complains that the filling was not done properly; that the earth was thrown in too loosely; that I ought to have been packed and hammered down with the backs of the spades or a rammer. The good-natured sexton takes all this, and oftentimes more, too, and tries to convince the one making the complaint that is would hardly have looked proper to have beaten the ground down over the coffin of the departed, and in the very sight of mourning friends and relatives. Then, if the complaining one is not too obdurate, he or she is taken to the new grave, and is convinced that after the funeral party had left the ground, the earth had been packed and hammered, and that it was almost as intact as it was before the digging had commenced at all.

SUPERSTITIOUS PEOPLE.

Then there is another class of people know among the cemetery people as “cranks,” but generally referred to as superstitious. If a flower or a twig put on a grave is moved a quarter of an inch from where it was placed by them they will run to the superintendent or whatever official can be found, and assert that the grave has been disturbed, and they know that the body has been spirited away. Then there are others who, for the next four or five months after the interment of some dear one, will be at the grounds the moment the gate is opened in the morning and, having gained admittance, they will almost run to the lot to see if the mound is still there. Finding every thing in order, they will leave, but, in many instances, another member of the family or some friend will visit the spot again before closing up time in the evening.

Then there are other people who will measure the length and breadth of the grave every time they go out. When there at one time they will drive little bits of wood into the earth at the head and foot and at the sides of the grave, and with a tape-line carefully measure the distance. Then, after the lapse of a week or two, they return and find that perchance one of these little pieces of wood can not be found, or that it has been moved a few inches, they are sure that the tomb has been opened and the body stolen.

Many times acquaintances, knowing the peculiarities of these people, will change the markers on purpose to deceive and worry them. When this is found out it is promptly put a stop to by the authorities.

WATCHING GRAVES.

Then there is another class of people who, after a relative or friend has been buried, will ask permission to employ a private watchman for night duty for a month or two. They are told that this request can not be granted, because it would be against one of the most important rules of the cemetery, and are assured that there is no necessity for any action of the kind, as the association employs all the help necessary in guarding the place. Still, they are not satisfied, and will beg and persist in the hope that the desired permission will be granted. But it never is.

There is really no occasion for any worriment on the part of any one, because there are five night watchmen

ARMED TO THE TEETH

On constant duty, and no person is allowed inside the grounds after sundown save themselves. They each carry a revolver and a musket loaded with “slugs,” and their instructions are not to parley with any intruder, if, perchance, one should be found, but to shoot him down in his tracks.

This the policemen would be sure to do, and, as they have never had occasion to use their weapons, it must be considered that body-snatchers and other desperadoes give Spring Grove a wide berth.

During the life of Superintendent Adolph Strauch he had his residence inside the grounds, but he also had a countersign which all the men on guard understood. Mr. Salway, the present excellent superintendent, who succeeded Mr. Strauch, lives on Winton road, outside the grounds, and so from dark to daylight there is absolutely no one inside the inclosure save the watchmen.

So far as the present officers of the cemetery can see, and some of them have been on constant duty for nearly a quarter of a century, but one attempt was ever made to

ROB A GRAVE

And this, as might have been supposed, proved a fruitless undertaking. This occurred about seven years ago, and the body sought to be stolen was that of a young man named Boyd who had been shot and killed b his drunken father at South Cumminsville.

The would-be robbers had gained entrance to the cemetery by climbing the Winton-road fence, but they were discovered in their nefarious work before they had proceeded very far, and were fired upon by the guard. Whether they were injured or not was never ascertained, as they managed to make good their escape.

HOW GRIEF IS SHOWN.

“How do relatives and friends and others who are present act when the last sad rites at the grave are about to be performed?” echoed one of the old officers of the place in reply to a question of that import asked by the reporter. “Well, I’ll tell you that is an easy and at the same time a hard question to answer,” and then he went on to explain a truism, viz.: that all persons do not show grief alike.

Some, when they reach the open pit and see the coffin about to be lowered, give way completely and fill the air with their lamentations. Others will stand perfectly mute, not moving a muscle until they hear the clods of earth falling upon the case containing the coffin, and then they will break down. Still others will show no signs of emotion till the grave has been filled and they have returned to their carriages. Then there are still others who go as they came, apparently indifferent to all that is passing around them. Perhaps they, too, have aching hearts—hearts perhaps too full of sorrow to allow the shedding of a tear. They are the ones who feel the loss probably to a greater extent than those who are more demonstrative, but they nurse and husband their grief until the home from which a darling one has been snatched is reached.

PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS.

“Do you have here in Cincinnati what it is said they have in other cities—people who are known as professional mourners?” was asked of still another official.

“Oh, yes,” was the laughing reply: “we have a number of them, but not as many as some of the large Eastern places can boast of. There are perhaps a dozen or so of both men and women who will attend a funeral whenever an opportunity offers, no matter whether they may have been acquainted with the deceased in life or not. They go, it is presumed, for the ride, and can show as much feeling at the side of a grave as any one else. This is one reason why you see attached to death notices the words ‘burial private’ so often.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 March 1889: p. 4

Grave-yard Philosophy.

They have a grave-digger at Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, who is a fair match for the grave-digger in Hamlet. Here is an account of him:

One gets some grim views of living, as Well as of dead humanity by visiting a show grave-yard such as this. There is a simple-minded, good-hearted attache, by the name of ___, I am very fond of talking to. He has given me many lessons not soon forgotten.

“It’s a little grief and a good deal of pride that makes ’em do it, sir. I don’t mean to say that it ain’t natural; it is nateral. Nater can be found in a cemetery as well as anywhere. One afflicted family puts up a monument, and another afflicted family wants to outdo it. And they generally does, ef it’s done at once. Ef it’s put off a little, they gets more reasonable.”

“Time cures all ills.”

“Well, it does I’se seen a party put in that, vault to stay til a lot could be bought and a monument put up, and the grief was deep. You’d ‘spose there was no end to that grief, and no bottom either. Well, at the end of three months the company has had trouble to get them to take out the party and give it a Christian burial.”

“There are exceptions to that.”

“In course–any number of ‘em. I can show you graves here ten years old, and every summer you’ll find fresh flowers strewed on ’em.”

“More flowers than ornaments.”

“Can’t say that. Real deep feelin’ grief belongs as much to the rich as to the poor. Leastwise I find it so. But dying is as nateral as livin’, and in course people gets over it. Therefore it is that monuments come up with the first burst. Them graves that have flowers over ’em for more than a year isn’t healthy graves.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that the mourners ain’t in their nateral health, or they’d find their feelings directed to the care of livin.”  

The Daily Phoenix [Columbia SC] 12 December 1866: p. 4

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.

Dicing with Death

Dicing with Death gambling with death
Dicing with Death

In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk.  The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?

Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.

HANGMAN’S ROPE

Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880

The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917

The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.

Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.

Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7

One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3

It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.

DEAD WOMEN’S FINGERS.

They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.

According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.

“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.

“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.

“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”

“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3

Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?

Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket

Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.

It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49

Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel  case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.

MISSING LOTTERY TICKET.

FOUND IN A GRAVE

Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7

Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3

Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.

An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873

In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.

The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.

Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897

Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.

In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43

And

There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17

This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.

[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893

I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.

Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922

It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.

Other corpse-related gambling superstitions? Roll them bones to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. And see “Hunches and Hearses at the Racetrack,” for a story relevant to this subject.

After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!

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.